Contemporary art collage. Gianf female mouth shouting at businessman, employee, office worker. Having pressure at work

Shrinking and shouting: the political revolt of the declining middle in times of employment polarization.

Arguing that, at the time of writing at least, political science has insufficiently associated the distributive consequences of technological change in the workplace and labour markets with the rise of populism, this article by Thomas Kurer and Bruno Palier suggests that the groups most negatively affected by these shifts are routine workers, of both "blue collar" and "white collar" status. Whereas deindustrialisation and globalisation had the sharpest effects on lower-skilled workers, the plethora of new technologies associated with the so-called "fourth industrial revolution" disproportionately affect workers more in the middle of the distribution of both wealth and skills, creating a polarised sphere of employment with little in the way of the stability and mobility to which this group had become accustomed.

The impact of this experience in the electoral sphere has been exacerbated by the fact that routine workers are not only a large constituency but also one with a tradition of political participation. In particular, the anxieties associated with labour market change increase the demand of this group for the protectionist policies espoused by conservatives and populists. Such politics act as an indirect and incomplete response to the risks of workplace automation where effective remedies are far from obvious. It sets in over a prolonged period, and changes the labour market gradually rather than in a wave of closures and layoffs. Instant, direct reactions cannot be offered in the same way that "walls and tariffs" respond to immigration and globalisation as culprits for lower working standards and opportunities. Moreover, automation cannot simply be stopped in its tracks as it forms some part of an economy of productivity and productive investment that many governments purport to desire.

The specific temporality of automation as an issue when compared to, say, the "China shock", makes it difficult to estimate in the same way the immediate impacts on political sentiments of such shifts, in particular, "if jobs are gradually eliminated over time and a significant proportion of affected workers manages to 'survive' in an occupational environment of structural decline, the usual measures of economic hardship might not suffice to capture grievances among the disadvantaged".

"The specific distributive effects of current technological innovations are key to understanding their political implication’, according to the authors. Other transformations, like globalization, impacted low-skilled workers but current technological developments are impacting both blue- and white-collar routine workers in production and administrative roles who were previously immune from the consequences of shifts in trade and offshoring. These jobs were previously the foundation of a relatively comfortable standard of living for the working class, but the transformations associated with automation seriously threaten this stability and security.

Pivotal in the way this plays out politically is not the experience of hardship but the fear of it. In practice, routine work does not disappear instantaneously but through a gradual turnover in which those who leave positions are not replaced. Those who remain in place may experience stagnation in their living and working conditions but, the authors note, tend to maintain the status of labour market insiders, with high-than-average pay packets and permanent contracts. It is this status, they contend, that makes the ‘political repercussions’ of these shifts so dynamic, insofar as these workers represent a reasonably enfranchised group prepared to express their anxieties about losing their status at the ballot box".

Methodologically, using economic indicators of disadvantage like low income, unemployment or precariousness cannot capture the specific position occupied by those who are reasonably well off yet threatened by the potential risk of automation. The literature on "dualization" (e.g. Rueda 2005) cannot adequately capture the specificities of the situation because it is focused on existing labour market insiders and outsiders rather than the anxieties attached to movement between the two positions. Instead, the authors suggest we look to studies of how "negative change in social identity or a sense of a loss of control", which, sometimes expressed in "societal pessimism and nostalgia" or manifested in "authoritarian and socially conservative preferences", drives demand for right-wing populist in particular. This literature (e.g. Ballard-Rosa et al 2018; Steenvorden and Harteveld 2018) thus sheds light on how perceived or anticipated shifts in relative social position afflicts not those already herd-like but those with more to lose. The gradual character of these shifts means that this does not materialise in a sudden revolt against automation, and, moreover, technological change itself is not the only determinant of these political behaviours. However, whilst voters make decisions based on many perceptions irreducible to the material and the economic, the authors nonetheless claim that, among these, "technological change is a main driver". This resonates with a wider literature (Antonucci et al 2017; Gidron and Hall 2017) that pours cold water on claims that the populist upheavals of recent years bears a direct relation to underpinning material and economic disadvantage or hardship. For instance, as Antonucci and co-authors establish, the average Leave voter was not the "angry, unskilled and perhaps even unemployed outsider" some portrayed, but rather sourced from ‘intermediate classes’ concerned about declining economic position.

Work, the authors contend, has been central to how right-wing parties have responded to the rise of this pivotal electoral constituency. Trump promised to repatriate manufacturing jobs to the rustbelt, successive Tory leaderships have rallied to "hardworking families" that are "just about managing", and Sarkozy, in France, appealed to the France that "gets up early". Rather than politics based on imposing the benefits system and the welfare safety net, as offered by the left over this period, what this appeal to "honest work" promised was an appreciation in the "value of ordinary work". The authors believe that "this appeal to personal dignity is key to winning routine workers’ support".

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Harry Pitts


Politics and perceptions of automation risk

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