Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Comment taking off from Tony Judt's Ill Fares the Land: Building Modernity, the Tough Case of Employment

This is a comment originally written for the discussion of Tony Judt's call for a new Social Democracy which Chris Lydon opened on his Radio Open Source Blog on April 6, 2012.  That ROS posting by Chris was called "Tony Judt's "Social Democracy" in America: A Call for Help."  

I posted this extended comment under the above entry on May 13, and it a little later elicited a warming response from "Potter." I used the material in a email letter to Sherman Lewis in the Fall of 2013, and at that time also edited it slightly and posted it here.

                This is about modernization and gradually shaping a new modernity.
                Tony Judt’s indictment in “Ill fares the Land,” of the intensely capitalist countries, mainly the United States, the UK and others on our model, and his lamentation for the state of their culture are well founded.   
                Judt’s title, with the foreboding it conveys for future if we go on as now, is not exaggerated.   It is a perceptive and humane rejoinder to the hyper-individualistic and mercenary culture and economy, which mainstream social sectors in the U.S. are currently practicing, espousing and politically enforcing on the country as a whole, often in the name of “conservatism.”   Absolutely central to the problem is our unsustainable and damaging concentration of wealth, our economic and social inequality, where Judt makes a strong reference to Wilkinson and Pickett’s indispensable  “The Spirit Level.”  It doesn’t have to be that way, he says, rightly.
                 Chris Lydon, on his blog, Radio Open Source (Spring 2012), said that Judt is raising matters which need talking about in a discussion oriented to action, even action that in some way can come into play in the 2012 U.S. election campaigns.  Fair enough --that’s right. 
                Judt is an historian who sees situations in a path driven, past-dependent, way.  The present picture is for him a regrettable falling away from a better past, one which he refers to as “social democracy,”  fixing the downward political break-point around 1980, the advent of Reagan and Thatcher.  But I suggest that that the postwar social democracy (which strongly favored the very bright young Tony Judt) never really existed quite as he remembers it.  We are faced less with a task of recuperating and reviving an old form of better community and social solidarity than with a job of creating a new one. 
                 Judt’s perspective has two other structural elements in addition to being the frame of a person formed in one period and reacting to a succeeding one.   Another frame operating here is the thinking of a person coming from a still family-focused semi-urban setting with a strong note of social solidarity, moving into a more fully urban setting, seemingly a chaotic whirl of unmoored individuals.  A third shift of setting is that of someone coming from a small, relatively intimate social world into a larger one with necessarily diluted social bonds and very different political dynamics and economic institutions.   Compared with 1950, the world facing a typical American or European is larger now in at least three ways:  communication that can make people present to us is infinitely faster and more extensive,  world population has close to tripled, and also many people who were more or less excluded from the active mainstream of national societies, such as blacks and other immigrants, sexual minorities, and even the half of the population that are women, are now very much more present.   
                Both urbanization and movement toward larger and less intimate social and political worlds are important parts of modernity.  Moreover, both are massive autonomous ongoing trends.   If we are in an action mode, they are not controllable, or “operable factors.”  They can be modified, but not stopped.  They also have values of their own: we do not want to halt the broadening of social inclusion in the effort to renew community.   Similarly, economic “globalization” is not a debatable and potentially reversible choice made by political and corporate leaders, but is based on concrete technical changes: communication and information management by electronic means has come close to eliminating distance and indeed, locality, for everything that is informational and not material (which is a lot), while for concrete physical things, similar if weaker delocalizing advances in transportation (for example, containerized shipping that brings a new car from Asia to America for $200 (1% of its price)), are not going to be reversed.
                So the challenge is not recapturing a lost “social democracy,” but building a new one in new circumstances, which starts with imagining and describing it.   The discussion has to go deeper than politics.   It is about society, and while it is about economic distribution, it goes a good deal deeper than economics, well into culture and the most fundamental values.  Freud said that the two great domains of human life are work and love, taking love very broadly to mean social and community relations in general.  This subject is at that level of depth.    It’s about creating and building a more favorable and humane social structure of modernity.
                There is at least one major asset that we have now, although it brings its own complications.    Even before we get to issues of distribution, there must be something to distribute.   Poverty is not a good thing, and by comparison with the earlier time, we now have a great deal more property or goodness to distribute.  Since the seventies, there has been a great deal of production  of both public and private goods —of houses, roads, buildings, transportations systems, communication systems, even institutions,  factories and factory equipment, tools including the machinery of industrialized agriculture and so on.   Not only have many infrastructural and even social goods been produced, but they are better and more durable than in the past, so that once built, they don’t have to be produced again and again.  Their maintenance takes less work than their production.   And not just fixed products, but productivity itself:  there is a greater capacity to generate intellectual and physical goods and services, and do so using much less labor.  We certainly have issues of distribution, but we have a lot more to distribute.      
                 But this achievement has left us with a big problem:   The traditional mode of distribution of material and social goods has been in exchange for work (thinking of capital as “congealed work”).  This exchange relationship is now deep, deep in our culture.   Work is the basis of entitlement to share in social product and indeed to enjoy, both objectively and subjectively, integration in society’s self-respecting mainstream.   
                Now, partly due to the already achieved stock of property and productive capacity which we have, in contrast to China which is building its stock, there is dramatically less work to be done than in earlier decades.   Purposeful development  and application of specifically labor-saving technology, over decades, has also reduced the amount of work needed, as does the offering of cheaper labor from countries at  different stages of development, and the creation of channels, like “outsourcing,” that bring such workers into competition with those here.   There is not enough work.
                How can we maintain social and economic solidarity and inclusion for  people who would normally earn them through work, but for whom now there is no work.         The long-term and unavoidable dwindling of traditional work, notably physical brawn work, demands that we cut the deeply traditional connection between work, on the one hand,  and income and social entitlement and participation, on the other.    Not only we, but all the developed countries are facing more or less overt crises of employment, falling particularly, and particularly ominously, on their young people.   Our work-based system for the distribution of social goods is thoroughly out of whack.   Although new forms of work, some of them fully meritorious, are emerging continuously, the active broad trend is toward a net loss and increasing scarcity of jobs.  
                The proposition that is offered to young adults now is: “Your must work, but, sorry, there is no work for you.”   That is an impossible fundamental proposition for a society to make to its members.  It is cruel for individuals, but it’s also not a foundation for a coherent. sustainable and reliable society. 
                    There must be a redefinition of the mode of distribution of wealth and social entitlement, a redefinition away from the traditional channel or medium or requirement of work. 
                 One temptation is to preserve work of all kinds, to “create jobs,” without much regard for the genuineness or quality of the work.   But in fact there is a large amount of bad or at least very dubious work which, case by case on the merits, should be ended not preserved, and certainly not created new.   False work has many kinds, from hiring security guards where the better choice is to bring down crime,  the now dispensed-with service station attendants and even retail store clerks,  up to those in the medical insurance industry, or to those pouring brilliant tactical work into strategically bad causes, like soldiering in Vietnam or Iraq.  Some work can and should be automated away.   Some work is being exported to lower cost providers, e.g. China, but that is not straightforward or stable.   Large amounts of work need rethinking when they supply large sectors that should be curtailed rather than perpetuated —for example, the urban automobile, or our current day defense budget, and perhaps even small-holder agriculture.  Better city planning could silently eliminate the immense “work” of commuting two hours per day to a job-site.  But it has to be admitted that, in practice, if we don’t create “make work,”  the dwindling of work will continue and even accelerate.
                How will society adjust?   The pattern of certain successful social groups which go, over one or several generations,  from the hardest of work in enterprise building to more esthetic lives of cultural self-consumption will be seen more often, and be more accepted.
                More broadly, the new remedy to the employment dilemma will come in principle from the left.   A larger measure of social entitlement  will come to be territorial (just being in the country) rather than economic—earning money.   Once a floor level of income is provided for all, many activities which are good human activities but which now are not paid or are not locally socially entitling, will be encouraged, perhaps with stipends, such as local sports, local music and theatricals and other forms of what are now considered hobbies or volunteer activities, and the social treatment of them will be more like “work.”  
                At the same time, the field, and a broad one, has to be left open, and incentivized, for work.   There has got to be room and rewards, for example, for the hardworking teacher of German language that Tony Judt had in secondary school, or for individual surgeons and groups of computer and instrument developers who are bringing us laparascopic surgery—we’ve just had a quasi-miraculous application in our neighborhood -- or true miracle drugs.    What should be the income/wealth differential between those who make the genuine and great contributions, and those who just stay out of jail and maintain a temperature of 98.6°?   Maybe, once a baseline of adequate income exists for everyone independent of work, there could be  a multiple of three or four—Francois Hollande proposed to tax incomes above € 1M at 75%, which could be a useful marker.
                How to revalue work and handle both the distribution both of work itself and of its fruits, is one of the dilemmas in building a more solidary Judtian “new social democracy,” and there are lots more—where to draw the line between the market and the state?   How to delineate roles among other circles and entities as well, such as the non-profit sector, and even among the local, intermediary, national and international spheres of action.    I don’t think either Judt’s nostalgia or Siddartha Mukherjee’s call for innovation on Chris's Radio Open Source really fill the bill—we do need and want continuing innovation, but it is also basically dis-employing, is it not?
                What about applications to the curent political situation?   Some parts of what would become a “New Social Democracy” program are total no-brainers and are already in play: universal access to medical care, more progressive taxation, free tertiary education, a much smaller defense budget, re-election of Obama over Romney, but the penitential note is how much opposition these simple and over- due steps have elicited out—nothing is easy.   Should the existence and undoubted public support and effectiveness of Mitch McConnell stop us from thinking and talking about how the country could be much better?   Probably it should restrain the further flights of idealism, but otherwise, clearly no.