Understanding Elite Discontent

Because they serve as stewards of dominant pastoral visions, cultural elites are most prone to viewing unexpected developments as degeneracy. From the Greek philosopher Plato1 (who lamented the invention of writing in the 4th century BC) to the Chinese scholar, Zhang Xian Wu2 (who lamented the invention of printing in the 12th century AD), alarmist commentary on technological change has been a constant in history. A contemporary example can be found in a 2014 article3 by Paul Verhaege in The Guardian:

There are constant laments about the so-called loss of norms and values in our culture. Yet our norms and values make up an integral and essential part of our identity. So they cannot be lost, only changed. And that is precisely what has happened: a changed economy reflects changed ethics and brings about changed identity. The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us.

Viewed through any given pastoral lens, any unplanned development is more likely to subtract rather than add value. In an imagined world where cars fly, but driving is still a central rather than peripheral function, ridesharing can only be seen as subtracting taxi drivers from a complete vision. Driverless cars — the name is revealing, like “horseless carriage” — can only be seen as subtracting all drivers from the vision. And with such apparent subtraction, values and humans can only be seen as degenerating (never mind that we still ride horses for fun, and will likely continue driving cars for fun).

This tendency to view adaptation as degeneracy is perhaps why cultural elites are startlingly prone to the Luddite fallacy. This is the idea that technology-driven unemployment is a real concern, an idea that arises from the more basic assumption that there is a fixed amount of work (“lump of labor”) to be done. By this logic, if a machine does more, then there is less for people to do.

Prometheans often attribute this fallacious argument to a lack of imagination, but the roots of its appeal lie much deeper. Pastoralists are perfectly willing and able to imagine many interesting things, so long as they bring reality closer to the pastoral vision. Flying cars — and there are very imaginative ways to conceive of them — seem better than land-bound ones because drivers predictably evolving into pilots conforms to the underlying notion of human perfectibility. Drivers unpredictably evolving into smartphone-wielding free agents, and breaking smart from the Organization Man archetype, does not. Within the Jeffersonian pastoral, faster horses (not exactly trivial to breed) made for more empowered small-town yeoman farmers. Drivers of early horseless carriages were degenerate dependents, beholden to big corporations, big cities and Standard Oil.

In other words, pastoralists can imagine sustaining changes to the prevailing social order, but disruptive changes seem profane. As a result, those who adapt to disruption in unexpected ways seem like economic and cultural degenerates, rather than representing employment rebounding in unexpected ways.

History of course, has shown that the idea of technological unemployment is not just wrong, it is wildly wrong. Contemporary fears of software eating jobs is just the latest version of the argument that “people cannot change” and that this time, the true limits of human adaptability have been discovered.

This argument is absolutely correct — within the pastoral vision that it is made.

Once we remove pastoral blinders, it becomes obvious that the future of work lies in the unexpected and degenerate-seeming behaviors of today. Agriculture certainly suffered a devastating permanent loss of employment to machinery within the Jeffersonian pastoral by 1890. Fortunately, Hamilton’s profane ideas, and the degenerate citizens of the industrial world he foresaw, saved the day. The ideal Jeffersonian human, the noble small-town yeoman farmer, did in fact become practically extinct as the Jeffersonians feared. Today the pastoral-ideal human is a high-IQ credentialist Organization Man, headed for gradual extinction, unable to compete with higher-IQ machines. The degenerate, breaking-smart humans of the software-eaten world on the other hand, have no such fears. They are too busy tinkering with new possibilities to bemoan imaginary lost utopias.

John Maynard Keynes was too astute to succumb to the Luddite fallacy in this naive form. In his 1930 conception of the leisure society,4 he noted that the economy could arbitrarily expand to create and satisfy new needs, and with a lag, absorb labor as fast as automation freed it up. But Keynes too failed to recognize that with new lifestyles come new priorities, new lived values and new reasons to want to work. As a result, he saw the Promethean pattern of progress as a necessary evil on the path to a utopian leisure society based on traditional, universal religious values:

I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue-that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.

But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.

Perceptions of moral decline however, have no necessary relationship with actual moral decline. As Joseph Tainter observes in The Collapse of Complex Societies:

Values of course, vary culturally, socially and individually…What one individual, society, or culture values highly another does not…Most of us approve, in general, of that which culturally is most like or most pleasing, or at least most intelligible to us. The result is a global bedlam of idiosyncratic ideologies, each claiming exclusive possession of ‘truth.’…

The ‘decadance’ concept seems particularly detrimental [and is] notoriously difficult to define. Decadent behavior is that which differs from one’s own moral code, particular if the offender at some former time behaved in a manner of which one approves. There is no clear causal link between the morality of behavior and political fortunes.

While there is no actual moral decline in any meaningful absolute sense, the anxiety experienced by pastoralists is real. For those who yearn for paternalistic authority, more lifestyle possibilities leads to a sense of anomie rather than freedom. It triggers what the philosopher George Steiner called nostalgia for the absolute.5 Calls for a retreat to tradition or a collectivist drive towards the Next Big Thing (often an Updated Old Thing, as in the case of President Obama’s call for a “new Sputnik moment” a few years ago) share a yearning for a simpler world. But, as Steiner notes:

I do not think it will work. On the most brutal, empirical level, we have no example in history…of a complex economic and technological system backtracking to a more simple, primitive level of survival. Yes, it can be done individually. We all, I think, in the universities now have a former colleague or student somewhere planting his own organic food, living in a cabin in the forest, trying to educate his family far from school. Individually it might work. Socially, I think, it is moonshine.

In 1974, the year of peak centralization, Steiner was presciently observing the beginnings of the transformation. Today, the angst he observed on university campuses has turned into a society-wide condition of pastoral longing, and a pervasive sense of moral decay.

For Prometheans, on the other hand, not only is there no decay, there is actual moral progress.

Previous | Up | Next

[1] In Phaedrus, Plato lamented the invention of writing as causing degeneration of our memory capacities. Interesting discussions of the thought can be found in James Gleick’s The Information and Nick Carr’s The Shallows.

[2] Book chapter: Stephen H. West. Time Management and Self Control: Self-help Guides in the Yuan. Text, performance, and gender in Chinese literature and music: essays in honor of Wilt Idema. E. J. Brill (2009).

[3] Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in usGuardian, 2014.

[4] See footnote [1] in Towards a Mass Flourishing. 

[5] George Steiner, Nostalgia for the Absolute1974.