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(February 1998) [Printed in "Reality Module No.2."]
Part 1 - Gathering the Threads
Days of Future Past
The Present Age
Delving For Origins
The Glorification of Greed
The Desire For Perfection
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).
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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"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
"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
"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  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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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
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 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
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
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
Greed isn't new. There have been greedy people for thousands of years
-Kings and Emperors and Princelings who fought wars for plunder,
who taxed their citizens to the point of starvation. (Fortunately this
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
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
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
mines as the 19th century progressed, and how social reformers and the
nascent trade unions pressured industry and government for better
conditions, fair pay and improved housing for working people - and
(This wasn't the "Invisible hand of the Marketplace" as some economic
historians claim - it was pressure group politics, pure and
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
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
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
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
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
The corporations want you to feel good about increasing your earnings
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.
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
(full cost accountability, reducing government expenditure, cutting
the public service, trimming to the bone expenditure on health and
and shifting as much of its costs onto public enterprise
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
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
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
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
with economics -corporations are the golden idols, the bringers of
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
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
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
welfare and economic development agencies.)
Imagine if you will what could happen if the world's governments
on economic and social goals. Imagine if a worldwide corporate tax
was introduced and revenue raised used to support world poverty
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
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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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:
. The primary, if not the only, goal of human labour and thought is
. 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).
. Subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking.
. What cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value.
. 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
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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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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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
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
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
of July 3-9, 1997. [What's expected of you if you crave a $100,000+
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Future Imperfect - Part 2 - Weaving the
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
Last Updated: 7 April 2003