BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Crack open the first volume of Prejudices, H.L. Mencken’s career-spanning collection of essays, and what’s the first chapter you see? “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism.”
It’s really good. You can read it here.
About that title. Is it Mencken being self-deprecatingly funny? Yes. Is it Mencken being earnest and passionate? Also yes.
The part of humanity I feel closest to is the part that, like Mencken, gets worked up over words, and I mean worked up to the point of life and death. But Mencken was also lighthearted. He played in a brass band, wrote nonsense poems and drank a lot of beer. He knew all those words, earnest and passionate as they were, might just be leading us in circles.
So here’s a bit of circling around and around–some criticism of criticism of criticism.
In May 1948 George Orwell wrote a review of Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” a beauteous vision of the future in which life’s necessities would be so plentiful as to obviate the need to own things or even to work. The thing that prompted Orwell to write the review was the essay’s surprising durability. “Although [Wilde’s] prophecies have not been fulfilled,” Orwell wrote, “neither have they have they been made irrelevant by the passage of time.”
And this was saying a lot. Wilde had written the essay in 1891 at the peak of Europe’s Gilded Age. Wilde was no economist, and as Orwell points out, not really a socialist, just an admirer of the cause. The rich, old Edwardian world Wilde lived in would have been unrecognizable to Orwell’s peers in 1948–many of them survivors of the two most destructive wars in world history, the most lethal pandemic since figures had been kept, and the worst economic depression since the dawn of the industrial age. Britain was on food rations in 1948, despite winning the war. If anything in “The Soul of Man under Socialism” still rang true after such extensive trauma, Orwell thought, it deserved another look.
Actually it might be more accurate to say Wilde’s essay was just starting to ring true in 1948. It had a long latency. When Wilde wrote about socialism taking over the rich world, this prospect was clearly a pipe dream, But, in 1948 Orwell sat up and took notice of the rise of communism in China and much of what would soon be called the Third World: “Socialism,” he wrote, “in the sense of economic collectivism, is conquering the earth at a speed that would hardly have seemed possible sixty years ago.”
The broad, gathering march of communism was what made Wilde’s essay relevant in a general way, but, it was two of Wilde’s particular observations that really grabbed Orwell’s attention. One was that Wilde correctly perceived socialism’s in-born tendency for authoritarianism. Any government given the power to control industry, markets and wages would be tempted to rule over all of society. Wilde admitted this, tangentially.
But he largely dismissed this threat, saying, “I hardly think that any Socialist, nowadays, would seriously propose that an inspector should call every morning at each house to see that each citizen rose up and did manual labor for eight hours.” And of course communist regimes did this kind of thing and much, much worse. Wilde’s error about socialism was basically the same one Americans have been making about democracy for the last 30 years. He assumed the system would work because the elites who implemented it would be rational and benevolent. What Orwell knew was that socialism’s ruling class–any ruling class–would entrench itself as an authoritarian regime once it accrued enough power to dictate to the masses. This is the basic plot line of Animal Farm.
In Oregon today, the state legislature has recently been proving that even a highly developed democratic system can break down if it is not implemented by benevolent elites. Bad faith is not a special problem of socialism. According to reporting by Vox, in Oregon, the members of the Republican party, minorites in both houses of the legislature, have been walking out of their jobs every time a bill they oppose comes to a vote. A rule written long ago on the assumption that lawmakers would be good stewards of democracy requires a 60 percent majority for a quorum in the legislature. The Democratic party holds a big enough majority to pass a law but not big enough to convene a quorum. So each time the legislature comes to the cusp of passing a law that the people of Oregon elected it to pass, the Republicans desert their posts.
There may be less to the much vaunted political culture of democracy than meets the eye. In the triumpahlist mood of the end of the Cold War, we thought of liberal democracy as intrinsically superior to other ideologies. You could just see that collectivism of any kind was bad because, look how corrupt its elites were and what failures of governance it resulted in. Well, it seems that socialists don’t have a lock on bad-faith failures of governance. Democrats too may falter in–or even openly reject– their commitments to reason, decency, and fair play. We too are capable of wrecking a good system.
Another area where Wilde was sort of right but wrong in an interesting way was in his thinking about technology and leisure. He thought machines would relieve humans of drudge work and, hence, the “sordid need to live for others.” Freed of the need to work for wages, humans would seek something like Maslow’s self-actualization. “In effect,” Orwell writes, “the world [would] be populated by artists, each striving after perfection in the way that seems best to him.”
As Orwell points out, Wilde had tunnel vision on this matter. The utopia he envisioned blanketing the whole world was really only conceivable in the most developed economies, such as the one he lived in. Africa and Asia in 1948, Orwell pointed out, were far behind this level of development. A political ideology based on the equality of all humans that left most humans out of its equations would badly miss the mark.
Furthermore, Orwell saw that the minute technical challenges of machine work would have to be tackled before robots could do our jobs for us. Wilde glossed over this problem as trivial. Orwell wrote that machines lacked human “flexibility,” possibly refering to their lack of fine motor skills, or possibly to their inability to think. “In practice, even in the most highly mechanised countries,” Orwell wrote, “an enormous amount of dull and exhausting work has to be done by unwilling human muscles.” And today? I think any Amazon Prime delivery worker would still give Orwell an amen.
So Wilde put too much faith in robots, too soon. But things are changing now. The quixotic presidential campaign of Andrew Yang hinted in a fascinating way at a step change in the march of the machines. You know that weird idea Yang had of a universal basic income–where we just sit home and draw a check each month? Well it’s coming, and it’s coming because thinking machines really are overtaking our jobs. The artificial intelligence revolution looks set to change the relationship between humans and labor forever.
If a computer can do a better job of, say, balancing a comlex set of business accounts, why pay a roomful of sweaty, fallible humans to do the same job less well? And, if machines can think creatively (which they can, possibly beyond our ability to grasp), they will eventually reach a tipping point where they will exceed the human ability to design algorithms and apply them to real-world problems. Machines will design even better machines. Economically, what this means is that machines will create value.
Let me say that again: machines will create value. This development is unprecedented. For the 20,000 odd years we’ve had civilization, it has been up to humans, and only humans, to add our labor to nature, as John Locke phrased it, and create something of sufficient value that we feel a claim of ownership toward it. Plant and hoe a garden, and its yours. Eat your vegetables or sell them, but by god they are yours to do with as you please. This conception of property is a bedrock assumption of economics.
And, as Yang understands, it’s about to fall out from under us. If machines create the value that drives GDP, we will, to an uncertain but large extent, live off the proceeds and taxes derived from their creations. Just like that, the most improbable of Wilde’s prophecies will effectively come true: we will be freed of the “sordid necessity to live for others.” What then?
One of the recepients of Yang’s “Freedom Dividend,” the $1,000-a-month prototype of universal basic income that Yang passed out during his campaign, said he had bought a guitar with his thousand bucks. I thought it was kind of lame when I heard it, but slowly its meaning began to sink in. Guitar Man was basically an example of Orwell’s interpretation of Wilde: without the need to work for our wages, we are all artists waiting to happen. We will still be as busy as we have been the last 20,000 years creating ourselves, but not in response to the biological imperatives that have driven us thus far and the social structures that have evolved to organize those imperatives.
Thinking about what to do with your Freedom Dividend is vertigo-inducing. This is not just because that money fell from the sky, produced by a being that can feel no claim of ownership and does not know the meaning of the phrase, “by the sweat of one’s brow.” Spending your Freedom Dividend is unsettling because what you are really doing is choosing what you want to be in a world that is no longer regimented by the conventions of work.