The decline of the blue social model is a subject I’ve been thinking about for the last thirty years. My first book, Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition was written in the mid 1980s from the standpoint of someone who still believed that the blue model was synonymous with progress and civilization. In that book, I looked at how globalization was dismantling the social compact not just in the United States but throughout the developed world, and argued that the decline of consensual social market capitalism wasn’t just a challenge to the American domestic system. It was a challenge to America’s global leadership — the model and ideal we proposed for life under social capitalism was falling apart. Our argument against the communists had been that capitalism could produce more wealth and more justice than communism, and the social welfare state of the western world was Exhibit A for that proposition. At a time when the Soviet Union still stood, and the ideological competition with communism was still real in parts of the developing world, the thought that the capitalist welfare states of the west would soon be coming under immense pressure was an unsettling one.
It was also unsettling to think about what the decline of what I now think of as the blue social model would mean in the United States. We looked to be headed for a generation of wage stagnation among blue collar workers. The decline of manufacturing as a source of high wages and secure jobs in the United States had already begun by then; my reflections on globalization suggested that the decline would go on for quite a while — as it has. Our society was going to become less equal, and less able to provide the kinds of growing social insurance and welfare payments that it had done in the past.
At the time, I could not imagine an acceptable alternative to the blue model – and didn’t really want to, because the blue model seemed superior to anything else that could be imagined. Partly as a result, Mortal Splendor was a gloomy, sunset over the west kind of book.
Oh well. As Bob Dylan put it, I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now. Over the years I’ve gradually come to understand that the old model wasn’t just broken by evil corporate greedsters hellbent on pillaging the middle and working classes – not that such people don’t exist and don’t need to be watched. It was being broken from below as much as from above, and the left did as much to dismantle it as the right. The Ralph Nader consumer movement, for example, set about attacking the comfortable corporate oligarchies who sold shoddy goods at high prices to the public (can you hear me, Detroit?). Nader and his followers wanted consumers to have more choices, and they favored competition over monopoly. But it was exactly their ability to sell shoddy products at high prices that made so many American companies so profitable in the golden age of the blue model – and it was those profits that underwrote the wages and benefits that gave blue collar workers lifetime security and middle class incomes. Nader’s attack on corporate oligarchy was blue-on-blue violence.
Consumers wanted better goods and lower prices than the blue model could give them. Savers wanted higher interest rates than the highly regulated blue era banks could give them. Companies and consumers wanted more innovative telecom service at lower prices (and with less arrogance) than Ma Bell was ready to offer. The whole country was fed up with the inconvenient schedules and high prices that came with the oligopolistic air travel market. Individual investors were sick and tired of high trading fees and restricted information in the stock market. And given the choice between a shoddy and expensive American car, an expensive but well made European one, or a cheap and reliable Japanese car, fewer and fewer Americans picked something made in Detroit.
Americans wanted more than the blue model could give them, and increasingly they sensed that they could get it. That, more than corporate plots and Gordon Gekko style misdeeds on Wall Street, is why the blue model is going the way of the mastodon.
I can still remember the feeling I had back in the early eighties when I first began to see how low wage manufacturing in the developing world plus the globalization of finance were going to rip up the social fabric I identified with progress and stability. I see many people, some on the left, some in the center, going through that kind of moment today. My first reaction, and that of many people today, was to cling tighter to the blue model as I sensed its fragility and vulnerability. But over time I’ve come to see this breakdown and the transition to something new as the next stage in the story of social and human progress, rather that as some kind of horrible return to savagery.
One of the realizations that helped me accept the need to move on was the corrosive effect of one of blue model America’s most unattractive features: the emphasis on consumption rather than production as the defining characteristic of the good life. As I reflected on the corrosive consequences of this shift, and also began to see that a post-blue society might reverse this priority, I began to think more positively about what could come next. Frank Fukuyama wrote about the appearance of Nietzsche’s Last Man at the end of history; that Last Man is more or less Homer Simpson come to life, a mostly passive, consumption-focused individual whose life is all episode with no plot. But if the blue model isn’t the end of history, and if we are moving to something new — there is hope. Bart and Lisa just might grow up into a bigger world that would stretch their capacities and make them something more than Homer and Marge.
Under the blue model, Americans increasingly defined themselves by what they bought rather than what they did, and this shift of emphasis proved deeply damaging over time. The transformation to a new and higher kind of political economy will require us to put production and accomplishment back at the center of our value system. Both on the left and on the right this is something that should be welcome to a lot of thoughtful people.
Production and Consumption
In 19th century America, production and consumption were typically interrelated. The family on its farm was a production team as well as a consumption unit. They didn’t just play together and watch TV together; they worked together to feed and clothe themselves. Loyalty to your spouse was about much more than not cheating; it was about pulling your share of life’s load as you worked together on a common project. Your partner was really your partner then: the person you married was the person you worked with.
That wasn’t just true on the farm. Husbands and wives worked together to run stores, to train and care for apprentices, to operate inns – even to run embassies. The wife of a blacksmith might not shoe horses, but she might keep the books, manage supplies, and do many other things that made the joint business work. The wife of an ambassador might not negotiate directly with foreign potentates, but navigating the social labyrinths of a foreign capital, giving entertainments that drew the well informed and the influential, monitoring the domestic staff to see whether any were reporting secrets to foreign paymasters: all these fell within the purview of the diplomatic wife.
Beginning very early in life, children played a role in the family firm. On farms, very young children took care of chickens and learned to weed the kitchen garden; older boys and girls undertook increasingly responsible tasks, working side by side with their siblings and parents. A large family was an economic plus in those days partly because the labor of older children and teens often did more than offset the cost of their keep. (My redoubtable sister once complained that she had to hire a cleaning service when her kids went off to college to make up for all the chores they used to do. Women like her, and kids like my nephew and niece, were once much more common than they now seem to be.)
The family didn’t just work together. They planned together. Farm kids sat with their parents as they figured out each year what crops to plant: how many acres of wheat, potatoes, corn, tobacco and so forth. They learned how weather and price fluctuations on international markets affected the farm’s success and the family income. When they bought shoes or other store bought goods, they knew exactly how much work, planning and anxious calculation went into the money they brought to the store. They knew exactly what their taxes were and how much they hurt.
American kids spent more time in school as a general rule than kids in other parts of the world in the 19th century, but their “book learning” was only one part of a much broader and richer education that prepared them to be productive citizens. Parents taught kids the fundamentals of agriculture and animal husbandry; they taught them the hundreds of skills that went into maintaining a family farm. In urban areas and sometimes on farms, adolescents went to work on nearby farms or serve as apprentices. There they found production units much like the one they came from: the husband and wife were the proprietors of a bustling family enterprise that might include a few hired hands but in which young people and older people lived, learned and worked side by side.
American life is in many ways richer today than it was in the 19th century, and I personally have no desire to harness up Cyrus the mule to plow the north forty, but it’s hard to deny that the older model of family and work is more human than the rigid separation of roles and the progressive hollowing out of family life that marked life in the 20th century.
In the 20th century, it became increasingly common for both parents to work in quite different jobs and professions, often many miles from home. Blue collar workers worked in factories and warehouses; pink collar workers in service and clerical positions; professionals and white collar workers in offices. Almost always, the parents commuted to work as the kids commuted to school.
Kids continued to learn things from their parents and to help around the house, but their lives and education were increasingly distant from the home. Formal schooling took up more and more hours (though past a certain point of diminishing returns it’s not clear just how much more was always learned), and kids spent fewer and fewer hours working with and learning from their often absent parents.
The intensity of the partnership between the parents didn’t fade away completely in the 20th century, but the separation of work and home inevitably reduced the centrality of the pair bond in the lives of both halves of the couple. Husbands and wives continued to raise children and maintain a home together and of course their financial well-being was bound up in each other, but increasingly they spent huge portions of their time away from each other and developed networks of friends, relationships and connections that did not include their spouse. The family became a kind of retreat from the cares and troubles of the workaday work: it was a place you went to get away from it all, rather than the place where everything happened.
If we wonder why marriage isn’t as healthy today in many cases, one reason is surely that the increasing separation of the family from the vital currents of economic and social life dramatically reduces the importance of the bond to both spouses – and to the kids.
Education and child-rearing were greatly affected, and in my view not always for the better, by the Great Divorce between family life and work. The educational program of the 19th century, in which formal schooling played a limited role, was integrated into the activities of daily life for the most part. Life wasn’t divided into “learning years” and “working years”; you were always doing some of each and work was seen as part of the education of most kids: it built character and it built skills.
That old model changed for many reasons. As the American workplace moved away from the family farm to the office or the factory, there was less learning to be done in the home. The new kinds of work were less suited to this kind of learning. Repetitive factory work taught very little; to put ten-year-olds in a factory for a shift was to deprive them of learning and stunt their intellectual growth. On the other hand, office and administrative work often demanded skills that few children could acquire. It was cruel to put kids in the factories or coal mines; useless to put them in an office.
As the educational system grew more complex and elaborate (without necessarily teaching some of the kids trapped in it very much) and as natural opportunities for appropriate work diminished, more and more young people spent the first twenty plus years of their lives with little or no serious exposure to the world of work. Summer jobs filled the gaps for some, but over time even these have become less available and in any case, those jobs tended not to have a lot to do with what many kids would go on to do in their adult lives. These jobs rarely served the same kind of integrated educational and work purpose that, for example, helping your parents around the farm did for kids who expected to grow up and farm themselves.
The Hollow Men
There is nothing natural or particularly benign about this long isolation from the realm of economic production. Historically, young people defined themselves and gained status by contributing to the work of their family or community. Childhood and adulthood tended to blend together more than they do now. Young people in hunter-gatherer tribes hunted and/or gathered with greater success as they approached adulthood. Farm kids moved toward adulthood as they contributed to the family’s well being at a higher and higher level. The process of maturation – and of partner-seeking – took place in a context informed by active work and cooperation.
In the absence of any meaningful connection to the world of work and production, many young people today develop identities through consumption and leisure activities alone. You are less what you do and make than what you buy and have: what music you listen to, what clothes you wear, what games you play, where you hang out and so forth. These are stunted, disempowering identities for the most part and tend to prolong adolescence in unhelpful ways. They contribute to some very stupid decisions and self-defeating attitudes. Young people often spend a quarter century primarily as critics of a life they know very little about: as consumers they feel powerful and secure, but production frightens and confuses them.
The separation of learning and work was originally seen as a way to promote learning: by allowing young people to concentrate full time on learning without the “distraction” of work, they could do a better job in school. It is certainly true that working kids too hard can make it impossible for them to learn – but it is also true that cutting kids off from work can also reduce their ability to learn. The maturity and sense of purpose that come with responsibilities in the real world make students more serious about what they choose to learn and how hard they work to take advantage of the educational opportunities they have.
That so many American kids spend so many years in school without learning basic, elementary school-level reading and math skills — to say nothing of the other things that in theory 12 years of formal education should teach — is a devastating critique of the way we organize this part of our lives. The sheer amount of time wasted is staggering – to say nothing of the money, effort or lost potential. People often speak of the need to revive vocational and industrial education as a way of reaching students for whom the traditional academic classroom holds little appeal; more basically, education needs to be integrated with the priorities and purposes of life as these young people experience it.
The segregation of work and the elevation of consumption weaken our society profoundly, but the isolation of family from work and from school was part of a bigger shift. In the 19th century, the social emphasis was on production generally, and not just in the family. In the 20th century, as work became more alienating and less human in many jobs (robotically repeating mechanical activities on an assembly line, robotically repeating routine clerical procedures in an office) Americans defined themselves less by what they did at work, and more on the basis of lifestyle choices and leisure activities. You “expressed yourself” by what kind of car you drove, music you listened to, church you attended, food you ate and other lifestyle choices that you made.
You were also increasingly a consumer rather than a producer of government. In the 19th century, American communities were small and generally self-managed. Most Americans lived in small towns or in rural areas where government really was something people did for themselves. The “state” scarcely existed; outside port inspectors and postal officials, the federal government was largely invisible. And even at the state level, local communities were much more autonomous than they generally are now. Local mayors and selectmen had very few mandates coming down from on high; people managed their own schools and roads and other elements of their common life by their own lights.
In the 20th century Americans became more politically passive as the state grew. The citizen was less involved in making government and more involved in watching it, commenting on it, and picking candidates who were sold the way other consumer goods are marketed: you voted for which party and candidates you supported, but more and more of the business of government was carried on by permanent civil servants acting under expert guidance. Government did much more to you, and you did less of it yourself.
The shift from producer to consumer took place in many fields – often with very important and beneficial results, but always taking a certain toll on the autonomy and dignity of many people. In the 19th century most American health care was provided by family members, often relying on traditional medicines. In the 20th century professional doctors and nurses took over the job. In the 19th century most Americans provided most of their own entertainment: amateur theatricals, family and neighborhood music and so on. In the 20th century you watched television, saw movies and bought music. Americans grew and prepared most of their own food in the 19th century; in the 20th century they bought it in restaurants and supermarkets.
Why We Turned Blue
Part of the shift was the natural result of urbanization, the specialization of labor and the rapid development of scientific knowledge. People in cities can’t raise their own food and a denser, larger population can’t be as informally and directly self governed as a small community; as the world becomes more complicated it pays to concentrate on one or two activities that you do well, and buy more goods and services from others who specialize in different things; and while the average grandmother might have known as much or more about health care than a college educated doctor in 1830, by 1930 it was pretty clear that the trained doctor knew best.
Another force behind the shift was that the subjection of so many millions of workers to rote tasks was, as the Marxist critics of progressive society used to point out, profoundly alienating. The worker on the assembly line and the typist in the typing pool were producing something of economic value, but the process of working was not rewarding in any way. There was none of the satisfaction a craftsman derives from the experience of skills and tools well used to create. There was none of the healthy interaction with nature that a farmer has. Like slaves relentlessly chopping cotton or cutting cane to the demands of a taskmaster, the toiling masses of the 20th century were often doing jobs of no intrinsic interest at a pace they did not control; they were cogs in a machine — though unlike slaves, they were paid and could, in theory, quit.
Since work itself was so unrewarding for so many, satisfaction came from getting paid and being able to enjoy your free time in the car or the boat that you bought with your pay. It was a better deal than most people have gotten through history, but the loss of autonomy and engagement in work was a cost, and over time it took a greater and greater toll.
Another force promoting the shift to a consumption based social model was the felt need to keep up consumption so the economy could work. It was not just the experience of the Depression that led so many to the conclusion that under consumption was the characteristic problem of a capitalist economy. Marxists believed that overproduction was a chronic and irremediable feature of a capitalist system, but they weren’t alone. Many businessmen promoted imperialism in European countries and to some degree in the US because they wanted overseas markets for their goods. When the age of imperialism came to an end, the intensive development of home markets replaced the extensive development of foreign markets in the eyes of many social thinkers and planners: promoting the growth of the domestic market struck many observers as a necessary part of promoting growth overall. (In much the same spirit, China today is thinking about how to expand its domestic consumer market as its production outstrips the demand overseas for Chinese made goods.)
The long decline of the family farm and the stagnant or falling incomes of farmers led many ordinary Americans to define America’s economic problems in terms of insufficient demand. The Great Depression was widely understood to have resulted from insufficient demand: the problem was that an excess of supply reduced prices, and the New Deal attacked the problem on the one hand by restricting supply (imposing quotas on agricultural production, for example) and pumping up demand through public works and transfer payments. Stimulating consumption was the goal.
Another factor promoted the rise of a consumer economy: the development of new and much more expensive goods required a psychological and institutional shift. If people couldn’t buy cars and refrigerators — to say nothing of houses — on credit, the markets for these goods would be vanishingly small. Americans had traditionally been averse to debt, whether personal or governmental. They thought like producers, for whom debt is sometimes necessary but always a cost. Thrift mattered, and for many Americans it was a point of pride not to buy on credit; if you didn’t have the cash for something, you waited.
That kind of attitude wouldn’t keep the car factories humming. The blue social model involved an unprecedented expansion in the use of credit by private households, large companies and all levels of government. Debt was the mother’s milk of blue prosperity and John Maynard Keynes was the prophet of the blue age. While consumer finance has deep roots in Anglo-American history, with installment plans used to sell goods like furniture and sewing machines well back into the 19th century, the 2oth century became a golden age of consumer credit, and to carry large balances on credit cards, home mortgages and student loans came to seem normal and respectable in a way that would have shocked Americans living in the 19th century.
Between the 1930s and the 1970s this worked better than many of its critics expected. In a relatively closed economy like the US, if more people went into debt to buy more stuff, the demand would stimulate economic growth, which would tend to raise wages and employment. The additional income would offset the cost of carrying the debt and support additional consumption as well.
There are many things to be said about this form of economic organization, both good and bad, and economists are still arguing over basic Keynesian ideas. It’s not necessary to resolve that conflict, however, to see that whatever may or may not have been the case in the past, today Keynesian demand-side management seems to be less sustainable than it once was. We stimulate more and grow less than we did back in the halcyon days.
But the real problem with the debt-based, consumption-focused blue social model, the one that bothered many social critics even in the days when the blue model was working and looked sustainable, is one of values. A consumption-centered society is ultimately a hollow society. It makes people rich in stuff but poor in soul. In its worst aspects, consumer society is a society of bored couch potatoes seeking artificial stimulus and excitement. They watch programs on television about adventures they will never have. They try to change their consciousness through the consumption of products (entertainment, consumer goods, drugs) rather than by changing the world and accomplishing things. The massive use of recreational and mood altering drugs reflects and embodies the distortions that a passive, consumption-based society produces in human populations over time.
There is a kind of double consciousness that a consumer society gives people. On the one hand, in the realm of consumption, you are king. Companies bid for your attention and favor. You are a critic and a connoisseur: politicians bid for your votes, networks and film companies for your attention. As long as you are spending your money (earned or borrowed) society feeds your sense of power and worth.
But outside of that realm of consumption, most Americans had very little power under the blue model. You worked in a factory or an office where you did not have a whole lot of autonomy, and where your job, as often as not, was pretty dull. You did not make big plans, take big risks or otherwise wrestle with the world.
The logical endpoint of blue society is a nation of underemployed, pot smoking couch potatoes snarking superciliously at Hollywood while they watch the Oscar ceremonies on TV. Those are the Last Men at the end of blue history. The good news is that this can’t last. A society of such people can’t summon up the will and the vision, or make the sacrifices, necessary for this state of things to continue. Long before a society reaches the ultimate point of blue dissolution, things will change.
We are seeing those changes now. Competition from low wage labor overseas and automation at home is forcing millions of people to face life on new terms. The low rent cocoons of the welfare state — warehousing “surplus” people for generations at a time — are becoming unaffordable. We are being called — driven — to a new kind of life and a new social model that gives us another chance to get the balance between consumption and production right.
It took me a while to see it, but since the 1980s I’ve come to understand that the shift away from blue is not all loss. The blue model was a very comfy couch, but there is much more to do in this world than watch Simpsons reruns while eating chips.