Brink Lindsey and the Road to Utopia

Let me put a spotlight on the very sharp Brink Lindsey here…

Brink Lindsey believes utopia is in our grasp. Our problems today are, he thinks, at their root problems about the creation of truly human identities that people can embrace.

This is a remarkable shift.

Previous human societies have had very different problems:

  • how to keep famine and plague from the door;
  • how to maintain the peace;
  • how to somehow scrape up the resources to make the investments to raise average productivity to a level that would support even a half-human standard of living; and
  • how to avoid gross maldistribution.

Keeping the peace remains a problem.

Avoiding gross maldistribution remains a problem—but the consequences of maldistribution in creating dire and life-threatening poverty are now much much less.

But famine, plague, and low productivity are now very far from our doors. And while productivity could be higher (and it would be nice if it were higher), an absence or an insufficiency of calories or of simply stuff is no longer a huge problem.

Instead, the problem seems, at least in Brink Lindsey’s conceptualization, to be “the progressive unraveling of the human connections that give life structure and meaning…”

That is a statement I find needs unpacking. But how to unpack this? Let’s let him try to unpack it. I don’t think he gets all the way there, but he makes a lot of progress:

Brink Lindsey: The End of the Working Class: “Outside a well-educated and comfortable elite comprising 20-25 percent of Americans, we see unmistakable signs of social collapse…

…the progressive unraveling of the human connections that give life structure and meaning: declining attachment to work; declining participation in community life; declining rates of marriage and two-parent childrearing…. Its roots are spiritual, not material, deprivation…. Anne Case and Angus Deaton have alerted us to a shocking rise in mortality among middle-aged whites, fueled by suicide, substance abuse—opioids make headlines these days but they hardly exhaust the list—and other “deaths of despair.” And this past November, whites in Rust Belt states made the difference in putting the incompetent demagogue Donald Trump into the White House. What we are witnessing is the human wreckage of a great historical turning point, a profound change in the social requirements of economic life. We have come to the end of the working class….

The working class was a distinctive historical phenomenon with real internal coherence. Its members shared a whole set of binding institutions (most prominently, labor unions), an ethos of solidarity and resistance to corporate exploitation, and a genuine pride about their place and role in society. Their successors, by contrast, are just an aggregation of loose, unconnected individuals… [who] failed to… enter the meritocracy…. That failure puts them on the outside looking in, with no place of their own to give them a sense of belonging, status, and, above all, dignity. Here then is the social reality that the narrowly economic perspective cannot apprehend….

From the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century until relatively recently, the miraculous technological progress and wealth creation of modern economic growth depended on large inputs of unskilled, physically demanding labor…. In the skill-neutral transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy… workers displaced from farm jobs by mechanization could find factory work without first having to acquire any new specialized expertise. By contrast, former steel and autoworkers in the Rust Belt did not have the skills needed to take advantage of the new job opportunities created by the information technology revolution….

The best part of working-class life, solidarity, was… inextricably tied up with all the worst parts. As work softened, moving out of hot, clanging factories and into air-conditioned offices, the fellow-feeling born of shared pain and struggle inevitably dissipated…. The postwar ascendancy of the working class was… due… not just [to] favorable labor laws, not just inspired collective action, but the combination of the two in conjunction with the heavy dependence on manual labor by technologically progressive industries of critical importance…. The truly essential element was the dependence of industry on manual labor. For it was that dependence, and the conflicts between companies and workers that it produced, which led to the labor movement that was responsible both for passage of the Wagner Act and the solidarity that translated law into mass unionization….

We must remember that, even in the halcyon postwar decades, blue-collar existence was a kind of bondage…. The creation of the working class was capitalism’s original sin. The economic revolution that would ultimately liberate humanity from mass poverty was made possible by a new and brutal form of domination. Yes, employment relations were voluntary: a worker was always free to quit his job and seek a better position elsewhere. And yes, over time the institution of wage labor became the primary mechanism for translating capitalism’s miraculous productivity into higher living standards for ordinary people…. Meager pay and appalling working conditions during the earlier stages of industrialization reflected not capitalist perfidy but objective reality. The abysmal poverty of the agrarian societies out of which industrialization emerged meant that nothing much better was affordable, or on offer to the great majority of families. But that is not the end of the inquiry…. Workers routinely rebelled against the factory system…. The recurrent want and physical hardships of rural life had existed since time immemorial, and thus seemed part of the natural order…. By contrast, the new energy-intensive, mechanized methods of production were jarringly novel and profoundly unnatural. And the new hierarchy of bourgeois master and proletarian servant had been erected intentionally by capitalists for their own private gain….

At the heart of the matter, though, was the nature of the work…. Humans are most productive in filling in the gaps of mechanization when they perform likewise. The problem, of course, is that people are not machines, and they don’t like being treated as such…. The nightmare of the industrial age was that the dependence of technological civilization on brute labor was never-ending….

Those old nightmares are gone—and for that we owe a prayer of thanks. Never has there been a source of human conflict more incendiary than the reliance of mass progress on mass misery…. But the old nightmare, alas, has been replaced…. Before, the problem was the immense usefulness of dehumanizing work; now, it is feelings of uselessness that threaten to leach away people’s humanity. Anchored in their unquestioned usefulness, industrial workers could struggle personally to endure their lot for the sake of their families, and they could struggle collectively to better their lot. The working class’s struggle was the source of working-class identity and pride. For today’s post-working-class “precariat,” though, the anchor is gone, and people drift aimlessly from one dead-end job to the next. Being ill-used gave industrial workers the opportunity to find dignity in fighting back. But how does one fight back against being discarded and ignored? Where is the dignity in obsolescence?…

There is at least one reason for hope. We can hope for something better because, for the first time in history, we are free to choose something better. The low productivity of traditional agriculture meant that mass oppression was unavoidable…. Once the possibilities of a productivity revolution through energy-intensive mass production were glimpsed, the creation of urban proletariats in one country after another was likewise driven by historical necessity…. The political incentives were truly decisive. When military might hinged on industrial success, geopolitical competition ensured that mass mobilizations of working classes would ensue. No equivalent dynamics operate today. There is no iron law of history impelling us to treat the majority of our fellow citizens as superfluous afterthoughts…. There is a land of milk and honey beyond this wilderness, if we have the vision and resolve to reach it.

Communism and Really Existing Socialism: A Reading List for Post-Millennials

Manchester 1844 Google Search

What should someone coming of age in 2020 or so–someone post-millennial, who has no memories of all of any part of the twentieth century–learn about communism, and really existing socialism?

It is, I think, very clear by now to everyone except the most demented of the herbal teabaggers, and should be clear to all, that communism was not one of the brightest lights on humanity’s tree of ideas. Nobody convinced by the writings of Marx and his peers that a “communist” society was in some sense an ideal who then achieved enough political power to try to make that vision a reality has built a society that turned out well. All, measured by the yardsticks of their time and geographical situation, were either moderately bad, worse, disastrous, or candidates for the worst-régime-every prize. None attained the status of:

a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it like that of New England.” For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill…

Moreover, those who took Marx most seriously and fell under his intellectual spell either did first-class work only after they had liberated themselves and attached themselves to some other’s perspective (as Perry Anderson did to Weber via “modes of domination” and as Joan Robinson did to Keynes). Too close and uncritical a study of Marx is a mode of self-programming that introduces disastrous bugs into your wetware. The thinkers useful for the twenty-first century are much more likely to be along the lines of Tocqueville, Keynes, Polanyi, de Beauvoir, Lincoln, and (albeit in his intellectual rather than his political or personal practice) Jefferson than Marx. (And Foucault? Maybe Foucault–nah, that is too likely to introduce a different set of dangerous bugs to your wetware…)

Yet the ideas and the arguments for “communism” were (and are?) powerful. And they were very convincing to millions if not billions of people for fully a century and a half. How should post-millennials understand this? How much about this ought they to learn? And how best to present the subject so that they gain the fullest and most accurate understanding, in the short time that is all that they can afford to spend on it?

Here’s my first second take on readings, in the order in which I would put them a course:

More Scattered Things I Have Written: on and About the Subject:

Manu Saadia’s Trekonomics Is Out!


“Live Long and Prosper” Blogging…: Manu Saadia: Trekonomics (San Francisco: Piper Text: 941758754): Forward by J. Bradford DeLong:

‘Live long and prosper.’

‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.’


‘Make it so.’

‘Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.’

‘I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer.’

‘Highly illogical.’

‘You can stop it!’ ‘Stop it? I’m counting on it!’

Over the past century Star Trek has woven itself into our socio-cultural DNA. It provides a set of cultural reference points to powerful ideas, striking ideas, beneficial ideas that help us here in our civilization think better–even those of us who are economists.

Why should the imaginary dreams of science fiction help us think better? Let me get at this by telling you some very short stories–some true, some false. True: Back in 1759 when the man who was to be the first economist, young Adam Smith, Scottish moral philosopher on the make, told his readers something false: of:

a stranger to human nature [seeing] the indifference of men about the misery of their inferiors… [concludes that] pain must be more agonizing, and the convulsions of death more terrible to persons of higher rank, than to those of meaner stations…

You see what he did there?

There is no–not that we know of–such alien stranger.

Smith is telling us a very short science-fiction story.

Why? Because we love to tell one another false stories–to incessantly gossip about our imaginary friends. It is, like saving 15% or more on car insurance, what we do. If an alien intellect, vast and cool and unsympathetic (or vast and warm and sympathetic), were to scrutinize us from afar it would inevitably conclude that telling each other false stories is a major part of what we are, and it would wonder why we communicate–or miscommunicate–in this way.

You see what I did there?

The next Sigmund Freud–not an individual but a social psychologist–will say that our fictions are, collectively, the dream-work of the reasoning by the organism that is the anthology intelligence that is humanity. Everyone gossips about their imaginary friends. And we dream these dreams to amuse ourselves, but also so that we will be more sane when we awake.

The Prime Directive of ‘Star Trek: TOS’ is primarily a way to process America’s 1960s misadventure in Vietnam. Would that more generals and chickenhawks dreamed dreams that taught them of the limits of foresight and calculation, the surprising nature of war, and the unlikelihood of success if you start by breaking things! I first recognized that ‘Star Trek’ was a very different kind of show back in the 1960s when, at the end of the episode ‘Arena’, Kirk neither kills nor civilizes the Gorn, but lets him go to make his own destiny.

Gene Roddenberry mostly wanted to find a way to get people to pay him to make up stories, so that we wouldn’t have to take a job that required a lot of heavy lifting. But he also wanted to tell particular stories. The stories he wanted to tell were those that would be the dreamwork for a better future:

  • He wanted to tell stories of a progressive humanity.
  • He wanted to tell stories about people in a better future in which governmental institutions were smart enough to stay out of Vietnam and people weren’t obsessed with leaky roofs and food shortages.
  • He wanted to tell stories in which racial prejudice was as silly and stupid as it, in fact, is.
  • He wanted to tell stories in which it would be normal for a woman to be if not #1 at least #2 as first officer of a starship.
  • He wanted to tell stories in which everyone–even the Red Shirts–was an officer, a trained and well-educated professional treated with dignity and respect by their peers and superiors.

And Gene Roddenberry’s successors as showrunners, writers, actors, set designers, and all the rest took on the same project: do the dreamwork of a better future. North Atlantic civilization bobbled the historical opportunity that was the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Deep Space 9 point to better directions. Gene Roddenberry put into Star Trek DNA making it, in large part, a collective dreaming about a better future, and not just a western or a medieval romance with spectacular elements in the form of whooshing spaceships and exploding planets bolted onto it.

But ‘economics’?

Today in our restricted bubble the public health problems related to food are no longer predominantly problems of malnutrition and calorie-scarcity but of overabundance: dealing with salt, triglycerides, and carbohydrate overload. This is a new thing for humanity. 400 years ago, in almost all human societies, if you weren’t rich you were malnourished: not getting the nutrients for your immune system to function well, or the calories to reliably ovulate, probably losing a tooth with every baby. 400 years ago, in almost all human societies, if you weren’t rich you were short. The orphans sent to sea by the charity that was the Marine Society were seven inches shorter than the aristocrats’ sons sent to Sandhurst to become army officers. And it is not just in food that those of us in the bubble have abundance: we look around and want, not more stuff, but rather less stuff that is the right particular stuff for us. The dreams that are Roddenberry’s ‘Star Trek’ are part of thinking through what it would be like to have a society of abundance, of logic and reason, and of inclusion–one in which the Gorn might really be the good guy from his perspective, and in which, as Ayelborne forecasts in ‘Errand of Mercy’: ‘You and the Klingons will become fast friends. You will work together…’

For those of us who are fans, it has been and is a wild nearly fifty-year ride. And even those of us who are dedicated fans need, by now, a road map.

So with enthusiasm and admiration, I present to you Manu Saadia, and Trekonomics.

Must-Read: Wired: The Economic Lessons of Star Trek’s Money-Free Society

Must-Read: Wired: The Economic Lessons of Star Trek’s Money-Free Society: “Manu Saadia… went looking for a book about the economics of Star Trek…

…When he couldn’t find one, he decided to write his own. The result, Trekonomics, has drawn praise from economists such as Brad DeLong and Joshua Gans…. ‘It’s made clear and emphasized several times in the course of the show that the Federation does not have money,’ Saadia says in Episode 205 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. ‘You have Captain Picard saying, ‘We’ve overcome hunger and greed, and we’re no longer interested in the accumulation of things.’’ Saadia is fascinated by the idea of a society in which material wealth has become so abundant that possessing it no longer holds any appeal. In such a world the only way to gain status would be by cultivating talent and intellect. ‘What really makes sense in the Star Trek universe and Star Trek society is to compete for reputation,’ he says. ‘What is not abundant in Star Trek’s universe is the captain’s chair.’

He points to technologies like GPS and the internet as models for how we can set ourselves on the path to a Star Trek future. ‘If we decide as a society to make more of these crucial things available to all as public goods, we’re probably going to be well on our way to improving the condition of everybody on Earth,’ he says. But he also warns that technology alone won’t create a post-scarcity future. If we’re not careful we could end up like the greedy Ferengi, who charge money for the use of their replicators rather than making them available to everyone. ‘This is not something that will be solved by more gizmos or more iPhones,’ Saadia says. ‘This is something that has to be dealt with on a political level, and we have to face that.’

Listen to our complete interview with Manu Saadia in Episode 205 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy….

Manu Saadia on Isaac Asimov:

In 1941 he publishes his first story about robots and his great idea and insight is that the robots are not going to be our enemies or our doom as a society, the way robots were usually portrayed, as Frankensteins. The robots will liberate us, and so Asimov is trying to figure out a world where human labor is no longer necessary for survival. And that is something you see throughout Star Trek, much more so in The Next Generation than in the original series. In The Next Generation you have these incredible machines that will make anything for you on the spot and on demand—the replicators—and in a way the replicator is a metaphor for universal automation the way it is described in Asimov’s robot stories.

Manu Saadia on Star Trek characters:

They are consistent with the economic circumstances in which they live. Imagine yourself growing up in a society where there is never any want or need or financial insecurity of any sort. You will be a very different person. You will be absolutely uninterested in conspicuous consumption.… You will probably be interested in things of a higher nature—the cultivation of the mind, education, love, art, and discovery. And so these people are very stoic in that sense, because they have no worldly interests that we today could relate to. … I usually say that they’re all aliens, in a way. My friend Chris [Black], who wrote on the show, said it was really hard for the writers, because it’s a workplace drama, but there’s no drama.

Manu Saadia on the Ferengi:

I love the Ferengi because they are sort of a parody of the 1990s or 2000s American acquisitive businessman. … The Ferengi are really ignoble, really awful people, and they’re really funny as a result. But they do change over time. When you watch the whole arc of the Ferengi in Deep Space Nine, the Ferengi, just by contact with the Federation, become more like the Federation, they become Keynesian social democrats, by the end. Suddenly you have the right to have unions and strikes, and there’s health care for everybody. … I always thought that this story of the Ferengi becoming more humanitarian just by contact with the Federation was a metaphor for all of us becoming better by watching Star Trek.

Manu Saadia on the Borg:

The Borg are such great villains because they’re so similar to the Federation, when you think about it. The Borg have perfect allocation of goods, and supply and demand, and everybody is connected to everybody in the beehive, and they just seem to be extremely efficient. They’re also the other society in Star Trek that could be characterized as ‘post-scarcity.’ Any Borg drone never wants or needs anything, it’s always provided by the Collective. So it is the mirror image—and the dangerous image, almost—of what a society that is both redistributive and satiated could look like. It’s almost as if the writers tried to incorporate the criticism of the society they propose.

Watching Star Trek Is Doing the Dreamwork of Planning for Our Own Future, and Izabella Kaminska Is ON IT!!!!

In the utopian post-scarcity future, the extremely-sharp Izabella Kaminska will transcribe and curate my random blatherings into sharp, concisive, and useful diamond-like weblog posts–and will do so for free!

That future is here, albeit unevenly distributed–and a lot of it is distributed to me:

Felix Salmon: What is post scarcity?

Me: Well 400 years ago, in almost all human societies, being rich relative to your neighbours mattered a lot. If you were poor, especially poor and female, chances were you weren’t getting the calories you needed to reliably ovulate, and chances were your children weren’t getting the nutrients that they needed for their immune systems to be protected against the common cold. 400 years ago the great bulk of humanity lived lives that were nasty, brutish, short and they were hungry pretty much all the time. And when they weren’t hungry they were wet, because the roof leaked, and when they weren’t wet they were probably cold because damp proofing hadn’t been invented.

Now we, here, in the prosperous middle class in the North Atlantic are moving into another society. Gene Roddenberry tried to paint our future by saying: “Wait a minute! What’s going to happen in three centuries? In three centuries we are going to have replicators. Anything material, gastronomic that we want indeed anything experiential with the holo-deck we we want we are going to have. What kinds of people will we be then and how will we live?

And indeed, we are quite ahead on that transition already.

Whenever I go say, to the middle of the country, I find myself terrified: I’m rarely the fattest person in the room. That means right now in the United States what used to be the principle occupation of the human race–farming–we are down to 1 per cent of our labour force growing essential nutrients because time spent growing four-inch eggplants which are harvested isn’t really food. It’s art. And we have about three times as many people in our medical and health-support professions working to try and offset the effects of excessive calories.

We are now rapidly approaching a post scarcity economy not just for food, but–if you go and look at containers coming in from China–with respect to things physically-made [via manufacturing processes] as well.

And that’s one of the things Star Trek is about….

Those who are not maladjusted people [unhappy with life inside the Federation] become Star Trek officers. [They face challenges at the fringe of the society.] [And they] compete for status.

Perhaps–if you really want to be looking at what their lives [inside the utopian post-scarcity Federation] are like, we [you] should be looking at Regency Romances. [The Regency aristocracy is a historical] previous culture of [material] abundance where people [neverthless] find very important and interesting things for themselves to do. Even though [Note that] there is no serious [material] conflict in a Regency Romance world. If you want to, you can say there are three [standard] spheres of regional [narrative] conflict: fear of violent death, scarcity of resources, and who is going to sleep with whom. But what you’ll find In a society of abundance, like in a Regency novel about the aristocracy, is that who is going to sleep with whom becomes the focus of the plot. [And there is a] The secondary focus: [that] being a demonstration of human excellence, via proper appreciation of fashion….

Annalee Newitz: But don’t you think it’s possible, Brad, that what most ordinary people are doing is living on Bajor. [That] after having been screwed over by the Kardashians[a], and now the Federation is there screwing them over [again]–[that] maybe that’s more what [the whole] society is like?

Me: No, [I do not think so. Add in Bajor, and what we have] that’s [is] no longer [Roddenberry’s dream of] a society of abundance. That’s [Instead, Federation-Bajor is a metaphor for] the world we have today. We have the upper middle class of America. In But of [our] 7.2bn [people living] lives [toay], 2bn of them lead lives which are frankly indistinguishable from those of our pre-industrial ancestors. The other 4.5bn live lives that look to us like the standard of life people had in the 1970s and 1950s, 1920s and 1880s. And with their TVs and smartphones they can see us [700 mn of the Lucky Tenth]. I got off the plane today from Lima, Peru. A wonderful city, a wonderful culture, lots and lots of people–all of them working at least as hard as anyone in New York. Only about 1/8th as rich. We may be approaching material abundance in terms of manufactured goods, and calories and nutrients, etc. They are certainly still very far from that.

Backing up, Izabella:

As any good Trekkie will tell you, the economics of the 24th century are somewhat different. Why? Because the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in people’s lives. They — Ferengi excluded — work to better themselves and the rest of humanity.

Except, the bummer is, that’s probably a major over-simplification.

A post-scarcity economy — a.k.a. the economic reality of an abundant system — may not necessarily lead to a utopian world. At least if we go by the meritocratic example of the fictional Star Trek society.

In other words, here’s a post about how I attended a New York Comic Con panel on the economics of abundance — featuring Paul Krugman and Brad Delong, Annalee Newitz (i09), Chris Black (Enterprise writer), Felix Salmon and Manu Saadia, author of the new book Trekonomics — and learnt that even if we did have it all one day, chances are, highly-popular cosplaying events would still be capped by the natural limits of space-time.

Thus, while the acquisition of wealth might not drive people, the acquisition of access rights to highly prestigious events (a comic-con ticket commodity forward curve of its own, if you will) will continue to do so. And if not that, the more basic acquisition of connections to people who “know the right people who know the secret passwords that can sweet-talk you through the gate-keepers”. Plus ca change.

Yes. Sometimes it’s very good indeed to be an FT Alphaville reporter…


[a] I know it’s “Cardassians”. But “Kardashians” for “Cardassians” is just too delicious for me to even dream of correcting it…