R.R. Reno, quite an astute conservative public intellectual, claims that those with eyes to see know that the big news these days is the global victory of capitalism. I’m not following Reno in every respect here, but going with what I would say in support of his position.
The good news is that productivity has soared as a result. It’s easy to see that people are in many ways better off. Money and power can’t quite buy happiness. But who can deny that they’re really useful when it comes to being able to enjoy the genuine goods of human life: quality time with loved ones, civilized leisure, meaningful work, good health, and the serenity that comes with a large measure of security?
BUT capitalism, as Marx explains, privileges mental labor over physical labor. Brains, increasingly, are what sell. So our “cognitive elite” is getting richer all the time. Meanwhile, wages for the ordinary working stiff haven’t gone up for forty years. And who can deny that sectors of our middle class are sinking? The situation of that ordinary guy, as Marx also predicted, is increasingly precarious. In every area of life, safety nets are eroding. I’m not only or even mainly talking about our government entitlement programs. Everywhere defined benefits are being replaced by defined contributions.
The global competitive marketplace is taking out unions, pensions, corporate and employee loyalty, and the very idea of a career. All the libertarians–our genuinely forward-looking thinkers–are saying that the idea of college is obsolete, the idea that you can spend four years in a privileged institution and readily transfer to another privileged institution (a corporation, a law firm or whatever). Liberal education is out, acquiring flexible skills and competencies is in. We’ll all soon be independent contractors, selling, as Marx said, our labor piecemeal for a price. So the whole idea of employer-based healthcare no longer makes any sense, although no one, neither Democrat nor Republican, has the guts to break it to the country.
Nobody much these days is really a progressive, believing that our future will be all about bigger and better government. The Democrats have become, in a way, the conservatives, defending the government benefits we now have and warning of imminent “voucherization.” And they have become so conservative that our president was viciously attacked from the Democratic left when he proposed a minor reduction in the rate of growth in Social Security. But it’s not like that left is seriously proposing an increase in Social Security. When the president proposes a tax increase, it’s pretty much to pay for what we now have. And we really sort of know that his strategy is to delay the inevitable.
Well, what about ObamaCare? It’s not going to work. Does anyone, to begin with, really think most people are really going to be able to keep the insurance they now have?
And, as Marx predicted yet again, the bourgeois ideology of “choice” moves from the marketplace narrowly speaking to transform all of life. Who can deny that relational life–from religion to the family and every mediating institution in between–suffers as a result? Every human activity not tied to productivity is reduced to a whim, a hobby, a lifestyle option. As Reno said, the cost is huge to social solidarity and social stability.
Some conservatives say that the family would come back if we just got rid of welfare. If people can’t depend on the government, they’d have to fall back to depending on those they really know and love. That simple conclusion–which might have some truth to it–doesn’t take into account the forces of dissolution associated with high-tech capitalist individualism. As Marx says, it’s capitalism that ripped the halo off those who devote their lives to seemingly unproductive voluntary caregiving.
We can see that our “cognitive elite” is tending to separate itself emotionally and, really, irresponsibly from the experiences of most Americans. The shared struggles of common citizenship are replaced by condescending “nudge” economics, ways of incentivizing good behavior for those not sensible enough to calculate what’s best for themselves.
It wouldn’t be hard to go on to connect the declining quality of our relational lives to the global birth dearth. Surely that demographic time bomb will take out parts of our safety nets that the competitive marketplace might not touch. In a meritocracy defined by productivity, we’re going to have more and more unproductive (old and frail or at least inflexible) people dependent on fewer and fewer young and productive ones. Here’s one irony of our time: A high-tech society is full of preferential options for the young, but there are also fewer and fewer young.
So conservatives who say that our main problems these days are welfare, the minimum wage, and unions are clueless. And they are equally clueless when they say that our problems can be solved simply through lower taxes, fewer regulations, and other such measures for growing the economy. It’s not that these reforms, insofar as they increase productivity, wouldn’t be good. It’s just that it’s naive–and often self-serving–to think that they would be enough to cure what ails our sinking middle class.
I’ve already suggested that the problem isn’t that our conservatives are more clueless than our liberals. It’s just that they’re not less clueless. They should be more attuned than liberals to ameliorating the relational pathologies that accompany the victory of capitalism and the creeping and sometimes creepy libertarianism of our time.
Because “the victory of global capitalism” is obviously an exaggeration, I probably should highlight something else obvious. Everything I’ve said in response to that claim of victory is an exaggeration too. When I say someone writes like a Marxist, I mean that someone is confusing polemical exaggeration with reality. The more “traditional” conservatives who criticize the more oligarchic or libertarian conservatives are just as confused in a different way as those they criticize.
Reno, I want to conclude, avoids serious confusion by not forgetting that progress in the direction of capitalism and high technology might be reasonably managed in the service of whole personal lives. Things are getting better and worse. What’s new about that?