“The Permanent Problem” is an ongoing series of essay about the challenges of capitalist mass affluence as well as the solutions to them. You can access the full collection here, or subscribe to brinklindsey.substack.com to get them straight to your inbox. 

Since 2016, I’ve done a great deal of reading, writing, thinking, talking, and brooding about the crisis of liberal democracy we’re now living through — how it originated, what powers it, and how possibly to defuse it or at least muddle through it. And what I’ve concluded is that this political crisis is one aspect of a much larger, deeper, global social crisis — a period of transition in which the long-term outlook for free and open societies, and for human well-being more broadly, swings all the way from catastrophe to transformational progress.

To try to explain what this global crisis is about, to describe it in all its varied and interrelated dimensions, to assess possible outcomes for good and ill on the other side of the vortex, to explore the most promising possibilities for genuine and durable progress — that’s the mission of my new blog, and the Niskanen essays that will flow from it.

The name for this project is “The Permanent Problem,” a line borrowed from an essay by the economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes foresaw our current predicament at a time when it couldn’t have seemed more distant. In a piece titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” published in 1930 in the depths of the Great Depression, Keynes lifted his gaze from the grim present and looked forward a hundred years —that is, to just a few years from now. He understood, correctly, that the Depression was a temporary interruption in a long-term trend of cumulative growth, and that in all likelihood the trend would continue. Which led him to this bold conclusion: “All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem.” In other words, the threat of physical privation was gradually receding and would in due course no longer be a central motivating force in society.

“[T]he economic problem, the struggle for subsistence,” Keynes wrote, “always has been hitherto the primary, most pressing problem of the human race.” But in light of the remarkable progress of modern economic growth to date, the prospect of continued progress “means that the economic problem is not — if we look into the future — the permanent problem of the human race.” If growth could just persist for another century, Keynes claimed, “for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

It is noteworthy that Keynes characterized the coming future of material plenty as a problem – indeed, as humanity’s ultimate problem. Even back then, Keynes could see that negotiating this dramatic change wasn’t going to be easy: “There is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread.” When the dog is in full chase behind the speeding car, all is well — but what happens when the car stops and the dog catches up? “If the economic problem is solved,” Keynes noted, “mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose.” Recognizing and pursuing humanity’s new purpose will require “the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.” The rigors of that transition, Keynes believed, may convulse society with the equivalent of a “general ‘nervous breakdown.’”

My borrowing from Keynes, I should make clear, is highly selective. His vision of what life would be like now has not come to pass: He imagined that at our level of affluence, the average work week would be down to 15 hours or so as people transitioned to noneconomic pursuits. And further, his vision of what it would mean to “solve” the permanent problem is emphatically not my own. He looks forward to the fading of not only commercial motives, but future-oriented purposiveness of any sort: He invokes the lilies of the field and proclaims that “those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow.” A utopia that seems to have no place for striving and ambition, leadership and teamwork, great projects and accomplishments — and indeed, no apparent place for the joyful burdens of family life — strikes me as profoundly unappealing.

But Keynes’s essay got two big things right that relate directly, in my opinion, to the challenges that confront us now. First, he was right to be optimistic that capitalism, if allowed to continue, would be able to produce widespread plenty and thereby solve the economic problem. And second, he was right that figuring out what to do next was going to be hard. It is the premise of this project that the political crisis of liberal democracy and the broader malaise afflicting the rich democracies are best understood as symptoms of the “general nervous breakdown” that Keynes saw coming.

The crisis of capitalism

Underlying the crisis of democracy is a deeper crisis of capitalism — and by capitalism, I mean the whole capitalist social system, which today includes the competitive market economy, consumerism, the bureaucratic welfare state, organized science, and mass media. That system has now engulfed the planet: Since the collapse of communism three decades ago, no alternative model of a modern society exists in practice anywhere.

Although the spread of capitalism has been messy and disruptive, and often brutal and violent, over the larger sweep of history it has brought about revolutionary advances in the human condition. What has occurred is nothing less than ongoing liberation from a whole series of ancient and cruel restraints: liberation from poverty and material want through technological progress and economic growth; liberation from disease and premature death through public health and medicine; liberation from ignorance and superstition through science and mass education; and liberation from warfare and oppression through the spread and development of liberal democracy. And all of this has occurred against the backdrop of a skyrocketing increase in humanity’s ranks. It is difficult to overstate the astonishing expansion of human possibilities achieved by capitalism over the past couple of centuries — and indeed, in much of the world, over just the past few decades.

But when we shift our attention from past accomplishments to future prospects, the picture changes. In the United States and other rich democracies, the countries in which capitalism first took root and is now most highly developed, we are presently contending with a host of economic, social, cultural, and political dysfunctions. Technological progress outside of IT has been in a long-term slump. Advances in basic science likewise appear to be slowing down. A dense thicket of legal restrictions makes building anything, and especially anything big, ever more difficult and costly. Class divisions have reemerged and widened. Elites have rigged the economy in their favor and at the expense of future dynamism. Reported unhappiness is on the rise, and mental health problems are surging. Morbid obesity is becoming normal. After sustained increases in the 20th century, IQ scores have begun falling. Marriage and childbearing and personal friendships and community involvement are all becoming less common. Support for liberal democracy is eroding, and authoritarianism is on the rise. We now have all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, but the social authority of that knowledge has fallen into embattled retreat while conspiracy theories and mass delusions fill the vacuum. Discontent with the way things are going and pessimism about the future dominate the public mood: Depictions of the future in popular culture are overwhelmingly dystopian. And now the short-fuse calamity of the COVID-19 pandemic, superimposed on the long-fuse calamity of climate change, makes the case for an even deeper pessimism: We are confronted simultaneously with our vulnerability to catastrophe and our profound unseriousness in the face of it. It’s as if the fires are starting to spread through Rome and all we can do is argue about the fiddling.

All is not doom and gloom, of course. The inhabitants of the rich democracies are the richest, healthiest, safest, and best-educated people who have ever lived; they enjoy comforts and conveniences undreamed of by our most privileged ancestors. Grading on the curve of other places and earlier times, we have little ground for complaint. But it’s easy to turn this around and, in view of all our advantages, judge ourselves all the more harshly. What’s wrong with us if we make such poor use of the blessings we have been given? If we are so profligate that we don’t secure those blessings from the entirely foreseeable risks that threaten them?

In looking for the root causes of our multiplying troubles, I have come to believe that they trace back to the crossing of Keynes’s fateful threshold. When the transition from mass poverty to mass plenty was well enough advanced, the economic consequences of, and cultural responses to, that transition combined to lessen capitalism’s vigor and weaken its connection to social progress. When its primary task was reducing material deprivation, capitalism rose to the occasion. But since its primary task shifted to facilitating mass flourishing — to living “wisely and agreeably and well” — it has faltered.

Once a society becomes rich enough to make poverty exceptional rather than the rule, people start to want different things out of life. As the ancient preoccupation with subsistence recedes, people begin to pay more attention to those higher needs associated with quality of life: belonging, self-respect, status, purpose, and meaning. This cultural shift has been most thoroughly documented by political scientist Ronald Inglehart in a long-running series of World Values Surveys. As those surveys reveal, the marginalization of deep poverty in countries around the world brings with it a reorientation of values — from ones focused on survival and physical accumulation to those focused on quality of life and self-expression.

But although consumer capitalism continues to raise material living standards, it has not been very effective at satisfying those higher, spiritual needs whose fulfillment defines a high quality of life. It does well enough for the well-educated professional and managerial elite — roughly the top 25 percent in contemporary rich democracies. Which is no mean accomplishment: Never before in history has such a large fraction of society lived so well. For these people, their working lives are sufficiently interesting, challenging, and financially rewarding to be well worth all the associated rigors and stresses. But outside this golden circle, delineated these days primarily by educational credentials, things are different.

Yes, most people are reasonably comfortable and satisfied with their lives. Yet what has unfolded in societies liberated from physical want falls far short of widespread individual flourishing. The progressive disintegration of family and community life is most severe among the less educated. Where once workplace solidarity and tight-knit social relationships were compensations for lower economic standing, now the new class divide leaves those outside the elite increasingly atomized and adrift. Contributing further to growing anomie is the loss of status and purpose for most ordinary people. In the industrial era, workers had it much tougher physically, but the status of the working class in social estimation was incomparably higher than today. It was clear to everyone that industrial workers were irreplaceable contributors to capitalist prosperity and national security; they were lionized in art as heroic figures; and a certain social movement that had replaced capitalism in many places, and aimed to replace it everywhere, made the working class the climactic protagonist of world history. Today, by contrast, those outside the elite see no celebration or even much acknowledgment of their social contributions in the culture around them. They are superfluous, expendable, ignorable, invisible.

Here then is the crux of the problem. Capitalism has roused us to elevate new values to the position of primary concern, but has failed to supply conditions consistent with achieving them. This is the classic situation that gives rise to revolutions and the collapse of established social orders: rising expectations without the means to fulfill them. This, in my view, is what’s provoking our “general nervous breakdown.”

A dark turn

This assessment represents a sharp departure from earlier held views. I once wrote a book about the cultural and political consequences of mass affluence: The Age of Abundance, published in what now seems like the distant past of 2007. In that book, written in the afterglow of the end-of-history ‘90s, I offered a much more optimistic take, focusing on the social progress made possible by the shift to post-scarcity values: the overthrow of segregation and the stigmatization of overt racism, expanded rights and social roles for women, more tolerant views on sex and sexuality, and greater concern for protection of the natural environment.

That story still holds up, I believe, at least as far as it goes. But with events having taken such a dark turn in the two decades since I began writing that book, it’s clear now that there was more to the story than I knew. I wasn’t oblivious to the downsides of the tumultuous change unleashed by solving the economic problem, but I imagined that the worst excesses had been confined to the Sturm und Drang of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and that the path of least resistance going forward was toward a richer, freer, fairer world in which opportunities for flourishing, fulfilling lives steadily expanded.

I’ll spend a lot of time in this project exploring the dark side of mass affluence and how it shapes what we’re living through now and what’s possibly ahead. The project originated as an idea for a book, and my working title was “The Age of Abundance: What the Hell Happened?”

I’ll mention here just a few of the topics I intend to dig into: the economic and political consequences of technological progress’s declining reliance on mass labor; the political consequences of the declining need for masses of young men to fight in war; the causes and consequences of declining non-elite representation in democratic politics; the rise of technological pessimism; “ergophobia” and how the energy crisis of the 1970s never really ended; how affluence breeds risk aversion and complacency; the lack of any systemic competition for capitalism and the implications for its ongoing vitality; how the excesses of expressive individualism have not only poisoned democratic politics but also undermined our capacities for collective action in civil society as well as government; the obesity epidemic; the Flynn effect and its apparent reversal; declining attachment to work, community, and family life among non-elites; the global fertility collapse; the relentless rise of average screen time; the social significance of the shift in civilizational focus from solving problems in physical reality to solving problems of social dynamics and personal identity.

Something I was completely blind to when writing The Age of Abundance was the fragility of our social system. Forget about solving the permanent problem; maintaining a social order that keeps the economic problem solved is a much greater challenge than I ever imagined. The necessary foundation for successfully addressing the permanent problem is ensuring that the marginalization of material deprivation remains durable and resilient and sustainable. But the events of recent years have made painfully clear to me that the foundation of our prosperity is perilously insecure. Before Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, I never gave a moment’s thought to the stability and integrity of American liberal democracy. Before COVID-19, the prospect of a global pandemic existed in my mind as only a pallid and easily ignorable abstraction. Back in the first years of the 21st century, I was comfortable in my libertarian skepticism of climate change and the risk of other environmental catastrophes. In the new project I’ll correct this oversight by focusing on the full range of existential, or at least civilizational, risks on whose successful management any hopes for long-term human progress depends.

Hope for progress

While I intend to spend considerable time conveying just how daunting the permanent problem really is, the ultimate point of the project is to look for solutions. Now to be clear, I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a permanent solution to the permanent problem: In my view, how to live “wisely and agreeably and well” is a moving target that changes as human capabilities and experience develop. And my hope is for this process of development and adaptation, otherwise known as progress, to continue indefinitely — “infinite in all directions,” to borrow a phrase from Freeman Dyson. If humanity’s destiny stops short of fanning out across the galaxy and blossoming into a profusion of posthuman incarnations, I will consider us to have squandered our potential.

I therefore see the slowdown in scientific and technological progress over the past few decades, and the withering of the popular imagination about the possibilities of the future, to be among the most serious symptoms of our “general nervous breakdown.” I don’t believe our current level of technological development is ecologically sustainable: Unless we can transition to clean energy and new ways of feeding ourselves, I’m afraid that human suffering on a colossal scale may be unavoidable. The good news is that, after decades in the doldrums, technological progress in the world of atoms seems to be waking up. In addition to rapidly falling costs for solar and wind power and the spectacular debut of mRNA vaccines, there are promising advances in small-scale nuclear, fusion, clean hydrogen, and deep geothermal energy, vertical farming, and artificial meat that point to a future in which energy and food abundance no longer threaten the health of the biosphere. SpaceX’s spectacular successes in reducing launch costs and the larger surge in private space investment have given new momentum to the exploration and development of the final frontier. And in the world of bits, the steady drumbeat of amazing new achievements in artificial intelligence suggests that truly revolutionary breakthroughs may be imminent. I want to follow all these developments and assess their ongoing potential for unlocking progress on the permanent problem.

I will also be seeking to highlight new possibilities for advances in social technology — new institutions, new forms of organization, and new living arrangements that can strengthen our fraying social bonds and reorient social life in ways better suited to promoting widespread flourishing and well-being. When we shift our gaze to more distant time horizons and contemplate the longer-term future, it seems likely to me that the social institutions and ways of life we inherited from the past will need to be reimagined, and in some cases transformed, to meet the challenges of the permanent problem. While I don’t see mass technological unemployment as imminent, I am still dubious that mass employment for wages at workplaces outside the home is the final word on how the division of labor is to be organized. I am dubious that consumerism is the final word on society’s primary motivation for productive work. I’m quite sure that commercial mass media are driven ineluctably toward toxic divisiveness and sensationalism in their coverage of public affairs and that some alternative is desperately needed. And I’m increasingly of the opinion that elections are not always the best way of choosing our political representatives.

I’ll therefore be on the lookout for hopeful trends and promising projects of social experimentation. I’m interested in the spike in remote work catalyzed by the pandemic and how it can be encouraged as a means of achieving better work-life balance. I’m interested in the larger possibilities created by moving work back into the home — including co-living arrangements that support a vital family and community life. I’m interested in universal basic income schemes as well as other possibilities for reducing dependence on wage employment. I’m interested in new forms of social media and new tools of digital democracy that bring people together and build consensus rather than stoke contempt between us and them. I’m interested in citizens’ assemblies and sortition-based democracy as possible escape routes from the current crisis of liberal democracy. I’ll be pursuing these interests and others as well.

Photo credit: iStock