“Capitalism is dead baby, communism is dead baby, liberalism is dead baby, nationalism is dead baby.”
“Why do you keep talking about dead babies?”
There’s been a bit of confusion in politics of late. Talk of unresponsive elites and demagoguery. Of dysfunctional economy that channels profits to the top. And the response that seems most popular is a retreat into tribalism and exclusion.
The political playbook still comes from the dawn of mass society, the late eighteenth century ideologies, the founding fathers of America and the French revolution, classical economics, and the nineteenth century responses of nationalism, bureaucracy and communism and of course, the system of capitalism.
The problem is that all these ideas are rendered broken in the face of globalisation and the microchip.
Population growth exploded with the development of chemical fertiliser in the 1920s, but it was after the logistical developments of the second world war that the global system began to take on its characteristic interdependence and rapid transmission. This created a whole host of novel dynamics that societies and governments have been grappling with since. But it is only with the advent of the microchip that we have a genuinely game changing tool to address them.
In Marxist terms, we have a new mode of production,. And we are witnessing the immune response of ideologies fatally infected by the microchip.
To start with the big one. Capitalism is a legal system that allows individual rights to private property. And makes those property rights all encompassingi. The corollary is that the system favours people with large accumulation of property, or “capital”. And that these big chunks of cash are what get things done.
Capitalism is not under threat from the traditional enemy, which is an alteration of property rights by state ownership. Individual property rights are spreading and becoming more encompassing.
Rather Capitalism is in technical terms, dead, because cash is no longer king. It is not large investments of capital that are behind the giants of modern business, as it was in the industrial age of mines, mills and investment in rail. It is design and software code. And capital chases these.
In that the cost of reproduction and storage of digital goods falls on the end user, the amount of capital required to produce a global product is negligible in relative terms. The factories have been built, the capital accumulated, now they both seek purpose from design and marketing.
What counts is the ability to turn information into something meaningful, be that a brand or an algorithm.
Unfortunately the legal system is set up for the production of physical goods. Some of it is not appropriate. And to simply extend the model for physical goods into the the sphere of intellectual property is likely to bring about unintended consequences.
There are other problems with capitalism that are related to the collapse of its supporting ideologies in nationalism, bureaucracy and liberalism.
Code is king, not capital. Capitalism is dead baby.
Curiously the fist to drop, when in theory, central planning should have been greatly enabled by the microchip and we are familiar with what it offers the surveillance stateii
And while ultimately it is likely that the logic of the micro-chip allows more effective co-operation from a system of distributed power and input, a social parallel processing, this is not what did for Communism.
What did for Communism was the problem of incumbency. Well studied in business, that large corporations fail to exploit disruptive technologiesiii. Power tends to cling to and defend the familiar system that produces the power and makes the powerful actors expert and high status.
Communism suffered because the societies had a unitary power structure. Where capitalism, in allowing private accumulation, creates alternative centres of power, central planning couldn’t appreciate the possibilities offered by the microchip (The Russians built great planes with valve technology right up to the late 80s). This ultimately led the West to evolve more effective forms of cooperation and out compete communism economically and culturally.
Communism is dead baby.
While many believed Communism to be socialism on earth, it is probably more accurately seen as the high point of the bureaucratic system. The bureaucratic mode of production.
Bureaucracy is basically a hierarchical system that uses writing to manage societies that grow beyond tribal scale. It addresses human limitations in the volume and complexity of information, and number of relationships an individual can deal with, by making pyramids of people who pass structured information through the pyramid.
Something like it exists in most city states of the ancient world, but often done by priests. Ancient China from Confucious and later the Roman Empire developed a dedicated bureaucratic class, but the idea really takes off with the advent of the industrialisation in Europe. The automated printing press and the railway and then telegram, allowing structured information to be produced and communicated quicker and cheaper.
Bureaucracy in this period is the great ally of nationalism and allows for the development to the modern state as we know it.
However, the scale of modern society has passed the point where it is possible to manage through a paper bureaucracy. There are a dozen or more organisations with more than a million staffiv, and countless with several hundred thousand. When looking at some of the global and transnational bureaucracies you find organisations with several hundred thousand staff with a remit extending, in some cases, globally. There are people in the management who spend a lifetime trying to understand the organisation itself, let alone the organisation’s impact and purpose.
While structured information and quantative data allow the aggregation of information, these tools also necessarily abstract. Information filtered through hierarchies of global and in many cases, national scale, is becoming too abstracted and has to travel too far down endless corridors where no echo of cries outside are heard.
A system of real time monitoring is likely to fare much better. Having spent a few hundred years developing a literate skilled population, it is likely that better management information and better use of local information can be gained from open sourcing public administration, rather than centralising it.
The internet of things, ubiquitous mobile telephony and cheap cameras make this possible. This is an upside of the surveillance state once it can be prised out of the security establishments hands, and once we are culturally used to the death of privacy.
Bureaucracy has long out grown it’s effective scale. What is novel is that we have means of replacing it.
Bureaucracy is dead baby.
Bureaucracy not only enabled communism, it enabled nationalism. Nationalism is the idea that a volk (a group sharing a common culture and language) should form a political unit, and that this should be territorial. It allowed large geographical areas to have consistent government, remove internal trade tariffs and establish a dominant vernacular for communication.
Nationalism is essentially a creature of the age of steam. It’s administrative potency decreases as transnational connections become more significant and with each development of electronic communication that blurs the boundaries of national fields of communication.
The contemporary economy is a global economy. Large machines (cars, planes, washing machines) will be assembled from parts made in several different countries, without even considering the sourcing and processing of raw materials. Cross-border financials flows are some fifty times greater than the movement of physical goods. The policies and economic issues of China and America will affect workers in Chile, Australia or Nigeria.
And given the ubiquity of property rights in the world, governments are finding it increasingly difficult to tax or regulate businesses or private individuals.
Added to the very real difficulty in managing the economy is the increasing intermingling of fields of communication, the sharing of films, stories, news, celebrities shocks and horrors, and the increasing dominance of a handful of languagesi. Cultural products are increasingly being produced and consumed in the dominant languages in a self reinforcing snowball. Concern with “language death” has emerged. The death of a language is the death of a volk.
The printing press lent itself to nationalism. Digital communication lends itself to internationalism.
And this permeability of national boundaries leads to a cross over in political issues, as seen in the Brexit/Trump parallels, the fact the US president flew to Britain to make a case against Brexit and the fact that the UK parliament debated Trumps candidacy. We are separate systems only on paper, or tort at least.
Group identities based on older national fields of communication are becoming insecure and producing violence and dysfunction in the face of the increased ability of our inherently semi-nomadic species to move across the world.
Political power is about the only thing that still has the ambition, or even makes the pretence to be national. And is all the less relevant for it.
Most issues of significance occur either on a transnational/global scale or a local/personal scale. National government is becoming increasingly maladapted to the environment of the modern world as it no longer seems the appropriate scale for the micro or the macro. And this is a challenge that national government can only really face negatively, that is in making others nations weaker and more porous.
There is much evidence that people are happy in small states, and a glaring case since at least the first world war for political bodies that effectively regulate cross border or global concerns. A perennial rule of human history is that governance follows trade. And in the sphere of trade there is an increasingly potent set of bodies of governance, the WTO and bi-lateral American successors TTIP, etc…
In some ways the success of the nation state has created the conditions that render it insufficient. With companies and capital, but also people being able to move across the world, but political power constrained within national walls, of course national politicians will be out flanked.
In a Nietzchean world, nations are increasingly becoming pots of wealth to be looted by nimble and unscrupulous actors, the experiences of Perestroika and IMF sponsored financial imperialism offering a technical manual for rapacious elites.
The idea of a sovereign nation state is an anachronism. Nationalism is dead baby.
Liberalism emerged as a concern in England in the Glorious Revolution, Cromwell and all that. It’s primary concern was to limit the power of Kings and the Church. Against these it favoured increasing the power of merchants and the press.
Well, they got that doneii, and now we are all too familiar with the problems caused by a powerful merchant class and media. There are even many who lament the decline of the church as an institution of pastoral care and moral authority.
You can elegantly slice liberalism into two traditions, one of economic liberalism, which deals with free trade, laissez-faire, property rights and essentially the interests of merchants. And one of cultural liberalism that deals with free speech, freedom of conscience and tolerance, essentially the interests of the press (the persecuted press were in bulk of cases theological, the Reformation and all that),
In America these two strands translate into left and right wing, but originally they are part of the same political alliance.
Economic Liberalism has three insurmountable problems, one of systemic management, one of distributive efficacy and one existential.
Free trade and private property rights, combined with instantaneous information transfer and cheap logistics create a system that is too fluid and too immense to remain stable. Wrecking ball capital becomes tsunami capita and without effective stops, such as suspension of trading, the feedback loops become destructive. Self-organising systems are not self-governing systems and may organise pathologically.
It is one of the great narrative fictions of our culture that markets are not systems created by law, and this fiction is un-affordable, even for financiers. To ensure the continued reproduction of the system, there has to be limits to its freedom and fluidity.
Automation and the internet are creating conditions where less jobs are needed and global markets can be captured by monopoly institutions. We have reached the point where billion dollar companies need no workers. To continue with the idea that human labour is the source of just reward will become surreal. With property rights so all encompassing, and labour an unnecessary commodity, vast swathes of humanity will receive nothing. I’m not sure that’ll really work out that well.
The idea that everybody left to their enlightened self interest will produce the best result, that the invisible hand will take care of it all, is challenged by the fact that humanity is not good at calculating long term pay off, and that we have imperfect information, not so much about our choices, as about the long term impact of those choices.
This short-sightedness, combined with the scale of humanity’s global impactiii mean that unregulated rights to exploit and trade will probably lead us to boil ourselves like the proverbial frog in a saucepan.
It’s us or economic liberalism.
Economic liberalism is dead baby.
Many people are declaring the death of cultural liberalism, and if so, we may as well call time on civillisaiton, pack up and go and store gunpowder, but roughly speaking the argument goes like this..
How can we tolerate free speech now the unwashed and the infidel can actually make themselves heard?
Cultural liberalism is not an optional value in mass society. We could not maintain a unitary value system in 1500, it takes enormous delusion and oversight to think that we can achieve it in the modern world with a population twenty times the size, with or without migration and and the influence of foreign ideas.
However for the first time in a long time we are actually being called on to exercise liberal values and to the surprise of many, this actually takes some high minded effort. Not simply to stereotype, rest in cognitive bias and happily dismiss the other alien. We actually have to use the energy demanding cerebral cortex, this is too much to ask of some, especially those who are simply liberal from conformism.
In that it allows a critique of power, liberalism helps society to evolve at a faster rate, and this is necessary as the pace of change increases.
The challenge to cultural liberalism is not particularly new, the response to intolerance in a tolerant society is a question as old as the idea itself. It’s only confusing if you read liberalism as a rule book not a value set. The perennial answer is they can say what they like but if they pick up a stone you hit them with a jackboot and put the key somewhere awkward. Mildly inconsistent with core principles but omlettes on the menu.
This leaves cultural liberalism in the West as essentially a conservative programme, one that seek to protect and implement existing law.
You could call this a death, if it is, I hope it’s a kind of transcendent Jedhi death where it goes to form part of the fabric of the universe.
For liberalism to have a radical agenda it needs to return to the core concern of restraint of arbitrary power, but rather than simply focus on church and state, it needs to include restraint of arbitrary commercial and media power, and probably that of algorithms and AI too.
To implement the new agenda it has the micro-chip, and the concept of open-source. Which points to some of the key political battle grounds of our time – the order/disorder spectrum, or possibly the order vs. interconnection spectrum – anarchy vs. authoritarianism and the transparency vs. secrecy – surveillance vs. privacy spectrum.
For those who doubt this prognosis I can only offer the further commentary and programatic instruction of Monty Python
The king is dead. Long live the king.
Capitalism has existed with various groups denied property rights – slaves, colonial subjects, women, but it aims to give the individual undivided rights over property, that is rights to use, manage, profit from, sell, rent, etc…. which in previous legal codes were held it separate titles. E.g feudal land rights.
If you’re not you should be
Xerox’s Palo Alto labs famously invented everything from the hyperlink to the scanner and went, “what to we do with that, it’s not a printer?”
ivWalmarts workforce is roughly equivalent to the population of England at the signing of the Magna Carta, 2.1 million.
iEnglish, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Mandarin and Hindi. Sorry France, only an honourable mention, but that’s where language facism gets you.
iiThe legislative programme of human rights and tolerance also pretty much swept the West.
And this lead liberalism to be the status quo, and as such found most of its supporters were conformists (because most people are). Unfortunately, conformists are not intuitively liberal, so Liberalism found itself in the unfortunate position that many of its subscribers and would be defenders don’t intuitively know why they should support it, other than it’s the law.
While most people like to belong to a tribe of 150 people that sing the same songs and pass on their values and narratives unchallenged, that is not a reasonable expectation in an interconnected world of 9 billion people. By all means disconnect, but don’t expect material or scientific progress to come with it.
iiiHumans consume something like 40% of the biomass of the planet, which is impressive considering most of the rest of it will be bugs and bacteria. Many plant species and the vast majority of large mammals owe their existence to fact that they are human symbiots. We have already affected both the carbon cycle, and the nitrogen cycle and now produce more free nitrogen than all bacteria combined, which previously were the only source.