The answer is…be a part of the plutocratic 1% and enjoy unimaginable wealth, or be a part of the technocratic 2% and enjoy very impressive wealth, or be a part of the impoverished 97%. The outlook for the American style, post-war, semi-affluent middle class is pretty dang bleak.
There’s an implicit and uncomfortable moral argument to be made against latter 20th century Keynesianism. Why, in fact, should an American worker make a good middle class income and drive a BMW, when a worker in Malaysia could do the same work for 1/10 the money while climbing out of abject poverty? The usual answer from Democratic politicians is rooted in nationalism and Americana, which is fine politics, but less than adequate morality. A more rational argument is that if you follow that process to its logical conclusion, there won’t be a middle class consumer market for the product the worker is creating. But that’s not so certain, either, as countries like China, Russia, Brazil and India (the BRICs) grow their own middle classes.
The reality of globalization is that almost all work that doesn’t require either very specialized skills or face-to-face personal attention will eventually be fungible on a nearly limitless and desperate global labor market. Specialized skill jobs are few and far between; whole economies can’t run on them. Face-to-face personal attention jobs don’t typically pay very well.
So…whither liberalism in that context? Given the current capital consumer economy, progressives are fighting a battle we cannot win, attempting to protect a developed-world middle class from the encroachments of developing world underclass eager to do the same work for 1/10 the wages. Morally speaking, it might not even be a battle we should win. Those who would stop world trade and technological advancement in order to protect an American middle-class lifestyle at the expense of an impoverished Brazilian can hardly lay claim to the moral high ground.
But that doesn’t mean the answer is to allow the plutocrats to engineer a world with themselves at the very top lavished with unprecedented wealth, a small technocratic class below them, and a vast impoverished underclass consisting of 90% of society beneath them. The workers of the world must indeed fight back, while rejecting the horrific historical errors of state-based Communism.
The pushback must be on a global scale if it is to happen at all. No one nation’s middle-class can stand alone against the global labor arbitrage juggernaut. Liberalism must go big or go home.
There is evidence of just such a global consciousness beginning to emerge. It can be seen in the solidarity between the Occupy movement in America, and the protesters in Tahrir Square. But just what that solidarity will look like, and what sort of new order it might produce, must be the subjects of debate for progressives over the next few decades.
Laissez-faire economists have been proven wrong in their vision of the world–not to mention morally bankrupt. But insofar as Keynes was ever right, the world has in many ways moved beyond him. The future of the world will belong to people and intellectuals who can organize on behalf of dignity and a fair economy for workers worldwide in a new global economic system that is willing to try out new solutions to increasingly vexing problems.
Otherwise, the structural underpinnings of capitalism and globalization will inevitably leave us all in the hands of the plutocrats.