Creeping Abstraction, Part II

Creeping Abstraction, Part II June 5, 2013

IN PART ONE, I TALKED ABOUT what I called the Creeping Abstraction of Accountability — the tendency since the Industrial Revolution for accountability in our economic relations to become ever more abstracted from anything resembling personal responsibility. I used as my examples an imaginary (but also reasonably typical) village named “Sylvan” in the year 1800, versus a typical American community in the present day.

In Sylvan, it would be an absurdity to write to a company 2,000 miles away if you had a problem with a chair, since the person who made it would probably be personally known to you, and you would likely be no more than a few minutes’ walk from the location of its manufacture. If you wanted, you could easily arrange to watch it being made, along with practically everything else you owned — milk, butter, the shoes for your horse, the shoes you wore, and so on.

It is probably still possible to live your life that way — eating only agricultural products from local farmers, using only locally made furniture, clothing and shoes, and so forth — but it is nowhere near the typical experience. The very structure of our civilization would have been nearly unimaginable to the residents of Sylvan, and probably somewhat terrifying if they did imagine it.

The desk and the keyboard on which I’m typing this was made in China by people I’ll never meet, as was the cup holding the cocoa I’m sipping. The car I drive was made somewhere in the U.S.; my shirt in Indonesia; my jeans in the U.S. (again, I have no idea where, exactly). There is virtually no possibility of my ever meeting the people who made most of the stuff I use every day.

To be sure, there are many advantages to living in the present industrial world. I like being able to take BART to work. Altogether, getting to work and getting around in general is much easier and more pleasant an experience than it used to be — in 1800, America’s larger cities reeked of horse dung, and the bloated, putrefying remains of worked-to-death draft animals used to be a common sight in the streets of places like New York and Philadelphia.

I really, really would not want to give up modern dentistry. I like being able to eat a more-or-less fresh orange in New York City in, say, February.

But the price of the material abundance made possible by the Industrial Revolution is that we are deeply, structurally alienated from one another in our economic (and, for that matter, basic human) relations.

When I read some of the arguments put forth by spokesmen for the contemporary political right, it seems that the remedies they propose are more suited for the problems of the world inhabited by my Sylvanians in 1800 than to the challenges of the scale and complexity of American civilization in 2013. A large, powerful national government in 1800 would have been an intrusive absurdity – there was no need for it. To the extent that economic regulation was needed, it could easily be handled at the local level and relatively informally, since that was the scale of virtually any problems that arose.

New Deal-type liberals like myself think there is a critical role to be played by a large, powerful central government in the present United States — not because we think governments ought, always and everywhere, to be big, but because Big Government is the only potential counter-balance to the power of Big Business. And big business, in the present world, has enormous power and influence. ExxonMobil made more in after-tax profits last year than many U.S. state governments took in in total revenue.

Now, some readers might be surprised to hear me say this, but I don’t think there is anything innately wrong with business in general, nor even with big business, per se. My father retired from Chevron after 33 years, and worked with many fine people, including people who became old family friends. I worked for a major imaging company for several years and have fond memories of my co-workers and supervisors from my time there.

The benefits of industrialization — primarily a great variety and abundance of stuff — are great, too. But the costs need to be addressed.

For all the complaints about how environmental regulations cost U.S. companies efficiency, I appreciate the fact that as a result of their existence I can be reasonably certain that wherever I go in the United States, I will not be poisoned by toxic waste as I go about my day. I also like the fact that my food has been inspected, and that the facilities in which it is produced are subject to all kinds of regulations regarding sanitation and the humane treatment of animals.

I like the fact that gold mining companies can no longer blithely contaminate rivers, bays and ultimately the ocean with mercury like they used to. I like the fact that our coal mines kill fewer workers in a year than were killed in them each month before safety regulations were imposed. I like the fact that, thanks to child labor laws, 9-year-olds no longer have their arms torn off working in mills. I like the fact that unions can no longer be crushed by company-hired thugs for the simple act of banding together and asking for fair treatment and wages.

The world of Sylvan was in many ways better than the world in which we live out our lives today — but that pastoral, courtly world is well and truly gone. New citizens, and new circumstances, require new laws.

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  • Julia Smucker

    And here I thought you were going all localist, Matt. I can see the cost/benefit nuances here, but I’m surprised by how you’ve gotten to this conclusion from your original complaint. Although I usually prefer to avoid the ideologically charged trend of attaching the word “big” to whatever institution or industry one wishes to vilify, it seems more likely to me that “big government” and “big business”, for all their arguable benefits, are equal parts of the problem of the abstraction of accountability that you name in this and your previous post.

    • “big government” and “big business”, for all their arguable benefits, are equal parts of the problem of the abstraction of accountability that you name in this and your previous post.

      Right – but I don’t think big business can be un-invented at this point. Even if I’m wrong about that, I think we need to be clear that any return to a localist regime will need to involve abolishing both big business and big government. Not sure I can see a way to actually get there.

      • Julia Smucker

        You’re probably right about that. I’m just confused about what solution you’re trying to prescribe.

  • Ronald King

    Matt, Big or small government, business, church, etc. is an expression of the values of those human beings who hold the majority of power. It is crystal clear that we human beings are more closely connected now than ever before and the consequences of our actions affect the entire human community. Is our what we value based on what is best for us individually and nationally or is it based on what is best for the good of the entire human community?