The United States, I would argue, has had three distinct phases: Citizen America, Producer America, and Consumer America. We’re heading into an unknown fourth one. In this light, it’s useful to understand the assets and drawbacks of each of the previous ones, as well as why each one faded and gave way to its successor.
Conveniently for generational theories like the Strauss-Howe model, each seemed to live for about ninety years. Of course, none of these had precise end or start dates, and seem to blur together at the edges. Citizen America didn’t “die”, but at a certain point in our history, we began to identify more as workers (producers) than as statesmen (citizens). Likewise, by mid-century we identified more as consumers than as workers, because we got wealthier.
Citizen America (ca. 1750 – 1845)
European philosophers like Rousseau, Voltaire, Locke and Hume argued for rational government. We should be governed, they argued, by laws rather than charismatic or religiously-ordained figures. The American Revolution was one attempt to achieve rational government; the French Revolution was another. Neither of these were perfect, but the attempts inspired a new attitude toward public service and government.
We had to decide, after the American Revolution, what kind of country we wanted to be. Hamilton had one vision; Jefferson had a different one. The Industrial Revolution was in its early phases, while slavery and western expansion became sources of conflict. Tensions grew between the established coastal rich (who started to perceive themselves as a new nobility) and the poorer people in the western hills. Immigration was a major point of contention. While there was nearly universal agreement on political equality for those deemed to citizens, there was no agreement on who ought to be a citizen. Land-owners only, or all free people? Should slavery even be continued? Jefferson, most flagrantly, said that “all men are created equal” while fighting to retain ownership of slaves.
Citizen America allowed modern capitalism to flourish, but its culture was pre-capitalistic. Inspired by the Greeks and Romans, it held that public life was the highest virtue. For an aside, the insult idiot comes from the Greeks: it meant “private person” and referred to one whose concerns were solely commercial or parochial. Most philosophers and public figures, in the 18th century, believed that a person whose interests were solely mercantile deserved to live with the lower classes, no matter how rich he became. Poets and philosophers and statesmen, they felt, ought to outrank men of commerce. That is one thing that was good about that time: there was an esteem for intellectuals that has largely disappeared.
One of Citizen America’s fatal flaws was that most people couldn’t participate. Slaves, for example, were treated as non-citizens within their own country. Free blacks didn’t always fare better. Women couldn’t vote in most states. Jefferson’s vision of the agrarian farmer-intellectual, reciting Cicero as he tilled the fields, turned out not to be the most practical vision. Andrew Jackson brought forth an ugliness in our national character that was truer to the reality of the common working person.
The high point of Citizen America was around 1800, and the decline was obvious by the 1830s. Then came the Mexican War, the atrocious Dred Scott decision, and the Civil War. By this point, we were well into Producer America. The role of labor, and the social position of those who performed it, became the central question of our society. We still had foundational questions about the country, but they were largely tied to labor and the importance of those who did it.
Producer America (ca. 1845 – 1940)
The Industrial Revolution came into full swing. Technology enabled people to work more. While farmers had periods of toil and others of rest, factory workers could suffer 300-day working years and 16-hour days, thanks to artificial lighting. High immigration made for an overflowing pool of cheap wage labor. The state offered no checks against this. Smart workers realized that it was in their advantage to organize, although the legal status of unions wasn’t well-defined. It took a lot of fighting to get official legal recognition of the mere concept. Meanwhile, business corporations used violence to prevent labor from asserting itself. This was the era of the Pinkertons and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
We went full-on into the Gilded Age, with the infamous political corruption and financial instability, bringing on the Long Depression (1873-98) and culminating in the Great Depression (1929-39). This was also a time of high ethnic strife: Northern Europeans versus Southern Europeans, natives versus immigrants, freed blacks versus working-class whites. History tells us that a corrupt upper class will often not find it difficult to divide the working people against each other. That, we saw a lot of as the working classes fought for bare survival in tenement slums.
Still, there’s a nostalgia that people have toward Producer America. Like every age, it had its virtues. It’s the era of the Wild West and of steampunk, when people pickled their own vegetables and carved their own ice. It was easier, if one had the means, to enter business and stay there. If you were a middle-class male, you could get a job in business by asking for one, and being a full-fledged businessman after seven to ten years of clerking. Moreover, the consolidation of corporate power had only started. There were, for a fact that surprises most people, more American car companies in 1915 than there are today.
There was a maker culture much stronger than what exists now, but much of this was by necessity. One had to be skilled at repairing mechanical devices, or one would not have them, because they were expensive and most people were (by today’s standard) very poor. People in the northern states put trust in their neighbors, because of the severe winters. (One sees this today in Midwestern politeness; one could not afford to be a jerk in a challenging climate with 19th-century technology.) On the whole, Producer America was a difficult place to live, but there was plenty of work to be done. It kept people active.
In Producer America, people identified with their work and, increasingly, their social class. Laborers invented unions and white-collar skilled workers invented professional associations (which are unions by another name). From dress codes to punch clocks, most of our work culture was invented on this time.
Let’s talk about the Election of 2016. I did not vote for Donald Trump. I, however, recognized early on that he was consistently underestimated, and was in fact running an intelligent (if offensive and distasteful) campaign. I found myself repeatedly arguing that his slogan, “Make America Great Again”, was brilliant. No, it wasn’t dog-whistle racism that made the motto resonate. (There certainly were racists among his supporters, but racism wasn’t the only factor.) In fact, great was not the operative word, but make, coupled with the imperative mood. Trump’s subconscious promise was of a return to a time when people made tangible things and had jobs that mattered. Will he deliver on this promise? Can he? I have my doubts. Do we even want to get into coal mining again? Of course not. That doesn’t matter. What most people missed was that “Make America Great Again” wasn’t about racist or sexist nostalgia, but rather a deep longing to return to a time when human labor had esteem because it delivered tangible value. The fact that this required strong collective bargaining seems to have been lost on most of today’s right-wing populists.
Producer America was poor, beset by political corruption, and financially brittle. We had a quarter-century-long depression at the end of the 19th century. We had frequent financial panics, much worse than those that exist today. Banks often failed, zeroing savings accounts. A typical household earned less than $10,000 per year in today’s money. Let’s not romanticize this period of our history. People identified with their roles as workers, and with production, in large part because they were so poor. One’s job was the only source of income, esteem, and hope for a person, and often a meager source for all of those.
The system started to break down in the 1920s. The Great Depression wasn’t, in my view, caused by the Oct. 29, 1929 stock market crash. We had a worse one in 1987 and it didn’t even cause a mild recession. The 1929 crash was a symptom of something that had been building for some time. What tanked the economy, in the late 1920s, was ill-managed prosperity. By 1920, we were very good at making food. So, prices dropped. Seems like a good thing, right? More food and cheaper. Remember, of course, that a large proportion of Americans were directly involved in food production. By 1925, we had endemic rural poverty. Farmers who couldn’t afford the new technologies died out. Towns that served these farmers fell apart, too. By 1927, we were seeing weakness in industry. If farmers went out of business, the market for tractors went with them. Weakness in heavy industry was clear. 1929 wasn’t when the Depression started, but when it hit the cities and the richest people and it was recognized as a Depression. Producer America had broken down.
In that time, there was a widespread belief that poverty was a sign of personal moral failure. It was a bitter medicine that might impel a person to work harder, stop drinking, or be more frugal. Modern psychology tells us the opposite, but at the time, the Horatio Alger narrative and so-called Protestant work ethic dominated. What happened in the 1920s was that poverty spread out of control. It wasn’t the fault of the rural inkeeper that he had no business; the community that he served had no money. It took massive government intervention, catalyzed by an overseas war, to bring the economy back from its own wreckage.
When we re-emerged, we found ourselves in an era of higher complexity. We found ourselves reliant on governmental machinery designed by people with doctorate degrees in economics and operations research. Production of most good had become too complicated for individuals to participate: airplanes and computers require massive infrastructure and human capital. People could (and still do, in 2017) build their own motorcycles and cars, but they don’t stand a chance of selling them. There are far more stable jobs repairing the machines that large corporations make than there are in direct competition with them.
In the U.S., the most controversial change to follow from Producer America’s insolvency was the expanded role of the federal government. We needed it in the 1930s to dampen the damage done by runaway capitalism, and in the 1940s to fight the Second World War. It’s important and necessary and we rely on it, but a lot of people remain uncomfortable about this bare fact. I’d bet that 90 percent of people, which includes many who complain about “big government”, like the services that government provides, but some people wish they could have late-life medical care and decent roads through other means. (I don’t consider this practical, but I’m not them.) To quote the Tea Party protesters, “keep your government hands off my Medicare”. The age of perfect self-reliance never existed. In fact, the supposedly rugged cowboys relied on the U.S. Government (which displaced the native population) quite heavily. By 1940, though, it had clearly and truly ended.
The upshot of this upheaval is that it worked well. We built the first society with a large middle class. We had rapid economic growth and technological advancement. A truck driver who lived in rural Michigan in 1950 lived better than a European viscount in 1910.
Consumer America (ca. 1940 – 20??)
The AMC series, Mad Men, showed the birth of Consumer America, for good and bad. We generated enough wealth that people could work less and spend more. People began to identify with their purchases more than their jobs.
At the same time, we started seeing a problem with “jobs”. They became somewhat of a mess, because we started to suspect either that our working lives were suboptimal, or that we would be deprived of said jobs as soon as it were expedient. Both of these suspicions, felt acutely by individuals and dully by society, turned out to be right.
A fundamental problem with working for money follows. If your work has objective, legible value, someone will out-compete you at a cheaper price. Even if the low-price competition is unsustainable (dumping) it does not matter. The naive young person who burns out will be replaced, and so will the impoverished country that becomes less-impoverished as work moves to it, but there will always be one on offer, somewhere, to the employer. On the other hand, if the work is intangible (which is not to say that it’s not valuable) then one is reliant on a matrix of cultural, social, and generational support, skills, and infrastructure. What does it take to get paid for intangible work? Sales. Most people do not enjoy selling. In fact, they hate it, especially when it is their own work they must sell. Most people would rather take standard office jobs for reliable mediocre pay than put up with the constant humiliation, volatility, interpersonal rejection, and sheer chaos of having to sell themselves on a day-by-day basis.
We learned in the 1930s not to hang one’s income on the price of a commodity. This is especially true now, as commodities become cheaper. Rather, a worker survives by making his work intangible. The selling point of a college degree was that its economic value was independent of fluctuations in commodity prices. Oil prices might drop, companies might go bankrupt and zero their stock, but that college degree would never lose value. (Ha.) Management became the most coveted job, and it’s easy to see why. In commodity labor, it’s obvious if someone is bad at the job. If one person drills 20 holes per hour and another drills 15, the latter will be fired first. With management, the people who know if a manager is bad cannot say so, for fear of being fired themselves. The manager can always fall back on superior educational pedigree and higher social position. One-on-one, he has higher credibility and can use this to amass even more credibility. Eventually, we reached a state where the major leagues of management, called “executives”, not only take extreme salaries, but can transfer easily from one part of the economy to another. Getting fired, for an executive, is a paid vacation and a better next job. Sales and especially management have gained ground, and labor has lost it.
Under Consumer America, we became a society where most people go to work and don’t really do anything. The machines make stuff and other people called customers buy it, and the corporation functions as self-reinforcing eddy driven by inertial factors like brand reputation and convenience.
In fact, we do a lot more making in 2017 than we did in our supposed high era of manufacturing. We’ve even become quite good at it, due to technology. We make better things. If one includes hobbyists, we probably make more creative things. The problem is that humans who actually make things, for commerce, face imminent loss of income at every moment. Most people can’t stand the stress. At some point, they’d rather give up on their dreams and become executives whose “products” are meetings and bad ideas.
In Consumer America, people seek social status through consumption, whether of college degrees or clothing or housing in fashionable places, because that’s how one gets a reliable income. Production is too dangerous a route to sustainable income, because one can always be outcompeted. One must, instead, demonstrate something that looks like superior taste, culture, or intelligence, and that is done through consumption.
The highest-ranking people in our societies are not elite producers, but elite consumers. The polished businessman suggests effortlessness in everything he does. That’s his charm. He wears a thousand-dollar suit that looks like the fabric has never been folded. He sells the dream that if others just follow his ethereal “vision”, they could also be entitled to the ultra-consumer life that he enjoys.
The most valued trait in our culture is called “celebrity”, which is a preternatural ability to consume attention. We’ve given up on the ability to evaluate what people produce, so we use their consumption as a proxy. We conflate price with value.
Where might this lead?
Labor seems to be at the center of each phase’s inevitable breakdown.
With Citizen America, the fatal flaw was slavery. Hamilton and Adams predicted that slavery would destroy the U.S., and it nearly did. Whatever one’s gripes may be with industrial capitalism, it was an improvement over five millennia of humans using violence to force unpaid labor out of other people.
Producer America, to a large extent, couldn’t handle its own success. There are plenty of bad things to say about industrial capitalism, but the fact is… it works. It would have seemed unfathomable that prosperity in agriculture would lead to a crippled economy and (overseas) to authoritarianism and war. Yet it did exactly that.
Consumer America seems to headed down a familiar path. What happened to food prices in the 1920s is happening to all human labor. The “sharing economy” is a reinvention of what the early 20th century called “hobos”: itinerant workers taking what work they could.
Office workers like attorneys and software engineers might think they have little in common with 1920s farmers, but history will prove them wrong.
It’s hard to define a clear adversary. Some people attack “globalization”. The truth, however, is that foreign competition isn’t the greatest threat to American workers. To a large degree, I believe that the threat of foreign competition (especially when bandied about by management, such as when unions are under discussion) is much more of an issue than the actuality of it. The greater threat is technology. It’s often ignored, because it doesn’t have a face, and because we all recognize both its necessity and inevitability.
There’s a lot of “othering” at the heart of the resurgent nationalistic populism that we’re seeing in the world’s working classes. You can other a person who looks different, lives thousands of miles away, and that some dickhead manager told you is eager to take your job for one-fourth the price. You can’t other the phone, a supercomputer by the standards of 30 years ago, that sits in your pocket. So, we tend to ignore the dangers presented by technology. “Outsourcing” looks like something that we’ve seen for millennia: other tribes or nations, full of hungry people, threatening to conquer us. Technology doesn’t look like anything visceral. It appears non-threatening if it’s well-designed.
Should we dread technology? Yes and no. Automation is a double-edged sword, but it’s going to happen and there is no value in trying to prevent it. Governments should not try to preserve specific jobs in, say, coal mining. They should, however, attempt to prevent sudden losses of income and especially of worker leverage. I can’t emphasize this enough. Most people think their jobs are safe, and they’re wrong. What do they think those laid-off truck drivers are going to do? Many are going to retrain and contend for the supposedly safe jobs, like software engineering. If the labor market collapses, it will fall as one.
The bigger problem around technology is not automation. Automation’s desirable. Rather, the danger is that technology is often used toward bad ends. The lasting effect of the echo-dot-com boom isn’t a technical or political advancement. Scientific progress seems to be slowing down right now. Rather, it’s the increasing shift of power from employees to employers. Let’s take social media. I’ve been involved in hiring and I’ve seen people turned down for jobs or fired based on social media activity, sometimes quite anodyne. I’ve also seen people turned down because they didn’t have social media profiles, which was deemed “creepy”. If he didn’t have a Facebook or LinkedIn profile, what was he hiding? That’s right; someone was punished for not rendering personal information unto surveillance capitalism.
I once worked on a performance-management system for drivers. Most of the people who engineer such software believe that it’s harmless, and are usually told by management that drivers appreciate the work. That’s often false. Such systems increase stress and even the probability of workplace violence. Technology often suits employers’ needs and the expense of employees. In one case that I know of, a few years back, a GPS monitoring system that was supposedly intended to improve gas mileage was actually used to catch drivers eating lunch off-route (either to go home, or see their kids at school). That’s not increased efficiency. That’s being an evil, greedy fuckbag.
I worry much more about about technology toward evil ends than I do about automation. With automation, we need to be smart as a society and put the dividends back into the common good. That’s a hard problem, but it’s easy in comparison. A permanent shift in the power relationship between employers and employees, in the wrong direction, could render us unstable, impoverish the masses, and leave the country prone to populist or even fascist revolt.
Will Consumer America die soon? Yes. We’re seeing the early phases. It’s not pretty.
As I said, every job that provides direct salable value has a target on it, and most of those have been automated out of existence. Jobs that remain are in abstract work.
In an office, you have some people who run around and try to quantify the work of others: managers, HR executives, consultants, and the like who try to spot opportunities for cost-cutting. Those people produce little. Nine times out of ten, they’re externalizing costs and risks rather than eliminating them. 99 times out of 100, any assets “liberated” by cutting these costs is put into executive coffers instead of forward-thinking investment. Most of these cost-cutting wizards are worthless, but they have a lot of power. People fear them. They will drive abstract laborers toward concrete measurements. They’ll take the creative process of programming and split it up into 4-hour units called “story points”. What you end up with is a civil war where most of one side– the workers, playing defense because even if they wanted to play offense, they wouldn’t have time on top of their (increasing, with each layoff) assigned work– has no idea what is going on, or even that they’re in a civil war at all.
When this happens, employees lose. Costs are externalized or transmuted into risk rather than removed, so shareholders get a bunch of under-documented risk dumped on them as organizations become more brittle and shorter-lived. It looks like stagnation, but it’s actually a hollowing-out. For example, in the corporate world, workers face increased instability and expectations without fair compensation. Moreover, when companies implode (as has become common) they aren’t replaced with better ones. Whatever “tech startup” meant in the Silicon Valley heyday of 1970-1995, it now means “new company with worse health benefits and an ill-defined career path.”
This can have far-reaching social effects. The rich man’s habit of dividing poor blue-eyed man against poor brown-eyed man (or black man against white man, or man against woman) leads to misplaced resentments that stack up over time, and you have a lot of people who are pissed off at the wrong people for an incoherent mess of reasons. Then, you get right-wing populism, which we’ve seen flare up all over the world. Anger drives out the more subtle emotions, and eventually conflict reaches a boiling point.
When did Consumer America start to decline? I think that the civic downfall began in the late 1970s. Studio 54 is emblematic: elitism became sexy again. We fully committed ourselves to the wrong path in the 1980s.
While this period of time is called “the Reagan Era”, I doubt that a single center-right politician, no matter how powerful and charismatic, can take singular blame. Did Ronald Reagan invent employee stack ranking? No, that was Jack Welch and Jeff Skilling. What went wrong was more about culture than politics, and it happened in other countries that didn’t have conservative leadership. Mean-spirited corporate behavior, not transient conservative politics, is what killed us in the 1980s.
Leftist leadership wouldn’t have prevented a devastating cultural phenomenon: the repolarization of the American elite. To understand this, we have to understand the history of our national elite. What was it, and how did it change?
For most of human history, most people who were rich either inherited or stole their wealth. It was rare that a rich person wasn’t a scumbag, bully, or crook. This is why Jesus could say what he did about the eye of a needle. With near-zero economic growth on a per-year basis, life was pretty much zero-sum. It was a reasonable presumption that most rich people prospered at other’s costs. Then, we came into a perceived Golden Age when this seemed to be less true: from about 1940 to 1980 in the developed world. It has often been considered a historical anomaly. It doesn’t have to be so.
Not only the Great Depression, but the Second World War and the flirtations with extremism all over the world, all convinced the American elite to slow down and be happy with what it had. They elected to get richer somewhat slower than others in society. Noblesse oblige. Inequality went down, but so did their risk of imminent overthrow. Perhaps not knowing it as thus, they chose graceful relative decline as their survival strategy. It worked. They were plenty rich, throughout the 1950s and ’60s. They never stopped getting richer; they just slowed their pace and let everyone else catch up.
A CEO in the late 1970s made about $500,000 per year. His source of pride wasn’t his income but his stewardship of the company he ran. Even if it meant a personal cost to him, he’d do what he could to keep his people employed and happy. Companies invested in their people. There was a large middle class. If you were unemployed, you could call about a job at 10:30, interview over lunch with the CEO, and be hired by 2:00. What happened? Why did this country throw it all away?
Upper-class people who remembered the tumultuous 1930s and ’40s recognized that social stability and cultural advancement were more important than personal enrichment. Their kids didn’t. Their kids traveled to other countries and came in contact with countries where the old way reigned, and where feudal lords and scumbags still dominated the upper class. They met oil sheikhs who married 9-year-olds, third-world despots who could kill with impunity, and (after 1989) post-Soviet kleptocrats buying private islands and penthouse apartments all over the world. In comparison, the American rich were more restrained, more civilized, and also poorer. They still had to follow their country’s laws! They flew first class instead of private!
At some point, the American upper class desired to join the global elite. They sold the country out. They made it legal for nonresident foreigners, often of criminal origin, to buy real estate in Silicon Valley and Manhattan, creating permanent housing shortages. They created a culture in which labor is ill-viewed and consumption reigns.
We’re now back to a Gilded Age, but a global one. Whatever we learned in the 1930s and ’40s, we forgot. Filth floats to the top again. The hyper-consumptive global elite is in charge. Even national governments must often play by their rules, as they constantly threaten to move capital elsewhere if asked to pay their taxes.
Our global society is, because it is badly run, quite brittle.
We actually don’t have more recessions in this terrible new economy than we did in the old one. We have fewer, but they hit harder. In the old economy, you worried that recession might get you laid off. It might mean a tough year or two. In the new one, people worry that it will end their careers, because that happens a lot. People find themselves out of relevant work for two or three years and are replaced, when the situation improves, with a mix of unskilled young workers and better software off the shelf. For the bottom 98 percent of the labor market, each recession is more severe and each recovery is more jobless.
We are getting to a dangerous point. Let’s talk about various possible future outcomes.
I make no predictions for the worst-case scenario. Climate change, international conflict, resource depletion, a successful Business Plot, even another 1918-like disease epidemic… there are a number of ways in which the U.S. could not survive the end of Consumer America, or in which it could be radically altered. Some of these catastrophes are more manageable than others. Some involve a painful decade and a recovery; others go into darker places. I can’t say too much here, because the nature of these events is everything becomes unpredictable when one happens.
Catastrophic events are an ahistorical threat. The Yellowstone Supervolcano is unlikely to explode, but it doesn’t know or care about human generational cycles. What is different about this time, as opposed to others, is the brittleness of the American economic fabric.
Baseline: Renter America
Renter America is where we seem, in 2017, to be headed.
To sum it up, it’s a worse version of Consumer America. Life goes on, but people have less control over where and how they live. People continue to need these short-ended power relationships called “jobs”, and spend more time on busy work or protecting position than actually doing anything. Meaningful, productive work becomes a coveted, scarce resource and one must engage in political intrigue in order to get it.
In Renter America, people live increasingly on their reputations (which are easily controllable by corporate interests) rather than their skills. Jobs get harder to find and easier to lose. Long-term unemployment, financed by credit, becomes the norm. Corporate investment in individuals goes to zero, offset by escapist fantasies (e.g., Silicon Valley startups) and those who are wise enough to see through them– or, more to the point, old enough that they should see through them– are discarded. People lose a sense of ownership in their economic lives and become permanent, itinerant renters, ambling through life on credit and student loans they’ll never pay back. Homeownership and starting one’s own business become impossible for most people.
This is where we seem to be headed in 2017. There’s no sign of an imminent national catastrophe (although there are many risks) but there’s also little reason to have hope about our economic or political future.
What I question about Renter America is its stability. Material well-being doesn’t get worse in Renter America, but it ceases to improve and there is a loss of dignity and self-determination. People are forced to move, threatened with medical bills they can’t pay, put into jobs involving more busy work and less actual production or self-improvement, and generally kicked around more. Their jobs and lives become mindless and highly surveilled.
Renter America delivers mostly insult rather than injury. A few people die prematurely because they lack health insurance or work in dangerous jobs, but most people are afforded vaguely dissatisfying but semi-comfortable lives. The elite recedes into its own world where things still work: schools lead into jobs, jobs lead to skill growth and wealth, et cetera.
If it doles out only injury, will Renter America ever be overthrown? I’m not sure. We could see a widespread slacker culture: the Japanese hikikomori or the European mileuristas and NEETS are becoming the norm. I don’t see it as inevitable that a mediocre, boring future gets itself overthrown. I hope that I’m wrong.
Better: Patriot America
In the 1960s, national governments were perceived as being in cahoots with the global corporate elite. To a large extent, they were. Companies weren’t as malignant as they are now. Back then, private companies invested in their people, paid well, didn’t try to avoid paying taxes at all costs, and seemed neither at odds with the needs of government nor the people.
Conflict with the global corporate elite is possible. To the surprise of some, I believe that national governments will be our allies when this happens. They don’t like tax-cheating, rule-breaking criminals any more than we do. National governments don’t get everything right, but they’ve been left as the sole adults in the room. Who funds basic research? The age of Bell Labs and Xeroc Parc ended a long time ago; short-term optimizers won.
Patriot America would be a more inclusive reprisal of Citizen America, in which the defeat of the global corporate elite becomes a point of national pride. We could, for example, demand that all nonresident real estate owners sell within 14 days or forfeit their holdings. This would do a lot to make housing more affordable in places like New York and San Francisco. We could ramp up research funding for renewable energy and not only end our dependence on foreign oil, but take leadership on climate change as well. (I realize that, right now, it looks like we’re going in the opposite direction.) This is going to be unappealing to the anarchist element of the left, but it will first be through governments that people most effectively take on the global corporate elite.
This variety of patriotism isn’t exclusionary. Sam Adams was not patriotic at the expense of other nations, and neither should we be. Local and national governments will have to work together with each other in order to defeat two major adversaries in the future. One is the environmental damage wrought by climate change. The other is the global corporate elite.
Patriotism is not an assertion of superiority over other nations. Intellectually, we all know that we aren’t superior because of where we were born. Rather, it’s an admission of one’s own limitations. No one can fix the world. It’s too big of a job. But people can work together to fix their communities, then their cities, and then their countries.
Destinations and Lessons
Are there other possible fourth phases? Of course there are. Renter America seems to be the baseline disappointing turn of events, and Patriot America is a broad sketch of something that might be better.
We ought to learn from the three previous incarnations of this country before we build the fourth. What worked, and what didn’t?
The virtue of Citizen America was its insistence on rational government. We now need a rational economy. Universal basic income is a start, but we also need meaningful work for people, and there is plenty of work that needs to be done. Additionally, we ought to recognize kinship with people in other countries. Patriotism shouldn’t be pride in what is, because intrinsic national superiority doesn’t exist, and that idea has done far too much harm already. It should be pride in what one does to make one’s community (whether local, national, or global) better.
What Producer America got right, although it took a long time, was that it eventually put dignity into work. It recognized the human need for a productive role. Also, work in that time was not the psychological monoculture of today’s office work. People did a lot of different things. We need to learn from that, and get away from the culture in which people are shoehorned into bland roles that are often substantially below their levels of ability.
Finally, let’s talk about Consumer America. In the 1950s, most people believed that we’d have a ten-hour workweek by now, and that economic scarcity would be nonexistent or trivial. Yes, if you were unemployed, you might have to wait two months longer to take your vacation to the Moon. Well, we’ve failed. In the 1980s, we allowed bad leadership to come in. It wasn’t our political leadership that shat the bed, though. It was our corporate leadership. In order to get the next iteration of this country right, we first have to take stock of what previous generations got so wrong.
Just as the noblesse oblige national elite of the Kennedy Era learned, from the Gilded Age, that a vicious unequal society would burn them in the end (as it did, in the 1930s) we will need for the current global corporate elite to learn a hard lesson. We’ll have to replace them with something else. In order for that “something else” to be anything better, though, we have to study our past.