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.