“We think of capitalism as being locked in an ideological battle with socialism, but we never really saw that capitalism might be defeated by its own child — technology.”
This is how Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and a managing director of Peter Thiel’s investment firm, Thiel Capital, began a recent video for BigThink.com. In it he argues that technology has so transformed our world that “we may need a hybrid model in the future which is paradoxically more capitalistic than our capitalism today and perhaps even more socialistic than our communism of yesteryear.”
Which is another way of saying that socialist principles might be the only thing that can save capitalism.
Weinstein’s thinking reflects a growing awareness in Silicon Valley of the challenges faced by capitalist society. Technology will continue to upend careers, workers across fields will be increasingly displaced, and it’s likely that many jobs lost will not be replaced.
Hence many technologists and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are converging on ideas like universal basic income as a way to mitigate the adverse effects of technological innovation.
I reached out to Weinstein to talk about the crisis of capitalism — how we got here, what can be done, and why he thinks a failure to act might lead to a societal collapse. His primary concern is that the billionaire class — which he’s not a part of, but has access to through his job — has been too slow to recognize the need for radical change.
“The greatest danger,” he told me, is that, “the truly rich are increasingly separated from the lives of the rest of us so that they become largely insensitive to the concerns of those who still earn by the hour.” If that happens, he warns, “they will probably not anticipate many of the changes, and we will see the beginning stirrings of revolution as the cost for this insensitivity.”
You can read our lightly edited conversation below.
Why technology might destroy capitalism
The phrase “late capitalism” is in vogue these days. Do you find it analytically useful?
I find it linguistically accurate and politically provocative. I don’t think that what is to follow is going to be an absence of markets. I don’t think the implications are that capitalism is failing and will be replaced by anarchy or socialism. I think it’s possible that this is merely the end of the beginning of capitalism, and that its next stage will continue many of its basic tenets, but in an almost unrecognizable form.
I want to ask you about what that next stage might look like, but first I wonder if you think market capitalism has outlived its utility?
I believe that market capitalism, as we’ve come to understand it, was actually tied to a particular period of time where certain coincidences were present. There’s a coincidence between the marginal product of one’s labor and one’s marginal needs to consume at a socially appropriate level. There’s also the match between an economy mostly consisting of private goods and services that can be taxed to pay for the minority of public goods and services, where the market price of those public goods would be far below the collective value of those goods.
Beyond that, there’s also a coincidence between the ability to train briefly in one’s youth so as to acquire a reliable skill that can be repeated consistently with small variance throughout a lifetime, leading to what we’ve typically called a career or profession, and I believe that many of those coincidences are now breaking, because they were actually never tied together by any fundamental law.
A big part of this breakdown is technology, which you rightly describe as a child of capitalism. Is it possible the child of capitalism might also become its destroyer?
It’s an important question. Since the Industrial Revolution, technology has been a helpful pursuer, chasing workers from the activities of lowest value into repetitive behaviors of far higher value. The problem with computer technology is that it would appear to target all repetitive behaviors. If you break up all human activity into behaviors that happen only once and do not reset themselves, together with those that cycle on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis, you see that technology is in danger of removing the cyclic behaviors rather than chasing us from cyclic behaviors of low importance to ones of high value.
That trend seems objectively bad for most people, whose work consists largely of routinized actions.
I think this means we have an advantage over the computers, specifically in the region of the economy which is based on one-off opportunities. Typically, this is the province of hedge fund managers, creatives, engineers, anyone who’s actually trying to do something that they’ve never done before. What we’ve never considered is how to move an entire society, dominated by routine, on to a one-off economy in which we compete, where we have a specific advantage over the machines, and our ability to do what has never been done.
This raises a thorny question: The kinds of skills this technological economy rewards are not skills that a majority of the population possesses. Perhaps a significant number of people simply can’t thrive in this space, no matter how much training or education we provide.
I think that’s an interesting question, and it depends a lot on your view of education. Buckminster Fuller (a prominent American author and architect who died in 1983) said something to the effect of, “We’re all born geniuses, but something in the process of living de-geniuses us.” I think with several years more hindsight, we can see that the thing that de-geniuses us is actually our education.
The problem is that we have an educational system that’s based on taking our natural penchant for exploration and fashioning it into a willingness to take on mind-numbing routine. This is because our educational system was designed to produce employable products suitable for jobs, but it is jobs that are precisely going to give way to an economy increasingly based on one-off opportunities.
That’s a problem with a definable but immensely complicated solution.
Part of the question is, how do we disable an educational system that is uniformizing people across the socioeconomic spectrum in order to remind ourselves that the hotel maid who makes up our bed may in fact be an amateur painter? The accountant who does our taxes may well have a screenplay that he works on after the midnight hour? I think what is less clear to many of our bureaucrats in Washington is just how much talent and creativity exists through all walks of life.
What we don’t know yet is how to pay people for those behaviors, because many of those screenplays and books and inventions will not be able to command a sufficiently high market price, but this is where the issue of some kind of hybridization of hypercapitalism and hypersocialism must enter the discussion.
“We will see the beginning stirrings of revolution as the cost for this continuing insensitivity”
Why capitalism needs socialism
Let’s talk about that. What does a hybrid of capitalism and socialism look like?
I don’t think we know what it looks like. I believe capitalism will need to be much more unfettered. Certain fields will need to undergo a process of radical deregulation in order to give the minority of minds that are capable of our greatest feats of creation the leeway to experiment and to play, as they deliver us the wonders on which our future economy will be based.
By the same token, we have to understand that our population is not a collection of workers to be input to the machine of capitalism, but rather a nation of souls whose dignity, well-being, and health must be considered on independent, humanitarian terms. Now, that does not mean we can afford to indulge in national welfare of a kind that would rob our most vulnerable of a dignity that has previously been supplied by the workplace.
People will have to be engaged in socially positive activities, but not all of those socially positive activities may be able to command a sufficient share of the market to consume at an appropriate level, and so I think we’re going to have to augment the hypercapitalism which will provide the growth of the hypersocialism based on both dignity and need.
I agree with most of that, but I’m not sure we’re prepared to adapt to these new circumstances quickly enough to matter. What you’re describing is a near-revolutionary shift in politics and culture, and that’s not something we can do on command.
I believe that once our top creative class is unshackled from those impediments which are socially negative, they will be able to choose whether capitalism proceeds by evolution or revolution, and I am hopeful t