A few years ago I argued that rampant disparity in terms of affluence and poverty (or opportunity versus marginalization) in the world might be interpreted as an existential risk. In other words, a very large number of human beings might literally be pushed in to premature death by the combination of (a) disparity and (b) accelerating technologies. My point in 2007 was that technology is increasingly something that more rich people “purchase” (or invest in), and reap benefits from. So in effect I argued that at some point in the none too distant future technology might create products only for people who have money; lots of people would be without jobs and effectively unable to generate any meaningful income, and be displaced from the basic range of essential goods and services to literally survive.
This point was in some other form made by Jeremy Rifkin, Marshall Brain, Thomas Frey, Frederico Pistono and several others, and each placed the emphasis a little differently.
Essentially this is already happening. Millions of human beings die prematurely as a result of being unable to generate a sufficient income, and in some extreme cases these people starve to death, or otherwise live unacceptably undignified lives. Strikingly, we live in a world where this form of severe disparity does not bother the people in “developed” countries to a sufficient degree as to demand immediate action. It is worse – even very moral people around me will knowingly purchase articles that were made in third world nations under unambiguously severe conditions of slave labour, or severe exploitation. And nobody regards this as morally wrong. In fact many would offer arguments that this is a “good” thing.
My earlier argument didn’t include a range of secondary problems, such as resource depletion, the quickly encroaching state fascism in all “developed” countries (including the EU and US), the secession of rich people from society in to effectively a plutonomy, the collapse of biodiversity, the collapse of quality of goods in the western world (specifically food), global weirding and terrorism. My argument was about the combination of disparity and ‘exponentially advancing technologies’ (assuming the latter is actually occurring).
Fast forward to 2013. The occupy movement has come and gone. The Zeitgeist and Venus project movements have come and gone, and even serious and intelligent people I know wouldn’t even watch the informational videos of these movements, “by and large because they were busy”. I have shared in the last years a nonstop barrage of arguments that at least something is very wrong, and this could end up biting us in the ass as a planetary species.
My 2013 argument goes a little further. I would place the practice of capitalism itself in the spotlight, and argue that the kind of (flawed? Inconsistent?) Capitalism we have world wide today is in effect becoming an existential risk. In other words, IF this can be argued, should we ask as a technoprogressive (transhumanist/extropian,whatever) community what would be moral to say or do? We can all consent in the status quo and just bide our time and maximize our private opportunities, but the end point of “a complacency of the educated” might be a very bleak future indeed.
My question (and accusation) is fairly simple – Capitalism is introducing a very large number of failure modes in the functionality of the world, and yes we do have reasonable alternatives other than “latter day” Capitalism (I can offer you a few if you insist) that might be better than the mess we have today. Capitalism is causing massive problems, far more in number or complexity than I’d care list, and these consequences can very well be argued to cause massive (and absolutely unnecessary) human suffering and premature death well in our lifetimes (before 2050). What would be even worse, a functional collapse of western society (to say it in critical alarmist speech) has become thinkable just a few years ago, and in 2013 is regarded by many not just as plausible, but inescapable. I wouldn’t go as far, but we should avoid the more severe consequences, since we could, and the world has become very small. Apathy today might result in lethal forms of instability, mass-migrations and blowback just a few years down the road.
My question is very straightforward – can Capitalism be reasonably argued to be an existential risk, and if so, what action should we take to negate this risk?
And can we agree on any such action, or are we cast helplessly adrift?
This essay originally appeared in Khannea’s blog, HERE
Image: Ulf Rahmberg: Painting No. 21 (side A), 1970-73. Courtesy Moderna Museet, Stockholm.