Post-WWII neoliberal capitalism became a societal institution. Its most rudimentary unit was the concept of working for a living, which meant having a job. Jobs organized life, defined social identities, roles, and virtues, conferred status, supported assumptions about how life worked. Those assumptions held as long as the post-war recovery roared ahead, reinforced by the common human error of assuming happy days weren’t just here again but would continue on indefinitely — especially since we could trace the free market’s roots back a couple hundred years.
But the recovery didn’t keep roaring on. Those days are over — as evidenced by the consensus list of capitalistic fritzes from Rethinking Capitalism we looked at last time. Neoliberal economics met its match when it ran up against modern megatrends such as globalization and disruptive technologies, and when it did, it relinquished its function as a social institution we can rely on. Hence the list of fritzes.
Economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck[i] reviews essentially the same list in his book How Will Capitalism End? (2017), and concludes that, “I suggest that all [of the developments on the list] may be aggregated into a diagnosis of multi-morbidity in which different disorders coexist and, more often than not, reinforce each other.” I.e., neoliberalism’s woes are greater than the sum of its microeconomic parts. Streeck characterizes the result as the “advanced decline of the capacity of capitalism as an economic regime to underwrite a stable society.”
Where does that leave us? Ryan Avent — senior editor and economic columnist for The Economist — says the following in his book The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century (2016):
“The remarkable technological progress of the digital age is refracted through industrial institutions in ways that obscure what is causing what. New technologies do contain the potential to revolutionize society and the economy. New firms are appearing which promise to move society along this revolutionary path. And collateral damage, in the form of collapsing firms and sacked workers, is accumulating.
“But the institutions we have available, and which have served us well these last two centuries, are working to take the capital and labour that has been made redundant and reuse it elsewhere. Workers, needing money to live, seek work, and accept pay cuts when they absolutely must. Lower wages make it attractive for firms to use workers at less productive tasks… [and reduce] the incentive to invest in labour-saving technology.
“This process will not end without a dramatic and unexpected shift in the nature of technology, or in the nature of economic institutions.”
As we’ll see in future posts, technology has already moved far enough along that any “dramatic and unexpected shift in the nature of technology” is unlikely to backtrack — instead is far more likely to accelerate the erosion of societal economic norms. As for a shift in “the nature of economic institutions,” there is no replacement economic system waiting in the wings. The result, says Streeck, is that we are entering an “age of entropy,” where we are likely to remain for the foreseeable future. He describes it as follows:
“Social life in an age of entropy is by necessity individualistic… In the absence of collective institutions, social structures must be devised individually bottom-up, anticipating and accommodating top-down pressures from the markets. Social life consists of individuals building networks of private connections around themselves, as best they can with the means they happen to have at hand. Person-centred relation-making creates lateral social structures that are voluntary and contract-like, which makes them flexible but perishable, requiring continuous networking to keep them together and adjust them on a current basis to changing circumstances. An ideal tool for this are the new social media that produce social structures for individuals, substituting voluntary for obligatory forms of social relations, and networks of users for communities of citizens.”
He’s speaking in general, sociological terms, but his description closely mirrors the realities of the kind of résumé creating, network building, and job seeking that dominate the current world of temporary, part-time, contract labor, which makes up the vast majority of new jobs created in this century. These new jobs are not the same jobs that characterized the former workplace model; working for a living has taken on a whole new meaning. Among other things, we now have what some are calling the “Gig Economy,” the “On-Demand Economy,” or even the “Quitting Economy.”
More on that next time.