Published on http://www.counterpunch.org/
“We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future.”
Pierre-Simon Laplace, 1814
Shelley held that a prophet was someone who can see into the present and thus future consequences become visible. Because the present is so divided and fractured, we doubt that a single vision of the future emerges. Or, we think, each of us is making a personal relationship with the present and therefore, once again, the future cannot be brought to single vision.
Nevertheless, the present is also swollen with clearly observable elements, conditions, factors, dominating spins, modalities, platforms, priorities, determinants and what have you, as the Dude would say, that do not point to an infinitude of futures but rather to two.
We are getting to know one of them very well because it arises from a kind of apocalyptic fear, fear that destruction lies ahead. The havoc we have created in our environment seems to have reached the mood of Frost’s poem, “Fire and Ice”:Some say the world will end in fire/Some say in ice.
Our fears of the end, our eschatological fears, imagine nuclear missiles launched by madmen or nuclear suitcase bombs going off everywhere improvised by those who hate us. We finish ourselves before our ravaged planet does. Actually, in this scenario, we are fouling the nest of Nature by upsetting the fragile conditions by which all creatures survive. Global warming, if the predictions of science hold true, will also suffice for an ending to human life on Earth.
Truth be told, empirically, rationally and, now, alternatively, our response to 9/11-like events has shrunk to our annoyance with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) baggage checks. U.S. fears of global warming also shrink every year, even though the planet continues to heat up. Bret Stephens, in his launch op-ed piece for the NY Times, mocks certitude in anything, including climate change, reaching out in this to the three quarters of Americans who deny any consensus on climate change. (Stephens, “Climate of Complete Certainty,” April 28, 2017). And the matter of dealing with probabilities regarding Kim Jon Un’s launching a nuclear missile in our direction rests with President Trump.
And so the present discloses only muddle here on these issues although the probability is high that global warming will wreak havoc and worse . Whether or not Americans become interested in this is not clear in the present. A likewise situation holds for the clarity of nuclear threat, especially because President Trump signals an ability to hold numerous contradictions in mind without awareness of doing so. The probability here is that either he will stop functioning in any manner that can be spun as rational, or the country will stop functioning.
The present reveals more than these imponderable and dystopic scenarios and it may be that the best way to avoid these, and a reincarnation of Trump in the future, may be to focus on the future consequences of other observables in the present. If neither Nature nor madmen in high office and/or with nuclear armaments destroy us, what is the future we see in the present?
I do not see a return to unions fighting for salaries and conditions of employment for workers.
The mid-1950s when 35% of workers were unionized will not return. We also cannot envision that salaries will move from the debit side of the ledger to the credit side. Shareholders are not more liable in the future to vote for wage increases subtracted from their stock returns. Consumers in the future probably will not be more willing to pay more for anything in return for higher wages for workers supplying those goods and services. I cannot see that a weakened and disparaged class, namely, wage earners, will replace the public and private ownership of profit-seeking entities, i.e., the capitalist ownership of the means of production. The competitive temper of the American mass psyche is not toward a shared ownership among equals, toward worker owned cooperatives, but rather toward individual winning and losing.
The Forgotten, namely those left out of a globalist competitive game, have mobilized themselves into national recognition through their advocacy of Donald Trump. Because he cannot keep them loyal, loot the country, increase their immiseration and blame Obama and Hillary, we can expect that in the near future The Forgotten will become something like the sans-culottes that stormed the Bastille. Trump will self-destruct but The Forgotten will remain, as will a plutocratic order that survives Trump’s autocratic rule.
A portion of the wage earning class is scheduled to receive low wages from multiple “gig”/”independent contractor” sources on an unpredictable 24/7 basis. Another portion is scheduled for unemployment as robotics, AI, on-line venues, and health incapacities become the norm.
This attrition of wage earners in the future due to robotics has no remedy, for no other reason than our American cultural imaginary gives hi-tech a blank check to do whatever it wants. Attrition created by replacing brick and mortar enterprises with digital, cyberspace enterprise is clearly unstoppable. 840,000 workers employed by GM: 38,000 by Google, though Google’s earning were 20% higher than GM, which means cyberspace generates more profit but not greater distribution of that profit to workers.
We have never in the past extinguished any technological “advance,” even thought it has proven to be clearly a toxic or deadly advance, either in terms of the quality of human life or the health of the planet.
Cyber companies like Google and Apple believe in this: “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage” (Arie de Geus) We see very little movement in the present toward this: “The well being of both humans and the planet depends on the cooperative advance of what sustains both rather than the pursuit of a competitive advantage leading to every increasing profits to dividend recipients.”
Such an improbable cooperative advance would be facilitated by the growth of worker owned cooperatives but, to repeat, any form of mutualism is believed widely to be an imposition on the individual competitive spirit, the assumption of personal responsibility and the rewards of personal winning.
Perhaps most frightening in this improbable mutualism is the replacement of private property ownership and the inequities to which it leads with a socialist order in which, in the American cultural imaginary reigning in the present, we are all poor together. The case against worker owned cooperatives presumes that this is a political structure that will constrain and reduce personal freedom, the competitiveness that produces wealth, and the initiative that drives that competitiveness. A competition for private ownership results in a hierarchy of power that freely competing individuals accept as legitimate. This is both a theory and a spin, one that The Forgotten followers of Trump are at war with, not in regard to the dispensations of capitalist economic power but specifically in regard to the Federal government, not in the hands of an unqualified Trump but in the hands of Obama and the Clintons. Trump cannot let go his attacks on Obama because his followers continue to live on the fumes of that hatred.
Pointing out that the inequities of wealth and power have long since corrupted the “level playing field” of competitiveness has had little effect in the present. Pointing out that a plutocratic order is a powerful inhibitor of individual freedom has also made little headway in the present. There is scant reason to expect that either indictment will turn the tide. Donald Trump is clear evidence of what all the illiberalities of a plutocratic order can produce but none of this has been meaningful to his supporters, ironically most of whom are at the other end of plutocratic order production.
There is then, in summary, no sign in the present that there will be any adherence in the future to the statement that the well being of both humans and the planet depends on the cooperative advance of what sustains both. There is a strong probability that we will continue the pursuit of a competitive advantage leading to every increasing profit to individuals positioned by stock ownership to enjoy those profits.
Attrition for reason of incapacity of the waging earning class is an attrition that can be prevented.
Nationalized medicine, which includes price controls regarding all health care costs as well as pharmaceuticals, has been strenuously challenged in the past and continues to be in the present in the U.S. If you consider the calculus of wage earner contribution to the economy, free access to health care would be an unwarranted expense. Under our system of seeking a competitive advantage, allocating profits, via taxes, toward a service that is irrelevant in the pursuit of that advantage makes no sense. The bottom line here is that if an economy is buzzing along nicely without this large segment of the population then the good or bad health of that segment is irrelevant.
Tax payer supported universal health care is then a problem to the foundational ruling creed, that is Market Rule, that drives the totality of American culture, an economics that drives the politics as recognized and obeyed by both political parties.
Poor health has in the present shown up in the surprising statistics regarding the rising death rate of middle age white wage earners as well as the fact that the U.S. has the lowest life expectancy at birth among OECD comparable countries. If this attrition of wage earners was restricted to whether we had a public or private health care system, we could be more optimistic regarding the future. However, wage earners are suffering from the rapaciousness of our economic system, both in its use of a toxifying business model and in the wealth inequities it produces. Consider that a serious wealth gap enables the top 20% to consume non-toxic food and drink while the remaining population is bottom feeding, fast foods and industrialized, chemicalized foodstuff. In order to break that calculus, you need to upend the Market’s profit priorities in regard to production and also in regard to the equity of results. There is no sign in the present that this can occur.
So, wage earners, encompassing a notable percentage of The Forgotten, can be left out of the profit making equation, can indeed be forgotten, and the national economy can continue to hum along nicely. The success of the top 20% professional, dividend recipient class is the engine driving the economy and that success has a commensurate political success. You can have a thriving 20% democracy in the future in which free elections go on and the Bill of Rights is lively.
You can have all this without needing some 80% of the population. Ironically and drastically, the public good and the general Welfare of “We, the People” translates in the future to the preservation and protection of a dividend recipient class. And from that perspective, the majority becomes a problem to be solved. A former “working class hero” is now a vestigial member on the plutocratic body.
Finland initiated a program in which 2,000 citizens are given a guaranteed income, the funds dispensed to both those who work or do not work. A universal income certainly offers security to wage earners who are no longer needed in a 20% “democracy,” but more importantly to that 20% is the security they achieve when a threat is disarmed.
Will a UBI, a universal basic income, materialize in the U.S. and thus stave off the threat that a “creatively destroyed” 80% will present to a winning 20%?
Again, what is observable in the present in regard to any form of tax supported government welfare, which is what UBI would be, is a dominating belief that any interference by government in market rule’s dispensation of reward destroys and at best reduces incentive. This, like the matter of personal free choice, is a belief that cannot bear close examination. There is a strong continued effort in the present to convert all public funding to private control, which means returning the situation, whether retirement, health care, unemployment, disability and so on, to market rule. Therefore, it is doubtful that UBI will be activated in the U.S. Repealing Obamacare would release those with incomes of $1 million or more of a roughly $144 billion tax burden over the coming decade, according to a congressional analysis. Thus, the action continues to go away from tax supported programs that tax the wealthy and benefit everyone else.
Finally, what we see in the present of what I would call a growing visitation from the Id as well as a collapse into a kind of solipsistic obliviousness reveal much of our future.
It seems clear that cyberspace, despite the enthusiasm of cyberspace libertarians as well as the enthusiasm of marketers and advertisers, who are using Big Data to target everyone’s reachable spots, is a powerful soma delivery system. Cyberspace is more like Pandora’s Box dispersing not a thousand flowers to bloom but more of the dark side of the twisted branch of our humanity. Twitter alone proves the case.
I recognize the enthusiasm for Google’s ready to hand responses to all our questions, the wonders of so much information at a click, but I wonder how clicking in the world of our own preferences within a system designed to respond to those preferences does not preempt any kind of learning.
I reach this critique pre-digitally, a slow kind of analog erudition in which I recall this from John Dewey: “To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry — these are the essentials of thinking,” And this from Susanne Langer: “The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it — right or wrong — may be given.”
What the present reveals in regard to learning are three indicators that tell us much of the future: 1. Learning is not a successful enterprise or even a fledgling start-up in the U.S.; 2. The uncertainties regarding how to both create and evaluate learning makes it a plunderable marketing frontier; 3. The confusion of learning with digitally retrieved information and the containment of that retrieval within the domain of previous choices leads to anti-learning or learning blockage.
We not only then face in the future a kind of thinking that cannot break out of categories which have already led to the dystopic future I am describing but a kind of thinking that can reduce a populace within a plutocracy to an illusionary self-empowerment condition. It is not difficult to imagine that the domains of cyberspace and virtual reality will create a seduction that far exceeds what the Sirens offered Odysseus.