Wednesday, December 21, 2011
what if the further development of technology and globalization undermines the middle class and makes it impossible for more than a minority of citizens in an advanced society to achieve middle-class status?
There are already abundant signs that such a phase of development has begun.
the deeper reason a broad-based populist left has failed to materialize is an intellectual one. It has been several decades since anyone on the left has been able to articulate, first, a coherent analysis of what happens to the structure of advanced societies as they undergo economic change and, second, a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle-class society.
The main trends in left-wing thought in the last two generations have been, frankly, disastrous as either conceptual frameworks or tools for mobilization.
Imagine, for a moment, an obscure scribbler today in a garret somewhere trying to outline an ideology of the future that could provide a realistic path toward a world with healthy middle-class societies and robust democracies. What would that ideology look like?
It would have to have at least two components, political and economic. Politically, the new ideology would need to reassert the supremacy of democratic politics over economics and legitimate anew government as an expression of the public interest. But the agenda it put forward to protect middle-class life could not simply rely on the existing mechanisms of the welfare state. The ideology would need to somehow redesign the public sector, freeing it from its dependence on existing stakeholders and using new, technology-empowered approaches to delivering services. It would have to argue forthrightly for more redistribution and present a realistic route to ending interest groups’ domination of politics.
Economically, the ideology could not begin with a denunciation of capitalism as such, as if old-fashioned socialism were still a viable alternative. It is more the variety of capitalism that is at stake and the degree to which governments should help societies adjust to change. Globalization need be seen not as an inexorable fact of life but rather as a challenge and an opportunity that must be carefully controlled politically. The new ideology would not see markets as an end in themselves; instead, it would value global trade and investment to the extent that they contributed to a flourishing middle class, not just to greater aggregate national wealth.
The existing state of Economics is a barrier.
It is not possible to get to that point, however, without providing a serious and sustained critique of much of the edifice of modern neoclassical economics, beginning with fundamental assumptions such as the sovereignty of individual preferences and that aggregate income is an accurate measure of national well-being. This critique would have to note that people’s incomes do not necessarily represent their true contributions to society. It would have to go further, however, and recognize that even if labor markets were efficient, the natural distribution of talents is not necessarily fair and that individuals are not sovereign entities but beings heavily shaped by their surrounding societies.
I think there is a lot to agree with here. First, he stresses the importance of the position of the middle class as a foundation for broader democracy. The fundamental democratic challenge is to protect the middle class.
Second, I agree the the left has been intellectually moribund. It clings to the older socialist welfarism vision in economics, while devoting its energies to social liberalism. It is extraordinary that as Europe is wrenched by economic crisis and cuts, almost every left-wing government on the continent has been dumped by the electorate.
If left-wingers cannot make progress when there is mass unemployment, voters see their income plunging and they blame the crisis on rich bankers, the future for the left is bleak. Instead of protecting the middle class, the left has focused on protecting minorities.
The proposition that people's incomes do not necessarily reflect their "contribution to society" is also a fundamental question for discussion, leading off in many different directions. "Contribution to society" is a contested issue, to say the least. For me, this is where liberalism as political theory goes off the rails, as it can provide no answer to that question. If the state is neutral and all lifestyles are equally worthy of respect (except the 1%, at least those who do not donate to Democrats), then there can be no measure of contribution to society. There can be no reasonable discussion of incentives or behavior.
If he criticizes the left, he also (less explicitly) offers many challenges to Republicans. He favors reform of government, not necessarily shrinking it. He wants to "legitimate anew" government as an expression of the public interest ( although he does not say how.)
He does not believe market outcomes are necessarily desirable or good. He does not see individuals as wholly autonomous, or the distribution of talents as fair.
He also questions whether aggregate income is a good measure of national well-being. And that of course is easy to answer - clearly not.
Sometimes the most important thing is to identify the important questions. The future of the middle class is a very politically potent, resonant way to talk about the problems we confront. It is tailor-made for election campaigns in 2012.
But it's striking he has little to say about solutions. So many major thinkers and academics have little to say about that.
So I also love the image of the scribbler in the garrett (or coffee shop) thinking about the future of ideology.