One thing that anarchists get told a lot by people who seem to think it’s the first time anyone’s thought to say it to them is: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
Churchill’s full quote is actually, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.” This is a bit more reasonable, I think, and it’s worth remembering that the same thing could have been said of monarchy before democracy was tried.
But either way, the sentiment is roughly the same: “No one’s saying things are perfect, but this is the best arrangement possible.” They say it about capitalism and about liberal democracy, and it’s a handy rhetorical device for dismissing genuine complaints about capitalism and liberal democracy.
That “this is the best arrangement possible” is not dissimilar to the argument of some religious folk, that this is the “best of all possible worlds”. It’s even used as an argument for the existence of God – “How else could things be so perfect, like the distance of the Earth from the Sun, just right for life to exist, except if it was planned?”
Schopenhauer (yes, him again) once suggested that the same arguments could be used to describe this as the worst of all possible worlds. Yes, we’re just close enough and not too far from the sun that life can exist, and all of the suffering that comes with it. Any closer to or farther from the sun and suffering wouldn’t exist. Conditions are set up so that we are able to experience just enough happiness to know what we’re missing out on when our bodies inevitably degrade and we suffer and die – but not before having had children who can keep the suffering going on into the future.
I’m not as pessimistic about the world in this regard as Old Grumpy Face was, but I like the form of his argument. When I’m told that liberal democracy and capitalism are the best possible arrangement, I wonder if the opposite is not true. Perhaps the situation in liberal democracies and global capitalism is kept by its own internal pressures precisely as bad as it can possibly be without completely collapsing.
So, last week I gave a kind of sketch of capitalism and one problem I have with it – that it rewards some people for doing nothing, to varying degrees, and in so doing it robs people who are contributing through their work. Obviously a lot has been left out – things like the question of the value of risk-taking and how most capital is basically a kind of stored-up labour, etc.
There are two main ways that political and economic systems are criticised or justified – the fairness of the interactions and the fairness of the outcome. Someone who focuses on the interactions tends to justify the outcome by pointing to the interaction that led to it. Someone who focuses on the outcome tends to justify the interactions by pointing to the resulting outcome.
I’ve mainly focused so far on my views of the fairness of the interactions – complaining that it’s not right that some people benefit more than they contribute and others benefit less than they contribute – without really talking about the consequences of that system. I suppose I mentioned briefly that there’s a Rawlsian case to be made for capitalism in terms of outcome – that what I call unfair interactions actually result in better outcomes for the least advantaged in society, and so those interactions are actually preferable to what I would call fair ones.
I want to approach the same situation from a different angle today, and hopefully make my position and concerns clearer.
So I’m going to talk a bit about what’s technically possible and practically impossible in our world today, and why I think this is the case for each.
After World War II, Bertrand Russell observed in his essay In Praise of Idleness that the war had done some interesting things to the economy. The working population of Britain (working-age men) had gone off to war for six years, and the women at home had taken over the jobs necessary not only to keeping the country running at home, but also providing the economic and productive requirements of the war effort. When the war ended and the men came home (their numbers sadly diminished, but still a sizeable population), there were almost twice as many workers in the country and the same amount of work to do.
He asked a fairly simple question: If the workforce has doubled and the requirements are the same, why wasn’t the standard working day halved to four hours?
I’ll try to explain my view of this.
Firstly, you’ve got the workforce, the people who are of working age and capable of work. Collectively, they are able to create wealth through doing work. It is well worth briefly noting that this includes those people who are, in our current situation, unpaid workers, such as men and women running households.
Next, you’ve got technology. Technology is an amplifier of human labour. A simple example would be tilling a field. How much ground one person can till in a day gets larger the better the tools she’s using. With a hand tool, maybe it takes a week. With an animal-drawn till, one day. With a tractor-drawn till, an hour. It’s the same person, expending less effort and/or in less time, to achieve the same result. Or, put another way, the same person, expending the same effort, in the same time, can create much greater value.
And you’ve got how many hours a week on average people are working. For example, in theory, in most Western countries, we’ve got a 40-hour work week.
So you’ve got people using technology for a certain amount of time each week to create wealth. That’s the supply side of the equation.
On the demand side, you’ve got the whole population – not just the workforce. And they want necessities first – food, shelter, education, healthcare, etc. – and they also want other things too, which I’ll call luxuries. “Luxuries” here include anything that isn’t a necessity, so some of them aren’t particularly luxuriant: anything from a cold beer in a green glass bottle all the way up to… Well, basically anything. All the way up to tourist trips to Mars, whatever’s possible at the time.
And you’ve also got another thing on the demand side, which is investment in the kinds of things that will be used by workers to make more wealth in the future – things like equipment and innovation. Those are things which are not immediately consumed or enjoyed, but amplify and enable work in the future.
Very basically, it looks like this:
[Total population x percentage that work] x technology x hours in a working week = total population x [necessities:luxuries] + technological improvement.
Over time, some of these things change, some can’t change and some can change but don’t.
One thing that’s always changing is population. It’s always growing. But that grows things on both sides of the equation. It grows the number of people who can work and it grows the (larger) number of people who consume necessities and luxuries. So it kind of evens out, unless there’s a change in the proportion of people who can work, such as when people live longer but can’t work longer.
One thing that changed a lot in the past, but hasn’t changed (in theory) much recently in the developed world is how many hours a week people work on average.
Technology is always changing, always growing in its power as an amplifier of the productive power of human labour. The simple example of improvements in farming technology given above is echoed throughout all forms of work. Some create larger leaps in power than others – the steam engine, assembly line, automation, etc.
So that leaves the demand for necessities and the demand for luxuries.
What constitutes necessities for a human being stays fairly static. Not completely, though. For example, there was certainly a time when education would not have been considered a human necessity, and I’ve listed it as something I consider a basic necessity today. I’m actually going to define “necessities” as “the basic requirements of living a human life”. This is intentionally vague. I actually consider internet access to be a basic requirement of living a human life these days.
The only important thing for our purposes here is that while our definition of necessities may grow over time, and have grown over time, they grow arithmetically. Which is to say that they increase at a fairly constant rate when they increase at all. Similarly with the proportion of non-working to working population – when it changes, it changes arithmetically.
This is important because the only other element which is changing here is technology, which grows exponentially. All that matters for my argument is that technology grows its labour-amplifying power at a greater rate than our definition of necessities grows, but it’s all the more powerful a point because of just how much more greater a rate it is.
So, what does all of this mean?
It means that there was a point in history where everyone who could work, working 40 hours a week with the technology available at the time, could not have provided the necessities of the whole population.
It means that as technology grew, slowly at first, in its capacity as an amplifier of human labour, there was (or will be) reached a point in history where everyone working 40 hours a week could have provided the necessities of the whole population.
Similarly, when the power of technology doubled after that, a point would be reached where everyone working 20 hours a week could provide the necessities of the whole population.
And if it doubled again, everyone working 10 hours a week could provide the necessities. And so on.
Let’s ignore for a moment the question of whether or not we already have reached any of these hypothetical (but inevitable) points.
Let’s leave that whole thought at that for now.
Let’s look at a more specific instance of technological improvement’s effect on people working to create value. Think about the effects of ATM machines on people who work as bank tellers. ATMs come along and do 90% of the work performed by bank tellers. (Much fewer people are required to do the work of maintaining the robots.) What are the bank tellers told?
What they’re not told is this: “Robots can do your job now. Go home and pursue whatever creative, religious, social, recreational and artistic endeavours you want to pursue.”
What they’re told is this: “Robots can do your job now. Find a new job.”
And so they do. They find a new job, perhaps reapplying their existing skills to a different job or retraining and applying new skills to a different job, or perhaps finding no job at all.
Apply that same scenario every time technology increases the productive power of human labour. The same or more value can be generated by much fewer people’s work. Those whose labour is rendered redundant find new jobs. Over and over. Meanwhile, as the economy grows, new jobs are being created that make use of the available labour – the proportion of workers to unemployed varies, but not exponentially.
Now, the work that a person does either produces necessities or produces luxuries. But the demand for necessities doesn’t really grow, and if it does (by an expanding definition of necessity), it does so arithmetically. Meanwhile, the productive power of the population increases exponentially through technological advance.
So what grows, instead, is the production and consumption of luxuries. Those whose work created necessities, once they are made redundant by technological advances, are more and more likely to find new jobs creating luxuries than creating necessities. And they have to work, because they have to purchase necessities in exchange for the luxury value they are now creating.
Again, on the scale of the individual instance, it doesn’t seem like a big deal – go find a new job. Writ large, if the trend is taken to its logical conclusion, we will reach a point where a very small portion of the population is working 40 hours a week to create necessities, while the rest of the working population is working 40 hours a week creating luxuries. And, of course, because the reward for almost every person’s work is being split between the worker and the owner, the capital-owning class grows in its purchasing power, and the proportion of that power is spent on luxuries increases.
My problem with this scenario is not that I begrudge people the enjoyment of luxuries. I enjoy them myself. My problem is that I contrast it against what is technically possible.
What is technically possible, as I suggested earlier, is that as technology increases in its role as an amplifier of the productive output of human labour, the same output can be achieved with less work. That “less work” could be expressed as fewer people working the same number of hours or the same number of people working fewer hours.
I’m saying that there is enough to go around, at a certain inevitable point, where everyone in the world could be working 10-hour weeks and produce enough necessity-meeting wealth for everyone to enjoy the basic requirements of living a human life. And that seems a very much more desirable scenario than the one produced by the trend of our status quo described above.
And that same desirable outcome which is made technically possible by technological advancement is rendered practically impossible by the system of wealth production in which we currently live.
I believe we’ve already reached that point. But even if we hadn’t, reaching it would still be inevitable, and the (vastly more) desirable scenario it makes possible would still be rendered impossible under the current system. There is no future where humans are freed from labour by technology, where automation replaces rather than displaces workers, that does not have in its past the replacement of our current economic system by another.
I’ll say one more thing here before wrapping up this bit.
The desirable scenario I’m describing is not one where the happiness of the few is reduced in favour of the happiness of the many. There’s a jokey line I like: “Money doesn’t buy happiness – someone with $50 million is no happier than someone with $20 million.” Labour-created wealth, in its form as supplying the necessities of life and in its form as supplying luxuries in life, is subject to the law of diminishing returns when it comes to happiness. Beyond a certain point, somewhere just above however we define necessity, its power to increase happiness drops off exponentially.
This is also what I mean by there is enough to go around.