As I’ve said before, we in the US live under plutocracy, where we once had liberalism.
Even given that, it’s getting harder and harder to defend capitalism. A few years ago it would have been biting satire to point out that we were moving back to robber baron capitalism. Now it’s just robber capitalism. The plutocrats are not even building things any more; they’re just looting.
The news these days is almost all bad news, and that’s before we get to the politics.
- The leading tech firm is Facebook, whose business model is monetizing your life; which is easily used by bad actors to spread right-wing fake news; which is touting an app called “Protect” which installs spyware on your device.
- Amazon is trying to patent wristbands that track employees’ locations to the inch.
- Salon has decided that it’s not enough to pile up their pages with bloatware ads; if you turn on an ad blocker they want to mine cryptocurrency using your computer.
- Speaking of cryptocurrency: it’s nice that the nuts have a hobby, but did they have to create one that wastes massive amounts of electricity and drives up hardware prices?
- Barnes & Nobles is apparently on its way out: they just fired their most skilled employees and keep reducing the space for books. Shouldn’t capitalism be able to manage one of its core competencies— running a fucking store?
- Toys R Us is apparently going out of business, not because they can’t make money selling toys, but because vultures loaded them up with debt.
- Silicon Valley’s idea of brilliance is to take an old industry and “reinvent it”: that is, throw out all regulations and turn the salaried workers into precarious part-timers.
- Do you think that only happens in fringe industries? 94% of the jobs created since 2005 are temporary or freelance.
- The latest stock market crash was said to be spurred by investors’ fears that with unemployment at a low, wages would rise. That is, the investor class is terrified of a prosperous nation. Adam Smith warned us about this, but isn’t the whole reason we tolerate capitalism so that the rest of us live better?
- IT, long an area where actual workers were paid well, is no longer immune. Remaining devs: enjoy the permanent death marches, and the mergers and layoffs.
- Peter Thiel deserves his own bullet point here. His favorite book is apparently a Randian political screed that hopes to destroy democracy so rich people can rule even more openly.
- The move from manufacturing to services is perhaps inevitable, but it seems much harder to make these operate humanely. The natural structure of a manufacturing-based economy is a set of competing firms— which at least means they compete with each other for consumer loyalty, and anti-trust law can keep them from getting too big. Tech firms naturally seek monopolies— which are anti-consumer.
And again, that’s just recent news, without getting into our overall predicament: productivity gains are now going only to the 10%; income and wealth are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the super-rich; the US and even Europe are returning to a rentier economy, where wealth isn’t even held by entrepreneurs and innovators, but by their do-nothing offspring.
And all that’s without considering the political climate. The GOP just gets worse and worse… in the Bush years, they at least threw the middle class a bone once in awhile, like Medicare prescription drugs. Now all they want to do is deregulate busines, cut taxes for the super-rich, and cripple government services. Oh, and throttle immigration, because somehow a growing economy is bad.
(BTW, I’m aware that reading the news can overemphasize the disasters. But that’s why we look at long-term and large-scale indicators too. So long as the productivity/compensation chart looks like that, we’ve got a big problem.)
What happens next? Well, there’s three overall possibilities.
One: Keep going! Transfer even more power to a rentier aristocracy; have a cyberpunk dystopia forever.
I hear a lot about “late stage capitalism” these days, but I’m afraid that’s wishful thinking. A rentier aristocracy can stay in power indefinitely— it’s basically what Europe had from 1815 to 1914. Even more broadly, a conservative aristocracy maintained power in Latin America for five hundred years. It’s not that hard. They have all the main sources of power; they co-opt the small middle class; they use religion and racial solidarity and the police to keep the bulk of the masses in control; the bottom of the heap suffers forever.
That said, we should remember George Orwell’s point: aristocracies are pretty stupid. And this stupidity is not accidental: to be smart enough to see how the system operates makes you incapable of defending it.
The European upper classes were destroyed by two world wars. That’s the problem with stupidity: it’s fine for dull times, but it becomes a liability during a crisis. So I don’t really think we’ll have a rentier aristocracy for five hundred years; if we keep going, we’ll have world wars and/or ecological collapse by 2100.
The irony is that empowering Donald Trump was possibly a fatal miscalculation. Yes, it turned out his populism was a sham; the 1% got their tax cuts and can run rampant for a few years. But it turns out Trump is really unpopular, and the GOP victory risks being swept away. Honestly, to pull off this scam you want either a complete nonentity like Dubya Bush, or a friendly uncle like Ronald Reagan. (And again, as I’ve been saying for a long time, the problem is not Trump himself. He was an unusually poor choice, but so was runner-up Ted Cruz; so was Ben Carson; so is Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell.)
Option two: Socialism!
You almost have to hand it to the capitalists: they’ve made young Americans turn against capitalism, 51% to 42%. That’s pretty amazing, in the one country where “socialist” was historically a slur and political death.
And who can say the young people are wrong? They’re the most precarious victims of plutocracy. They lost their jobs in 2008; the good careers are mostly gone; housing prices are insane; they’re crippled by college debt; they’re watching their elders try to take away their health care, deport their friends, stomp on their sexuality.
What I said above about the 19th century has to be nuanced: in the modern world, the oppressed can communicate, organize, and rebel. Socialism didn’t come out of nowhere; it’s the inevitable response when the oppressors get too blatant. And when the upper classes keep trying to make life shittier, the rest of the population starts to feel it has nothing to lose with radical change.
Now, I have some reservations about socialism, based on how it’s been practiced. Reigns of terror bad, OK guys? But so long as it stays democratic, it should stay sane. “Socialism is running amok!” is not a worry on our actual planet in 2017. “Reactionaries running amok” is.
If you’re a socialist, here’s some free advice: start building cooperative institutions now. We’ve seen that capitalism apparently can’t even run a bookstore chain anymore. Why not create a bookstore that’s worth visiting and breaks even financially? (Actually, the only bookstore left in my town is already run by socialists.)
Option three: Back to liberalism!
I know, you’re thinking “What, Hillary Clinton?” I think you underestimate Hillary, but if you can’t get past that, at least think about Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Obama.
If you want to totally turn me off, start spouting both-sides-ism and dissing the Democrats. They’re not as progressive as I’d like either. But there’s something to be said for not destroying the country and the planet. There’s also something to be said for understanding the political predicament we have in this country: up to half the electorate is extremely regressive— and our political system is set up to give recalcitrant minorities exceptional power. Obama got quite a lot done, but he would have done a whole lot more if he weren’t opposed at every step of the way by Congress.
Plus, for too long leftists have considered politics a spectator sport. They sat by and complained about Democrats, while conservatives packed the school boards, primaried their moderate opponents, took over state legislature after state legislature. Now, I think, that’s changing. Progressives are starting to organize, to demonstrate, to run for goddamn office, to get out the vote. If we don’t mess it up, we might actually win a midterm election this year. But if not, remember that conservatives were willing to play the long game. They started that low-level organizing in the 1980s; it paid off twenty years later.
But anyway, what I mean by liberalism is not ’90s compromises; it’s right back to Roosevelt. Why were the plutocrats under control for fifty years? Because we had 90% tax rates, we had strong unions, we had cheap housing and education, we regulated business, we had social norms that made corporations raise workers’ salaries, hire managers rather than load CEOS with stock options, and compete with each other.