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Are We Beginning to Enter a Post-Capitalism Era?

Nov 22, 2011   [permalink]

This isn't a political post (though the impacts of the matter would bring plenty of upheaval to political matters). This is more of a speculation-about-trends what's-coming-in-the-future kind of blog entry. Almost (but not quite) verging on a "singularity is approaching" sort of discussion — but more in that vein than politics of the day. So:

Are we on a "post-capitalism" path where technology is providing an ever-increasing quality of life, even as the need for people to "work" decreases? (Bearing in mind the road to get there would be bumpy, as we're seeing.)

We've undeniably had a huge economic upheaval the last few years, but what's struck me, as a science fiction writer and observer of interesting trends, is that generally people in the US are finding ways to make it through, compared to how it would have gone with similar crises in the past.

By that I mean there aren't huge masses of people without a warm roof over their head, or starving, or wearing tattered clothing. (There are some homeless people living on the streets, but not a large percent of the population; and studies seem to indicate many of them are mentally ill, so the failure there seems more one of not helping the mentally ill than a failure in helping them financially.) Many people are uncomfortable, under stress, and in positions of it being hard (but just barely doable) to make ends meet, and of having no cushion for emergencies. But even when such emergencies do strike, they're still generally finding ways to struggle through. While there are a great number who don't have jobs or aren't in the jobs they'd like, the minimum "social safety net" systems seem to be generally performing with sufficient funding input from those who are earning more.

Wait one sec: Perhaps instead of "Sufficient funding input" I should say near sufficient input, since we're running up the deficit, but there are viable ways to pay that down, whether by raising taxes or cutting spending — nobody seems to be saying there's no way to solve the deficit issue, just arguments about which way to do it. So in that sense — and this is fundamental to the point I'm getting toward — there's enough money floating around in the system that we can take care of everybody, such that most people in the US can live a minimally comfortable life. Certainly it could be more comfortable! I'm just looking at the comparisons to, say, 2000 years ago near the peak of the Roman empire, or even 100 years ago, 1912. Perhaps even 50 years ago, 1962.

You don't hear large number of people saying, "Oh my God, I lost my job and now I'm living on the streets and starving."

Things can certainly be better — and I hope they'll get better for everyone! — but my science-fictional-trend point here is that it seems like we're almost moving past our version of capitalism toward a form of society where the basic needs are met for everyone, including a number of what would be amazing luxuries to people of the past. Use of cell phones, the Internet, cable TV, and other measures of "why I'd rather live in 2012 than in 1912" show that, even in the midst of a massive economic crisis, people are still muddling through. (Whereas in times past, more people might well die as a result of the same economic shock. And even in the midst of this, we're working on instituting more health care availability for all — i.e. rather than less.)

So I'm not saying people aren't suffering, but, put in perspective of the past, we've come a long way. What I'm wondering is where we're headed, since that trend seems to be continuing.

Are we nearing an era where the basic needs are available to all, with essentially minimal work needed to provide them? Many people today seem to be in jobs that aren't necessary to the survival of civilization, or even their own survival. Unemployment is "high," around 9%, and yet even among those 9%, living conditions aren't life-threatening, and are better in many ways than the wealthiest had in 1912.

That is to say: Are we on a path where technology is providing an ever-increasing quality of life, even as the need for people to "work" decreases?

In other words, what if "9%" unemployment is (or could soon be) a "new normal"? Or an even higher rate. The need for money seems to be decreasing somewhat, compared to the past. Efficiencies and advances in technology seem to be providing more — and both causing people to need fewer jobs (i.e., causing unemployment, replacing workers with automation), while at the same time providing the necessities so that few people are starving or freezing to death.

That would be bad for "capitalism" as we now know it. Capitalism depends on the flow of money. Neither too slow (as now) nor too fast. But are we heading for — clearly we're not there, so this is a question of trends — are we heading for a time when the basics are provided to all, essentially without having to work for them, as well as a number of what I guess would be called "luxuries" like mobile communications, the (future) Internet, etc.

Isn't that what utopians have always dreamt of? That people wouldn't have to toil to survive, but would have the basics available for no or minimal work, the rest of one's time available for the typical utopian dreams of leisure, creating art, literature, philosophical systems, etc.

(I.e., on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, "self-actualization" as opposed to basic survival and security needs.)

You wouldn't especially need "capitalism" in a world where the survival/security needs were met with minimal work. You would have what we today would call "high unemployment."

If we are on such a path, then problems like high unemployment today might be more difficult problems to "treat." In some sense that's already true: Because of automation we don't need as many workers, thus there are fewer jobs available. (One random example would be how email and the Internet are largely killing off the post office, and thus the need for as many postal workers sorting and delivering mail daily. There's still a need for delivering things like packages — and the post office is often cheaper than UPS or FedEx — but delivering a few bits of junk mail daily seems less necessary. Automation would essentially be the root cause as those postal workers jobs are no longer needed.) We aren't inventing as many new kinds of jobs (e.g. Google tech-support — oh, wait, they don't really have any), and many we are inventing require more skill but are less in widespread demand (e.g. web site developer; even they are being replaced by automated tools and the migration of people's web presence to prebuilt sites like Facebook rather than personal web sites).

That suggests there will be increasing pressure for society (aka the government) to provide more minimum "safety net" services (the efforts toward health care reform is an example of that kind of pressure). In the long term, that's basically a move away from capitalism, since there's less urgent need for money. That is, if basic needs become more or less assured to be met, the role of money for individuals becomes more for discretionary spending. And that, as is my whole point here, diminishes the role of capitalism, and enters a sort of "post-capitalism" era.

So I've just been wondering if we're on the path toward that. We're certainly not there, don't get me wrong. Just wondering if some of the things happening are portents of that.

It could be quite interesting if so. My hunch says that it would be better at the end of the road, but a lot of upheaval and stress on the way. Anyway, enough random musings for the day. Back to work. :)

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