Societal disparity is a hot button topic sure to arouse emotions. Those who currently have or make comparatively more money as always follow heir self-interest and stick to decennia old post cold war talking points best summarized as “anyone who works hard will eventually be successful”. This is clearly a self-validating and wealth consolidating statement and it’s completely understandable from a zero sum perspective. For the lucky few at the top of the economic food chain any compelling statement that “if most people who work hard in life will not be successful”, pretty much means that society is injust and is subject to renegotiation. And we have been at a collective consensus in western society for centuries now that for statistical majorities of the population – society must be just.
Let me phrase that in other words to absolutely impress the current relevance of this upon everyone who is reading this. Our society is both democratic and capitalist. If a significant section of the populace feels unable to escape poverty the singlemost important rationale of the mere existence of democracy (as opposed to fascism, feudalism, tyranny, stalinism etc.) is that those who feel hopeless gain hope in democracy.
If the rich feel reason to repeat over and over that material success (however you care to define it – generally it means money) must be attained through hard work, it is basically saying that under no circumstances if significant segments of the population of poor people do not work hard (we are talking percentages here, not single cases) should not be allowed to abuse democratic systems to become significantly less poor. Those who have money point to hard work as the sole reason for the poor to escape poverty.
For someone who has money, other people remaining poor by hard work is not necessarily a threat under capitalist ideology. For the rich it simply is being lazy, since from the perspective of the rich can not be fairly assumed that for large segments of the population the sole reason might conceivably be mere randomness, systemic bad luck or lack of talent. There are unreasonable people who will then go and make arguments that are not fair, such as racists who will claim certain variants in human skin pigmentation constitutes such distinctive a genetic series of traits that even with hard work “those people” are likelier to remain poor and that’s just how things are, get used to it.
Systems that reflect the desire to have significant elites remain affluent, and significant segments of the poor remain so (i.e. favoring heredetary stratification) are very likely to be racist, and if they are not, they tend to be one of the above four, i.e. feudalist, fascist, favoring some kind of necessary tyranny (in particular of the hobbesian kind, i.e. “we must have strict government for everything would dissolve in to chaos and civil war if we didn’t have strict government”) or some form of historical (and mostly extinct) stalinism. I’d argue that in all these cases the argument is just a figleaf and almost always one based on prejudice or racism, while making claims of meritocracy. Two good examples are South Africa and the UK, where stratification has become endemic and the maxims “the rich become richer and other races become poorer” seem to apply. In the UK the polished upper classes claim their British “stiff upper lip” superiority of the hardy anglosaxon protestant mindset as both racist as well as meritocratic argument in favor of continueing stratification. In South Africa the claims are even more so. But there are lots of countries that follow similar arguments.
The problem of course is that the world might very well be argued to be consolidated. In this particular context I mean that ‘consolidated’ equates that further industrial, technological and thus economic growth is very difficult to attain. In particular most types of conservatives in the international community make this claim, either implicitly or explicitly. Most conservatives tend to believe (and I’d go further – almost always believe) that we are at the pinnacle of society and western (white) liberal capitalist democracy is as far as you can go in making society good. To these people the world is the best world out of numerous possible worlds. Their moral opposites, i.e. progressives feel the world is still significantly injust and the singlemost important reason for the existence of a powerful state is (aside from acting as a insurance from over-predation of the commons, but that’s another story) is to redistribute the resources of the fortunate (i.e. capriciously lucky people) to less fortunate (i.e. people who through no fault of their own ended up poor).
This is a discourse and as discourses go it is a pretty solid one. I can easily add a few caveats, and as some one who is actively “technoprogressive” I will most certainly make the claim that technology carries with it the risk that if unchecked by a powerful state as powerful arbiter, current rates of technological progress carry with them the risk of making those who are currently poor so poor in the coming decades they might die, and those who are currently rich so rich that they can pretty much disband the whole concept of democracy altogether and be done with it. The fact that all the above is still a discourse stems back to the good old days where there still was an equilibrium of power amongst various factions in society, but I would argue that equilibrium existed only briefly at the end of the second world war and that equilibrium was actually permitted to exist mostly as a policy to secure society against the specter of spread of communism and socialist ideology. In other words – at the end of the Depression and even more so the end of World War 2 there was a serious risk that a lot of western democracies would ideologically and politically evolve to socialist and communist systems, and that would have shrunk the international power base of capitalist investors and stakeholders. Domino theory and all. For a brief few decades in human history there was actually a fair chance global society would have turned away from capitalism. It was fortunate it didn’t, since between the 1950s and 1980s the poor in most capitalist countries became significantly richer than the middle classes (i.e. the vast majority of people) in communist countries. Just the other day I stumbled across an illustrative example, namely
The Soviet Union allowed theaters to play The Grapes of Wrath because of its depiction of the plight of the poor under capitalism, but it was later withdrawn because Russian audiences were amazed that even the poorest Americans could afford a car.
So yeah I’d argue that in the face of a solid societal equilibrium between rich and poor, between investors and unions, between right and left political parties, etc. we had a most amenable distribution of the proverbial pie, for a few decades, but only in mostly white, predominantly capitalist, predominantly old world countries. With the possible caveat of a lot of asian countries as well.
The 1980s changed everything. I do not want to degenerate in to elaborate theories of gold standards, fiat currency, oil dictatorships, thatcherism and reagonomics, the end of the soviet bloc and let other people do that. But whatever the case may be somewhere in the 1980s things changed. A year years after Pickety I can safely say this has now become a bit of a cliche and the often quoted graph best illustrating said (sad) cliche is this one –
In other words, up until roughly the year 1980 the poor caught up somewhat amicably in terms of societal progress with rich people. Or were allowed to experience a semblance of catching up equally. Or something off-hand conspiratorial like that.
A major problem in the ensuring discourse these days is scarcity of natural resources. Right now a lot (let’s say all) of Europeans, Americans and other inhabitants in western (and various Asian) countries sure as hell do not want to become poorer. This was best summarized by the quote of then president George Bush 1 when he said in 1992
U.S. Lifestyle Is Not Up for Negotiation
– Dick Cheney
which pretty much meant – we will defend our quality of living, consumerism, privilege, power, wealth et.al. even if that means other people world wide will stay poor or have to become poorer. This ties in with both the scarcity of fossil fuels as well as the constraints of world society burning fossil fuels (primarily gas and oil). In 1992 the oil industries (and thus Bush) knew pretty damn well both were headed for constraints, and thus for some form of global rationing. As I am writing this article now in 2016 we are clearly seeing both constraints race up towards us with the insistence of a concrete wall. Scarcity of easily accessible oil and gas will force some people in the world to have less soon. NOT the same amount – LESS. And constraints of global CO2 emissions and the horrific risks posed thereby will quite soon force the global community of leaders to agree Period, no iff’s and butt’s and caveats and maybe’s. Let me illustrate that with a short bit from the excellent TV series newsroom.
In most common vernacular – nuff said, We must constrain global CO2 emissions or the world will face (and I say this in the sarcastic possible manner) a lot of rich, white people world wide will die. And that’s where the global balance of power rests – older (generally male) white men. Once those people will feel the pain, things change, without exception. It is tragic that current news and media outlets world wide suck so much that we need some fictional news TV series to illustrate the biblical levels of poignancy here. I mean how insistent can you get – “a person has already been born that will die of catastrophic failure of the planet”. That means “pretty soon” in my vocabulary. It also means in no uncertain terms – no matter how rich you are you can’t run from this problem. I’d go even one step further, and you can quote me on this, by stating “the first million rich people who will be lynched because they will then be held responsible for screwing up the planet have already been born”.
But there’s a new player on the block and that is technological unemployment. That topic is hip and trending, and I no doubt contributed my fair bit in to making it hip and trendy. I was loudly proclaiming this topic as the next big problem for humanity as early as the 1990s, and now it caught on it is making a lot of people nervous. And therein lies considerable necessity, even if global political universe does not always reflect the necessity. Historically we have always seen that a steady climb in under-representation of electoral majorities leads to violence, but the sad reality is that in our era we also see massive increases in policing, surveillance and judicial violence (especially in the US). One might wonder why.
Lately trhe effcets of climate change, resource depletion, globalism have made a lot of people angry, and we can easily make the mental leap between this anger and the rise of Trump and the UK vote on leaving the EU, but aforementioned have nothing on the more imminent risk of technological unemployment. Here’s a really impressive article that makes that argument splendidly. We see very illustrative signs that the imperative of western democracies (all of them sailing in the wake of US foreign policy) to maintain standards of living for a select category of people has been gradually eating up the food chain and has now started affecting white people, even inside the US. In other words, the proverbial rising tide will let an awful lot of people d(r)own.
In a vacuum where the urgent necessities of people start increasingly conflict with the perceived interests of special few minorities is inadequately not reflected there is only one way of responding and that is violence. And when faced with the gradual increase in the odds and severity of violence happening is met with a policy of equally shoring up police, prisons, surveillance and repression, you are intentionally steering towards some kind of rock versus hard place confrontation.
There is a proverb which states that “society is only three meals from anarchy” applies. Globally we are creating the pretext for various degrees of revolution and not just in one space:
– globally population levels keep going up and although western society has proactively conspired all key players to be armed to the teeth against relatively poorer groups we are steadily steering towards the point where the poorest 75% of humanity has no recourse other than desperation and violence;
– in most western countries we are equally steadily steering from disempowering majority votes from having any discernible influence on the electoral system and policy and
– in western countries, especially the US and the EU society is steadily dismantling income, purchase power, financial security and career prospects for the vast majority of its electorate to a point where this vast majority will find itself with no other recourse than desperation and violence.
It is particlarly hard then to come up with a punch line, a slogan, a conclusion that doesn’t tie in with the tawdry and tiresome rhetoric touted by so many preppers, doomsday cults, Alex Jones and the conspiracy crowd, Yes, people get tired of sounding the warning bells or crying wolf over and over and over and that is not what I am trying to achieve here. An article such as this one must have an upbeat conclusion, something that provides hope for people who need it. and provides a thorough understanding of the age we live in as well as a direction for parsing futurological analysis.
So what can I take away from all this that doesn’t make people’s eyes glaze over? Well, technology and unemployment are two major factors which offer us some semblance of hope. There is (yet another) an old proverb about idle hands that may be due for an update and that may be that people who have time on their hands tend to get creative. And there is even another proverb that says something about necessity is the mother of invention. And both tie in great with exponential technological change as well as a vast increase in mass-unemployment irreversible mass-employability world wide. We are going to see technology take off very hard and leave a lot of people clueless about what to do next. Many of these of our fellow western world constituents (I mean, millions of North Koreans, Somalians, Nigerians, Uzbeki or Bolivians can protest to their hearts content, not much will come of it but their death) haven’t gotten the memo yet but it will involve mass technological unemployment and displacement. Sure, having suddenly less money is pretty awful for most people, but having no discernible perspective on improvement is quite often an existential shock. But I won’t use this polemic to yet again extol the theoretical virtues of basic income until some future date, year or decade where such has become simply an inescapable reality.
Some minorities respond with an almost horrific level of violence, as we can see in new recruits for ISIS but hopefully that kind of desperation is limited to the fringe of unreasonable people. The majority of people however will become creative and use increasing options of technological affordances to express their dissatisfaction or otherwise hack the system. Clay Shirky’s presentation a few years back still fills me with some optimism to that effect in that it strongly suggests that increase in media outlets allows for new forms of generating political capital and that might be enough. But if it isn’t enough, the alternative will prove predictably self-evident.