We live in an era where there is a deep desire to view humans as machines. Humans are not machines — they are free beings who can do surprising things for a variety of reasons or no particular reason at all — but our whole society is set up to hide that fact. Public policy is now the art of “nudging” “incentives,” setting up conditions where human-machines will respond appropriately. Important social choices are outsourced to something called “the market,” which is presented as a kind of naturally-occuring decision-generating machine despite being a product of human choices that runs on human choices.
It makes sense that people would turn to such impersonal, supposedly a-political models of our shared life. Politics has always been traumatic, particularly in the 20th century. We’ve all heard it before: “You think people can take collective control of their destiny in a deliberate and purposeful way? So did Hitler and Stalin!” But politics in the sense of purposeful human decisions about the distribution of power and resources is irreducible. Even if there were a supercomputer perfectly calibrated to distribute the best possible outcomes to everyone, the decision to entrust it with this responsibility would be a human decision — as would the ongoing decision to continue to submit to it. We like to pretend that something called “the market” effectively is that supercomputer, but it isn’t. All it does is cover over the human decisions that are being made.
The irreducibility of actual human decisions holds even at the level of the global market. In the immediate post-war era, Western and Eastern policymakers alike developed international economic policies that, by and large, resulted in a net transfer of resources from the large, powerful nations to the less developed nations (not that it was all sweetness and light, of course…). Then the US reneged on that model, and ultimately the Soviet elites decided to “cash out” rather than maintain their economic system. As a result of those choices, the world economic system is now structured very differently. And I’d remark that all of these huge changes happened before the “tech revolution” that supposedly changed everything but effectively served only to reinforce and entrench the policy trends that were already in place when the Mosaic web browser was still a glimmer in its creator’s eye.
One often hears that Marxism is a form of economic determinism, but I view it as an attempt to escape economic determinism. The hope is that through very rapid development of the material conditions for human production and reproduction, we could begin to make radically different kinds of political choices — choices that were not constrained by a logic of scarcity. It seems likely to me that at some point in the postwar era, the world had actually collectively created something like “the material conditions for full communism” — but powerful people made choices that led to a voluntary continuation of the logic of scarcity even when we were no longer physically constrained by actual-existing scarcity.
The result has been a squandering of those resources in such a way as to set up environmental catastrophes that will almost certainly return us to a condition of real scarcity. It’s no mistake that the only faint glimmers of some kind of hope of avoiding these catastrophes come from state-driven investment in Europe and especially China. We now see what is happening to that state-driven investment as European nations are forcibly submitted to “market discipline.” And although there are good reasons to be skeptical that China will be able to retool its economy in ecologically sustainable ways, I’m willing to say that it would be absolutely impossible to imagine such a thing happening if the Communist Party fell from power and was replaced by something more like a Western liberal democracy — because contemporary liberal democracy effectively means disclaiming any kind of responsible human planning in favor of compulsively repeating the kinds of choices that we have come to call “the market.”