Davos has just said its goodbyes to the annual World Economic Forum – not that anyone was paying close attention.
Once viewed as a major geopolitical event, this gathering of the «global government» has now slipped out of focus in the Russian media space. Meanwhile, as The Guardian once put it, if I recall it right, «people of disproportionate wealth and influence gather to ponder the near future of humanity.» Of course, the language is leftist – especially the «disproportionate wealth» part – but they do have a point.
So, what were this year's WEF highlights? I cannot recall any prominent Russian speakers. There was Andrey Kostin, head of VTB Bank, who addressed the impending U.S. sanctions against Russian businessmen and oligarchs and said how terrible it would be to end up a sanction list. Old man Soros spoke about social networks as an impediment for democracy. Old man Trump spoke about his greatness, not showing the slightest concern about the future, be it near, distant, or mid-term. Like a guy from a Coke commercial, he lives in the now.
What did other speakers focus on? What issues are at the forefront of the minds of those in power? There are two such issues. First, they drone on and on about how we are all going to lose our jobs because robots will take over all the work, leaving human employees out in the cold. What will become of us? Some have prophesied an unseen spread of poverty and the advent of the new precariat.
Does everyone know what «precariat» is? The precariat are people without permanent employment. Traditionally, we pity them and view them as a generally disadvantaged class. Likewise, after serfdom was abolished in the 19th-century Russia, some pitied peasants who were not attached to the land: «What will become of them, poor things?» Granted, that reform indeed resulted in a major social upheaval.
Second, people are concerned about the surveillance state, which has been pushed to a new level with the capabilities of big data. Gathered by corporations and governments, big data underlies a variety of control systems that regulate people's private lives to a greater or lesser extent. In its extreme, we see it in China's «Social Credit System,» which we have briefly addressed. Anyway, it was the second hot topic in Davos this year.
As for the brave new world without employment, here is what I think: considering how much has been written on the subject, both in academic journals and in the media, the danger must have been exaggerated. After all, as Karl Marx said, «the task itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist.» To my mind, the brave new world without nine-to-five jobs is not quite the challenge many think it is; in fact, what we currently call «employment» is a relatively new concept. It emerged at the height of the latest industrial revolution – or the one before the latest, depending on your point of reference. The phenomenon came to life in the latter half, or even third, of the 18th century, along with large-scale industrial enterprises. Therefore, it was not long ago that employment, or day-to-day work for a salary, emerged as a social phenomenon.
Prior to that, people had lived without any employment just fine. Everyone's ultimate objective was survival, and the struggle for it was a universal occupation, so to speak. As for permanent jobs with social benefits, there were none. Consequently, our chances of surviving in a future without employment are quite good, not to mention the fact that any paid job can serve as its substitute – which brings us to the concept of paid work as such.
Whereas the word «work» previously denoted what men paid one another for, it can also denote what women pay one another for.
From my perspective, the feminist thought, which is now at the forefront of almost every social discourse, applies here as well: whereas the word «work» previously denoted what men paid one another for, it can also denote what women pay one another for. Once again, any activity that you perform for money can be your work – so it is perfectly possible to abandon employment.
Paradoxically, the humanity is now learning to live without a different phenomenon, one that had accompanied it throughout its entire history. This phenomenon is not employment; it is war. The entire human history has not seen a period completely free from military conflicts. I often quote a phrase that astounded me in one of Robert Skidelsky's lectures; I hope Lord Skidelsky will forgive me for taking his name in vain. You might have already heard my interpretation of his idea that the primary objective of the new epoch is to adapt common people to a life only aristocrats could have before – and help them stay sane. I kept quoting him on that, but now I realize that I might have misinterpreted his words.
I used to think he had meant it was necessary to adapt the general public to a life without a specific occupation while protecting them from the perils of chronic idleness: drinking, drug abuse, and a general lack of social purpose in life. However, he might have meant something entirely different. What was the nobility's occupation? How did they become noble in the first place? Just for being idle? Quite the contrary; they were the class of warriors. It was their definitive characteristic across all nations and political systems, both in the West and in the East, in any civilization – if we share Huntington's approach to civilizations, which is a matter of perspective.
Be it as it may, the upper class has always been raised with the possibility of war in mind; they acquired relevant skills and accepted the responsibility. In return, other classes provided for their needs. All monarchs have been warlords. All monarchies have been militarized structures. The situation did not start to change until recently, when military corporations yielded power to intelligence services at some point of the 20th century, and conventional wars were replaced by a fight against terrorism – which resulted in a meaningful change.
How do we get to wage a war without killing one another in large numbers?
It is indeed an unprecedented stage in human history, and people have not yet figured out how to deal with it – hence the apparent unease. I suspect this is the reason why everyone – the elite, the general public, and the media – keep repeating that the war is coming with almost salacious apprehension. This is why elderly Russian actress Elena Drapeko says, «We must abide by wartime laws.» This is why an actor of an equally senior age, the one with a kind face and a voice that has many a time earned him the role of God in Hollywood movies, calls for the creation of a «committee to investigate Russia» and its involvement in the U.S. election, opening his video address with a bombshell phrase «We are at war.» His kind twinkling eyes do nothing to conceal how much he is enjoying it.
War has a number of benefits… War writes everything off. War justifies everything. War gives a blissful lack of choice, moral high ground, and the much-loved dichotomy of good and bad, of «us» and «them» – without any explanation required. Such conditions are comfortable in a way. The only serious drawback of war is its incompatibility with the modern economy; therefore, we need a substitute. Apparently, the humanity is in an unconscious, yet agonizing, search for something that can replace conventional wars. Cyber warfare, hybrid warfare – what do these pseudonyms really stand for? How do we get to wage a war without killing one another in large numbers? It is a problem. I am convinced that the humanity will solve it, now that the need has arisen. However, we should be aware of this challenge and realize its novelty.
Why can't we just go to war like in the olden days? Why was it possible earlier but unthinkable at present? Because people, at least in the first-world countries, are unwilling to participate in it. The different between «willingness» and «unwillingness» can be demonstrated on the example of two conflicts that have been developing almost simultaneously (we are about to tread on muddy, toxic ground – not for the first time) – Syria and eastern Ukraine. The latter is a third-world war in which everyone seems thrilled to participate; the former, a war on the frontier between the first and the second world, a territory where the sides were quick to start a fight but lost their enthusiasm after a while.
People are reluctant to participate in actual, life-threatening warfare. And yet they yearn for its beautiful simplicity and the sense of purpose it brings.
I realize that my words might be downright offensive to a large number of people on either side of both conflicts. And yet the comparison vividly shows the crucial difference. Steven Pinker, whom I often quote as well, has listed the majority of contributing factors – such as the increased value of life, capitalism, exchange and commerce, informational transparency, the enhancement of women's role in the society, and the subdued role of religion. As a result, people are reluctant to participate in actual, life-threatening warfare. And yet they yearn for its beautiful simplicity and the sense of purpose it brings.
Certain visionaries offer scenarios that are too optimistic even for me. Thus, Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma says, «Yes, the third world war is impending, but it will be a fight against poverty, disease, and aging.» His vision is marvelous but it is not enough because few people can actually be involved in the struggle against poverty and disease, let alone perceive it as a dichotomous conflict of the right kind. Alternatively, I much prefer the idea (I think it was voiced by Skidelsky too) that the next-generation war will start as robots versus people and continue as robots versus robots.
Effectively, the third world war will be a computer game. It will not be entirely bloodless – even a simple power cut can result in the death of a hospital patient, for instance. However, I would say such casualties are of a different kind.
For now, these ideas are mere assumptions, but I believe they set the framework for further considerations.