The thrill of endless progress
by James Kaelan
When Donald Trump vows to “Make America Great Again,” or Elizabeth Warren pledges to “fix capitalism,” they’re harkening back to the Golden Age of American industry: the post-War period, where corporations like Standard Oil, Ford, and General Electric were major cords in the social safety net (if you were a white man, of course).
These companies not only paid salaries that made it possible for single-earner families to own a home, a car, and go on vacation in August and December; they guaranteed healthcare, pensions, and in many cases, community. Your Saturday night bowling league might very well be made up of people you saw all week at the office or on the factory floor.
So there really (sort of?) was a time, in the not too distant past, when capitalism seemed to be working pretty damned well — better, at least, than Soviet and Chinese communism: totalitarian systems that subjugated more than a billion people, murdered tens of millions, and polluted the environment.
But as the economy globalized in the ’70s and ’80s, evidence was starting to mount suggesting our collective desire for faster, cheaper, and more convenient goods was producing unintended consequences. People were being “lifted out of poverty” at an astonishing rate. But the oceans were filling with plastic. The natural world was being hacked and scorched to make cattle pasture to feed the new beef-hungry masses. And burning fossil fuels, scientists were realizing, didn’t just make the sky brown in Los Angeles. The excess carbon (and methane) was accumulating in the atmosphere faster than photosynthesis could recycle it.
And then in 1986, NASA’s James Hansen made a shocking statement while testifying to Congress about the Greenhouse effect. Our emissions were warming the planet, and if we didn’t change our behavior soon, the consequences could be dire.
But Hansen’s warning seemed, to most, like doomsday naysaying. Capitalism, the counter-argument went, had unlocked technologies that made our lives immeasurably better. Whatever externalities our consumption was producing — “global warming,” “habitat destruction” — the benefits far outweighed the downsides. Once you have a McDonald’s, your people stop dying of starvation.
Once you have a McDonald’s, your people stop dying of starvation.
At the same time scientists began observing man-made changes in the climate, the nature of capitalism was changing, too. From the mid 1940s until the mid 1970s, Karl Polanyi’s Double Movement had done a decent job mollifying the potentially rapacious nature of the free market. Through regulation and taxation, governments had worked to ensure no company could get too powerful. But in the decade preceding the election of Ronald Reagan, as the world reeled from the OPEC Oil Embargo, the poles began to switch.
Instead of protecting the rights of the people, the State began to protect the sovereignty of the markets. Polanyi and John Maynard Keynes, who both believed capitalism was only sustainable when it was locking horns with a strong, centralized power, were out. Friedrich Hayek, who believed truly free markets were perfect self-regulators, was in.
But Hayek wasn’t just opposed to Keynes and Polanyi on theoretical grounds. Hayek, writing as the ashes of World War II were still smoldering, saw how fascist governments in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan had converted corporations into tools of authoritarianism. In 1944, for instance, Mercedes Benz was using 30,000 concentration camp slave laborers to build airplane engines for Hitler’s Luftwaffe. To avoid a World War III, Hayek firmly believed, manufacturing needed to be permanently cleaved from government. Regulation didn’t just stifle innovation; it led to the Holocaust.
According to Hayek’s new theory, the people would replace the State as chief market regulator. And to do their regulatory duty, consumers would rely on both their rational self-interest and a new, increasingly-unfettered access to information about the products they were buying.
The only problem was, humans aren’t rational. In reality, we’re mercurial, illogical beasts who often act against our own long-term best interests. And objective knowledge, which seemed hypothetically attainable as the internet dawned, became like the fruit in Tantalus’s tree: the more facts we reached for, paradoxically, the fewer we could grasp.
Within a few decades, everything would be true. Vaccines saved millions of lives and they caused autism. Hillary Clinton was shattering the glass ceiling and she was a lizard person. Donald Trump was the world’s greatest businessman and he was a Russian agent.
Facts lost their independence. They became fungible. You could choose your favorite truth from the infinite smörgåsbord of narratives on the web.
But as with climate change, we were slow to recognize the evidence of our own irrationality. America’s economy was booming. In Clinton’s final term, the U.S. actually had a budget surplus. China’s open market was rocketing the world’s most populous country toward its eventual position as the second largest economy on earth.
Why question our progress? Neoliberal capitalism had triumphed over centralized state planning. So, logically, fresh market liberalizations would make us even more triumphant.
In reality, though, deregulation led to carbon emissions warming the globe. Deregulation allowed the banks to undermine the global economy in 2008. And a lack of oversight allowed Cambridge Analytica (and the Russian government) to hack our social networks — and our democracy — in 2016.
Have we had a rational, corrective response to these crises, ensuring we don’t repeat our mistakes?
We seem, almost, to be going backwards. Whether freely or under duress, we elected Donald Trump. As he promised he would, he withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord. His administration gutted the Consumer Protection Bureau — created after the financial crisis to hold Wall Street accountable. And despite levying fines against the technopolies, Congress continues to allow social media platforms, largely, to police themselves.
Facebook, in its quest for revenue, helped throw the American election to Trump. A year later the company helped foment a genocide in Myanmar. People were outraged. The House and Senate both held hearings. But to this day, no one seems to know how to stop the next election hack, the next mass slaughter.
Did it have to be this way?
It’s tempting to look back on the mistakes of our neoliberal youth and scream at our dumber selves: “What the fuck were you thinking??”
Thirty-two years ago, when James Hansen addressed Congress about the threat of climate change, there was still time to act. His testimony could’ve been a catalyst to convert our oil-powered economy into a renewable one.
But like 16-year-old rich kids who’d driven drunk a few times without running off the road, the risk of dying in fiery crash wasn’t going to stop us from getting behind the wheel or our father’s car. A decade later, with a Georgetown degree, a job at Bear Stearns, and an intermittent outbreak of herpes, we firmly believed Porsches couldn’t crash.
Middle-aged, now, and finally losing control of the car — drunk, of course, on a sharp turn somewhere between East Hampton and Montauk — it’s tempting to reproach our shitty parents for setting a bad example. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher taught me to drive!
But, in the end, our behavior is our responsibility.
A decade later, with a Georgetown degree, a job at Bear Stearns, and an intermittent outbreak of herpes, we firmly believed Porsches couldn’t crash.
We can console ourselves and say that we got duped, that we were just emulating Joel Goodson from Risky Business. (Q: Joel, what’s your biggest takeaway from turning your parents’ mansion into a whorehouse? A: I love business!!!!!!) We can claim that the influence of corporate lobbyists — whose job it is to keep the oil flowing, the soy beans growing, and the AR-15s firing — has made it impossible to elect progressive leadership capable of tackling existential threats.
Or we can acknowledge that the companies whose ghouls stalk the halls of Congress are rich and powerful because we make them so. We want gas to be less than $3 per gallon. We want to be able to buy $5 steaks at Albertsons. We want Amazon to build a fulfillment center down the street and bring new jobs to our city.
Capitalism needs to grow. But we, the people, dictate the pace. As long as we’re doing the labor, buying the products, and electing the representatives who make the laws, our behavior could have a monumental, positive influence on the health of the planet.
So, why are we still speeding out of control?
I believe it’s because we don’t actually know where we want to go — because we’ve constricted the definition of “happiness” down to: go to a good college, get a good job, buy a nice house, have some kids who aren’t too addicted to their screens, and get them into good colleges so they can get good jobs.
But what if there’s a more meaningful — and fully sustainable — way to live?