Thursday, August 3, 2017

Another Thing That Marx Got Wrong

I attended a neighborhood Block Watch party the other night and got to talk with the lefty girl across the street. She was worried that the tech kids working at Amazon were not interested in social justice and politics. Imagine!

That got me to descanting to the neighborhood folks that people in business have never been that interested in politics: John D. Rockefeller retired from Standard Oil at age 50 and invented modern philanthropy. Today's billionaires want to go to Mars. Etc.

But somehow that led me to an epiphany. It is this.

Marx in his Communist Manifesto imagined that the rising bourgeoisie and the capitalists were in the process of replacing the Old Feudalism of lords and peasants with a new feudalism of capitalists and workers.

The new lords of commerce, Marx prophesied, would rule over business and politics the way that the great barons of the land ruled over the world in their day. Of course they would, liquidating the incredible wealth of their capitalist enterprises into the ready coin of political power.

But Marx was wrong, because the new lords of commerce were not that interested in power. Instead of building themselves into a new ruling class they retired from business and invented modern philanthropy.

Here is where my epiphany comes in. Marx was not completely wrong about the rise of a new feudalism. He wasn't wrong about predicting that the workers would become the new serfs and peasants.

What Marx got completely wrong was that he imagined that it would be the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy of the market, that would step into the space vacated by the aristocracy of the land. In fact, it was the aristocracy of the word, the new educated sons -- and eventually daughters -- of the bourgeoisie that would eventually lord it over the industrial serfs.

Why would what be? Because unlike the capitalists, who were not that interested in power, the educated sons of the bourgeoisie were very interested in power, and they wanted it for themselves so that they could fundamentally transform the world -- or failing that be the chaps issuing the orders.

When you think about it, it made a lot of sense. The brutal fact about being the son or the daughter of a successful capitalist is that you are probably not going to repeat the combination of cunning, hard work, and luck that your father had. So what do you do to make your life meaningful? Hey, you mount up on a white horse and promise to save the world with the most basic and instinctive means, a political army to smash the evils and injustices of the world.

The awful truth is that this New Feudalism is a stunning success. Nearly everyone is perfectly happy being a subordinate peasant in the new estates of the new political magnates of ideology. Oh, people complain about "them," how "they" haven't built a pedestrian crossing here, or a bike path there, or a gender-neutral bathroom at the Opera House. But they do not imagine anything; they just accept an eternal subordination to the aristocracy of the word, the cultural elite that rules our minds as though it were the most natural thing in the world, because after all, it was ever thus.

Well, I for one believe that the age of industrial subordination is coming to an end. That is how I interpret the prophecy that AI will take over the world. You won't be able to sit like an automaton doing a repetitive job all your life, because all such jobs will go the way of the farm laborer.

In the future people will have to imagine how to serve their fellow humans and then do something about it. But here is the dirty little secret about this. Almost all humans are skilled communicators and cooperators, because those are the basic skills of social animals, that we learn as children just by being children and learning to talk and learning to play with other children. People are thinking that only geniuses will have jobs in the new world that is to come, but I suspect that they are wrong. Yes, we will still put geniuses to work solving impossible scientific and logical problems; but the rest of us will be as busy as bees doing regular human stuff: interacting, talking, exchanging, cooperating.

And maybe, maybe, we will prove Marx completely wrong and build a society without the eternal yoke of feudal subordination.

I am not talking about a perfect society where people paint in the morning, and politic in the afternoon and then talk philosophy in the evening. I am just talking about a society where the center of gravity occurs around a culture of cooperation and personal responsibility.

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