Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Primal Curse?

Every month or so, the blogosphere/online-traditional-media-complex decides to acknowledge the existence of some fundamental social problem people have been debating for centuries, and always with the air of fresh discovery.  Liberals, conservatives, and socialists then fall into the roles assigned to them by intellectual tradition and reenact old battles over again as if unconsciously.  As Borges once put it: "the 'burning reality,' which exasperates or exalts us [...] is nothing but an imperfect reverberation of former discussions [.... R]eality is always anachronous."

I say they do all this "as if" unconsciously because our public intellectuals are usually aware that they are to some extent repeating lines fed to them off-stage by J.S. Mill or whomever, but they are constrained by word limits and the attention spans of readers not to break the fourth wall by acknowledging that fact.

We on this blog, however, clearly have no scruples about these sorts of things-- and no readers-- so we are free to talk history to our hearts' content!

The recent example I have in mind is the debate which was briefly revived two weeks ago by Paul Krugman in his NYT column about whether, under a capitalist regime, the temporary unemployment which results from technological innovations will always be rectified, given enough time, by the fresh demand for skills and expertise created by the new technology and the industries which support it, or whether in the future it will persist and create a permanent underclass.  This, is, as I said, an old debate, and an old problem.  Our libertarians and Neo-liberals and what-not probably need to be woken up from their dogmatic slumbers every so often to see that it is so, and I thank Krugman for the attempt.  But to people with a longer view of history, or to people living in depressed regions of Pennsylvania or Western Massachusetts, e.g., it's pretty obvious that the question is at least open to reasonable doubt on both sides.

The typical breakdown in these debates is that socialists and left-liberals tend to argue that the reason mass unemployment has been absorbed by fresh demand in the past has been a combination of intelligent demand-side public interventions and the fact that earlier stages of innovation were hugely labor-intensive (laying railway tracks and what-not)-- something which is not bound to continue now that we have entered the digital age.  Libertarians, right-wingers, and Neo-liberals, meanwhile, tend to argue that history and the laws of the market should be our guide.  In the past, innovation has always created new opportunities, so why wouldn't it continue to do so in the future?  Besides, any attempt to cushion the blows of displacement by non-market means would only make the problem worse in this "best of all possible worlds."

Ok, I probably showed my hand a little too much in the way I presented those arguments, but the truth is, however much I incline to the left, my sympathies aren't entirely with one side or the other, and I find both claims naive-- the libertarian one because it assumes, as all historical regimes have done, that its own way of doing things is somehow the "final" one, the end of history, which will go on for all eternity.  Hegel thought the same thing about the Prussian civil service, which didn't pan out.

But the leftist argument too is somewhat implausible, because the libertarians make a valid historical point.  At each phase of dramatic technological change in the past, someone has been declaring the immanent collapse of the capitalist system and its way of life, and each time the system has righted itself and continued along its path, thanks in part to public interventions, perhaps, but also to the market and to new sources of demand created by the technology.

I can't pretend to know, therefore, what will happen in this coming age, but I don't see why one side or the other must be entirely correct.  The most plausible outcome of the current changes, it seems, is that a fair number of people will be able to make the cruel adjustment to shifting demand while others, usually due to earlier disadvantages, will be left behind entirely.  I don't think the whole society is on its death-bed, but I also don't think the changes afoot will be painless or will sweep everyone along in their path to the glorious future.  Or even if they did, I don't see why it's necessarily worth the cost of displacing people in the present, if only temporarily-- effectively uprooting them and destroying the patterns of life they have developed for themselves even if it does not wholly destroy their bodies or their capacity to put food on the table.  I'm also not convinced we couldn't achieve the same positive ends without this terrible price.  After all, the reason Voltaire made fun of the Leibnizian optimism which regards this as the "best of all possible worlds" is not that optimism is itself ludicrous, but because in this form it is a false optimism, founded not on a belief that things will or could actually get better, but that they could not be better than they already are.  This is cold comfort indeed when dished out by our Neo-liberals to the victims of technological change.

But to return to the Krugman column, what places it above the usual revivals of this question is that the debate it briefly ignited didn't so much concern whether or not work is truly disappearing, but what we can do about it if it is.  Krugman has been criticized by Megan McArdle, for instance, not on the grounds that he shows insufficient faith in the benevolence of the invisible hand which will, in the fullness of time, reconcile all things-- she is too sophisticated a thinker for that-- but rather on the grounds that his only solution to the problem appears to be a generous safety net.  Her reasoning is that work is valuable in itself and it robs people of their dignity to support them in idleness while offering them no chance to improve their lot themselves through the sweat of their brow.  This would all be more convincing if McArdle suggested some alternative solution, such as public works projects (which Krugman, I'm sure, would support if asked).  Indeed, she says, "Perhaps a stronger safety net is better than nothing.  But it is not enough," and I doubt Krugman would dispute this point.  But I'm not sure what other measures McArdle would support which didn't contradict her generally libertarian-ish principles.  On this point she is silent.

We can't divine from Krugman's column alone how deaf he really is to concerns about idleness and the loss of dignity that goes along with being dependent upon public charity, and at any rate it's pretty obvious that it's an even graver betrayal of human dignity to allow members of your society to starve in the streets than to support them on the dole, so I don't fault him for offering the safety net as a necessary (if partial) measure.  But there is an important philosophical issue here which, as suggested above, is one of those things that reappears as predictably as the tides in debates between liberals and traditionalists in matters of technological change.

One thing the Neo-liberals who welcome such changes have in common with their socialist opponents is that both, broadly, tend to think that the steady displacement of human by machine labor is a good thing, or could be made such given an equitable distribution of power and property.  In general, emancipation from all forms of "drudgery" is to be welcomed, according to them.  For some historical representatives of both ideologies, this was desirable for the simple reason that it would democratize consumption and personal gratification.  In the more classic Marxist and socialist formulae, however, the appeal was essentially that it would allow for a rebirth of human creativity.  Far from falling "idle" in the absence of  the compulsion of material necessity, the human spirit would soar to new heights of achievement once the "pre-history" or humankind had finally come to an end.  As Marx himself put it: "[I]n communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind[.]"  J.M Keynes, on the liberal side of the question, essentially agreed, except that this arcadian paradise would be achieved in his view not by revolution but by the sheer material accumulation of liberal capitalism (corrected by proper demand-side interventions when necessary).

The problems with these arguments are many, apart even from any inherent implausibility we may find in utopian predictions.  First of all, given that they seem to depend upon the idea that over time, more and more people will be put out of work by mechanization, leaving only an elite of employed engineers, technicians, and managers, it is not at all clear what incentive this elite has to support the rest of the population for free rather than keeping the gains for itself.  Megan McArdle makes this point and I agree with her.  I don't think it takes an unusually cynical view of human nature to regard it as a valid concern.  Marx was right on the money (no pun intended) in insisting that this elite would have to be overthrown for the proceeds of mechanical labor to be evenly distributed, but this leads to further problems with the Marxist theory of revolution which can't be discussed here, but are probably pretty obvious.

Secondly, I agree with McArdle that "Various theorists have imagined unleashing a wave of creativity as people invest their time in non-market production, but it seems to me that these people are inferring far too much from their circle of acquaintance."  This is not to say that people other than public intellectuals don't have a wealth of latent creativity within them that is stifled by social conditions-- I think they do. But it is to say that the same ways of life and forms of creativity do not appeal to everyone.  J.M. Keynes' utopia, it seems clear, was mostly a projection onto society as a whole of a distinctively British upper-class yearning for learned and landed leisure.  It was Bloomsbury writ large-- a world of endless operas and barbed witticisms delivered over tiny tea cups held with pinky fingers extended which would make most blue collar Americans gag-- and not with envy.  For Marx, his utopia was one in which one was free to "criticize" as one has a mind-- but this is a distinctively Marxian vocation which few other individuals could define, let alone wish to emulate.  Is the yearning to be a "kritischer Kritiker," or "critical critic," a universal human trait-- one only left unfulfilled due to the inequity of our class system?  We'd have to know what it was first to answer that question.

On the other hand, I don't care for the traditionalist conservative line which tries to romanticize all forms of manual labor.  There is clearly value in the ideal of "craftsmanship," as many traditionalists argue, and there are forms of human creativity apart from writing symphonies and novels to which Bloomsbury was blind-- in other words, forms of artisinal work which make use of one's hands but also require time, care, and intellectual effort.

However, traditionalists should not be anxious to roll back the clock on mechanization, given that in the past they idealize, it was not artisans who numerically predominated, but serfs and other landless toilers.  The economy of early modern Europe was built on the backs of enslaved Indians worked to death in silver mines in South America and landless peons in Eastern Europe who fared little better.  The craftsmen were, like our modern creative intelligentsia, freed to practice their arts not by a more egalitarian social order, but by the fact that other people's labor was supporting them in their comparative ease.

Just as liberal intellectuals should not condescendingly infer that everyone else wishes to live as they do but simply lacks the means, traditionalist intellectuals should not draw the equally patronizing conclusion that everyone is "better off" for having some miserable employment, however demoralizing and hateful they find it (traditionalists, in fact, usually don't draw this conclusion, but it would be a necessary implication of any real move we made to return to the pre-industrial world).  I am in complete  agreement with Oscar Wilde when he writes in one of the greatest and most mercifully unserious of the socialist utopias, "The Soul of Man Under Socialism": "a great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of manual labour. There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities, and should be regarded as such. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours, on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine."  I think Wilde has got the traditionalists there.

It seems to me that the real problem has less to do with whether human beings flourish more under material compulsion or under comfortable leisure than it does with the essentially mysterious and impenetrable nature of human happiness itself.  The creative potential of the human spirit dwells within all of us in equal measure, though it takes different forms-- I am enough of a soppy egalitarian to believe that with all my heart.  But creativity like much else of value in life is not called into action by comfort and stability, but by the arduous challenges of existence.  Beautiful symphonies and poems and pieces of craftsmanship do not speak to us because they amuse us in our cushioned leisure, but because they speak to something deep within us that we recognize and share with other people-- and I suspect it's vulnerability-- an awareness of the essential difficulty of life.  Schopenhauer remarks somewhere that there's a reason plays and stories always end when the hero reaches his destination, marries the princess, finds the treasure, defeats the villain, etc. and it's because it's impossible to depict with any interest what it would be like to enjoy the fruits of those victoryies-- and he probably wouldn't enjoy them at all, because nothing is as good in the having as it is in the seeking.  George Orwell too understood this when he pointed out that no socialist utopia has ever managed to portray genuinely happy human beings, because happiness as we understand it is found in contrast with misery rather than in a stable condition of pleasure.

Orwell's solution is the same one I favor-- to not seek happiness at all, but rather justice, and happiness may follow.  As he remarks at the end of his essay, "Can Socialists Be Happy?": ""I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail merely confuses the issue."

The relevant point here, then,  is that constructing the debate about mechanization should similarly not depend on competing theories of what will make people happier in the long run, but rather on what is right or wrong regardless.

It seems clear to me that whether you align yourself with a Kantian secular ethic or a Christian or some otherwise religious ethic, what is wrong in technological change, what is most fundamentally unjust, is not that people are deprived of work they may have hated or that their unemployment has simply not been compensated sufficiently by a social safety net.  Rather, the violation of the principle of human brotherhood at stake here is the fact that the whole question is discussed as one to be decided by public intellectuals and bloggers and political officials rather than by the people affected.  I'm not really sure whether it is better to be a coal miner whose job is protected by a public intervention or one who is put out of work in the mines by a machine and collects generous government checks as compensation which allow him to take up some interest he had always wished to pursue in his spare time.  It seems the preference would likely be an individual one, and no one should be dictating it to him but himself.  The real crime would not be one of those two options or the other, but the fact that the coal miner in question is not the one, or even among those, deciding between them.

My recommendation is therefore that we talk less about what is more conducive to the happiness of the people displaced by technological change and more about mechanisms whereby they can play a part in helping to make the relevant choices about when to move on from antiquated technologies and obsolete industries.  For this purpose, neither Krugman's nor McArdle's solutions, to the extent they exist, will do.  It would require a worker's movement and a revival of older strains of socialism and syndicalism which emphasized industrial democracy rather than state centralism.  I'm not sure such a movement will arise in the near future, but it could-- and it should.

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