The decline of the blue social model is a subject I’ve been thinking about for the last thirty years. My first book, Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition was written in the mid 1980s from the standpoint of someone who still believed that the blue model was synonymous with progress and civilization. In that book, I looked at how globalization was dismantling the social compact not just in the United States but throughout the developed world, and argued that the decline of consensual social market capitalism wasn’t just a challenge to the American domestic system. It was a challenge to America’s global leadership — the model and ideal we proposed for life under social capitalism was falling apart. Our argument against the communists had been that capitalism could produce more wealth and more justice than communism, and the social welfare state of the western world was Exhibit A for that proposition. At a time when the Soviet Union still stood, and the ideological competition with communism was still real in parts of the developing world, the thought that the capitalist welfare states of the west would soon be coming under immense pressure was an unsettling one.It was also unsettling to think about what the decline of what I now think of as the blue social model would mean in the United States. We looked to be headed for a generation of wage stagnation among blue collar workers. The decline of manufacturing as a source of high wages and secure jobs in the United States had already begun by then; my reflections on globalization suggested that the decline would go on for quite a while — as it has. Our society was going to become less equal, and less able to provide the kinds of growing social insurance and welfare payments that it had done in the past.At the time, I could not imagine an acceptable alternative to the blue model – and didn’t really want to, because the blue model seemed superior to anything else that could be imagined. Partly as a result, Mortal Splendor was a gloomy, sunset over the west kind of book.Oh well. As Bob Dylan put it, I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now. Over the years I’ve gradually come to understand that the old model wasn’t just broken by evil corporate greedsters hellbent on pillaging the middle and working classes – not that such people don’t exist and don’t need to be watched. It was being broken from below as much as from above, and the left did as much to dismantle it as the right. The Ralph Nader consumer movement, for example, set about attacking the comfortable corporate oligarchies who sold shoddy goods at high prices to the public (can you hear me, Detroit?). Nader and his followers wanted consumers to have more choices, and they favored competition over monopoly. But it was exactly their ability to sell shoddy products at high prices that made so many American companies so profitable in the golden age of the blue model – and it was those profits that underwrote the wages and benefits that gave blue collar workers lifetime security and middle class incomes. Nader’s attack on corporate oligarchy was blue-on-blue violence.Consumers wanted better goods and lower prices than the blue model could give them. Savers wanted higher interest rates than the highly regulated blue era banks could give them. Companies and consumers wanted more innovative telecom service at lower prices (and with less arrogance) than Ma Bell was ready to offer. The whole country was fed up with the inconvenient schedules and high prices that came with the oligopolistic air travel market. Individual investors were sick and tired of high trading fees and restricted information in the stock market. And given the choice between a shoddy and expensive American car, an expensive but well made European one, or a cheap and reliable Japanese car, fewer and fewer Americans picked something made in Detroit.Americans wanted more than the blue model could give them, and increasingly they sensed that they could get it. That, more than corporate plots and Gordon Gekko style misdeeds on Wall Street, is why the blue model is going the way of the mastodon.I can still remember the feeling I had back in the early eighties when I first began to see how low wage manufacturing in the developing world plus the globalization of finance were going to rip up the social fabric I identified with progress and stability. I see many people, some on the left, some in the center, going through that kind of moment today. My first reaction, and that of many people today, was to cling tighter to the blue model as I sensed its fragility and vulnerability. But over time I’ve come to see this breakdown and the transition to something new as the next stage in the story of social and human progress, rather that as some kind of horrible return to savagery.One of the realizations that helped me accept the need to move on was the corrosive effect of one of blue model America’s most unattractive features: the emphasis on consumption rather than production as the defining characteristic of the good life. As I reflected on the corrosive consequences of this shift, and also began to see that a post-blue society might reverse this priority, I began to think more positively about what could come next. Frank Fukuyama wrote about the appearance of Nietzsche’s Last Man at the end of history; that Last Man is more or less Homer Simpson come to life, a mostly passive, consumption-focused individual whose life is all episode with no plot. But if the blue model isn’t the end of history, and if we are moving to something new — there is hope. Bart and Lisa just might grow up into a bigger world that would stretch their capacities and make them something more than Homer and Marge.Under the blue model, Americans increasingly defined themselves by what they bought rather than what they did, and this shift of emphasis proved deeply damaging over time. The transformation to a new and higher kind of political economy will require us to put production and accomplishment back at the center of our value system. Both on the left and on the right this is something that should be welcome to a lot of thoughtful people.
Production and Consumption
In 19th century America, production and consumption were typically interrelated. The family on its farm was a production team as well as a consumption unit. They didn’t just play together and watch TV together; they worked together to feed and clothe themselves. Loyalty to your spouse was about much more than not cheating; it was about pulling your share of life’s load as you worked together on a common project. Your partner was really your partner then: the person you married was the person you worked with.
The Hollow Men
There is nothing natural or particularly benign about this long isolation from the realm of economic production. Historically, young people defined themselves and gained status by contributing to the work of their family or community. Childhood and adulthood tended to blend together more than they do now. Young people in hunter-gatherer tribes hunted and/or gathered with greater success as they approached adulthood. Farm kids moved toward adulthood as they contributed to the family’s well being at a higher and higher level. The process of maturation – and of partner-seeking – took place in a context informed by active work and cooperation.In the absence of any meaningful connection to the world of work and production, many young people today develop identities through consumption and leisure activities alone. You are less what you do and make than what you buy and have: what music you listen to, what clothes you wear, what games you play, where you hang out and so forth. These are stunted, disempowering identities for the most part and tend to prolong adolescence in unhelpful ways. They contribute to some very stupid decisions and self-defeating attitudes. Young people often spend a quarter century primarily as critics of a life they know very little about: as consumers they feel powerful and secure, but production frightens and confuses them.The separation of learning and work was originally seen as a way to promote learning: by allowing young people to concentrate full time on learning without the “distraction” of work, they could do a better job in school. It is certainly true that working kids too hard can make it impossible for them to learn – but it is also true that cutting kids off from work can also reduce their ability to learn. The maturity and sense of purpose that come with responsibilities in the real world make students more serious about what they choose to learn and how hard they work to take advantage of the educational opportunities they have.That so many American kids spend so many years in school without learning basic, elementary school-level reading and math skills — to say nothing of the other things that in theory 12 years of formal education should teach — is a devastating critique of the way we organize this part of our lives. The sheer amount of time wasted is staggering – to say nothing of the money, effort or lost potential. People often speak of the need to revive vocational and industrial education as a way of reaching students for whom the traditional academic classroom holds little appeal; more basically, education needs to be integrated with the priorities and purposes of life as these young people experience it.The segregation of work and the elevation of consumption weaken our society profoundly, but the isolation of family from work and from school was part of a bigger shift. In the 19th century, the social emphasis was on production generally, and not just in the family. In the 20th century, as work became more alienating and less human in many jobs (robotically repeating mechanical activities on an assembly line, robotically repeating routine clerical procedures in an office) Americans defined themselves less by what they did at work, and more on the basis of lifestyle choices and leisure activities. You “expressed yourself” by what kind of car you drove, music you listened to, church you attended, food you ate and other lifestyle choices that you made.You were also increasingly a consumer rather than a producer of government. In the 19th century, American communities were small and generally self-managed. Most Americans lived in small towns or in rural areas where government really was something people did for themselves. The “state” scarcely existed; outside port inspectors and postal officials, the federal government was largely invisible. And even at the state level, local communities were much more autonomous than they generally are now. Local mayors and selectmen had very few mandates coming down from on high; people managed their own schools and roads and other elements of their common life by their own lights.In the 20th century Americans became more politically passive as the state grew. The citizen was less involved in making government and more involved in watching it, commenting on it, and picking candidates who were sold the way other consumer goods are marketed: you voted for which party and candidates you supported, but more and more of the business of government was carried on by permanent civil servants acting under expert guidance. Government did much more to you, and you did less of it yourself.The shift from producer to consumer took place in many fields – often with very important and beneficial results, but always taking a certain toll on the autonomy and dignity of many people. In the 19th century most American health care was provided by family members, often relying on traditional medicines. In the 20th century professional doctors and nurses took over the job. In the 19th century most Americans provided most of their own entertainment: amateur theatricals, family and neighborhood music and so on. In the 20th century you watched television, saw movies and bought music. Americans grew and prepared most of their own food in the 19th century; in the 20th century they bought it in restaurants and supermarkets.
Why We Turned Blue
Part of the shift was the natural result of urbanization, the specialization of labor and the rapid development of scientific knowledge. People in cities can’t raise their own food and a denser, larger population can’t be as informally and directly self governed as a small community; as the world becomes more complicated it pays to concentrate on one or two activities that you do well, and buy more goods and services from others who specialize in different things; and while the average grandmother might have known as much or more about health care than a college educated doctor in 1830, by 1930 it was pretty clear that the trained doctor knew best.
There are many things to be said about this form of economic organization, both good and bad, and economists are still arguing over basic Keynesian ideas. It’s not necessary to resolve that conflict, however, to see that whatever may or may not have been the case in the past, today Keynesian demand-side management seems to be less sustainable than it once was. We stimulate more and grow less than we did back in the halcyon days.But the real problem with the debt-based, consumption-focused blue social model, the one that bothered many social critics even in the days when the blue model was working and looked sustainable, is one of values. A consumption-centered society is ultimately a hollow society. It makes people rich in stuff but poor in soul. In its worst aspects, consumer society is a society of bored couch potatoes seeking artificial stimulus and excitement. They watch programs on television about adventures they will never have. They try to change their consciousness through the consumption of products (entertainment, consumer goods, drugs) rather than by changing the world and accomplishing things. The massive use of recreational and mood altering drugs reflects and embodies the distortions that a passive, consumption-based society produces in human populations over time.There is a kind of double consciousness that a consumer society gives people. On the one hand, in the realm of consumption, you are king. Companies bid for your attention and favor. You are a critic and a connoisseur: politicians bid for your votes, networks and film companies for your attention. As long as you are spending your money (earned or borrowed) society feeds your sense of power and worth.But outside of that realm of consumption, most Americans had very little power under the blue model. You worked in a factory or an office where you did not have a whole lot of autonomy, and where your job, as often as not, was pretty dull. You did not make big plans, take big risks or otherwise wrestle with the world.