Progressive Lessons from our Productive Past

Production is a transformative process, consistently and perpetually changing to solve new problems.  All regimes of government are tied to their most advanced form of production. This bond fuels the growth and expansion of the government organization while at the same time defining the social, economic, and political arrangements of the society.  By deepening our understanding of the modes of production fueling the political economy of the United States we can expand our imagination of possible alternatives.


Time and Technology

Historically social democracy in the United States is aligned with a mass production economy.  One of the most recognized examples being Henry Ford’s assembly line. The mass production model benefits from low skilled, highly transferable labor.  The ideal worker in this mode of production would be able to focus on a singular task, obedient, have a basic grasp of literacy for safety and operational purposes, and the fundamental physical skills necessary to operate the machines.  Under this model, labor could be moved from one factory to another and quickly adapt to the new operational requirements. This system of large-scale production of standardized goods and services was structured in a very hierarchical and technical division of labor.  You can imagine mass production as a template that could be applied to various production verticals to produce similar outputs.

Fast forward to present day, and we can observe that time and technology have diminished mass manufacturing’s economic dominance here in the United States.  Today our most advanced type of production is the Knowledge Economy. Most advanced defined as the method of output creating the highest returns for input.  The Knowledge Economy is an economic system where the most work relies on highly skilled labor that is easily transferable between organizations, Silicon Valley developers being a single example.  Similar to the manufacturing organization of the past, developers working at one firm can easily transfer to another and be able to begin productive work within a relatively short time frame. The defining difference of this new era is that labor is highly skilled, dramatically limiting the number of people who can access these opportunities.


The structure of Access

Comparing the present to the past, we can observe other critical differences in the structuring of access to advanced production resources.  Today the Knowledge Economy exists in almost every industry sector but remains isolated to a few organizations, usually those with dominant market shares.  Its insular nature is due to a few aspects; one is that it is challenging for the new knowledge-intensive labor practice to spread organically unless the general population is brought up to speed with the educational requirements for this type of work. We can also observe that the concentration of access to this mode of production favors the present dominant interests, both political and business, making the path of least resistance to keep it isolated.

If we compare our present modes of production to historical examples, we can observe significant differences.  In the past, the most advanced form of production was disseminated on a national scale. The mass production revolution shared access to advanced production technologies and methodologies such as standardization of products, assembly lines, and methods of batch production.  This philosophy of shared access to technologies developed an economy based on the competition of production value rather than the concentration of access. In the present day, we observe the opposite happening. Our most advanced firms maintain access to the most advanced technologies support machine learning, logistics, data analytics, and more to themselves.   Comparing GDP growth rates [1] of past and present, we can observe that we consistently received more significant economic growth when access to the most advanced methods was shared.


New ideas, new systems

If our objective is to create a better engine for productivity and innovation, then data regarding productive growth favors opening up access to the most advanced forms of production to more people.  More people with more access to the tools necessary to innovate will result in more innovation. More innovation creates more opportunities for labor and potential collective impact. Under the current institutional arrangements, we are hindering our possible progress in favor of a small group of mega-corporations.  Therefore the solutions of modern Progressives must be to find ways to reshape our legal and institutional arrangements to unlock access to more people. In transcending our current legal, political, and economic limitations defining who can access the best technology we lay the groundwork for experimentation and innovation that could grow exponentially larger and faster than anything we observe today.

Critics of my argument might claim that people want to join companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon because they provide the most money.  Capital is indeed a big incentive for tech workers, but I would argue that the critique cannot be validated because Knowledge Economy workers have no options.  By choosing to work at the largest firms, the developers gain access to more capital and, more importantly, the ability to work on the most advanced projects in the world.  These opportunities are denied to other sectors of our economy, shrinking the scope of the potential for innovation and access. The claim I make is that if workers of the current Knowledge Economy had more options to use their talents in different directions outside of the monopolistic minority of tech conglomerates, they would do so.  Innovators want to innovate, but it’s hard to do that in a world where your laws and government support the isolation of access.

It’s a fact that the nature of work is changing.  In his second lecture on Progressive Alternatives, Roberto Unger discusses how the future labor will be separated into cooperative organizations and self-employment. Collaborative efforts in the joining of individuals of similar interest working to solve a common problem and self-employment in the form of meaningful work drawing from the creative talents of the individual.  Transforming our approach to labor from a means of survival into a series of passion projects is the goal of the suggested incremental changes. This isn’t a dream of a distant future, instead a call to the leadership of today and tomorrow to recognize the potential we squander every day we do not embrace our transition. No person should have to do a job a machine can do.  Through a combination of institutional reformation, focused automation, and cooperative projects we can begin to construct the future of labor today.

Ron is the Founder and Executive Director of the OurSociety Experiment.  He’s passionate about shifting our social, political, and economic institutions towards a system that maximizes agency and access for every individual.