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(February 1998) [Printed in "Reality Module No.2."]

FUTURE IMPERFECT
Part 1 - Gathering the Threads


Days of Future Past
The Present Age
Delving For Origins
Economics
The Glorification of Greed
Government Wimp-Outs
The Desire For Perfection
Conclusion
BIBLIOGRAPHY

Related Works
Feedback and Discussions

"This planet has, or had, a problem - which was this: most of the people were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green bits of paper that were unhappy."
--Douglas Adams.The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979).

Days Of Future Past:

It was to be the best of times not the worst of times. Automation meant that production costs had fallen, more goods could be produced with less labour than ever before. Working hours would drop, wages would soar!

The average person would only need to work 15, maybe only 10 hours a week to earn enough money to pay for all their material needs.

We would have an abundance of leisure - and a huge demand would open up for entertainment, hobby classes, tourism, and theme parks. The big problem ahead for sociologists and futurologists as the 1960s came to an end - was figuring out how we would fill up these leisure hours which were coming to all - a boon of our technological progress. This would usher in a brand new Utopian age!

So - where did we make a detour on the road to Utopia? How did we end up here in the Present Age?

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The Present Age:

"Theobard and his colleagues [in 1965] foresaw an eerie future: an underclass excluded from jobs, a new educated class lurching from position to position with no assurance of secure income, and an elite working themselves into fabulously well-paid exhaustion."
--Damien Broderick. The Spike : Accelerating into an Unimaginable Future. (1997)

"In 1960, the CEO of a major company received 40 times the compensation of the average worker. These days it varies between 157 and 300 times as much."

"The combined revenue of the world's 10 top firms is greater than the combined GNP of the world's 100 smallest countries."

"Last year [1996] the UN found that the net worth of the world's 358 richest billionaires is equal to the combined income of the poorest 45 percent of the world's population, or about 2.3 billion people."
--Richard Neville.The Business of Being Human (in "The Age Good Weekend" of 23rd August 1997).

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Delving For Origins:

Society has deep roots (despite its patina of modernity) - roots going back thousands of years.

The older generation of futurologists weren't impossibly naïve despite the aborting of the Utopia they foresaw.

Three factors forced civilisation to evolve in a different way - these factors can be called (for want of better terminology) the Glorification of Greed, government wimp-outs, and (paradoxically) the human desire for perfection.

Each factor has deep roots (which I'll explore later) and is more complex than it initially appears. I'll tease out each as best I can.

But firstly I'll take a look at the Grand Poobah of Western Civilisation, the thing which increasingly affects every aspect of our lives, which shapes our present and all our possible futures, which is the preoccupation of world leaders and powerful individuals all over the great blue globe, which knits the three factors tightly together, and which nearest holds the place in the secular world appropriate to a god! That thing is ECONOMICS.

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Economics:

Economics is the discipline which, in a sense, describes the interactions between people and money.

It used to be simple - you swopped a couple of skins for a set of snazzy stone tools, but in the last few millennia, and especially in the last couple of centuries it has become fiendishly complicated. (This is because it is a human invention and humans like making things more complicated - especially when there's a chance someone will gain an advantage as a result!)

When its dealing with straight buying and selling and riches stored away in vaults economics can be an exacting subject - almost a science.

The thing that stuffs-ups economics and prevents it from ever having the scientific credibility some of its pundits claim for it is "people." People are unpredictable, their actions skew economic forecasts, they stuff-up projections of profits and losses. A National Economy can never be tightly controlled because people will make capricious decisions! [You could imagine a nation with strict quotas of goods and rationing of produce for individual consumption. People will barter their ration cards, and it's likely some form of black market will spring up.]

The "people factor" in economics is always downplayed. (The economists like to be seen as all-wise experts. They don't like us to know that there are things they cannot predict or control.)

The "people factor" is at play at all levels of economics. Stock market values will rise or fall because stockbrokers are concerned at the health of the Malaysian Prime Minister, or pleased with new trade figures. Yes folks - the economies of the world are affected by fickle human emotions!

With economics the past can be understood, the present can be illustrated, but the future cannot be predicted.

Why am I telling you this? Because economics in present days is claiming an authority it has no right to. It is not exact, it is not a science, and it cannot predict.

It is, at its very best, a statistical method. We know the most probable outcome of simple financial transactions (I take a CD and $30 up to the counter in a record shop, the shopkeeper takes my $30, gives me 5, puts the CD in a plastic bag, and lets me walk off with it without shouting "Stop Thief!").

But an economy is a highly complex system and has chaotic elements (people are involved!) - and when factoring in an increasingly large number of financial interactions into an economic model, lower probability events come into play and spoil the model's precision. (The shopkeeper might give someone the wrong change. Some scumbag might steal a CD.) An exact model of an economic system is impossible. [It is pretty safe to assume there won't be any radical changes in any value from one time period to the next - but it cannot be guaranteed.]

Even a "pretty good" economic model may be impossible if you don't know which are the most significant elements to build into it. (A simple oversight can lead to a great error.)

Because an exact model of an economic system is impossible - economic forecasts suffer from the "butterfly effect" - tiny little piffling effects you hadn't thought of or measured cause your graphs to wander further and further away from what the real situation will be.

Economics is important in our complex society, but its unpredictability means it is not that important. It doesn't deserve to be the obsession of governments and entrepreneurs. It should be a guide only.

But the real problem is not economics-the-discipline, it is economics-the-ideology. This is where economics ceases to be just a maths modelling exercise and becomes almost a "Religion." Groups of economists start getting irrational beliefs about the "realities" of economics. They talk about things like "The Invisible Hand of the Marketplace" (this is the belief that if we leave money markets to do their own thing - somehow in time a magical balance will be achieved, and we will have a natural harmony. In short - this is crap! The U.S. market crash of 1929 and the recent savage devaluation of Asian currencies prove that. When people panic rationality departs the marketplace - things fall apart. And yet otherwise intelligent economists talk about "The Invisible Hand of the Marketplace" as if it were a fact and not a delusion). There is also, for example, the belief that corporate methods are always best for any enterprise.

Like religious nutcases these economists embellish a few grains of truth with a vast structure of invention. They interpret the evidence around them with their own network of beliefs. They mistake beliefs for truths - and this is very dangerous - you can really stuff things up, as will in time be revealed.

The Glorification of Greed:

Greed isn't new. There have been greedy people for thousands of years -Kings and Emperors and Princelings who fought wars for plunder, monarchs who taxed their citizens to the point of starvation. (Fortunately this wasn't universal.)

What is new now is the vastly increased capacity for accumulating goods and for making vast profits which advancing technology has allowed, and the replacement of God and morality in the 20th century with the Cult of Materialism.

Corporations have grown, have flourished all over the globe. There is no doubt as this century ends that capitalism is king.

This is perhaps inevitable. The 20th century has seen bigger things - bigger buildings, bigger populations, bigger machines, bigger communications networks, bigger wars, bigger businesses. (The whole gamut of 19th century capitalist imperialism overgrown and become grotesque and wonderous.)

There is nothing wrong [intrinsically] with private enterprise - it is a natural outcome of human ingenuity and the desire for renown. There is nothing wrong with making money through the application of your talents.

The real problem is not capitalism. It is the desire for profits above-all-else - it is greed.

Merchants have been around for thousands of years - making profits by buying and selling, and when the Industrial Revolution came along they could make goods cheaply in "manufactories."

I suspect that you've read enough 19th century novels and history to know about how dreadful working conditions became in factories and coal mines as the 19th century progressed, and how social reformers and the nascent trade unions pressured industry and government for better working conditions, fair pay and improved housing for working people - and won. (This wasn't the "Invisible hand of the Marketplace" as some economic historians claim - it was pressure group politics, pure and simple.)

There has always been conflict between the greedy and the exploited. By early this century, however, with the 40 hour week in law and award rates of pay in place, it seemed like the average worker was protected from exploitation by unscrupulous employers.

But by 1998 these rights had been eroded - supposedly in the name of "flexibility." Yuppies and other 'upwardly-mobile' types are expected to work 70-80 hours a week. (If you are being paid $100,000+ p.a. you are expected to put in long days at the office - and weekends are company time as well. Basically it's a choice between having money and having a life). People much lower down the scale are also exploited in having to put in unpaid overtime. (The decline of trade unions and the rise of "individual employment agreements" mean that if your boss is a bully, and you're naïve, a bit shy and not very articulate - you'll have to accept less than ideal pay and working conditions.)

These abominations are the result of downsizing and so-called "increased flexibility." These are all attempts to increase profitability. But downsizing has become too often "corporate anorexia" - with too few people left to do the work that needs to be done in a normal working day - hence the overtime and the additional work stress. The greedy bastards have won this round!

The other consequence of downsizing is unemployment. But this, fortunately for the corporations, is the government's problem!

Of course not all corporations are greedy and after profits-above-all-else, and not all employers are out to exploit their employees. [I do not believe greed is a natural human trait - though the desire for security certainly is.] The problem is that the government is doing nothing about the corporations that are!

Profits-above-all-else has other consequences. One is the exporting of jobs to countries where labour is cheap. Another is the promotion of materialism - to make profits companies have to make you buy what they are trying to sell. Advertising is endemic. Advertising is insidious. And with advertising comes the whole glorification of affluence, the equating of clothes and goods with "style", the notion that you are what you buy - that your worth as a human being is somehow related to the worth of what you own.

The Yuppies were the first social group who were vacuous enough to confuse style with substance - but this "brain death" is permeating way down into society now. Some idiots even think that wearing Reebok shoes makes them "cool!"

The corporations want you to feel good about increasing your earnings (it makes working all that overtime seem worthwhile), and they want you to feel really terrific about buying their products because that really enhances your value as a person!

The motto is "greed is good." The ideology is that making lots of money and buying lots and lots of things is what makes life satisfying and worthwhile. This, of course, is complete and utter crap.

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Government Wimp-Outs:

Contrary to what seems to be the prevalent opinion governments aren't elected for the sole purpose of managing a country's financial affairs! A government's role is actually much larger than achieving a balance between income and expenditure. Governments are elected for us - to work for the common good, to safeguard the rights of citizens to a secure income, a place to live, health care, educational opportunities, affordable legal representation, and to opportunities for them to develop to their full potential as human beings.

I'm afraid that in these ways our governments are failing us. They have, like the corporations, become obsessed with economics, national profitability (reducing debt, maximising exports), and economic efficiency (full cost accountability, reducing government expenditure, cutting the public service, trimming to the bone expenditure on health and education, and shifting as much of its costs onto public enterprise [privatisation] and onto individual citizens [higher fees and charges].)

Of course it is important that our National Economy be properly managed - otherwise we'd end up in profound manure. But Australia is more than an economy - it is a society!

Governments are largely ignoring their social responsibilities - which is one of the reasons why corporate greed has triumphed.

Why? Perhaps because it's too hard. It's much easier to balance a budget than it is to engineer a society which is supportive of its citizens and allows everyone to grow in happiness and self-fulfilment. (It's a much harder exercise - you have to use your brains, you have to do research and evaluate alternative scenarios, you need to constantly evaluate feedback - and you'll have to make tough decisions and you will make enemies!)

Governments want to be popular. They want to be re-elected. To do this they strive to be inoffensive, to not alienate anyone. They'll show you a nice balance sheet at campaign time and preach a few "feel good" platitudes - but they won't do anything radical.

Governments that make waves don't get re-elected. Now placid governments are fine when everything is all honky-dory and the status quo is all a-okay, but in times like these when we have high unemployment, poverty and increasing social problems - a placid let's-not-stir-the-waters government is what we do not need!

Radical choices need to be made - and we need a government with the brains and the guts to make them - but we do not want a government with ego!

[By "Ego" I mean a government with an ideology - a vision of society which it "knows" is right! Such governments ignore feedback and end up creating very serious and long lasting social harm. The most efficient form of government is an ideological dictatorship - it really gets things done! The only problem is that because they crush dissent (read "feedback from citizens") they are inclined to implement some mindboggingly stupid policies!]

We need governments which are competent, intelligent, courageous and disinterested (in the proper meaning of the word).

Our own government is very pro-business [not that it should be anti-business], when it should really be very pro-us!

Why is this? Because big corporations have more political clout than we do. They pay a lower rate of tax than we do and they are offered all sorts of fringe benefits. This is because for a government obsessed with economics -corporations are the golden idols, the bringers of economic prosperity. (Which they are - but it's their own prosperity, not necessarily Australia's.)

Corporations, it is said, should be wooed because they create jobs for Australians and enrich the economy by improving our balance of trade. Yes - but the actions by some in pursuit of increasing profits has produced massive unemployment, and if they don't like the benefits package government offers them - they'll take their business overseas (which won't do a thing for our balance of trade).

Multinationals have great power - they can set up operations wherever the profit potential is greatest, and there is little national governments can do about their actions.

Or - is there? Governments have considerable power - they just choose not to use it - and when governments work together the force for change is mighty indeed. (Consider for example the impact of international agreements on pollution control and species conservation. Easy targets - no one considers an oil slick a good thing. Consider agreements on armaments reduction. Consider the good work which is being done by international welfare and economic development agencies.)

Imagine if you will what could happen if the world's governments co-operated on economic and social goals. Imagine if a worldwide corporate tax scale was introduced and revenue raised used to support world poverty reduction programs. (The multinationals couldn't escape to a lower tax country - and they can't go off-planet, at least not this century.) Imagine if international minimum wage standards were introduced and enforced. (Imagine the pain of banning a corrupt company from trading anywhere on Earth.)

Corporations profit from our labour. It is only fair that they make a valuable contribution to society.

Will this happen? It's hard to tell. The problems are bad and are getting worse - and something will have to be done. Governments should not "wimp-out" - they would be failing us - the citizens who elected them!

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The Desire For Perfection:

Human beings have had the desire for perfection since before the age of Plato (Atlantis), it's probably a core seed of religion (the vision of a perfect other place/time/condition), and is probably the reason why our ancestors climbed down from the trees in the first place.

The problem isn't so much the ideal itself, it is the methods employed in the 20th century for "attaining" perfection. These methods derive from Frederick W. Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management (1911).

Neil Postman's book Technopoly (1992) gives a good breakdown of some of its core beliefs:

[1]. The primary, if not the only, goal of human labour and thought is efficiency.

[2]. Technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgement. (In fact human judgement cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity).

[3]. Subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking.

[4]. What cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value.

[5]. The affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.
------- ("Technopoly" p.51.)

See how familiar they are? The principles were devised originally specifically for industrial production, but have been widely misused since in the areas of politics, economics and sociology.

It explains the tiresome quest for "economic efficiency." It explains exactly why the absurdly named Economic Rationalists know "the price of everything and the value of nothing." It explains, in part, the corporate fascination with technology. It explains why corporate opinions are overvalued, and why the opinions of ordinary citizens are disregarded. When the principles of scientific management are linked with corporate greed and government wimp-outs - it explains why our society has become so stuffed up.

There's another linkage too! A linkage with materialism which I call "The Cult of the New" - the irrational belief that what's new is always better than what's old. It explains the need many people feel to own the latest version of anything - because (of course) it's newer and better. This is great for corporate sales figures - but is from a logical consumer's point of view essentially stupid. Your computer doesn't self-destruct just because an updated model's been released. (Consumerism is great for taking people's minds off the real concerns. Why discuss world poverty when you can discuss the new styles in frocks?)

And it is linked to raving Technophilia - the uncritical belief that each new technological marvel is a gift from the gods (or at least Bill Gates) - and is another golden step on the road to Techno-Utopia. (But this is really a topic for another essay!) Uncritical praise for new technology or for a new (not necessarily better) way of doing things is a very bad thing.

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Conclusion:

There it is: an examination of what ails civilisation - at least in the economic sense.

Our civilisation is an exceedingly complex thing (and is getting more so) and has many dimensions which economics overlooks or cannot deal with.

In PART 2. WEAVING THE TAPESTRY I'll probe much deeper into the fabric of contemporary society.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Adams, Douglas.The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Broderick, Damien. The Spike : Accelerating into the Unimaginable Future. [Valuable among other things for its insights into the forces shaping the present].

Martin, Hans-Peter & Harald Schumann. The Global Trap. [I've only read a review of this. It seems to be about many of the issues in this essay - quote: "Around the world, the owners of capital and wealth are contributing less and less to the financing of public expenditure while driving wages down. Global powerbrokers foresee a time when only 20 per cent of the world's workforce will be employed and 'tittytainment' will keep the rest from rebelling." The Age. 24th January 1998.]

Neville, Richard. "The Business of Being Human" in The Age Good Weekend of 23rd August 1997. [An excellent article illustrating how the corporate mind-set is pervading all aspects of Western society. Looks at the glorification of greed and the cult of materialism. Looks at the promotion of the trivial (e.g. fashion labels) and the demotion of the important (e.g. worldwide ecological disaster). A good companion for Postman and Saul.]

Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. [I'm reading this book at the moment. Valuable for its insights into the "emperor's new clothes" of raving technophilia. Great for its examples of sociological and corporate crap dressed up in pseudo-scientific terminology!]

Saul, John Ralston.The Unconscious Civilization. [A very important book - and the inspiration for this essay! I recommend it highly - even if, like me, you don't agree with everything he says, you'll have a hell of a lot to think about. The book left me feeling depressed. Looks at corporate ideology and explains how it is destroying democracy and the "common good." A book written by an economist with a sound knowledge of history and humanist values.]

Somerset, Guy. "In It for the Money, Honey" in The City Weekly of July 3-9, 1997. [What's expected of you if you crave a $100,000+ p.a. job!]


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Related Works

Future Imperfect - Part 2 - Weaving the Tapestry
Explores further some of the ideas raised in this essay.

A series of essays on "Democratic Humanism" also re-examines many of these themes.
The first of these is Democratic Humanism (1) - What Are Genuine Human Needs?

There is also a later essay on The Cult of the New.

 

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Copyright © 1998 by Michael F. Green. All rights reserved.

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Last Updated: 7 April 2003