Capitalism is Proving Too Dynamic For Progressives

Those of us with long memories, say back to the 1970's, can remember that the Left constantly complained about manufacturing and assembly-line work as "dehumanizing."  Their goal was for workers to transcend this Tayloristic "hell" into clean, white collar office work.  Well, now that we have done so by replacing many assembly-line workers with machinery programmers and service workers, the Left now makes the argument that assembly-line work was the Nirvana of all employment, and the only possible road to the middle class for many Americans.  If I was an academic with time on my hands to do an in-depth research project, I would love to go back to records of leftish complaints about the economy form the 1960s and 1970s.  Because in large part, they have gotten everything they were asking for and more, but now they complain about the change. 

One of the explanations of this paradox is that progressives, despite their name, are extremely conservative (little c) in that they fear change in the economy and in work patterns more than anything else.  Changing trade patterns, changes in economic mix, changes in work relationships -- these all send progressives into a tizzy.  I know that in some sense I am answering a paradox with a greater paradox.  Rather than repeat the argument, here is my argument in depth that capitalism is too dynamic for progressives.  An excerpt from that post:

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives
are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism.  Ironically, though
progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that
capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall,
jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want
comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are.
They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and
next decade, and will always pay at least X amount.  That is why, in
the end, progressives are all statists, because, to paraphrase Hayek,
only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and
certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave.

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze
commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current
patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the
American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They
wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of
Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for
all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of
the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk
endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it.

Postscript:  I still argue that the "decline" of American manufacturing is a chimera of how statistics are gathered.  As I wrote here:

The best way to illustrate this is by example.  Let's takean automobile assembly plant circa 1955.  Typically, a large manufacturing
plant would have a staff to do everything the factory needed.  They had
people on staff to clean the bathrooms, to paint the walls, and to
perform equipment maintenance.  The people who did these jobs were all
classified asmanufacturing workers, because they worked in a manufacturing
plant.  Since 1955, this plant has likely changed the way it staffs
these type jobs.  It still cleans the bathrooms, but it has a contract
with an outside janitorial firm who comes in each night to do so.  It
still paints the walls, but has a contract with a painting contractor
to do so.  And it still needs the equipment to be maintained, but
probably has contracts with many of the equipment suppliers to do the

So, today, there might be the exact same number of people in the
factory cleaning bathrooms and maintaining equipment, but now the
government classifies them as "service workers" because they work for a
service company, rather thanmanufacturing workers.  Nothing has really changed in the work that people do, but government stats will show a large shift from manufacturing to service employment.

  • Emil

    How about the housewives ?

    Should the statisticians put them under "domestic help", "subsistence agriculture" (mowing the lawn and clipping the roses), "husbandry" or "unemployed" ? Imagine the headlines "48,037,000 unemployed in 2006" [ according to , number of women not in labor force ] ...

    There was a "decline" of US manufacturing, but only as a percentage of all the manufacturing done in the whole world, and only compared with the state of the world in 1945.

    Still, you should cherish your timid and chatty "progressives" ... 'round here they are not, and are in charge ...

  • Josh

    I have two questions.

    First, what is a "big C" Conservative?

    Second, why is it that people on both the left and the right decry our reduction in manufacturing jobs? Why does *anyone* consider this a problem? Don't trust foreigners to make our staplers right? I'm at a loss.

  • JG

    Shades of Virgina Postrel. See this reivew of her book 'The Future and its Enemies:Today we have greater wealth, health, opportunity, and choice than at any time in history -- the fruits of human ingenuity, curiosity, and perseverance. Yet a chorus of intellectuals and politicians loudly laments our condition.Technology, they say, enslaves us. Economic change makes us insecure. Popular culture coarsens and brutalizes us. Consumerism despoils the environment. The future, they say, is dangerously out of control, and unless we rein in these forces of change and guide them closely, we risk disaster. In The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel explodes these myths, embarking on a bold exploration of how progress really occurs. In areas of endeavor ranging from fashion to fisheries, from movies to medicine, from contact lenses to computers, she shows how and why unplanned, open-ended trial and error -- not conformity to one central vision -- is the key to human betterment. Thus, the true enemies of humanity's future are those who insist on prescribing outcomes in advance, circumventing the process of competition and experiment in favor of their own preconceptions and prejudices. Postrel argues that these conflicting views of progress, rather than the traditional left and right, increasingly define our political and cultural debate. On one side, she identifies a collection of strange bedfellows: Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader standing shoulder to shoulder against international trade: "right-wing" nativists and "left-wing" environmentalists opposing immigration; traditionalists and technocrats denouncing Wal-Mart, biotechnology, the Internet, and suburban sprawl. Some prefer a pre-industrial past, while others envision a bureaucratically engineered future, but all share a devotion to what she calls "stasis," a controlled, uniform society that changes only with permission from some central authority. On the other side is an emerging coalition in support of what Postrel calls "dynamism": an open-ended society where creativity and enterprise, operating under predictable rules, generate progress in unpredictable ways. Dynamists are united not by a single political agenda out by an appreciation for such complex evolutionary processes as scientific inquiry, market competition, artistic development, and technological invention. Entrepreneurs and artists, scientists and legal theorists, cultural analysts and computer programmers, dynamists are, says Postrel "the party of life." The Future and Its Enemies is a vigorous manifesto for the dynamist worldview, as well as a penetrating analysis of how our beliefs about personal knowledge, nature, virtue, and even the relation between work and play shape the way we run our businesses, make public policy, and search for truth and beauty. Controversial and provocative, Virginia Postrel's thesis heralds a fundamental shift in the way we view politics, culture, and society as we face an unknown -- and thus invigorating -- future.