Population, automation and the death drive of capitalism

Two of the plenary sessions at this year’s Association of American Geographers meeting in Chicago (April 21-25) — Heidi Nast’s Dialogues in Human Geography forum and Paul Robbins’ Progress in Human Geography lecture — examined in broad terms the relationship between fertility rates, population, the changing nature of work, and the future of capitalism.  Interestingly, fertility seems to be the forgotten focus in the discipline of demography and population the forgotten field in human geography.  However, both sessions called for a renewed focus, not with respect to population growth over the next couple of decades, but the longer run fertility rate and population decline due to take place in the second half of the century.  In both cases, an argument was made regarding the consequences concerning the functioning of capitalism and the health and wealth of society.  Both talks also folded in an analysis of work and production — in Paul’s case types of employment in India and in Heidi’s automation (in a loose sense as much of her talk concerned the development of sex robots in the context of a crisis of masculinity, social alienation, and falling fertility) — and its spillover effects for lifestyle and consumption.

Parsing between the two talks, my sense of the argument starting to be formulated runs in a broad sense thus.  Fertility rates have been falling globally and by 2050 will be below replacement rate in the vast majority of countries with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa.  At this point, the dependency ratio will be very high and growing (ratio of older people to working population), and the global population will peak in the latter part of the century and start to decline at roughly the speed it is growing at present, with this occurring earlier in countries that presently have a low fertility rate.  As such, the market for consumption of products and services will start to plummet, especially in the West.  Moreover, the increasing growth of automation of work (pretty much any work that involves formalised knowledge (e.g., law, medicine, finance) or practices (manufacturing) is set to speed up markedly (Gartner, for example, predict a third of all jobs could be automated by 2025) meaning that labour will become more precarious, less skilled, and less well paying, meaning widening inequalities and decreasing incomes across lower and middle class households.

In combination, reducing population, shrinking cities, a high dependency ratio, widening inequalities, rising labour precarity and falling incomes will create a fatal crisis for capitalism.  Think Detroit and the rustbelt but on a grand, global scale – cities and the production of goods and services scaled for 9-10 billion, but with waged labour highly precarious and a shrinking population and market base.  In other words, whilst attention is presently focused on the issue of rapid global population growth, rural-to-urban migration, resource conflicts and climate adaptability, it is the crisis that follows that will be truly challenging because it signals the end game of a form of political economy that is reliant of constant growth, new markets, and consumers who can afford to consume.  In other words, in its present pursuit of profit and accumulation, capital is creating the conditions to systematically starve itself.

Capitalism has always been vulnerable to crises, but they tend to be short, sharp shocks, whereas population decline and automation will be long-term systemic challenges.  I think there’s some interesting ideas here that are worth fleshing out and thinking through.  It’ll be interesting to see if people start to pick up on them and how the debate — and society — develops.

Rob Kitchin

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