The best-case scenario is one in which American society experiences a great awakening, leading to a flowering of social movements that provide the political support for significant reforms. This is not an impossibility. During the Industrial Revolution, social reformers pushed governments to end child labor and provide more support to the poor, to build systems of public education and to address mass social ills (as in the temperance movement, which led the charge for Prohibition—not all radical reform efforts worked out as hoped). Social pressure was crucial to expanding the franchise; it drove the civil rights movement. Society can prove surprisingly malleable, even over short time horizons, as dramatic recent changes in norms regarding gay rights, drug decriminalization and sexual harassment indicate.
Such dramatic reforms are harder to come by when they involve large-scale changes to welfare states, but perhaps we will see new institutions through which those without work can contribute their time and labor to society. That could include improved access to and funding for early childhood and adult education or, perhaps more ambitiously, the charge for a universal state-provided basic income, which would allow those who can only contribute through volunteer efforts to earn the purchasing power they need to enjoy a normal life. In America, in particular, community action has long been the first line of defense against social hardship—from the Granger movement promoting agricultural communities after the Civil War to the Volunteers of America looking after those battered by the Depression. A new sense of community and social obligation might be just the thing to help shake government out of a dangerous complacency.
If not, however, a second, more dire scenario might come to pass: that of creeping authoritarianism. This, too, was a feature of industrial history, from government efforts to crush trade unions to the totalitarianism of some communist and fascist regimes. A gridlocked America has already shown a worrying tendency to respond to crisis with strong, law-bending executive power in response to the threat of terrorism, economic weakness and legislative dysfunction. Intense partisan disagreement over how to respond to the economic challenges thrown up by the digital revolution might lead to permanent gridlock in America, or to a constant succession of fragile coalitions in multiparty Europe. If such governments are placed under pressure by economic crisis or threats real or imagined—like hacking, terrorism or revolutionary elements—society at large will tolerate the application of greater, ever more extra-legal authority by the executive.
That’s because, while creeping authoritarianism would do nothing to solve the underlying economic troubles created by the digital era, it could help manage them. Powerful corporate and military forces could be coopted by an authoritarian regime, and would thereby have an incentive not to resist the forces remaking society. Dissenters could be oppressed: Unfortunately, new technologies often provide would-be tyrants with new and powerful tools to keep society in line. It is all too easy to imagine how large tech companies could be compelled by the carrot of state favor and the stick of aggressive antitrust action to help monitor dissidents, punish enemies and reward friends. Authoritarianism has enjoyed a revival of sorts in recent years, as countries like Russia and Turkey have slipped back toward despotism. Poland and Hungary have taken steps in this direction. This is, in many ways, the path of least resistance in the face of unmanageable economic change.
If democracy cannot respond effectively and authoritarianism does not keep the peace, then a third scenario becomes more probable—state failure. That might entail secession: The more that resources are shared between rich places and poor ones, the more that richer places—like Catalonia, which only recently voted for independence from Spain—will find themselves drawn to breaking away. It is difficult to imagine such a movement gaining momentum in America, which has its own ugly experience with secession and civil war. Yet even now, large and economically powerful states like California are charting their own courses, to the extent legally possible. Were, in some future, the federal government to repeatedly resist, or the Supreme Court to nullify, measures deemed critical within California to meet the challenges of the new economy, and if California were then to mount massive public resistance, how much violence would Washington actually risk to keep citizens from going their own way?
State failure might also end in revolution. America has its own revolutionary history too, and revolutions were a relatively common part of industrial history (and still are outside of advanced economies). Now, and even in the depths of the last recession, there was no appetite for such radicalism. Neither did the crisis weaken most rich world governments enough to make them vulnerable to such political upheaval. But imagine a world two decades hence in which inequality has grown significantly, the government can scarcely manage to keep itself operating (perhaps because of severe budget disagreements, or a cyberattack), young and healthy adults face a high rate of chronic unemployment and living standards seriously deteriorate in economically battered communities. Perhaps, under such circumstances, a new ideological movement, which had struggled to attract followers outside a committed core, finds itself winning converts within the military while enjoying surprising electoral success—not enough to break the gridlock, but enough to claim a mandate to govern. Such a movement might be idealistically utopian in nature, promising to deliver the better technological future that existing institutions cannot. But it might also be ruthlessly pragmatic in nature, committed to keep society functioning by creating new, rigid social hierarchies—isolating military leaders and the high priests of technology from a repressed rabble.
There is a fourth possible future: the deus ex machina, the external shock that creates the conditions for radical, but democratic change. Across much of the industrialized world, including the United States, it took the brutal years of 1914 to 1945—the Depression and World War II in particular—to foster broad acceptance of high tax rates, to weaken the power of established elites, and to build consensus in favor of a strong social safety net. One of the most important and disturbing facts of modern economic history is that this bloody, destructive period and its immediate aftermath represent the one time in which most advanced economies were able to reduce inequality significantly. It may be that the social cohesion needed to build a truly inclusive economy, which puts technology to work to the benefit of all, is impossible to build in the absence of such dire threats.
These scenarios might sound like fantasy, because most of us have never experienced anything like them. But most of us have never experienced the sort of dramatic economic change that turns existing ways of life on their head. Soon, we will. If we could find a way to do a better job of meeting the needs of those hurt by economic change and seizing available opportunities to strengthen the economy—like capitalizing on low interest rates to invest in infrastructure and training—then the worst possible outcomes might be avoided. But if we cannot, if technological change means that governments fail to meet the needs of their citizens, and if those citizens grow less content as a result, pressure will build until a solution appears—one way or another.
https://www.politico.com/magazine/story ... ogy-216220