United States 4.0, or: why you should welcome American socialism

Since the American Declaration of Independence, three distinct national identities have existed. Historians have characterized them in a number of ways depending on what aspect of the nation they wish to analyze, and I will do my best to do so in a way that is economically interesting, and that can inform us on our future. In the case I’m dealing with, these delineations have been gradual rather than sharp, and it’s important to note this, and the truth is that all of these aspects of our history remain in our culture today. Still, for the sake of simplicity and analysis, I must define (somewhat arbitrary) boundaries. From 1776 to approximately 1870, we were a nation of citizens. From about 1870 to approximately 1950, we were a nation of producers. From about 1950 until now, we’ve been a nation of consumers. Perhaps for wholly coincidental reasons, each of these transitions has coincided with a difficult and violent period of history. The Civil War in the mid-19th century was one of the nation’s bloodiest, and the World Wars of the 20th-century were utterly catastrophic for Europe. Likewise, the American transition to its next phase will coincide in time with a World Revolution that, although I wish for it to be entirely peaceful– and noting the example offered by Northern European nations that have already peacefully adopted rationalistic, libertarian socialism, I believe it can be nonviolent– probably will not be so, at least not in all corners of the world where it will take place. Before discussing the American nation’s next incarnation, it’s worth discussing the advances and the ultimately fatal flaws of the three that have existed.

1. Citizen America: rational but elitist, enlightened but hypocritical.

The United States, despite the tarnished reputation it has earned on account of its hypocritical, underaccomplished and already-dying Empire, deserves one hell of a lot of credit. For all its flaws, it’s a great country, and this nation was one of the modern world’s first attempts, if not the first, at rational government at such a vast geographic scale. Stepping away from the unreliable leadership offered by hereditary kings and religious clerics, the nation’s architects designed a political framework with the intention of building an enlightened republic. They certainly did not, for the most part, intend direct democracy. This concept seemed radical even to most of them. What they wanted was a nation governed by what would today be considered an aristocracy, but for the benefit of all people, in which the most educated and genteel 1-20 percent would be citizens, or peers, with the right to vote and the same legal status as a legislator or president.

Often it’s claimed that America’s founders would be appalled by the state of the nation today, either because its integrity has been compromised by plutocracy (as the left alleges) or because the federal government has become so expansive (as the right alleges). I disagree. As educated and rational people, they knew that even the best governmental structures can only mitigate the innate instability of popular governments. I think they should be pleasantly surprised, if not shocked, that the government that they built (a) actually tried democracy, to mixed results but certainly more success than even an optimist in their time would have predicted, and (b) remained intact for over 200 years, even in the midst of true revolutions (some peaceful, such as FDR’s New Deal; others not). Nations live a long time, but governments very rarely survive even one human lifetime, much less three.

Thomas Jefferson envisioned an agrarian utopia in which farmers would plow the fields in the summer and study the classics in winter. Federalists like Alexander Hamilton wanted to use the new nation’s abundant land and natural resources to build an industrial powerhouse. Rationalistic freethinkers like Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin wanted to establish a fully secular government and a nation in which any religion, so long as it did not oppose its will on others, could be honored. To far more success than a cynic would have imagined, these visions were realized and, for quite some time, worked.

The Jeffersonian notion of an agrarian utopia and the Federalists’ championing of industry deserve special mention in light of how contrary they were to the more cynical and pessimistic view of life common in much of Europe at the time. Malthus, the ultimate pessimist, argued at the 18th century’s end that the world population would reach such a state of congestion as to wreak apocalyptic conditions upon the human species. His mathematical model (which held economic growth to be linear, rather than exponential, leading to its inevitable failure to match the pace of population growth) was completely wrong, but his conclusion agreed with much of popular thought, and it would have been correct had the Industrial Revolution (already in its early stages) not hastened. The Malthusian worldview was like that of mercantilistic economics, which held a zero-sum view of economics. For a contrast, self-reliant farmers and creative industrialists embody the opposite of zero-sum behavior; they more wealth to the world than they take from it. (Although industrialists could be cruel and self-serving, their efforts were undoubtedly positive-sum, at least until externalized environmental costs became the evident and severe problem they are now.)

This “Citizen Nation” had its share of quite obvious problems. Though it championed positive-sum progressivism, it was founded on land that was stolen in a campaign of execrable violence against indigenous people. Moreover, by modern standards it was elitist to the point of repugnant hypocrisy. Black slaves were treated abysmally, and an underclass of immigrant and freed-slave workers emerged in the 19th century, especially in Northern cities. For every abolitionist, feminist or liberal wishing to expand the definition of “citizen”, there was a status-quo conservative trying to hold this pressure back. This tension, as Americans all know, resulted in the Secession Crisis and Civil War in the 19th century.

Each of these iterations of the United States is a world-leading liberal model on its inception and falls prey to reactionary conservatism toward its precarious end. Thomas Jefferson, an enlightened statesman in his day, would be a reactionary and an egregious racist by modern standards. Those who stood with him, ideologically speaking, in 1785, and had not moved by 1855 found themselves on the wrong side of history, especially on the matter of slavery. They had become like Preston Brooks, much more the father of the “Tea Party” conservative movement than any of America’s 18th-century “founding fathers”, who would despise that movement’s religious radicalism and anti-intellectualism.

By Reconstruction, the definition of “citizen” had expanded greatly. Although not there yet, the nation was well on its way to universal suffrage. Though a positive change on balance, this also diluted the meaning of the word “citizen”. Suddenly, penniless people who were working 16 hours per day and therefore, through no fault of their own, utterly ignorant on complex matters, were trusted with the vote. Although necessary from a humanitarian perspective, since the “enlightened aristocracy” could not be trusted to rule in the peoples’ best interests, the extension of suffrage to poorly-educated workers led, in part, to the corrupt machine politics of the Gilded Age.

2. Producer America: scientific but bellicose, industrious and cruel.

The American nation of the Gilded Age was, by historical standards as well as comparative standards in its time, very wealthy. Although this period is sometimes regarded as a natinal nadir, it was the point at which the average American’s standard of living began to rise at a perceptible pace. The average person’s standard of living actually began improving a couple centuries before that, but so gradually that it could not be perceived from year to year or even from decade to decade; by the 19th century, this changed and progress was evident. Of course, the distribution of these gains was not merely unjust, but laughably lopsided. At the same time, ethnic tensions were growing rapidly. Political corruption was high, and toward the end of this era, its government had slouched toward plutocracy.

Due to the Industrial Revolution, there were immense gains made in this much-maligned era. Electricity became available, and food became abundant. Petroleum was discovered, preventing an otherwise disastrous scarcity of whale oil (much like that which awaits us in a couple of decades if we do not move away from our dependence on petroleum) from upsetting economic progress. The progressive movement brought suffrage to women and made the first (disastrously failed) efforts at ending international conflict. Moreover, a nation that had once been deeply racist had been forced, by Producer America’s end circa 1950, to not merely tolerate but to embrace ethnic diversity.

An important cultural change emerged around this time. The Puritan work ethic had been replaced by a more enlightened descendant: the American work ethic. Although it may seem bizarre to associate an “American work ethic” with virtue, with the nation wracked then and now by overwork, it was in many ways a positive force. With what seemed to be the final destruction of aristocracy (before its re-emergence as corporate capitalism, with its entitled and crypto-hereditary caste of “executives” who only ape the trappings of those who work) in the United States and Europe, the goal of many people became not to establish a parasitic lifestyle in which they did not work yet had others work for them, but a productive lifestyle in which, due to the creative use of technology and social advancements, they could work and have a life of quality. Technological leverage made it possible to produce at a high level without sacrifice and toil. In essence, that is the goal of the American worker: to live a life that is of value to others, but to do so without such severe sacrifice (as most working people, historically, had to make) as to render that life miserable for the person living it.

Because its vices and crimes were like those of our much milder present Gilded Age, the faults of Producer America hardly need explanation. The poor were treated abysmally, working conditions were calamitous, and democracy fell at the expense of plutocracy. Although the era was rich in comparison to what came before it, and idyllically peaceful on inception compared to the horrific wars that came at its end, the Gilded Age lingers in the American imagination as a warning of what not to become (and also what we, for the past 30 years or so, have been rapidly becoming): a corrupt plutocracy. The danger, one notes, of a limited, enlightened, and libertarian government is that unelected and often unchecked corporate power may step in and become just as onerous as the monarchies, empires, and theocracies that reigned before the Age of Reason.

Producer America became a victim of its own success. Abundance of crops, which any previous historical era would have considered a wonderful problem to have, caused a severe drop in food prices, leading to rural poverty. As poverty is a cancer that, without mediation, grows until it devours a whole society, this led to the Great Depression. Following that was a peaceful and entirely legal revolution known as the New Deal, against the backdrop of some horrific and violent ones (often in the name of extreme leftism) in much of the world, and the Second inning of the Great War which destroyed the intellectual respectability of racism (although one must note that racism never should have been intellectually respectable) and established colonialism to be a calamitous failure.

Keynesian economics was also born during this time and, with it, the recognition that it was useless to produce goods if no one could afford to buy them. Economists discovered that, contrary to the claims of conservative moralists, poverty did not “build character” or discourage laziness, but was a systemic malignancy capable of destroying an entire society. This led, logically, for the need of government to aggressively fight poverty. Also, the New Deal and the demand generated by American participation in the Second World War created, for the first time in history, a true middle class that encompassed the majority of a nation’s population. New products such as refrigerators, air conditioning, and air travel became not merely available, but available to average people shortly after their inception. Consumer America had begun.

3. Consumer America: brilliant but hollow, powerful but fragile.

Consumer America began with an era that is often considered to be the American “Golden Age”, spanning from 1945 to 1973. Although deeply flawed, especially in the treatment of women and racial minorities, this was a time of widespread economic and technological optimism within the United States. The forty-hour work week– a major victory– had been achieved by the labor movement, and children born in the 1950s believed that a 20-hour workweek would be established once they were in middle age. (Whoops!)

AMC, perhaps by an odd coincidence, is running two television shows focused on the exact high and low points (temporally speaking) of Consumer America: Mad Men and Breaking Bad, erotic and thanatoptic portrayals of an era’s bookends. The first of these shows, set in the advertising industry in the 1960s, illustrates the giddy optimism (coupled with the necessary antithesis: the sardonic cynicism of the era’s most intelligent, embodied in Don Draper) of a nation flush with new products, and in which the merely middle-class strivers of Madison Avenue can look forward to assured sunny (but perhaps a bit boring) futures. The latter drama, situated among the present day’s former middle class, revolves around the misery and severe, self-serving misanthropy of a failed genius and high-school chemistry teacher, forced by the 21st-century American pogrom (eradicated by the now more civilized Europeans) that we call “medical billing”, into methamphetamine production. In these dramas, we see not only the ascendancy (for Don Draper) and collapse (for Walter White) of brilliant, cynical, ambitious and deeply dishonest men; but those of a society itself, and that’s Consumer America.

Consumer America’s moral emptiness became apparent early on, but proved the severity of its malignancy in the 1980s with the “Reagan Revolution”. In the 1950s, it may have been boring and empty, but it was inclusive. The most selfish and uncivil elements of society wanted to come to affluence far faster than others, but they wanted everyone to get there. If for no other reason, the betterment of all would build a more stable society, and even the most selfish rich people want that. With the belligerent post hoc elitism of the yuppie era, that changed, replaced by a mean-spirited and exclusive mentality rooted in the assumption that a thing was not good unless other people could not have it. The reactionary politics that became stylish, even among the educated upper-middle classes, in the 1980s gave encouragement to the religious radicalism, the so-called “neoconservatism”, and the militant right-wing insanity that ravaged the nation in the 1990s and 2000s.

A deep moral failure in Consumer America is the worship of consumption, even at the expense of production. The claim underlying the enormous rewards given to capitalism’s winners is that they’re the most productive people, but often that’s not the case, and it’s such a thin argument that only an idiot would buy into it. Far more often, they are hyperconsumers but not high-power producers. For example, celebrity culture encourages the worship of those who already consume a great deal of others’ attention. Here is the naked absurdity of post hoc elitism: because they are able to consume at enormity, these “VIPs” are held to be of higher value, and on no other basis. Then there are the “executives”, the social climbers within private-sector bureaucracies, who have managed to acquire the status of being capitalism’s high priests merely because they’ve established the acumen to become hyperconsumers. Unlike actual entrepreneurs, who actually were high-power producers, they are merely adept consumers and social climbers, no different in form or activity than their counterparts in the aristocracy of 18th-century Versailles or corrupt clergies. Meanwhile, when the hyperconsumptive are getting welfare hand-outs in the form of elitist and unnecessary tax breaks, those who actually produce things are getting hosed, in the form of outsourcing, layoffs, stagnant wages for over a decade, and a government that seems to have little regard for their interests. Those who actually work in this country are held in low regard, but the useless elite clerics of these empty gods (immortal and without character; unimprisonable and thus fearless) we call corporations make millions and run the country.

Consumer America is headed toward its fiery end. It had two high points– one in the 1950s and ’60s, the second in the late 1990s– but its inexorable decline began in 2001 when it became clear that this morally empty regime could not head off otherwise surmountable calamities. An educated and virtuous citizenry would have never allowed Bush to win re-election after lying our way into an illegal, unnecessary, enormously expensive, idiotic and evil war. Able and effective civil authorities, responsible for infrastructural integrity, would not have allowed a hurricane of only moderate severity (Katrina was severe at its peak, but only Category 2-3 when it hit New Orleans) to demolish a major city. Now, in the form of the Tea Party, the specter of right-wing violence has re-emerged as a frightening possibility. In 2011, it seems evident that Consumer America is about to end, abruptly and possibly violently.

As I discussed, the transition from Citizen to Producer America took place in the context of the Civil War. That from Producer to Consumer America took place during a peaceful and truly glorious revolution in the United States (the New Deal, the rise of progressive capitalism in the U.S. and, later, social democracy in Europe) but while one of history’s most horrendous wars raged abroad. It is possible that the transition out of Consumer America, which will kill corporate capitalism and humble our upper class– benign compared to historical counterparts, but exceedingly arrogant– will be peaceful. Certainly I hope for this. It could also be enormously violent, in the context of a Paris-1793-style uprising.

4. World Revolution, and American socialism

A World Revolution, launched by the Internet as well as Europe’s experiments with federalism, libertarian socialism, and Second Enlightenment humanism, is taking place. Likely to continue for 100 years, it will radically reshape the globe. For one thing, the concept of an impoverished “Third World” country will seem utterly bizarre to the children of 2125 when they learn of this notion in their history classes. The severe relationship between geography and economic well-being that exists now will (rightly) strike them as barbaric. At the World Revolution’s end, we will have a “wired” world characterized by rationalism and libertarian socialism. We may have achieved the indefinite lifespan by that point, and we are likely to be “post-scarcity” to a substantial degree. (The World Revolution is a colorful name for the frenetic stage of humanity one might call trans-scarcity.) By 2125, barring an ecological or exogenous catastrophe, both the intrinsic scarcity of primitive times and the artificial scarcity of corporate capitalism will be abolished, and being “poor” will mean having to get on a waiting list to visit the Moon. Utopia will not be accomplished, but what is achieved by that time will be closer to it than most people alive today even consider possible. Yet the question for those of us alive now, who do not expect to live so long, is: what will it be like to get there?

I’d love to believe that each chapter of the World Revolution shall be peaceful, but we’re already seeing that this is unlikely. Odds of a peaceful transition are good-to-excellent in the social democracies of Northern Europe, poor-to-fair in the United States, due to the likelihood of an authoritarian crackdown by our corporate elite, and very poor in corners of the world where violent tendencies still reign, and in which corrupt elites will wish to prevent their subjects from having access to the increasing bounty made available by technology (a tendency we already see in countries that disallow their people to use the Internet).

The first stage of trans-scarcity humanity, which began in the 1990s and could either end soon or persist for decades, has proven to be quite harsh for the United States. As I discussed, the spiral of poverty that created the Great Depression began with rural poverty, a result of agricultural plenty. The same is happening to all human labor in the United States. Human labor is gradually becoming obsolete. The ability for a well-positioned and bright person to earn a decent living in technology will exist for a few decades at least, but most people will never again be able to reliably earn a living selling labor to the market. Don’t look for that to come back; it never will. It is already at the point where one year of unpaid education or training is necessary to secure two years of paid work, and as the workplace becomes increasingly specialized, this ratio will deteriorate. The civil unrest this will create, in a society with a weak and denuded social safety net, will be immense.

The United States will eventually, as all countries must when confronted with this “problem of plenty”, wise up and choose libertarian socialism, eventually instituting a guaranteed minimum income and freely available training for what (very highly skilled) work remains necessary, but this isn’t likely to happen without a fight. Our upper classes profit enormously from the artificial scarcity imposed by corporate capitalism, and have no problem with using that system’s meltdown to increase the market price of their “protection”, establishing themselves in a similar manner to feudal Europe’s nobility. This is what they want: scarcity and fear instead of reason and plenty. In truth, they don’t care if the economy “collapses” from a middle-class perspective. The current American elite would love to see a lot of middle-class office jobs disappear outright because they really want to be able to hire white, college-educated maids at low wages.

It’s an open secret that the American corporate elite is preparing for violent unrest. The use of private mercenaries such as Blackwater/Xe Security in overseas conflicts is part of this, and the threat these forces will cross the Rubicon is serious. Also, there is the Tea Party. This movement itself is unlikely to become a major menace. Still, this not-really-grassroots movement deserves attention for the machinations (cf. Koch brothers) that its existence proves. While the Tea Party’s main purpose was to win the 2010 election for the Republican Party, and its secondary purpose is to discourage the left-leaning and disaffected from even considering violent revolution– it reminds us (sadly, correctly) that, if there is a violent revolution, it almost certainly won’t be a kind we would want– there is also much experimentalism being done. Fox News may seem like a sick joke, but it’s an experiment designed to assess how much bullshit the American people will take. Data is being collected on that, and if America’s reactionary movement ever needs a Goebbels, this data will be made available to him or her.

To call these efforts of the upper classes “conspiracies” is not a stretch. There almost certainly is not “one Conspiracy to rule them all”, and organizations like the Bilderberg Group and Skull and Bones almost certainly have less power than their detractors think they do, but lower-case-c conspiracies certainly exist, and aren’t even well hidden. They don’t need to be. With “friends” (legal, above-ground, but secretive and elitist institutions) like the corporations, who needs the shadowy enemies dreamt up by conspiracy theorists? The upper classes are self-serving, greedy, inbred and socially exclusive. This makes them innately conspiratorial with absolutely no need for cloak-and-dagger secret societies or the laughably simplistic intrigues dreamt up by conspiracy theorists.

On the other hand, the American elite, devoid of vision and purpose other than pure greed, might allow peace, accepting a decline in their relative status, just as European nobilities did in the wake of the French Revolution. One can only hope so. There is no reason whatsoever that the transition to libertarian socialism requires violence. It is just a sad and miserable fact that the American upper classes are likely to instigate it in order to preserve their power and social status. If they do use such violence, we have every right to respond. With 45,000 people murdered every year by health insurance companies, we were merciful to remain nonviolent as long as we have.

Despite the dark possibilities of the short-term future, once the World Revolution has resolved itself and we are into late trans-scarcity or early post-scarcity times, life will be quite excellent. Although the ability for an average or even well-above-average person to reliably “earn a living” by selling labor to the market will be gone forever, it won’t be needed in a plentiful world with a basic income that grows increasingly generous as the decades pass.

The comfort of a post-scarcity world is self-evident, but the secondary effects of it will be immense and predicted by few. When technology removes most of the drudgery involved in large-scale efforts, and when people are relieved of the crushing and all-consuming need to do paid work, which is often servile and of little general value, the masses will be liberated to concentrate on real work. The arts, science, spirituality, community service, experimental small businesses (startups) and education will flourish like never before, and humanity will shine to a degree that seems impossible at this time. Levels of intellectual brilliance and creative contribution once associated with “genius” will become commonplace.

To answer the obvious question, “Who will clean the toilets?”, the answer is that in libertarian socialism, people will still do such jobs, because other people will still be able to pay them to do it (manually in the early phases; technologically, later on). Libertarian socialism does not eliminate the free market; rather, it ensures a basic social safety net, and then it gets out of the way and allows at truly free market economy to work. Free the people, then free the markets.

Corporate capitalism, in the current semi-totalitarian form enabled by the constant need for paid (read: corporate-approved) work, placing the average American in a system that is the most fluid, affluent, and benign form of slavery known to history, but still wage slavery, will be relegated to history’s dust heap. Business corporations will exist, just as religious institutions, governments, and even hereditary monarchies still do (often in reduced and benign, or even beneficial, forms) in the Developed World. That they will exist is necessary, since rational libertarian socialism must recognize the right of the individual to start a business and become prosperous, and the result of success in business can be a large corporation. Some people and companies will get very rich and become quite influential, far above their peers in this regard. However, the oppressive and deleterious power currently held by the American elite will no longer exist, once people are no longer dependent on them to earn a living wage.

Examining social and technological trends, the conclusions become obvious. Consumer America will end, perhaps with much fire and gnashing of teeth, and a socialist United States will replace it. Culturally, how will this America look? My guess is that it will contain the best aspects of Citizen, Producer, and Consumer Americas.

In a wealthy, fair, and rational world, people can be educated and true democracy becomes viable and stable, something that has been utterly untrue throughout most of humanity’s history due to the ignorance that economic scarcity breeds. Citizenship can come back, but in a form that is available to the masses rather than an elite. In short, the education that will be available to a truly free people will allow democracy to actually work. (There will always be some who are willfully ignorant, as Palinism establishes; our job in a post-scarcity world will be to encourage such people to treat life as a vacation, and to live well but harmlessly.)

Likewise, the virtues, but not the vices, of Producer America are likely to come back in a world where the average person has economic freedom. Liberated from the need to find corporate-approved work, people will be able to pursue work at which they are actually productive, rather than enduring the pointless servility of work for the lower classes, or the insipid social climbing of the white-collar elite. Attitudes toward work will fundamentally change. Instead of work being a place where the average person takes orders and is subjected to the mean-spirited infliction of stress, it will be one where he or she contributes. In a world of material plenty, people will hunger for opportunities to produce rather than consume, consumption being so freely available and easy as to be of minimal interest, just as food is not an all-consuming point of focus healthy, well-nourished people. The right to consume will not be something people fight bitterly in order to secure; it will be guaranteed, and people will focus their energies toward production, and work out of a genuine desire to make a better world.

Finally, it should go without saying that socialist America will preserve the affluence, racial and sexual tolerance, optimism, and creativity that Consumer America had when it was at its best. When the root evil of scarcity is eradicated, branches like racial hatred don’t stand a chance. There will always be some people with evil intentions, but their numbers are few and only scarcity can provide them with their armies of desperate, poor, ignorant, angry and confused people. Scarcity, thus, lends power to the evil. They will be unable to “rabble-rouse” when there is no rabble to be roused.

Moreover, once we arrive at a post-scarcity world, if not before that, it will no longer make sense to speak of the American theater as a separate entity. The World Revolution, the victory of second-enlightenment ideals and libertarian socialism, and the resounding defeat of scarcity and corporate capitalism at the hands of technology, all will be worldwide phenomena. It is likely that, by 2200 if not 2125, the bitter, pointless, and utterly unjust poverty inflicted by accidents of birth and geography will be eradicated.

We do not need a violent fight or heroic efforts to in order to arrive at a fair, post-scarcity world. Technological, historical, and economic trends, in the long term, are on the side of good. Blood does not need to run in the streets, nor do we need some stroke of enormous luck. We merely need to step back and take a rational approach to solving the problems in front of us. We don’t need to be lucky or brutal or unimaginably brilliant to overcome the (admittedly, quite serious) problems facing us; we merely need to be rational and somewhat intelligent going forward.