Thursday, May 24, 2012

Age of Abundance

Here's a book I should definitely have read before this, but I only discovered it two weeks ago: Brink Lindsey's The Age of Abundance. It is meticulously historically researched and it could not be more relevant to what I have been discussing on this blog. It is stimulating and intelligent. I could hardly put the iPad down.

Lindsey has spent most of his career at the Cato Institute in DC, a well-known libertarian thinktank. His book is an account of the political and social consequences of abundance, published at a moment when the economy felt distinctly better: 2007. He argues not just that the impact of abundance has been overwhelming, but it started much earlier: the sixties. The baby boomers were the first generation in history to grow up with widespread material abundance, and that made them very different to anything that had gone before.

In fact, he has a compelling and articulate retelling of American postwar political history. It is very persuasive. The story is that the late fifties and sixties marked the first time ever that the bulk of a population had fulfilled most of its immediate material survival needs. This was a sudden new moment in history.

In the years after World War II, America crossed a great historical threshold. In all prior civilizations and social orders, the vast bulk of humanity had been preoccupied with responding to basic material needs. Postwar America, however, was different. An extensive and highly complex division of labor unleashed immense productive powers far beyond anything in prior human experience. As a result, the age-old bonds of scarcity were broken. Concern with physical survival and security was now banished to the periphery of social life.
So his starting point is very much the same as mine - how abundance means we have to rethink the way we see the economy and society. But he sees the cultural impact starting fifty years ago. And he argues it simply has not been fully understood yet.

This ongoing revolution cries out for greater attention and understanding. The liberation from material necessity marks a fundamental change in the human condition, one that leaves no aspect of social existence unaffected. As a result, many age-old verities no longer apply: truths and rules that arose and obtained during the 10 millennia when subsistence agriculture was the main business of mankind have been rendered obsolete. We are in uncharted territory. Consequently, we are in need of new maps.

Naturally, I agree with this. That is the whole point of the blog. But from the viewpoint of 2012, the productive forces of the economy are so much stronger and changing rapidly that the problems are appearing in a different way - as a frightening undermining of many existing economic institutions. If the social revolutions of the 1960s can be understood as one response to the first glimmers of abundance, surely it is all the more important to focus on the implications of abundance when change is happening much more rapidly.

Step back to the sixties, though. Why did American society have such sudden convulsions, social change and utopian aspiration?

Abundance means a shift in values, Lindsey says, very much echoing Maslow. In fact, as we shall see, he marshals evidence to show that many sixties radicals consciously thought in terms of Maslow's self-actualization, although their idea of what that meant was much more radical.

Lindsey looks at studies carried out by Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist who investigates "post-materialism".

Once material accumulation is no longer a matter of life and death, its diminished urgency naturally allows other priorities to assert themselves. “This change of direction,” Inglehart concludes, “reflects the principle of diminishing marginal utility.” Meanwhile, material security reduces stress, and thus the appeal of inflexible moral norms. “Individuals under high stress have a need for rigid, predictable rules,” Inglehart observes. “They need to be sure what is going to happen because they are in danger—their margin for error is slender and they need maximum predictability. Postmodernists embody the opposite outlook: raised under conditions of relative security, they can tolerate more ambiguity; they are less likely to need the security of absolute rigid rules that religious sanctions provide.”

This makes sense. Indeed, it reminds me of one of the main reasons militaries tend to have strict discipline. The confusion and uncertainty of the battlefield means they have to have embedded routine and instinct to fall back on when the fog of war covers everything. More unpredictable and unsettled societies, confronted with dangers and threats, tend to be more rigid.

But the loosening of rules creates its own unpredictability and insecurity.

The process of cultural adaptation has been anything but smooth. For his part, Inglehart notes that the “Postmodern shift” is frequently accompanied by an “authoritarian reflex.” “Rapid change leads to severe insecurity, giving rise to a powerful need of predictability…,” he writes.


And this, says Lindsey, explains the politics and culture wars of the last fifty years.

Abundance created the new left, with new looser, less inhibited ideas of self-actualization. And the new left created the new right as a counter-reaction.

And it also leads to the argument that abundance can undermine itself, by eroding the values of deferral of pleasure and bourgeois trust which created the material abundance in the first place.

We'll look at some more themes in turn.



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