As I’ve been writing about the crisis of the blue social model, I’ve mostly focused on its consequences for North American and European societies. Canada, the US and the countries of western and central Europe are the places where the blue model has become most solidly entrenched and fully developed, and in the first instance the decline of that social model is registering most forcefully in their political and cultural lives.
That process has a long way to run; the creative destruction of the world of big blue is going to be causing social and economic crises for years and even decades to come. But we won’t grasp the immense importance and the urgency of what’s happening in the west until we fully take on board the importance of the decay of the blue model for global politics.
The blue social model was more than a comfortable arrangement that eased social conflict and promoted two generations of rising affluence in the western world. For the places where the blue model didn’t yet or didn’t fully exist, it served as a goal. If you asked politicians, business leaders and pro-democracy activists around the world what they hoped to help their countries become, the answer would generally be that they wanted their countries to look more like the west. They wanted to be able to deliver secure jobs for life, mass affluence, rising standards of living along with continuing technological progress and increasing life expectancy for their people.
The blue model is what the United States held out to the world as its ideal during the Cold War. We argued that capitalism rather than socialism was the best road to the blue life. The mechanisms of the market would create the equality, dignity and affluence that communism promised but failed to deliver — and do all this without the mass murder, political repression and soul-destroying conformity that communism demands.
It worked. Capitalism is the best road to the blue social model, and communism is at best a long, murderous detour on the route. As more people in more countries saw this, the appeal of communism gradually waned. As capitalism, after a very unpromising start, began to raise living standards from central Europe to east and south Asia, the communist ideology that once inspired fanatical devotion in countries like China and Vietnam faded away.
It was the heady sense that the world had fallen in love with our way of life that inspired the democratic triumphalism that united both the Clinton and George W. Bush eras. They like us, they really like us, American journalists and diplomats found as they traveled through countries that had recently been among our most bitter foes. The Cultural Revolution in China was replaced by KFC; Vietnam became our new best friend.
During the Cold War, we said there were two kinds of countries: developed countries like the western industrial democracies and Japan, and developing countries. The developed countries had reached the end of history; they had figured everything out and only had to bask in their success, growing richer and happier year by year, but not changing in any disruptive or unpleasant ways.
Developing countries were still in the process that the developed countries had completed; they just needed to catch up, and then they too could stop.
The erosion of the blue model throughout the west rips these illusions away. There is no such thing as a developed country. No country on earth has reached a stable end state; there is no such thing as a comfortable retirement from the stresses and storms of history and of change. France, America, Germany, Japan: we thought we had found a permanent solution to all economic and social questions.
For countries like Brazil, India, South Africa and China, this raises profound questions. What is it that they are trying to do? What are they trying to become? Is their goal to emulate the social market economies that the west enjoyed a generation ago? Are they hoping to build a stable mass middle class on the basis of big box factory work and armies of white collar middle managers that dominated American life in 1970?
And if that isn’t the goal, what is?
For now, much of the world is running on autopilot. The “developing” countries are generally sticking with the old paradigm: that development is the process of turning blue and that Fordist industrialization can and will yield mass prosperity.
But they are likely to discover that this isn’t true. China will not be able to build a western style welfare state as its GDP grows. The South African labor unions won’t be able to turn the country into Detroit at its peak, with lifetime employment at high wages for a unionized work force.
Manufacturing employment in these countries will not indefinitely rise, and neither will pay. Competition from other, poorer, job-hungry countries will push wages down; automation will reduce the number of workers worldwide required to produce a given level of output and by reducing the supply of manufacturing jobs automation will also depress global wages, especially for the unskilled.
Developing countries (along with the Davoisie and most commentators and “modernization theorists”) have also assumed that because development meant the establishment of a stable middle class society, to become more economically developed was to become more politically stable.
But if the blue route is closed, if developing countries can’t establish an ideal that is already disappearing in the lands of its birth, does this still hold true? Will inequality diminish and social tensions ease with industrial development in a post-blue world? And if developing countries find it impossible to achieve the kind of social stability that the regulated, economically secure, prosperous conditions that Europe, the US and Japan enjoyed during their blue periods, what will life be like there instead? What kind of social stability can they hope to achieve?
There is a related question about economic stability. Between World War Two and the 1980s, it looked as if precipitous economic crashes and financial market crises had disappeared. From the 17th century through the Great Depression, the advance of capitalism involved periodic and devastating financial market events that led to massive ups and downs for the real economy. Firms went bankrupt, people lost their savings and their jobs.
As part of the Great Stabilization of the mid to late twentieth century, all that stuff went away. Keynesian economic management, financial market regulation and central bank interventions were the new tools that seemed to slay the old dragon of depression.
That era now looks more like the eye of a hurricane rather than the permanent end to the specter of financial crisis; things may change in the future but we appear to be back in a zone in which financial market turmoil can sweep across the world, destabilizing the real economy and threatening firms and even countries with economic disaster.
It is all beginning to look very 1890s again: Economic inequality, class struggle, collapse of once stable institutions and employment patterns, financial market instability and recurring currency crises.
125 years ago there was a lot of doubt about what industrial society would look like. The fear that society was dividing irretrievably into classes of haves and have-nots, with the vast majority of humanity toiling in industrial semi-slavery for the benefit of a few was rampant. Some thought this condition could last; many others thought the toiling masses would rise against the haves.
That working class mobilization would decline as the factory workers became better off, moved into the ‘burbs and bought cars, was not on the program, but that is what happened. That the economic storms and privations of the late Victorian period and the global crisis caused by World War I and its aftermath would ultimately give way to decades of stable prosperity did not strike many observers as inevitable or even probable in 1893 or 1921.
The changes didn’t happen magically and they didn’t happen all at once. There were false dawns, as in the 1920s prosperity in the US, and there were different approaches to achieving it. (Fascism, communism and modern American liberalism were all efforts to create social and political stability on the basis of industrial society.) In the end, many different countries built their own versions of blue modern society, but America remained the place that got there first.
And that’s what we need to remember today. America had to build a new kind of democratic industrial society before it could serve as a model for others, or before it could hold that model up as a goal. Now that the blue model is no longer adequate, we need to prepare the way for something new.
Post-industrial society is coming to the whole world — not at the same time and not at the same pace. But machines and IT and robots are going to reduce the number of people who work in old fashioned factories much faster than many people think. And many forms of office and administrative work are going to be transformed and disappear. Many white collar occupations that we take for granted today are going to become as obscure and marginal as once common trades like farriers and tinsmiths.
Once again the dystopian fantasies return. A handful of people will be insanely wealthy, while the mass of mankind, unemployed and worthless, will scramble miserably for scraps. The half of the population with below average intelligence (we can’t all live in Lake Woebegone) will be impoverished neo-serfs: at best housemaids and pool boys for the handful of people whose jobs haven’t, yet, been taken by the machines.
Perhaps this is so; the future refuses, obstinately, to reveal itself despite our earnest entreaties. But it seems very unlikely. Just as the early industrial age was drowning in bounty (the huge gains in productivity brought on by the industrial revolution and its knock-on consequences in agriculture), so our present age bears all the signs of approaching abundance. The robots are going to be able to make most of the stuff that we need without millions of human beings having to sit in dark, noisy and dangerous factories giving the best years of their lives to mindless labor.
We must fight the perversity, the blindness, and the gibbering pessimism that tells us that this is a bad thing. It is like getting so caught up in the financial problems of Social Security that we lose sight of the big picture: that Social Security is in trouble because we are living longer and healthier lives. It is like crying about the problem of what to do with all the people who no longer have to cut sugar cane in the hot sun now that the mechanical harvesters are taking those jobs away. It is like worrying about how bored and deprived the ten-year-old chimney sweeps will become once we find ways of heating our homes that don’t require naked urchins to shimmy up and down narrow pipes in cancer-causing tar.
America’s job is to show the world how to shoot fish in a barrel: how to harness the power of the new technologies and how to find productive uses for all the human labor being released from drudgery and routine. We have to show how the complex and sophisticated services that people need for life in post industrial society can become radically cheaper: good legal advice, financial planning, education, training, government. The costs of these services can fall as far and as fast as the prices of so many goods did in daily life when the industrial revolution first swept through the world.
We have to show the world how new products and new industries can be created on the basis of new technical possibilities, how daily life can be enriched by ingenious new services and gadgets. We have to show how IT can revolutionize the world of work, allowing people to telecommute, collaborate over great distances, and empower a generation of entrepreneurs. We have to show people how, now that so many of the old jobs are becoming unnecessary, there are new ways for people to make a good living providing goods and services that, under the old system, were either available only to a wealthy few or not available at all.
The blue clingers can’t see it, but we have laid the foundation for the greatest burst of affluence that the world has ever known. We are like the children of Israel in the desert; the promised land lies before us — but the timorous blue clingers tell us that the land is inhabited by giants and there is no way we can possibly make our way into it.
When they did that in the Bible, God punished the cowards and the clingers by making them wander in the desert for forty more years. That is pretty much what will happen to us if we fail to embrace the possibilities of the future now. We will get there, but after years of aimless wandering and unnecessary privation.
But we need to get there fast; this isn’t just about us. We, the Europeans and the Japanese can probably handle a generation of wandering. Life would be poorer and nastier than it needs to be, politics would get pretty poisonous and Europe’s problems with some of its immigrants might get deeply ugly, but this might just mean the degradation of social life and the impoverishment of democracy rather than chaos, violence and the rise of new ideologies and movements based on fanaticism and hate.
I’m not nearly as sure that the rest of the world would be as calm or as stable if the blue model continues to rot but we don’t make the move to the next step.
The fight for the reforms and changes in the United States that can facilitate and speed up the birth of a prosperous post-industrial society here is deeply connected to the fight for a peaceful and prosperous world in the 21st century. It is not just that these changes will keep the US rich and strong enough to play a role in supporting world peace. It is that the example of a successful transformation here will do more to promote democracy, peace and human rights worldwide than all the foreign aid, all the diplomats and even all the ships and tanks and drones in the world could ever do.
And it is raving lunacy to expect that there is some master plan that can reveal the shape of the new society and show us how to achieve it. That isn’t what life at the cutting edge of history is ever like. The challenge of our time is invention, not implementation. The future doesn’t exist yet; we have to make it up.