Some time back, when I was discussing postfurry, I started a conversation about postmodernism by jumping all the way back to the Industrial Revolution. I mentioned how, in Ye Olde Days, when people wanted things, they had to make them, or they had to find people and pay them to make them. I mentioned how everything back then was artisanal, because most things more complicated than a sharp stick took a skilled some number of tradespeople some amount of time to make things. I then said that, at some point, somebody had the bright idea of making machines that made things, which kicked off a sort of technological arms race because now some people who made stuff weren’t just competing with other people who made the same stuff, but with machines. I also noted, in passing, that whomever happened to own the machines tended to see an accumulation of wealth over time, if only because the cost of running a machine is usually less than the cost of paying the human labor equivalent. Even taking the cost of maintaining the machine into account, profit margins are still being distributed more unevenly once machines are allowed to do people’s work. Finally, I brought up the fact that, because “owning a machine” doesn’t take nearly the time that “performing a day job” does, again taking the maintenance of the machine itself into account. This means that the people who own machines that work instead of having to work themselves tend to have more time to do things like work the levers of government, and also tend to have more money to spend on those same levers, which means that government tends over time to look after the needs of machine-owners more than it does laborers, even skilled and knowledge-workers.
This is the essay on economics whose outline I traced in that post.
Let me start by saying what this post isn’t. This post isn’t going to be a huge history lesson. I’m not going to trace the events of the February Revolution to the October Revolution. I’m not going to run through long lists of names that end in either -in or -ev and ask you to memorize them. I’m not going to try to introduce a ton of jargon, though I may toss a few words at you here and there to get you up to speed on terminology that gets used in socialist circles. Most importantly, this isn’t going to be a full-on advocacy post for any specific kind of socialism. My goal isn’t to kick off an anarchists-versus-Marxists fight. I’m not here to talk about the political side of the revolution; we can do that some other time, preferably behind closed doors with good psychoactives.
This also isn’t going to be a post wherein I sign up to play a round of the World’s Worst Board Game. I’m well aware of the political system in this country. I’m not here to argue the specific practical goals of one party versus another. Blue Team is well on its way to collapsing on its own. They don’t need my help. Or maybe they do, but first they need to get their heads out of their asses.
What I do hope to accomplish by the end of this, however, is to explain a couple of key points:
- What I understand socialism to be, in very broad terms.
- Why I think socialism is necessary.
- Why I think socialism is ultimately better than capitalism.
- Why, as a result of this, I think the Democrats are fundamentally a failed party.
- Why, I think you, if you’re reading this, should join the DSA or SA.
So, given the setup from the very first paragraph up there, let’s dive into some pretty deep history. For those of who you’ve seen James Burke’s Connections, this should be old territory. For those who haven’t, strap yourselves down.
Society, as we understand it today, had to start somewhere. That sounds like a specious statement, but I mean something very specific with it when I say it: that what we think of as our modern day really began at the point that our environment stopped being something to which we had to adapt and became something that we started adapting to us. There was, at some point, a Time Before Meaningful History. Humanity started off as foragers, like every other animal. We hunted what animals we could find, we ate what plants were already growing, and we starved if we could do neither. We wore skins and leaves if we were cold, and we froze if they weren’t enough. We drank what we could find to drink, and we died of thirst if we couldn’t. We were at the mercy of every cut, every infection, every disease. Life was, as Hobbes said, nasty, brutish, and short.
Then, at some point, we figured out how not to do a lot of that. We figured out that plants grew from seeds. Then we figured out how to plant seeds. Then we figured out we could plant a lot of seeds if we used a stick to dig the hole, instead of our hands. Then we figured out how to dig it faster if we made the ox do it. Suddenly we were growing more grain than we could eat. That meant leftover grain, so we had to store it. Then we had lots of pots, so we needed to know what was in them. Then we needed to keep track of all the pots, and all the babies being born because we had more grain, which meant we had more people because we could afford to have more kids. From here, things began to accelerate.
Now, I want to take just a moment and hit a quick highlight from that video: when I say accelerate, I mean it. Hominids showed up on the planet roughly two-hundred-thousand years ago. Agriculture showed up about ten- or eleven-thousand years ago. The time from the birth of modern humanity to the agricultural revolution is twenty times longer than the time from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution. The time from agricultural to industrial is roughly eighty times longer than the time from the industrial revolution to the first human step on the Moon. The rate at which technology develops increases with time. I’m not going to put a function to it, or even imply that it’s constant. I will say, however, that even the so-called Dark Ages notwithstanding, the speed with which our understanding of the universe has changed has grown over time, which is what Toffler warned us would happen.
Back on the main thread, though, my point is that what kicked off our modern day society was, fundamentally, a way to automate the task of digging a straight line. Version 0.9 of the product required a lot of wrangling. Version 1.0 still had a human interface, but the steel thread was there. What would have taken a human being an hour of labor now only took half that. That, in a nutshell, is technology: the application of knowledge.
We’ve automated a lot of things since then. From the Builder’s Decree out through Amazon Go, more and more of our existence is being turned over to machines. This is really what’s lying at the heart of the Industrial Revolution that I mentioned before: the ability to get machines to do the work of people. Up until that point, technology was all about making people better at what they already did. Machines couldn’t replace people; they could only enhance people. The inflection point here is we’d gotten good enough with technology that we could start to talk about machines actually doing the work that people would’ve done. Up to now, machines could make flour but they couldn’t bake bread. Machines could make screws but they couldn’t assemble guns. Machines could make the lives of craftspeople easier, but we still needed craftspeople to get stuff. The Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of the end of that.
Now, I’m going to stop here for a moment and ask you to do something: please go watch this Kurzgesagt video. It’s eleven minutes, and it’s going to cover everything I could explain in the next section a lot faster and with prettier pictures than I could with just words. Now go check out this one from CGP Grey; it’s fifteen. I’ll wait. Seriously, please go watch these, both of them, all the way through. They’re unpleasant, you won’t enjoy them, and I think you need to see them, because if where I started is the foundation for socialism, these are the walls and support structure.
Now, let’s take a look at how technology is currently impacting us. For instance, let’s look at food. In 2012, America played host to two million farms. Over half of all farms make less than poverty income. We’re losing people from farming at an increasing rate, as well as farms, and yet our food output is increasing. Half of the food we grow is wasted, but one in six people in America faces hunger. We have, right now, the capacity to feed everyone in the country. We aren’t. Why?
Here’s another industry: energy. The person currently infesting the White House campaigned on saving coal jobs, but that isn’t going to happen. Where did they go? Automation. Could we replace them? Maybe, but we shouldn’t. Technology has moved on. We could, on today’s photovoltaic cells, power the entire country with solar, if we chose to do so. We choose not to do so. Why?
One last one, and then I’ll move on. Our Любимая Марионетка spent a lot of time harping on coal jobs, but he didn’t mention the hollowing-out of the retail industry. Brick and mortar stores have lost vastly more jobs than the coal industry has, a fact that seems to go unacknowledged and unstudied by Republicans because the demographics of retail workers look more like liberal demographics and coal miners look like they do. Regardless of demographics, though, the jobs lost to retail aren’t coming back either, because automation has devoured them. We could, if we wanted, reinvest all that money to fixing infrastructure, paying for retraining, or getting people prepped for the future. We aren’t. Why?
In every one of these cases, I hope you can see the theme that I’m highlighting. We have, now, the technology to actually meet the demands of every person currently involved in the system. We could, if we so chose, move two of these systems — food and power — to nationalized systems outside the scope of economics. The third, retail logistics, we can’t quite yet, but we’re probably within ten years of not needing people to perform them, or of offering “interact with a human” as a luxury service not part of the base package. Given trends like a third of “millennials” admitting to hating interacting with people and an increasing number of people using mobiles to avoid talking to people, but not make calls, I think it’s a safe bet that people willing to pay for the luxury of interacting with a person will continue to shrink as an overall percentage of the consumer market in the long run.
When you cut through the fancy-schmancy, the point is that we have no actual reason to demand that people pay for food or power any more, and we barely have reason to make people pay for retail services. With a little up-front engineering, the cost of growing food and running the electrical grid could just be paid for out of the government’s pocket change, and it won’t be long before we can do the same to most customer-service jobs as well. If we charged the pittance that these services actually cost, we would crash the industries because they’re relying on their subsidies to be profitable at all. Remember when power was going to be too cheap to meter? We might actually get there, and we don’t know what we’re going to do if we make it.
The fundamental problem with capitalism is that it relies on scarcity. It assumes that there aren’t enough goods to go around, and it uses the laws of supply and demand as a sort of aggregate measure of where the goods we have should go. So what happens under capitalism when there are enough goods to go around? Well, you can to engineer shortages. This keeps prices up, but it does other weird things like incentivizing the government to pay farmers not to grow crops or health insurers to deny claims to maximize profits. This doesn’t look like successful capitalism to me, but somebody somewhere thought these were good ideas, and they made people money, and making money is the goal of the game.
Your other big option is just to stop charging for stuff. Capitalism really doesn’t have a good answer for when you have too much of a thing, because a thing’s value under capitalism is a function of its supply and its demand. We understand market saturation as the point at which you have so much of a thing that nobody’s willing to buy more of it, but what happens when that “thing” is “food” and the reason is “we can make more than anybody could ever eat”? The old supply-and-demand curves tell us that if the supply of a good or service becomes functionally infinite, the cost of that good is going to become functionally zero, and the demand for that good is going to skyrocket.
It’s really hard to compete with free. Lots of people try, but it’s an uphill battle, and it’s going to get harder as time goes on.
So where are we right now? We’ve got an accelerating pace of technology that’s presently eliminating more jobs than it’s adding. We’ve got multiple industries in which we’re producing more than we can consume, but artificial privation caused by prices tied to profit motive. We have more people competing for fewer wages, an economic system that’s less upwardly mobile than at any point in its past and becoming less so over time, all backed by a strict-father morality that blames — and punishes — the people who fail to compete, rather than the system that made them non-competitive.
But buni, I hear you say, this isn’t capitalism! This may be our economy, but this isn’t capitalism. Capitalism is about market efficiencies, not about automation. Yes, capitalism, at its heart, is an assertion that markets are the most efficient method of exchanging goods and services. And this is true, when all players in the market have the same access to information. The problem is that information asymmetry is inevitable, and markets in which information asymmetry is allowed to persist underperform, perhaps even fail entirely. And people can’t out-info computers.
John Henry is a hero, yes, but he’s also a grim harbinger of the future.
So what can we do about it? If we can’t beat the machines, we’re going to have to join them. We need to embrace our automated, post-scarcity future in the places where it’s already the present. We also have to stop relying on markets in fields where profit motive can mean the difference between survival and death:
Food, clothing, shelter? Give them away. Shift taxes on corporations and the rich to pay for it. Don’t buy the bulldada about “job creators.” They’re disintermediators finding new ways to require fewer people to perform existing tasks. We would be genuinely better off from an economic perspective if they moved slower and broke less. They can pay for the privilege of fucking the economy.
Health care? Universal health insurance. Medicare for all. Eliminate the profit motive from insurance and pay doctors what they’re worth. We’ve got good actuarial tables; we can put them to work.
Luxury goods? Sure, I don’t care if you want a market here, because the whole point of a luxury good is that it’s luxury, which kind of implies scarcity. Just be careful on what you define as a luxury good. I’m eying you, sin taxes. You’re not on my Bandaza invite list.
Everything else? Universal Basic Income. You’re alive; we can pay you a dividend from the government slush fund to support you. You want to help out? Great, we’ll reward you for that. If not, we’ll pay you regardless, because you’re a human being and you deserve to live.
Any party boss or politician that tells you otherwise is not your friend, and does not deserve your support. The Greens… yeah, I tried. I tried really hard, and they failed miserably to get their shit together. That kinda leaves these guys, these guys, or retreating to a monastery and getting entirely out of the game. Since that last isn’t really an option for most people, I’d think long and hard about whether to trust any organization to represent me that thinks it can keep the old economic models going with the new disintermediation revolution underway.
Am I asking a lot? Sure. I seem to be doing that a lot these days. The truth is, the world’s kinda fucked, and we have a lot to do to fix it. We can start by admitting that scarcity economics in a post-scarcity world is putting a lot of people through a lot of needless suffering for the sake of a few people’s bank accounts and not much else.
This town’s gonna be your buryin’ place