I just watched The Great Gatsby. It’s a film for our times, in some ways. The embarrassing, pointless excess. The stark contrast between the fabulously wealthy and the poor, the environmentally pristine and the polluted. But it’s also a film about nostalgia, and how reaching for the past can become a pathology – closing with the famous lines from Fitzgerald’s book: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The panicked nostalgia of Gatsby is paralleled by our own incoherent economic nostalgia. I heard a lecture last night from Stephen King, the chief economist at HSBC, where he laid out the fact that the exponential living standard increases of the past can’t be repeated in the future. What this has done, in practice, is to increase inequality and, apparently, squeeze the middle class to the point of disappearance. But is it possible that nostalgia for the middle class is just as vain as any other nostalgia? I spend most of my time thinking about how we imagine different kinds of futures through technology. I think there’s good evidence that the ‘middle class’ as it’s been conceived in the past is dissolving, but I also think that the same pressures that make us worried and nostalgic could also inspire us to think about the parameters for a ‘good society’.
The End of the Middle Class
Without a doubt, increasing property prices, food and fuel costs and stagnant wages mean that fewer people make enough to have a traditionally ‘comfortable’ lifestyle, and certainly it is no longer possible for large numbers of people in Western countries to assume that they will automatically enjoy living standards better than their parents’. At the same time, advances in technology along with consolidation of capital and wealth creation among a very small number of people mean that a global elite is developing. This global elite benefit from the fact investments and capital can now be held in various jurisdictions – London’s property prices remain high on average in part because of the ongoing demand for second homes and investment properties, which aren’t even lived in.
Technological development also contributes to the reduction of a middle class. Algorithmic trading among other financial innovations allows for more efficient trading among the financial elite, while sophisticated software development is making it increasingly possible to restructure middle class jobs – in some cases replacing human workers and in others breaking down complex jobs through software into smaller tasks that can be automated or outsourced. Key to both of these processes is the application of ‘machine learning’ or ‘algorithmic processing’ in which computers recognize patterns and perform dynamic calculations. Such algorithmic processes have even recently been used to write newspaper articles.
Undoubtedly there are forces (social, financial and technological) that are gnawing away at the middle class as it has traditionally been imagined, and perhaps giving middle class people common cause with others who have been more obviously oppressed.
A More Just Future?
Perhaps instead of focusing on the gap between the fabulously and unbelievably wealthy and the relatively poor, we could start focusing on the aspects of a ‘good society’ that actually matter to people. These include basic but also subjective measures. I think there are at least five that are truly important, and that as a society we should think about how to employ the structural dynamics of this moment in history (especially including technology) not to mourn the loss of a past society but to build a fairer and more just future one. I’d like to provocatively ask five questions that sociologists will recognize as similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but which I personally think owe more to American pragmatist philosophers and educational and theological pioneers.
HOW CAN WE:
Believe in Something
In other words, how can we use a world of limited physical resources to keep the maximum number of people not just fed and sheltered (maybe by insisting those London houses stay occupied?), but also how can we (in a world without growth, remember) create accountable social structures. How can we allow people to speak their minds and listen to them (democratic processes?). What can we believe in that will transcend the everyday and allow us to express who we are? (Art? Religion? Creativity? Innovation?) And finally how can we find ways to work and be together collectively, not just as individuals (Co-working? Solidarity? Neighbourliness?).
I realize these are vague principles. But I think that the vagueness might help to provide some expansive thinking. Technological practices like algorithmic calculation of large amounts of data can certainly help with meeting basic needs (think of smart energy meters, for example), but it’s also up to us to consider how to employ it for the other things that are important to us.
Alternatives to the middle class are possible. We can learn to cook and can at home, return to growing gardens, and maybe do less paid work. Perhaps that would be a better life. We can also use our present technologies and institutional structures to support our government data and collaborative technologies have been leveraged to help people find get access to local places to grow food (Allotment Data Project), better routes to travel by bicycle (Cyclestreets), and ways to share tools and expertise locally (Streetbank. New technology, in the form of air quality and noise sensor has also meant that communities have been able to take local authorities to task if they don’t act on problems such as very noisy industrial yards or air pollution (Mapping for Change). A good life doesn’t just mean staying at home baking or gardening – it means being able to find meaning in a project that you work on with others.
(this is the gardening club at Archbishop’s Park near my house)
To make a better society, we need to reduce income inequality – even Stephen King agrees. But we also need to be able to think about how to make a good and just society that is centered around fundamental values. Can we find enough to eat? Can we be guaranteed warm, safe places to live? Can we achieve this in ways that give people responsibility and autonomy so that their concerns are heard and listened to? What can people believe in and how can they work together (in large and small ways) to achieve things that are meaningful.
Keeping these abstract, but very basic ideas in mind is a concrete means of focusing on the positive possibilities for the future, rather than “beating against the current” towards a past that can’t return.