It is hard to imagine anything more damaging to the movements for livable minimum wages, greater reliance on renewable energy resources, or workplace democracy than the stubborn belief that one must be a “liberal” to support them. Indeed, the common narrative that associates energy efficiency with left-wing politics leads to absurd actions by more conservative citizens. Not only do some self-identified conservatives intentionally make their pickup trucks more polluting at high costs (e.g., “rolling coal”) but they will shun energy efficient—and money saving— lightbulbs if their packaging touts their environmental benefits. Those on the left, often do little to help the situation, themselves seemingly buying into the idea that conservatives must culturally be everything leftists are not and vice-versa. As a result, the possibility to ally for common purposes, against a common enemy (i.e., neoliberalism), is forgone.
The Germans have not let themselves be hindered by such narratives. Indeed, their movement toward embracing renewables, which now make up nearly a third of their power generation market, has been driven by a diverse political coalition. A number villages in the German conservative party (CDU) heartland now produce more green energy than they need, and conservative politicians supported the development of feed-in tariffs and voted to phase out nuclear energy. As Craig Morris and Arne Jungjohann describe, the German energy transition resonates with key conservative ideas, namely the ability of communities to self-govern and the protection of valued rural ways of life. Agrarian villages are given a new lease on life by farming energy next to crops and livestock, and enabling communities to produce their own electricity lessens the control of large corporate power utilities over energy decisions. Such themes remain latent in American conservative politics, now overshadowed by the post-Reagan dominance of “business friendly” libertarian thought styles.
Elizabeth Anderson has noticed a similar contradiction with regard to workplaces. Many conservative Americans decry what they see as overreach by federal and state governments, but tolerate outright authoritarianism at work. Tracing the history of conservative support for “free market” policies, she notes that such ideas emerged in an era when self-employment was much more feasible. Given the immense economies of scale possible with post-Industrial Revolution technologies, however, the barriers to entry for most industries are much too high for average people to own and run their own firms. As a result, free market policies no longer create the conditions for citizens to become self-reliant artisans but rather spur the centralization and monopolization of industries. Citizens, in turn, become wage laborers, working under conditions far more similar to feudalism than many people are willing to recognize.
Even Adam Smith, to whom many conservatives look for guidance on economic policy, argued that citizens would only realize the moral traits of self-reliance and discipline—values that conservatives routinely espouse—in the right contexts. In fact, he wrote of people stuck doing repetitive tasks in a factory:
“He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible to become for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging”
Advocates of economic democracy have overlooked a real opportunity to enroll conservatives in this policy area. Right leaning citizens need not be like Mike Rowe—a man who ironically garnered a following among “hard working” conservatives by merely dabbling in blue collar work—and mainly bemoan the ostensible decline in citizens’ work ethic. Conservatives could be convinced that creating policies that support self-employment and worker-owned firms would be far more effective in creating the kinds of citizenry they hope for, far better than simply shaming the unemployed for apparently being lazy. Indeed, they could become like the conservative prison managers in North Dakota (1), who are now recognizing that traditionally conservative “tough on crime” legislation is both ineffective and fiscally irresponsible—learning that upstanding citizens cannot be penalized into existence.
Another opportunity has been lost by not constructing more persuasive narratives that connect neoliberal policies with the decline of community life and the eroding well-being of the nation. Contemporary conservatives will vote for politicians who enable corporations to outsource or relocate at the first sign of better tax breaks somewhere else, while they simultaneously decry the loss of the kinds of neighborhood environments that they experienced growing up. Their support of “business friendly” policies had far different implications in the days when the CEO of General Motors would say “what is good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa.” Compare that to an Apple executive, who baldly stated: “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.”
Yet fights for a higher minimum wage and proposals to limit the destructively competitive processes where nations and cities try to lure businesses away from each other with tax breaks get framed as anti-American, even though they are poised to reestablish part of the social reality that conservatives actually value. Communities cannot prosper when torn asunder by economic disruptions; what is best for a multinational corporation is often not what is best for nation like the United States. It is a tragedy that many leftists overlook these narratives and focus narrowly on appeals to egalitarianism, a moral language that political psychologists have found (unsurprisingly) to resonate only with other leftists.
The resulting inability to form alliances with conservatives over key economic and energy issues allows libertarian-inspired neoliberalism to drive conservative politics in the United States, even though libertarianism is as incompatible with conservativism as it is with egalitarianism. Libertarianism, by idealizing impersonal market forces, upholds an individualist vision of society that is incommensurable with communal self-governance and the kinds of market interventions that would enable more people to be self-employed or establish cooperative businesses. By insisting that one should “defer” to the supposedly objective market in nearly all spheres of life, libertarianism threatens to commodify the spaces that both leftists and conservatives find sacred: pristine wilderness, private life, etc.
There are real challenges, however, to more often realizing political coalitions between progressives and conservatives, namely divisions over traditionalist ideas regarding gender and sexuality. Yet even this is a recent development. As Nadine Hubbs shows, the idea that poor rural and blue collar people are invariably more intolerant than urban elites is a modern construction. Indeed, studies in rural Sweden and elsewhere have uncovered a surprising degree of acceptance for non-hetereosexual people, though rural queer people invariably understand and express their sexuality differently than urban gays. Hence, even for this issue, the problem lies not in rural conservatism per se but with the way contemporary rural conservatism in America has been culturally valenced. The extension of communal acceptance has been deemphasized in order to uphold consistency with contemporary narratives that present a stark urban-rural binary, wherein non-cis, non-hetereosexual behaviors and identities are presumed to be only compatible with urban living. Yet the practice, and hence the narrative, of rural blue collar tolerance could be revitalized.
However, the preoccupation of some progressives with maintaining a stark cultural distinction with rural America prevents progressive-conservative coalitions from coming together to realize mutually beneficial policy changes. I know that I have been guilty of that. Growing up with left-wing proclivities, I was guilty of much of what Nadine Hubbs criticizes about middle-class Americans: I made fun of “rednecks” and never, ever admitted to liking country music. My preoccupation with proving that I was really an “enlightened” member of the middle class, despite being a child of working class parents and only one generation removed from the farm, only prevented me from recognizing that I potentially had more in common with rednecks politically than I ever would with the corporate-friendly “centrist” politicians at the helm of both major parties. No doubt there is work to be done to undo all that has made many rural areas into havens for xenophobic, racist, and homophobic bigotry; but that work is no different than what could and should be done to encourage poor, conservative whites to recognize what a 2016 SNL sketch so poignantly illustrated: that they have far more in common with people of color than they realize.
1. A big oversight in the “work ethic” narrative is that it fails to recognize that slacking workers are often acting rationally. If one is faced with few avenues for advancement and is instantly replaced when suffering an illness or personal difficulties, why work hard? What white collar observers like Rowe might see as laziness could be considered an adaptation to wage labor. In such contexts, working hard can be reasonably seen as not the key to success but rather a product of being a chump. A person would be merely harming their own well-being in order to make someone else rich. This same discourse in the age of feudalism would have involved chiding peasants for taking too many holidays.
The stock phrase that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” certainly seems to hold true for technological innovation. After a team of Stanford University researchers recently developed an algorithm that they say is better at diagnosing heart arrhythmias than a human expert, all the MIT Technology Review could muster was to rhetorically ask if patients and doctors could ever put their trust in an algorithm. I won’t dispute the potential for machine learning algorithms to improve diagnoses; however, I think we should all take issue when journalists like Will Knight depict these technologies so uncritically, as if their claimed merits will be unproblematically realized without negative consequences.
Indeed, the same gee-whiz reporting likely happened during the advent of computerized autopilot in the 1970s—probably with the same lame rhetorical question: “Will passengers ever trust a computer to land a plane?” Of course, we now know that the implementation of autopilot was anything but a simple story of improved safety and performance. As both Robert Pool and Nicholas Carr have demonstrated, the automation of facets of piloting created new forms of accidents produced by unanticipated problems with sensors and electronics as well as the eventual deskilling of human pilots. That shallow, ignorant reporting for similar automation technologies, including not just automated diagnosis but also technologies like driverless cars, continues despite the knowledge of those previous mistakes is truly disheartening.
The fact that the tendency to not dig too deeply into the potential undesirable consequences of automation technologies is so widespread is telling. It suggests that something must be acting as a barrier to people’s ability to think clearly about such technologies. The political scientists Charles Lindblom called these barriers “impairments to critical probing,” noting the role of schools and the media in helping to ensure that most citizens refrain from critically examining the status quo.
Such impairments to critical probing with respect to automation technologies are visible in the myriad simplistic narratives that are often presumed rather than demonstrated, such as in the belief that algorithms are inherently safer than human operators. Indeed, one comment on Will Knight’s article prophesized that “in the far future human doctors will be viewed as dangerous compared to AI.”
Not only are such predictions impossible to justify—at this point they cannot be anything more than wildly speculative conjectures—but they fundamentally misunderstand what technology is. Too often people act as if technologies were autonomous forces in the world, not only in the sense that people act as if technological changes were foreordained and unstoppable but also in how they fail to see that no technology functions without the involvement of human hands. Indeed, technologies are better thought of as sociotechnical systems.
Even a simple tool like a hammer cannot existing without underlying human organizations, which provide the conditions for its production, nor can it act in the world without it having been designed to be compatible with the shape and capacities of the human body. A hammer that is too big to be effectively wielded by a person would be correctly recognized as an ill-conceived technology; few would fault a manual laborer forced to use such a hammer for any undesirable outcomes of its use.
Yet somehow most people fail to extend the same recognition to more complex undertakings like flying a plane or managing a nuclear reactor: in such cases, the fault is regularly attributed to “human error.” How could it be fair to blame a pilot, who only becomes deskilled as a result of their job requiring him or her to almost exclusively rely on autopilot, for mistakenly pulling up on the controls and stalling the plane during an unexpected autopilot error? The tendency to do so is a result of not recognizing autopilot technology as a sociotechnical system. Autopilot technology that leads to deskilled pilots, and hence accidents, is as poorly designed as a hammer incompatibly large for the human body: it fails to respect the complexities of the human-technology interface.
Many people, including many of my students, find that chain of reasoning difficult to accept, even though they struggle to locate any fault with it. They struggle under the weight of the impairing narrative that leads them to assume that the substitution of human action with computerized algorithms is always unalloyed progress. My students’ discomfort is only further provoked when presented with evidence that early automated textile technologies produced substandard, shoddy products—most likely being implemented in order to undermine organized labor rather than to contribute to a broader, more humanistic notion of progress. In any case, the continued power of automation=progress narrative will likely stifle the development of intelligent debate about automated diagnosis technologies.
If technological societies currently poised to begin automating medical care are to avoid repeating history, they will need to learn from past mistakes. In particular, how could AI be implemented so as to enhance the diagnostic ability of doctors rather than deskill them? Such an approach would part ways with traditional ideas about how computers should influence the work process, aiming to empower and “informate” skilled workers rather than replace them. As Siddhartha Mukherjee has noted, while algorithms can be very good at partitioning, e.g., distinguishing minute differences between pieces of information, they cannot deduce “why,” they cannot build a case for a diagnosis by themselves, and they cannot be curious. We only replace humans with algorithms at the cost of these qualities.
Citizens of technological societies should demand that AI diagnostic systems are used to aid the ongoing learning of doctors, helping them to solidify hunches and not overlook possible alternative diagnoses or pieces of evidence. Meeting such demands, however, may require that still other impairing narratives be challenged, particularly the belief that societies must acquiescence to the “disruptions” of new innovations, as they are imagined and desired by Silicon Valley elites—or the tendency to think of the qualities of the work process last, if at all, in all the excitement over extending the reach of robotics.
One of the biggest challenges that I think social scientists should be committing themselves to solving is the question of how to enable large-scale social change. Our age is rife with injustices: growing income inequality, an increasingly brutal police-prison-industrial complex, among others. At the same time, these injustices are frustratingly chronic. Positive change, if it has occurred at all, has been ploddingly slow. I think that a big contributor is the unwillingness or inability of average people to imagine change as possible, a necessary condition for them to even begin to advocate for reform. Yet, as anyone who is has read the commentary on a critical article on these issues has probably seen, many Americans seem willing to spare no effort in trying to justify the status quo as either inevitable or the best of all possible worlds. As Steve Fraser argues in The Age of Acquiescence, building a more equal society will require attacking and reconceiving the narratives that today prop up the status quo.
Take college sports, arguably one of most egregiously unjust labor systems in the US. Nowhere else can you find people laboring—indeed college football is like a fulltime job—and inflicting long-term damage to their bodies for little reward. The NCAA generates a billion dollars in revenue, all the while players are contractually barred from reaping the fruits of their labor. As others have pointed out, the “NCAA is a plantation, and the players are the sharecroppers.” That many, if not most, of the prospective players hail from poorer, black regions of the country makes the system seem even more destructive. Football combines start to bear an eerie resemblance to the auction block when one reflects on all these similarities.
The response to such observations always seems to be the same: Don’t these players voluntarily sign the dotted line on the contract? Aren’t they free to do otherwise? The rhetoric of choice is one of the most pernicious discourses today, one that is routinely mobilized to prevent people from digging too deep into systematic inequalities. It is a discourse that tries to eliminate deep thinking about the innumerable coercions faced by most people by reframing them all as choices. Consider Paul Ryan’s recent bizarre claim that cuts to Medicaid and the elimination of the ACA wouldn’t eliminate people’s healthcare: Such people would be simply “choosing” not to have it any longer. The transformation of the inability to pay for something into a free choice is just one of the daftest—though politically expedient—outcomes of choice-based rhetoric. In the context of college sports, it ignores that players coming out of the most deprived areas of the country typically have few other opportunities for a college education or many other routes out of poverty. The rhetoric of choice projects the latitude of choice available to only the most affluent citizens onto everyone, regardless of what their lives actually look like.
The case of college sports also illuminates how the mere possibility of success, no matter how infinitesimal, can lead people to tolerate otherwise intolerable circumstances. Compare it to the Black Mirror episode “15 Million Merits.” Work in the society depicted in this episode is unmitigated drudgery: Citizens’s work lives entail endlessly pedaling on stationary bikes. Their only respite comes from a constant connection to an array of entertainment possibilities, and their only hope for a way out lies in winning Hot Shot, an America’s Got Talent-like game show. The metaphor in “15 Million Merits” couldn’t be clearer: Clawing one’s way out of the doldrums of working in what David Graeber has labeled “bullshit jobs” is largely a roll of the dice, dependent on the caprice of those who do have the power to decide. The hosts of Hot Shot sit with an air of superiority, judging who is worthy and who is not—much like a few of the hosts of the show Shark Tank. Like college ball players who must subject their bodies to four years of strain for a shot at an NFL contract, some workers acquiesce to an unjust working arrangement partly because they too are caught up in dreams of getting to be one of the lucky few to strike it rich.
I’m not the first to note that Americans are limited in their ability to think critically about class because of a belief that inequality is okay as long as they have a chance of being on the right side of it. A common quote, routinely misattributed to John Steinbeck, laments how “the poor [in America] see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The underlying narrative that success invariably comes to those who show grit and determination adds to the rhetoric of choice to prevent critical questions about the sources of poverty. I will never forget the panicked look on a student, who in a class discussion about economic fairness, tried to claim that if he were parachuted into Haiti that he would be successful in six months; while uttering something horrible, he nonetheless seemed to be straining under an immense load of cognitive dissonance, attempting to resolve the conflict between a narrative that gave him hope about his own future and its implication that Haitians are somehow poor because they don’t know how to work as hard as middle-class white people.
In any case, also noteworthy in “15 Million Merits” is how those who, for whatever reason, are unable to handle the strain of cycling all day are treated. They are widely abused, distinguished by particular clothing, and targeted for mockery in violent video games and on television game shows—that society’s equivalent of Jerry Springer and Cops. Citizens of this imagined society, much like our own, are partly driven to labor—often to the detriment of their mental and physical well-being—by the fear of being poor and mocked and the belief that perhaps they too can achieve a state of transcendent affluence. Who gives any thoughts to the hundreds or thousands student athletes who, once injured, are often deprived of their scholarship? Often not earning a degree, or perhaps not one that is worth anything, and carrying a potentially disabling injury, such as cervical spine damage, once phenomenal athletes on the way to stardom become just another impoverished nobody, another one of the “takers” denigrated in contemporary conservative discourse.
It seems to me that achieving a more just American society will not be possible without the simultaneous demise of these poverty justifying narratives. Not only will new narratives be necessary, but such narratives will need to be uttered by the right people. As great as it is that attendees of Ivy League universities and participants in urban art collectives have developed counter narratives to those that today justify status quo inequalities, it seems unlikely that such narratives will ever resonate with average citizens. A recent video by The Onion makes much the same point in satirically depicting a Trump voter whose mind was changed after reading 800 pages of queer feminist theory. In my mind, much of the humanities and social sciences are not worth the paper they have been printed on, if they cannot be persuasively conveyed to non-academic—indeed, uneducated—audiences. Unfortunately, many of the academics I know are too busy denigrating Trump voters for being ignorant to consider how things might actually change.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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