One of the consequences of the neoliberal order is that labor markets in Western societies are at war with themselves. On the one hand, the relentless competition within the managerial class, the so-called meritocracy, results in a relentless, passive-aggressive struggle for status. Within that class of people it is a state of constant anxiety, as these people worry that one small misstep will cause them to lose their standing within the managerial class. Everyone is miserable.
On the other hand, the math of the managerial system means pitting worker against worker, usually relying on foreign mercenaries, to suppress wages and prevent class solidarity. In order to support the swelling army of otherwise useless people in the media, academy and government, it means extracting ever more from the laboring classes and their private employers. The typical private sector worker is under relentless daily pressure to do more with less.
Compounding this is the natural response to these pressures, where workers accumulate in areas shielded from competition. Government grows, as a jobs program and as a way to maintain support for government. The massive growth in government, education and now health care are responses to the relentless competition within the so-called private sector. Skip to the bottom of this post, where there is a graph showing the growth in administrators within the American health care industry.
One vice jaw is the relentless pressure for efficiency in the daily lives of most workers, while the other jaw is a metastasizing layer of naturally inefficient services crowding into daily lives. The typical American spends all day under relentless pressure to perform, while having to navigate a labyrinth of ineptitude in the other parts of their lives. A trip to your kid’s school or a visit to the doctor is like entering a secret world where nothing gets done, no one gets fired and no one cares.
A reason America is such an angry place, despite the massive material prosperity, is that the labor markets are upside down. Prosperity and efficiency should result in a more relaxed and predictable private work place. Good times are supposed to be good times, not a frenzied state of constant worry. Within living memory, a booming economy meant a rise in general happiness, as workers and business enjoyed the fruits of general prosperity. Today, good times are defined by constant dread.
On the other hand, the administrative side of modern society, government, education, health care, should be declining in the lives of the people. In the dreaded private sector, automation means reductions in labor. In the public sphere, automation has meant an explosion of people. The post-Cold War economic boom has seen government more than double. The education bureaucracy has swollen like a tumor. Health care, as seen in that graph, has grown to become a dominant part of life.
Now, the dynamics in the workplace are not the only reason for the rising unhappiness in the West. Importing those foreign mercenaries to undermine domestic labor markets and dilute the vote has consequences beyond economics. Today, people find themselves living among strangers, who practice weird customs and speak exotic languages. America is rapidly becoming a land of foreigners. Diversity plus proximity always results in conflict. No one can afford to relax anymore.
There’s also the massive wealth gap in modern America. As the middle-class is being squeezed to support the managerial class, the over-class is looking like the aristocracy of 18th century France. The tech and financial barons live lives incomprehensible to middle-class people. Worse yet, the reckless disregard of the over-class makes them natural villains. Americans have been trained to admire success, but today’s successful are ugly, un-American people, who elicit nothing but contempt.
The growth of mass media certainly plays a part in the general unhappiness. At the end of the Cold War, most people had television and a newspaper. It was impossible for unwelcome advertisers to invade the private space. Today, we are awash in media and most of it is terrible. How many times do you have to have a video start playing while you are reading the sports pages, before you are in a sour mood? Make that a constant state and it is easy to see how mass media immiserates us.
Immigration, mass media and massive wealth gaps are certainly sources of unhappiness, but they can be remedied. People can form local communities, tune out the media and enjoy their own prosperity. The conflict in the workplace and the growth of the administrative state are unavoidable. Even in traditional homes, worry about the workplace will cause private anxiety. The swollen ranks of single people, defined by their career, are beholden to the daily uncertainty of the workplace.
Turning America is an economic zone, modeled on 20th century business management techniques, has resulted in a marketplace of miserable customers. Rather than economic prosperity resulting in a happy populace, it is a free-for-all of Darwinian competition, where everyone sees everyone as a threat. Prosperity itself becomes a daily threat, as it is built on a relentless drive for efficiency. Bad times meant belt-tightening. Today, good times means being replaced by a Hindu.
That slams into the other jaw of neoliberalism, which is the incoherent inefficiency of the managerial class and their plaything the administrative state. Leave the office to attend to something at your kid’s school or get a physical and you are confronted with a world of negative productivity, run by people with prestigious credentials, frittering away their days in nonsense activities. The constant clash of unpleasant realities makes a normal man spit on his hands, hoist the black flag , and begin slitting throats.
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