All plans imply an attempt to impose the values of the past…on the future.
- Alvin Toffler, 1969.
As economic malaise persists we are now increasingly bombarded by analysts and pundits who correctly grasp some aspect of the situation but then persist in immediately jumping to the wrong conclusions. A few recent examples:
An article in the Guardian entitled This Economic Collapse is a ‘Crisis of Bigness’ is introduced as follows:
Leopold Kohr warned 50 years ago that the gigantist global system would grow until it imploded. We should have listened.
Yet, in the very first paragraph we encounter the following puzzling accusation:
Living through a collapse is a curious experience. Perhaps the most curious part is that nobody wants to admit it’s a collapse. The results of half a century of debt-fuelled “growth” are becoming impossible to convincingly deny, but even as economies and certainties crumble, our appointed leaders bravely hold the line. No one wants to be the first to say the dam is cracked beyond repair. (emphasis mine)
Call me an outlier if you like, but I hear plenty of people preaching about collapse to anyone who will listen. The author’s assertion is only credible if the only people who count are “our appointed leaders“. But, if we are in fact experiencing a “crisis of bigness“, shouldn’t we expect the figureheads of the biggest organizations on the planet (governments) to be somewhat behind the curve?
At the very same time that Friedman and Mandelbaum make such a compelling case that we are in the midst of a profound global shift in terms of how we work and live, they fall back on traditional pillars as the answer to drive America’s success in the future.
Friedman and Mandelbaum themselves make the case that the changes we are experiencing around the world have a systematic effect of empowering individuals at the expense of the top-down institutions that govern our economies and societies. Yet, the solution to our problems appears to rely on the very top-down institutions that are being undermined everywhere we turn – mobilizing large economic, educational and governmental institutions that are being challenged on every front.
(emphasis in original)
How do astute observers of the economy bring themselves to blatantly ignore the implications of their own analyses?
The problem, I suspect, has to do with a desire for certainty. Friedman and Mandelbaum exude a certain nostalgia that is impervious to the evidence they themselves provide. That nostalgia should not be so surprising given the title:
That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.
The authors would have us “come back” rather than move forward. They acknowledge the reality of a transitioning economy but they hold out hope that the new economy can be molded into something that looks and feels just like the old. This is what I am calling anachronistic progress.
The anachronistic progressive is a strange mix of liberal and conservative. He is an enthusiastic cheerleader for certain sorts of progress but expects his favored innovations to plug neatly into the existing social order. He envisions a Star Trek future – people just like himself exploring strange new worlds in 25th century starships, yet still wearing silly uniforms indicating rank in an antiquated hierarchical bureaucracy.
Anachronistic progress is an idealized dead end. It is a shallow and futile vision of the future. Einstein is famously quoted as saying:
The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.
If the problem we face today is a “crisis of bigness” then the solution must come from smallness. To the anachronistic progressive, embracing smallness sounds like doing nothing. Embracing smallness would take us further away from the anachronistic ideal they seek to preserve, while doing little to assure solutions to the specified challenges. However, positive solutions will not be assured regardless of the approach taken. A more useful evaluative criteria would be:
Is it more important to do something, or to not do the wrong thing?
The Fatalistic Fallacy
The proponents of bureaucratic collective action will immediately accuse me of taking a fatalistic position…of endorsing apathy. The implicitly accept the fatalistic fallacy – presuming that the only consequential action is the sort of action legible to their existing worldview.
Fortunately, that accusation will find little ground to stand on. Embracing smallness does not mean doing nothing. It simply entails a different kind of action – accepting uncertainty, experimenting, and allowing space for uncoordinated action. I would answer the question posed above as follows:
- At the level of the individual, it is more important to do something.
- At the level of the society, it is more important to avoid doing the wrong thing.
Nevertheless, I admit that the fatalistic fallacy is curiously tempting. I was initially inclined to view the current Occupy Wall Street protests through a fatalistic lens. Then I came across arguments from John Robb and Jeff Jarvis reframing the protests in terms of uncoordinated action. John Robb explains it as follows:
Really simple: Occupy Wall Street is an open source protest.
What’s the real goal of this protest? Frankly, it’s probably a recognition that the center of power in the US doesn’t reside in Washington anymore. It’s on Wall Street. This protest dispenses with the middle men (the US government) and goes straight after the real power.
The notion of an open source has an obvious appeal, though the goal of protesting the power wielded by Wall St. still leaves me feeling fatalistic. Jeff Jarvis takes the analysis somewhat further:
#OccupyWallStreet is a hashtag revolt. As I learned with my own little #FuckYouWashington uprising, a hashtag has no owner, no heirarchy, no canon or credo. It is a blank slate onto which anyone may impose his or her frustrations, complaints, demands, wishes, or principles.
So I will impose mine. #OccupyWallStreet, to me, is about institutional failure. And so it is appropriate that #OccupyWallStreet itself is not run as an institution.
Now that has a little more meat to it. While I am not about to pull out my tent and sleep in the street, I can appreciate the elegance of challenging institutional failure by way of a movement intrinsically resistant to institutionalization. Though Jeff Jarvis’s perspective may not be fully baked in the minds of most protesters, there is a hopefulness conveyed by the very fact that an event of this magnitude can be organized without need of bureaucracy.
The medium is the message…
Likewise, embracing economic transition only suggests fatalism to the cynical observer…
The only fatalistic position we need accept is that economic transitions are difficult yet necessary. That should not be a controversial premise. We have all experienced numerous difficult-yet-necessary transitions in our personal lives. We have all entered relationships…and left relationships. We have moved away from home, joined disorienting new communities, taken challenging new jobs.
Should people prone to homesickness live out their lives in their parents’ basement?
Should people vulnerable to heartbreak avoid love altogether?
In our personal lives we learn that we can’t enjoy life’s highest highs without embracing risks and overcoming obstacles. Yet, when it comes to the wealth of nations we lose our common sense. A recent Salon essay is entitled:
The creative class is a lie: The dream of a laptop-powered “knowledge class” is dead. The media is melting. Blame the economy — and the Web
It goes on to outline the challenges facing the so called creative class, in a tone that suggests creatives (as a homogeneous class) are being cheated out of their fair share in some grand bargain. The same sense of nostalgic longing that leads Friedman astray is pervasive…
Never mind that billions of people now have access to all the information in the world at their fingertips. Never mind that much of the current economic disruption is created by intrinsically motivated artists giving away the fruits of their labor for free. Never mind that there exist more adjacent possibilities than ever before for the ambitious artist. Instead we are asked to focus on the fact that legions of local journalists can no longer earn comfortable salaries writing redundant versions of the same formulaic stories…
Come on? Really?
Every time a new disruptive force emerges we are treated to the same alarmist talking points, as if this has never happened before. Maybe it’s time we get over our homesickness…
I don’t want to callously ignore the pain associated with prolonged joblessness. There is plenty of research detailing the psychological struggles that too often accompanies job loss. Those studies suggest that the loss of one’s job can be psychologically crippling…that unemployed individuals often feel as if they have lost their means of contributing to society. I am inclined to trust those conclusions. I would be devastated if I thought myself condemned to uselessness.
However, rather than seeking shelter in the familiar, a perceptive response would be to ask:
How and where can the people affected by economic transition find meaning in their disrupted lives?
The purveyors of anachronistic progress unwittingly reinforce the notion that the jobless are condemned to uselessness by focusing exclusively on what has been lost. Their myopic fixation on declining institutions confuses the proxies for intrinsic meaning and extrinsic sufficiency – jobs, incomes, degrees, test scores – for actual meaning and self-sufficiency. It should be obvious that this logic is perversely reversed.
The great benefit of the current trend towards smallness is that the means of production are finally available to everyone. No one needs permission or sponsorship from an employer to contribute something useful or to discover intrinsic meaning. To refuse to acknowledge that as real progress is to actively choose blinders for the sake of sentimental biases…
photo courtesy of pineapples101