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The Human Prospect

One saving possibility must, however, be considered. Growth might be permitted to continue for an indefinite period, provided that it were confined to outputs that consumed few resources and generated little heat. An expansion in the services of government, in the administration of justice, in the provision of better health and education, arts and entertainment, would not only rescue the system from a fatal encounter with the environment, but might produce enough “growth” to ease the income distribution problem.

If capitalism is to survive for a considerable period this is the road along which it will assuredly have to travel. Perhaps in some cases it may successfully manage such a shift in the composition of its output. But we must not lose sight of the environment in which this shift must be made. A transition to a more equitable distribution of income within the capitalist nations will have to take place at a time when the larger struggle will focus on the distribution of resources among nations. If this struggle is gradually decided in favor of the underdeveloped world, whether out of humanitarian motives, the pressure of nuclear blackmail, or simply by the increased political cohesion and bargaining power of the poorer regions, the citizenries of the wealthy nations will find themselves in a long period of declining physical output per capita. This is apt to be the case, even without an international redistribution, if the many constraints of the environment exert their expected effect, beginning perhaps as soon as the coming decade.

Thus the difficulty of managing a socially acceptable distribution of income in the capitalist nations is that it will have to contend with the prospect of a decline in the per capita output of material goods. The problem is therefore not merely a question of calling a halt to the increasing production of cars, dishwashers, or homes, while encouraging the output of doctors’ services or theatrical activities, but of distributing a shrinking production of cars, appliances, homes. The experience of a limited oil shortage is bringing home to many Americans the hitherto unimaginable possibility that their way of life might not be indefinitely sustainable. If that shortage is extended over the next generation or two to many other kinds of material outputs, a climate of extreme “goods-hunger” seems likely to result. In such a climate, a large-scale reorganization of social shares would have to take place in the worst possible atmosphere, as each person sought to protect his place in a contracting economic world.

I am inclined to the belief, therefore, that the problem of income distribution would pose extreme difficulties for capitalism of a political as well as an economic kind. The struggle for relative position would not only pit one class against another, but also each against all, as lower and middle groups engaged in a free-for-all for higher incomes. This would bring enormous inflationary pressures of the kind that capitalism is already beginning to experience, and would require the imposition of much stronger control measures than any that capitalism has yet succeeded in introducing—indeed, than any that capitalist governments have yet imagined.

In bluntest terms, the question is whether the Hobbesian struggle that is likely to arise in such a strait-jacketed economic society would not impose intolerable strains on the representative democratic political apparatus that has been historically associated with capitalist societies.

It is, of course, foolish to suggest that capitalism is the sine qua non of democracy, or to claim that democracy, with its committment to political equality, does not conflict in many ways with the inequalities built into capitalism. Nonetheless, it is the plain historic fact that bourgeois societies have so far succeeded to a greater degree than any other social order in establishing parliamentary procedures, independent judiciaries, and constitutionally limited executives, all essential elements in a democratic political system. The question to be faced, then, is whether these political institutions can be expected to cope with the social and economic transformations whose extensive character we have indicated.

Here prediction along the lines of an “ideal type” cannot bring us very far. It is possible that some capitalist nations, gifted with unusual political leadership and a responsive public, may make the necessary structural changes without surrendering their democratic achievements. At best, our inquiry establishes the approach of certain kinds of challenges, but cannot pretend to judge how individual nations may meet these challenges. For the majority of capitalist nations, however, I do not see how we can avoid the conclusion that the required transformation will be likely to exceed the capabilities of representative democracy. The disappointing failure of capitalist societies to create atmospheres of social harmony, even in expansive settings, does not bode well for their ability to foster far-reaching reorganizations of their economic structures and painful diminutions of privilege for their more prosperous citizens. The likelihood that there are obdurate limits to the reformist reach of democratic institutions within the class-bound body of capitalist society leads us to expect that the governments of these societies, faced with extreme internal strife or with potentially disastrous social polarization, would resort to severe authoritarian measures. To the extent that these measures would necessarily include the national management of corporations and the nonmarket determination of income levels, the direction of change might be described as a movement toward “socialism,” although in a manner very different from that of the classic revolutionary scenario and with implications that will distress the partisans of socialism as a democratic form of government.

These reflections raise a question that may have been impatiently waiting in the reader’s mind. After all, the ecological threat is still some distance into the future. Hence long-term speculations about the feasibility of a stationary capitalism may seem hopelessly academic in the face of nearer-term risks of war, or of the disruption of capitalism from other causes, such as its inability to generate a high enough social discipline and morale. That may indeed be the case. But if capitalism collapses, what next?

As we have already seen, the successor may well be an authoritarian regime that is not easy to analyze according to our socio-economic ideal types. But let us suppose that the collapse of capitalism would usher in socialism—that is, a society built on the public ownership of goods and the replacement of the market by widespread planning. What can we say about the abilities of such a system to cope with the demands of the environmental challenge?

Here the possibilities of applying a socio-economic analysis seem much simpler. It appears logical to conclude that socialism, with its direct commitment to a planned economy and with its freedom from the ideological blockages of private property, could manage the adaptation of an industrial society to a stationary equilibrium much more readily than capitalism.

I believe this is true in the short run. Over a longer period, however, grave problems would emerge. A socialist society would also have to achieve a politically acceptable distribution of its income among its people. The task of arriving at such a division of income would be much more difficult in a period of shrinking physical output than in an economy where all levels expected their real incomes to rise. Hence a democratically governed socialism would very likely face the same Hobbesian struggle for goods as a democratically governed capitalism; and whereas an authoritarian socialism could certainly enforce some kind of solution, it seems likely that this would entail a degree of coercion that would make “socialism” virtually indistinguishable from an authoritarian “capitalism.”

The similarity of the problems of and responses to the stationary state for both socialism and capitalism brings us finally to confront a question that has persisted throughout these pages. This is the relation of the two systems to the industrial civilization that has again and again emerged as a root cause for the dangers of the human prospect and as the common basis for the economic successes (and perhaps the social failures) of capitalism and industrial socialism. Is it now possible to maintain, on the grounds of our socio-economic analysis, that socialism will have a significant advantage over capitalism in asserting the necessary controls over the runaway forces of science and technology?

Once more I believe we must differentiate between the short run and long run capacities for response. In the short run, as in the case of international tensions and in the initial stages of coping with the pressures of a stationary economy, I would think that industrial socialism would possess important advantages. The control over the direction of science, over its rate of incorporation in technology, and over the pace of industrial production as a whole should be much more easily achieved in a society that does not have to deal with the profit drive than in one that does. To be sure, socialist systems have their own handicaps in the bureaucratic inertias of planning. But the absence of a necessity to heed the pull of commercial considerations should nonetheless confer an additional degree of social flexibility to the socialist control over the industrial process.

In the long run, however, I believe that once more there is a convergence of problems. For what portends, in that longer run, is a challenge of equal magnitude for industrial socialism and for capitalism—the challenge of drastically curtailing, perhaps even dismantling, the mode of production that has been the most cherished achievement of both systems. Moreover that mode of production must be abandoned in a mere flash of time, as historic sequences are measured. Given the present pace of industrial growth—which will take prodigies of science to maintain in the face of dwindling resources—the edge of the heat emission danger zone may be reached as quickly as three or four generations. Failing the achievement of the needed scientific breakthroughs, we will be spared the heat barrier simply because we will be unable to produce the energy or to process the resources to maintain our present growth rates. Thus, whether we are unable to sustain growth or unable to tolerate it, there can be no doubt that a radically different future beckons. In either eventuality, it seems beyond dispute that the present orientation of society must change. In place of the long-established encouragement of industrial production must come its careful restriction and long-term diminution within society. In place of prodigalities of consumption must come new frugal attitudes. In these and other ways, the “post-industrial” society of the future is apt to be as different from present-day society as the latter was from its pre-industrial precursor.

Can we expect an industrial socialist society, be it characterized by authoritarian or by democratic government, to weather such a transformation more easily than a capitalist society, “private” or state? I doubt it. Both socio-economic systems are committed to a civilization whose most striking aspect is its productive virtuosity. But my skepticism is based on more than the resistances and inertias of vested interests that we find throughout history when established modes of production become obsolete. It is also founded on a political consideration, namely whether any society can bring about alterations of this magnitude through the conscious intervention of men, rather than by convulsive changes forced upon men. But I cannot hope to substantiate this judgment until we have looked into the political and psychological dimensions of the human capacity for response.

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