Monday, May 22, 2017

The next Kondratiev wave?

Wikipedia article

Fortunate we are to develop our careers in the rising phase of a Kondratiev wave. As new platform technology is widely introduced, the economy grows, wages and salaries rise and a host of fascinating and challenging socio-technological problems present themselves. Work can be fun!

Yes, I remember the late 80s through the mid-2000s, when the Internet was bright and young and we made a new world of computing and telecoms!

The stagnation and depression phase of a Kondratiev wave is something else. The economy flatlines, wages and careers stagnate, everything is flat and immobile; the story of the last ten years.


A new wave starts with new platform technologies, sufficiently mature to make a practical difference, which revolutionise production at a higher level. At the same time, the required (and vast) capital investment has to be profitable with a promise of demand sufficient to absorb the new products.

Are we there yet?

It's been predicted for a while now that the next Kondratiev wave will be driven by a combination of AI (in its new neural net incarnation), robotics and genomics - driving industries such as pharmaceuticals and healthcare - but in practice almost everything.

I don't think we're at the lift-off point yet. None of these technologies are ready for prime-time: they're niche and require too much scarce expertise to make work. Nor is it clear that the political conditions are in place for massive new investments.

Peter Turchin has predicted that we're in for a rough decade, suggesting civil turmoil until the mid-twenties. His view may be no more than inappropriate curve-fitting: we shall see.


Ernest Mandel (Late Capitalism - PDF) correctly observed that massive investments in transformational new technologies will not occur unless they are profitable, which, he argues, requires that working class resistance (to losing jobs and perhaps lower wages) has been broken. He sees fascism and the second world war (thirties and forties) and Thatcher's union-busting (eighties) as typical precursors to new waves.

The next wave would, however, seem to require very little in the way of cheap unskilled labour (which in fact it proposes to - eventually - replace). If we take Google as the current industry leader in next-wave technologies, the economic and political strength of the working class en large hardly seems to matter as regards their truly enormous investment in AI and robotics.

But if the impact of the next wave will be the massive elimination of both middle class and working class jobs, then a precondition for across-the-board capital investment would surely have to be a belief that such high rates of job loss and unemployment could be successfully achieved.

Is such an outcome politically deliverable today? Plainly not.

I anticipate the next decade to be one of the steady imposition of job-elimination technologies, accompanied by increasing worker resistance. Those states which succeed by force and/or inducements in advancing total automation will open the floodgates for the next wave.


  1. I agree that the big commercial waves get associated with "Technology Platforms" and not just technologies. It could be argued that for the next Wave to start we need another such "Wave 6 Platform" - such a thing might be developed at any time though.

    The above description does leave out the role of 5G - Internet of Things - which is heading towards following the same cycle of Internet (1990s); Digital Mobiles 3G/4G (2000s). Platforms are probably nearing completion here, and the future Big Players may currently be students and other researchers looking into it.

    The Wave after that will require some re conceptualisations for its Platform.

    1. I struggle a bit with 'the Internet of Things' which seems more a marketing slogan than an economic category. Presumably the logical end-evolution is that we live in a world constituted of computronium - but it remains unclear to me how even this would impact the valorisation of capital ... .


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