Conclusion: Anticipating the future
By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries and letters to the Editor of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
I remember reading these lines in a mimeographed broadside published by the Communications Company on Haight Street during the Summer of Love. It’s the last verse of a poem that appeared later that year in Richard Brautigan’s fifth poetry collection.
Despite that decade’s upheavals, it was a gentler and more generous time. Increases in wealth produced by technology-driven productivity gains was broadly shared among workers, investors, and management. Economic inequality would, for the next three years, remain at its lowest level in modern American history. Martin Luther King was still alive, and the Civil Rights Movement’s successes portended expanding political, as well as economic, equality.
One could risk imagining a hopeful future in which digital technology and robotic devices would greatly reduce drudgery, leaving people free to perform more fulfilling work and form enriching relationships with others and with nature. Forty years later, it seems naïve, and suggesting it invites ridicule.
It’s not that such a future is technologically impossible. On the contrary, with already existing technology, we could provide a decent, if basic, standard of living to all humanity. And for thirty years, it’s been possible to algorithmically resolve resource allocation problems much more efficiently than markets can.
But since the late 1970s, the U.S. has gone in the opposite direction. The productivity gains produced by precursors to the machines about which Brautigan rhapsodized have been almost entirely absorbed by the wealthiest Americans. Corporate America’s dominant philosophy has shifted from stakeholder capitalism—think Market Basket—to shareholder capitalism, in which a corporation’s only purpose is near-term increases to its owners’ wealth.
In politics, leaders of both major parties have followed suit, drastically reducing taxes on the wealthiest of us while disinvesting from infrastructure, research, education, and the social programs that enable people to manage hard times or get a leg up.
So we’ve reached a point where, as superstar economist Thomas Picketty observes, wage inequality in the United States “is probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world.”
The same capitalist dynamic that forces corporations to pursue the highest possible rate of return, drive out their competitors, and thereby concentrate economic and political power obligates them to automate. If they don’t replace every human worker wherever possible with a machine that can do the job more cheaply, their competitors will.
In the near term, this will create more jobs. Workers will be needed to design and install the hardware and software that will drive trucks, construct buildings, write legal documents, diagnose patients, and so on—the machines themselves will probably be built elsewhere.
But capitalism requires selling things. And eventually we will reach a point, somewhere near the middle of this century, when there are so few people with enough wherewithal to buy one category after another of goods and services, that those commodities’ production and sale will become no longer profitable.
Avoiding this within the current system would require massive taxation of the wealthy to provide a minimum income to the growing mass of unemployed people. But our political institutions have become increasingly controlled by those who serve the wealthiest and are ideologically opposed to the redistribution of income, much less wealth.
The visionaries who framed the Constitution could not anticipate this situation because the society they lived in consisted only of farmers, tradesmen, or slaves, with a smattering of doctors, lawyers, and clergy. It “was shockingly equal at the time, in ways that seem really surprising to us today,” argues legal scholar Ganesh Sitaraman.
In The Crisis of the Middle Class Constitution, published last month, he shows that because of that relative equality, the founders did not build into the Constitution means for managing class conflict, such as the plebian tribunes in the Roman republic, or the Houses of Lords and Commons in Britain.
Historically, when democratic institutions without such adjustment mechanisms became extremely unequal, either the rich would repress and disenfranchise the poor, or the poor would “turn to a demagogue who would overthrow the government — only to become a tyrant. Oligarchy or tyranny, economic inequality meant the end of the republic.”
A transformation of our economic, social, and political institutions—that is, a revolution—would seem to be inevitable. Immanuel Wallerstein, the dean of World Systems Theory, forecasts capitalism’s “terminal crisis” as coming in mid-century. Contrary to Marxist prophesies, he observes that “History is on nobody’s side.”
We have no way of anticipating whether the revolution will be peaceful or violent, whether it will result in an oligarchical and fascist police state, an egalitarian socialist democracy, or a descent into tribal barbarism.
But we can begin today to build the future that we hope for. The current President campaigned as a populist, but is appointing plutocrats. I understand the motivation behind the demonstrations that he has provoked. But too many demonstrators seem unwilling to talk—and more importantly, listen—to Trump’s supporters, who will disproportionately suffer from his policies.
The demonstrators will need to learn what the Occupy Movement did not—how to build and sustain an organizational structure, craft an effective strategy, and develop leadership. Strategically, they need to focus on issues that are winnable and, through winning, build their constituency and momentum.
Political economist Gar Alperovitz has the same idea in a different context. He describes a political checkerboard in which “some of the squares on the board are clearly blocked, but others are open. The goal, of course, is to expand the number of squares that are receptive to democratization efforts….”
He’s not talking about national public policy, but about creating local and regional institutions that “restore economic health and sustainability in struggling communities [and] demonstrate viable alternatives to strategies that are faltering elsewhere.”
In his book, What Then Must We Do? he makes a case for building the future now with worker-owned businesses, community credit unions, municipally owned utilities, state-level single-payer healthcare, participatory budgeting, mobilized faith communities, responsive universities, and more.
A serious challenge that we face is the disintegration of the institutions that once nourished community and in which people listened to each other, sought consensus, and planned actions. John McKnight’s and Peter Block’s The Abundant Community is as good a primer as any for community building tactics.
Creating the future that we want will be neither easy nor assured. Wallerstein writes that, “we have a fifty-fifty chance of getting the world system that we prefer. But 50-50 is a lot, not a little.”
Or if we are willing to risk the hopefulness expressed by Richard Brautigan, we might be comforted by another poet, Nikos Kazantzakis, who in that earlier era wrote,
To be sure
the present moment and
the one immediately ahead
are horrifying and will
become increasingly so.…
But the moment further on
In the distance will be
The belly of the earth
is still full of eggs…