Has the Democratic Party really gone off the radical deep end?
It sometimes sounds like it from their fiery rhetoric, and the broad embrace of expansive visions like the Green New Deal. But in fact, the overwhelming majority of the serious candidates — Joe Biden and Beto O'Rourke, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Corey Booker — are traditional progressive reformers who would fall well within the recent Democratic mainstream. They have a variety of plans and proposals to solve America's problems, but none have leveled a deep and fundamental critique of the way American society is organized.
A truly radical critique has really been articulated only by three major candidates. Two are well-known: Senators Sanders and Warren. These New England senators see America's political economy as fundamentally corrupted by powerful corporate interests that have eaten away at the commonwealth. Fixing America's problems, therefore, requires a fundamental rethinking of how that political economy works.
Sanders, the self-professed democratic socialist, sees the key solution as the expansion of the state. His trademark proposals — Medicare-for-all, free college, a federal jobs guarantee — all involve the government providing services directly to the citizenry. Warren, the self-professed progressive populist, sees the key solution as the use of the state to diffuse concentrated economic power. Her trademark proposals — a greatly invigorated anti-trust regime, replacing shareholder capitalism with a system of co-determination, and a progressive wealth tax — all involve using the government to cut private interests down to size and make them more responsive to stakeholders in the society at large.
Their disagreement shouldn't be overstated: both signaled support for the Green New Deal; both favor breaking up the largest banks. But they also agree that what is wrong with America can be fixed by looking back at what worked in America's past. They harken back to the Roosevelt administration (in Warren's case, both Roosevelts), and to an America where the economy gave a fair deal to workers, farmers, and small businesspeople.
But there's a third candidate who has articulated an even more radical critique of America's political economy, one so radical you might almost miss it because of his calm demeanor, establishment credentials, and the relative moderation of his proposed solutions. Indeed, his critique is so radical that it's not clear even he has grasped the true extent of its implications.
That candidate is Andrew Yang. He has laid out a distinctive case that American society is in the process of self-destruction in his book, The War on Normal People. What makes his critique distinctive is that he sees that the transformation of our society has not just been a matter of plutocratic corruption, but is driven by forces that society not only cannot resist, but shouldn't want to resist, and that therefore will require truly radical change to adapt to. Ironically, the candidate with the greatest affinity for Karl Marx is the founder of Venture for America.
The key forces Yang identifies as transforming America — and the world — are automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Automation has already cost America far more manufacturing jobs than globalization did. Advances in artificial intelligence raise the prospect of further massive job losses, in transportation (as self-driving trucks replace long-haul trucking), retail (as on-line shopping wipes out brick-and-mortar stores and robots replace warehouse workers), customer-service, even white-collar jobs like accounting. The number of jobs that could be lost in a very short time runs quickly into the millions. Moreover, the losses will mostly hit during a recession, when businesses are more inclined to focus on how to cut costs than how to grow revenues, exacerbating their social impact.
If Yang were a luddite, he would call for strict limits on the application of A.I. But Yang understands that the reasons to adopt these technologies will inevitably overwhelm the reasons not to. The accelerating pace of advances, combined with the very obvious advantages to the enterprises in question and the economy as a whole, will propel adoption of these innovations regardless of the social consequences. And the kinds of tasks that A.I. is best-suited to take on are the most routine, boring, and hazardous ones — precisely the jobs that people are least happy doing and that cause them the greatest physical and mental harm.
What will those workers do instead? It's not clear that there are any realistic employment options for a laid-off 45-year-old truck driver — but that's the least of it. If Yang were predicting a brutal transition period, a whole generation of workers set to be laid off and too old to be retrained, that would be hard enough for society to handle. But he's predicting something more dire still: the obsolescence of "work" as we understand it for a wide swathe of humanity.
Yang foresees that artificially intelligent software and robots will soon be better at a great many jobs that humans have traditionally done. The jobs that remain will either be beyond the cognitive capacity of most human beings or will be exceptionally non-remunerative. The economy, in the process of becoming more efficient at serving human desires, will drive an increasing proportion of humanity permanently off the road not merely to prosperity but even to subsistence. When he has finished laying out his case, Yang admits that a friend told him he should retitle his book, "We're F---ed."
And yet, surprisingly, Yang is relatively upbeat about our society's ability to respond to the challenge — if we act quickly. The last third of the book focuses on solutions, the most important of which is a guaranteed Universal Basic Income. Paying everyone a minimal level of sustenance would prevent large numbers of people from falling into absolute penury, and facilitate their continued employment in jobs that would otherwise be insufficiently remunerative. He goes on to propose a host of further transformations to health care, education, and other sectors of society, all under the rubric of building "human capitalism."
But there's a disconnect between that term and the system Yang actually describes. If we are really on the verge of an era where machines will be able to replace a large proportion of humanity in any remunerative activity, then economics as we traditionally understand it will no longer be useful for modeling much of society. Yang recognizes this to a degree, inasmuch as he talks about the importance of social credits and time banks and other new means of exchange other than money to facilitate human interaction and cooperative activity in the new era. But these would exist alongside a market-driven process for deploying capital in ever more efficient ways. We won't quite be in a Star Trek post-scarcity world. But we will be in a position where a large — and growing — segment of the citizenry will at best be consumers without ever being producers in an economic sense. And their ability to continue to be consumers will depend on the good will and sense of solidarity manifested by those who continue to produce.
What kind of politics would such a world engender? It's not likely to be a democratic one — and between the lines of Yang's book he seems to recognize that fact. Yang's solutions involve a substantial restructuring of the American economy without massive central planning. But someone will need to construct and maintain the networks through which the citizenry interacts. Someone will need to decide how much of a universal income is optimal, and from what perspective optimality is calculated. Implicitly, the vision is of a world where enormous power rests in the hands of the kinds of people who run firms like Google, and a lot of faith required that those people won't be evil.
A functional and stable politics depends on a balance of mutual interdependency. Going all the way back to the Roman republic, the owners of wealth have repeatedly sought to maximize their share of the common weal at the expense of those who work for them, leading to periodic crises as the plebes rise up and demand a fairer share. We may be in another such moment. Sanders's theory of political change revolves around a political revolution — a citizenry mobilized by a champion of conviction who wins a sweeping majority to enact his transformative agenda. Warren's theory of political change is less clearly articulated, but her solutions aim to build lasting support by giving a vast array of workers and small businesspeople a stake in a more competitive and less oligopolistic economy. But both imagine a world still anchored by work, and getting workers a fair share.
If that world is passing away, then we ought to be facing the happy problem Marx described, where "society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind." But the rub has always been who that "society" actually is. If a productive interdependency is going to be replaced by an outright dependency, then even if that dependency is as benevolently administered as Yang hopes it might be, we face the prospects of a more profound social revolution than he has bargained for.