Progress with the people

Yesterday Rob Newman wrote in The Guardian about the unsustainability of capitalism and how we’re all doomed. Predictably, Justin takes one stance and Tim Worstall the other, which has led to some squabbling in the comment sections. What this argument comes down to is disagreement over what capitalism is – is it equivalent to free markets, is it inherently unsustainable (not just on a micro, individual market level but a macro, aggregate level as well). All interesting questions, in their own way.

Unfortunately, all this squabbling over meaning rather masks the real issue; rather than wasting breath over definitions and terms, we should instead be inspecting our own activities. Whatever name you want to give it, the current lifestyle the developed world has adopted – voracious energy consumption (as characterised by ever-increading car ownership and the use of aviation), coupled with a culture of short-term thinking, extraordinarily high expectations of convenience, and the conspicious consumption and individualised accumulation of material goods Add to that the fact that those countries which are not quite at our level of economic development (e.g. China, India) are doing their darnedest to reach the same level as us, and you’re looking at an inevitable rise in demand for natural resources. This raise an interesting question: did this lifestyle come about as a natural consequence of western capitalism, or alternatively did we create the system to fulfil our desire to live our lives in this way?

However, I don’t want to get into that (though the rest of you can feel free to do so), as the more important question is: what’s going to happen when the (cheap) oil runs out? Or, if you don’t like the peak oil idea, then how about water or fertile land? What answers can capitalism provide? Tim Worstall doesn’t really expound in great detail, but simply relies on a promise that technology will save us. A comforting notion, but one that puts too much faith in that the progress we have so far enjoyed will continue.

“Progress” is nearly always defined by those who benefit from it; most history is written from the “winner’s” perspective and the history of technology is no exception. All too often we get a neat, linear account of technological progression, which denies the voice of those who may have lost out, and leads us to the assumption that progress is inevitable and human choice is subservient to technology in determing the direction of society; a view not just shared by the invisible-handers but also by the likes of Karl Marx. The consequence of thisis a way of thinking that “technological progress solved problem x in the past, and we’rve benefited from that, so it will most likely solve problem y that we’re now experiencing.” All too often there are few accounts from the people who have not benefited, or even suffered, from technological change.

There is no question that new technologies will develop; there is the matter of which technologies will we have to adopt (and which we will discard), but the really big question is whether technological advances will save all of us on this planet from the pain and misery of energy, water or food shortages, or rising sea levels for that matter. And the answer to that lies not simply in whether these technologies will work, but the social and economic system that will use and apply them. While capitalism has proved fiendishly good at giving us wealth, iPods and Crazy Frog ringtones, these benefits are still disproportionately held by the lucky few; it would be a truly dreadful future if the benefits of technological progress were similarly distributed. It’s for this reason (amongst others) that many of us do not believe that contemporary capitalism holds the solution to our problems.

2 thoughts on “Progress with the people

  1. True that in this specific instance I just say that technology will save us. But I have in other places and at other times greatly expanded upon this. Worries about running out of fertile land or water are obtuse. Fantastical. “Cheap” oil less so but still wrong. As I?ve expounded at great length over the past couple of years.

    One of the reasons I?m so adamant that technology will save us from the climate change problem (which I do agree is real but not as immediate as some posit) is that my day job brings me into contact (as a supplier) with many of those working on non carbon emitting technologies. These are a hell of a lot more developed than anyone really gives credit for and a hell of a lot more efficient.

    If I was actually talking my own book I?d be screaming that the sector needed more subsidy as I would be able to cream some of it off. I do wonder sometimes why I don?t.

  2. progress is inevitable and human choice is subservient to technology in determing the direction of society; a view not just shared by the invisible-handers but also by the likes of Karl Marx

    Not really – Marx was a determinist, but on the basis of capitalism as a social system rather than on technology. The likes of Lenin, I’ll give you.

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