I don’t know what was passing through Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s brilliant mind when he died in 1778. The cause of death was cerebral hemorrhage resulting in an apoplectic stroke. Part of me always wondered what would have been if he had lived a few years longer. Just 11 years later, the French Revolution broke out, inspired and influenced by his ideas that the system was unjust and corrupted, calling for an alternative in which the “General Will” of the people could control the legislative power.
I’ve been thinking and reading about Rousseau lately. Obviously, I am drawn to his critical thoughts on inequality, but at the same time his disdain for civilization and society fascinates me just as much. Is civilization a good thing? What is education really bringing people? I had never had questioned that. In Rousseau’s eyes, everyone was born and supposed to always stay innocent and free. Being natural is the only way to stay happy, but the society just has to come in and corrupt us (yes, education is one of them evil things).
I’ve seen many people bringing up Ancient Rome as an analogy for the current world. I agree. Chaos, class tensions (conflicts) and the endless war with ourselves, these scream similarities. I’d also say Rousseau’s time, the 18th century France, or Europe, right before the Revolution, is a fair parallel as well. Just like then, our world is also going through a turbulent time, experiencing struggles and clashes between the old and new, left and right, and, most importantly, the haves and the have-nots. These conflicts and struggles are manifested everywhere; you can hear them aloud in senate hearings and find them deep underneath QAnon conspiracy theories. The divides are sometimes so deep and absolute that I fear for an existential crisis. Besides the socioeconomic aspect, also like the late 18th century Europe, we are rapidly welcoming and being forced to adapt to new technologies. It blows my mind every time just to imagine the first time people saw a steam engine working. I am sure that in 200 years, our future generations will wonder how we could process the radical ideas such as “computers” or “Internet” the same way, and very likely we would get criticized for something we take for granted today. The nerd in me feels compelled to add that the Industrial Revolution was mainly in Britain first and then spread further to Continental Europe. A naturalist like Rousseau would probably have vehemently lambasted the whole thing the second he saw black smoke coming out of those roaring machines and furiously produced another book (that got banned).
As a matter of fact, Rousseau did spend a while in Britain in 1766 and had one of the most famous quarrels with Hume. When Hume was debating whether or not to make the beef public (unbelievable how brilliant minds like these two could be so silly, for the lack of a better word), a friend of his reached out with some advice. This friend was none other than Adam Smith, another prominent figure of the Age of Enlightenment. In ten years, he would publish a book titled The Wealth of Nations and completely change the world.
Today, we generally regard Adam Smith as the father of capitalism. His concepts of the free market, “invisible hand” and bargain as human nature are still the fundamental building blocks that hold the whole capitalist system together. There were times when I almost accepted that this world we had now was what Smith envisioned when he was penning those revolutionary ideas 300 years ago and this system of systems was the only way to make things work, efficiently.
The last ten years had me change my mind. It could be because of the Democratic Socialist movement that has been gaining momentum in the Western societies. It could be simply because I got older and realized that nothing was that simple (simple things do and can exist but very likely will not work on a large scale or in a long run). It could also be the fact that the problems that I considered collateral damage before are not collateral anymore. Corporations are getting too big and powerful. They become invasive and controlling, because that’s part of their business model. Even when the too-big-to-fail fellows do fail, they will get bailed out by the government, thanks to the lobby investments, and the executives can still sail into the sunset with 20 million payout on a nice yacht. On the other hand, ordinary people work long hours and sacrifice their health and happiness to just make ends meet. When we discuss inequality and polarization, what do we really discuss and what do we intentionally avoid because there’s always some unspeakable guilt lying somewhere inside of us? When we are writing checks, what are we really putting a price tag on? If Purdue Pharma pays their executives millions from opioid money, what is the free market rewarding them for? The scariest thing is not that it is how it is but the fact that the public has generally accepted that it is what it is. The system has us all engineered to evaluate things in certain ways cognitively and therefore any other ways could easily invoke fear and activate our defense mechanism. Whenever we start to question the evaluation and the reward system, it always feels like we are challenging capitalism itself (or, more likely, someone is going to make you feel that), hence the name calling (“Socialist” or “Communist”). What did Smith say then? When he said we could freely exchange labor (“division” of labor) in the great market, could he have told us how to evaluate and equate between those divisions of labor?
Another issue I have to touch on briefly is sustainability, on which I probably can write a whole series. We mentioned the Industrial Revolution, and, of course, Smith was a big fan, seeing its glory. He was amazed at the improvements in productivity with the modern adoption and application of tools, equipments and production lines, which made high-density mass production possible. Smith died in 1790 and didn’t get to see much of the sky in the color of coal or walk around in London in 1952. Today, we are oiling that same engine, which is still productive as hell but also has directly resulted in massive pollution, waste and ecological destruction. And just like the discussion on inequality, every time we want to do something about sustainability beyond lovely statements, nowadays well-made videos, from the corporate social responsibility team, it always circles back to the ideology again.
So is it really the case or is it because it’s convenient to justify greed and selfishness this way? To answer that question, I think we still need to go back to Adam Smith and then, maybe, Rousseau.
The first edition of The Wealth of Nations was sold out in Britain in six months. It’s safe to say that it was well received. I had never even questioned why it was such an instant success (compared to all the other great philosophers who never got recognized when they were alive) until recently. The ideas were indeed revolutionary, but the timing and its historical background were also, if not more, important. It was needed and the time was calling for it. The Industrial Revolution turned more people into workers and an ideology would be necessary to justify and validate that. His ideas also challenged the predominant economic view that a nation’s wealth depended on gold at the time — no, it actually depended on labor. Then the rest is just history. However, Smith, himself, did foresee the darkness and harms of his production line labor system, and warned against it. Fully aware that self-serving is one of the stronger traits of human beings, he’s sympathetic towards the workers, emphasizing the importance of government involvement and regulation to limit the dehumanizing effects that could destroy a person. He would also say the following:
Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.
So Adams, worrying that the free market is going to worsen inequality and enable labor abuse, was counting on the government, politicians and the society to make it just and fair. It’s like teaching you how to bake and gifting you a spatula, but whether you can make a cake you want to eat for dinner tonight will actually be depending on other things. Do we know how to use an oven? Will we get burned? Do we know how to mix flour? Are we sure we are not poisoning ourselves? Or, do we want to make that cake at all if all I want is a pizza?
Rousseau would roll over in his Pantheon grave if he knew I was going to drag him into this conversation. To him, civilization corrupts people. Remember that the civilization he referred to here is the 18th century France/Europe, not much affected by the first Industrial Revolution yet, so the term probably carried different meanings than now. I’d go further and argue that in our time information technology is what Rousseau would say the corrupting bits (pun intended) of civilization. Internet is one of the greatest inventions of human history. It gives people unprecedented access to information and convenience of communication, among other things. However, aside from the environmental costs (again, I’ll elaborate another time) and the gap it generates further between the have and have-nots, it also exposes us to dangers we’ve never seen or imagined before. Surveillance and data collecting, easily done with technologies, deprive us of privacy, a basic human right, and the ability to hide, a basic human instinct. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the battles, or the war, between authorities and Internet giants, like Google and Facebook. Every time, it seems like the corporates made compromises and some improvements, like these days when you go on a website you will likely see a popup that asks for consent (“Hello, we collect cookies! You cool?”). Yet, the general condition does not seem to change that much — for example, just go and google how much money data brokers are making. In the end, it probably is true that the only way to make profits is to sell and the only way to sell is to find the right people to attack with ads in a world that is overloaded with information and products. How to find the right people then? It sure seems like the easiest, cheapest and most convenient way is to know what each person is thinking, through hidden massive information harvesting. It’s dark humor that when everyone is touting AI and “algorithms” what really is happening is that the information we are “gathering” is so damn much that we need better mathematical functions to process them faster so that we can go out and gather more to make a handful of people extremely wealthy.
It’s not a good idea to write long articles on Medium or anywhere these days, so I am going to stop here. In the rest of the series, I am going to lay out a preliminary model that might serve as one of the alternatives to the current big and centralized corporate system (mainly, Internet companies), a human-centric model to empower people. I believe we shall have variety and options. A company does not have to be massive, greedy and aggressive to be successful. The goals should not (always) be about becoming “duopoly,” going public and make shareholders happy. Since my focus now is on e-commerce, which is probably the easiest way in as far as I can see, I expect to discuss extensively on that matter.
To give a surprising ending to this article, which turns out to be exactly not what I had in mind when I set out, I believe that people are working too much and have the wrong belief that working more and harder is the right path to a better life or, a life at all. With the right system and the right technologies, we can already afford to have people work less and live more. This will be for a future discussion and, for now, let’s end it with a quote from Bertrand Russell on this subject:
The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.