Hardly anyone in 1860 could have pictured a future in which the United States was a healthy, prosperous global power. America was a post-colonial basket case on the verge of self-immolation. Despite the gloomy outlook, the fire unleashed on the US over the following decades refined a nation rather than destroying it. America may have been a mess, but it was a mess at the cusp of greatness.
Today, a long period of relative peace and unity for the US has come to an end. The 3rd Republic has collapsed, marking the end of the first great Pax Americana. We face a near-future defined by the lawless abuses of an entrenched, global aristocracy, xenophobic paranoia neutralizing much of the electorate, and political parties trained squarely on the challenges of the past. Sounds pretty bad, but we’ve been here before.
Clouds darkening our horizon are easy to spot, but it takes imagination to see the flowering they might bring. Look closely at our dilemma, and you see not decline, but leadership. We are being buffeted by the first waves of a storm spreading around the world. We’re not worst, but merely first. As dysfunctional and decrepit as we appear right now, there may be no nation better positioned to adapt to the demands of this new order. Will we be the first casualty of this great global pivot, or its leading light?
Our world is experiencing a transformation. Like an ocean current, powerful, but not apparent to the eye, a post-industrial order is taking shape, doling out support to those who ride it and frustrating those who resist. This nascent order rewards transient lifestyles, advanced education in almost any form, disruptive innovation, global trade, and cultural fluidity. It punishes, sometimes ruthlessly, deep attachments to place, religion, traditional gender roles and family structures, slow, methodical political processes, and almost anything that threatens to slow the exchange of money and ideas.
Thanks to our sudden and surprising Cold War victory, the past thirty years have brought a global surge of both wealth and freedom. Extreme poverty, once nearly ubiquitous, has been relegated to isolated, unstable corners of the planet. Democracy has spread like a weed, expanding beyond any extent previously experienced, spreading its vulnerabilities and weaknesses along with its benefits.
As women begin to enjoy freedoms unknown since at least the rise of agriculture, fertility rates are plummeting. By 2025, two-thirds of humans will live in countries with fertility rates below replacement, launching an unprecedented global population decline. Combined with the demands of a knowledge economy, this decline will grant a powerful advantage to the countries most successful in attracting immigrants and incorporating them into society.
Coinciding with our population decline is a well-timed acceleration in technology, especially in automation and artificial intelligence. Diversity of thought and perspective are fuel for this technological engine, yet another incentive for cultivating multiculturalism and immigration. Deploying these new tools to replace human labor requires expensive and risky capital investments. These costs have limited the impact of automation and AI on job markets so far, but that resistance won’t hold.
A population peak coupled with a surge in technology are destroying the value of most agricultural land. We’re almost a decade beyond “Peak Farmland.” Since 2000, we’ve increased total agricultural output globally by 4% while using less land. That same ingenuity, applied to energy, is about to devastate the oil and gas industries. Put these forces together, and today’s holders of “old money” face a frightening threat.
Old money came from land, minerals and factories. New money is coming from technology and data. Today’s holders of inherited wealth can only protect their fortunes, without resorting to more risky and productive investments, by leveraging their influence over government to block competition. Or, of course, by simply cheating. The Koch brothers and Donald Trump are the twin paragons of American inherited capital and its war on the future. Tycoons of extractive industry and unapologetic crime, they are symbols of what must die for the future to be born. They are determined not to go down alone.
Dying capital has allies among the masses. 19th and 20th century industries relied on enormous pools of human labor. 21st century industries don’t. After battling each other for a century, organized labor and old capital find themselves awkwardly aligned against the emerging threat of a global knowledge economy with its destruction of land-based capital and elimination of mass employment.
With their existing livelihoods at stake and no one presenting them a template for the future, working people from the majority classes find themselves increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by yesterdays’ economic winners, fighting to retain their wealth. An alliance between a kleptocrat like Donald Trump and masses of industrial workers in the Midwest only makes sense in this context. Absent some vision of the future, they are happy to embrace a violent white nationalist effort to preserve the past. Those truly threatened by the globalization of Britain, for example, aren’t the narrow-minded villagers whinging about immigrants and fighting for Brexit, but the still-wealthy landowners threatened by a global knowledge economy. Rentiers wringing the last value from their grandparents’ capital are the future’s most dangerous losers.
In theory, the new money surging into our world should act as a counter on the political power of the rentier class, but the influence of new money has lagged. Tech billionaires Michael Dell and Mark Cuban are among the richest people in Texas, yet their political impact is insignificant. Those with far less wealth, but a deeper heritage in oldline industries still dominate politics all over the country.
This lagging impact is partly a consequence of newness, but it also rises from deeper factors. The very ethos of this new economic order hampers activism and weakens democracy itself. No one became a tycoon in an industrial economy without buying the politicians necessary at each step to protect their ventures. A stable of politicians was as crucial to industrial economics as accountants or managers. By contrast, much of this modern wealth is developing either independent of, or openly at odds with a shrinking public sector. Thanks to the globalized, transient nature of these business operations, in which companies have no local, geographic “home,” the impact of this enormous new flow of wealth on politics is too broadly dispersed to be deeply felt anywhere. Between hostility to government and the lack of attachment to place, new money faces serious political headwinds.
If established rentiers are manipulating workers with fears of job losses and populations are on the cusp of decline, why is immigration necessary? Shouldn’t the disappearance of mass employment make population growth a problem? The end of labor as we know it isn’t the end of people. It isn’t even the end of work. What’s about to die is the concept of a job as the primary means of support for the masses. Jobs have been disappearing for decades. Even during this unprecedented economic boom, labor force participation has continued its long structural decline.
Even now, under peak economic conditions, our economy does not produce enough jobs to support American families. It really never did, but it’s capacity to spread wealth through traditional forms of employment will only decline from here.
A successful culture will replace a jobs economy with an economy in which a dividends of the vast technological expansion are redistributed as shares, in the same manner we do with corporate shares today. A society with more people will produce more innovation to fuel this technological advance, while enjoying easier and cheaper access to the simplest amenities of a healthy society, from the corner coffee shop to artistic content.
We are far overdue for a shift in mindset of the simplest kind, yet still almost unfathomable for people born in the age of scarcity. It is good to have people. People are valuable. People are not “mouths to feed.” People are not a burden. People are not a problem. They never were a problem, but a world of scarcity, violence and instability made higher populations much more difficult to organize and sustain. As we mature for the first time into a world of declining population, recognizing the simple privilege of having and attracting people will be a national survival skill.
Technical advances don’t emerge from isolated individuals on distant farms. They are formed in an evolutionary cauldron of exchange, debate, trial, error and investment. Our most productive environments are massive population centers, a dynamic that will only intensify as technology displaces more and more traditional human activities. Those population centers need minds, and not just the minds of a few geniuses. Jobs aren’t disappearing because people are irrelevant, or because there’s no more work to perform. They are disappearing because they are no longer the optimal tool for organizing the economy.
Today, we organize our entire public order around the necessity of formal employment. This will disappear whether we like it or not. Our economy doesn’t need employment, it needs work. So employment, a concept born to meet the needs of the industrial era, will gradually become an anachronism too expensive to maintain. Our challenge is to decouple the infrastructure of our civilization from employment as quickly as possible, making health care and basic well-being available independent of jobs. At the same time, a successful culture must master the challenge of opening itself to contributions from people from all over the world.
Power is flowing to people who can build cultures of cultures. These are not merely cultures of “tolerance,” but new meta-cultures in which people from highly diverse backgrounds, with diverse mythologies, languages, and values can gain the benefits of a shared public life while living relatively transient lives. Instead of learning to “be German” or to “be American,” those meta-identities adapt to the demands of mobile, transient, diverse communities. In short, we are growing beyond the reach and relevance of the nation-state. We will need to develop new definitions and boundaries for public life.
This is a wrenching disruption, intolerable to many. It will be almost impossibly painful for many European countries and the Japanese to shake off a nationalist identity imposed on them by centuries of concerted effort to embrace a more fluid, global self-image. Competing for global talent and refining skills in global trade will be hampered by a monolithic cultural identity. Other countries, less successful to date in building the nationalist identities so critical to for an industrial economy may enjoy some advantages. India, Malaysia and many African countries stand out for their still-nascent efforts to manufacture a unified national identity. That incomplete nationalism may let them skip a step, entering this new era with an advantage.
Americans, by contrast to Europe, have always lived with a relatively fluid public culture. We still have no official religion or mandatory language. We’ve often been derided as cultureless cretins by those elsewhere with deeper attachments to tradition. What made America one of the world’s most successful experiments in multi-culturalism was our system of racism. By creating a nation in which everyone judged as “white” was considered equal, we built the broadest, most liberal form of multicultural the world had yet seen. Our cultural stability was built on white nationalism and the systemic exploitation of those imagined to be “black.” Under that rubric, Irish Catholics, German Lutherans and Serbian Orthodox who would have been murdering each other in Europe could organize under the same political party. For its time, white nationalism was a miracle of multi-culturalism, but that time is ended and its bloody costs are coming due.
Under pressure from post-industrial economics, we now face the challenge of shedding the racism that made the rest of our relative tolerance possible. This will not be easy. We are a nation built on white nationalism. Constructing a post-white political order without a revolution may be more than we can hope for.
Someone will ride this new wave to power. The wealth and influence available to a country or people who embrace a culturally transient, globalized, trade-driven order will make a leader out of whoever best exploits these forces. Despite our current dysfunction, no nation is better positioned than the US to adapt to this order. That doesn’t mean we’ll do it, but it grants us the first chance to fail.
Resistance to this current has already emerged. Those would-be losers in the new order would be happy to retain the old, even if it makes us all relatively poorer and weaker. From Afghanistan to Alabama, backwoods preachers are struggling to grab the reins of power and turn back the clock. In places like Riyadh and Dallas, those preachers find wealthy allies who see in those rubes a bulwark to protect their fortunes against disruption. It is accurate, but misleading, to point out that these players will be history’s losers. Their campaign, like the pyrrhic efforts of cultural warriors down through history, will fail. However, their failure doesn’t guarantee that they won’t take many nations, including our own, with them into obscurity.
No one was better positioned than Spain and Portugal to reap the benefits of the printing press, industrialization, and the global manufacturing revolution. Those with the most to lose from progress successfully thwarted change in those countries, dooming them to centuries of decline. It could happen here, but it probably won’t.
America has a history of being moved by new money. The chaos at our core makes life difficult for rentiers. Look closely at the massive piles of money pouring into politics and what emerges is a story of losers. Our kleptocrat class has largely failed to buy our system while the price of a politician skyrockets. If they can’t buy this system, they’ll have to destroy it, but that’s easier said than done.
Our kleptocrats are now determined to dismantle our political system. The enemies that matter aren’t the mumbling racists in the countryside, but the wealthy rentiers who manipulate them. Kleptocrats like the Trumps, the Kushners and the Crafts manipulate your dim-witted cousin by making him fear brown people. They manipulate the rest of us by making us fear your cousin. Emerging from this trial successfully hinges in large part on our ability to recognize and attack our common enemy.
Ask anyone about Germany’s future in 1946 and you’d hear a grim tale. Germany was sick, Europe’s catalyst of war and disorder. It was widely assumed that something in the German soul doomed the country to mayhem. Across a single human lifetime Germany has developed from ashes and occupation into the leader of the free world. Similarly, look at the course of Japan, Vietnam and now even Nigeria. The troubles of a moment are often the passage to greatness.
It seems likely that within a decade or so we’ll either live in a post-racial version of America that functions as a leader in a global knowledge economy, or we’ll lose our global leadership, both political and economic, ruled by a class of inbred kleptocrats and governed by the shady storefront preachers they hire to keep us in line. Either of these futures is possible, but one is more likely than the other.
More likely, the kleptocrats have overplayed their hand. Fury rising from the new economy’s jilted winners will likely spark a short, sharp conflict with the advocates of the dying racial order. After the rentiers are swept aside, the blood will be hosed off the sidewalks, and whatever measures were necessary to secure victory will then be written into law or conveniently forgotten. With determination, vision, and a little luck, the next American Century lies just over the horizon.