Sunday, September 11, 2011

Twilight of the Gods

Something burned down. Something else was built. It opened on September 2.

Karl Marx described history as a series of stable states punctuated by revolutionary crises. A stable state is one where the social and political order reflects and supports the relations of production. A crisis occurs when internal contradictions in the system cause a shift in the relations of production, making the social and political order no longer compatible with its economic basis. This causes a revolution, out of which emerges a new social and political order, more suited to the changed relations of production. So we go from the slave states of the ancient world to medieval feudalism, and from there to capitalism.

The big picture behind the ongoing economic, political, and social crises is a Marxist one. There has been a fundamental shift in relations of production, and the social and political order we currently have isn't compatible with the new state of affairs.

Until now, the capitalist economy has been constrained by the availability and productivity of labor. More labor and more productive labor -> more production -> more wealth. The redistributive system that emerged in the rich part of the world after the Second World War did a pretty good job of balancing out the market's tendency to concentrate wealth at the top, resulting in an enormous and enormously rapid and broad-based rise in living conditions for everyone lucky enough to be born in one of these rich countries. Several formerly poor countries have managed to reproduce this same take-off.

A part of the current malaise is the completely unnecessary and tragic dismantling of this redistributive system in what was until very recently the world's leading economy, the USA. However, that's only a contributing factor, not a structural cause.

We are now entering a phase where the constraint of production is no longer labor, but capital and natural resources. Automation has become so effective and so pervasive that labor accounts for a pretty small fraction of manufacturing costs. That means that the foundation of advanced capitalism, a broad-based, prosperous middle class, is eroding. The machinery of production just doesn't need that many skilled—and therefore well-paid—workers anymore. It doesn't even need all that many unskilled—and low-wage—workers. Robots are more reliable, cheaper in the long run, and don't go on strike.

We just don't need all that many people to produce whatever we want. Just a few highly-skilled workers designing and running the automated means of production. No matter what happens to manufacturing—whether it's actually done in China, the European Union, or Ghana—good jobs for the masses aren't going to come back. Not in the way they used to be. Nor are new technologies and new challenges, such as transitioning out of fossil fuels, going to do more than mitigate the problem.

A consumerist economy can't function without consumers. Consumers can't consume if they don't earn more money than they need to spend on consumption. Debt can keep the machine running for a bit longer, but that will hit a wall too, pretty quickly. That means that the entire machine is broken, from everybody's point of view. We're currently on our way to one of William Gibson's dystopias, of a tiny number of people who are incredibly rich, a small global minority or corporate citizens, and a large majority of poor, living near the subsistence level.

The real irony is that we got here because we got too good at producing stuff. Collectively, we have the technology to eliminate hunger and abject poverty and halt climate change and other ecological destruction. We could go to Mars if we wanted to. Yet we keep acting as stupidly as we ever did.

Work—what Weber used to call the Protestant Work Ethic—is deeply embedded in our way of life. If you're jobless, you're worthless. A parasite. A good-for-nothing. Even in societies with a peasant-egalitarian culture, which lack, say, the American imperative to 'succeed' at all costs, you're expected to do an honest day's work. Your identity, your happiness, the meaning of your life is bound in your professional pride.

This ethic functioned well enough in a system where work was needed. It's going to cause an incredible amount of unhappiness in a world where work is scarce. People who have jobs fear losing them. People who don't fight desperately to get them. And those who can get them will sneer at those who can't, who will find their sense of self-worth and dignity gone.

The good news is that the revolution always comes. Sometimes in a spectacular and bloody crisis. More often in a gradual transition that takes decades or more. We will, eventually, come up with a society that works with automation.

The bad news is that we may not live to see it. These things can take a long time. We will need to challenge our fundamental assumptions of what it means to be a good citizen; a good human being. Of the obligations we have for one another. Of the notions of right and wrong. Of wealth. Of private property.

It would be good if we did some of that challenging explicitly.

I don't know what kind of system will emerge. What we'll be like in it. What our values, identities, ideas, sense of self-worth will be based on. There's a lot I'd like to keep about the system we have now, as far short of its lofty aspirations it falls. Notions like universal human rights, or that everyone should have the right to participate in the political process, or rule of law rather than rule by administrative decree. It would be a shame if all that goes, as well it might.

I'll be going to see Wagner's Götterdämmerung—Twilight of the Gods—later today, at the Finnish National Opera. It's very appropriate for September 11, 2011, I think.


  1. There is another crisis that will interact with this, which is our ecological crisis. Assuming you and I live a few more decades, we will see both the sunset of the Oil Age and the consequences of climate change.

  2. We were watching The Madness of King George last night. These reflections go very well with that tale of feudal disintegration matching a monarch's mental one, in the messy birth of the first wave of triumphant capitalist production as the wealth of America devolved to its (most recent) inhabitants and France fought its bloody revolution. I have no doubt Wagner will offer some equally pertinent parallels. In my poetic fancies I use the tag ragnarök often these days. I wish you younger ones luck with the next decades--and wish I could peer into the murk that hides what they will birth in the next century.

  3. The Swedish name of Twilight of the Gods is Ragnarök. It kicked ass so hard I almost think it wasn't real. And yeah, parallels.

    Not gonna sleep much tonight, I think.