Libraries and revolutions

I was thinking of doing two posts (one each on libraries and revolutions), but I think I found a reasonable way to combine them.

First, revolutions.

Some claim that low union membership in the US is a sign that unions are no longer valued by workers. I think something the opposite, i.e., that unions did such a good job that they were taken for granted by middle-class workers who felt their quality of life was secure from the depredations of “capital” and other “class enemies.” Today, few union jobs remain as a combination of declining membership and right to work laws have undermined the coordinated collective action necessary for unions to represent a countervailing force against employers.

The post-WWII decline in unions has been accompanied by increasing inequality in many countries — an increase that took off under the influence of Thatcher/Reagan reforms in the 1980s and has resulted in the crisis of inequality highlighted by Piketty, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. (Trump has used a version of events to justify his moronic and self-serving agenda. His actions have worsened conditions, as I’ll explain when we get to libraries below…)

These post-WWII inequality dynamics got me to thinking of two ideas: First, revolutions up-end the old order, resulting in short term losses but then medium-term prosperity. In the long run, however, the rich/powerful/elite tend to centralize their control and direct income and wealth to themselves.

Thus, the agricultural revolution occurred ±10,000 years ago, replacing semi-egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies with settled communities. In the “short-run” of the first 4,000 years (!), this system was bad for the individual but good for the group (read my reviews of Sapiens and The Secret to Our Success). After that long adjustment, however, agriculture fed an explosion of human flourishing in which the average person was better off and communities were reasonably egalitarian, at least compared to the late middle ages, when the rich and royal owned most of the land and many slaves as they grew fabulously wealthy. 

The end of this age is often linked to the French Revolution (1789) but the Industrial Revolution also played a part in overturning power relations and opening up an entirely new set of possibilities based on a different model of production. 

The industrial revolution followed a similar pattern of painful disruption, growing benefits to the working classes, and a resumption of control over income and wealth by the rich and powerful, this time at about 50 times the speed (i.e., “bad times” for 80 years rather than 4,000 years). The beginning was terrible for workers (thus the rebellion of the Luddites), but matters improved as workers unionized, slaves were freed, and the benefits of mechanized agriculture and manufacturing went to the working classes. Industrialization brought globalization (the telegraph, steam ships, migration) but also total war, as seen in the millions of victims in the two world wars. After the Great Depression and WWII, there was a firm improvement in living conditions (from a very low base) that benefitted the “average Joe” between 1950 and 1980. (These benefits didn’t go to poorer countries, some of which were lucky to escape colonial rule.)

The 1980s is seen by many as a turning point of inequality, which I’ll agree to. Yes, there was more freedom for “individuals,” but there was also a massive swing of wealth, from the majority to job creators, masters of the universe, and global tax dodgers.

The information revolution began in the 1960s, but it really took off in the 1990s, as the Internet matured and spread, driven ahead by Moore’s Law and an emerging economics of “winner takes all” platforms and economies of scale. In this scenario, short-term disruption and middle-class gains took only a decade to process before the elites were again collecting the majority of gains. Yes, Facebook is free. Yes, many people spend hours being “entertained” by their feeds. But most of this activity is a distraction from the massive concentration of income and wealth in tech companies based in the US and China (except when it comes to taxes). I’ve complained before about the negative impacts of tech — and its loss of innocence — so I’ll just leave it there.

My one-handed perspective is that revolutions are temporarily disruptive, until the elites find a way to regain control and enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of society.

So how does this relate to libraries?

A few months ago, my girlfriend was telling me that her old hometown in Romania did not have a library, as there was “not enough money” to support such an institution.

I went on a rant about how a library is probably more important than a school, as a library provides a public, free meeting space for people to study, talk and cooperate in tackling problems, planning their future or doing their homework. These “public good” services help allow anyone in the community to benefit without payment, unlike private clubs, most schools or cafes. Those benefits are probably radically higher than the cost of libraries to taxpayers, which means that they should be set up as soon as possible in new communities and protected for as long as possible in the face of tight finances. (Read this, this or most anything here.)

Try telling that to Trump voters. In this NYT article, the author visits an Arkansas community that supports Trump but doesn’t see the point of a library — or paying taxes. Instead, they seem to think it’s better for folks to “take care of their own” without funding or support from the government. I see their “go it alone” attitude as the product of a mix of bravery, naiveté and ignorance: They beleive they don’t need help, assume they can survive everything from medical emergencies to natural disasters with their own resources, and believe that taxes and spending represent a zero-sum game. This last point is perhaps the most damaging, as it denies the main reason that we have governments: the provision of public goods that cost some money to provide but provide much greater benefits to people. More importantly, public goods (like the library but also security, information, clean air, etc.) are pro-poor because they are free to users. (This article makes that point indirectly, as students care more about the basics — quiet space, wifi — than the fancy bells and whistles that tech consultants sell to trend-chasing bureaucrats.)

Thus, we arrive at a terrible paradox: Inequality is rising as the information revolution rewards elites but the poor are turning against means of helping themselves (libraries, Obamacare, etc.) due to their mistaken belief that Trump and Republicans — their tribe — cares about them. They don’t.

My one-handed conclusion is that America’s less fortunate are only going to be worse off as the rich and Republicans conspire against them. What happens next? Either they will eat cake or start another revolution — and it won’t be pretty.

 

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.