By Mike Weinstein
In the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix, while surveying a bleak future landscape where humanity’s sole function is literal robot batteries, Laurence Fishburne’s character muses that “throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.” Nor without irony, it seems, is the ascendance of wealthy technocrat and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang in otherwise left-leaning circles. “Who is that guy?” asked the Washington Post in an article published last week, answering enthusiastically that he is a buzz-worthy phenomenon emerging from a crush of 22 Democratic presidential hopefuls.
But the discourse pushed by Yang and his endorsers presents a problematic worldview, one that unfortunately hijacks some traditional socialist agendas and subverts them to our current late-capitalist trajectory. In a February 2019 interview with Fox News’ Neil Cavuto, Yang states plainly that he believes “the entire socialism-capitalism dichotomy is out of date…We need to take the best of both worlds and build an economy that centers around how people are doing.” So what is this non-dichotomous economy Yang has in mind?
Yang’s primary platform issue is one of universal basic income [UBI]. Let’s put aside his specific policy agenda surrounding this for a moment and focus on how he arrived at this point. The son of a corporate research physicist and statistician, Yang parlayed his Ivy League law school education into a job in corporate law before bouncing around establishing and running tech startups. His most recent endeavor — Venture for America — was established to apparently reproduce himself, by pushing graduates into Silicon Valley-style startups or their venture capital enablers.
Immersed in this world for his whole existence, Yang eventually became self-aware enough to be troubled by the implications he saw for workers being routinely and systematically replaced with technology (enough to publish several books on the subject). Unfortunately for educated, upper-class, technology acolytes like Yang, the perceived policy answers for such societal ills are merely optimization routines. Yang and his ilk view the very real lives of working class individuals, and the market in which they labor, as part of an algorithm to be fine tuned.
Thus we encounter UBI as Yang’s preferred solution. As his campaign website has it, Yang views what he has termed the ‘Freedom Dividend’ — a guaranteed income of $1,000 per month to all Americans — as a “perpetual boost and support [for] job growth and the economy”. How exactly? In a February 2019 interview with Time magazine, Yang views it a bulwark against “inequality due in part to globalization and automation.” But herein lies Yang’s assumption: automation of labor is a foregone conclusion. To him, this is simply the way the system should be progressing.
Nowhere does Yang address the root of the problem. A member of the working class could ask Yang: Why not intervene in this advancing automation? Where are the solutions to ensure workers are not displaced, or are given ownership of their labor? These questions fall on deaf ears because Yang is already living in that AI-ruled world. He sees UBI as the system tweak that enables worker units to survive long enough to find another subroutine to slot into.
Yang’s almost single-issue agenda has compounding ramifications for his vision of the future. By overtly telling us that the replacement of workers by AI is inevitable and unstoppable, Yang surreptitiously tells us about the broader economic policy his presidency would support. While he admits that it will be deeply damaging to workers, labor replacement with AI and automation would presumably be fast tracked and prioritized under a Yang administration. In a November 2018 interview on Hill.TV, Yang touted endorsements by “80 techies in Silicon Valley”. He devotes an entire article in a 2017 article for Quartz spreading the gospel of his Silicon Valley buddies: the trend towards worker displacement through AI and automation is irreversible. He goes on in this same article, seemingly without irony, to note that “we should assume that, for millions of people, it’s not going to work.”
Which brings us back to UBI. Without doing anything to bolster the working class’s ability to actually own production, and indeed doing exactly the opposite by empowering capitalists to replace their workers, Yang has simply introduced a system where a guaranteed income would flow right back up to the ruling class. He ignores the fundamental fact that the reason workers require money is to pay for their survival. Unsurprisingly, Yang is an aspirant to the likes of billionaire transhumanist Peter Thiel, going so far as to quote Thiel’s investment firm manager Eric Weinstein that “capitalism has been eaten by technology.” For someone who views socialism vs capitalism as a false dichotomy, Yang has bought into this absurd dichotomy wholesale: that somehow our current technological advances have already liberated us from yoke of capital, and are just waiting for the right code to help us course-correct.
Despite his protestations, Yang is severely out of touch out with the working people. There is a reason the majority of the public did not care when, in July 2016, 140+ tech entrepreneurs and executives penned an open letter condemning the Trump campaign. If anything, such a letter potentially empowered the campaign. Yang speaks the language of the ruling class, one of inscrutable economics to uphold the narrative of technology as savior. His aim is cloak this in popular socialist ideas such as universal healthcare and income. Yang promotes this package as a self-proclaimed “human-centered economy”. It’s worth noting that the robot antagonists in The Matrix had a human-centered economy, too.