Freedom, mostly. Trite, abstract, meaningless? An empty box that needs to be filled in? A seed crystal moment about freedom occurred just prior to my retirement. Chantise, a fellow history teacher, stopped me in the hallway and said, “Soon you’ll be able to drink daiquiris for breakfast on the beach in Trinidad.” Is that freedom? Living like the aging Hemingway to round out a life as a teaching apparatchik? No, an old Greek definition could be interpreted that freedom must have something to do with human flourishing, the fulfillment of one’s capacities in a life affording them scope. At last, my time was approaching.
My first day of this new life occurred in the dead of winter. Everyone had gone to work, leaving me with time and space in an empty house in one of the outer boroughs. The small, still voice that had been silenced through all these years of external demands now made an entrance onto the stage of my mind, causing vertigo.
After 20 years of teaching history in New York City high schools, I can’t help but be obsessed with who we are and where we are headed as a people. Old John Dewey wrote way back in the ’20s that industrialization, as it existed in the United States, was not compatible with democracy as a way of life. Professor Dewey envisioned democracy as an anarchic moral ideal balancing freedom and equality. What would he think today about a data-driven society being utterly transformed by AI? How is it all turning out for the average person? These are themes I want to write about, to get involved in some way.
As a recent Frontline documentary makes plain, the general ledger seems tilted toward the downside of AI in a way reminiscent of the early Industrial Revolution in Britain. There, they said, it took 9 decades for wages to start rising. In the United States, where automation has occurred, it has been a silent job killer, diminishing the overall standard of living by 10-15% over the past 20 years. Routine work for human beings is disappearing forever. One sociologist said that the #1 job in the DC area was a cashier. Mostly women who are disproportionately represented in marginal jobs anyway. She then pointed to an image of a McDonald’s self-ordering panel to say that the displacement of cashiers has begun.
It is easy to see why analysts say that AI tips the scale on the side of capital at the expense of labor. Yes, we are thrown back onto the old dualism. Wages have been decoupled from productivity. Hence increasing inequality. Gaping inequality is incompatible with individual freedom. That much, at least, is confirmed by history. Added to that is the exploitation of our personal data as the new natural resource, the new oil, also called surveillance capitalism. Cotton was the oil of the Old South, built on slave labor, financed through Wall Street. Stockholders require expanding profits, and given the symbiosis of total bureaucracies of governments and corporations worldwide, how long will it be before the social credit system employed in China becomes THE universal instrument of suppression? Who is standing up for the little guy? This is what I want to write about.
My first writing project was an attempt to discover the real reason why Vice-President Wallace was kicked under the bus by FDR and the Democratic Party in 1944. Not only did this good man resurrect US agriculture during the depth of the Great Depression, but he also used his position at the War Board during World War II to spread the New Deal to workers in Latin America who supplied the US with material for the war effort. He was once the most popular politician in America, after Roosevelt. He expressed a vision of the world after the war as the Century of the Common Man. What we got was the American Empire. During a time of racial tension, he promoted civil rights for African Americans. He was crushed because he wouldn’t buy into the Cold War build-up of the military-industrial complex. The alliances between government and industry back then continue today, with huge military contracts going to Google, and Microsoft, who recently won a new cloud contract with the Pentagon. Taft-Hartley was passed to suppress unions. The clock has turned back to the 19th century.
And then along came Mark Janus. Mr. Janus filed a lawsuit against his public union because his union advocated policies he didn’t agree with. He didn’t want his dues to fund those policies. The Bradley Foundation has funded templates to state legislatures and also litigation efforts like Janus to gut organized labor. When the Supreme Court decided in favor of Janus, unions took another beating. Government and technology are beating workers back into serfdom.
Eudaimonia: to flourish. The daimon in ancient Greek meant one’s inner spirit force, that which needs to express itself. How could it, when the average income of a household in Saginaw is $16,000, a town which used to build cars? Truckers in the ’80s used to earn the equivalent of $100,000. Now it is $40,000, and their jobs are being replaced by self-driving trucks. Gig workers are not considered employees by the companies they work for. What is to be done?
I cannot write merely personal reflections. The task, as evidenced by this course, is to use this global platform to crowdsource ideas and ways average people and groups could band together, inject into the bloodstream of the world culture our determination to bend this new world, these new technologies, toward a more egalitarian flourishing of individuals. Or, we could wait for Bill Gates to fund a new idea, laudable as his projects are. History is replete with such examples. I am reminded of George Orwell’s descriptions in Homage to Catalonia about the atmosphere among the anarchists in Northern Spain during their Civil War. He wrote that everyday relations were transformed; communal decision making. Workplace democracy anyone? Another world is possible. Let’s try.