We live at the end of an age, the end of a time of almost post-scarcity. Those of us who have grown up in this time have an ahistorical view, one where scarcity barely matters.
That is, those of us in the middle class and up in the global North and West.
While the privileged have long exploited others for gain, this has been done to an unprecedented degree in the last seventy years. What it has lacked in depth of oppression, it has more than made up for in terms of width. Entire nations have been under the thrall of the global North and West.
And as Jeffrey Sachs has pointed out in The End of Poverty, this has largely been a good thing.
The balance has been this: While workers in the developing world have been exploited in comparison to those in the West, they have benefited in real economic terms. This situation was tenable – and morally defensible – as long as three conditions held. All have failed, or are in the process of failing.
1) Workers continued to benefit comparative to their prior status. This condition has begun to fail; corporations are increasingly unable to find cheaper workers (especially when including other long-run expenses). Without advances in robotics and machinery, this means that we’re reaching a labor market equilibrium, and profits (and surplus) are going to narrow rapidly, soon.
2) Workers did not compare their status to those elsewhere in the globe. Our exportation of our media industry has been counterproductive here. Most global citizens know how citizens of the global North and West live – or at least believe that they do. It is blindingly obvious to them that there is inequity between their output and conditions and those of the “post-industrial” nations. Even if they are not personally able to travel to where their work is worth higher wages, the perception is there. Frans de Waals’ experiments with primates have indicated this is a Bad Thing; other studies have shown that relative changes in inequity are key in determining civil conflict (if you’re really curious I’ll re-access the journal articles…).
3) The surplus created by the earlier global situation was then used for innovation. That this surplus was not merely bread and circuses, but was reinvestment that worked to further advance humanity towards a postscarcity society. To imminatize the eschaton, to bring forth the singularity. Technological advance tends to correlate with available surplus in a rough approximation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When we (collective and individual) are not focused solely on immediate survival, we are able to play, that fundamental human behavior that leads to experiment and improvement. The kind of happy mutant play that leads to patent clerks having the leisure to wonder about the nature of light, for example. I think it is highly arguable that the global West and North has squandered this surplus on pure leisure and satiation, thus robbing it of moral justification.
It is possible that the age of surplus is nearing its end. If this is so – or even possible to be so – then our choices are clear. We can wait for a global market equilibrium. This will – and I mean will – mean a reduction in the real standard of living for the global North and West. Or we can rededicate the surplus we have remaining towards further improvements, towards finding ways past scarcity. Not merely to eke the last bit of oil out of the ground, the last ergs of work out of the peasants, but to find ways where one’s work is no longer coerced, where energy is renewable, and we are truly free.