Last week I wrote about whether or not we really needed economic growth, and I claimed that the central problems facing our economy and our society were not about the size, scale, or growth of our economy, but rather about some deeper, undisclosed set of problems. This week I am trying, haphazardly and tentatively, to work through what those problems might look like. Also to predict the future.
One of the things that bothers me about economics—both in its academic guise as a social science discipline and its neoliberal political guise as a quasi-religious faith in which bankers and CEOs serve as high priests—is its general failure to talk about what it’s for. Historians have a whole subfield, historiography, dedicated to how and why we write history. But because the economy is so self-evidently important to the fabric of our society, economists get a kind of pass. Economics is important because the economy is important. But what is the point of the economy, anyway? Is it possible to not have an economy? If the answer is no, than what is it about the concept of an “economy” that makes it an inevitable feature of human society? Why is the discipline of economics structured the way it is? Of course, those questions are scary because they lead to even harder questions about why the economy itself is structured the way it is.
I’m not saying I have answers to these questions. Still, it seems like economists, policy makers, and politicians love to fight over the hows—how does the economy run, how does it work, and the most specific whys: why this policy, why that policy—but are terrified to confront big picture questions: why is our economy arranged the way it is arranged, what is it accomplishing for who, and would we set it up that way again if we had to start over?
Even within the constrained context of neoliberal thought, economists, politicians, and business elites seem unwilling to ask even the most obvious of difficult questions. (Note: I define neoliberalism very broadly, and somewhat reflexively, as our society’s governing consensus with regard to global capital, sovereignty, and power-structures.)
In Which I Seem like I Will Get to the Point, but Don’t
This blog post is about the central problems facing Western style capitalism within the terms that neoliberalism has set for itself. That means I’m disregarding global warming, which neoliberalism has sidelined, since it obviously has nothing to do with free trade or markets (with the exception of various weak-willed efforts to promote cap-and-trade, a market based solution to a problem that only a true ideologue would see as about markets.) Global warming is fundamentally not saleable, scalable, tradeable, or commodifiable—you can’t package and sell a disruption to the balance of nature any more than you can package and sell an earthquake.
I’m also not talking about structural violence or civil crisis such as mass-incarceration, colonialism, or the military industrial complex. These are all things that neoliberals have basically accepted as natural and inevitable features of the world, either due to a dramatic failure of imagination, or because they have a personal stake in those institutions and power structures.
Setting all of the violence and senselessness of modernity aside, what remains so hard to understand is why our nation’s elites, and the economists that serve as their high priests, refuse to confront what appears to me to be the central problem facing the global economy, even on their own narrow terms.
In Which I Start to Get to the Point, Finally
With all the panache of a young David Brooks, I have dubbed this problem the “making things” problem. What is the making things problem? In the distant past, most people made a living by growing food. This, after all, was what you needed to do if you wanted to wake up tomorrow morning and eat breakfast. Food production was centered around local communities, within which food and labor were generally distributed among neighbors and family members.
Mind you, I don’t mean to make this out as a perfect system, or some kind of pre-industrial paradise. For one thing, there was no television, and I really like television. And because you relied on your immediate community for everything you needed, a natural disaster like a drought could do in your whole family. This was not some better, more natural way—it was just the basic, essential way that was. People grew food, interacted closely with the land, and relied on their immediate community for support when necessary.
Upon this model rested feudal systems, tribal systems, city states, proto-nation states, empires, religious hierarchies, trade caravans, social classes, gender roles, laws, and rules—goods were distributed all around the world (albeit very slowly). So I am not trying to say things were simple. But it was a very, very different kind of economy than what we got after the second industrial revolution.
What we got was a making-things economy. Farmers had become so productive that most people didn’t need to farm anymore. To a few people, it probably seemed stupid to farm when other farmers were making plenty of food. Most people, though, probably liked farming, or at least knew no other way. They stopped farming when other people decided it was stupid for them to be farming, and kicked them off their land (read: enclosure in England, read also: free trade agreements that make small-scale farming uneconomical for poor countries by insisting, in the name of “fairness,” that they trade on an equal footing with rich countries—which incidentally, became rich colonies by colonizing the poor countries oh…less than a century ago, but I’m not even going to go there).
Anyways, the economy we created was one in which people made shit. In exchange for making shit, citizens of wealthy countries got food, shelter, recreation, and healthcare (money made this trade easier, but it was not what they were getting, nor what they needed—it was and remains no more than the highly useful medium of exchange standing between ten hours in a factory and dinner on the table at the end of ten hours in a factory.)
Building the economy around making shit made sense, because a) we got more shit, and god knows people love their plastic crap, b) it came mixed in with modern education, sanitation, electricity, healthcare, and participatory democracy in a bundle of changes which almost certainly could not have been unbundled, and c) every (white, male, able) body who was willing to work their asses off got a half-way decent life for themselves, or at least their children—at least after they fought for said privilege and organized themselves into unions.
But now, something fundamental is changing. The science fiction writers of the mid 20th century predicted this change. In fact, many believed it was eminent. Perhaps, in a sad twist of fate, this is one reason it is so neglected by more “serious” people now. In 2013, we don’t really need people to make shit anymore, because we have robots that can make shit.
A lot of liberals and neoliberals and people in general don’t see this happening—what they think has happened is that manufacturing has moved overseas because of free trade agreements and globalization. And that has happened, and it wasn’t inevitable, and it wasn’t necessarily a good idea. But so far as I can tell, this overseas shift of manufacturing from places like Michigan to places like Bangladesh is a sort of giant global-history MacGuffin.
It’s true that workers who don’t have rights, fair wages, environmental restrictions providing them with clean water and air, modern economies providing them with access to credit, and decent housing and healthcare, can make a T-shirt (or an iphone) a hell of a lot cheaper than a North American can. But people seem to believe that manufacturing will work in these countries the same way it worked in the United States—worker’s rights will improve, things will get better, the country will develop, wealth will be generated, and the third world will eventually rise to be like the first world, while the first world will by then be far ahead due to its mysterious “knowledge-based” economy.
I don’t think it will work that way. Cheap labor in poor countries under miserable conditions may be cheaper than hiring American workers. It may also be cheaper than robots and total mechanization. But, as the mechanization and modernization of manufacturing in America has demonstrated, manufacturing will never again lead to good jobs under a free market system, because only by mistreating workers can humans compete with machines. When the workers get restless, as they have at Foxconn, to take one example, corporations will not only improve conditions (as Foxconn may or may not be doing)—they will also make plans to replace most of their human employees with humanoid robots (as Foxconn is definitely doing.)
To me, this begs a rather large question—the one that everybody is ignoring. When the future arrives (and I believe that it is very, very close), and machines can supply all the things that humans could possibly ever want, what is everybody going to do?
Mechanization does not have to be a curse. The coming robot revolution, and I truly believe it will be a robot revolution in something very close to the 1950s pulp-fiction sense, should be a blessing. It should mean wealth, leisure, freedom, and dignity for ever more human beings—eventually all human beings. It should free us to pursue the things we truly love, like art, like love, like family, in place of the things we tolerate, like working in factories and office towers. This is the question that I see glaring back at me when I try to think about the problems facing our economy taken on it’s own terms—discounting humanitarianism, ecology, and structural violence—just money, trade, and straightforward metrics, just like the neoliberals like it.
I wonder whether or not we need leaders and thinkers who can figure out a long term plan for the future, and who have the courage to start implementing it. This is what the corporations, futurists, and government workers who spent the Great Depression planning in detail for the highways, suburbs, and consumer goods they were going to start making in the post-war era did. Or do we need some kind of grass-roots response? An insurrection, or a movement?
Our generation is not going to look like the Baby Boomer generation part 2—that ship has already sailed. And I doubt that it will be a future in which steady technological advance provides jobs enough for all—we can’t all design the next iPhone, although in the 20th-century-model economy we might have all helped to build them. Maybe the future will include tariff barriers that help people stick with the jobs they have now while the world figures out what’s coming next, rather than throwing millions of peoples into slums in the name of “globalization” and capitalist progress—but I’m not counting on it.
And maybe the robot revolution will mean that people, secure in their computer and machine-supported ability to have all the cool shit they can imagine, will go back to farming and crafts work and other traditional human occupations—not because they have to, but because they want to?