The Very Big Picture

I’ve spent a fair amount of the past 18 hours thinking over this post from John Quiggin and specifically this provocative section. The quote, and my thoughts on it, are a bit of a giant thought, so it’s going below the fold:

Third, important though it is to kill off intellectual zombies, that can only be the beginning of a response to the failure of the right. It’s not as if we have a left-progressive program and movement ready and waiting to fill the vacuum. The long struggle of left and centre-left parties to maintain their relevance in the face of the resurgent market liberalism of the late 20th century has eroded any belief in the possibility of a fundamental transformation of capitalism, to the point where such ideas no longer receive even lip-service, let alone serious and sustained attention. Instead, these parties have found themselves lumbered with the task of managing the mixture of social democratic and market institutions that emerged from the conflicts of the 20th century, tweaking them sometimes with market-oriented reforms and sometimes with marginal new interventions.

Practitioners of this kind of managerialist quasi-social democracy have found themselves unable to handle the challenge posed by the irrationalist right, whether in the form of Tea Parties and militias in the US, or slick advocates of xenophobia like Pim Fortuyn in Europe. Their whole approach to politics assumes that the other side shares a broadly consistent view of reality. But in John Cole’s acid metaphor, dealing with the agnotological right is like going on a dinner date where you suggest Italian and your date prefers a meal of tire rims and anthrax. While competent management commands widespread approval it does not mobilise much enthusiasm. Again, this is one of the reasons I think we need to offer hope, in the form of goals that can excite enthusiastic commitment to a progressive alternative.

As anyone who reads me regularly knows, I am not good at coming up with the sort of ideas that can excite enthusiastic commitment among a large number of people. But I think the analysis with regard to capitalism is mistaken. It turns out that welfare state capitalism just is the alternative to capitalism. After all, if you look at how life in the developed countries has changed from 1930 to 2010 what you see is that people spend more and more time in school, more and more time retired, and more and more time on vacation. In other words, people are step-by-step liberating themselves not from market capitalism as a means of obtaining consumer goods but from wage slavery in the worker-capitalist relationship.


And you can see that the basic architecture of this trend is fiercely and passionately contested. When I was in Finland, where they have quite a mild right-wing, the thing that the conservative politician I spoke to seemed really upset about was the idea that Finnish kids are spending too much time in university. Too many students in college! Too many of them getting master’s degrees! Sometimes people would even take time off from their studies to travel! Here in the United States a huge swathe of the pundit class seems to deem it outrageous that the Social Security retirement age hasn’t increased as rapidly as average life expectancy. Don’t people know that they were put on this planet to work! How dare we, as a society, take some of our increased productivity in the form of an increased measure of liberation from our employers rather than more material possessions? The public, sensibly, doesn’t see it that way. When life expectancy grows faster than the retirement age, humanity is making progress.

Meanwhile, it’s more possible than ever for people’s non-commercial labors to have a meaningful impact on the world. I think open source software is exciting. I think amateur mashups are exciting. I think digital distribution of albums recorded on the cheap by people playing music for fun while holding down day jobs is exciting. I think fan fiction is exciting. I think people who work at universities and other non-profits writing blogs to inform and entertain is exciting. I think people diligently recording the progress of their neighborhood and organizing for a better city is exciting. Wikipedia is, of course, indispensable these days and Wikileaks is doing a tremendous job.

I wonder where this will take us. At the moment the cohort of people with the most opportunity to engage in non-commercial activities — retirees — is the very same cohort that’s least inclined to avail itself of digital technology. When Web-savvy people start retiring, I think we’ll see an explosion in non-commercial production. And can we extend it to other kinds of information goods beyond music and writing and brief amusing YouTube videos? Is open source pharmaceutical development possible? And if it’s not possible, what policy changes might make it possible?

Meanwhile, of course, for many people around the world the big story of life in 2010 isn’t the promise of transcending capitalism but the promise of adopting it and thereby escaping what Marx called “the idiocy of rural life.” Lenin took left-wing thinking about economic development down a decades-long detour of bad ideas and horrific violence. But what’s happening in China today looks, from a number of points of view, an awful lot like the original dawning of the industrial revolution in northwestern Europe and that, in and of itself, is an enormous progressive change compared to what was happening before.

So that’s the agenda I have to offer. For rich countries — productivity growth, social insurance, and efforts to improve public health all aiming at allowing people to live more and more of their time outside the bonds of commercial work. For poor countries — capitalism, to get the process of prosperity and social betterment rolling. At the interface between the two — a generous and humane approach to migration issues so that people can have the freedom to escape bad situations, and a trade regime that aims at facilitating the exchange of goods rather than coercing poor countries into adopting the preferred policies of rich world companies. And for all of us, an overhaul of energy systems so the world doesn’t boil and we all get to keep enjoying our prosperity.