walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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Published on: January 17, 2011
The Next American Upgrade

Social reform, asserted Confucius, begins with the rectification of names. I can think of one case where he’s unquestionably right: the use of the word ‘developed’ as applied to certain wealthy and industrialized countries mostly found in western Europe and North America, but sprinkled elsewhere throughout the world.  The widespread and unchallenged use of that […]

Social reform, asserted Confucius, begins with the rectification of names.

I can think of one case where he’s unquestionably right: the use of the word ‘developed’ as applied to certain wealthy and industrialized countries mostly found in western Europe and North America, but sprinkled elsewhere throughout the world.  The widespread and unchallenged use of that word testifies to deep errors about the kind of world we live in — and the shocking poverty of social and historical imagination that has narrowed the vision of our chattering classes.

The word ‘developed’ contains an important assumption: that a historical process known as development (closely related to modernization — another problematic word) not only exists throughout the world, it culminates in a known end which has already been reached.  This word implies that countries like France, Canada and our own happy United States of America have reached the end of history, the summit of human achievement, stable and enduring arrangements in political economy that are unlikely to change much going forward.

Nothing could be stupider or less historically defensible than this belief, yet few assumptions are more widespread among the world’s intelligentsia, planners and, especially, bureaucrats.  Technological change has never been moving faster or with greater force than it is today as the implications of one revolution in IT after another work themselves out; the foundations of the global economic and political order are being shaken by the dramatic rise of new powers. Yet somehow many of us believe that the  western world is an end state: the comfy couch at the end of history rather than the launching pad for another great, disruptive leap into the unknown.

The social order in the rich, western ‘developed’ countries has its roots in the New Deal in the United States and in the post World War Two organization of western Europe and Japan.  In all these countries various forms of what I’ve called the blue social model took hold and provided the template for what we still called a ‘developed’ country.  Without going into the details, strong regulatory states managed stable national economies to ensure what was seen as an appropriate distribution of resources across classes and regions within a country.  Universal mass suffrage was tempered by a strong party system in which both elected and unelected heads of parliamentary parties and other institutions were able to shape public debate and stabilize the lives of the political parties.

The strong, well financed states of this era were able to provide increasingly comprehensive cradle-to-grave social support for their citizens; the complex operations of these states were by and large delegated from politically elected officials to career experts and bureaucrats.  In its more egalitarian and regulated form this type of state was known as social democracy; where states were somewhat less powerful (less state ownership of industry, lighter regulation, less extensive social welfare systems) the system was known as liberal capitalism.

Such countries were generally characterized by mass middle class affluence.  A large percentage of the workforce was employed by large corporations and stayed in the same company for life.  Within these companies, blue collar workers were on one track; white collar managers on another.  Each year productivity and population went up a little bit; the benefits of rising GDP per capita were distributed by a combination of collective labor agreements and government policy to ensure that all social classes shared in the benefits.

This kind of system is still more or less what we think of when we speak of developed countries today.  The reality of course is that this system has been in gradual decline for decades, but the mind of the west cannot break the habit of thinking that the western social model circa 1970 is the only way modern society can and even must be organized.

There are two things wrong with the blue social model.  Most urgently and obviously, it isn’t sustainable.  Competition from overseas, technical change at home, and the declining birth rate that has turned our social insurance programs into something Bernie Madoff would design combine to make the old model unsustainable.  I’ve written about this elsewhere and will return to the subject as the blue model meltdown continues, but the sheer impracticality of the old social model is forcing us to think about change.

There’s another kind of critique of the blue social model that also needs to be made.  Sometimes the discussion about the end of the blue social model reminds me of the old riddle about how many Virginians it takes to change a light bulb.  Three, is the answer: one to screw in the new bulb, and two to talk about how good the old one was.  The public service unions, tenured university professors and others with a stake in what’s left of the blue social model want to keep discussion fixed on how wonderful life was back in the day.

I listen to the acolytes of big blue telling me how perfect it is, and I think of two great American songs: Everything’s Up-to-Date In Kansas City” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! and “Is That All There Is?” as sung by Peggy Lee.

In “Kansas City”, cowboy Will Parker enthuses that in Kansas City circa 1906 with seven story skyscrapers and horseless buggies running wild “they’ve gone about as fer as they can go.”  And Peggy Lee looks at one experience after another that is supposed to be thrilling and inspiring and asks herself “Is that all there is?”

That’s how I feel about the blue social model.  It has its merits, and in some important ways it was definitely an advance on what went before — but it is not all that inspiring and it is certainly not the acme of human potential.

There was actually a lot that was unjust and cramped about the blue social model, and the friends of progress and of the average person should be chomping at the bit to put something better in its place.  When mass assembly line production began early in the twentieth century, social thinkers (and labor advocates) denounced “Taylorism” and “Fordism” as dehumanizing innovations that condemned  millions to perform repetitive, meaningless, soul-killing work to produce a stream of mediocre consumer products.  Is the Fordist factory system now our ideal, the highest form of social life which our minds can conceive? Is it really our goal now to keep as many people employed in this way as we possibly can?

Fordist assembly line, 1913 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Social critics spent decades, rightly in my view, denouncing our school system from Pre-K through Ph.D.  Mediocre, conformity inducing, alienating, time wasting: the school system trains kids to sit still, follow directions, and move with the herd.  As the economy becomes more fluid, more entrepreneurial, it is clear that raising one generation after another of aspiring time-serving bureaucrats is not very effective.  But isn’t it also a terrible waste of human potential?  Building big box schools where the children of factory workers could get the standardized social and intellectual training necessary enable most of them to follow their parents’ footsteps into the big box Ford plant (and giving the lucky few a chance to escape to the universities and professions) was a huge social advance once.  I am not so sure that we should be proud of that today. Maybe there’s something more we can teach our kids than the bland pablum of the standard school curriculum; maybe there are ways we can organize learning so that it is more individual, closer to home, better integrated with the world of work — and more rewarding.

Much of today’s production that doesn’t take the form of mind-numbing, repetitive work in factories comes in the shape of mind-numbing, repetitive work in offices.  Government, corporate, legal and non-profit bureaucracies suck up inordinate amounts of human time and talent.  It is not at all clear that the output is worth it — or to put it another way, we should be able to get equal or better results with less work.  Information technology offers increasing opportunities to transfer more and more of the routine scutwork of administration over to machines, setting the office drones free to do more rewarding, more socially useful things.

Moreover, our bureaucracies are not just cumbersome time and creativity sucks; they are expensive as well.  Federal, state and local government can become significantly cheaper as we strip out the layers of bureaucracy, dispense with work rules developed in some cases back when carbon paper ruled the world, and restructure patterns of organization and management that date back even farther.  People who like low taxes and people who like on big government can agree at least that by systematically making government cheaper we can have all the government we need at rates we can afford.

Other features of blue social life that we take for granted are equally dehumanizing and equally outdated.  The mass migration of commuters out of bedroom suburbs into office towers every day is to a large extent a social absurdity.  Telecommuting plus the development of more small satellite office centers could drastically reduce the amount of time Americans spend on the world’s dullest road trips — and cut both our energy consumption and our need for sixteen lane commuter highways.  It would transform the nature of suburban and exurban neighborhoods, strengthen family life and help kids learn what work is like — and perhaps lend a hand.

Commuter traffic jam in Tel Aviv (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There are subtler ways in which the blue model impoverishes our lives and blights our society.  Many Americans are stuff-rich and meaning-poor.  That is to say that even many people classified as ‘poor’ in our society have an abundance of consumer goods that is historically unprecedented.  From cell phones to designer basketball shoes and Barbie dolls, our country is rich in anything that a Fordist factory can turn out.

But far too many Americans have lives that are poor in meaning.  They might work or aspire to work in dehumanizing factories or bureaucracies.  They might be clients of faceless, bureaucratic welfare offices.  They might live in age and class segregated neighborhoods where they are cut off from the kind of vital human contact and interchange that helps define the good life.

The blue social model, for all its merits, separates production and consumption in ways that are ultimately dehumanizing and demeaning for large chunks of the population.  The true value of human life does not come from consumption, even lots of consumption.  It comes from producing goods and services of value through the integration of technique with a vision of social and personal meaning.  Being fully human is about doing good work that means something.

The 19th century American dream of the family farm was in some ways closer to a sustainable human ideal than the 20th century American dream of the family home secured by the middle class paycheck.  The family farm integrates production and consumption, family and work, education and production in ways that the suburban homestead cannot.  As we try to imagine a social ideal for a new century we could do much worse than to think of synthesizing the two dreams.

The spiritual poverty of a consumption-based society is sadly visible on every side.  I don’t mean to go all Cotton Mather here and denounce everyone who is having a good time, but a society with our levels of drug and alcohol abuse might not be the happiest conceivable human living arrangement.  Counting streaming video and other sources, the Nielsen organization reported that the average American watched 151 hours of television a month in 2008.  I’m not saying Americans shouldn’t be able to watch as much TV as they want, but I do wonder whether a society where that is happening is as rich and fulfilling as it could be.

In my posts late last year about 5.0 liberalism I was beginning to get at the need for a new political imagination that could take us beyond the world of 4.0 liberalism and its blue social model.  I can’t pull the political program of the 5.0 liberals like a rabbit out of my hat.  There are lots of serious thinkers out there coming at this problem from many different angles.  In general, they fall under the rubric of “smart populists”: people like Joel Kotkin who believe that the purpose of politics today must be to put regular Americans back in charge of their own lives as far as possible — but who also understand that this is a complicated job.  It’s not just a question of bulldozing the bureaucratic structures of the 4.0 world (though in some cases bulldozers are called for).

For 4.0 liberals, who genuinely believe that the old social system was the only good way to organize society, life is full of gloom and doom.  For 5.0s, this is a time of adventure, innovation and of unlimited possibility.  America is ready for an upgrade to a new and higher level; this, I believe, is the project that will capture the best energies of our rising generations, and they will lead the United States and the world to new and richer ways of living that will make the ‘advanced’ societies of the twentieth century look primitive, backward and unfulfilled.

show comments
  • WigWag

    “But far too many Americans have lives that are poor in meaning. They might work or aspire to work in dehumanizing factories or bureaucracies. They might be clients of faceless, bureaucratic welfare offices. They might live in age and class segregated neighborhoods where they are cut off from the kind of vital human contact and interchange that helps define the good life.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    With all due respect, isn’t it a little bit presumptuous for Professor Mead to conclude that millions of Americans lead lives that are spiritually bereft or short on meaning? Is there any actual data to demonstrate that American’s conception of their well-being is related to anything beyond their economic circumstances? Or does Professor Mead think that Americans are too dumb or out of touch with their own circumstances to determine for themselves how satisfactory their lives are?

    Data does exist that measures how American’s view their well-being. “The Gallup-Healthways Well Being Index” tracked how one million Americans conceptualize their well-being. As it turns out, it has almost nothing to do with angst about living in a materialistic society and everything to do with how much “stuff” they own. When their personal economic circumstance deteriorates and they can buy less “stuff” their sense of well being deteriorates. When the economy is better and they can buy more “stuff” their sense of well being improves.

    Intellectuals from Karl Marx to Herbert Marcuse have found this reality troubling and have invented a variety of bizarre theories from “false consciousness” to “commodity fetishism” to “objectification” to explain it. This is what Marcuse said in his book “One Dimensional Man,”

    “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment…”

    I am surprised to find Mead in Marcuse’s company.

    Interestingly, pertaining to some of Professor Mead’s recent posts about atheism, non-religious Americans actually scored better on the well being scale than many religious Americans. Gallup-Healthways analyzed their data by religious affiliation and found that American Jews ranked number one in terms of self perceived well being, followed by those self identifying as non-religious, atheists or agnostics. Catholics, Mormons and Muslims followed; Protestants scored the lowest.

    The poll can be found here,

    Professor Mead reports in doleful fashion that,

    “Americana watched 151 hours of television a month in 2008. I’m not saying Americans shouldn’t be able to watch as much TV as they want, but I do wonder whether a society where that is happening is as rich and fulfilling as it could be.”

    In the second half of the 20th century Americans began to watch alot of television; in the 21st century they’re glued to their computers looking at, amongst other things, blog sites like the one that belongs to Professor Mead. The manner in which Americans recreate changes along with technological advancements.

    Is there really any reason to believe that the ways Americans recreated before the development of radio, television and the internet was any “richer” or more “fulfilling” than the way they recreate now?

  • Luke Lea

    “Much of today’s production that doesn’t take the form of mind-numbing, repetitive work in factories comes in the shape of mind-numbing, repetitive work in offices.”

    Work is like that. So how about a compromise between the age-old longing for the simple life and the technological imperatives of a modern society? Be constructive, Mead! Throw us a life raft! ;)

  • Luke Lea

    Sorry. I didn’t mean to spell your name wrong. It’s me, not you.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Fixed. No worries!

  • JKP

    The problem with those 151 hours of television is the distribution. That’s five hours a day; that is a lot of TV. And its not all Charlie Rose or Fareed Zakaria. It’s not even five hours of Law and Order or House, which despite limited applicability still is mildly educational. I’ll admit on a given day I may watch a couple of hours of mindless TV, but the average American is watching 5 hours of Two and a Half Men, Jersey Shore, Sportscenter, and HBO. If they are watching the news, the ratings bear they are watching Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow, or months of non-stop coverage of Natalee Holloway’s disappearance. Regardless of what you think of FNC and MSNBC’s prime-time lineups, they hardly contribute to a well-educated populace.

    Wigwag, all those blogs you mentioned, as well as other Internet usage… that’s in addition to TV viewership. In some cases it may be an either/or proposition, but for most people it isn’t. And Professor Mead, while I consider your blog among the most thought-provoking and educational on the web, how many hits does your page get a day? I could of course be wrong, but I would imagine it pales in comparison to ESPN’s least-viewed blogs. As I write this the top 5 Yahoo! searches are Christian Bale, Jane Lynch, Ricky Gervais, James Blunt and Social Security.

    Now I’m not so smug or elitist to overlook my own shortcomings in this regard. I’ve had binges where I spend days playing an addictive flash game during my classes, or go home and plop down in front of the TV for several hours, only getting up to make dinner or use the bathroom. As the professor said, we should have some time for entertainment.

    But in America we’ve gotten so complacent that its become an entitlement to turn your brain off after 5 PM. That auto-worker in Detroit should be able to go home and kick back for 5-6 hours after a hard day’s work, not teach himself new skills in case his job isn’t there tomorrow. Instead of spending a few hundred dollars on Rosetta Stone so that I can teach myself a language that will make me more flexible and generally more employable in the job market, I should be able to spend $50 a month to make sure I get all the movie channels from my satellite provider, and invest my time watching movies instead of using that software. My argument is probably rife with exaggeration and gross generalizations, but as a country (and myself included), we have a serious problem with spending too much of our disposable time on leisure activities aimed at immediate satisfaction and too little on making ourselves more competitive. Professor Mead, I don’t know if that’s what you were getting at, but its my own two cents anyhow.

  • section9

    The point I keep running into in reading Meade’s essays is the imperative for decentralization and a movement away from the social whirlpools of the New Deal and the Great Society.

    Both parties in the United States find great value in amassing great power in the Center. That’s where the money, the game, and the politics is. For us to advance, we have to rediscover Madison’s wisdom of distributed power out in the states.

    I suspect that onrushing fiscal crisis will force us down that road.

  • T Nickey

    Great article!! Mr. Mead always thinks and says what I meant to think and say but didn’t because I was busy doing other things and also couldn’t quite figure out myself. Our schools are atrocious bureaucracies. I look forward to the new future that Mead contemplates.

  • WigWag

    Interestingly, Jesus was of like mind with Marx and Marcuse (and apparently Mead) in his concern that a focus on materialism stripped life of its sense of meaning. In the Sermon on the Mount he warned that people can become enslaved by the desire for money and goods. Instead, Jesus implored his followers to seek out G-d and His will (Marx and Marcuse part company with Jesus on that one). The same message is implicit in Matthew 6:24-25 where Jesus taught that “No one can serve two masters…”

    I am reminded of this funny little poem/prayer that I read somewhere and liked enough to keep:

    Now I lay me down to sleep
    I pray my Cuisinart to keep
    I pray my stocks are on the rise
    And that my analyst is wise
    That all the wine I sip is white
    And that my hot tub is watertight
    That racquetball won’t get too tough
    That all my sushi’s fresh enough
    I pray my cordless phone still works
    That my career won’t lose its perks
    My microwave won’t radiate
    My condo won’t depreciate
    I pray my health club doesn’t close
    And that my money market grows
    If I go broke before I wake
    I pray my Volvo they won’t take.

    I think that Mead’s analysis about the morphing of 4.0 liberalism into 5.0 liberalism is very interesting. But I think it would be more trenchant if he stuck to critiquing the “blue state model” and left the more mushy stuff about the meaning of life out of it.

    Remarks about how American’s lack “meaning” in their lives are better left to religious treatises of the secular (Marx and Marcuse) or sacred (Gospels) sort.

  • Tom Kinney

    This reminds me of something Joel Kotkin recently mentioned, the cosmological issue of progress. To progress or not to progress. Does our species constantly progress in its evolution toward some final point? Can we create a world in which our progress reaches some final point of destination? In his piece, Kotkin went after Holdren, Obama’s science czar, for his “de-development” stance, noting that Holdren’s peculiar type of latter-day luddite typifies liberal distaste for progress, something Kotkin finds damaging to the more sincere attempts at progressing our species and its lot. I greatly appreciate Kotkin’s insights generally, but oddly, as a conservative, I had come to quite the opposite opinion on my own: progress is indeed an illusion that perhaps is typical of western cultural thinking patterns in general; that it mirrors the notion that more and better technology = a better and more perfect humanity. Liberals, I believe, are delusional in this way; as lay believers, progress is to them the possibility of creating a sort of heaven on earth where there are no sins of social injustice. The problem with that theory? Human mortality. The ancients, as in the epic of Gilgamesh, got that and pondered long and hard on it. Gilgamesh got this penultimate advice (paraphrased) from a barkeep; “eat, drink, and be merry, the gods have a monopoly on eternal life, so what’s the point of dreaming about it?” Morality means that we cannot perfect life on earth, which then will not always be imperfect, but divinely so, as it is more true to our nature to learn by trial and error that must be repeated in some form by subsequent generations.

    Thus, progress is an illusion and we’re better off admitting our rather severe limitations as but a higher animal species and living within them.

    Kotkin is right, though; if you don’t believe in the illusion of progress, that alone might well threaten your drive to improve the lot of our species.

    The problem, however, and one that Kotkin missed, was that once one has come to see the false promise of progress, as with all personal intellectual breakthroughs, there’s no going back.

    So perhaps what we really need, is a new lay morality that is strictly of human invention, not one dictated to us (falsely or truly, it doesn’t matter) by (invented or real, doesn’t matter) the gods.

  • david foster

    Re your comments about mass production, you might be interested in my post faux manufacturing nostalgia.

  • Okie

    As someone else stated,”Do something that you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Problem is people find security in being in a rut.

  • Not Here Permanently

    The big problem is that the 4.0 Liberals are entrenched and won’t get out of the way. Anyone who tries to do something different is likely to run into oppositon from the zoning board and/or the local school officials or the code compliance officer or whoever. And now they have decided to “fix” healthcare by making the whole country buy the same thing at the same price.

    And yes, materialism is obsolete, on so many levels. Life will improve when more understand this ISN’T all there is, it’s just a stop along the way.

  • Michael Kennedy

    Very nice essay. I have a couple of observations. One is that half the population have IQs of less than 100. Leisure may lead to activity that varies by natural aptitude. Two, this topic of human satisfaction has been studied by many, including Mihaly Csikszentmihal whose book, Flow, suggests that driving may actually be one of the most pleasurable experiences although traffic jams, no doubt, are exceptions.

    I believe it has also been shown that television is a very seductive experience and primitive villages change behavior patterns once it appears.

    I enjoyed the essay.

  • adollarfifty

    Answer: Space colonization.

  • Luke Lea

    Here’s a piece Kotkin squeezed out of me a couple of years back:

  • wyn

    OK Mead. Think a moment. If everyone were like you, brainy and mired in deep thought, who would be working at those mind-numbing jobs? You, and all others like you (brainy types subsidized by us working mind-numbed idiots) would still be hunting and gathering.
    But. . . I agree that you have a point. The old model doesn’t work as well as it should. Why? Because the details of our economy have changed. We no longer have just appliances, we have apps and the hardware to take advantage of them. We are at the cusp of our thoughts initiating mechanical action. So the fault is not Americans or the American worker or the fact that we spend too many hours in front of the TV, it’s because we need to rethink the blue collar white collar divide. It isn’t that clear any more.

  • g50

    What happens when one comes up with a “new template for a social model that promotes meaningful lives”? It eventually becomes just another television program.

    One can find meaning in life, regardless of where one works – and nobody is forced to watch television. The suburban and institutional model that you say cannot compare to the farmstead model has, to the contrary, personally offered me endless opportunities to cultivate a meaningful life. I’ve been enjoying several months of posts, Dr. Mead, but it is too arrogant to reach the kind of conclusions on meaninglessness you reach here.

    There is a lot to criticize about today’s repetitive office jobs and long expressway commutes, but there was something about the tone of today’s argument which really repulsed me. It seems condescending and elitist, and my immediate reaction is to defend the 4.0 as a guarantee that one can find as much meaning as one looks for – even though I have been with you in your earlier arguments in favor of the next upgrade.

    Because it is a work in progress, the 5.0, I hope you drop the particular approach I am taking issue with, because I think it will turn off a good number of people who otherwise might find your argument very appealing.

  • g50

    As just one example, to be somewhat more productive for this discussion, the factory or the office might be the place where you go to do a lot of uninteresting, repetitive work. Or it might be the place where every day, you spend time with dozens or hundreds of interesting people from all walks of life. Perhaps the 5.0 should go the route, not of a judgmental attitude toward the meaninglessness of the lives of others, but rather of an affirmative intersubjectivity – a relational ethic.

  • rjfarel

    Does anyone know of writings, by Professor Mead or anyone else, that discuss the relationship between the “blue model state” and the growth, or lack thereof, of its population?

  • mike davidson

    If we are to have any hope of finding a 5.0 that works we have to recognize that 4.0 NEVER actually worked. It simply wasn’t ‘competition from overseas, technological change at home and the declining birth rate’ that has made our social insurance programs unsustainable. They were always, either deliberately or by error, ‘something Bernie Madoff would design'; because they were always dependent on borrowing from the future to finance current benefits.

  • seven pillars

    And we have national religious and conservative zeitgeist hostile to science and the other fruits of the Enlightenment. Many people who basically think Science is evil, yet drive their finely engineered cars to church and good medical care.

  • mike


    Mark Steyn’s “America Alone” touches on some of those themes, especially vis a vis Western Europe and the U.S.

    Steve Sailer (who has some rather nasty obsessions and even nastier fans) has nonetheless written interesting things about what he calls “affordable family formation”–i.e., the legal, social and geographic factors that make places more and less attractive to people who are interested in raising children.

  • Joseph Somsel

    Dr. Mead,

    Perhaps you should mind your own business and spend less time trying to change me and other citizens. But then, you seem to conceive of your business as forcing others to think like you.

    I work in an office and enjoy my work. It is creative and challenging and productive. I am not rich enough yet and I don’t think you can tell me how rich I should be. I’ll satisfy my own spritual needs in ways of my choosing.

    Where we agree is that there is a bit too much stiction in our liberal construction of society. We need more freedom from liberal busybodies.

    And historically, people willing chose to work in the those “Fordist” factories since it sure beat looking at the south end of a north-bound mule, in the cold and mud, all day long. The pay was better, the hours shorter, and the work conditions better.

  • John Barker

    “Anyone who tries to do something different is likely to run into oppositon from the zoning board and/or the local school officials or the code compliance officer or whoever.”

    Welcome to my world Not Here Permanently- the charter school where I volunteer had to file three massive and redundant reports for local, state, and regional agencies, struggle with the EPA and restock our snack bar with treats from Holy Foods. which the kids would not eat.

  • sunseeker

    And yet, here I am. My brain being supercharged by this terriffic discussion and these facinating ideas Pre-internet I would never had access to this forum

  • A. Reasoner

    Underlying the arc of the industrial West has been the availability of cheap fossil fuel energy with incredible BTU’s per unit of mass. Cheap fossil fuel energy has propelled every single aspect of modern life.

    As that energy becomes more costly — due to increased costs of extraction and global natural (market) forces — a re-figuring of our mobile society and its costs will follow. This will impact all aspects of our lives, and will force more regionalized approaches to everything.

    Centralization will no longer work, yet it is that Liberalism 4.0 is clinging to the central planning of Big Government. Like the giant dinosaurs that could not adapt when their environment changed, Liberalism 4.0 will go extinct — but not without that final death rattle of bitter clinging to entitlements, confiscatory taxes, and elitist arrogance towards people who are “not their kind.”

  • steve smith

    Its always greener on the other side of the paradigm.

  • Marty

    Your post made me think very much about Lasch’s ‘Revolt of the Elites.’ Esp the parts about what is the role of the citizen.

  • somercet

    WigWag: Spiritual emptiness can take many forms. Let us think of a born-again Christian with a soulless, meaningless job.

    Now, we’re all happy he has a job, yes. But seriously: is this the best we hope for? Is there no higher plane of temporal sociability and community? Spiritual salvation is surely the greatest good (I am not saved, btw) but we are enjoined as Christians not to mar the body. Shall we mar our social beings? Shall we strive for more?

  • A Conservative Teacher

    As a teacher, I see every day the dehumanizing monotony of the school world. There is this one student I have- she is alive with thought, intelligent, and thinks outside of the box- but she comes in late to class all the time (because she is in the library, talking to other teachers, etc), she misses a lot of days of school (because she is out in the work world, gaining real-life experiences, etc), and she doesn’t hand in every homework assignment (she feels she doesn’t need to put in the work on some because she’s already mastered those skills and has other things to do). She is so tough to grade because she doesn’t fit in our school- but her test scores and intelligence and work ethic and real world experience mark her as someone who is going to be very successful in the future. Sadly, there are few of her, and more of the monotonous drones that churn through the school pushing their pencils across the paper to fill out worksheets and jump through teacher-created hoops, eyes and mind closed, graduating with little real intelligence and creativity snuffed out.

  • Neal Rosendorf

    A typically thought-provoking piece by Walter Russell Mead. I’ll confine myself to commenting on one point he raises: the virtues of telecommuting versus the slog into the city center. I’d be the first–well, second in this case–to sing telecommuting’s potential virtues, as information technology enables me to stay professionally connected and contributing, from my current, relatively isolated perch in Santa Fe, to my networks in New York, LA, DC and Cambridge-Boston. However, my aforementioned physical isolation from intellectual support networks (e.g. my US historians’ writing group in NYC–sigh….) has underlined for me the importance of geographic clusters and the knowledge spillovers and cross-fertilization that result from people actually, rather than virtually, interacting.

    In short, there’s a limit to how effectively folks can communicate, relate and push each other forward via IT. The subject of clusters, as most readers here know, has been written about extensively over the past two decades (although the subject of course stretches back over a century to the work of Alfred Marshall). As numerous economists attest, there’s a positive intellectual and economic value in being in close physical proximity to people doing similar or complementary work–e.g. this past year Delgado, Porter and Stern underlined the stimulative relationship between clusters and entrepreneurship ( All of this would be diminished, if not lost altogether, if workers lived out en masse the Third Wave telecommuter paradigm.

    Moreover, since Mead has quite legitimately raised the issue of values and meaning in relation to work, let us not forget the dystopian vision of radical isolation and spiritual and aesthetic barrenness in a telecommuting society in E. M. Forster’s 1909 short story “The Machine Stops”:

    “Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh–a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.”

    Forster’s atomized and fragile world is a rebuke to the paradisiacal “electronic cottage” prophesied by Alvin Toffler seven decades later, and which Mead implicitly evokes in his essay. “The Machine Stops” reminds us not underestimate the social and societal value of the face-to-face professional encounter, even if it takes sitting in traffic, or being squeezed in on the train or bus, to get to the water cooler for a chat.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      It’s possible that there is a happy medium somewhere between the two hour commute and the hexagonal cell.

  • Tennwriter

    Seven Pillars,
    I’m in favor of real science, but Evolution and Psionic Research don’t get to claim that title. And since Christianity gave birth to Science, you might want to rethink your hypotheses.

  • Tom Griffith

    Thank-you for the article Professor, it was thought provoking. The wonderful thing about today’s society is that, in the US, we don’t have to be burdened with 18-20 hours of work each day to survive. Many work hard to buy stuff – good for them. Some work to increase their knowledge or meet an internal ideal – good for them. Some work to give their children opportunities they didn’t have – good for them. We have choices.
    The challenge is that the infrastructure we are operating under is under strain and could collapse – as all societal structures do over time. Sometimes the crashed culture limps along. Sometimes it is radically replaced by something else. Your 5.0 culture will have to play in the Darwinian game. I don’t give it much of a chance because the people that control the existing 4.0 culture would rather see it crash and burn than risk giving up that control.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      but afterwards? something will still need to happen…

  • Xiaoding

    “Information technology offers increasing opportunities to transfer more and more of the routine scutwork of administration over to machines, setting the office drones free to do more rewarding, more socially useful things.”

    How? With what? Most of those people have IQ’s of less than 100!

    All it means is that people will be out of work.

    Machines are making human labor obsolete. This is the root of the problem.

    As long as we try to make a creaking, groaning, 17th century economic system work in the 21st century, we will continue to have problems.

    Show us how to be succesful, WITHOUT A JOB AT ALL, AND NO MONEY. That is the challenge before us.

    Imagine a Machine, that provides all needs.

    Every year, the government gives everyone 100,000 dollars, to pay for the coming year. People take the money, and pay the Machine.

    Next year, more money from the government. The Machine burns the previous years pile of cash for heat.

    There is no “debt”, because the money is meaningless. Human labor, also, meaningless. This is what we have coming at us.

  • gordo

    Interesting piece, although 4.0 is not as bleak as the article states for some people. But I have lived a 5.0 life for the past 20 years as an entrepreneur and it can work. My partners and I worked out of our homes allowing us, when not traveling, to be with the kids, cook dinner, and have family time. I spent little on gas and rarely got stuck in traffic. Our service was to negotiate financial deals where the money we obtained was used for environmental cleanup – that was meaningful to us. So, maybe I’ve seen/lived the future and it can work.

  • AJ

    Decentralization is what we need. In every sphere of life. The frustrations that people feel are a result of being a meaningless cog in a giant wheel, whether it be their relationship to the federal government or a large corporation. Centralization creates a feeling that you don’t have control over your own life. News and entertainment media are far ahead of other sectors. The internet, cable/satellite TV, cell phones and so on have allowed for personalization and customization of information. The same model must eventually overtake the rest of society, just as the assembly line overtook the family farm.

    In other words, I fully agree with the premise of the article.

  • Neal Rosendorf

    “It’s possible that there is a happy medium somewhere between the two hour commute and the hexagonal cell.”

    Naturally, and it’s one reason I became an academic–to trade money for flexible time to think, to create, to write blogs and occasionally kibbitz others’ blogs. Another element of the happy medium is a willingness to settle for a less grand dwelling in a more advantageous location–to live in the manner of Plutarch’s description of Sertorius, preferring to be the meanest citizen of Rome rather than supreme ruler of the rest of the world (or owner of a 4000 sq. ft. home in Toms River, New Jersey).

    None of this applies to my poor wife, an exec at Los Alamos Lab, who commutes an hour each way from Santa Fe because I wouldn’t dream of living on “The Hill”, and who can’t telecommute, ever, for security reasons. But nobody said the world is perfect, or fair….

  • DirOfTheObv

    I am not a liberal. However, this is a very thought provoking piece that has elements that would appeal to some of those most “right” in their line of thinking. It begs the question from me, I tend to fall somewhere in the middle, and that question is…then why’d we throw away all of the spiritualism of our founding fathers and mothers? Why is it that when a native American stands before a group in Tuscon today and offers his blessing, he can SAY things like “I’m going to do this according to our ORIGINAL way…because it’s important”…and when HE does everyone HEEDS it and counts it as SACRED…But if someone mentions George Washington’s words their just OLD, and need to be refined into “today’s terms, with a light from today’s reality”? It’s a long question, I know, but it’s MINE.

    SO much that was sacred to us was thrown out by so named “liberals” who came around in my childhood when we were all full of big ideas too. Many of THOSE grand ideas and plans were set in motion and never followed through with the proper finishing touches. Long story short…it NEVER HAPPENED. I would hate to see us launch off for the Brave New World beyond without any idea on where we are going OR how in the [heck] we are going to get there. There ARE NO FORDIST factories here. They’re in China.

    I love the way you think though. Let’s sit down and hash out the commons. I’ll bring my C.S. Lewis, you bring your pipe.

  • Sigfried

    Energy is the key; and all the energy and raw material one could dream of are in our solar system. Human expansion off-planet will enable all sorts of social experimentation, and space energy generation will mean we don’t have to plunder the planet for ever-decreasing resources. Cheap energy should be the birthright of humankind- our star is throwing it out in quite literally astronomical amounts. We can go for it, or we can go back to being dirt farmers with no leisure time at all. I know which direction I would prefer.

  • Peter

    Mr. Mead,

    Have you ever thought of expanding a bit on your blue social model and turning it into a book?

    I think it would be valuable.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Peter: I’m in the middle of another book project at the moment, but the more I write about the blue model, the more deeply I want to get into the subject.

  • RedWell

    A engaging argument, but how to achieve it?? We’ve got lots of brains working on social and economic problems, and we have workforces humming with men and women of action. We even have institutions to bring the two together.

    And yet. Imperfections and inefficiency abound, along with many other ills suggested by Mead. We can look to the old family farm as a more sustainable and fufilling model, but “development” (or modernization) is the answer to the limitations of that rural society.

    I guess my point is that, like the “old world” that Americans sought to improve with their own social and physical blank slate, we are now stuck with an entreched culture and the sunk costs of economic infrastructure. Moving away from our deficient system grows increasingly difficult with each new generation.

    In addition, who will make change happen? It would require real practical and intellectual skill along with self-sacrifice and inspiration. We have all of those things, but they are rarely united in a single person or community.

  • Todd

    Hey Walter

    Your reference to current alcohol consumption as evidence of a decline in life’s quality reminded me of a discussion in one of my favorite books-The Old Northwest Pioneer Period:1815-1840 by Carlyle Buley. It is a political, economic and social history of the settling of the midwest.

    In one section Buley discusses booze consumption. Pioneer men (engaged in six day a week dawn to dark backbreaking labor clearing land and then farming it) started the day with a cup of whiskey at breakfast, had another cup or so with lunch and then after dark got down to serious drinking. Corn in excess of family consumption was converted to moonshine. The family trauma this caused eventually produced the WCTU.
    Those old guys (and their wives)would regard most current levels of alcohol abuse as piddling.

    As for a 19th century agrarian ideal, see also Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy.

  • Greg Buls

    I came to this piece right after reading one on the nature and importance of entrepreneurship.
    Thwarting entrepreneurship is another defect of the blue model. Beyond taxes and regulations, it demonstrates a consistent desire to impose stifling uniformity upon the entire population. We can see this from the earliest ages, where kids are encouraged to compete but liberals would prefer that no one be a winner and no one a loser. They absurdly decry any serious decentralization of power as an immediate return to jim crow laws. They are comfortable with judicial supremacy, where oligarchs dictate to the entire population. Etcetera.
    If Mead is correct and there is little future for the blue model, the watchword for everyone should be decentralization. Clearly the federal government manages most things poorly; their focus should be narrow. Their involvement in education virtually insures that whatever path we take will be taken nationally, one big idea which may or may not work, rather than 50 different ideas.

    This refusal to surrender power and put it back where it was intended to be is not only foolish, it is dangerous. The collective will toil under such a system so long as they believe it has a future. As its meltdown becomes increasingly likely, the blue model has no other bets to place – no other ground to stand on. It’s all about centralized power, unionization, and uniformity, presently. Keener minds like Mead’s are unlikely to prevail in the near term, instead you’ll likely see a consistent defense of all of the worst aspects of the blue model. This is a recipe for conflict, particularly if the popular will is consistently thwarted through arguably undemocratic means. In normal times that’s business as usual, these are not normal times.

    This illuminates another defect of the blue model, perhaps its most dangerous. By its nature, it attracts people who want more than they are worth. UAW workers were being paid more than the feds – $130,000 in average pay and benefits (compared to $120,000 _average_ for federal employees). Meanwhile Toyota workers in SC were receiving a healthy $80,000 in pay and benefits. Lawyers add nothing to national wealth except by deterring excesses, and the cost of their deterrence is arguably prohibitive. Many millions of the tens of millions who now rely on government for their sustenance do not have to do so. They’ve struck a Faustian bargain of mutual support with the state. The state enjoys the power it gains from their support, and they convince themselves that they are less than their neighbors, but not really, because fate or someone is to blame (not them). Lots of government workers are able and hard working, but many, many, are not. There’s a reason govt. jobs are considered plum positions – it’s because you get more than you’re worth. Getting more than you give is unsustainable, because the givers will eventually dry up or rebel. What then? Then the blues are pushed to radicalism to try desperately to save what cannot be saved, perhaps wrecking it completely in the process.

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