It’s 2015. Has anyone seen our flying cars?
How about the tranquility and economic security that, beyond the cool gadgetry, created the appeal of the 2015 of Back to the Future Part II? Why do they seem as absent as its faxes and laserdiscs? And why, midway through the half-century anniversary of the 1964-1965 World’s Fair, does its tomorrow seem as crumbling as its remaining buildings (last seen alongside their fellow 1960s kitsch, the Keane paintings of Big Eyes)?
Marty McFly wasn’t the first traveler to a future American paradise. A century before, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 sent protagonist Julian West forward to a 2000 utopia ushered in by a nationalized economy. West is as wowed by the bountiful products of central planning as Marty is by hoverboards; the conspicuous absence of anti-consumerist sour grapes is startling in post-Trabant retrospect. Well before the year 2000, however, it looked like Back to the Future Part II‘s Reagan-style private enterprise had won the day. If anything might bring mushrooming productivity and a concomitant dwindling of working hours, it was not Bellamyite efficiency but business competition, a la the Spacely Sprockets-Cogswell Cogs rivalry that gave The Jetsons’ patriarch a two-hour workweek to be late for.
But maybe Mattel and Pepsi aren’t all that different from Bellamy’s planned economy.
Scrutiny bears out David Graeber’s suggestion that Marx and Engels “were right to insist that the mechanization of industrial production would destroy capitalism; they were wrong to predict that market competition would compel factory owners to mechanize anyway. If it didn’t happen, that is because market competition is not, in fact, as essential to the nature of capitalism as they had assumed.” Markets have an affinity with technology that benefits the ordinary people engaging in its exchange, enabling them to leverage the value they create while lessening the labor needed to obtain that value. Thus free markets are an existential danger to all third-party institutions whose wealth is appropriated from the products of traders’ labor.
Forestalling the development of such technology is the corporate state alliance observed by Robert Anton Wilson, in which “big unions, the corporations, and government have all tacitly agreed to slow down the pace of cybernation, to drag their feet and run the economy with the brakes on.”
The perennial calls for a new moon shot or Manhattan Project assume that large-scale centralized projects, by either government or Ma Bell-style corporate monopolies, are necessary for technological leaps. But as Ralph Nader pointed out, even in the twentieth century dominated by such goliaths, “[t]he firms which introduced stainless steel razor blades (Wilkinson), transistor radios (Sony), photocopying machines (Xerox), and the ‘instant’ photograph (Polaroid) were all small and little known when they made their momentous breakthroughs.”
Bellamy’s most prescient follower may have been Ernest B. Gaston, who synthesized Looking Backward with the other major American reform book of the time, Henry George’s Progress and Poverty. Gaston’s own real-life utopian experiment, Fairhope, pinned its “fair hope” for Bellamy’s harmonious future on voluntary cooperation within George’s market competition.
Where we’re going, we don’t need the government — or corporations — to build roads.