I came across this interview with Eric Weinstein, and it got me thinking. Weinstein is an advisor to Peter Thiel, and– wait, come back!  I know Thiel is the embodiment of everything wrong with late capitalism, but the article is only half that. It’s deeply weird and doesn’t quite know what it wants, but it does have some interesting things to say about the frivolity economy.

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His thesis, more or less, is that capitalism should be more disruptive, and also combined with socialism. But let’s start out with the strong bit: his critique of American education.

The problem is that we have an educational system that’s based on taking our natural penchant for exploration and fashioning it into a willingness to take on mind-numbing routine. This is because our educational system was designed to produce employable products suitable for jobs, but it is jobs that are precisely going to give way to an economy increasingly based on one-off opportunities.

Now, this isn’t entirely right. It’s not that routine is the goal of education; it’s that mass education in any form involves teaching things the kids don’t care to learn at that moment. Kids actually learn quite readily if they happen to love the subject.  Plus, sometimes you can’t get to the good parts without mastering the boring bits. You can’t learn quantum mechanics without learning calculus; you can’t read Sanskrit literature without mastering Sanskrit morphology.

But Weinstein has a point.  Traditional societies didn’t educate the majority at all.  Industrial society educates everyone because manufacturing and service jobs require a high level of literacy, and jobs will resemble school in many respects… often, the unattractive respects: lots of routine and rules; mindless obedience; doing things you are not personally interested in because it’s Your Job.

You can see how this sort of education and a certain sort of society fit together nicely in the career of … my Dad.  He was bright and did well in school, though he never went to college.  He started as an assistant pressman at a major printing company, rose through the ranks to management, and ended up as an executive, an expert on technical printing problems.  He not only stayed in one industry, he stayed in one company. It was a pretty good life for him, and a definite step up from his father, who was a carpenter.

Now, late capitalism has nearly destroyed that sort of career– especially for those who never make it to management.  Weinstein takes the view that predictable, medium-affluent working class jobs are over, presumably because those are ripe to be automated.

At this point many give up and conclude that humans are worthless, or at best should just be given a stipend while the robots do all the work.  Weinstein says instead that humans should do what they’re best at: handling one-time events. Or with less jargon: doing things that aren’t easily automated, because they require adaptability and creativity.  For him this means technologists and finance people, but also inventors, artists, and writers.

I’d actually make this category far broader– see my list of professions unlikely to be taken over by AIs. It’s interesting to speculate what sort of education would focus on these skills, rather than those required to be an accountant or an assistant pressman.

This is also about the point where Weinstein dissolves into a messy set of contradictions. He’s obviously been talking to too many venture capitalists: he tells us “certain fields will need to undergo a process of radical deregulation to give the minority of minds that are capable of our greatest feats of creation the leeway to experiment and to play.”  Unreflective Thiel-worship, in other words.  Haven’t those people done enough damage?  But!  He also thinks we need to recognize the “dignity, well-being, and health” of the 90%.  He mentions a universal basic income, but so far as I can see, his bright idea is that this is tied to having jobs that aren’t necessarily marketable.  So, you can be a playwright or something, and still get paid enough to live on, and this is somehow valuable dignified recompense but it’s not, y’know, welfare.

The interview ends with Weinstein’s assurances that the Very Powerful are thinking very hard about inequality these days. And this of course is complete nonsense.  His boss, Thiel, supports the GOP, whose first order of business right now is not subsidizing playwrights, but handing the super-rich another five trillion dollars.  Whatever the super-rich say to Weinstein at cocktail parties is not the truth of their secret benevolent hearts; it’s the bullshit they tell the 10% to hide what they are really doing to the rest of us.

(As a side point, I’m not saying that the super-rich are all evil plutocrats.  Only half of them are!  Once they have all the money, quite a few rich men develop other interests, including improving the world. The class to be terrified of is the moderately rich: the mere millionaire.  They’re the ones who need more money and can’t understand any value but money and vote consistently Republican.)

What’s interesting is that there’s a bright future we could have— if we chose to pursue it. Thinkers of the early 20th century couldn’t see past the mass of uneducated peasants in their societies.  Aldous Huxley couldn’t see any alternative to keeping around a class of “Epsilon Semi-Morons”; Orwell couldn’t imagine anything nicer than spreading around the wealth such that everyone could eat but no one could go to a restaurant.  But postwar America and Europe turned out very differently from either vision.  It turned out that everyone could have a way better job than peasant, and everyone could go to restaurants.

And similarly, lots of people can’t see a future right now that doesn’t include masses of factory jobs.  They fixate on what ex-factory workers could do, and all that comes to mind is, well, factory work.  But the world is actually quite rich, and AI could make it far richer.  You really could put everyone to work doing things that are today only open to the 10%.

The thing is, you don’t do this by deregulation, disruption, and giving the super-rich more money.  Weinstein’s bosses won’t give us that bright future: no ruling class voluntarily disinherits itself.  They won’t even give us a UBI, because it would cost money.

The tricky bit is, of course, how do we get there from here? Well, it’s not going to be a quick process.  But we can’t even start on it till we 1) shut down the current wave of downright reactionaries; and 2) get rid of plutocracy.

(If you want an idea to rally around, though: UBI isn’t a bad idea, but combine it with Piketty’s 0.5% tax on wealth. You can’t get to the bright future and also keep increasing inequality.)

 

 

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