Organizing for the Future

A review at the London Review of Books caught my eye because the two books discussed both have the word “Postcapitalism” in their titles. Who doesn’t want to know what’s coming next?

The review didn’t convince me that anyone knows. Two possibilities are mentioned: Full Automation and Universal Basic Income. Presumably, “Full Automation” refers to automating as much as possible. More robots and smarter software should lead to fewer people having jobs. That might lead to everyone being guaranteed a basic income. Or it could lead to mass sterilization, with only lottery winners and good-looking people being allowed to reproduce.

What I found more interesting were some remarks about “austerity”, the recently popular attempt to stimulate world economies by reducing government spending:

In both books, the critical fronts are a total opposition to austerity and neoliberalism, and a focus on the possible consequences of increased automation, including the creation of a ‘surplus population’. The ‘real austerity project’, Mason argues, is ‘to drive down wages and living standards in the West for decades, until they meet those of the middle class in China and India on the way up’. As a result, ‘the next generation will be poorer than this one; the old economic model is broken and cannot revive growth.’ Those places which, in their different ways, have managed to insulate themselves – authoritarian China, Russia or Iran, residually social democratic northern Europe – will not be exempt: ‘By 2060, countries such as Sweden will have the levels of inequality currently seen in the USA.’

Further down in the article, there’s some practical discussion:

What the historical labour movement did, in Srnicek and Williams’s eyes, was set itself goals and demands – for pensions, social security, fewer working hours – and fight for them inside and outside the workplace. What they are really proposing … is that a new set of demands be agreed and doggedly insisted on, in the manner of the old left.

But how could enough of us agree and doggedly insist on a new set of demands? Maybe the authors of the books being reviewed have an answer, but the only way I can see that happening is through the creation of a mass movement like the labor movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. 

In his very good book The Age of Acquisition: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, Steve Fraser describes how organized labor contributed to the general welfare after the New Deal and World War 2:

…the labor movement of those years of uproar created – more than any other institution, public or private – a standard of living envied everywhere. In 1945, 40 percent of American families lived below the poverty line… By 1970, only 10 percent lived in poverty… Not only did the economy grow at an annual average of 4 percent during the postwar era, but that growth favored the poor more than the wealthy…it was the organized labor movement that compelled broad sectors of American industry still unwilling to engage in the new mechanisms of collective bargaining to nonetheless match the standards of living (wages, hours, vacations, holidays, pensions, health care and more) that unions were winning for their members….

An “American standard of living” and the forms of industrial democracy that made it possible … shattered the old order [196].

Perhaps globalization means that a race to the economic middle (or even the bottom) cannot be stopped. But it was organized labor and other progressive organizations that demanded and achieved progress in the past. I think it will have to be organized human beings, whether or not they have traditional jobs, who demand and achieve progress in the future.

Who’s On First? Private Property or Competition?

David Brin trained as a scientist, has written science fiction and consults with the government and corporations regarding what will happen next. He’s not an economist, but he’s written an interesting little article about right-wing ideology. It’s called “Stop Using Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek to Support Your Political Ideology: The Irony of Faith in Blind Markets”. 

Brin cites John Robb, an author, “military analyst” and entrepreneur, as a big influence on his thinking. Robb isn’t an economist either, but here are a couple of paragraphs from his blog

The only way to manage an economy as complex as [ours] is to allow massively parallel decision making.  A huge number of economically empowered people making small decisions, that in aggregate, are able to process more data, get better data (by being closer to the problem), and apply more brainpower to weighing alternatives than any centralized decision making group.

In other words, central planning cannot cope with the economies of developed nations in the modern world. We need the Invisible Hand of the market. Yet: 

…an extreme concentration of wealth at the center of our market economy has led to a form of central planning.   The concentration of wealth is now in so few hands and is so extreme in degree, that the combined liquid financial power of all of those not in this small group is inconsequential to determining the direction of the economy.  As a result, we now have the equivalent of centralized planning in global marketplaces.  A few thousand extremely wealthy people making decisions on the allocation of our collective wealth.  The result was inevitable:  gross misallocation [of resources] across all facets of the private economy. 

Getting back to Brin, he argues that:

….across 4,000 years we’ve seen that whenever a small group of men become powerful enough to control an economy and command-allocate its resources, they will do so according to biased perceptions, in-group delusions and fatally limited knowledge. Whether they do the normal oligarchic thing—cheating for self-interest—or else sincerely try to “allocate for the good of all,” they will generally do it badly.

So what’s the solution? Brin says it’s competition: “the most creative force in the universe”: 

By dividing and separating power and—more importantly—empowering the majority with education, health, rights and knowledge, we enabled vast numbers of people to participate in markets, democracy and science. This has had twin effects, never seen in earlier cultures.

  1. It means everybody can find out when a person stumbles onto something cool, better or right, even if that person came from a poor background.
  2. It allows us to hold each other accountable for things that are wrong, worse or uncool, even when the bad idea comes at us from someone mighty.

…cutting through countless foolish notions that held sway for millennia—like the assumption that your potential is predetermined by who your father was—while unleashing creativity, knowledge, freedom, and positive-sum wealth to a degree that surpassed all other societies, combined.

Even the most worrisome outcomes of success, like overpopulation, wealth stratification and environmental degradation, come accompanied by good news— the fact that so many of us are aware, involved, reciprocally critical, and eager to innovate better ways.

Some have argued that cooperation has contributed just as much to human progress as competition has, but putting that issue aside, Brin arrives at his major point: the people who call themselves “conservatives” and claim to revere thinkers like Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, both of whom extolled the benefits of a competitive market, don’t really believe in competition:

The problem is that it’s all lip service on the right! Those who most loudly proclaim Faith In Blind Markets … are generally also those proclaiming idolatry of private property as a pure, platonic essence, a tenet to be clutched with religious tenacity, as it was in feudal societies. Obdurate, they refuse to see that they are conflating two very different things.

Private property—as Adam Smith made clear—is a means for encouraging the thing he really wanted: fair and open competition….But anyone who actually reads Adam Smith also knows that he went on and on about that “fair and open” part! Especially how excessive disparities of wealth and income destroy competition…. When today’s libertarians praise the creative power of competition, then ignore the unlimited [worship of property] that poisoned it across the ages, we are witnessing historical myopia and dogmatic illogic, of staggering magnitude….

But in rejecting one set of knowledge-limited meddlers—100,000 civil servants—libertarians and conservatives seem bent on ignoring market manipulation by 5,000 or so aristocratic golf buddies, who appoint each other to company boards in order to vote each other titanic “compensation packages” while trading insider information and conspiring together to eliminate competition. Lords who are not subject to inherent limits, like each bureaucrat must face, or rules of disclosure or accountability. Lords who (whether it is legal or not) collude and share the same delusions….

Hence, at last, the supreme irony.  Those who claim most-fervent dedication to the guiding principle of our Enlightenment: competition, reciprocal accountability and enterprise—our neighbors who call themselves conservative or libertarian—have been talked into conflating that principle with something entirely different. Idolatry of private wealth, sacred and limitless. A dogmatic-religious devotion that reaches its culmination in the hypnotic cantos of Ayn Rand. Or in the Norquist pledge to cut taxes on the rich under all circumstances—during war or peace, in fat years or lean—without limit and despite the failure of any Supply Side predictions ever, ever, ever coming true.

An idolatry that leads, inevitably to the ruination of all competition and restoration of the traditional human social order that ruled our ancestors going back to cuneiform tablets — Feudalism

As Paul Krugman has often pointed out, it’s not the 1% that’s the problem. It’s more like the 0.001% (Brin’s “golf buddies” and their ilk around the world) whose vast wealth makes them modern-day aristocrats. It’s also those who Krugman called “enablers” in today’s column – the minions who spread the “private property is sacred” and “government destroys liberty” gospel. If these so-called “conservatives” were true to the spirit of Adam Smith, they’d celebrate “mass education, civil rights, child nutrition and national infrastructure etc.”, which Brin mentions, as well as antitrust enforcement, workers’ rights and environmental protection, all of which have “empowered greater numbers of citizens to join the fair and open process of Smithian competition”.

PS – Brin’s article is on a site called Evonomics: The Next Revolution in Economics. It’s worth visiting.

Class In America

Nancy Isenberg, a history professor at Louisiana State, identifies five myths about class in America. Instead of listing the myths, I’ll turn them around and present the corresponding truths: 

  1. The working class isn’t mostly white and male
  2. Most Americans notice class differences
  3. America has less class mobility than other developed countries
  4. Talent and hard work make it easy to rise above your class
  5. Racial oppression is more serious than class oppression

My favorite paragraph:

Class power takes many forms. Its enduring force, its ability to project hatred toward the lower classes, was best summed up by two presidents 175 years apart. In 1790, then-Vice President John Adams argued that Americans not only scrambled to get ahead; they needed someone to disparage. “There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species,” he wrote. Lyndon Johnson came to the same conclusion in explaining the racism of poor whites: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

How Lobbyists Win in Washington

[From “How the Lobbyists Win in Washington” by Jeff Madrick, a review of Lee Drutman’s The Business of America Is Lobbying:]

…there are two crucial points that are disturbing. The first is that business spends $34 on lobbying for every dollar spent by likely opponents such as labor unions and other interest groups.

The second point is, I think, Drutman’s most important. It may once have been adequate for lobbyists to provide business clients access to the right people. Today, however, they also must develop expertise on major political issues, so that they can provide policymakers with research, draft legislation, and pass on up-to-the-minute information. Lobbyists, not [government] staffers … are now the major source of information for Congress and the executive branch on major legislative issues. In one survey, two thirds of congressional staffers said they depend on lobbyists for the information they need to make legislative decisions and pass bills. Thus lobbying grows because Congress, and often the executive branch, needs lobbyists.

[Of course, we know that information is power. The rest is behind a paywall at New York Review of Books.]

Explaining You Know Who

Some phenomena cry out for explanations. I bet you can think of one such phenomenon right now. Here are a few attempts to explain it.

Chris Hedges is one of those overwrought leftists who see no significant difference between most Democratic and Republican politicians. That’s why he names Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as prime villains in “The Revenge of the Lower Classes and the Rise of American Fascism” (where “fascism” refers to what You Know Who is selling):

College-educated elites, on behalf of corporations, carried out the savage neoliberal assault on the working poor. Now they are being made to pay. Their duplicity—embodied in politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—succeeded for decades. These elites, many from East Coast Ivy League schools, spoke the language of values—civility, inclusivity, a condemnation of overt racism and bigotry, a concern for the middle class—while thrusting a knife into the back of the underclass for their corporate masters. This game has ended.

There are tens of millions of Americans, especially lower-class whites, rightfully enraged at what has been done to them, their families and their communities. They have risen up to reject the neoliberal policies and political correctness imposed on them by college-educated elites from both political parties: Lower-class whites are embracing an American fascism.

Hedges is hoping for the day when the “underclass” unites and takes its revenge, but notice how his language changes by the end of his second paragraph. First, it’s “especially lower-class whites” who have risen up. Then it’s simply “lower-class whites” who are embracing you know who.

For a moment, however, consider whether non-white members of the lower class would identify the Clintons or Obama as their principal opponents among the ruling class. Has it been the Democratic Party that’s stood in the way of universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage, immigration reform and more government spending on infrastructure and education?

Hedges moves on to considering the roots of fascism in general:

In fascism the politically disempowered and disengaged, ignored and reviled by the establishment, discover a voice and a sense of empowerment. 

Yet we’re unlikely to see masses of disempowered and disengaged non-white Americans supporting right-wing politicians like you know who. Some registered Democrats do, however. In “Some of < … >’s Strongest Supporters Are Registered Democrats. Here’s Why“, Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel cite various surveys, concluding that there’s a simple explanation for < … >’s success: economic insecurity tends to increase racial resentment among white voters, even relatively moderate white voters.

In previous articles, McElwee and McDaniel offered data to show that racial resentment, not economic insecurity, is strongly correlated with support for the Tea Party and opposition to governmental programs (like the Affordable Care Act) that aim to reduce economic inequality. They conclude that: 

… progressives should be wary of arguments that recessions or financial crises lead to opportunities for progressive policymaking. Rather, they foster exactly the sort of divisiveness that strengthens right-wing movements, at least for whites. For all the talk of “the working class” supporting [< …>], few pundits have noted that the working class is increasingly diverse. The idea that economic peril alone creates [-< … >’s] support is belied by the fact that working-class people of color aren’t flocking to [< …>]. The reason so many liberal and moderate whites are flocking toward [< …>] is simple: racism.

Finally, “The Rise of American Authoritarianism“, by Amanda Taub, is a long but helpful article that explains the popularity of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in terms of his appeal to the authoritarians among us. Her article summarizes the work of political scientists who have identified an “authoritarian personality”:

Authoritarians are thought to express much deeper fears than the rest of the electorate, to seek the imposition of order where they perceive dangerous change, and to desire a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force. They would thus seek a candidate who promised these things. And the extreme nature of authoritarians’ fears, and of their desire to challenge threats with force, would lead them toward a candidate whose temperament was totally unlike anything we usually see in American politics — and whose policies went far beyond the acceptable norms….

Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world. Challenges to that order — diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order — are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order they equate with basic security.

… Those changes have been happening for a long time, but in recent years they have become more visible and harder to ignore. And they are coinciding with economic trends that have squeezed working-class white people.

Hence, it shouldn’t be a great surprise that so many white Americans with authoritarian leanings have responded to a pseudo-politician who promises to make America “great” (for them) again. What’s most surprising is that they’re responding so positively to such a ridiculous figure. It’s hard to believe that so many people think this character could deliver on his promises. If nothing else, recent history shows how difficult it is for our government to accomplish anything, let alone the deportation of millions of citizens or the construction of another Great Wall of China by the Mexican government. But if you’re longing for a dictator, a blowhard who plays a dictator on TV may be good enough for the time being.

Taub’s article concludes with some thoughts on the future of American politics. She believes we may already have a three-party system: Democrats on the left, the Republican establishment on the right and authoritarian Republicans on the far right. In the long run, however, she thinks the Republican establishment may move even further to the right, leading to a party “that is even more hard-line on immigration and on policing, that is more outspoken about fearing Muslims and other minority groups, but also takes a softer line on traditional party economic issues like tax cuts”.

Of course, some observers, as noted above, think there is no difference worth mentioning between the Democratic and Republican establishments today. I disagree, but it’s certainly possible that a Republican Party that moves further right will mean that more moderate Republicans (like the ones threatening to support Clinton if what’s his name is nominated) will move to the Democratic Party, bringing their money with them. That could lead to the creation of a different three-party system, featuring fed-up progressives or democratic socialists on the left, a centrist Democratic Republican party in the middle and angry Tea Party authoritarians on the right. It could even lead to a more representative four-party system. Or a people’s party vs. a capitalist’s party.

Fantasizing about the future of American politics can be a lot of fun, since the present state of our politics is so damn depressing.