Since this is my last column of 1995, it seems an appropriate moment to take stock of the world situation.
The recent political developments summed up in an article in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times by Walter Russell Mead suggest that the end of historyis having some difficulties getting under way. East bloc voters are electing (ex-?)communists, French workers are, or were, on strike, and even in the market-oriented USA, voters are not lining up to renounce Federal benefits in the spirit of balancing the budget. Socialism has failed, as the author, perhaps regretfully, admits, and (as he neglects to add) social democracy is bankrupt; but the market system doesn’t seem to be doing so well either.Even worse, the rapid diffusion of information that increasingly rationalizes the marketplace has led to the phenomenon known as the winner-take-all society (discussed in a recent book by economists Robert Frank and Philip Cook), where great differential rewards go to vanishingly small differences in ability and performance. Ours appears to have become a three-tiered social order consisting of the big winners, the technologically skilled who can at least dream of the big time, and hamburger-flipping for the rest. This model of the social order resembles Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World with its alphas and betas, with the gammas rapidly being replaced by epsilons.
But Huxley‘s epsilons were programmed to accept their place; ours are not. Since they have been relatively–by some accounts, absolutely–excluded from the benefits of economic progress, it is not surprising that they express their resentment by supporting socialist parties even after the demise of socialism. Yet the votes for communism in Eastern Europe and the unanticipated public support for the strikes in France are not harbingers of new revolutions, but nostalgic reactions to the demise of the welfare state, whether in its pernicious communist or its more benign social-democratic variety.
Are these truly intractable problems? Wasn’t market society supposed to be about to attain end-of-history perfection, with just the last wrinkles to be ironed out before the great utopia descends on us? Someone will discover how to prevent aging, and we will all live forever, watching daytime TV as the robots sweep up the peanut shells and recyclable Twinkie wrappers. Or we will all travel on time warps to other solar systems to create new versions of the wonderful world we have left behind. Ho hum! The conception of a society without essential problems is deadening, inhuman. We are fortunate that market society presents intractable difficulties. For these are precisely the kind that inspire new levels of innovation. Like the intractableproblems of our proto-human ancestors that could only be solved by becoming human.
What kind of solution is conceivable for the increasing stratification of post-industrial societies? Those who despair are like those who despaired of the pauperization of the proletariat in an earlier time. The latter were not simply wrong; but the market system eventually prospered, both by providing a social-democratic safety net on the model of Bismarck‘s original social security programs and, above all, by making workers into consumers and lifting most of them, or their descendants, out of the working class altogether. Not very long ago the boredom of assembly-line labor was considered a menace to the future of industrial society. Today, on the contrary, we lament that our jobs are too interesting for the unwashed masses.
Why should we assume that the new immigrants and minority members who make up the proletariat of our era are mired in epsilon status and incapable of adapting to the needs of the information age? Or that these needs, more broadly conceived, cannot adapt to them? It is impossible to miss the connection between despair about stratification and the tendency of contemporary liberalism to see the losers of economic battles as hapless victims of the winners rather than people who need to learn, or have their children learn, how to do better next time. The safety net is there to facilitate this learning, not to provide, as it does for too many here and in Europe, a way of life.
The idea that the market system inevitably moves toward the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a tiny elite is an unwarranted extrapolation from specific moments of modern history. The birth of new techniques, whether the industrial ones of the mid-nineteenth century or the cybernetic ones of the postwar era, is bound to benefit the wealthier and better-educated disproportionately at first. But already today computers, once mysterious except to seasoned hackers, have become popular commodity items and levelers of the playing field of information exchange. In a word, they have become sources of general prosperity, just as the family car was in an earlier time.
Humanity must always continue to generate itself; that is what generative anthropology is all about!