In 2014, former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert published a survey of the economic distress overwhelming growing multitudes of American citizens: “Losing Our Way, An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America.” He argued, “The most terrible of all of America’s wounds is its chronic, insidious unemployment. It is a wound that is vast, deep, festering and tragically resistant to healing. And it’s changing the very character of the nation.”
The poor and near-poor constitute one-third of our nation’s population, an obscene statistic, considering the opulence of the elite who constitute 1 percent of the populace. To counter and reorient our decades-long drift into plutocracy, Herbert calls for a crusade to re-imagine the United States — “a national campaign geared toward employment” — that could make our republic inclusionary and truly democratic. “If our nation is to be changed for the better ordinary citizens will have to intervene aggressively in their own fate. The tremendous power in the hands of the moneyed interests will not be relinquished voluntarily.”
This year, Robert McChesney and John Nichols join this urgent conversation with a timely work entitled “People Get Ready.” They concur with Herbert’s call for a sustained mass movement for economic justice. However, they emphasize our need to grasp the implications of evermore intrusive and innovative technologies. These threaten future employment prospects for not only the unskilled and poorly educated. Well-educated professionals and highly skilled workers could find themselves unprepared for redundancy and lost in an economic cul-de-sac. This profusion throughout workplaces high and low of sophisticated automata and evolving systems of artificial intelligence is already in process. Driverless cars are but one phenomenon. The fast-food industry is initiating technical changes that will reduce job opportunities for people. Robotics will enable an astounding range of refined machines to perform a multitude of industrial and commercial tasks, once the domain of paid workers.
While the vertiginous pace of tech-driven change has no antecedent in history, the authors do not bemoan scientific and technical advances: “It is pointless to be against progress. The point is to shape progress, not as customers or consumers, not as clicks to be counted or employees struggling to synch ourselves into automated workplaces, but as citizens engaged in a democratic process of organizing a new economy that reflects our values and our needs.”
Soon to be palpable throughout society, this transformation could provide a path to emancipation from want and drudgery. In order for a promising new era to dawn whereby human beings are the beneficiaries and not the victims of complex technologies, a broad democratic political agenda must arise from the bottom ranks of society. Such a vibrant movement must generate just socio-economic structures that can foster an equitable distribution of the fruits of technological prosperity. A vigorous democratic infrastructure will be indispensible to direct “technological advancement into societal progress.”
Today, America is far from such an egalitarian polity. McChesney and Nichols assert “the democratic infrastructure and economic understandings of the United States that now exist... are insufficient to respond to the overwhelming changes that are coming.” Bringing about a just order requires the revitalization of our belief in the promise of genuine democratic practice. The authors state that over the past 40 years the “greatest victory” achieved by American plutocrats “has been converting longstanding American optimism that democracy can lick any problem before it into a morose pessimism that there is no alternative, and that resistance is futile.”
Discouragement and cynicism affecting many of modest means as well as those of no means must be dispelled and replaced with a mutually shared democratic consciousness.
Despite distractions dispersed by a nonstop entertainment industry, average Americans are well aware of insecurities precipitated by stalled or shrinking wages, underemployment and unemployment. Yet hope is emerging within this welter of disruption. “The economic uncertainty of our times has spawned new movements that reject half-steps and seek to address income inequality and wage stagnation with immediate initiatives.” New economic possibilities are becoming visible. There is a growing cooperative movement of worker-owned businesses. Within the enthusiastic legions of Bernie Sanders supporters are the seeds of an energized movement for economic democracy.
In the final chapter, “A Democratic Agenda for a Digital Age,” the authors proffer urgent proposals to constructively meet the unfolding “transformational crisis.”
They call for an educational system whereby optimum learning experiences now available only to the children of the ultra-rich are extended to every child at every income strata. Full citizen participation in decisions affecting everyone must be a permanent feature of a new economy. “The champions and builders of a democratic infrastructure for the 21st century should, when it comes to constitutional reform, seek and expect nothing less for the next ten years.” Knowing that a lively culture of informative journalism is vital to any democracy, they propose a voucher system that can reinvigorate the shrinking fourth estate. Monopolies must be broken up and the biggest banks nationalized. In many sectors of society, citizen activists are now on the move proving that the ideal of economic justice is not quixotic but real.
McChesney and Nichols call for a political revolution that will involve and enable all citizens. Latter-day robber barons must be dislodged and the arrogance of big corporations deflated. “There is change coming. It is a frightening change. But it need not be overwhelming.” Indeed, this revolution “will only be a part of a dramatically bigger and bolder rethink of economic and social arrangements.”
Theirs is a timely and provocative thesis worth the concentrated attention of all who desire insight into contemporary economic and political turbulence. It is a document that foresees and affirms the promise of an egalitarian future in which the collective wisdom and involvement of conscious citizens will ensure that technological change can contribute to the well-being of all members of society.