Jonathan Swift and the Arc of Liberalism

for my blog-mate, Steve Morris, with whom I often disagree 🙂 

Ah, the Lilliputians. Those diminutive people on the island of Lilliput described by Jonathan Swift’s blundering traveler, Gulliver. What the reader takes home from the voyage to Lilliput is the comical insignificance of human struggles. These tiny creatures huff and puff and bluster about all the things we do, but their size alone makes it seem like so many trifling exercises pushing forward, then backward, then sideways, and getting nowhere fast. It is the comic version of Shakespeare’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Were Swift with us today, he might apply that same satiric wit to the liberal cultural vision in America over the last 50 years. The changes in consciousness that liberals of the 1960s and 70s advanced so furiously are the very things that liberals today are working furiously to reverse. Whether this tale told by an idiot is in the tragic mold of Shakespeare or the comic mold of Swift will depend on your perspective, but the details run something like this…

1960s/70s liberals emphasized our shared humanness over and against demographic differences that we were told could not be overcome; now liberals strenuously emphasize that whites can’t know what it is to be black, men can’t know what it is to be women, Asians can’t know what it is to be Latino … the very walls yesterday’s liberals fought so hard to break down are the ones being feverishly rebuilt by today’s liberals. The 60s/70s group implicitly favored all forms of cultural appropriation in every direction, everyone sharing each other’s stuff in the great communal playhouse; nowadays, liberals encourage each demographic group to guard its cultural turf against plunder.

1960s/70s liberals fought hard to remove double standards on race and gender, fought to stop talking about and start living the dream where people are not “judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Today’s liberals pivot and push with equal vigor to enforce different standards for how to treat someone based on preconceived notions about privilege or race or gender. As hard as earlier liberals fought to treat everyone you meet as human being, regardless of race or gender or background, today’s liberals see everyone through the lens of race or gender or privilege and indeed many universities have now labeled it as a racist or sexist microaggression not to do so.

1960s/70s liberals fought hard to remove all restrictions on how to speak, think, dress, or set up your living arrangements. “Rules and regulations, who needs them,” sang hippie icon, David Crosby. Bust it wide open and let everyone say what they think. Today’s liberals have briskly rolled back that joyful, bumpy pluralistic chaos with innumerable speech codes, Halloween dress codes, and a general shaming of anyone who deviates from the liberal norm.

I’m not sure where the arc of liberalism goes from here. I’ve hinted before that we may need, and there may already be a groundswell for, a movement outside the scope of politics, casting off the dried snakeskin of today’s liberals and conservatives alike, a movement that embraces the chaos of pluralism, that rejects all politics left and right, and relies on only the human heart and human imagination in our treatment of one another. I can’t say whether my new movement will get off the ground, or whether today’s liberals will consolidate their gains, or perhaps we’ll swing back to the more anarchist-minded 60s liberalism. These things are hard to predict. What’s not hard to predict is that the next turn of the wheel will probably leave us as vulnerable to Swiftean satire as ever.

Related: 1960s vs Post-1980s liberals; How the left ceded the moral high ground


Luddites & Technophobes

“Luddite”: The very word conjures up images of knuckle-dragging curmudgeons. When the wheels of the Industrial Revolution started turning in late eighteenth-century England, the cult of “improvement” was already long entrenched (indeed it had been satirized by Jonathan Swift and his motley “projectors” nearly a century earlier). Resisting the “improvements” of industrialization at the turn into the nineteenth century were the Luddites. As weavers and artisans lost their jobs to new labor-saving machinery that required fewer and less skilled workers, the Luddites of 1811-1817 fought back by smashing new factory machines in the dark of night. The dominant ideology has ever since scoffed at the Luddites’ economic naivete and lumped the Luddites themselves in with the flat earth society.

I beg to differ. I propose that the reason the Luddites were and continue to be subject to such ridicule in the dominant ideology is that they are dangerously correct, that they lift the veil on an unhappy truth about how labor markets work under capitalism. The captains of industry have always drawn upon the “improvement” philosophy to argue that increased automation would be good for everyone, enabling workers to generate the same productivity in much shorter time, leading to a utopia in which people would work a couple of hours a day and have expanded time for personal growth in whatever physical, intellectual, and cultural arenas interested them. Luddites argued that they would lose their jobs and worsen their lot while the factory owners amassed greater and greater profits. The Luddite argument shows a better grasp of the structural incentives of capitalism. The owners’ argument rests upon the hidden premise that workers themselves will profit from their increased productivity. But capitalist incentives work the other way: the company incentive is to lay off superfluous workers while remaining workers make twice as many widgets per day at the same old wages. After all, the remaining workers are now “lucky” to have a job and it is a “buyer’s market” for the employer.

Of course it is not a zero-sum game. Luddites were right in that working class conditions in Victorian England were famously appalling. (Engels’s Condition of the Working Classes in England is perhaps the best contemporary account.) But the government would intervene with labor laws, and the economy itself would adjust to fill the vacuum with new veins of employment. No one would argue that workers today, at least in the West, are not better off than they were in the nineteenth century. But the point is that the increase in productivity due to mechanization did not proportionately increase leisure opportunities for personal fulfillment. Workers were still expected to work full time. The curve change was not in the amount of labor time input but in the amount of productivity output. More aggregate wealth was generated with no increase in aggregate leisure (except perhaps for the investing classes).

Today’s tech revolution is subject to the same utopian mythmaking by the “improvement” industry and to the same grim truths of the labor market. We are told that computerized automation will exponentially increase per capita productivity, freeing people up for personal fulfillment. But the truth is that more often it results in layoffs, fewer jobs for humans, at least in the short run, and more productivity expected per salary. And think about Facebook’s recent (February 2014) acquisition of WhatsApp, a company with 55 employees, for $19 billion dollars. Where so much of GDP is funneled through 55 employees, what does that mean for workers in the aggregate? Does this make it easier for them to find employment or empower them to increase their leisure time? Not likely.

Moreover, those who are “freed up for personal fulfillment” by virtue of being unemployed or underemployed are charged with laziness. No matter how much productivity increases per capita, working and middle class people are expected to work their 40 hours or be damned as parasites. (I lump together working and middle classes, because the investing elite class is not subject to the same labor dynamics as those who live paycheck to paycheck.) Witness the recent CBO (Congressional Budget Office) report on Obamacare (February 2014), which said that once health care in the U.S. is universal and affordable, some people may be freed up to work fewer hours or to have one parent stay at home. This inspired much gnashing of teeth within one of our two national parties. So what if technological advances enable the same GDP with fewer hours worked, or enable affordable health care for all? How dare working class and middle class people take any extra hours for personal fulfillment!

This doesn’t mean all is lost. Although I believe the Luddites and their protege technophobes still need a fair hearing for what they reveal about technological impacts on labor within a capitalist system, I don’t believe that technological innovation is intrinsically antagonistic to workers’ long-term interests. I am not ready to completely dismiss the utopian dream of the apostles of improvement. Technology can be a force for good. But it needs to be framed by a different economy of values.  The capitalist world view of infinite market expansion incentivizes the full exploitation of a labor force, not with any eye on the human fulfillment of the workers (which is outside the scope of capitalism and its forces), but with an eye only on increased productivity and profit. This presupposition, this capitalist sensibility, is inconsistent with the utopian possibilities of technology. We need a new sensibility, a new subjective frame of reference for values like “work” and “technology” and “success.” And there are some signs that a new paradigm for self-actualization is emerging on the horizon line of capitalism. There is an increased consciousness that good stewardship of limited world resources is inconsistent with the world view whose metric of fulfillment is in magnitudes of consumption. The young techie entrepreneurs of today seem often motivated by an idealism that is beyond the scope of classical capitalism and its industrial giants. Or at least it is an idealism that is fluid or heterogeneous enough to accommodate post-capitalist ideals commingled with the residual values of productivity and profit.

The change in sensibility we need, in this case a change in the moral attitude about work, was captured as well as anyone by Buckminster Fuller at a time when the hippie revolution was coming to a head, its fate not yet decided (New York Magazine, 30 March 1970).

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

Related internal blog entry: Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius
Recommended external blog entry: Global Therapy (Paul Adkin)

On lawyers

I hope my lawyer friends will grant me the indulgence of sharing the following satire, written by Jonathan Swift in 1726, which shows that the laundry list of gripes against lawyers hasn’t changed in 300 years (although rarely expressed with such style as Swift brings).

The scene is this: Gulliver, shipwrecked in the imaginary land of the Houyhnhnms, tries to explain English culture to his master there, and when he gets to the part about lawyers…

. . .

I said, “there was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving, by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people are slaves. For example, if my neighbour has a mind to my cow, he has a lawyer to prove that he ought to have my cow from me. I must then hire another to defend my right, it being against all rules of law that any man should be allowed to speak for himself. Now, in this case, I, who am the right owner, lie under two great disadvantages: first, my lawyer, being practised almost from his cradle in defending falsehood, is quite out of his element when he would be an advocate for justice, which is an unnatural office he always attempts with great awkwardness, if not with ill-will. The second disadvantage is, that my lawyer must proceed with great caution, or else he will be reprimanded by the judges, and abhorred by his brethren, as one that would lessen the practice of the law. And therefore I have but two methods to preserve my cow. The first is, to gain over my adversary’s lawyer with a double fee, who will then betray his client by insinuating that he hath justice on his side. The second way is for my lawyer to make my cause appear as unjust as he can, by allowing the cow to belong to my adversary: and this, if it be skilfully done, will certainly bespeak the favour of the bench…

“In pleading, they studiously avoid entering into the merits of the cause; but are loud, violent, and tedious, in dwelling upon all circumstances which are not to the purpose. For instance, in the case already mentioned; they never desire to know what claim or title my adversary has to my cow; but whether the said cow were red or black; her horns long or short; whether the field I graze her in be round or square; whether she was milked at home or abroad; what diseases she is subject to, and the like; after which they consult precedents, adjourn the cause from time to time, and in ten, twenty, or thirty years, come to an issue.”  (Gulliver’s Travels, Part 4, Chapter 5)