Monday, May 12, 2014

Crisis of capitalism

Thomas Rodham Wells has a decent essay, The Crisis of Capitalism: Income in the Post-Employment Age. As more and more jobs are replaced by automation, labor is losing its traditional claim (i.e. productivity) on the goods and services produced by an economy increasingly dominated by capital. The crux of the biscuit is Wells' claim, "Most modern economists view the economy not as a moral drama in which it makes sense to talk of good and evil or right and wrong, but rather a complex machine that can produce more or less of what we value depending on how it is set up and maintained." Wells, however, is not exactly correct. Most modern economists try to disguise a view of good and evil with seemingly objective, descriptive language. The notions of good and evil are still there, and still strong. Although it's a nontrivial task, the key to a better society is not really figuring out how to operate under conditions of abundance that renders markets irrelevant. They key is removing our deep emotional reliance on Veblen's "invidious distinctions." I think that in their heart of hearts, people would rather lock up or even entirely forego abundance rather than allow evil people — the lazy, the nonconforming, the iconoclastic, the insufficiently grateful — to prosper. The erasure of invidious distinctions shocks our sense of justice; erasure shocks us so deeply that it will require a truly revolutionary transformation, not of "society" but of individuals' minds, to build a society where abundance is not a curse but a blessing.

The evidence is all over the place. In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin makes the strong case that the truly fundamental character of conservatism is opposition to (true) democracy, opposition to the idea that people can and should actually rule themselves. (Conservatives are not necessarily opposed to the idea that the people can exercise the right to choose between which of the privileged ruling has official power du jour, but even that limited power slips the camel's nose a little too far into the tent for comfort.) In Failure of a Revolution, Sebastian Haffner documents the the people's revolution in Germany immediately after the First Imperialist War; the revolution was betrayed (to those who would become the Nazis) by its own socialist leaders, leaders who found the revolution far too democratic for comfort, and found fascism preferable to democracy. I was once turned down for a job because I explicitly stated at the interview that I would not take a drug test; even though the company did not use drug tests, the idea that I would not categorically submit myself to the power of management was offensive and subversive. In one of the best episodes of Community (and the best episode of its fifth and sob! final season), a trivial mobile app leads to the immediate and total stratification of the college into castes.* The corporal will submit to the entire military hierarchy for the sake of exerting power over his squad.

*The explanatory value of a work of fiction is not, of course, factual, but in its emotional resonance.

The capitalist class did not create this deep desire to create invidious distinctions, to separate people into good and evil, more precisely, superior and inferior, as a matter not of power but of justice. Although capitalism is its own thing, it is still a human institution, and shares characteristics of other human institutions. Invidious distinctions go back to the first human societies after hunter-gatherers, and it's possible (although we know little of actual early societies) that even our long history as hunter-gatherers was characterized by the struggle between equality and inequality. I don't know who said it (Orwell?), but it really is true: to get socialism, we need better people, but to get better people, we need socialism. Of course, "better" is itself a value judgment; I am not myself prepared to say that people more adapted to socialism are "better" than those adapted to capitalism. I will, however, say that I think people more adapted to socialism will be happier than those adapted to capitalism.

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