German would-be world-re-shaper Klaus Schwab has been making waves via his World Economic Forum (usually held at Davos – wasn’t that the ol’ feller who created the Daleks?) on the subject of a sweeping, ecologically sound and economically crippling restructuring. This is allegedly an appropriate response to a panoply of global systemic problems. To me it looks more like another example of centralising power-seekers ‘not wasting a crisis’.
So, what would Schwab’s Utopia look like?
In 2017, Danish MP and WEF attendee Ida Auken sketched a millennarian future of a passive, possessionless citizenry in 2030:
‘I don’t own anything. I don’t own a car. I don’t own a house. I don’t own any appliances or any clothes . . .
‘When AI and robots took over so much of our work, we suddenly had time to eat well, sleep well and spend time with other people. The concept of rush hour makes no sense any more, since the work that we do can be done at any time. I don’t really know if I would call it work any more. It is more like thinking-time, creation-time and development-time.’
Question: What exactly will you think about? Or create? Or develop? This velvet-lined dystopia is designed so that you will change nothing of any importance; the first priority of a successful revolution is to ensure that there will not be another one. Auken’s tamed human says:
‘Once in a while I get annoyed about the fact that I have no real privacy. Nowhere I can go and not be registered. I know that, somewhere, everything I do, think and dream of is recorded. I just hope that nobody will use it against me.’
So, no dreams: they could get you into trouble – maybe Schwab’s flying Daleks will re-educate you as he watches from his life-support mobility scooter.
The rigid social control I can believe; but the effortless wealth? Not so much.
With a certain brutal clarity, US-Mex billionaire Hugo Salinas Price has envisaged a different but parallel scenario: turning the clock back a century or more, to a time when even lowly suburban clerks like Charles Pooter had domestic servants.
Here is a selection from Price’s 2013 essay:
‘If it were not for US government subsidies to unemployment, in the numerous ways in which they are offered, those in more comfortable circumstances in the US might be relieving poverty by taking on numbers of quasi-slaves into their households – to do the cooking, the washing, the cleaning, the gardening, the driving, the taking care of the children . . .
‘If there weren’t so many rules that make hiring quasi-slaves for domestic work so expensive, no doubt a large number of unemployed Americans, amenable to accepting the facts of life, would find working in homes more agreeable than eating in food-kitchens . . .
‘As the century wears on, realities will undoubtedly bring back slavery, at first in the very mild version of the present, but as life becomes harsher, out-and-out slavery will make its reappearance in the world. The imperatives of life will have their way: food, clothing and lodging in return for total obedience and work. This is an aspect of “Peak Prosperity” that has not been examined so far . . .
‘The Democracy of Athens at the time of its greatness, when it became the impossible model for our times, consisted of all of 21,000 Athenians who were free citizens. It did not include 400,000 slaves of said democratic Athenians.’
The shape of future history is changing. The French Revolution was a welter of blood, a suicidal revolt by middle-class lawyers against an elite that pushed its foreign war-making and demands for money too far; but the Industrial Revolution that made it possible to defeat Napoleon made history look as though it had a progressive direction, one without swords and guillotines, a path towards increasing prosperity, rights and individual freedom for the lower classes.
This accelerated with the century of super-cheap energy in the form of oil; and in the aftermath of two world wars, the massive transfers of wealth from the British Empire to the United States plus the developing markets in ruined Europe and the East made it possible to believe the Fred Flintstone model of civic life: a working-class (Americans would say ‘middle-class’) man able to support his family on his industrial wage, own a car and a detached house in the suburbs, have evenings and weekends off, join a Rotarian-type club, go bowling and so on.
But then the rich and powerful – becoming as controlling and remote from the rest of us as Doctor Who’s Time Lords – sucked up the increases in wealth by giving away the economy to foreigners, and despite attempts to reverse the flow, much of the ‘re-onshored’ production that occurs will be performed by robots and Artificial Intelligence – white-collar middle class, look out. And the internet – Amazon etc – is breaking the retail-outlet ladder to self-employment and personal independence.
History is turning back from linear to cyclic: work, feed, breed. Chances are, your descendants will ‘own nothing and be happy’; as a servant in a rich man’s house, or a wage-slave in a multinational company. Money has allowed the emergence of emperors without lands to defend.
And yet what happened to the rich Mayans? Where are they? The wind blows over the rubble.
Spare us your old man’s dreams, Herr Schwab. And the flying Daleks.