Ken Eckert Essays


Great Scott! The Future
Can We Have a Post-Capitalist, Post-Scarcity World, Post-Trump?

By Ken Eckert

May 23, 2016

We’d better start thinking about how we as the west are going to live in the future, if for no other reason than that we’re going to spend a lot of time there, as the saying goes. I know lots of futurists make their careers thinking about this, people who know more than I do, but as the current U.S. presidential elections of 2016 are playing themselves out, I wonder why more people don’t think about the political parties of the future, and what sort of economies and societies they’ll be addressing (there are exceptions, one I just read today).

Heady stuff. Who cares? It’s a cliché that this election is important, and not many pundits write articles saying this one is no big deal and everything’s peachy. I can only observe that I don’t recall an election with so many hostile intra-party divisions, and this is telling even apart from the November result. Clinton and Obama had their snipes in ’08, but rioting at state conventions and death threats? The Republican party is now represented by someone with a drunken-uncle spitefulness, who has little or grudging support among moneyed and established parts of the party; if anything, Trump relishes saying offensive things to provoke them. On the left, there is also a semi-broken party, divided between Clinton and an insurrectionist wing of Sanders supporters who are nearly as hostile to the party organization itself as they are to Clinton. Again, this isn’t new— Edward Kennedy’s bad blood with Carter weakened the latter in ‘80—but come this fall there may be three very angry losing factions fighting over the direction of their parties.

In the short term this will probably mean a damaged Hillary Clinton contesting Trump. In the medium term there will be post-election recriminations and fighting for control, if not actual violence, within the Democrat and GOP parties (where does this go in 2024? It’s a wonder there’ve been no deaths or shoot-ups because of rival candidates at conventions. Yet.) In the long run, hopefully this signals a sort of creative destruction as new parties coalesce with different basic ideologies. We probably won’t see a change from the U.S. preference for two-party binaries—no one likes to make everything a fight like Americans—but these parties don’t need to be as they presently are. They weren’t always.

Canadian politics is, true to form, polite and boring. The extent of political violence in Canada is thankfully pretty bland, restricted to the boychild prime minister throwing a tantrum and shoving two MPs in parliament. But Trudeau apologized, and most Canadians, who have probably said sorry to someone twice while you’ve read this paragraph, have let it go. The problem is that the country’s party alignments and constituencies are fixed by geography: the east votes Liberal, and the west votes Conservative, and the NDP picks off what urban centers it can. You could write or find a newspaper headline saying “Trudeau still media darling in east but western alienation flares up” and it could be from 1970 or 2016. Because the parties are largely geographical entities, they do not alter much unless there are large population migrations. This means that the opportunities for creative destruction are stagnant, and that agitation for productive change and new parties is limited. If one of Trudeau’s children is elected the same headline might be printed in 2060. The U.S. is moving faster because of its churning tensions.

The basic crisis in the Democrat party at present is that it is neither liberal nor democratic, and has little interest in their older mission of representing blue-collar union labor. But if the labor jobs are disappearing, the people aren’t, and the party’s takeover by social justice warriors is going to bring a long-term hangover. Whether such issues are right or not, a middle-America low-income worker sees less urgency in who uses what bathroom, or pronoun rights for transgendered people, as opposed to job prospects. These discourses resonate with a veneer of campus millennials, advocates, and social media surfers, and the fact that none of these policies is ever voted on by the public, but is imposed as a matter of justice, belies an end-justifies-the-means contempt for actual democracy (thus the demand by some Sanders fans that he should have the candidacy because he’s right, regardless of the popular vote). As with other historical hysterias such as McCarthyism, eventually political correctness will collapse under its own preposterous weight as it goes after further and more trivial witch-hunts. Even the university, final bastion of the P.C. gestapo with its safe spaces and or-else conduct codes, is beginning to face an inescapable reality: Though not only for this reason, students are voting with their feet, and less than 10% of students now major in all of the humanities subjects combined.

The Republican party has capitalized on this alienation of middle America by offering it a tantalizing taste of spite. If you are white, poor, and underemployed, and have little hope of even living up to your parents’ living standards—and far from being championed by major parties, you cannot fart without being called a name—Trump offers a satisfying middle finger to all the powerful ‘them’ who have long sneered down on you. How awesome to be rich and say what you want with impunity, and the more outrageous Trump is, the more he is cheered. But how long this group can be held within the GOP, an entity peopled by congressmen with corporate and business interests every bit as unsympathetic to the endangered middle class, is anyone’s guess. The GOP also has a strange ideological perversity in its hostility to science and environmental problems. Just as people would be shocked to learn fifty years ago that the Democrats, the working man’s party of labor solidarity, now has nothing to say to Joe Lunchpail but to call him a racist bigot, the same people would be astonished to see the GOP, the intellectual party of conservative thinkers such as Friedman and Buckley, now thinks global warming is a hoax and that Mexico will pay for its own wall. Really? Nixon might have been sketchy, but he was fluent in Latin and wrote classical music.

The environment is a future, well, trump card. No party can go long into this century without considering man-made climate change as the gravely serious crisis it is. It is incomprehensible that American conservatives are not conservationists. Why wouldn’t conservatives also be anxious that the land they have inhabited for generations may not be usable in a traditional way for their children, and may require draconian solutions for survival? This is a suspicious thing for me to say as an Albertan, a province which runs on oil resources. But you can support clean oil and alternatives. There’s no philosophical reason why a conservative party can’t be environmentalist by policy, other than that it is opposed by some, and not all, business interests (remember that Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican who instituted the national park system.) While the GOP is presently under the thumb of well-moneyed corporate lobbyists, in the long run it will have to deal with these questions when coastal cities begin to be submerged, or when water or food crises become emergency situations. When all the livestock become sick or no one can drive through the traffic, Republicans will have no option but to have something to add to the discussion besides ‘no.’

Part of the problem is that environmentalism is seen as a left-wing issue, and it feels like a capitulation. But there’s no essential reason for this perception. If anything, communist and centrally-planned states have had an abysmal ecological past—the Soviet Bloc is a legacy of deforestation and radioactive land, and China’s record is one of polluted rivers and coal soot. There is also the gripe that Democrats are pro-science, which should make the GOP automatically wary of it. That’s silly. Science isn’t inherently aligned with any party; that’s not science’s job. Democrats and scientists may presently be fellow-travelers, temporarily united by their trendy atheism and other short term interests, but that’s a tenuous friendship. Yuval Harari, in his recent book Sapiens, points out that science nowhere proves that people deserve human rights or equality, and that genetically we aren’t equal; further, science isn’t a provisional construct mediated by our perceptions and agendas: the experiment is true or false regardless of your feelings. Jonah Goldberg barbs liberals by pointing out that they condemn scientific studies which don’t support their program, such as those showing GMOs are safe. Science has its own ways, and isn’t naturally left or right any more than basketball is.

Republicans need not accept the solutions progressives propose, which usually involve some Rousseau fantasy of simple-life agrarian communes (such as the insanely naïve Canadian LEAP manifesto demands) combined with heavy-handed socialist directives gleefully shutting down capitalist economies and the carbon fuels they run on. But conservatives ought to be generating their own solutions to climate change rather than taking the increasingly untenable ruse of simply denying it. This might involve funding a Manhattan-style project, or private-sector partnerships for alternative energy, or at least tax breaks or incentives for home energy generation. In some southern cities it is illegal to grow gardens or generate solar electricity on your own property off the grid, as this discomfits corporate interests and utilities. What could be more ‘conservative’ than for a homeowner to rely on his or her own food and power, or for civic or urban communities to come together to jerry-rig a homegrown piece of infrastructure?

For Democrats to rediscover what the country wants, rather than trying to dictate an agenda to it, and for Republicans to look beyond Wall Street to future concerns, as life on (unrepaired) public streets becomes increasingly nasty, brutal, and short—is a medium-term problem, perhaps something President Trump can tackle in his fourth term. But if I can get very theoretical-like, the longer term problem is that both capitalism and socialism, and the way we presently understand left and right, are inadequate. They are not wrong, but are obsolete. When two-thirds of college students say they disapprove of capitalism, they are willfully ignorant of the misery of socialist states (by which I mean true centrally-planned states, and not simply hybrid states such as Sweden) but are half-right—they should be demanding and helping to create something to replace either.

While no one wants to return to feudalism, it was a remarkably successful arrangement for nearly a thousand years. At its worst it was exploitative, but at its best it provided everyone with a secure buttress against traveling brigands by instituting a hierarchy of power based on land use. Feudalism died partly from labor shortages after the Black Plague, but also because capitalism made it irrelevant. Much new-world colonization was done via crown-private investment projects, such as the Hudson’s Bay Company. If you can make gobs of money through trade and finance, and later by owning factories, land and kings become less important. Make whatever fine aristocratic speech you like, but Shylock holds your loan. Thus both the British and French revolutions, where city-dwellers and the peasants who moved there chafed under royal rule, especially when the capitalists had all the money and were loaning it to the crown to finance wars. For some five centuries our politics, economies, education, nation states, culture, values, and theology have been mediated by these industrial systems—whether capitalist, or in response, socialism/communism.

Communism never succeeded in much more than piles of burning books or bodies, and now lingers on in nominally socialist states such as China and Cuba, where it is paid lip service to, or in North Korea, where it’s merely a sham cover for a crime family. We are now just left with the stages of late capitalism, with its problems of unemployment, inequality, and environmental depletion. While Marx’s solutions were and are a disaster, he reliably predicted some of these problems—that capitalists would eternally seek to derive more profit from fewer laborers. Now we have the ridiculous situation that in a world of “so many men no one needs,” as Peter Gabriel sings, so much money and resources are devoted to driverless cars and robot laborers. Logically, people are the last thing we have a shortage of.

We are only beginning to see the civilizational changes that the information age will bring, as industrialization now slowly becomes irrelevant. Economically, one emergent change is the end of scarcity. Both capitalism and socialism were predicated on resources being finite, resulting in the creation of systems to distribute production and consumption effectively or fairly. But information isn’t an innately scarce resource at all—its generation somewhat is, but it can be copied and disseminated virtually endlessly wherever an Internet-connected appliance is available. The Internet is presently proving to be capitalism’s best and worst friend. In its 20-year-some lifespan, the battle between two competing visions of the Internet, that of a wild-west free-for-all where movies, music, books, and anything else can be shared with all users, or else a sort of orderly corporate commercial appliance, has grown increasingly bitter.

Capitalist entities have attempted to have it both ways, to restrict Internet information while maximizing customer access, or to do as Facebook does, which is to entice the user into giving away information to sell to advertisers. But my money is on the pirates, who are exponentially faster-moving and more numerous. As a rule of thumb, teenagers will get the porn, college students will get the beer, and hackers will get the files. Whether its keepers like it or not, information will eventually be free; shut down the entire Internet, and we’ll pass around entire libraries of data on thumb drives. This collapse in scarcity will reduce the role of capitalism as more economic activities take on non-monetary incentives, such as prestige, socializing, philanthropy, or just fun. It doesn’t mean that capitalism will disappear, just as there are still vestiges of feudalism existing. We can probably still have companies without assuming that everything in life has to make money. There was a time not long ago when schools, universities, churches, and public parks and amenities were by category non-capitalistic.

The other transformational change will be 3D printing. Where the Internet has altered or struck a deathblow to travel agents, journalists, recording musicians, and music stores, 3D printing will eliminate vast swathes of the industrial economy. Where many labor and factory jobs are now offshored to cheaper Asian countries, in a few decades they will be gone everywhere—the t-shirts, tires, and furniture will be printed at home or in local print shops. Ultimately, cars, houses, airplanes, medicine, and food will very likely be printed, and few people will be factory workers just as few now are farmers. While there will probably be inkjet printer-like efforts to cartelize the production and sales of whatever raw guck goes into the printers, there will be 218 countries wanting to make this guck. We aren’t going to usher in paradise because we can print clothing and food; it’s still Lord of the Flies as far as human nature is concerned. But we can shrink some problems.

Yes, I know that many conspiracy theorists argue that we are headed towards a neo-feudalism of control by corporate elites, which will make everyone a customer rather than a citizen. That is a danger, and we’re not in Star Trek yet. I can only counter that this thinking gives way too much credit to our elites, assuming that they can be united enough to control everyone—why won’t they also have multiple ideological views and opposing factions? Second, coercion is freaking expensive, requiring guards and layers of guards to guard the guards; there’s a reason the Soviet Union ran out of money. I don’t believe that we’ll have a modified but basically benign democracy in the future because the 1% is so nice, but rather because it’s cheaper and easier to be rich and to let the little people be somewhat content. I may be wrong. But I’ll restrict myself here to assuming our basic system of government remains.

What this means is that future political parties, and now I am thinking not only of the U.S. but also beyond it, will need to find ideological alignments other than social justice + unions vs. conservatism + business, and the present interior fights. This may take the form of libertarianism vs. authoritarianism, or other spectrums, such as globalism vs. nativism, or technologists vs. simple-lifers. We might see some strange bedfellows there—religious fundamentalists plus feminists fighting hardcore pornography? Small-government traditionalists plus progressive hipsters fighting drug laws? Opposing groups both supporting a guaranteed minimum income, but for different reasons? But we should be used to the strange coalitions in today’s fractured politics. I don’t know what these ideologies will be called—but I don’t think they will map easily on to our present left / right diagram, just as feudalism wasn’t left or right.

War might put an end to all of this, and us. But even war will be different in the future, as some of it moves online, or is fought between subcultures or corporations rather than between nation states—Exxon vs. India? Sunni Islam vs. Denmark? Facebook users vs. city-dwellers vs. vegetarians? There’s no reason why guns and mercenaries can’t follow whoever offers money. The contested resource will likely be energy in the short run, and water in the long run, and the worst-case scenario is where the “war” is one fought against the environment. If New York is flooded, or if a Chinese super-pollution storm takes horrific casualties over Beijing, these are “enemies” which can’t be bargained with or sanctioned. Add in the countries and regions which are still moving away from feudalism, or which have other anti-modern or antagonistic ideologies, and we have a potent mix.

Thomas Friedman might have some nice TED-style platitudes to say here about globalization and about whiz-kids in Bangalore who make some flashy digital-tool and become millionaires, and how we can too if we have initiative. That’s mostly fantasy, and lots of us who don’t have $5,000 a month to live in San Francisco are going to be out of work. At some point, making web apps to bypass another category of jobs is parasitical, as eventually there’s none left. But none of this is unfixable. I won’t throw in some canned quote about how in the long run we’re dead to make me sound wise. I only conclude that we might rethink how the values we hold in our lives connect to the political and economic systems we inhabit. We deserve some slack in that our descendants can look back on what happened, and we don’t know the choices yet. In the meantime, we might install the solar array and grow the carrots, and worry less about which party will approve of our actions. The parties of now will be gone, and we may like their replacements better, and we may end up being valued more highly by our own societies when replacing humans isn’t so incentivized.

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