(or Trends toward Collapse)
Written April 2020.
The current neoliberal capitalist economic system is on track to exhaust itself of its driving forces and derived benefits. Diamond (2005) theorizes 5 causes of societal collapse: non-sustainable exploitation of resources, climate changes, diminishing support from friendly societies, hostile neighbors, and inappropriate attitudes for change. It seems our fulfillment of each criterion in developed, capitalist, democratic societies is on an upward trend (see Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], 2018; Fogel, 2018; Wheatley, 2019, pp. 27–43), with the added element of rising inequality (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2020) and concentration of wealth in politico-economic elites (Crouch, 2013).
Societal progress cannot happen without common goals. The nature of our society lacks common goals, as the laborer, the farmer, and the entrepreneur no longer are attracted to a singular political movement (Crouch, 2000) — a defining characteristic of a post-industrial society. Thereby, there is little possibility of class solidarity in today’s society due to a lack of common goals (Crouch, 2000). “Post-industrial” means the service sector generates more “wealth” than the manufacturing sector, whatever wealth means in this case (and for whom); naturally, the socio-economic importance of the service industry is plainly visible. Post-industrialism today is also closely related to the sociological theory of the “knowledge economy”, in which knowledge is recognized as a form of capital and its production, distribution, and consumption become major economic activities (Information Age in lay terms). But indicators of wealth are not indicators of wellbeing. Growth-centric models and measurements are just that: models and prescribed measurements. We live in reality, not in models. We see this contrast between reality and model with countries’ GDPs growing hand-in-hand with global inequality, even in developed countries (Causa, de Serres, & Ruiz, 2014). Actions taken “for the economy” are not necessarily or automatically actions taken for citizens/people/inhabitants. Furthermore, economic models function based on key “basic” assumptions. Over the past few decades social scientists, academics, and laypeople have all come to realize that human behavior is drastically different from economic assumptions, or expectations, of “rationality”, a neoliberal code for predatory self-interest and social detachment/indifference for economic gain. An additional assumption of today’s dominant economic theory is that consumers, which all people are, have full access to all information necessary for decision-making, which is self-evidently not true. The models further hypothesize that people are able to make complex calculations between two options presented and not only assess which option has a higher expected yield but have a clear preference between the two.
In this sense, economics is a highly speculative and idealistic endeavor, adopting the underlying fundament that markets efficiently price assets at their intrinsic value and that all necessary information is publicly available (Steyerl, 2019). In order for reality to converge to these models, we have the practice of gamification. This relates to the postmodern theory of reality in a matrix of ways. A (free-) market-based economy that itself is more important to sustain than the wellbeing of citizens is fundamentally detached from the value it is supposed to be an exchange platform for. When politicians make laws and take measures to improve the conformity of reality (our economic system) to sculpted, chiseled, sanded models, this is a form of gamification in which complex elements of reality are stripped down, attempting to match the key assumptions of the models. And according to our models, predatory self-interest is actually completely economically viable until economic instruments become so detached from value (“divorced from empirical reality” [Steyerl, 2019]) that we’re left with the 2008–‘09 multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme. This happens at the cost of working-class and middle-class people — anyone who has few liquid and nonliquid assets and who does not own capital or owns so little that it is negligible.
If consumers and workers behave economically irrationally, e.g., by unionizing, gifting, sharing, collectively owning, then their economic freedom (to behave rationally or irrationally at their will) is stripped away in order to force them into mechanisms that fit the model. Let’s keep in mind the aforementioned concept of the post-industrial society: Many people have jobs, or sources of employment and remuneration, but are not employees but rather “independent contractors.” This deprives them of the possibility to unionize, to have stable incomes, to have benefits (which in the developed non-US world are guaranteed by the government, or, i.e., “socialist” policies). (I am referring not only to healthcare, which is a universal right in many developed countries, but also the right to childcare, parental leave, and similar social policies which allow for healthier and more productive workers, in capitalist terms. This is not to mention environmental considerations, which I’ll leave at noting that not only did the US leave the Paris Climate Agreement, but the Green New Deal was destroyed by the GOP and Democratic centrists alike. Neither party in the US offers a serious discussion of such policies; instead, we have an establishment split into two wings which differ by aggregate access to education, adherence to puritanical Christian social values, and choice of economic industry/sector they are subservient to [e.g., tech vs nonrenewable energy], but politically offer little differentiation when compared to the left–right or open–closed dimensions of European politics and that of other developed countries. No matter the political orientation, positive rights afforded through social programs are economically irrational per Friedman’s definition of rationality, a definition employed heavily in policy-making in the Anglo-American model.)
This system causes working- and middle-class people, especially those in precarious service-sector jobs, to default on mortgages, have their real wealth stripped away, be left in debt, be forced to choose between one basic necessity and another, and have their means of survival put into question. One thing is certain, though: They have to keep working. The debt market is always trickle-up at the end of the day. As Steyerl (2019) bluntly puts it, the sharing economy “mostly means that the poor share with the rich, not vice versa” (p. 187). There is no safety net to save them in a crisis of this scale, because that would be socialism. So sovereign governments bail out banks and corporations (legal persons) with taxpayer (natural persons’) money, and the same banks and corporations that exploited taxpayers through “the market” — entailing not just supply and demand but also redlining, price discrimination, demand generation, deregulation, privatization of public goods — now exploit through lobbying. Quantitative easing, which depletes common resources and erodes currency stability (Steyerl, 2019), is somehow universally accepted as a painfully necessary mechanism to save the best financial system on Earth every 10 or so years, the alternative being mass depreciation and, arguably, (more quickly realized) eventual collapse. Deficit becomes long-term debt becomes eternal debt. Service labor becomes indentured servitude. Recessions become depressions. Apocalyptic natural disasters and pandemics become status quo (see dormant bacteria and viruses “waking up” in Fox-Skelly, 2017; climate change resulting in “unprecedented extremes” in Working Groups I and II of the IPCC, 2012). The growing middle class becomes the growing working class. Legal persons become a protected class of fiscal banana republics; their residences, tax havens, become untouchable heavens.
One could argue these trends of resource exhaustion and inequality are going in the opposite direction. The EU has charged Alphabet all of the taxes it avoided paying, AOC is an elected member of the US Congress, and #MeToo is gaining foot in traditionally closed countries such as Japan. But there is a much larger awakening happening worldwide. Authoritarianism, neofascism, nationalism, xenophobia, nativism are all on the rise. If you can make the case for derivative financial instruments holding any kind of value, you must accept that derivative forms of hostility toward the “other” are different plants with one root. Bolsonaro’s encroaching on indigenous Amazonian communities and their forests, Trump’s inevitable re-election (nevermind the crumbling of the Democratic party), Orbán’s unobstructed rule by decree, Netanyahu’s iron grip on the Knesset, Abe’s nationalistic inability to bridge ties with the necessary regional ally of South Korea are far from an exhaustive list. We can also like at the rise of racist, Judeophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic, and homophobic hate crimes over the last decade, or at the prevalence of genocides, ethnocides, and civil wars across the globe — from Kurdistan to Myanmar to East Turkestan to Yemen — that are no longer relevant when circulation has been exhausted and media corporations stop gaining from the news cycles. Yes, journalists are warriors of freedom in our society. But that doesn’t free the economic structure of the organizations they work for from the necessity of profit and the derived necessity of news/informational obsolescence. Or we can look at another manifestation of corporation pushing agents toward model conformity: Amazon “tracking and scoring stores it deems at risk of unionizing […] based on more than two dozen metrics, including racial diversity, employee loyalty, ‘tipline’ calls, and violations recorded” by OSHA (Peterson, 2020). And unions, or labor monopolies as neoliberalists fear them to be (called rights to others), are certainly not allowable per rational economic behavior by capitalists. [expand this somehow]
Let’s talk about obsolescence, shall we? Apple probably has the most famous model with a whole bunch of added perks: You can’t repair anything yourself, but you can pay exorbitant amounts for repairs that will last you until your product’s obsolescence in two seasons. But Apple is too easy to criticize. Maybe I’m speaking out of my ass, but their half-assed privacy concerns have still gone farther than those of Facebook or Amazon (which are basically corporatocratic, antidemocratic power grabs). A business model originating from and inherent to creative industries (Pitts, 2015), planned obsolescence has become an integral part of our economy. There are more collections and runways than ever before, and excess supply is burned or disposed of rather than distributed. Am I talking about fashion or agriculture? Both. The absurdity of destroying crops during a pandemic when food banks are overwhelmed with unprecedented demand can only be justified by a true capitalist: If pricing mechanisms are at risk of being disrupted by lack of coordination (read: economic planning), it necessarily means that markets are not sufficient for the production, distribution, and consumption of value — of goods and services that people need. “We live in an economic system in which a particularly good crop is often an economic disaster, and we restrict some of our agricultural productivity in order to ‘stabilize the market,’ although there are millions of people who do not have the very things we restrict, and who need them badly,” wrote Erich Fromm back in 1955 (!). I mean how long do we have to conform reality — at the cost of people starving! — to economic models? A futile attempt, based on the absurd negligence of assumed limitless resources for the growth promised by said models: economies of scale, economies of eventual delusion, right?!
In the neoliberal capitalist system, the ideal form of capital is that which produces without incurring costs (Steyerl, 2019) — all revenue becomes profit as the breakeven point is 0. In turn, this means that the ideal form of human capital is exploited, unpaid, unfed, unhoused, unclothed workers that spend none of their time idle and all of their time working. And when policies have economy-oriented goals and citizens are an afterthought, people are reduced to human capital, and human capital doesn’t have needs, wants, dreams — it is a means to the end of profit. In a political system approaching post-democracy, where corporations have more power in sovereign politics than citizens and inhabitants, without mass collective organizing, workers are bound to be increasingly exploited. Given that our planet has a scarcity of resources but corporations and national governments still plan for unbounded growth, human means of survival within the system we’ve built, our wellbeing, and quality of life will marginally improve (at maximum) or worsen (there is no minimum in this direction).
Causa, O., de Serres, A., & Ruiz, N. (2014). Growth and inequality: A close relationship? OECD. http://www.oecd.org/economy/growth-and-inequality-close-relationship.htm
Crouch, C. (2000). Coping with post-democracy. Fabian Society.
Crouch, C. (2013, February 5). Five minutes with Colin Crouch (British Politics and Policy at LSE, Interviewer). https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/five-minutes-with-colin-crouch/
Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. Penguin Books.
Fogel, B. (2018, October 29). Fascism has arrived in Brazil — Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency will be worse than you think. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jair-bolsonaro-brazil-election-results-president-fascism-far-right-fernando-haddad-a8606391.html
Fox-Skelly, J. (2017, May 4). There are diseases hidden in the ice and they are waking up. BBC. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170504-there-are-diseases-hidden-in-ice-and-they-are-waking-up
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Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2018). Global warming of 1.5 °C [Special report]. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/
Peterson, H. (2020, April 20). Amazon-owned Whole Foods is quietly tracking its employees with a heat map tool that ranks which stores are most at risk of unionizing. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/whole-foods-tracks-unionization-risk-with-heat-map-2020-1
Pitts, F. H. (2015). Creative industries, value theory and Michael Heinrich’s new reading of Marx. tripleC, 13(1), 192–222. https://doi.org/10.31269/triplec.v13i1.639
Steyerl, H. (2019). Duty free art: Art in the age of planetary civil war. Verso.
Wheatley, J. (2019). The changing shape of politics: Rethinking left and right in a new Britain. Palgrave Pivot.
UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2020). World social report 2020. https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/world-social-report/2020-2.html