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Political movements

A Facebook friend who wanted to remain anonymous asked me this:

“You talk a lot about the need for social change, but you’ve never really clarified where you stand on the political spectrum. It’s obvious you’re not a conservative, but are you in favour of tightly-regulated capitalism or hard socialism?”

Neither.

I can’t put a label on my own political philosophy because no such label exists. There is no movement that I know of that supports the values and policies that I believe in. That’s probably because most mainstream politics is dominated by philosophies and ideologies that were dreamed up in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. The fact that most political debate is centred on the contest between laissez-faire capitalism and Marxist socialism is a sign of our inability to adapt to the times.

So let me make it simple.

This is Scarlett Johansson with blonde hair.

This is Scarlett Johansson with red hair.

 Image

The difference between capitalism and socialism is about the same as the difference between the first picture and the second. Cosmetic only. First, let’s get our terminology straight.

Socialists believe in profit sharing. You can take the entire philosophy and pretty much boil it down to that one statement. Oh, sure, if you read Marx – and I have – you’ll get a lot of talk about how the poor classes will grow tired of being oppressed and rise up against their masters. He talked quite a bit about the great proletariat revolution, and maybe he was right. Some people say that’s happening right now. But the socialist recipe for an equitable society is to do away with wage-labour and make every worker a partial owner of the company he works for. So instead of his salary being an expense on the income statement, he gets to take his share directly out of the net income. WestJet is a socialist company. “Why do WestJet employees care? Because we’re owners too.”

That’s it.

Socialism in terms of what it prescribes as a cure for society’s ills is no more complicated than that. It has nothing to do with regulation. It has nothing to do with big government. People tend to associate it with the autocracy of the Soviet Union, but nothing could be further from the truth. The USSR was a totalitarian regime and about as far from Marxist doctrine as you can get. Most of this is the result of propaganda. Chomsky explains it better than I can.

Will it solve society’s problems?

Not in my opinion.

Most of our political discourse is framed in terms of money. Who has the money? What percentage of the population makes what percentage of the total national income? How do we create income equality? Money, for lack of a better way of putting this, is a fiction. It has no real value, and people tend to forget that.

We talk a lot about money, but we don’t talk about actual wealth. Real wealth comes in the form of the ecosystem and the life-sustaining resources it provides. Everything from metals, to lumber, to arable land. Food and clean water. If we trash the ecosystem, we severely limit our ability to survive and thrive on this planet. A million dollars won’t count for anything if there’s no food for you to purchase.

So is income inequality completely irrelevant?

No, I’d say it’s an issue. And in a fictional society that has no other problems – one with access to near infinite resources – I would say that it would be the biggest social issue. But the intense focus on income inequality in the face of our other problems is a little like being injured in a car wreck and then thinking about what you should have done on your math test instead of seeing to your wounds.

Capitalism and socialism are both focused on the profit motive. The profit motive requires growth, and as we’ve discussed elsewhere, perpetual growth is unsustainable.

We need a new way of thinking about economics, one that takes into account factors like significant leaps in technology, finite resources and social justice. I have some rather fluid ideas on what that might look like – ones that I’ll share in a later post – but I’d like to preface this with a caveat. I’m just one guy. My opinions are informed by several years of research and inquiry, but they are opinions. The question of how to shape the social structure of tomorrow is too  big for any one person to answer. It’s something that society as a whole needs to address. That’s why I started writing this blog.

I’m happy to share my research and the conclusions that I’ve drawn from that research, but what I don’t want is for someone to read it and say, “Yes, this is THE answer.” People have done that with the writings of Adam Smith, with the writings of Karl Marx and with the writings of so many other authors. We call these stories “meta-narratives.” Meta-narratives go like this: “Once everyone adopts (insert philosophy here), the world will become a utopia of peace and prosperity.”

When meta-narratives fail – as they all inevitably do – people tend to have one of two reactions. Either they assume that we just weren’t trying hard enough and become even more zealously dedicated to their philosophy, or they assume that every single thing the meta-narrative said was a lie. Both Smith and Marx had relevant things to say; they just weren’t right about everything. And the world has changed since their works were published. Our policies need to change with it.

Consider the issue of technological advancement.

One of the leading factors in the stagnating rate of employment is the fact that there simply isn’t as much of a demand for human labour as there was fifty years ago. That’s not something that people talk about much, but a lot of experts are starting to agree. Here’s a talk by Andrew McAffe – associate director of the Center for Digital Business at MIT – in which he discusses the realities of technological unemployment.

If you want to skip the video, I’ll summarize. Most jobs that allow you to draw an hourly wage come in the form of procedural tasks. Most procedural tasks can be automated. It’s cheaper to automate, and therefore most of those jobs are going to vanish over the next twenty years. Now, you might be thinking that he’s talking about machines that will clean the floors and stock the shelves, but this kind of automation extends to the white collar world as well. There are now algorithms that can produce technical documents with flawless prose. This technology already exists. It’s already being used. Some of my friends are technical writers, and they’re probably going to hate me now. There are translation apps that can translate languages faster than any human, and WATSON, the robot who beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy, is being implemented as a customer service agent.

Before any of you start shouting “Luddite!” I’d be happy to discuss the predictions for just what humans will be doing with their time when the robots are doing most of what we currently think of as work. But that will take an entire blog entry of its own; so let’s just table that discussion for now. Keep your chin up. Automation will be a good thing in the end.

Trust me.

The point is that with the demand for human labour diminishing and the use of automation increasing, what exactly do we think socialism can do to solve problems like unemployment? Right now, companies take on as few new employees as possible because they want to keep their expenses low and therefore reap higher profits. If we switch to a socialist model, it would be nice that those profits are more equitably distributed, but the central problem remains. Owners of the company (which now include everyone who works there) still want to take on as few new employees as possible because they want to keep their profits high.

Before those of you on the Right start cheering, understand that Marx did make a lot of good points. His sentiments on the problems that go hand-in-hand with income inequality were pretty much spot on. There is an enormous body of research that says that as income inequality goes up, so do social problems ranging from mental illness to crime to obesity.

Socialism, however, says nothing about resource management or pollution because those concepts would never have occurred to someone living in Marx’s time. It would never have occurred to him that we might one day reach a point where we are in danger of exhausting the Earth’s resources. But we are.

I’m sure someone reading this will be quick to point out that there are modernized versions of Marxist theory that incorporate environmental issues, and I’m sure someone else will point out that both socialism and capitalism have evolved since their inception and that there are variants of each that focus on human rights. Someone else will ask me whether I’m in favour of big businesses manipulating the system to get bailouts on the tax payer’s dime while simultaneously trampling on human rights. (The answer is no.) But here’s the thing.

This discussion is irrelevant.

Because what we call ourselves is irrelevant. We need a radical shift in both social and economic policy to cope with the realities that we are creating, and so far as I know, no political movement that exists today has these issues in mind. I originally conceived of this entry in two parts: why the current political landscape cannot solve the problem and my thoughts on what we should do instead. However, part one became large enough to be it’s own entry. So we’ll talk about part two next week.

_______________

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