The De-Condensation of Humanity

The Ribbonfarm blog has always been one of my preferred locations for imaginative societal analysis online. What Ribbonfarm offers, perhaps more than any other blog out there, is close attention to calibrating the lenses through which we can analyse the dynamics of our society. It is a blog that is frequently daring in its analysis, offering bold theories and frameworks where others give more predictable and unoriginal readings of our societal situation. For me, it is blogs such as Ribbonfarm that justify the continued existence of blogging as a serious medium.

Venkatesh Rao, the Executive Editor of the site, has a tremendous systematizing instinct and the ability to discern patterns and dynamics. I still refer to posts such as his ‘The Gervais Principle’, ‘Rediscovering Literacy’, and ‘Welcome to the Future Nauseous’.

However, more recently it has been the work of Sarah Perry, the site’s Contributing Editor, that has most attracted my attention. The following posts may help to explain why: ‘Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty’, ‘Weaponized Sacredness’, and ‘The Theory of Narrative Selection’. Perry’s work is characterized by a deeper attention to psychology and human nature and alertness to the ways in which social systems intersect with and engage with our psychology. In my estimation, both Rao and Perry rank up with Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex as some of the most consistently thought-provoking bloggers out there.

Ribbonfarm is an example of the unique potential of blogging as a sort of sandpit of argument, a realm for more explorative thought to occur. In my own ways, I’ve often tried to take advantage of this same potential. At its best, blogging creates a space where ideas, understandings, and theories can be tried out, experimented with, and developed, without the same pressure of finality that comes with traditional forms of publication. It can be an intellectually lively and stimulating place as a result, encouraging readers to collaborate in a more open-ended process of thought and reflection. It is a site of creative, heuristic, and experimental thought, where readers can become active participants. Different participants can take the ideas being explored in rather different directions, but everyone benefits in their own ways from the collaborative space for imaginative and creative development of thought.

Sarah Perry recently wrote a fascinating post on the subject of technology as ‘de-condensation’. While I ended up demurring at her claims about our entering an ‘age of recondensation’, I believe the core thesis of the post provides an exceptionally useful lens through which to consider a number of cultural changes. The post also advances concepts that merit deeper consideration within the discussions around the phenomenon of ‘secularization’ in various quarters.

Perry argues that, in the past, ‘time, artifacts, institutions, and even people are more condensed.’ Entities within past cultures were bearers of multiple meanings, purposes, and functions and, as a result, were associated with deep values that often bordered upon or existed within the realm of the sacred. However, as human society became more settled and technologically advanced, the formerly highly condensed entities steadily lost their integrity as their purposes, meanings, and functions were separated and outsourced to various other technologies, domains, agencies, and entities. Perry writes:

Almost every technological advance is a de-condensation: it abstracts a particular function away from an object, a person, or an institution, and allows it to grow separately from all the things it used to be connected to. Writing de-condenses communication: communication can now take place abstracted from face-to-face speech. Automobiles abstract transportation from exercise, and allow further de-condensation of useful locations (sometimes called sprawl). Markets de-condense production and consumption.

Such de-condensing effects a breach or wound in the world order, which must somehow rebuild itself around this new de-condensed reality.

I am here reminded of Albert Borgmann’s discussion of the difference between technological ‘devices’ and more traditional ‘things’. For instance, the hearth represents the sort of ‘thing’ that has been displaced by technological devices such as central heating, cookers, and microwaves. These devices perform key functions of the hearth considerably better than the hearth ever could. However, it is easy to forget those things that were lost through the ‘de-condensing’ the hearth. The hearth was never merely a ‘device’ for producing heat. It was a focal point of family life, community, and practice, a site of often deep meaning. The hearth brought the family together. It represented their interdependence, as each family member had their own tasks of making and tending the fire, cooking with it, cleaning it out, gathering, buying, or chopping fuel for it. If a member of the family failed to play their part, all could suffer. It established shared daily rituals and structured the day. It required the development and passing on of skills and active involvement with nature.

It created a specific place, which ordered wider social spaces and itineraries (note that the hearth names the place primarily and the fire upon it only by metonymy). In many cultures the hearth had a deeply gendered meaning, being associated with the wife and mother at the very heart of the family. The hearth metonymically stood for the home and for domestic life and its relations as a whole.

Although people still have fireplaces in their houses, long after the development of central heating, these fireplaces are only a shrunken semblance of what they once were. No longer the site of condensed meaning and the necessary confluence of family activity, they now function chiefly as luxuries for our comfort and sentimental enjoyment. Freeing us from often onerous former necessities, the technological process of de-condensation gives us benefits of convenience, efficiency, ease, and comfort, but at the price of much meaning, purpose, social bonding, and embeddedness.

As Perry observes, technological de-condensing chiefly tends to address problems nearer to the base of Maslow’s Pyramid. However, the practices and entities that are displaced by the process of de-condensing typically addressed needs further up the pyramid too. For instance, Leon Kass writes of modern eating practices, which have often been technologically disembedded from former practices that addressed deeper hungers:

We face serious dangers from our increasingly utilitarian, functional, or “economic” attitudes toward food. True, fast food, TV dinners, and eating on the run save time, meet our need for “fuel,” and provide close to instant gratification. But for these very reasons, they diminish opportunities for conversation, communion, and aesthetic discernment; they thus shortchange the other hungers of the soul. Disposable utensils and paper plates save labor at the price of refinement, and also symbolically deny memory and permanence their rightful places at the table. Meals eaten before the television set turn eating into feeding. Wolfing down food dishonors both the human effort to prepare it and the lives of those plants and animals sacrificed on our behalf. Not surprisingly, incivility, insensitivity, and ingratitude learned at the family table can infect all other aspects of one’s life.

De-condensation can occasion the ‘dis-integration’ of meaning, or the reduction of meaning and purpose to shallow material functions and ends. Perhaps it could be argued that the process of de-condensation necessarily begins with a perceptual atomization of realities into discrete parts of which they can never exceed the sum or a reduction of them into simple functions, dismissing the wider reality they form around themselves. In particular, the integrating power of former practices and realities is dismissed, devalued, or neglected. The result of such a process of de-condensation can be a vague but pronounced sense of existential lack of value, self, agency, meaning, and purpose even in the midst of relative material plenty. While we are glad to be free of old necessities and their attendant hardships, their passing has often left us emptier.

The last couple of centuries in particular have witnessed the rapid de-condensation of key dimensions of human life. Yet the next century promises to take this process of de-condensation further than we may currently even imagine, with potentially dire consequences for humanity. While de-condensation has previously unsettled the realms of human relations and labour, it now threatens fundamentally to undermine them.

This recent essay is just one of a great many voices that have been declaring our movement into an age where human labour in general (and ‘male’ labour in particular), is increasingly redundant. As we move towards ever greater levels of automation, technologization, and artificial intelligence, human labour is worth less and less on the employment market. If you look at the most common job in each US state, you will notice that truck drivers are the most common in the majority of states: those jobs are going to start to disappear rapidly within the next few years as self-driving vehicles start to appear on the roads. Technology has already hit manufacturing and farming jobs: truck driving is next. Even if big manufacturing companies were to return to the US from overseas, they would only employ a small fraction of the numbers that they once employed. Nor is arresting the immigration of cheap labour going to prevent the steady collapse of the labour market.

The situation that we now face is due in no small measure to the extreme de-condensation of human work. Human work has always served a wide array of ends beyond those at the bottom of Maslow’s Pyramid. Work offers us a means of making our mark upon the world and of investing the self in objects of our creation. Work externalizes the human spirit and also gives us a stake in the future. Work has been a means of binding us to the natural world within which we live. We must learn to be attentive to the world and diligent in labouring upon and within it.

Work is a means of bringing people together in communities. In most human societies, work has served to affirm people in their sex and given them deep relationships with others of their sex. Work has enabled and trained people to exercise adult responsibility, agency, independence, and providence. Work has given people a deep sense of purpose and has structured their lives within sacred patterns of work and rest. Work has secured people’s place and status in society. Work is a means by which we can give of ourselves to others and a means by which we are dependent upon each other.

As we have sought to maximize the ends of production, efficiency, and profit, we have de-condensed work. Many of the purposes that work once served are now dispensed with or even directly undermined. In the modern economy, rather than serving to bind communities together, work tends to atomize them instead, as we are all uprooted and pushed to migrate within and without our countries to follow work opportunities. The more that machines and processes intervene between us and our creations, the harder it is to find meaning in our labour, or to feel that we are making a mark in the world. We may feel alienated from our labour. It no longer provides us with the rich forms of sociality it once did. Rather than affirming us in our sexed agencies and identities, the modern gender neutral workplace is often a stifling and emasculating environment for men and an oppressive and marginalizing environment for women. As work becomes rarer, the work that remains will probably also become less and less meaningful and fulfilling. For many, the minimal gains of precarious low paid work over unemployment benefits are simply not sufficient to compensate for the indignities it inflicts.

De-condensation tends to narrow or relocate ends. Work, which once served a more integrated human meaning, can now be reduced to the ends of production and securing the means for consumption. The economy and its growth can become an end in itself (perhaps even to a point where we could imagine human beings being cut out of the loop altogether!). However, the end of maximizing production can easily become antagonistic not only to human life and society, but also to the planet, which was not created to sustain unrestrained growth.

What happens when meaningful work no longer exists? Well, on account of welfare and charity, most people probably won’t starve. Indeed, there is growing support for a guaranteed income as a measure to stave off the worst prospects of a post-work world. Yet we can already see what happens to people, perhaps especially young men, when they lack a sense of meaning and purpose, meaning and purpose that work once supported. Their human spirit is starved and they can turn to forms of escapism—entertainment, sport, video games, drugs, promiscuous sex and porn, etc.—which at least offer weakly to scratch their deep existential itches.

Work is not the only realm under threat. Our fundamental human relations themselves are increasingly threatened. Marriage traditionally functioned as a socially integrating institution and has been regarded as sacred or holy by many societies as a result, right down to the present. Although the form it took could vary considerably from society to society, it generally served to unite or strengthen the bond between a range of different persons and practices. It bound the generations together. It bound different families together. It related the sexes together. It strengthened communities and cultures as marriages became the bearers of religious and social meaning. It connected sex with procreation. It connected private life with communal life.

The power of marriage and family as an institution arose in large measure from the vast array of functions that were condensed within it: provision, security, welfare, healthcare, education, investment, employment, public representation, community, religious practice, etc., etc. However, over the last few centuries marriage has been radically de-condensed, many of its former functions outsourced to other institutions or drastically reduced through new technologies. Whereas marriage was once a deeply meaningful necessity for people’s physical and social survival, now it is steadily reduced to a realm of sentimental community. Without the force of necessity holding people together, the deeper integrating goods that marriage once represented are harder to perceive and its meaning is drastically diminished. Marriage becomes much weaker as an institution.

Marriage once powerfully represented the condense and integrated meaning of human sexuality, a deep mystery of the union of man and woman, the wonder of the other sex and the deeper reality of our own, the most fundamental common project of all human society, the union of our most animal of drives with the highest of our ideals, the connection between our bodies and our deepest selves, the significance of the loving and committed sexual bond as the site where the gift of new life is welcomed into the world, the difference between human making and human begetting, the miracle of the development of new life, the wondrous natural blossoming of private sexual unions into public families, a bond that stretches over generations, the deep union of blood, the interplay and union of the sexes in all areas of human life and society, the maturation of man and woman together and in union through all of the seasons of their lives, until they cross the threshold of death.

This meaning hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it is fast fading. Through many and various developments, the meaning of marriage in relation to human sexuality has been slowly eroded. Human sexuality is being de-condensed. Contraception and prophylactics separate sexual relations from procreative potential and reduce the need for discriminating choice of partners, reducing sex to primarily genital stimulation. Porn offers to satisfy our unruly lusts, compartmentalizing our sexuality. Reproductive technology separates procreation from sexual congress. It abstracts bodily material from persons and biological parenthood from social parenthood. Surrogacy abstracts child-bearing from motherhood. The coming together of bodies is no longer presumed to necessitate a uniting of selves. Sexual reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy reinforce the abstraction of one’s gender from one’s natural bodily sex. Social science de-condenses the function of ‘parenting’ from the condense reality of being a mother or father.

Although male identity has historically been especially powerfully located in the realm of work within the world, the value and identity enjoyed by women in society has had much to do with the fact that they bear children and forge the most fundamental human bonds within their very bodies. As Ivan Illich once powerfully put it, women ‘leave behind a trail of new life.’ They do this as ‘condense’ and ‘integrated’ persons—as bearers of sacred meaning—not merely as an aggregation of discrete functions.

However, this is increasingly going to come under threat. When we can engineer artificial human eggs from men’s skin cells, grow the resulting embryos in artificial wombs, and men can have artificial sexual relations that cater to their every fantasy, what becomes of women? Will they represent something more to men than an outmoded sexual and reproductive ‘technology’? What sort of relation between the sexes will exist in such a world? What sort of bond will exist between generations when reproductive technologies and genetic engineering increasingly intervene? What becomes of parenthood in such a world, especially in relation to the state?

Here it becomes clearer that de-condensation is something that directly threatens human beings themselves. It isn’t just our tools, institutions, and societies that are being de-condensed, but our very selves. The humanity that will result will be much reduced in stature. What it means to be a mature human being, to be made in the image of God, is closely bound up with our creative and procreative activity and both of these dimensions of our humanity face imminent threats. Even if we survive such developments in relative material comfort, it will most likely be in a sort of puerile dependency on a stifling government.

As I have argued in the past, these de-condensing developments are already underway, driven in large measure by the desire to normalize such things as gender neutral marriage. Contemporary progressivism is, at heart, a transhumanist movement, a movement that necessitates the radical de-condensing and refashioning of the human being in order to achieve its ends. While often well-intentioned, it is imperative that we register the danger that it presents. The transhumanism it envisages has many appealing features, yet the de-condensation it necessitates will seriously reduce humanity in its dignity, severing the bonds of meaning that give us purpose, identity, and a place in the creation. As Oliver O’Donovan has maintained, the crucial difference between begetting and making human beings may seem small at points, yet is vast in its implications.

Behind the process of de-condensing is often the drive to overcome unwelcome necessity. The condense meanings we once enjoyed were typically preserved through hardship and suffering, through limits imposed on us by nature, through the lack of an alternative. Our society, however, is founded upon the value of ‘choice’ over all else and eschewing necessity and constraint wherever possible. The destructive power of the reality of capitalism lies precisely in the fact that it represents the destabilizing effect of the de-condensing maximization of choice upon all settled social realities. Given the choice between a difficult practice and an easy de-condensed alternative that relieves us of its burden, we will incline towards the latter almost every time.

Where choice is maximized, what were formerly virtues formed and meanings maintained through necessity now must be established through self-imposed discipline. We are creating a world where, as we no longer have a virtuous and strong humanity developed under the force of the gravity of necessity, we risk surrendering our very selves to the whims of petty and untamed vices. I will conclude with a lengthy quotation from C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, which expresses the problem well:

From this point of view the conquest of Nature appears in a new light. We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may ‘conquer’ them. We are always conquering Nature, because ‘Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psychoanalyse her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same. This is one of the many instances where to carry a principle to what seems its logical conclusion produces absurdity. It is like the famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all. It is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls. It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere `natural object’ and his own judgements of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. The objection to his doing so does not lie in the fact that this point of view (like one’s first day in a dissecting room) is painful and shocking till we grow used to it. The pain and the shock are at most a warning and a symptom. The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, Sex and Sexuality, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

67 Responses to The De-Condensation of Humanity

  1. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    of all the ribbonfarm essays I’ve read (about a dozen) my favorite is still “You are not an artisan”, with its proposal that contemporary people too often bring consumption aesthetics to production choices in the labor market. People prefer to be bards rather than chimney sweeps even though the latter job is far more stable whatever its comparative lack of prestige.

    and it seems possible that consumption preferences over against production decisions could also explain how people date and mate these days, too.

    • Yes, as Berry and others have observed, the family has ceased to be a realm of shared production and is now increasingly the realm where two independent careerists enjoy a fragile realm of shared consumption.

  2. cal says:

    What you say about marriage in the phenomenon of decondensation is true, but it needs to be complicated by other factors surrounding the history of the institution. While most/all societies sanctified the structure of the family, this coexisted with a number of other structures that, seemingly, contradict the status.

    The powerful in Indian and Chinese societies (among many others) maintained harems of concubines that lacked the status of full-wife, but also fulfilled social functions in a pluralized, hierarchical form of maternity. Concubinage was thus a fundamental pillar for the powerful in full motherhood. I suppose a parallel structure was between the poor laborer/farmer who had to work for himself and the land-owner who could employ, or own, others (whether slavery or serfdom) to work the land.

    Licit adultery was tolerated in many Greek city-states (and elsewhere as well), which required certain customs. The wife held a place of familial honor, and thus the patriarch’s forays had to honor that status. Aristocrats possessed separate wings of their homes that possessed levels of dignity. The marriage bed was holy, but the “lounge” was common. It was in the latter that an aristocrat would have traditional drinking bouts with his equals and would indulge in high-cultured forms of prostitution. Any children resultant were bastards, and the profaneness of this form of sex was contrasted with the wife. The child-bearing duty of the latter was a sacred form of sexuality, whereas sex for pleasure or social benefit was a common activity.

    Of course, the Gospel represented a, perhaps, radically altered view. However, it’s clear from European history that it was, many times, little different than many other societies. Concubinage, Prostitution, and Bastardy remained support structures for forms of marriage.

    Of course, this ignores the prospect of common law marriage, and how this folds into this, but usually the articulate views of marriage in times past had the high-cultured examples in view, even as they were glossed over as obvious, neglected, or embarrassing realities.

    Perhaps one might say that it was the privilege of the aristocrat to decondensate the simpler, thicker, structures of peasantry into multiple, refined, structures that received much more reified and ornate meanings and effects. Perhaps, when viewed from the perspective of labor, this is a certain sort of democratizing of aristocratic values, whether desired or not. Of course this is not an egalitarian effect, but a further entrenching of people into the well-being of a superstructure that keeps them dependent. Even though free from the burdens of labor, at the expense of the peasant, serf, or slave, the Aristocrat is a slave to the structures that validate his title and his property as his own. Perhaps, this is reflective of Biblical warnings over wealth.

    Anyway, the dark underbelly of marriage’s history may, in fact, help elucidate its good, but also a more precise explanation of what this means in light of Christian doctrine.

    2 cents,

    • Helpful thoughts, thanks. My comments on marriage were rather more narrowly focused on the situation in the Western Christian tradition. Outside of that context, marriage was still a condense reality, although it often was a condensation of different things. Likewise with men and women. Alternatively, perhaps it would be better to think of marriage in such societies as itself condensed within more culturally fundamental realities. Whereas many realities may have been condensed in marriage in Western Christendom, in certain other societies, marriage itself is a reality condensed into the more fundamental social reality of the tribe or clan, the social hierarchy, etc.

      • cal says:

        I don’t think Western Christendom is radically different than the other examples I described. The high culture of poetry and exegetical reflection on marriage was the same domain where mistresses dwelt and were tolerated to certain extents.

        Then when Western Europe took to the seas there was a constant problem of sailors, soldiers, or officials have foreign wives in port cities or imperial dominions. This was not only because of lust or the desire for company. There were a number of English, French, among others, who married American Indian chieftain daughters for trade and political relations. This was a crisis of how the marriage had become condensed into imperial politics or the self-interest of money-making.

        Then of course there’s ecclesiastical talk on the issue of marriage, which is reflective of more complicated realities. Common customs were not always in line with the CoE or Rome’s marital practices, and this reflects different attempts to imbue meaning into the forms of relation and sexuality.

        So, the question is really which Western Christendom are we talking about? Is this more about a discursive ideal or about a functional reality, which many times were quite far a part.

      • Marriage in the West is obviously a highly variegated phenomenon on various levels. Even within the British Isles, there are significant historic regional differences in the form of marriage, and many further differences with forms of marriage on the continent (and I’m not just talking about the Hajnal Line here). There are also extensive instances of divergent and marginal marital practices in various times and place.

        Marriage evolved in a great many ways in various European countries and European societies with it. The sacramentalization of marriage, developing principles of solemnization and understandings of common law marriage, evolving notions of consent and parental involvement in relation to marriage, religious limits on consanguinity, the fusion of various historic marital traditions in the emerging Western Christian synthesis, principles of exogamy and endogamy, shifting cultural norms surrounding age difference in marriage, changing forms of familial cohabitation and inheritance under economic and other forces, etc., etc. However, we would miss the forest for the trees if we failed to recognize an emerging Western marital tradition, which was never universally or fully in effect, but which can clearly be traced over the course of history.

  3. mnpetersen37 says:

    This recent essay is just one of a great many voices that have been declaring our movement into an age where human labour in general (and ‘male’ labour in particular), is increasingly redundant.

    You perhaps briefly touch on it later, but I think “age” overstates it. That does seem to be the current at the surface (btw, have you read The grasshopper: Games life and utopia, I haven’t yet, but it may interest you), but I think it’s a shallow current. The much deeper current, it seems, is one of turning from our technological mastery of adam and adamah, and from “spaceship earth” attempts to play the part of engineers on this ship, and toward a more Lovelockian recognition that the earth is not just one planet among many, but unique, and a concomitant recognition of our dependency upon and inability to master the multiple agencies upon which adamah, and so Adam, depends. That is, though people like Elon Musk are influential, and do seek to master the climate, the deeper current–and the deeper necessity–is to be what Latour calls earthbound, citizens of the Leviathan Gaia (that’s Latour’s terminology, explored in his Gifford Lectures). And at the least, if we don’t repent soon, we will be carried off into captivity–our own augurs have, correctly, told us “Yet forty days and Ninevah shall be destroyed,” and we can see that the wind and the waves do not obey us, but are gathering for our judgment.

    • mnpetersen37 says:

      Though, I should add, I too highly doubt that ipads and Whole Foods do anything to move us back toward earth. Whole Foods may show that our aspirations are turning toward that direction, but it seems, doesn’t accomplish much besides differently branding our existing kinds of activity.

    • I am not sure that I am seeing the deeper current that you describe. At least, to the extent that it is a current, it hasn’t really succeeded in becoming much more than ‘consciousness-raising’, which doesn’t count for a whole lot. There is undoubtedly a growing concern about and disillusion with the ideology of control, growth, and limitless progress in certain quarters, but it is fairly impotent in practice. Our faith in the god of progress has faltered as we begin to realize where he is taking us. Our visions of the future are overwhelmingly dystopian nowadays, yet we cannot escape the god’s clutches.

      The problem with capitalism and a culture driven by the idolatry of choice is that, even when we see ourselves heading towards destruction, we find ourselves almost entirely incapable of changing course. We recognize the immense dangers of the technologies on the horizon and the new possibilities that they open up. However, such possibilities seem to have the status of inevitabilities.

      • mnpetersen37 says:

        I think we’re in something like the obverse of the situation in Europe in say 1460, when Prince Henry the Navigator died, or 1543 when De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was published. (Though more had happened then than now, at least from a human perspective.) Perhaps even as the political agency of the wind and the waves, becomes more and more apparent, and our war with other earthly agencies becomes more and more desperate, even in our inability to force the old gods to answer our prayers, we shall keep petitioning them.

        But my suspicion (and it can’t be more than that) is that people, probably not in Europe or N. America, and almost certainly not “educated”, are laying the ground-work for a house that, after and as the apocalypse has revealed the rottenness of our idolatry, will stand more firm. At least, I think we can see the coming apocalypse, and can see that the post-apocalyptic society will have (had to) leave its idolatry; but the post-apocalyptic society will only be created after the apocalypse.

  4. quinnjones2 says:

    Thank you, Alastair, for another well-researched and thought-provoking article. I’m a bit out of my depth with this subject, maybe because I spent many more years of my life without all this technology than with it. Sometimes I feel quite despondent about current trends and I wonder if there is still any hope for us all! Yet I’m a great believer in ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and what a friend described as ‘the inspiration of desperation’ – maybe unexpected changes in current trends will enable our human best to blossom in wonderful ways again. (Hope springs eternal…) Last week at the Dementia Café at our church a young woman gave a talk about home life in WW2. This included a cooking demo of some of the recipes women invented while food was rationed. I was impressed with the resourcefulness of those women – they managed to make such appetising and tasty meals out of next to nothing that the meals seemed to be more like special treats than just poverty provisions. They even made necklaces out of buttons sewn onto ribbon! We were also shown a suitcase containing the sorts of things people took into Anderson shelters during air raids and this included a teddy bear for little ones and a Darn-A-Lite sewing mushroom for darning socks! If the women had any spare time during daylight hours they knitted socks for the troops. All this left me feeling rather nostalgic.
    Yet I don’t regret, for instance, the advent of washing machines and the ‘passing’ of mangles and scrubbing boards. I think that technology can be good if it is our servant and not our master. One of the problems of the plethora of new technology seems to be that many of us are left feeling that we are losing our centre of gravity. I am especially concerned about technology which makes ‘designer babies’ etc possible and I sometimes feel alarmed about transhumanism – the scenario you described above made chilling reading for me. Yet we are part of this society whether we like it or not and when I see some people apparently flying out of orbit into what I believe is spiritual ‘outer darkness’ I remind myself with increasing frequency that Christ is our ‘centre of gravity’.

    • The end of ‘laundry day’ is, indeed, a welcome passing in many respects. However, the fact that machines now largely occupy the place that wives and mothers once occupied at the centre of the practical labour of the household has quite weakened the family. It encouraged women to seek work outside of the home and immediate community, rather than face the tedium of an increasingly cosmetic form of housekeeping. It led to the weakening of local communities as most women were no longer regularly present within them. It hastened the sentimentalization of marriage and the family and weakened the difference between the sexes.

      This rather highlights the complicated character of this all. Laundry day was exceedingly onerous, yet its difficulty strengthened some of the most fundamental social bonds. In escaping its burden, we gained much in ease, comfort, and extra time, but there were many hidden but significant losses that weren’t recovered.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        I think that you say is true about mothers who went out to work, but I was a full-time mother when my children were young, as were many of my friends, and we had a great community life. When we were freed up a bit by having washing machines and hoovers we set up a baby-sitting circle with thirty families as members. We sometimes organized parties for the children and we also had ‘swap shops’ in each others’ homes. We helped each other out in emergencies – for instance the group rallied round when I went into hospital. The most poignant instance of this kind of support was when one mother in our group and her two-year-old son were killed in a road accident. Many mothers were on hand to look after the bereaved husband’s surviving daughter and they were all known to the little girl. The bereaved husband invited other children and their parents to his home to watch videos of the wife and son he had lost.
        We never had much money so we could not afford to have fashionable clothes and the latest in designer furniture and curtains etc., but we did not yearn for such things. One woman we knew did yearn for such things and we could not understand it when, for instance, she complained that she could not find peach loo rolls to match her the peach walls in her bathroom! She was exceptional then, but I think she might be more typical nowadays when having, being and doing ‘the latest’ seems to take such priority with many.
        One aspect of progress that I personally did not welcome was the time when we could buy cakes and biscuits more cheaply than we could make them ourselves and I could not justify the financial (and time) costs of doing my own baking, something I really enjoyed doing.

      • The sort of community that you describe sounds wonderful! It also reminds me of my own childhood in many ways. My mother was a full-time housewife, always industrious and creative in the life of the family but, perhaps more importantly, a crucial pillar of community for many people in need in our area. Where women working in the home was widespread, there was a robust community which strengthened the society and also provided a more communal form of adult oversight, which gave us more freedom to roam as kids.

        However, it takes a while for technological developments to take their full effect. I remember my mother remarking upon the outworking of the effect of household appliances upon the life of the family in society as a child. The effects are more visible in some societies than in others, but what may have seemed a limited effect in the past can become a significant cultural shift over the course of a couple of generations. How widespread are the sorts of communities of mothers that you describe in the UK today? While they definitely still exist, I suspect that they are much weaker nowadays.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        HI Alastair,
        Thank you for your thoughtful response.
        ‘How widespread are the sorts of communities of mothers that you describe in the UK today?’
        I don’t know the answer to that question! There is such a community in our church, and maybe in other churches. too. Locally a ‘school-gate’ community where mothers ( and some fathers) make new friends – these seems to happen amongst both church-goers and non-church-goers. Sometimes the person who becomes part of the ‘school-gate’ community is a grandparent, because parents of some children are both at work.
        I don’t know why so many mothers of young children have jobs. In our area many have jobs because their husbands are on a low wage and they don’t have enough to live on – some of these receive help from food banks, and they are certainly not scroungers.
        Certainly technological advances and ‘labour-saving devices’ mean that time spent on domestic work is considerably reduced and I know women who do paid or voluntarily work because they don’t want to stay at home alone ‘twiddling their thumbs’ 🙂
        I also know women who do paid work for other reasons. One such woman, who had a post of considerable responsibility, said that she felt less exhausted after a day in paid employment than she did after a day of staying at home and looking after her three young children. I know others who are very gifted and who feel that they would be wasting their skills if they did not enter a profession. I have no doubt that there are women who have other reasons for entering the competitive world of work.
        I think it can difficult for both men and women to balance priorities, and sometimes I see what I consider to be such an imbalance of priorities that it makes me cringe. I could give many examples of this, but I’d better not!

    • Andrew says:

      My wife made an interesting observation this morning:

      We were tangentially remarking on the “women in engineering” discussion. I observed that both she and my daughter loved “constructing” things. My wife observed that automation and mass production had changed many of the existing home-industries traditionally performed by wives – for example, making clothing or gardening for food – from necessities into optionals, with a corresponding loss of status.

      • Absolutely. And not just loss of status, but loss of community, interdependence, agency, connection, meaning, sacredness, etc. Often we care a lot less about status than we do about some of those other things.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Yes, it did change necessities into optionals but I must say that for me this was more the loss (or reduction of) an enjoyable activity than loss of status. Nor did it mean a loss of community – I still compare notes with friends about good bargains in shops and online 🙂

      • quinnjones2 says:

        My comment about necessities and optionals was to Andrew – I do seem to have a knack of putting things in the wrong place!

  5. Andrew says:

    “The destructive power of the reality of capitalism lies precisely in the fact that it represents the destabilizing effect of the de-condensing maximization of choice upon all settled social realities”

    Without disagreeing with this statement, I observe that the modern era’s primary socially acceptable alternative to capitalism – namely socialism – is no better. Capitalism offers freedom through self-determination, yet can enslave by filtering all social bonds through an economic filter. Socialism offers freedom through absolute ideological conformity, yet also enslaves by forcing all social bonds through an economic filter. No longer will some classes oppress others … instead, the state will oppress all classes except itself, while demanding your celebration (or else).

    Critiques of capitalism are welcome, but are cheap words unless they can propose a better alternative than some form of socialism.

    • My comments are directed against actually existing capitalism. Indeed, strictly speaking capitalism is a system of ownership (where a particular class of persons own the means of production), though typically conflated with a system of exchange (the free market). It would be possible to have market socialism and non-market capitalism. There are issues with capitalism narrowly speaking, but the primary issue here is with free markets in particular, and excessively open systems more generally. There are ways that we can address the systemic problems to some extent, though the difficulty is that of establishing effective collective action. National government may not always be effective at this in an age of global risk.

    • cal says:

      This is in addition to what Alistair said:

      Capitalism is about the ability for individuals to own the means of production viz. exchange on a market. The fact that you attribute ideological absolutism with Socialism, which you don’t define as anything but this, actually proves how absolute and powerful Capitalism is. It’s so completely ideological and so absolutely dominating that one doesn’t even know it. That’s the real magic. It’s an assumed common-sense that people can ‘own’ land, factories, mines etc. by having an abstract claim of possession that a governing authority will ratify with force.

      Socialism enslaves by forcing all social bonds through an economic filter? This is already the mode of living we are all immersed in today!

      • Andrew says:

        I disagree. “Ownership” has been a core concept for millennia. We have OT accounts of Abraham (himself a wealthy but itinerant man, with servants) trading for land with the existing occupiers of Canaan. And functionally speaking, “ownership” is guaranteed either by your own power or by a greater power that will defend your rights on your behalf.

        In that sense, capitalism has been around for millennia. The distinctive part of modern capitalism is the absence of nobility in the process. In prior ages, becoming significantly wealthy often introduced the need to seek out patronage to protect your assets from seizure. In the modern age, such patronage is assumed and automatically granted by the state.

        Socialism takes a historically novel position. The idea that everything ultimately belongs to the state isn’t a particularly novel; it’s been practiced in various forms throughout history. The novelty of socialism is that this is sold as being done on behalf of and for the good of the people (“I’m a dictator for your benefit” rather than “I’m a dictator; deal with it”).

        Both capitalism and socialism treat individuals primarily as economic units. The core difference is that capitalism has no opinion on parallel social structures: capitalism provides rules securing ownership and transfer of wealth; how individuals choose to use what wealth they have and what social organisations they form are outside capitalism’s purview. It is assumed that new wealth can enter the system from a wide variety of sources, and that for the most part the system (and people) will adapt to these changes. Pure capitalism demands no political or social loyalty.

        In contrast, socialism views all people as economic units in service of the state. The economic, political and social systems are welded together. It demands complete loyalty at all levels of life.

        That said, unfettered capitalism rewards aptitude and only aptitude. In practice, most capitalist societies recognise that there are values that trump economic aptitude. Certain forms of aptitude (e.g. deception) are legislated against, and various means are created (either by the state or independently of it) to limit the exposure of the weakest members of society to their lack of aptitude. But there’s a vast contrast between moral censure on how people use their wealth and moral censure of private wealth per se.

        I put it that much of the blame heaped upon “capitalism” today is misdirected. It is not the mercantile model itself that devalues life, but efforts flowing from the enlightenment to delegitimise “non-humanistic” (i.e. traditional or religious) moral and social structures in the public sphere. This has resulted in an economic-only worldview where capitalism becomes the “bad guy” because it’s the only structure left. The socialist response to this is to remove this last structure to make everyone moral, social and economic slaves to an all-powerful amoral state, and to actively resist any attempt to form alternative social and moral structures.

      • cal says:

        Land ownership has a lot of different meanings, that’s the rub. No one is disputing land-ownership, it’s who owns and how one owns. That’s the difference, and it separates feudalism, capitalism, ancient land practices, different socialisms. A biblical example is how the Torah commends the poor to take crops from fields to feed themselves. The produce of the land does not strictly belong to the farmer who planted his crop. Nor does his claim to this land extend to an abstract claim over the space, the labor that went into production etc.

        The rise of global capitalism involved plenty of nobility. Most of the French investors and physiocrats of the 18th century were some form of the nobility. The two are not opposed nor discontinuous.

        Socialism does not mean everything belongs to the state. Some form of Socialism involves this, others don’t. In fact, most forms of Socialism do not involve this. You can look up differences on wikipedia.

        Pure Capitalism creates an illusion of choice. Free markets can decimate national economies, why do you think so many countries opted for some form of state control in the 19th and 20th century? It wasn’t because of a lust for power by a few men, though that’s not necessarily absent. Rather, if a country possesses the capital to out buy, undersell, and wipe out industry, it becomes the capacity of a forced choice. That radically effects all attempts at assessing social and political loyalties and operations.

        If you want to understand the complications of global capitalism, look at the history of the British Empire in Latin America during the 19th century, or try to wrap your mind around the global sugar trade in the early 19th century.

        I say this without malice, you don’t understand what you’re talking about. I understand, I am only beginning to wake up to the reality. It’s like rubbing your eyes after some magic has worn off and you realize you’re not where you think you are. I don’t expect you to believe me, I just hope you don’t write this off as mere ideological babble.

        A sad, tongue-in-cheek, fact, said by others, is that we can imagine the end of the world, with vampires, robots, aliens or zombies, but we can’t imagine the end of capitalism. It’s not because it’s nature, it’s not in the Bible, and there was once a time when it didn’t exist. But the fact that it ‘feels’ that there are no conceivable alternatives should be troubling. Yet all empires tumble, and as men reconciled themselves to an everlasting Roman Empire until the Eschaton, Odoacer bashed down the gates.


  6. yetiwillrejoice says:

    Hi Alastair,

    I loved this post. Thank you for this.

    As someone who has been through the hell of reproductive technology in an effort to battle infertility, I can vouch for its “de-condensing” effect and the way that it alienated me from my own body, from my husband, and from the “embryos” that were our children (whom we lost). I shudder to think that I would be so willing to subject my body to such an industry and that I thought I could come out intact.

    However, the dilemma that some of us women face has to do with the idea expressed in your comments that equates our deepest identity with the physical bearing of children. Oddly enough, it was because the world sentimentalized the having of my “own” baby, while the church implied that my primary identity was based on childbearing, that made reproductive technology seem like my only option. I felt that Christian ethics often left me in a bind by lifting up conception and childbearing as my noblest possible aspiration, while condemning the reproductive technology which was my only means to achieve that goal.

    What has allowed me to break free from reproductive technology is the realization that my glory as a woman is NOT primarily in physical childbearing, but in the motherhood and sisterhood I find as a baptized Christian living in Christian community. A book that helped me reach this realization and consequently break free of the fertility industry was “The Ethics of Everyday Life” by Michael Banner.

    I hope this comment was not too off-topic, but since reproductive technology and child-bearing have been at the forefront of my thoughts lately as I search out God’s will for my life, I thought I’d bring them up since you mentioned them both in your post. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on this.

    • Thank you for sharing these very personal and thought-provoking comments, yetiwillrejoice. Your comment isn’t off topic at all.

      One of the things that your remarks highlight is the powerful instinctive appeal of technological solutions, precisely at those points where nature is a realm of tragedy, insufficiency, suffering, or failure. Genetic engineering of human beings, ectogenesis, and other such developments will almost certainly be introduced chiefly as responses to genuine cases of profound human suffering. Once admitted, however, drawing the line will be incredibly difficult, as will be discerning the cost that their admission will require of our humanity in the long term.

      The same has been the case with reproductive technology. Increasingly, for instance, such technologies are used, not merely to address cases where natural procreation has failed, but to circumvent the natural mode of procreation altogether. Even when they do address cases where natural procreation has failed, they often come with deep moral quandaries and problems. Oliver O’Donovan’s book Begotten or Made? is an important read on this subject. We did a series of podcasts on that book (6, 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16 here) a while back.

      Learning to live with natural failure, tragedy, suffering, and loss is part of what the condense character of humanity might require of us, as your comment suggests. It is important to reckon with the immense power that the appeal of technology has at such moments, because that is chiefly where it will be presented to us.

      A world condense with meaning will not necessarily be a world where all natural ends are realized. On the particular issue of childbearing, it might be helpful to distinguish between women as those who are suited to bring new life and communion into the world, and women as those who bear actual children. Every woman falls into the former category, whereas only some women fall into the latter category. However, the former category cannot be separated from the fact that women are the sort of human being that bears and nurtures children.

      If the end of bearing children becomes all consuming, it is possible to undermine the condense meaning that women represent, by de-condensing the process of procreation and rendering optional their place within it. Even women who don’t actually bear children will cease to have condense meaning as a result.

      Your observation that your glory as a woman is not primarily in physical childbearing, but in the broader exercise of motherhood and sisterhood is important here. The condense meaning of womanhood is not jeopardized in order to achieve the direct end of children, but is retained and accentuated as its meaning is expressed in broader arenas.

      • Clarifying — thank you. In pursuit of the condense life of physical motherhood, I let myself be de-condensed by the fertility industry. Remaining condensed might have meant accepting the limitations of my body. While this is initially painful, it eventually leads to a place of freedom as I operate within God’s will and order for my life. There was an important and very fragile period when I was reeling in shock from learning about my physical limits but had not yet tasted the freedom that was to come to me through obediently living within them. The fertility industry swooped in right as I was in that vulnerable state and offered me a “way out.” I took the bait. I suppose that, as you say, this is what technology is prepared to do at every point of suffering and limitation, and we have to arm ourselves beforehand if we’re going to see clearly in those moments.

        You say: “A world condense with meaning will not necessarily be a world in which all natural ends are realized.” Upholding and celebrating the fact that as women we are the “sorts of human beings who bear and nurture children,” while recognizing that wholeness will not necessarily mean realizing that natural end in my own life has been a challenge for me. The disconnect between how things are designed to be and how they actually turn out has really troubled me as I see it play out in such a pronounced way in this area of my life. Perhaps I will begin to see my world “condense with meaning” again once I realize that the God who designed the natural order and its natural ends is the same God who, in His sovereignty, is limiting me within them. The heart of the Person behind the order and the limits is one and the same, so submission to both of them must lead to liberty and wholeness.

      • Thanks for the follow-up comment, yetiwillrejoice.

        In some respects, situations such as the one you describe, where we experience the painful absence of a natural good present us with the challenge of holding open the site of that absence, rather than rushing to close it up. I’ve touched on this dynamic a bit here in the past.

        As the people of God, we are all called to be present in the sites of absence, tragedy, injustice, and pain, in those places where the failure of the world to achieve the good and the seeming silence of God are most keenly felt. In trust, love, and hope we can inhabit such places, believing, in certain hope of the resurrection of the dead and of a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwell, that God has promised to flood them with his healing goodness.

        This shouldn’t be sentimentalized or romanticized: it is painful, messy, and difficult. However, like the Apostle Paul with his thorn in the side, in these very sites of pain we can often—quite to our surprise!—find the firstfruits of divine promise growing.

        I think of the example of the Ethiopian Eunuch here. The painful absence in his life involved his powerlessness to bear offspring and the fact that death would cut off his name. However, in fulfilment of the promise of Isaiah 56:3-5, the very fatherhood that represented the site of absence in his life, become the site of divine filling. The Ethiopian Eunuch is remembered today precisely as the father of the Church in Ethiopia. In a similar manner, probably the most famous ‘mother’ of our lifetime—Mother Teresa—never had any biological children of her own. In both cases, the natural gendered gift of fittedness for fatherhood or motherhood was practically realized, not in natural offspring, but through the elevation of that capacity into a more eminent spiritual form within the non-biological family of God.

        There is a scene in the film Babette’s Feast, which I particularly like, which expresses something of what it means when the sheer goodness and grace of God floods into those deep and painful absences in our lives, absences with which we may have tarried for decades. The general speaks of awaiting God’s infinite mercy with confidence and receiving it with gratitude. Within such a posture, I believe that we may discover things about the goodness of God that others may never know.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      Hello yetiwillreoice,
      I pray that God will continue to comfort you, encourage you, strengthen you and guide you as you obediently follow His will in a life which is so different from what you once hoped.
      As I typed out your name, ‘yetiwillrejoice’, I realised that, despite your painful and difficult circumstances, you still know the joy of His salvation.

  7. Physiocrat1 says:

    As ever an interesting piece highlighting the costs of the decondensation however your point about technology replacing jobs and lowering wages is entirely off base. The main way that humans have become richer is because of an increase in capital- it’s why Africa in general is poor and the West is rich: we have far, far more capital (capital defined here as a mix of land in it’s unimproved state with labour in the form a physical artifact – in most cases capital in conflated with technology where the latter is better described as a recipe for mixing land and labour). Thus the greater amount of capital the more physically productive labour becomes which increases wages. Further, new technology is not hard to use, compare computers in the 80s with now, so I fail to see why lower skilled workers will not be able to integrate this in their future jobs. Also if you were in 1800 and write down all the possible jobs that could exist and look at them now, they would seem pitifully small. Capital liberates labour to satisfy other human wants.

    However I do agree that many workers are alienated from their work at present and do incredibly menial jobs, but this is not because of capital. It is due to the myriad of regulations and taxes which increase the minimum efficient scale of production thus reducing the number of firms in the market which reduces the demand for labour, giving them smaller bargaining power and thus worse jobs. In the absence of these barriers to entry smaller firms and self-employment would be greater giving a greater sense of purpose to the worker. On a related point it is no surprise that income inequality begins to significantly widen after the world leaves the last vestige of the Gold Standard in 1971.

    In regards the effect of capital on women it has made it easier for them to work outside the home but this is made massively cheaper due to the state funded education system and also more necessary to the relatively weaker earning power of their husband- my wife stop working outside the home when our first child was born and all the other young mothers said they’d want to remain home but couldn’t afford to (now there’s a mix of standard of living expectation here too but you see the point).

    Out of interest what are the major influences on your views of economics?

    • Capital can liberate labour to serve other human wants. However, it can also decrease the value of labour and price it out of the market. Capital has already dramatically decreased employment in manufacturing, construction, agriculture, extraction, and logistics. Those people have moved to other parts of the economy, to retail, service, care, etc. Yet those fields cannot expand without limit and the more labour moves into them, the less valuable labour becomes.

      Furthermore, there comes a point in many areas where labour is simply priced out of the market. MacDonalds is now rolling out automated self-service restaurants. Even the cheapest labour is too expensive to compete in such a situation. Increasingly, computers and robots can do pretty much anything a human can do, and considerably cheaper. The market that exists for those things that necessitate uniquely human abilities is becoming smaller. While capital hugely empowers labour at certain stages of development, it simply cannot do so indefinitely. At a point the demand for human labour reaches saturation and then starts to diminish as ever more advanced machines are developed that can outperform human beings in the jobs that still remain to us.

      While some of the things that you mention account for a decrease in the power of and demand for labour, it wouldn’t solve the underlying problem. Besides, there are more government jobs in the US than there are jobs in manufacturing, mining, construction, and agriculture combined. The busywork of bureaucracy may be doing its bit for the economy here…! I jest, but small businesses will increasingly face difficulties that aren’t merely bureaucratic. Ever more efficient and versatile big scale businesses are squeezing out many of the former niches of small businesses.

      Back in the day I used to be into libertarian and classical liberal economics. I read most of the work of people such as Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek, and Henry Hazlitt. However, the cracks soon started to appear as I brought their thought into dialogue with my broader reading on subjects such as cultural anthropology, history, psychology, etc. My current position on economics has moved a long way from that and much more towards the left.

    • mnpetersen37 says:

      It’s also worth pointing out that part of Europe and N. America’s prosperity is the ability to appropriate foreign land and labor for domestic consumption. I’d have to look up the papers again, but something like 90% of German and UK land use (timber, crops, animal agriculture) is foreign; and during the 1800’s England traded labor-for-labor and land-for-land at an extreme advantage, England even imported grain from India during a devastating Indian famine.

      These material processes were largely invisible to the average Englishman and are largely invisible to people today, so I’m not assigning blame, but questioning the claim that Capital, simpliciter, is the cause of prosperity. Prosperity is, at least in large part, the result of foreign land and labor appropriation.

      • Physiocrat1 says:

        I’m wasn’t meaning to say that capital is the sole cause of increased physical productivity but that in the aggregate more capital (assuming a constant labour supply) always increases physical productivity and thus wages.

        Increased capital accumulation is one of three ways to increase physical productivity. The other two are increases in human skills and the other as you point out is finding new resources (land in the strict econ sense)

        I think in the grand scheme of things the discovery of new resources is over emphasised, note Africa being resource rich but on the whole is a basket case. Human skill in some respects is not as important as capital since if we were to go back to the stone age and we could find the theoretically greatest possibly skilled axe head maker he would only make axe heads as they lack the capital to free him to do something else.

      • mnpetersen37 says:

        There are 1,157,596,165 hectares of crop-, timber-, and graze-land used in Sub-Saharan Africa. The fruit of 1,002,824,826 of these are used in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the fruit of an additional 32,185,034 are imported from outside Sub-Saharan Africa. So 97% of the fruit of the land consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa is the fruit of Sub-Saharan African lands. (Compare this to Germany, where 13% of the fruit consumed is the fruit of German land, the UK, where 20% is, or Japan where 8% is.)

        On the other hand, the fruit of 154,771,339 hectares is exported outside Sub-Saharan Africa (13% of its land)–effectively, Sub-Saharan Africa pays a tribute of a tithe of its land to the rest of the world.

        EU-17 consumption is responsible for 16% of total global land use; US consumption, for 13%; the US occupies 1.91% of the world’s land; The EU-17 0.85% of the world’s land.

        This isn’t “finding new resources”, but “taking their resources for our enjoyment.” And, I would submit, this difference goes a long way to explaining the differential prosperity, and is itself a major factor in need of explanation. (This is just one example. If we look, for instance, to oil consumption, we would see a similar pattern.) If we just state the difference in terms of Capital, without asking about the power to appropriate foreign land, or the power to appropriate domestic land, we miss a huge portion of the difference.

      • I agree that this is a very important factor. However, the significance of developments in agricultural technology, genetic developments in crops, developments in food storage and transportation, etc., etc. really shouldn’t be understated. Their effect has been immense and truly remarkable. There is no comparison between the amount of food that arable land can produce now and that which it produced in the past. And the minimal level of labour required for such vast output is significant too.

        Nor should we neglect the significance of the way that new resources have to be discovered through advanced scientific and engineering methods and through discovery of resources’ properties and how to harness them. Oil was worth nothing before the vast work of scientific and technological discovery that, chiefly, the Western world has expended upon it.

        None of the above justifies the injustices and damage done to Africa by the West’s imposition or encouragement of vast monocultures, economies based upon extraction of key resources, etc. Much of this damage doesn’t involve direct violence on the West’s part, although it indirectly provokes much violence on the ground. Rather, it is the vast unsettling effect of capitalism’s spread, which transforms people within traditional subsistence economies into precarious and disempowered dependants on global economies, run for others’ benefits. Again, much of the problem here is the way that capitalism destroys and overruns niches of life, opening them up to a wider ecosystem that radically disrupts the conditions for healthy community and selfhood.

      • mnpetersen37 says:

        I more or less agree. I’m sketching the material reality that is partially explanatory, but which is, in turn, in need of explanation; and that I don’t think physiocrat’s analysis can explain. (Though perhaps I could be surprised.)

        The one point I’d add is that in addition to increasing yield, modern technologies have, it seems, to have created unequal exchanges of labor and embodied land (all trade is labor and land for labor and land; but some nations trade labor at a loss). Focusing on increased productivity alone occludes that inequity, and perhaps in part leads to ridiculous technological fixes that don’t address underlying factors.

      • Yes, I can agree with much of that. Part of the problem here is that, to a great extent, what causes much of this is just capitalism functioning as normal. The unrestrained market has a sort of commonsensical justice to many people. Recognizing the injustice of some situations in Africa and elsewhere requires recognition of the injustices of the free market, the same free market that is a bedrock economic commitment for many, a commitment that drinks deeply of a sense of justice and fairness.

  8. Physiocrat1 says:

    “Capital can liberate labour to serve other human wants. However, it can also decrease the value of labour and price it out of the market. Capital has already dramatically decreased employment in manufacturing, construction, agriculture, extraction, and logistics. Those people have moved to other parts of the economy, to retail, service, care, etc. Yet those fields cannot expand without limit and the more labour moves into them, the less valuable labour becomes.”

    Clearly increases in labour supply will decrease wages however if capital also increases in those sectors the effects wages is indeterminate.

    “Furthermore, there comes a point in many areas where labour is simply priced out of the market. MacDonalds is now rolling out automated self-service restaurants. Even the cheapest labour is too expensive to compete in such a situation.”

    This phenomenon is in part due to minimum wage laws which firms from hiring low skilled workers so they capitalise instead; it is also due to the absurd child labour laws – in their absence children who are likely to do nothing of value in the educations system could be learning genuine job skills and being paid.

    “Increasingly, computers and robots can do pretty much anything a human can do, and considerably cheaper. The market that exists for those things that necessitate uniquely human abilities is becoming smaller.”

    I would agree if AI is possible but I don’t think it is since the only way you can tell a computer is working is if a human decides it is – the successful functioning of computers depends on humans unlike say a lion. As such humans will always provide different skills. According to a guest on an Econ Talk podcast, a computer always beats a human at chess now however a master chess player with a computer always beats the computer. The skill sets are complementary not antagonistic.

    “While some of the things that you mention account for a decrease in the power of and demand for labour, it wouldn’t solve the underlying problem. Besides, there are more government jobs in the US than there are jobs in manufacturing, mining, construction, and agriculture combined. The busywork of bureaucracy may be doing its bit for the economy here…! I jest, but small businesses will increasingly face difficulties that aren’t merely bureaucratic. Ever more efficient and versatile big scale businesses are squeezing out many of the former niches of small businesses.”

    I think you are grossly underestimating the role the government’s hand has in manipulating the current system. Large scale businesses have huge direct and indirect subsidies: the free highway system decreases the costs of long distance delivery, government underwiritng of shipping insurance contracts, third party limited liability laws (this is massive with large firms), implicit bailouts of financial institutions, licencing laws (this is also a problem in the legal sphere which reduces the power of small firms and individuals to bring tort cases), hugely complex tax systems which make it viable for large firms to dedicate an entire department to circumvent it, intellectual property laws, fiat currency, large scale immigration etc. I think you may find the work of Kevin Carson of interest. He’s an advocate of what he calls free market anti-capitalism – he’s a mutualist. He thinks in a freed market the economy would become more localised with independently owned firms with most people out of wage slavery. I’m not a mutualist but he is certainly good at pointing out the level of intervention in the present system.

    Another work of interest is the Triumph of Conservatism by the Marxist historian Gabriel Kolko in which Kolko argues that between 1900-1916 it was businesses themselves which agitated the government for regulation to protect their own profits.

    “Back in the day I used to be into libertarian and classical liberal economics. I read most of the work of people such as Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek, and Henry Hazlitt. However, the cracks soon started to appear as I brought their thought into dialogue with my broader reading on subjects such as cultural anthropology, history, psychology, etc. My current position on economics has moved a long way from that and much more towards the left.”

    I don’t see economics as in conflict within other disciplines when understood correctly. Did you read Mises/ Rothbard on Econ methodology? In the Austrian view all econ states is that if you choose A it implies B. It doesn’t intend to be predictive nor prescriptive of what you should choose so calling it libertarian economics is a conflation of an ethical system and a descriptive one. You could hold an Austrian Econ position but still want to live in a commune. On another note to characterise free markets as valuing choice overall is mistaken – all it claims is that voluntary exchanges should not be violently prohibited.

    • Capital increases in certain sectors can increase wages, but this tends to involve decreasing jobs within that same sector. One man can now do the work that used to be done by a hundred men. Many of those men can move into work in other sectors, but there isn’t an unlimited demand for labour.

      Labour is costly. We must sustain ourselves with food, clothing, housing, healthcare, etc. There is a wage floor beyond which labour cannot sustain itself. There is a certain elasticity to wages, which is why well-framed minimum wage laws have a place, as governments protect the most marginal workers from predatory employers. Raising minimum wages will typically decrease the demand for labour, but it protects labour from exploitative employment.

      Education policies and child labour laws are designed in part to raise the value of labour. It also performs various social ends, which increase people’s subjective well-being, agency, and social integration. There are all sorts of problems in the education system, but the problems with normalizing child labour are considerably greater.

      Humans can oversee computers and robots. However, overseeing computers and robots typically requires very few humans. A further problem is that human beings are very poor at overseeing, especially when something functions perfectly 99.999% of the time. We lose attention, we dismiss warning signs, etc. Most of the time automated warning and regulatory systems do a much better job than we could.

      Humans can currently provide some skills that computers can’t. However, these skills tend to be rarer. A master chess player with a computer may be able to beat a computer, but a regular chess player wouldn’t be able to do so. Besides, how much marginal value does employing the master chess player to assist your computer actually give? And for how much longer? Also, the skills that are more particular to human beings are often not the most efficient skills with which to perform the tasks for which we currently employ them. AI doesn’t have to imitate human skills to outperform human skills.

      Oh, I don’t deny the government’s hand in the current system. I just don’t have anything like the principled suspicion of government that many do. Government is the best means that we have of solving problems of collective action and the market and economy present numerous such problems for which government is necessary. I am wary of excessively large or intrusive government, but we really do need appropriate levels of government for a just society.

      Government involvement in the economy has often been deleterious and misguided: here I would agree with many libertarians’ assessment of specific policies. However, we need wiser government creation and regulation of economies, not the removal of the government from the economy. A free market is often destructive of a free society and governments should regulate economies to ensure that the interests of human society and justice are prioritized.

      I’ve read practically everything Mises and Rothbard wrote at some point or other, tomes and tomes of their stuff. There is definitely some helpful stuff in them about the logic of human exchange and markets. However, their approach tends in more than simply a descriptive direction, something that is definitely on display in many of their followers. Furthermore, there is a general failure in their work to take the factor of humanity seriously, which compromises so much that they have to say. Human beings are not rational economic actors, nor are their primary interests economic. Theories that fail to attend closely to these human realities when thinking about economics are fatally flawed. Human beings have power differentials, desires higher up Maslow’s Pyramid, an interwoven order of signs and symbols that structures broader social belonging, psychological instincts and impulses, gender, a deep natural inclination for forms of gift exchange, complex notions of property, identities that aren’t individual and atomistic, etc., etc., etc. When subjected to close examination, the key units of analysis (individual economic agents, human wills, pieces of property, money, exchanges, etc.) within Austrian economics start to crumble on account of their failure to wrestle with the actual character of human nature and society.

      • cal says:

        I think a gross misunderstand is that somehow free-markets viz. the Capitalist model are somehow naturally opposed, and decay, when pitted with some form of State or public-based government. But that is almost never the case. One sees what is being called Asian-Style Capitalism growing by leaps and bounds through the State’s ability to direct national industries into the global market. And industries have many times prospered immensely from working within the confines of government protection. The primary beacon of global Capitalism, Great Britain, was always wrapped up in the use of the nation. It sure as hell is good for sales if companies can sell goods, import/export, or accumulate capital when they have the world’s strongest navy making sure trade lanes are secure. And in the context of “free” elections, investment in the nation will win you seats at the levers of political power.

        In this vein, it’s not odd or contradictory that the Pinochet military Junta sought to import Thatcherite economics and invited Austrian/Chicago school guys to set up flagging markets. Rather than fight the tide, he knew where his guns were coming from. Sometimes it’s a safer move to be secure your place as a Satrap, rather than break free from an imperial matrix completely.

        It’s for this reason why some branches of Socialism advocate for the ‘freed’ market, which can only be done through abolition of private ownership of the means of production. But even as this might provide a healthier alternative, on a global scale, it is impossible to implement. Yet, conceptually, its possibility remains an imaginative alternative. At least, at an individual level, cutting away at Capitalism as the default of reality, it might shake you up to accept Biblical commandments regarding wealth and ownership to reorient how you live. But it’s a hard road when the Emperor constantly demands incense for his idols and the equivalent of Antiochus Epiphanious sacrifices pigs in Holy Jerusalem.


      • I’m presuming that this comment isn’t in response to me, as I agree with most of what you say here. The state has historically been perhaps the greatest engine of capitalism, capturing, establishing, and securing new markets, promoting capitalization on a level that private capital couldn’t afford, pushing the population into the capitalist market, raising the quality of labour for explicitly economic ends, etc. This is before we even start to attend to the way that money works.

  9. quinnjones2 says:

    Just one thought about ways in which technology impacts on family life other than via the work-force. I love family Christmas gatherings when we have an ‘amnesty’ on mobile phones, ipods, laptops, videos, TV et al, and play some common or garden games such as charades, pick-up sticks, pass the parcel (with forfeits), jenga and even tiddlywinks 🙂

  10. quinnjones2 says:

    I have been following the conversations between Alastair, Cal, Physiocrat and Andrew with interest from a position of being one who has just rudimentary knowledge and understanding of capitalism and socialism. My rudimentary understanding is that wealth, whether acquired through commerce, inheritance or spoils won in historic battles and wars, means power, and power can be used justly or unjustly. On my mind now are ways in which people respond to what they perceive as abuse of power:
    -refusing to subordinate themselves to the orders of rulers, even when refusal can result in being put to death – such as OT Daniel
    – mass rebellion, such as the French Revolution and more recently Brexit and Trumpism
    – subversive behaviour, such as that of the legendary Robin Hood
    I attend an NT Greek class and we are currently studying the Old Greek version of Esther, which, as a relatively new student of Greek, I find both challenging and fascinating. Many things that appal us nowadays seemed to be just par for the course in the reign of Artaxerxes- for instance the two eunuchs who plotted to kill the king were dismissed in the text in one short sentence: ‘So the king interrogated the two eunuchs and hanged them.’ (So that’s them sorted – let’s move on!)
    Having said all this, I still don’t know how we can sustain our sanctity as human beings while the sometimes good, but often insidious ‘god’ of technology infiltrates our lives. However, I shall keep reading your comments, and thank you again, Alastair, for your article.

  11. Physiocrat1 says:

    “Capital increases in certain sectors can increase wages, but this tends to involve decreasing jobs within that same sector. One man can now do the work that used to be done by a hundred men. Many of those men can move into work in other sectors, but there isn’t an unlimited demand for labour.”

    Demand as such is determined by supply since without a supply of something you literally have nothing with which to demand – Say’s Law. In regards labour demand there will always be labour demand if a labourer can produce marginally more than the money they bring into the firm.

    Re min wage and child labour laws. Your major claim was that capital is better than low skilled workers and ultimately capital would replace them. I then cite a different reason (min wage and child labour) why they are replaced and you say that it is a good thing.

    Re-chess and computers. That example was illustrative of why computers and humans have complementary skill sets. This was the podcast I listened to regarding the competancy of machines which is definitely worth a listen.

    It resonated with me since it acknowledged the good of technology but implicitly retaining the unassailable ontological differences between man and machine that I outlined above. A fully AI future will never exist although a heavily cyborg one will.

    Now I can’t point out in each individual instance what a low skilled worker could do if his job is automated however I couldn’t have told you what the farmer could have done when the factories replaced his job. What I know historically is that human ingenuity is vast and new lines of work always come into existence. Further I don’t see an categorical difference between the present technology change and that of the past.

    Re- free markets- why exactly are free markets destructive? To preempt a response at least in the last hundred or so years the market has been as free as black pudding is kosher.

    Re-Mises and Rothbard- They certainly go beyond Austrian econ and into libertarian theory in their writings however the Austrian econ does not depend upon the libertarian theory. The reason I brought up methodology was that most of the corpus of Austrian econ rests on the axiom that individual humans act and the subsidiary postulate of the disutility of labour. Action defined as using means to achieve ends. This cannot be refuted as it would imply a performative contradiction. The only question is which human behaviour is purposeful. Mises was at pains to point out this is not a rational economic man in the neo-classical sense. Actions we would consider irrational are purposeful- for example man buying a mattress and immediately selling it for a lower price. His end could be making a philosophical point that ends constantly change. In a similar vein Rothbard is clear in Man, Economy and State that what humans intend to maximise is psychic revenue which depends entirely on their own ends, not just monetary income. None of this basic methodology is at odds with anthropology etc. Mises clearly sees this in his work Theory and History in which he identifies the importance of the complementary discipline he calls thymology, essential psychology, which explains why humans have the particular ends that they actually have.

    Re-government intervention. I brought it up because your claim seemed to be that if you leave markets alone huge businesses will effectively take over and crush everyone else. I then pointed out a myriad of ways the government increases the minimum efficient scale of production which concentrates markets. So do you think in the absence of the interventions I highlighted large firms would still control the market (whether or not you think the trade off for other social outcomes is worth it)

    I do agree with you we need better government but how is the best to do it. Having an organisation which threatens any other firm from entering the market with violence is an organisation which will perform badly as it doesn’t need to as it will still receive business. This organisation will be even worse if it can forcibly externalise the costs of its action on to others. Now let’s assume we have a benevolent wise government which governs well but exhibits these characteristics, the question is does it need them to function well? If it was so good surely another organisation that entered the market would fail as it would be less good so the restrictions on entry and forcible payment would then be unnecessary. In addition the restrictions on entry could be massively abused so surely the best way to have wise governance is a situation of freedom on entry to the market?

    @quinnjones- I agree historically some groups have become rich at the expense of others. The question is though what produced the wealth to steal in the first place. That is what I was attempting to address before.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      Hi Physiocrat1 ‘What produced the wealth to steal in the first place?’ I can think of some sources of wealth which have been been mined from beneath the earth’s surface- gold, diamonds, coal etc (and also North Sea Gas). I also think that oil has been, and still is, a significant factor in our relationships with oil-rich countries. As I’ve already said, I don’t know much about capitalism, but I think part of it is about some people taking much of the profit from the labour of others? What gave them the power to do this, I do not know. There seems to be an upward spiral for some and a downward spiral for others!

      • quinnjones2 says:

        North Sea Gas?! What was I thinking of! I meant, of course, North Sea Oil.
        But I just did a search and discovered that there is such as thing as North Sea Gas – it’s a music group that originated in Edinburgh 🙂

      • Physiocrat1 says:

        Hi quinnjones2,

        Natural resources are ultimately where all resources come from but they need to be extracted which in anything other than a very crude method requires forms of capital. That’s why I made the point about finding new resources per se is not that important.

        Before we discuss taking profit from labour we have to first ascertain what the actual value of labour is. If we assume a profit making business they will pay up to how much the worker brings in. If the additional worker brings in £10 an hour no firm will deliberately pay more than £10 an hour as the firm would make a loss. The next question is what determines how much the worker brings in? It is two fold- how much extra physical output the worker produces multiplied by how much it can be sold for. In technical econ speak it is the marginal physical productivity multiplied by the price yielding the key concept, marginal revenue product.

        What determines then determines the maximum price at which the product is sold? Marx believed a product had value to the extent to which labour was needed to produce it. This is how he and the classical economist David Ricardo came to solve the Diamond Water paradox: how can it be that water is so cheap but yet so useful in comparison to diamonds yet the latter sells for such a high price? Ricardo’s answer was the amount of labour put into it. There are two problems here: firstly, why would anyone dig diamonds out of the ground in the first place?; secondly, I could spend two years on a painting and it would sell for far less than what a quick sketch by Leonardo Da Vinci would sell for. So the labour value theory should be rejected and thus any notions of surplus value- the idea that the entrepreneur’s profits are merely what he should have paid to his workers as they, in a metaphysical sense, created that value,

        The solution to the Diamond Water Paradox is twofold: subject value and marginalism. Firstly, value for exchange merely comes into being due to the subject value of the economic actor- for whatever reason people like diamonds and consider them valuable. Secondly we need to consider discrete units and not goods as a whole. If we only had one unit of water and one unit of diamonds the former would be worth far more than the latter as it would satisfy a much more highly valued goal, drinking. As you increase your supply of a particular good the marginal value of extra units fall as they achieve lower valued ends such as washing. Thus the reasons why water is so cheap is due to its abundant supply so the extra unit you obtain is worth very little.

        So since value is subject there is nothing objective that the entrepreneur can steal from workers. Thus voluntary exchange is not inherently exploitative, in fact it is likely to be welfare enhancing since neither party would agree on a contract if it wasn’t in their interests to do so.

        So how do we get an inequality? Well we’d expect a natural inequality as a result of different choices and innate abilities. If everyone began with a pound but the all wanted to pay to watch me as a stand-up comic and bought tickets with a pound I would be rather rich and they would not- however, they must have valued the ticket more than around otherwise they would not have bought them.

        Yet we have far more of an inequality than I’d expect. Historically violence and the threat thereof obvious transfers wealth from one to the other. In today’s markets though the barriers to entry (which I mentioned in response to Alastair) which prevent small scale businesses reduce the alternative routes of employments and thus the bargaining power of workers. For example, during the industrial revolution workers had to settle for relatively low wages since they were kicked off the common land during the enclosures. So if a worker could earn £10 on the land he could negotiate his wage upward in the towns however been forced off the land meant he accepted any wage that kept him alive. Yet by far the most problematic aspect of our present system is that of money and banking. Ever since the US left the last remnants of the gold standard income inequality has soared since it allows the government to increase the money supply ad infinitum.

        Suppose you had a printing press in your basement and you printed £1m. You could go out and buy more products without their prices increasing. Thus you are made better off as does, say the car retailer, who now has a greater income. However the increased incomes will lead to increases in demand and thus prices. So as the money circulates the prices increase and does money income. Yet, the purchasing power of each pound is falling. We then reach the middle man whose money income increases by the same as the prices he pays and is made neither better nor worse off. After this however the latter receivers face proportionally higher prices than the increase int heir money income. Effectively then increasing the money supply enriches the first receivers at the expense of the later receivers. Who can effectively increase the money supply, the government and commercial banks (by the practice of fractional reserve banking). This also destroys savings and forces people into the stock market to make a return on their money as otherwise the £10 you saved under your bed today would likely be worth as much as 10p now in 40 years.

        Why then do we use government money? Legal tender laws. We have to accept them in payments of debt. If I contracted to pay you an 1oz of gold for a good I could force you to accept the present equivalent in paper money and this would be upheld in courts. Obviously you preferred gold otherwise we would not have contracted in it. Thus legal tender laws ensure poor money stays in circulation. The biggest boon to everyone’s lives would be the repeal of legal tender laws and allow people to use whatever currency they wished and for contracts to be upheld in courts. This way the present funny money would no longer be used and we’d have a far higher quality and more equitable money system.

        Finally, the present economic system is far from a free market- government spending as a proportion of GDP is over 40% and it tries to increase its scope day by day.

        That was longer than expected but hope you find it informative.


      • quinnjones2 says:

        Physio – thank you. Yes, what you wrote is informative for me and also thought- provoking. I have never made a study of economics but I have, of necessity, become quite a dab-hand at balancing my own budget at home and I have taken an interest in what I think of as ‘market forces’ to some extent out of self-interest.
        When I read what you wrote about the Diamond Water paradox I thought about rarity value – diamonds themselves are more rare than water, and the skills required for cutting diamonds are more rare than the skills required for the water industry (if I can call it ‘industry’) so higher-skilled workers will be paid more than lower-skilled and this will be reflected in the costs of commodities etc. On a small local scale I was aware of ‘rarity value’ before the days of ever-open supermarkets, when most shops closed at 5.30 p.m. If we needed anything in the evening we could go to the corner shop which was open until 10.00 p.m. – and we paid for the privilege! Once when I was in this shop another customer, when told the price of a particular item, said that he could get it in the supermarket for half that price. The shopowner said, ‘But the supermarket is closed now. If you want this item you can have it – at this price.’ In this example the item itself had no rarity value, but its availability at that time had rarity value and the shopowner took full advantage of this. With items which bore no RRP label he charged as much as he thought he could get away with, and he seemed to get away with quite a lot! He had a monopoly over evening shopping in our locality. We all knew the score and most of us had no complaint about paying extra for the privilege of occasional late shopping.
        I don’t know much about monopolies in general but I suspect that they could result in considerable injustice?
        Afterthought – I realise that rarity and desirability do not always go hand in hand, and that rarity, of itself, does not necessarily have high market value.

    • This will be my last comment in this thread, and I’ll have to keep it relatively brief.

      There may remain a demand for labour, but for how much labour, and how precarious will labour be? Minimum wage and child labour laws exist for the most marginal of workers. And here is part of the problem. If the problem of low demand for labour can only properly be addressed by lowering the standards of well-being for the most marginal of workers, then clearly the system is broken somehow.

      Computers and humans may have complementary skill sets, but for how much longer, and for what percentage of the human population? As I asked, what percentage of human beings have skills that could complement a top chess-playing computer? We would seem to be dealing with increasingly rare cases.

      You seem to be implicitly characterizing my argument as presenting extreme claims, rather than wrestling with the more moderate claims I am actually making. I am not actually arguing for a fully AI future. All that is needed for truly catastrophic effect on the labour market is for robots and AI to start to dominate several areas of labour. Likely within the next couple of decades, robots will revolutionize the construction industry. Our buildings will be built by robots, rather than by humans. This is already visible on the horizon. The construction workers will need to find work elsewhere. Where exactly? They probably aren’t naturally suited for the caring professions. Their physical strength will count for a lot less in other sectors too.

      Human ingenuity is great, but it needs material to work with. We are rapidly narrowing the areas in which human beings can offer something that machines cannot. And this area is considerably narrower for some than others. It really doesn’t follow from the fact that farmers could move to other areas of work in the past that new jobs will be opening up for them. If you fail to see clear differences between present forms of technological change and those of the past, I would strongly advise you to look more closely.

      Free markets are chiefly destructive of social realities that rely upon friction for their survival. Free movement of people, for instance, which is one form of free market, is deeply destructive of place. The market doesn’t just allow for such movement, but actively drives it. The technological change that we are currently experiencing is immensely rapid and not about to slow down any time soon. Each change in a sector disrupts jobs. The construction worker may find a new job, but he will probably first lose his old work, spend time depending upon the welfare system, have to uproot his family and move to a new location, etc. The increased pace of job change leads to fractured communities, people left behind by progress, languishing in crime, depression, illness, alcoholism, and drug abuse. The free market can be of the most socially destructive forces of all. It collapses every niche of community into one vast system of exchange. It imposes a pace of life and change upon human society that is destructive of the natural rhythms and patterns of healthy social life. It treats people like products to be moved around for profit. It will happily leave communities to die if they can’t compete.

      Human beings don’t always act towards ends. Human action is much more complicated than that. Also, any system built around the individual as the fundamental unit of examination really will be limited in its explanatory power. We can only begin to understand property, persons, exchange, markets, etc. adequately when we appreciate that human beings are irreducibly social and intervolved beings.

      On the subject of government, it is important to get beyond the notion of some incompatibility between the logic of capitalism and the logic of government. They really do belong together and typically reinforce each other. The idea of government ‘intervention’ in some otherwise pure capitalist system is an unhelpful myth that is insufficiently attentive to history. My concerns really aren’t limited to huge businesses. That said, allowing for more small businesses to operate at the ever decreasing and precarious margins really makes little difference in the long run.

      Our economies largely serve those needs of ours that exist near the bottom of Maslow’s Pyramid. One of the things that government should do is to protect the structures that serve higher up goods from erosion or disruption by the market. Diminished choice and economic activity will be a result, but these are worth limiting for far more basic goods.

      Free markets and maximization of choice simply do not tend to produce healthy societies. Edmund Burke must be attended to on this point:

      Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves, and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.

      Limiting the scope of the ‘free’ market is necessary if we are to create a free society.

  12. Eric Kyte says:

    Hi Alastair – too late for a response, I see which is unusual as the day starts here in New Zealand so we’re usually first 🙂 Just a passing comment, which is I am interested to see what I take to be a reference to Wendell Berry in the first comment??? My observation as I have got used to reading your work (which I find really helpful) is that he would make a good dialoguing partner. Reading much of what you write, he was sayinf similar things 20 or 30 years ago, although the narrative has moved very rapidly since then as we live within the Great Acceleration that is at once also the great Disintegration or Decondensation (I like this phrase 🙂 )

    Briefly – meaningful work – I think we left this a long time ago – as Berry would have it, we have jobs now. i.e. means of attaining income that we might participate in the economy ( a word which of course once meant, what went on in the home). (Have you read Guy Debord? Society of the Spectacle??) To my mind, following and developing Berry, meaningful work is that labour within a human sized context (local community) where what I do can be acknowledged as benefiting those whom also work to my benefit. (As a priest in the church this might be a rather self serving argument as my ‘work’ is initimately woven into the fabric of the community I serve, and who in their way serve me – but in a world which sees ‘ministry’ as an irrelevance it is an interesting thought)

    Second – the decondensation – and here I admit to not having read the article to which you refer, seems to me to be primarily to do with the collapse of Community – i.e the space of meaningful shared existence, that is visible and acknowledged interdependence. This decondensed mind set runs so very very deep in our culture – I was most interested a few weeks ago to read a report from some church body or other complaining about the radical changes to benefits. Whilst I had signinficant agreement with what was said, what struck me was the phrase ‘increasingly people are being thrown back on being dependent on friends and family for support’ – to which I could only respond, ‘Why on earth is that a bad thing? Surely it is the meaning of friends and family (and by extension, community) The Decondensation has invaded the realm of thought and discourse . . .

    Blessings on your endeavours!


    • Thanks for the comment, Eric!

      Yes, people like Berry have a lot to say to the current moment. Also other older writers such as Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich. I’ve read Debord. I’ve briefly discussed his relevance in pieces like this.

      The de-condensation has a great deal to do with the loss of community, but it cannot be reduced to that. It is the loss of a broader integration, weakening our ties not only with each other, but also with the creation, our labour, and our very selves. On the point about dependence upon family and friends for support, there can definitely be something healthy to that in principle. However, while radical independence is unhealthy, so is radical dependency. Healthy interdependence involves both reliance upon others and enjoyment of meaningful agency that enables others to rely upon you. Loss of the latter is a serious loss indeed.

      • Eric says:

        I can’t disagree 🙂 Especially with regard to Interdependence. (Matthew Crawford on Autonomy and agency is interesting, although I think he operates from a highly individualised paradigm) I tend to work on a fairly simple schema – that any ‘problem’ can be understood primarily in terms of the end of the relationship with God, (Vertical) which then collapses the horizontal – relationships with one another and the Creation. That Human relating and worship of God is at the Centre – so ‘Community’ is in a deep sense what it is all about (or more specifically ‘Church’) So Church is paradigmatic human community, the Body of Christ (and Yes I know we FAIL in this regard 🙂 or should that be 😦 ), and this community is called into a relationship of mutual interdependence with the wider created order (which from my tradition is rooted in the Sacraments as Locus and paradigm within the Body) SO in a sort of agreeing but disagreeing response, I don’t see it so much as a ‘reducing it to’ Community, but rather that Community is the hub from which either flows life and connectedness or, disintegration. In other words I try and work from an integrative framework in which all things do co-inhere (Colossians 1:15 et seq) – that to use your words, there is a broader disintegration, but that of human-divine and human-human relating is the heart of it, and its source. (Or, to put it as I am more and more tending to do, The Church is far more significant than we tend to think)

        BTW – thanks for staying up so late!! (Most of our family are still in the UK so we are very used to talking to ourselves at this hour! 🙂 ) Pax et bonum

      • Ha! I’m often up until three or four in the morning. This isn’t early for me. 🙂

  13. Physiocrat1 says:

    “You seem to be implicitly characterizing my argument as presenting extreme claims, rather than wrestling with the more moderate claims I am actually making. I am not actually arguing for a fully AI future”

    I wasn’t claiming you thought we’d go to a fully AI future. My point was in the absence of true AI I don’t see a qualitative difference between the technological change at present and that of the past beyond the pace of change.

    Your characterisation of free markets is unduly narrow. The Amish are in fact a very good example of a free market- it is a voluntary agreement amongst families to live in accordance with certain rules and to live under the authority of the elders. They can however leave without the threat of violence. All free markets advocates is freedom of association. As an aside there is a libertarian argument against free movement especially that of immigration.

    Free movement- Under Hoppe’s view, if all land is private so to move between different areas requires the consent of the property owners. With the existence of government land however this ceases to be the case and further this movement is also subsidised by the welfare state. How who should be considered the owner of government land, well the taxpayer since it was their money which was used by the state to secure it. Thus immigration to be approaching voluntary must have the agreement of at least one taxpayer (the immigrant must be invited). Further, the situation is akin to a residential golf club and an immigrant is a guest (unless of course he purchases residential property which would indicate voluntary immigration)- thus the invitee must makes sure he imposes no costs on the other members so would need to assume responsibility of his ensure cost including any criminal damage by the guest. It is clear then that the present immigration system bears very little resemblance to this and thus can accurately be described as forced integration.

    “Human beings don’t always act towards ends. Human action is much more complicated than that. Also, any system built around the individual as the fundamental unit of examination really will be limited in its explanatory power. We can only begin to understand property, persons, exchange, markets, etc. adequately when we appreciate that human beings are irreducibly social and intervolved beings.”

    All conscious action and I’d argue habituated action is purposeful and if it is purposeful it aims at achieving an end. Economics clearly does not explain all aspects of human behaviour but it doesn’t intend to. The point is, is it correct over the area in which it claims authority.

    “On the subject of government, it is important to get beyond the notion of some incompatibility between the logic of capitalism and the logic of government. They really do belong together and typically reinforce each other. The idea of government ‘intervention’ in some otherwise pure capitalist system is an unhelpful myth that is insufficiently attentive to history. My concerns really aren’t limited to huge businesses. That said, allowing for more small businesses to operate at the ever decreasing and precarious margins really makes little difference in the long run.”

    Even if I grant that there has never been a pure market system anywhere we can at least keep what the government and the market does conceptually distinct, they are not one and the same institution. IIRC you brought up large firms as an argument against free markets and I then proceeded to cite a myriad of benefits the government confers upon big businesses which you effectively ignored. What’s frustrating is in many of your penetrating analyses you neglect government intervention.

    Re-Maslow- I fail to see how the government can aid the attainment of any of the hierarchy of needs better than the freedom of association. The needs are attained by families and robust non-state institutions .

    Re-Burke: I raise you Herbert Spencer. The most responsible society is one in which you bear the full costs of your actions. Under government intervention you can systematically burden others from your failings. The free market promotes responsbility.

    As a general note I think clear definitions are required in these discussions. When I use the word free market all I am referring to is a situation in which all individuals is free to associate/ dissociate with whoever he pleases. It does not necessarily imply being motivated by profit etc.

    Capitalism on the other refers to a system where there is an identifiable group of people who won significant amounts of capital which can exist under any many political orders. In fact state Communism is capitalistic to the extent to which it aims as material progress.

  14. quinnjones2 says:

    My last comment on this thread.
    A breath of community life:
    8.30 a.m. yesterday morning: I was still de-icing my car and wondering if I would get to church on time. My young neighbour left her house and was escorted to a car by her sister and father (her husband was at work).It looked urgent so I nodded and smiled but said nothing.
    11.45 a.m yesterday: a knock on my door. A courier asked if I could sign for and take in a large parcel for this neighbour. Of course I could – we neighbours regularly take in parcels for each other.
    10.30 a.m. today: a knock on my door – my neighbour’s father had come to collect the parcel…and, with his face looking like the sun coming out, he told me this:
    his daughter gave birth to a baby boy
    at 9.50 a.m. yesterday
    8lb 7oz
    named Bradley Cole
    This has made my day 🙂

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