Friday, February 13, 2009

Capital's Slow Suicide

Legend has it that Henry Ford succeeded because he made cars cheap enough so that his workers could afford them. He lifted his product from luxury item to a product for the masses by lowering its price. Notably, earlier, textiles became humanity’s first modern industry when in the eighteenth century cotton became cheap enough so that even the poor could afford them. (This is a genuinely fascinating story best told by Fernand Braudel, The Wheels of Commerce, published in 1979 but still available through I could multiply examples at will, industry after industry, product after product, all showing that genuine collective wealth rests upon the seemingly obvious twin facts that producers are consumers and consumers are producers. When we shatter this pairing, the wealth of nations starts to seep into the ground.

The logic of the matter is certainly obvious. People cost a lot of money. If we can do the work without them, we’ll make greater profits. Should we replace an operator by an answering machine? That’s a no-brainer. The near-term benefits are plain, the long-term suicide is not, can be ignored, can be fended off energetically by saying that “If others do it, I must too.” This is the tragedy of the commons all over again. (If the phrase is new, this will explain it.) The fact is that every position eliminated ultimately shrinks demand for what we sell. The logic is inexorable. If every institution, public and private, attempts to reduce its costs—and each and every one is under pressure to do so—the ultimate result must be universal unemployment and a tiny minority of owners surrounded by armies of deadly robots. At that point, to turn shamelessly apocalyptic, the logic of cost control will powerfully suggest mandatory vasectomy. To expand my insane example in science-fiction manner farther, thus to counter the argument that democracy will counteract such a drastic outcome, we might project that by that time intelligent machines (IMs) will have the right to vote as their owners deem they should, and in times of crisis automated machines will produce the necessary millions of IMs so that the owners' views will always prevail. IMs need not be big. In fact whole colonies of them might be placed on the head of a single pin.

Changing hats from sci-fi author to historian, another scenario opens behind my eyes. The inexorable loathing of humans so plainly manifested by modern institutions must inevitably produce a violent reaction. And it will sweep away the capitalist system as if it had never been. Tempted to say “Praise the day!”? Unfortunately it won’t be happy. Such things never are. Those likely to be reading such writings as this are (knowingly or not) members of the very nobility that will be marched to the guillotine (guilty or not).

What’s producing my strident hysterics?

Ah, friends! Simple things. We bought a new refrigerator to be delivered on Monday, February 16. This morning came a call confirming that delivery. Last night I more or less fell asleep as Republicans were agonizing about the so-called stimulus or bailout package.

The phone call was automated. “If you are Darnay Arsen Julius,” it said, “please press 1.” (That, by the way, is my name back to front.) I pressed 1. “Terrific!” said the male voice in phony jollity. And it went on from there. — Now the logical thing is to ask the delivery man to call ahead on the cell-phone before setting out to our address. Why not just do that? Why this phony rigmarole? That early in the morning my rage rises easily. And in that rage rose memories of the politicians ranting and raving about tax cuts.

They’re committing suicide, I thought. It's happening in slow-motion—seen from a human time frame—but it's deliberate self-destruction nonetheless, wrought in the name of survival no less. That must be insanity. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad [Euripides].


  1. New fridge? Monique and I want to know if it's going upstairs or downstairs.

    BTW, I'm typing this on my iPod in the Phoenix airport. Why are we in Phoenix, not San Diego? Oh, we have a few imploding-capitalism remarks to make about Northwest.

    More to the point of the post, I recall "companies automating themselves into oblivion" was the theme of Vonnegut's Player Piano. (His first novel, if I remember correctly.) It's been years since I've read it, but I recall liking it quite a bit.

  2. Fridge is going downstairs. The old one gave up after 40 years of service. People may be dispensable, but machines are loyal!!

  3. Your last line is haunting.Talking about cultures you must have heard about Ramayana the greatest Indian Epic.In the context of Raavan who is Lord Shri Ram's adversary and has abducted Ram's wife Sita,the author Tulsidas says exactly the same thing.
    Jaako Prabhu Daarun Dukh dehi
    taaki mati pehle har lehi
    It have been quoting it all along when people act silly in spite of the evident self destruction.
    Whats' amazing is that two philosophers have said exactly the same thing even though they were separated by time and distance.

  4. Talk of time and distance! A quite amazing coincidence. Just three days ago I was reading a part of the Ramayana called Sita-Swayamvara in a book I hadn't touched in more than twenty years. In English, of course. I hadn't gotten very far, but it's the same point of reference you give. Rama had just broken the bow of Rudra, and the marriage to Sita lay ahead.

    Below the superficial, we're all alike. And poets everywhere, however infinitely varied and original, ultimately hear the same drum.