The Case for Radical Technological Optimism
“Count, little Count, you may go dancing, but I’ll play the tune.”
— The Marriage of Figaro
How do we defeat Donald Trump and drain the “rising tide” of far-right nationalism in both the US and Europe?
This essay is an attempt to answer to that question.
Left and Right cite the same two causes for the growth of far-right populism: globalization (a polite synonym for global capitalism) and automation.
However, these are not particularly new features of the world. In fact, most historians would agree they are the two main themes of the past two hundred fifty years — the very things that define the “modern” era!
By tracing the headwaters of capitalism and automation we will be able to understand Trump as the product of a larger historical force — indeed, one that has been well documented by historians, since a global far-right populist wave has already occurred once in history. Though Trump is generally regarded as a confusing aberration, we will see how in fact he is a very natural culmination of the central story of US politics.
So far, the Left’s response to Trump (like Hillary Clinton’s losing strategy) has been a set of negative rejections rather than a unified positive alternative vision. We protest that Trump hides his taxes, mistreats women, is incompetent, sympathizes with criminal autocracies, does not believe in science — all valid things to object to!
But none of this gets at the heart of Trump’s appeal. In fact, no one is better at highlighting all of these flaws than Trump himself! Confusingly, his success partly relies on how he advertises these shortcomings. Why? Because, as I pointed out in my last piece, Trump’s transgressive, messy incompetence represents a “wrecking ball,” the possibility that he will wipe away the unjust and seemingly intractable power structure of “elites” to change the system in radical ways.
Oddly enough, Left and Right also generally agree on this deeply pessimistic vision of the future which is the font of Trump’s popularity. We imagine our present system of governance is deeply flawed, and there’s little we can do to change it.
Trump’s winning political strategy of smashing all the buttons ignorant of what they do speaks to a prevailing belief that we are helplessly trapped in a vehicle hurtling over a cliff.
His actions appeal to his base because they are extreme. While the end result may be that his administration capitulates to the prevailing power structure, his supporters have come to cynically believe that all actions except the most outrageous capitulate to the same forces, simply in a more hypocritical fashion. So only Trump’s initial appearance reads — that he is so abnormal he goes against the grain of a system that isn’t working.
Aligning with this cynicism, Trump has set himself up as opposed to the democracies of the West founded on Enlightenment values (self-determination, constitutional constraints, freedom of the press, human rights). In fact, he openly expresses admiration for anti-Western autocrats who trample on those ideals (Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte, Kim Jong-un). Why?
How did nearly half the country elect someone opposed to America’s core values?
To understand how to defeat Trump, we must understand the relationship between automation, capitalism, and Western-style Enlightenment democracy.
We will see how Trump is not a minor misfiring glitch in our democratic process, but rather the result of a systemic problem that has occurred before, a phenomenon that transcends the man. Unbridled capitalism and Western Enlightenment values have been on a collision course for nearly two centuries. Trump is the collision.
But it’s not all bad news. If we look carefully at what happened we will see how this cynicism on both the Right and Left is largely a delusion, a symptom of the problem rather than a realistic view of events. It will become clear that technological civilization and exploitation do not always go hand in hand. It’s more likely that advances in automation will take power from the elites and put it in the hands of the people. In fact, as we’ll see, it’s already happened once before.
For these reasons, I will argue that the only way to avert the disaster of Trumpism is to paint a positive alternative vision for radically changing society, that the Left must abandon its defense of the status quo (“liberalism”) and embrace instead a message that we as a people can invent any future we want for ourselves, that we can dramatically alter our society for the better.
Though things look bleak in the era of Trump, this essay will lay out a case for radical politics based on technological optimism.
Part I: Automation Invents the Enlightenment, Then Capitalism
1. A History of Work
In his book Life & Energy the scientist Isaac Asimov posits a new way to understand history. He invites the reader to look at humankind not in terms of kings and conquerors but how much “work” people have been able to do over the centuries. He means work in a strict scientific sense. For example, work is done when a heavy stone is lifted on top of another. In physics, “energy” is what is expended to do work. If you tried to lift a heavy stone and failed, a scientist would say you expended some of your chemical energy straining to lift the stone, but ultimately you did no work on the stone; it didn’t move.
Asimov takes this idea of work and energy and asks, how much work was humankind ever able to do over their long history? How many stones could be moved about during each era? How quickly could people build buildings? Break apart materials? Or transmute them to make stronger materials like steel?
It turns out, the answer is very little. For the first 100,000 years of our existence, the energy available to humankind was mostly muscle energy (our own and that of animals). The chart of how much work people could do over time looked something like this:
Then, about 250 years ago, something crazy happened. Now the chart looks like this:
Starting in the mid to late 1700s, people figured out how to use machines to produce a startlingly vast amount of energy and work. We call this “automation” or “technology.” And the era it created, the “modern” or “machine” age, is profoundly different from all other eras of human history. In fact, it’s the most significant thing that’s ever happened to us.
If we regard history from this perspective, two conclusions will become evident. First, the root cause of political change (what drives and invents new ways of being, thinking, and organizing ourselves) is technology — how quickly automation can do work for us. For example, as we shall see in the next section, the thinkers who invented the idea of modern democracy (that people should rule themselves as opposed to being ruled by a king) were often technologists inspired by how advances in automation could grant new political rights.
Second, the rate at which humans change their fundamental ways of being (their politics, modes of existence, culture) tracks the rate at which our technology changes — both rates are exponential. In other words, though we presently feel trapped in a stagnant, static political system that can only be blown apart by catastrophe, we in fact live in an era (unlike all others of history) defined by its rapid, dramatic changes.
For this reason, the last two hundred fifty years — slightly less than four lifetimes — have been totally unlike the rest of human history. The difference between how someone lived in 1865 and 1925 (or 1915 and 1975) is tremendous in comparison to, say, 400 and 1300.
However, strangely there is a prevailing feeling in contemporary society that our civilization is currently stuck in a rut. A system endures that is nearly impossible to change. (This was, after all, the impetus for the smashing blow of Trump as “wrecking ball,” or indeed, Obama’s “hope” and “change” campaign). But as we shall see, this feeling that we are helplessly stuck — that only an inevitable disaster can free us from the present way we organize ourselves (capitalism) — is an illusion.
Today automation is often characterized as a problem by the ruling order, that is to say an order based on capitalism. Both Left and Right regard automation as something that will steal jobs and thus make the ideal of the 1950s middle-class existence increasingly difficult to attain.
We also associate automation with the low-wage mechanized oppression of capitalism (e.g., people laboring with robots like cogs in a machine to send out packages for Amazon). But we will see how automation can be regarded as it was in the 1760s and ’70s (during the founding of our nation): as the exact opposite, a means to put power in the hands of the people by freeing them from the drudgery of meaningless labor.
Automation can be more rightfully considered a solution for society’s ills if we abandon the 1950s ideal of a society based on middle class jobs generated by a capitalist boom. To understand this, let’s look a little closer at how the nation was founded on the idea that technology can allow people to take collective control of their destiny — and how Trump, in fact, represents the exact opposite sentiment.
2. The Emoluments Clause
One of the more prominent efforts to pry Trump from office has been the lawsuit against him that alleges he has violated the “emoluments” clause of the constitution. The three suits filed with this complaint assert that by continuing to operate his businesses in office, Trump is effectively taking bribes from foreign entities. As the Washington Post explains,
It is 49 words in Article I of the Constitution.
“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
In this instance, the words that matter most are the ones we have placed in italics.
According to legal scholars, these words were added out of a concern from the 1700s that American ambassadors, on the far side of the ocean, might be corrupted by gifts from rich European powers.
Here the Post has offered an extremely simplified interpretation. “Emoluments” could be abstracted out to mean bribes or gifts in general. But in fact, the word has a much more specific meaning that they have de-emphasized in the text they quoted. Emoluments are payments or gifts associated with holding a certain office or position. The founders are describing a practice that the US Constitution eventually obliterated, a feudal practice. In Enlightenment-era writings like the Constitution, “emoluments” are used to describe payments received by or to nobility, for doing, say, nothing more than holding a title or political office as hereditary ruler of a particular patch of land. In short, the passage above reads, “No nobility in the United States: no emoluments”. “Foreign “King[s]” can’t give US leaders “Title, of any kind whatever,” in effect reconstituting the United States into the European feudal hierarchy from which it had just broken free.
Look, for example, at how the word was used by Pierre Beaumarchais (the French and American revolutionary) in his contemporary play The Marriage of Figaro. The servant Figaro addresses his aristocratic rival by saying,
Because you are a great lord, you think you’re a great genius. Nobility, wealth, honors, emoluments! They all make a man so proud! What have you done to earn so many advantages? You took the trouble to be born, nothing more. Apart from that, you’re rather a common type.
This passage was later converted by Mozart into the famous aria “Count, little Count, you may go dancing but I’ll play the tune.” Three years after the opera’s premiere (at first censored by Louis XVI), the same sentiment gave rise to the French Revolution, which sought to eradicate the nobility root and branch and replace the ruling order with democracy.
What is striking about Beaumarchais’s description of the nobility is how much, of course, it resembles Trump, “a rather common type” who thinks he’s an accomplished genius when in fact he’s just lived in a bubble of entitlement. But note the more important parallel: the problem the Constitution had done so much to eradicate — that of wealthy leaders enriching themselves further at the expense of the people — has only now, two hundred thirty years later, reasserted itself as US democracy is swallowed whole not, as the clause feared, by feudal aristocrats, but by their reincarnation as capitalist oligarchs who build faux Louis XVI–style luxury towers.
Before Beaumarchais was a playwright or revolutionary, he was a watchmaker — an automator — improving the design of watches and other automatic devices so much that, ironically, Marie Antoinette made him a count. In a book entitled The Ascent of Man, the renowned mathematician Jacob Bronowski uses Beaumarchais as an example of what gave rise to the US Constitution, what finally allowed human beings to believe they could collectively control their destiny: science and automation. Enlightenment figures were less aristocrats than pragmatic inventors like Beaumarchais, Jefferson, and Franklin — people who saw education and technological innovation as a practical way to improve life for everyone.
The Enlightenment was a political movement in Europe in the late 1700s, inspired by automation technology’s ability to free people from the tedious labor that had been necessary since time immemorial. It aspired to build a system of government in which, for the first time in history (with one or two ancient, generally disastrous exceptions), people used this newfound freedom to collectively rule themselves. As such, Enlightenment thinkers invented many of the ideas we now take for granted: human rights, modern democracy, even the notion of a “public good” (concepts which Trump often disparages).
It was wildly successful. An old feudal order of aristocrats was ousted first in the United States and then in much of Europe, replaced by a set of nation states ruled by their citizens. The execution, of course, was far from perfect. Jefferson owned slaves, an insult to the notion that human beings are endowed with “inalienable” (meaning “unable to be sold”) rights simply for being a human being. However, the point is that no one had ever asserted such a thing in the rude and technologically disadvantaged times before the Enlightenment thinkers. For almost all of human history everyone assumed slavery and kings were necessary and inevitable. Only when automation allowed the labor necessary for civilization to be accomplished not by the muscle power of slaves or low-wage workers, but by machines, did political ideas like “human rights” and national democracies seem at all viable.
However, the Enlightenment’s vision for using technology as a means to lift the greatest number of people out of poverty and empower them politically was soon challenged by another way to use the advent of automation technology: industrial capitalism (what Trump by all appearances and utterances represents), using automation technology to acquire personal wealth.
Capitalism built a world order over the new Western nation states that employed technology for the exact opposite purposes — private gain as opposed to public good.
During the Enlightenment, technological advancement in automation was only a problem to the feudal order of ruling aristocrats. To the radical thinkers who wanted to remake society from scratch, including those who founded the United States, it was considered a solution — the means to totally reinvent culture and politics for the better.
It is important to note that the Enlightenment predated capitalism by several decades. Scientific and technological advancements gave rise to both. Because we live in a capitalist United States today, we imagine they are entwined, that one cannot exist without the other. But in fact, the idealized vision of automation as servant of all mankind held by Enlightenment thinkers was often in conflict with the monetized version of automation later created by capitalism.
For example, in 1816 (inventor and automator) Thomas Jefferson wrote that the United States ought to “take warning from the example [of how the Enlightenment defeated the aristocracy] and crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and to bid defiance to the laws of their country.”
In other words, Jefferson correctly predicted that the safeguards of the Constitution he coauthored would not be used against the defeated aristocracy, but their new modern incarnation — the businessmen who represented “the monied corporations.” That when prohibitions like the emoluments clause were invoked, they would be against businessmen acting on behalf of corporations at the expense of the people!
Just as the founders imagined, we have nearly reached a point where technology can provide the “emoluments” of nobility to every human being who ever took the trouble of being born. In fact, the radical Left has pointed this out for more than a century. But as we saw in the previous section, advances in automation (and therefore the amount of work our machines can do for us) is still causing that surplus to increase exponentially.
Currently, the Left in the United States objects to much of what Trump does. But it has not offered its own comprehensive vision for the future.
It only reacts. Trump sets the tone.
But imagine if, as during the founding of our country, scientists, writers, artists, dramatists, and musicians presented such a clear composition for how things ought to be, that we made those in power dance to our tune.
Part II: Two Eras, One Theme: 1840s–1930s and 1945–2017
1. Where Are the Nazis Coming From?
Where are all these Trump-supporting far-right fascists coming from? Why are they sprouting up now of all times?
Pointing to the racism and sexism inherent in Western culture (as it is in all cultures) is not an adequate answer. Things are not simply as they have always been. Previous decades did not see fascists openly rallying in cities across America to this degree. Nor was there, as is the case now, a prevalent far-right youth counterculture in the United States (as I wrote about in my last essay) made up of dispossessed, economically disenfranchised young people. That is a first for America.
And why would hopelessness about the future give rise to a far-right movement in particular? Why did it (once again) mushroom into this form? An ideology based on racism, sexism, and far-right fascist ideology? Why would these anti-democratic movements arise in the places where modern democratic freedoms were invented — Western Europe and the United States?
In the definitive work on the subject, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explains how fascism in the 1930s grew out of the intense conflict between Enlightenment values and capitalism in the nineteenth century.
Arendt argues that fascism was really a response to a feeling of total powerlessness that capitalism generated in Enlightenment societies. Governments based on the Enlightenment ideals of self-determination were slowly dominated by business interests in the nineteenth century until they became the exact opposite of an Enlightenment effort for a people to control their collective destiny. They became power structures that preserved themselves as an unjust status quo.
The history of how this happened in Europe during the nineteenth century (then once again in the United States starting in 1945) will be key to understanding how fascism is now growing up out of nowhere in these same places today.
2. 1840s–1930s: The Politics of Business Becomes the Business of Politics
Arendt describes how, under nineteenth- to early twentieth-century imperialism, business slowly came to completely dominate politics for no other reason (and with no other agenda) than that it was good for business.
Industrial capitalism was a way of monetizing automation that began in England at the start of the nineteenth century. It soon spread throughout Europe and the United States. Like the Enlightenment which had just preceded it, it was based on the remarkable ability of automation to reduce the amount of work needed to produce material goods. But unlike the Enlightenment, it sought to use automation technology to create private wealth.
Very suddenly “manufactories” (shops and farm houses where handmade goods were produced) were replaced by factories where workers on machines produced thousands more of the same good each hour. Where previously a manufacturer in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century might have produced say, only eight to ten straight pins a day, suddenly that number rose into the thousands. And that became true for almost every product of civilization, from dishes to textiles.
As one might imagine, the world slowly began to structure itself around this prodigious ability to produce a vast quantity of material goods.
Eventually, the language of competition and acquisition — that is to say, of business — became the language of politics. Previously, Enlightenment politics had been concerned with the very opposite of what business valued — solidarity and cooperation!
In the nineteenth century, newly minted industrial business interests gradually infiltrated the Enlightenment-influenced nation states of Europe. These businesses didn’t particularly care what government did or what rights people had. The only thing they cared about was prying open new markets, and so for the sake of that necessity alone, they eventually dominated politics.
The bourgeoisie turned to politics out of economic necessity; for if it did not want to give up the capitalist system whose inherent law is constant economic growth, it had to impose this law upon its home governments and to proclaim expansion to be the ultimate goal of foreign policy.
To this purpose, nineteenth-century European nations went to war in far-off places for reasons that always seemed obscure and confusing to everyone but a minority of politicians. As the nation states acquired vast swaths of distant lands, they were burdened with governing them to whatever limited extent seemed practicable. The military/police of the nation state would inevitably be called upon to defend or maintain the territory for the business interests — to create a minimum of law and order for a market — despite the misgivings of the general populace of the conquering nation about the bloodshed this caused. European nation states soon found themselves ruling over obscenely large portions of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East deeply confused about how to treat these places politically.
The reason, Arendt points out, was the profound contradiction at the very heart of the system — a fissure between Enlightenment ideals and business interests.
How could nation states based on self-rule rule over another state? The result, predictably, was pure strife, “Wherever the nation-state appeared as conqueror, it aroused national consciousness and a desire for sovereignty among the conquered people.”
What inevitably occurred was an anti-integration, never-ending conflict.
The product of this struggle of opposites was a novel brand of modern absurdity. All the unfathomable suffering caused by new global orders, never-ending wars, and mass exploitation somehow sprung from the petty motivations of, “a few capitalists conducting their predatory searches round the globe for new investment possibilities and appealing to the profit motives of the much-too-rich and the gambling instincts of the much-too-poor.”
If all of this sounds as if it might describe our present set of never-ending foreign wars, it’s no coincidence.
3. The United States Becomes the New Europe after 1945
When European imperialism finally imploded in a firestorm of totalitarianism, the United States replaced Europe as the dominant world power in the wake of World War II. The conflict between business and Enlightenment principles then began anew in the United States, which like its European progenitors, was ultra-capitalist, yet founded in Enlightenment ideals.
The United States had previously aped European imperialism to a large extent in the Pacific. But post–World War II it was free to expand even further. Just as European nations had done in the nineteenth century, the United States established spheres of influence across the world — first to conduct trade, but soon to pacify with violence where necessary. Over the decades, many of these efforts became quagmires with no exit strategy. Meanwhile, once again business slowly crept into the Enlightenment institutions of democracy for no other reason than that it was good for business. This is a trend we’ve all experienced first-hand. Many of us can remember a time when politicians spoke of prying “special interests” out of Washington without sounding hopelessly naive.
As I wrote about previously, like all politicians, Clinton and Trump both spoke about restoring America to its 1950s ideal of middle-class prosperity. But from a historical perspective, the heyday of capitalism in 1950s and the subsequent decades of US prosperity that followed were in fact a unique historical aberration, the result of the global catastrophe of World War II. Trump embodies the loss of the decades-long struggle between capitalism and Enlightenment ideals that followed. He represents a total victory of business over politics.
Our reactions to him are our reactions to that loss, embracing it as a solution to the conflict, or rejecting it outright. In this sense, his support is a coping strategy for facing utter defeat in a decades-long struggle — capitulating completely to the victor.
Once again, people feel as though they are on the bottom of a vast pyramid of exploitation. They’ve lost faith in democracy, which seems to perpetuate this status quo. This is exactly the environment in the 1930s that gave rise to fascism the first time around. And this is the feeling that prevails today.
To his supporters, Trump was the “wrecking ball,” the ultimate business man who (in an amazing loop-de-loop of logic) would pry out the other business interests. Because, he claimed, he gave campaign donations to every other politician (including Clinton), he alone could be the thief to catch all the other thieves. Because he was so good at cheating on his taxes, he alone could fix the tax system!
To many who despised him, Trump simply represented business interests dominating all aspects of government absent the gentle blandishments of a rider still breaking in his mount. Unlike his Republican predecessors, Trump does not conceal his belief that government (ideally, the collective will of the people) should do nothing but serve business interests. Indeed, every day he states in plain speech that the government is simply something that gets in the way of business, and doesn’t need to be organized as much as chopped away into nothing. Or that it’s simply “the biggest company in the world.”
To understand how to defeat Trump, we must look a little closer at this naïve idea that politics and corporations are in fact synonymous.
4. Freedom from the Freedom to Do Business
Understanding the distinction between the Enlightenment freedoms of the founders and the “freedom” to do business is the key to understanding not just Trump, but the succession of disasters that seem to multiply each week — disasters that are generally trotted out to prove how helpless confusion must reign over clarity and action.
While we are often taught these two “freedoms” are the same, as we have seen there is in fact a very strong historical difference.
The most recent decades have made this conflation look ever more ridiculous. After all, we are living in a world where capitalism fuels vast oppressive oligarchies. Capitalist Russia and de facto capitalist China trample on human rights.
Moreover, confusing these two “freedoms” has had grave consequences for the United States. During the Cold War, US leadership believed socialism inevitably devolved into autocracy. But the facts turned out to be more complicated. Russia has now degenerated into a Czarist-style autocracy, first as an ultra-communist and then as a hyper-capitalist nation.
When post–Cold War leaders like George H. W. Bush helped remake Russia after its collapse, they assumed that the freedom to do business would inevitably lead to the Enlightenment freedoms the United States enjoys, that business would result in democracy. But the opposite happened. Meanwhile, some of the last bastions of Enlightenment-style democracies in Europe (now that the United States is headed in the direction of Russia) have deeply socialist elements.
Likewise, when President George W. Bush prematurely announced victory in a war that is still ongoing during his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech in 2003, the son articulated the same ideological mistake his father had: he assumed the freedom to do business with the United States would inevitably bring about Western-style Enlightenment freedoms. W. Bush explained the reason for “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was to spread the Enlightenment ideals of “democracy” and “liberty.”
Of course, in hindsight many in the world perceive the blunder of Iraq not as a failed selfless effort by the Bush administration to bring democracy to a country, but rather as what it was: a backhanded way to do business with the country’s oil, a war for the sake of Halliburton et al. at the expense of the soldiers. Like the wars of the nineteenth century, it was thrust upon the populace by an ever-expanding faction of politicians who represented business interests. Indeed, this is Trump’s pragmatic view of the conflict, which stood in stark contrast to Bush’s brother’s and the Republican establishment’s during the 2016 primaries.
In a great embarrassment to the Republican party, Trump insisted “we should have taken the oil” from Iraq. That is to say, he ignored W.’s feeble lie that what motivated Iraq War II were Enlightenment ideals, instead assuming what almost everyone accepts as patent truth — we did it for the oil, for the sake of business.
Likewise, in an interview with Bill O’Reilly several months ago, Trump stood by his assertion that he “respected” Putin.
“But he’s a killer,” O’Reilly countered. “There are a lot of killers,” Trump replied. “You think our country’s so innocent?”
Just as with his “we should have taken the oil” comment, Trump simply ignored the thin veneer that had clothed US foreign policy in the dignity of Enlightenment ideals (the idea that we went to war to preserve democracy, human rights, and so forth). Indeed, Trump understood intuitively that it had already fallen off. What remained was the naked, selfish logic of a businessman. We acted in our own unscrupulous way to get what we wanted from the world, as did Putin, or Duterte, or Erdogan. Trump did not look down on Putin from a moral high ground (as O’Reilly suggested he should, employing the now outdated Republican ideology of faux Enlightenment rhetoric). Rather Trump regarded Putin with the respect of a fellow businessman, a competitor playing the same game, bending or breaking rules where he could to take whatever he could get.
Indeed, this was Trump’s Secretary of State’s previous job. Rex Tillerson made a career of colluding with authoritarian regimes and ignoring the West’s Enlightenment values to pry open new markets around the globe for the sake of capitalism.
Trump often insists that the Left’s “Russia-gate” theory is a way of denying what to them is a much worse possibility — that the American people elected him. And unless we’re very lucky indeed, he’s correct!
Worse than secret agents blackmailing Trump into loving Russia is Trump genuinely loving Russia. The obvious truth is the more frightening one: his overtures to Russia and Putin are likely because he simply admires Russia’s authoritarian oligarchy. The answer is already in the plain light of day. A small group of powerful businessmen doing as they please, while playing upon populist fears is, for obvious reasons, Trump’s cup of tea.
No one (least of all Putin) needs to blackmail Trump into this belief with secret salacious videos. It’s a natural fit. No one blackmailed Trump into praising a long list of anti-democratic authoritarians these past few weeks (President Erdogan of Turkey, President Duterte of the Philippines, President Kim Jong-un of North Korea, to name a few). In fact, he seemed to do it all of his own accord, against the wishes of those around him, not to mention the State Department (which he runs!).
Russia is an anti-democratic oligarchy fueled by a capitalist system (stamped in our own image after our victory in the Cold War). For the past two decades, Putin has held it up as an alternative system to the democratic nations of the West. It should come as no surprise that the ultra-capitalist Trumps and Tillersons of the world admire such a system, see the trappings of Enlightenment human rights as unnecessary to the workings of capitalism. And like so many other aspiring autocrats in history, Putin included, they are using populism to achieve their aim.
But are they correct? Is unscrupulous business-style maneuvering the only realistic and practical way to understand human behavior? Must it then inevitably be the language of politics? Perhaps your gut tells you yes. But your gut is deceiving you.
5. Business as the Key to (Mis)understanding Human Nature
“Winter is coming.”
— Steve Bannon
The most brilliant part of Arendt’s thesis in The Origins of Totalitarianism is how the sort of thinking expressed by Trump’s O’Reilly interview soon tips into authoritarianism. Indeed, we can see the nexus forming already since Trump was using his business-like view of the world to articulate his admiration for a “killer” autocrat!
As Enlightenment governments were slowly dominated by business interests in the nineteenth century, the prevailing way of understanding not only politics but society in general became that of business. Human beings were all assumed to be businessmen — selfish rivals, working together only when it suited their greedy acquisition of as many resources as they could get.
This was not always how people viewed themselves. But industrialization and the predominance of business made this viewpoint ideology — that it is to say, a (false) idea that is so ubiquitous it pretends to be self-evident — and people begin to mistakenly read it backwards into the past and forwards into the future as a fact of life.
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek noted the fantasy genre is always missing its most important feature — the signature element of the Middle Ages — Christianity. Fantasy is the Middle Ages with its head lopped off. The superego of the age, the most sublime and transcendent thing about it, indeed, the defining thing about it — its all pervading focus on shriven, selfless spirituality — is missing.
Why would such a genre appeal to us?
Recall the opening to Game of Thrones, the mechanistic turning of all the gears, the little machines whirring away in a computer. This is how we think about human behavior today. We imagine people as selfish and self-interested, ultimately in it for their own “wins,” and helplessly pursuing those Darwinian imperatives (sex, food, resources, bloodlust) in a “game” of unscrupulous competitors.
In the show, all the men and women are petty manipulators believing in nothing divine (instead, their imperatives are to hump and acquire in a video game–style marauder’s map of freely available sex and violence). The worldview of the characters is not the worldview of the Middle Ages; it is our own. The debts of the warring princes of Westeros to a large Asiatic-style bank tell us nothing about the real medieval period, though they do offer the comforting delusion that our problems invariably exist in all epochs. We experience the show as “realistic” because it reflects our own attitudes, beliefs, preconceptions, and biases back at us. This hollow echo, then, rings as nothing but true.
In this sense, stories like this are a form of anti-history. As Barbara Tuchman writes in A Distant Mirror, “the main barrier … of genuinely entering into the mental and emotional values of the Middle Ages … is the Christian religion as it then was. … Its insistent principle that the life of the spirit and the afterworld was superior to the here and now, to material life on earth, is one that that the modern world does not share.”
The key word here is “material.” Our modern outlook is, for better and worse, one focused on material acquisition and deterministic outcomes. Selfless spirituality is stripped from our fiction because it is something that cannot fit in our view of how things work (ideology). We cannot “genuinely enter in the mental and emotional values” of that age.
The medieval Christian ideology is not any more “right” than ours is (in fact, we will see soon how all ideologies are inherently wrong), just profoundly difficult to understand because we are blinded by our own biased vision of the world. Confronting such ancient ideas would be deeply frustrating — that is to say, real work, the work of history. And if we saw them on our TV it would appeal to us as much as if it were gibberish uttered in a foreign language.
Over the past few months, whenever news outlets report that Steve Bannon believes that “winter is coming” they must always note he does not mean Game of Thrones.
In fact, Bannon is referring to a childishly simplistic theory of history (from the book The Fourth Turning) created not by doing actual history (reading original source material, then analyzing a period’s art and literature to understand its culture), but by using modern number-crunching methods to strip all nuance out of human behavior and create a sort of deterministic, computerized game theory out of it.
Great historians like Tuchman, of course, do the exact opposite. They use history (that is to say, the humanities) rather than what now seems more legitimate to modern sensibilities because of ideology — capitalist style quantification — to attempt to “genuinely enter into the mental and emotional values” of another age as a way of dispelling their modern prejudices.
Bad historians, like Bannon or the authors of Game of Thrones and The Fourth Turning, invert this process. They take the common, present, unexamined view of human nature (our business ideology that believes human beings can be reduced to little self-interested competitors in a big game) and apply it to the past (usually now with the aid of a computer).
Bottling what is commonplace prejudice and selling it as revelation is not a particularly new pastime for academics who want to enjoy the benefits of the ruling class whose order they justify. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt mocks books like The Fourth Turning as, “develop[ing] an opinion … generally accepted … among the nobility into a full-fledged historical doctrine, claiming to have detected the secret law of the fall of civilizations and to have exalted history the dignity of natural science.” Likewise, Charles Dickens devotes the entire character of Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times to this exact fallacy. Gradgrind refuses to teach the children orphaned by capitalism the humanities, believing all they need to know to understand the world is the “practical” tabulation of industrial output.
Philosophers use the term “ideology” to avoid this mistake. It reminds us that every political system in history invents a view of human nature that insists that the only way human beings can be organized is by whatever happens to be ruling them at present. Every civilization believes it is “the end of history,” the last and best political idea. In this sense, the notion of human beings as inherently selfish competitors is no more true than a medieval serf’s belief in the divine right of kings, or an 1840s American’s belief in the inherent slavishness of those he keeps as slaves. These are delusional beliefs that support a political structure — not inherent truths that demand politics be structured as they are.
For example, if you were born in China in 250 BCE, you would believe that human beings were born to fit into a hierarchical pattern that started with children obeying their father and ended with all subjects obeying the emperor. Imagining that human beings would behave any other way was out of the realm of possibility. This necessitated society to be structured as it was — attempts to change it would bring chaos. All the stories and art you consumed reflected this viewpoint.
Likewise, today we watch Game of Thrones and believe any way of understanding human nature that isn’t centered in self-interested competition is hopelessly naïve — about as hopelessly naive as getting rid of capitalism.
Note that the prophecy implicit in Bannon’s “winter is coming” statement is the exact plot of Game of Thrones. Human conflict is assumed to be as natural and inevitable as the seasons. The West (Westeros) will be besieged by foreigners (despite building an enormous wall to keep them out) and civilization will crumble in an all-consuming war because every leader cannot help but pursue selfish interests.
The uncanny resemblance (down to the exact same language) is because the fault in the thinking is the same — it is our present ideology — assuming human beings are selfish little monsters who must compete against one another. In fact, almost all of Bannon’s ventures have this same plot. His screenplays were poorly written Game of Thrones–style sci-fi fantasies. Moreover, he resided over his own Game of Thrones, a failed Goldman Sachs–funded sixty-million-dollar gold-farming scheme in the fantasy video game World of Warcraft.
Part III: The Delusion of Pessimism
1. Paralyzing Fear of Inevitable Societal Collapse, the Movie and the Game
While many Americans feel angry that they have lost the competition to scramble to the top of the perceived power hierarchy, most simply feel guilty, worried that they consume resources at the expense of the environment, workers in Asia, or refugees of Western wars in the Middle East. Indeed, the products themselves acknowledge this, packaging ways to soothe our guilt into the commodity. Needlessly disposable cups are ten percent recyclable, coffee is “fair trade,” gasoline pumps feature scenes of untainted environmental landscapes maintained by vague charities. And if all of this isn’t enough to quell our anxiety that the whole hopeless Jenga tower is trembling under our feet, we can take in a movie, like say, The Hunger Games, the story of simple Appalachian girl sucked into the all-consuming “Capital” of future America, which takes resources from every region (including the girl herself) at the expense of the people in all those remote places. In the end, the heroine must capitulate completely to the system’s demands — competing in a game to kill off a number of rivals — to become a revolutionary who destroys it.
As I wrote about previously, the increasingly popular post-post-apocalyptic genre (Oblivion , The Hunger Games [2012–2016], Cloud Atlas , Divergent , Interstellar , After Earth , not to mention the scores of video games) presents us with a dream of putting the madness of our all-acquiring society behind us, to exist in a world in which the Jenga tower has already, mercifully, crumbled. In these films, the main characters’ post-catastrophe poverty is not a problem to be overcome as much as a romanticized vision of how we would like to exist — living sustainably, oppressing no vague groups in distant lands for our daily bread. At heart, we don’t want to play the “game.” The central complaint of the main character of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (a corruption of the “evergreen” groves in which she cavorts), is that she doesn’t want to compete. And indeed, the story is so popular because that’s our central complaint! Like Katniss, we know in our hearts the “game” sucks, but we have to play anyway!
This Hunger Games–style feeling — of helplessly participating in a system that in its oppression forces us to oppress others — Arendt argues, is the stepping stone to totalitarianism. Inevitably, people eventually feel hopelessly “degraded into a cog in the power-accumulating machine, free to console [ourselves] with sublime thoughts about the ultimate destiny of this machine, which itself is constructed in such a way that it can devour the globe simply by following its own inherent law.”
Products exalt us, selling us ways to win (or at least feel like we’re winning) as well as an inflated sense of importance. But when this veneer is stripped away, we feel traumatized. While “the customer is always right” appears on the surface, absent money (or even sometimes with it!), an underlying power dynamic exerts itself in which we have no agency. While it seems at first as though we are surrounded by choice, in fact we are more often the object being acted upon. How else to explain the popularity of the video of the paying customer being violently plucked from his seat for the sake of a United Airlines profit margin? Why among the daily parade of recorded horrors did that scene resonate for everyone? Because it revealed to us the secret horror we felt in our hearts; consumers are impotent. As all industrialized machinery unites into one enormous machine that encompasses even politics and human interactions, we cannot help but to become both grist for the mill and its consumers. All money buys is a brief respite from that illusion.
But can we flip this script, and like the nation’s founders, not flee from technology into a post-civilization wilderness, but use it to fix our problems? After all, it is the Enlightenment that teaches us that we are in fact very powerful — at least when we act collectively.
2. The Whole Point of Our Country Is That We Can Change Our Collective Destiny
“This is not fine!!”
— the “this is fine” dog
The most popular political meme of the election with both the Right and the Left was not Pepe the Frog, but an excerpt from another webcomic — a dog sitting in a burning house insisting, “This is fine.”
In other words, both sides felt intuitively that the present system as it currently existed was crumbling, but the only respite available was justifying our own paralysis as we waited for the inevitable collapse.
However, our visions for the future have not always been post-post-apocalyptic. People did not always imagine themselves as the dog or a helpless girl forced to compete in an evil game of self-interested consumerist competitors. As we have seen, our country was founded on the exact opposite idea — that we were in charge of our collective future. We were not always convinced civilization led inevitably to disaster! Moreover, it was not so long ago we felt very much in control of our collective destiny.
Hanging in my public elementary school classroom was a poster from this book, which was also found in the library there:
Of course, the first thing that strikes you about the image is that America now resembles the top painting more than the bottom. The best we could say is that the two pictures depict a poor and rich neighborhood in contemporary America, that both of these visions came to pass. But this would be a generous reading. (In fact, I was just shopping for gas masks on Amazon to bike through Baltimore.)
But even more notable is the text of the book, which assumes a feeling that has now been scrubbed from our present thinking (though I can still remember it vaguely from when I was a child). There is an assumed certainty that America will come together to build a lasting, moral, polity that will lift everyone up together. This is in contrast to what we believe today, that progress, or indeed, even political will, must wait on market forces, that the only thing human society can produce is what the agglomeration of self-interested parties called “the economy” demands.
Capitalism inherently prioritizes short-term gain hoping that the nearest-at-hand choice (i.e., fossil fuels) will be best in the long run. The picture on the bottom assumes we will create a system that plans for the sake of long-term interests. It treats humankind as an active decision maker in its own destiny.
Today we assume a sort of helplessness. We are Katniss in The Hunger Games or the dog in the burning house — our only recourse: to convince ourselves our paralysis is valid, that “this is fine.” Previously, we had assumed the very opposite — that together as a society, we could make rational decisions that would be in everyone’s best interest, then work towards those goals willfully and in unison. In other words, we did not imagine society as a win-lose game, but a win-win game. In this sense, competition was the last method to get us to where we wanted to go. Only cooperation could do it.
Trump represents the fire surrounding the dog, the hope that he will bring about one of the many post-post-apocalyptic scenarios authored by Bannon, that he will wipe away the unjust and seemingly intractable power structure of the “elites” — that by occupying the vast unjust bureaucracy that rules the nation like a conquest and prevents democracy, he will somehow destroy it (rather than what he is actually doing, which is capitulating to the power structure completely).
The only way to erase Trumpism from America is to paint a positive alternative vision for doing this — not out of Bannon’s palette of fire and blood — but out of the ideals on which the nation was founded: that we as a people can invent any future we want for ourselves.
Trump was elected simply because between him and Hillary, he seemed the best vessel for doing this — for ending the tyranny of “globalization” though his answers were unrealistic and backwards looking (e.g., ignore technological advances and restore the 1950s).
The first and obvious step to defeating Trump is to imagine a more realistic future for America that is not hemmed in by all the outdated compromises of the capitalist system. We shouldn’t look backwards to some lost ideal of the 1950s, but forward to a better version of the country that has never existed — a country that is based not on acquisition of material goods rather on the Enlightenment values on which the United States was founded — cooperation with fellow citizens to build something together.
Part IV: How to Fix It
1. Universal Basic Income
Happily, the transition to a new order beyond capitalism does not need to be violent or sudden. Though its aims are broader, the way towards a better existence for everyone also fits quite comfortably into the narrowly conceived goals of our present acquiring society.
This is in contrast to the far-right ideas, exemplified by the failed screenwriter Steve Bannon, which (like his screenplays) are those of the post-post-apocalyptic genre. He insists the only way to bring about a better society is through a new global conflict.
Slowly transitioning America’s workforce to one hundred percent highly educated skilled labor (doctors, scientists, mathematicians, artists, programmers, and so forth) while having computers and robots increasingly generate our wealth for us (as they are already doing now), would, of course, create a nation that is stronger and “wealthier” than any that has preceded it.
To make this happen, the Left can embrace an idea that President Obama, among many others, was already considering when he left office: universal basic income, the notion that the government should pay people an income when a robot takes their job. For example, when a trucker loses his job to a self-driving truck, he or she can still be paid their salary to learn a new skill or pursue an education in whatever field suits them. Note that the robotic truck has created a surplus of income. A job that used to cost a trucking company, say, fifty thousand dollars a year now costs only the price of the self-driving truck. Universal basic income simply allows the trucker to benefit from that innovation rather than the trucking company. Ideally, we should aim to create a society in which this can happen for everyone in all sectors of the economy. And indeed, many people will need the help; it’s estimated nearly forty percent of U.S. jobs will be replaced by robots in the next fifteen years.
Clinton and Trump both lamented that technological advances have already deeply undermined the 1950s vision of middle-class living. But ironically, that’s something that should be celebrated. In fact, my chronically under-employed generation has already decoupled the inherent worth of our labor from its monetary value. After all, we live in an economy that pays an absurdly low amount because of new tech.
Likewise, a political vision that defeats Trump must be accompanied by a new view of human nature, one that looks down on the material acquisition of the baby boomer generation and exalts what we as a society already value (despite the countervailing forces of capitalism): educating yourself to contribute to the communal effort of helping others.
2. Technology Is Once Again About to Force New Dramatic Political Changes
Let’s return to Asimov’s work-based understanding of history one more time and look at the very end of the chart — that is to say, where we are now. We can see at the edge here something that we’ve all experienced first-hand in the work force.
As our machines get better and better at doing work for us, labor (the work we get paid for at the machines) is getting cheaper. The trend that started in the 1760s of machines making work cheaper and cheaper is about to end when the machines make work so cheap the cost is almost zero. “Work” on the graph is approaching infinity. If forty percent of all U.S. jobs are disappearing to robots in a mere fifteen years, how many will be gone in twenty years? Or forty?
Automation, which gave birth to our present world order, (a mix of capitalism and Enlightenment values) is about to wipe all our entire economy away as the dramatic change it inspires continues to increase.
Just as technology produced the revolutionary changes of the Enlightenment and capitalism, technological advancements will remake the world again whether we plan for it or not.
Capitalism is based on generating wealth by dividing how quickly labor-saving machines can produce a vast quantity of goods and sell them on a market. However, this entire equation, and by extension the entire system upon which the world works, is about to collapse when a big fat zero enters that equation.
Machines will soon be able to produce a nearly unlimited amount of wealth and services.
How much then are the goods you bring to market worth? The services you offer (e.g., trucking, waitering, even lawyering) worth?
Nonetheless, this is the principle upon which our entire present society is based, what we built our society on starting some one hundred fifty years ago: paying for laborers to work machines then selling the abundant products of those machines.
That’s where we are.
We stand on the cusp of this change. It will happen no matter what we do. But if we are smart, we can use politics to direct it away from the Far Right’s cruel vision of conflict and towards an optimistic, cooperative, Enlightenment-based, socialist society.
3. A Retro Vision of the Future
While it may not be readily apparent that our present world order is based on capitalism, (using machines to produce and sell a prodigious amount of material goods), in fact, it affects every aspect of our lives.
If you wonder why the largest, cleanest, nicest, most elaborately constructed place you ever go is something called a shopping mall (and not say, a cathedral, as it would have been four hundred years ago, or a public square as it would have been one hundred years ago), this is why.
If you wonder why, in that shopping mall, you enter an H&M and witness a wild frenzy taking place, with people digging through piles of dirt-cheap cute tops and throwing them with abandon to the floor, this, too, is why. We revel in it because it is all we have, myself included. Most of us don’t have adequate health insurance, or nice homes or fulfilling careers (particularly if we’re younger). We don’t have (as a cathedral might have furnished in the Middle Ages) a sense of meaning in our life provided through the belief that we are divine beings capable of reaching transcendence (a view, of course, that has its own diverse set of shortcomings).
We are in an age that the historian Kenneth Clark labelled “heroic materialism.” We have material things. Unlike all other human societies in history, our society is built around acquiring material possessions.
We have an unlimited, tremendous, heroic amount of cute tops at rock bottom prices. In other words, capitalism is great at giving us material goods, that’s its go-to skill. But of course, it has its systemic flaws, unchanged since its inception in the nineteenth century, and now embodied by the crisis of a president-billionaire launching missiles around the world from his private country club — namely, the devaluation of all pursuits unconnected to acquiring material goods, the endless wars, global environmental catastrophe, the rise of fascism, and a pyramid of exploitation in which people at the bottom of the world order remain in poverty for the benefit of those at the top.
Starting at the turn of the nineteenth century, people realized that the amount of work (and material goods) the machines were able to produce would eventually approach a practical infinity as depicted in the graph above. Though our present society is based on paying people for how long they labor at machines (itself a recent innovation, as old as capitalism), we are now finally approaching the period when the machines will provide most of the labor humans beings once did. For more than a century, the machines have already produced enough of a surplus to feed and clothe everyone in the world. (However, most of the wealth has disproportionately been allotted to the “one percent” of factory owners.) And that surplus is still rising exponentially as the one percent continues to accrue the benefits. Obviously, such an order will not last forever.
Often times industrialists at the top of this system saw it before anyone else. King Gillette — who made his fortune manufacturing cheap razor blades in the nineteenth century — predicted it. And today Mark Zuckerburg is expressing similar sentiments.
Likewise, there’s a great deal of old fiction about it. The most well known of these utopian visions is Star Trek. In Star Trek, characters don’t worry about how they will earn a living. Instead, their lives are devoted to more important things — namely, self-actualization, becoming the best people they could possibly be. Characters devote their lives to science, art, or furthering human knowledge. They are not in the “game,” or “rat race,” out to get something for themselves. Why would they need to be? There are no limited resources for which to compete. In this fictional future, people’s lives aren’t devoted to ensuring they make enough money to eat, clothe themselves, or support their relations. All of that is a given since society would soon be able to produce vast quantities of everything for everyone, more than anyone could ever possibly need.
Likewise, H. G. Wells lays out the same argument in his 1914 novel The World Set Free. In the story, Wells predicts most of the tech advances of the twentieth century (except computers) and all the major political events all mixed together in a dreamlike jumble. World War I and World War II occur as one big war that happens in 1956 as “the war to end all wars” when finally an “atomic bomb” (which he describes with startling accuracy) is dropped. Today’s state of affairs, the world of 2017, is also there.
In the following passage (which could have been written by a college-educated barista in New York City yesterday), a young man suddenly finds himself destitute when his middle-class family loses all their money in a stock market tech-bubble crash. He then finally notices all the other young people thrown out of traditional employment by the startling new advances in automation. Slowly, he comes to understand their viewpoint only because it has happened to him:
I saw an immense selfishness, a monstrous disregard for anything but pleasure and possession in all those people above us, but I saw how inevitable that was, how certainly if the richest had changed places with the poorest, that things would have been the same. What else can happen when men use science and every new thing that science gives, and all their available intelligence and energy to manufacture wealth and appliances, and leave government and education to the rustling traditions of hundreds of years ago? Those traditions come from the dark ages when there was really not enough for every one, when life was a fierce struggle that might be masked but could not be escaped. Of course this famine grabbing, this fierce dispossession of others, must follow from such a disharmony between material and training. Of course the rich were vulgar and the poor grew savage and every added power that came to men made the rich richer and the poor less necessary and less free.
Wells’s story has a happy ending. Eventually people realize that their political institutions, things like wages and appliances attendant on capitalism, are outdated ideas, holdovers from the “dark ages when there was really not enough for every one.” A whole new political system is then built that takes into account how automation has now provided enough for all human beings to live as comfortably as they like. As Asimov did, Wells understood the world in terms of work and energy. He recognized that the amount of work automation would be able to perform would soon set the world free — that is to say, free from labor. At the end of his story, the majority of earth’s population becomes artists and scientists.
What Wells was suggesting was not a violent revolution of oppressed workers but the “highly educated … voluntarily setting themselves to the task of reshaping the world,” that we use civilization — if we can define it as working cooperatively to solve problems to make life easier for everyone — to discard our outdated ideas and create a political system that catches up with our advances in technology.
But of course, little of this came to pass in the twentieth century. Slowly, our expectations changed. Wells’s novel is overshadowed by his more light-hearted and entertaining stories. Star Trek itself became darker as time progressed until it resembled the folly of the War on Terror, in which deluded people were making horrible choices in morally ambiguous and disastrous situations.
An excellent example of what our utopian dreams transformed into is in your pocket. Your phone is a small fragment of the past’s utopian vision, the only part that was ever realized. Our world order, all the greatest minds and efforts in our society, were focused on making the ultimate product (or as Wells calls it, “appliance”), one that, by tapping a series of toy-like gems, would allow you to purchase an infinite array of other products. This was what our society rewarded, what it prioritized creating, what it still celebrates today.
But the rest never came to be, particularly the things that had a social component. Futurist and science-fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke believed that the television would revolutionize education. When the internet arrived (out of open-source government-funded research) it was likewise celebrated as an “information superhighway,” the entertainment component little discussed. But like television before it, the platform became dominated by business interests who sunk a great deal of societal effort into maximizing the medium’s potential for distraction and entertainment. Like TV, this had nothing to do with what the technology could do inherently. It had to do with what we are, what our society rewards and prioritizes.
Now that the crisis of Trump has arrived, this is perhaps our last and only chance to dismiss the ideology of capitalism and create a new, more sensible society with better values.
The fact that the only obstacle that stands in the way of a utopian order is a political one and not a technological one (as it was for every other civilization in the past!) is, simply put, totally bananas.
For all of human history, a lack of wealth and the need for hard labor necessitated that only an elite few could live a life of learning and luxury. Machines have now made it possible for everyone to live this way.
For example, in the 1950s many utopians believed nuclear power would provide the human race with infinite energy (as The World Set Free predicted in 1914), which, from a technological standpoint, it was capable of doing then and now. However, the problems it encountered were not technological, but political (how to dispose of the waste, how to guard the plants against terrorist attacks, etc.). Slowly, our feelings on nuclear energy flipped, as has occurred with so much of technology. At first considered a servant who would do our bidding, our knowledge soon came to be regarded as an oppressive, difficult problem slipping the noose of our control.
If we fail to use technology to create something better it will be, to steal a phrase, “a failure of imagination,” a failure simply to believe that it was possible, when in fact for the first time in history it is almost inevitable (if Trump doesn’t blow us up first). In fact, Trump’s ascendance is proof that we might have already waited too long, let business run roughshod over politics for one decade too many. But more likely, Trump’s embrace of apocalyptic authoritarian business tactics will allow us to move past his way of thinking entirely.
4. The Left Must Abandon Liberalism
During the very beginning of industrial capitalism in the 1840s, a twenty two year old German named Friedrich Engels was sent by his upper middle class parents to run an early factory in England. But he couldn’t help but document what he saw — an entirely new mode of existence unlike anything that had ever been. England’s traditional way of life was completely upended by the material wealth the factory generated. Millions of unemployed rural workers streamed into new cities to work factory jobs. This phenomenon is still occurring in poorer countries, but Engels witnessed it happen first in England. As with later industry owners like Gillette or Zuckerberg, he had a bird’s eye view of it all.
The book he wrote, The Condition of the Working Class in England, was simply an account of what he saw walking the streets surrounding his factory. He documented how the workers lived, which as a rule was in brutal, abject poverty. Their lot was not all that much better than on their farm, where from time immemorial a lack of technology had forced them to labor from dawn to dusk. But here it seemed they had even less. English society, it appeared, was walking backwards. Or if it was going forward, it was creating a vast quantity of completely new social problems as it went. Engels’s book is a list of what today we would call “externalities,” all the unintended consequences that come with producing a prodigious amount of cheap products: the pools of slime, the ghettos, the exploitation, the degeneration of social and family bonds, and so forth.
In an introduction written some decades later, Engels points out that what he documented in his early twenties no longer existed. Something worse had taken its place. His fellow factory owners had figured out the same thing he did: the conditions of the workers were too bad. If something wasn’t done, capitalism would disappear. So the factory owners invented the “‘great Liberal Party,’ the party led by the manufacturers.” What did the party of upper middle-class factory owners want? Support from the workers for “Free Trade” (what today we would call globalization or, well, free trade). And to get it, they promised what Clinton promised in 2017, that it would bring prosperity. The invention of liberalism created a pressure valve, a way for the factory owners to keep capitalism going by addressing some minimum amount of social problems their economic system created, a valve that, in the Enlightenment democracies that first invented it (the United States, England, and France), has now blown quite a gasket.
Liberalism can be contrasted to the other political system created alongside it, “radicalism,” the belief that the only way to fix the social ills of capitalism is to get rid of it and replace it with something better.
The contemporary US Democratic Party has always been a liberal party, with the exception of the last year, during which it was almost swallowed whole by the radical populism of Bernie Sanders.
Likewise, the Republican Party was swallowed whole by Trump’s radical populism. However, Trump’s base is already disappointed that he he cannot fulfill his promises to sweep away the status quo. Now that his supporters are becoming disillusioned, liberal Democrats hope to scoop up a narrow margin of them gambling that they happen to be fleeing in the right direction. They are already watching Congressional races (which they are still losing!), hoping against hope that they do not have to change their tactics.
But of course, this is the strategy that lost Clinton the election, presenting an alternative to a negative rather than a fully articulated policy and vision.
Like the disastrous thinking behind Bush’s second Iraq War, liberalism can also be defined by how it conflates Enlightenment freedoms (human rights, democracy, free speech, women’s rights) with the “freedom” to do business. At its core, it uses Enlightenment values to maintain the present political order — that of capitalism.
Like both Bushes, Clinton mingled these two “freedoms” to calamitous effect. Just as Trump did, she conceived of government as a big company, asking voters to help her break the corporate “glass ceiling” of the presidency — a request that seemed strangely selfish and businesslike for the collective effort of politics (“Help me get ahead as CEO of the United States and I will help you!”) Likewise, the imagery she employed for female empowerment and women’s rights was her own corporate business suit. Indeed, this was the iconic image that defined her loss, the moment she was unwilling to emerge beneath the unbroken glass ceiling of that temple of trade, the Manhattan Javitz Center, on November 8, 2016.
It perplexed many on the Left that women voted for Hillary in unexpectedly low numbers, choosing instead a man who bragged about sexual assaulting them.
This is the reason (not the more facile liberal explanation of the women simply being idiots/lumpenproletariat). Those on the right perceive that the Left uses Enlightenment “rights” issues (women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights) as a cudgel to beat back those who want to destroy “globalization” and the unfair status quo.
Today the Left is still riven between between radicals who want to emphasize “economic” issues and liberals who want to put a “rights” agenda forward. Using Engels’s terminology, we can understand a “radical” as someone who wants to upend the current order and re-engineer the political system from the bottom up and a “liberal” as someone who wants to keep the present system and tweak it. For liberals, this often means that securing Enlightenment rights for minorities is equally (if not more) important than making economic tweaks to the system. Whereas radicals, like Engels or Sanders, generally regard a loss of Enlightenment rights for disenfranchised groups as a symptom of a larger economic problem, that of the inherent unfairness of capitalism. Economics, therefore is often the priority issue for radicals.
The central tenet of radicalism (as Jefferson expressed) is that people will never truly be allowed Enlightenment freedoms under capitalism. Capitalism’s inherent economic inequality ensures a hierarchical power structure. Some groups must be on the bottom and others on the top. Such an idea is perhaps embodied by the businesswoman Ivanka Trump selling women’s rights as her brand while vainly attempting to “change” her women-assaulting father’s anti-women policies. From this perspective, the only way to guarantee the Enlightenment human rights Jefferson enshrined in the Constitution is to get rid of economic inequality first. Otherwise, the wealthy at the top of society will continue to poison all efforts to make people equal.
This is in sharp contrast to liberalism, which posits that capitalism is the last and best political system we will ever invent.
As we have seen, the issues were there at the root of the founding of our nation. The terms “radical” and “liberal” came into existence with the first factories, invented by the factory owners themselves! Arguably, they are the central story of the last two hundred years of history. That these issues are reasserting themselves as we consider our collective destiny on the possible brink of destruction should not come as such a surprise. Yet strangely Trump, who is the embodiment of these problems, is treated as something new and incomprehensible! And likewise the impulse should not be to brush him or these big questions under the rug in favor of the status quo, but confront them head on.
Today Democrats want to repeat Clinton’s mistakes and present an agenda of individual tweaks, a list of Enlightenment-style human rights for minorities. Economic issues are mixed into this agenda, but like Clinton’s suggestions, they are centrist modifications to the existing order — not suggestions on how to reinvent or upend the system to make it more fair for everyone. It assumes the system we have now is generally fair, it just needs to be edited in a few places.
On the Right, it is this very practice that inspires the intense vitriol against the groups liberals wish to advance (women, minorities, the LGBTQ community) with their Enlightenment rights agenda, because the Far Right perceives (as does the radical Left) that rights for these groups are being used to cloak a different agenda — that of perpetuating an unfair system as it currently exists.
In contrast, radicalism offers what so many of Trump’s voters still want — a new system reinvented from the ground up that makes things profoundly more fair for everyone. But unlike the Right, the Left can offer a radical optimistic vision of the future, one that puts everyone on an equal footing, rather than naïvely assuming that one group must be cast to the bottom to put another on top.
Only a detailed vision of a better, radically different society can answer the demands of Americans who voted for populist candidates like Trump and Sanders.
Defending and “fixing” the status quo of capitalism (liberalism) is, in fact, no longer an option in 2017. It is an illusion. Societal changes will soon force capitalism to collapse once again into fascism or transform into a more sensible, socialist system.
If the Democrats don’t abandon liberalism, they will be replaced by a new radical Left party. If this seems too extraordinary a possibility, note that we have already witnessed something more radical, the swift erosion of the pro-democratic Western world order.
Since Trump is a problem created by the crisis of capitalism, the solution cannot be pro-capitalist. The Democrats must choose socialist candidates like Sanders who want sweeping reforms. Instead they are still supporting people who would prefer revising capitalism while keeping the status quo in place — that is to say, people who echo Clinton’s losing message.
5. The Wrong Path Through Panera Bread
I would like to end this essay with two personal anecdotes, which will hopefully will be more convincing than any more arguments from art and history.
I spent my childhood among a great deal of people who were paid to do nothing — not by socialism, but by capitalism. I went to a private high school for the children of liberal elites, then a similar college (where, by a lucky coincidence, I studied philosophy under the colleagues of the late Hannah Arendt).
Indeed, a small minority of these students could not overcome the challenges of wealth, and as opponents of socialism imagine will happen to those given handouts, didn’t do all that much with their lives.
But for the vast majority of them, the exact opposite occurred. Their resources allowed them the breathing room to educate themselves. They became highly skilled professionals who contributed to society as doctors, scientists, musicians, artists, dancers, and so forth.
The private school’s classes, which began in kindergarten, were composed of a random sampling of people, no smarter or stupider than any other. They had, as Beaumarchais said, only taken the trouble to be born. And because they had won the lottery of birth, they were afforded not only the finest education, but the expectation that they would become highly accomplished at whatever they happened to be best at. At most, three to four thousand people graduated from this school over the past four decades. And out of this number, a surprisingly large amount of them made contributions to society celebrated worldwide, in fields like physics or music.
Of course, the underhanded dynamics of liberalism first defined by Engels were at play. Liberal families were looking after their own selfish interests by training their children to contribute to society (as, say, lawyers working for non-profits or doctors). Society, they reasoned (consciously or unconsciously), would fall apart if help were not given to the poor. Their charity and “selfless” efforts to alleviate the externalities of capitalism were helping to preserve an order that benefited them the most.
After I left school, I spent most of my professional life on the other side of this system, working the liberal pressure valve.
I taught in vastly under-served African-American schools just a few miles away in Baltimore City. I saw the effect of the liberal policies first hand: a narrow percentage of my students passed through the eye of the needle into the middle class. Despite constant liberal efforts, things continued as they were for decades, since of course they were all systemic problems. I could have spent my whole life trying to squeeze two percent through the pressure valve rather than one.
Indeed, now that I teach at Morgan State University, the same dynamics are at play. All of my students have the same aspirations as the upper-class students with whom I went to school. They want to become great animators, filmmakers, programmers, or writers. But they have all been ill-served by their underfunded public schools and are far away from their goal.
Recently, Clinton’s campaign press secretary suggested the path to victory for Democrats “runs through the Panera Breads of America.” I don’t know anyone who eats at Panera Bread, but I do know a lot of people who work there. They come to me after every class, concerned they are falling behind. Their reasons? They all work forty-hour weeks, if not there then as baggage handlers at the airport or food preppers at burger joints. They have to pay tuition, living expenses, car insurance, transportation costs. Then on top of that, there are all the struggles that living in poverty provide.
The thing that terrifies me the most is that later I will hear from the most brilliant ones, the students who had tremendous raw talent, that they had given up. That they had collapsed in exhaustion. That sort of spiritual defeat seems to me terrifying to comprehend not only because it is my responsibility, with all my feeble powers, to stave it off for them — but because it seems so likely.
For the first time in history we can build a society that allows all these people to achieve their dream of actually contributing to society. And then we can reap the benefits. Imagine if not just a small lucky minority of people had unlimited resources to become the best at whatever they thought they were best at, but everyone. Today we have a slender fraction of society making celebrated advances in science and art — the liberal elite with whom I went to school. But it could be millions upon millions. The result would be an upward spiral.
Experience tells us people want to achieve self-actualization (not, as ideology teaches us, compete for resources). Will this create a utopia? Obviously, no. Will it be a much better way than ever before of organizing a society? Yes. It is not the end goal, but simply a baseline to help everyone live a little better.
6. Yes, but Will It All Actually Happen? The Good or the Bad? Won’t Things Just Stay the Same?
My late father lived through Hitler’s invasion of his small town in Czechoslovakia. And in his twenties he escaped from under the Iron Curtain, hidden beneath camping gear in the back seat of a Morris Mini Minor, a pistol pressed against his chest — a Nazi Luger, one of the millions of pieces of ordnance left in the country by the retreating Third Reich. When he reached the freedom of the West without having to fire it, his first act as a Westerner was to dismantle it and throw the pieces into a lake. He always ended the tale that way, concluding pridefully that “the pieces are probably still there, rotting away under that lake.” He adored the United States (he went on to became a psychiatrist here) but always had his bags packed, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. “It could happen here,” he would say. “Americans don’t know catastrophe. It seems unthinkable to them. But it could happen anywhere.”
My father never told me who helped him cross the border into the West. He had a companion next to him. I never learned who that was either. In my childhood imagination, the pieces themselves seemed to embody this unsourceable mystery. What my father said about them, that they were there still there, existing, lying inaccessible somewhere at the bottom of an unnamed lake, resonated with the unfathomable.
After he died and was to reduced to nothing but a memory, strangely enough, that was one of the memories he became, that image of him from the story — not as I knew him — but how I used to imagine him as a boy in the story, twenty-two years old, under the sleeping bags, waiting with the Luger pressed against his chest, next to this unknown companion. I knew how he felt then, because it was the emotion he expressed throughout the rest of his life: anger and resentment. He was still furious at the absurd possibility that he might be forced to use the Nazi gun to shoot his way to freedom, to employ the tactics of idiots, bullies, and evil men to confront another set of them, that he had been placed in that position.
He told me how he got the gun. It started with the insane spectacle of an entire division of Nazis surrounding his village some seventeen years earlier and threatening to shell it into the ground. Then in an instant, the nightmarish dream of these men ended. The next morning, instead of leveling his village, they shed the burden of their ordnance, thousands of tons of it, and simply walked away with nothing but their coats and hats, hoping to surrender to the Americans before the Soviets got them. He never forgot how ridiculous it all seemed, how the vaporous substance of ideas can compel millions of men to madness before dissolving in the blink of an eye.
That was what the pieces at the bottom of the lake meant to him, that happily he was not forced to use the gun, that he could abandon it all for life in the United States. Except those pieces did not quite abandon him. They were still dissolving in the story, never dissolved. He used the same language to describe the world order, the political order of the United States as a dream that could whorl away in an instant. He had seen it happen in the past.
That Trump represents a violent shift from everything we know is not out of the realm of possibility. That the world order is changing dramatically and not staying the same is, so to speak, par for the course.
The future will be totally unlike the past. We are already in a struggle with selfish fools who want to re-sculpt civilization into the grotesque visage of what it once was. We may indeed have to thwart them by whatever means necessary. But the first and best way is to fully articulate our own better vision of the future, a beautiful dream that can supplant their nightmares.
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