Paradigm shift

The dominant paradigm is dead.

The idea that scarcity—the insufficient capacity to generate enough “stuff”—is the central problem we face as a society, has heretofore defined all socio-economic decisions and political debate. “Progress” was the goal: creating more and more of the stuff we wanted with less and less tedious human toil required. How to achieve progress, and what was fair regarding the distribution of scarce resources as we progressed, were the questions.

At the core of the incoherency of public discourse today is the fact that this idea no longer describes reality. Yet we continue on, as though it does. Progress which eliminates the need for anybody to do any work while yielding the same or even more “stuff” is celebrated and rewarded, as it should be, at most levels of society: in scientific and technological circles, in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, even in popular culture. But in politics, since it “costs jobs,” it’s bad, and whipping up populist anger against whomever the current bums are who let it happen, is a winning formula.

Clearly, this is getting us nowhere. Elections whipsaw from one Party to the other, from Left to Right, and back again. The only discernable logic to it is “throw the bums out.” Each side refuses to acknowledge common sense realities that don’t fit the polarized arguments into which they are getting cornered. Climate change is ignored or denied on the Right. Great progress toward meritocracy and social mobility, as legal and even many de facto barriers have fallen in response to struggles progressives have led, is glossed over on the Left. Meanwhile, life on our planet is in increasing danger, and little is being done about unnecessary but growing islands of gross inequality amidst a sea of affluence.

At the root of the polarization, intemperate tone, and disdain for compromise in modern politics, and at the core of its overshadowing incoherence, is the insufficiency of the old paradigm to explain modern conditions.

We need a new paradigm. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew.”

If the old paradigm might be termed the “scarcity paradigm,” what we need is a new postscarcity paradigm, and a new politics organized around it.

The core elements of postscarcity critique are:

1. The capacity to provide abundant goods and services with less and less human toil now exists, but our socio-economic institutions and habits of thought, which assume the absence of that capacity and are focused single-mindedly on creating it, are ill-equipped to harness it wisely. They are failing us.

2. Negative environmental and public health consequences of economic growth are outstripping the benefits, diminishing our lives rather than enriching them.

3. Despite the fact cited above, that we are tapping only a fraction of the capacity we have to create abundant goods and services, the affluence we are already generating is not being grandly distributed. This is because the old paradigm incentivizes work to maximize growth, yet progress itself is putting us all out of work. We have the paradox of inequality and poverty amidst affluence. Yet it is unlike a situation where there is not the capacity to create enough to go around, so that you having less is the only way I can have more. Instead, in a postscarcity economy, no one benefits from others’ misfortune. The existence of “have not’s” is an absurd outcome, as often as, or more often than, an unjust one.

4. Postscarcity creates greater consumer demand for, and worker satisfaction from, attention to quality over quantity. Yet the “consumer movement” meets resistance, and the decentralized, small business, small farm, craft, boutique, individual service, and shared economies all struggle in a social, legal, and regulatory environment designed to favor mass quantity over personalized quality.

5. Finally, there are the ultimate questions: where does one find meaning and personal dignity, and what binds us as a community, in an affluent world beyond work? If we ignore the sociological problems of anomie and alienation, or the potential mental health problems, of an increasingly postscarcity society, we do so at our peril. The progress for which we have strived and sacrificed for centuries could yield a “be careful what you wish for” result. We need to think hard on these questions.

We also need to invent a new postscarcity politics, the core tenets of which must be transcendence and transformation.

Such a new politics is not the same as “moderate,” so dreaded on the Right, or “centrism,” so dreaded on the Left. It doesn’t involve a search for the middle on the old continuum because it transcends the old continuum. The old politics was defined by questions about dividing the pie between the haves and the have-nots, in circumstances where the underlying technological, industrial, and educational capacity didn’t allow for “enough” for everybody. Those circumstances are changing.

A new politics must encourage dialogue across the partisan divide. As the new postscarcity paradigm takes hold, we may discover a lot of common ground that is being obscured by the old paradigm and old habits of thought. A new politics will require progressives to recognize that the fringe elements on the Right that promote or exploit racism, xenophobia, hate, or authoritarianism, which have no place in a pluralistic, democratic society, are, indeed, fringe. They are not representative of true conservatism. It will also require conservatives to recognize that the fringe elements on the Left that try to enforce Orwellian notions of acceptable thought and speech, what conservatives dub “political correctness,” are also fringe. They are not representative of true liberalism.

Both conservatives and progressives need to stop self-referentially talking among themselves, living in filter bubbles, and obsessing only with “beating” the other side. That isn’t going to happen. We live in a divided country. There is no path “through” the other side, but there is a path up and out of the gridlock, if we embrace a new paradigm and a new politics.

The good news is that both the Right and the Left, conservatives and progressives, as well as those in between, have much to offer as we re-examine our assumptions about scarcity and the outmoded idea that insufficient capacity to generate enough “stuff” is civilization’s central challenge. Instead of two sides determined to do nothing but fight and “win”, we need to work together across partisan divides to think anew together and solve problems. We need all hands on deck to envision and create the new future that centuries of sacrifice in the name of progress have made possible.

Many values emphasized by conservatives today, such as freedom, opportunity, individual responsibility, accountable government, protecting individual civil liberties from government overreach, and the importance of not piling irresponsible levels of debt on future generations, are fundamental. Moreover, the root word in “conservative” is conserve. Conservatives have traditionally championed conservation of our natural resources and our environment.

Many values associated with liberals and progressives are also fundamental, such as fairness, equality of opportunity, tolerance, community, ecology, and the ideal of a limited government, yes, but one adequate to protect the nation’s security and protect the public interest against special interests.

We can honor and balance all these values once we realize that the old dominant paradigm, predicated on scarcity as the fundamental challenge we face and around which all our socio-economic institutions and political debate are organized, is dead.

In his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn laid bare the challenges for paradigm-busters, even in science. “The sun does not circle the earth,” argued poor, lonely astronomers beginning in the 3rd century B.C., “and until we all confront this fact, and embrace a new paradigm, we will solve few of the scientific puzzles which are confounding us.” Depressingly, it took until the 17th Century A.D., or 2000 years, for the scientific community and eventually the general public to come around!

The shift from a scarcity to a postscarcity paradigm is as revolutionary as any transition humanity has had to make, in science or in social theory. It is not the revolution intimated in recent elections on either the Right or the Left. But perhaps the appetite for some kind of profound change exhibited by the Obama, Trump, and Sanders phenomena in American politics augurs well for the prospects of the revolution we do need. Hopefully, it won’t take 2000 years.

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Tim Rains / NPS | Public Domain

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