Extracted from his blog, John Michael Greer talks about the historical role of intermediation in both thriving and declining economies. This extract forms part of larger series of posts entitled “Dark Age America”
One of the factors that makes it difficult to think through the economic consequences of the end of the industrial age is that we’ve all grown up in a world where every form of economic activity has been channeled through certain familiar forms for so long that very few people remember that things could be any other way. Another of the factors that make the same effort of thinking difficult is that the conventional economic thought of our time has invested immense effort and oceans of verbiage into obscuring the fact that things could be any other way.
Those are formidable obstacles. We’re going to have to confront them, though, because one of the core features of the decline and fall of civilizations is that most of the habits of everyday life that are standard practice when civilizations are at zenith get chucked promptly into the recycle bin as decline picks up speed. That’s true across the whole spectrum of cultural phenomena, and it’s especially true of economics, for a reason discussed in last week’s post: the economic institutions and habits of a civilization in full flower are too complex for the same civilization to support once it’s gone to seed.
The institutions and habits that contemporary industrial civilization uses to structure its economic life comprise that tangled realm of supposedly voluntary exchanges we call “the market.” Back when the United States was still contending with the Soviet Union for global hegemony, that almost always got rephrased as “the free market;” the adjective still gets some use among ideologues, but by and large it’s dropped out of use elsewhere. This is a good thing, at least from the perspective of honest speaking, because the “free” market is of course nothing of the kind. It’s unfree in at least two crucial senses: first, in that it’s compulsory; second, in that it’s expensive.
“The law in its majestic equality,” Anatole France once noted drolly, “forbids rich and poor alike to urinate in public, sleep under bridges, or beg for bread.” In much the same sense, no one is actually forced to participate in the market economy in the modern industrial world. Those who want to abstain are perfectly free to go looking for some other way to keep themselves fed, clothed, housed, and supplied with the other necessities of life, and the fact that every option outside of the market has been hedged around with impenetrable legal prohibitions if it hasn’t simply been annihilated by legal fiat or brute force is just one of those minor details that make life so interesting.
Historically speaking, there are a vast number of ways to handle exchanges of goods and services between people. In modern industrial societies, on the other hand, outside of the occasional vestige of an older tradition here and there, there’s only one. Exchanging some form of labor for money, on whatever terms an employer chooses to offer, and then exchanging money for goods and services, on whatever terms the seller chooses to offer, is the only game in town. There’s nothing free about either exchange, other than the aforesaid freedom to starve in the gutter. The further up you go in the social hierarchy, to be sure, the less burdensome the conditions on the exchanges generally turn out to be—here as elsewhere, privilege has its advantages—but unless you happen to have inherited wealth or can find some other way to parasitize the market economy without having to sell your own labor, you’re going to participate if you like to eat.
Your participation in the market, furthermore, doesn’t come cheap. Every exchange you make, whether it’s selling your labor or buying goods and services with the proceeds, takes place within a system that has been subjected to the process of intermediation discussed in last week’s post. Thus, in most cases, you can’t simply sell your labor directly to individuals who want to buy it or its products; instead, you are expected to sell your labor to an employer, who then sells it or its product to others, gives you part of the proceeds, and pockets the rest. Plenty of other people are lined up for their share of the value of your labor: bankers, landlords, government officials, and the list goes on. When you go to exchange money for goods and services, the same principle applies; how much of the value of your labor you get to keep for your own purposes varies from case to case, but it’s always less than the whole sum, and sometimes a great deal less.
Karl Marx performed a valuable service to political economy by pointing out these facts and giving them the stress they deserve, in the teeth of savage opposition from the cheerleaders of the status quo who, then as now, dominated economic thought. His proposed solution to the pervasive problems of the (un)free market was another matter. Like most of his generation of European intellectuals, Marx was dazzled by the swamp-gas luminescence of Hegelian philosophy, and followed Hegel’s verbose and vaporous trail into a morass of circular reasoning and false prophecy from which few of his remaining followers have yet managed to extract themselves.
It’s from Hegel that Marx got the enticing but mistaken notion that history consists of a sequence of stages that move in a predetermined direction toward some as-perfect-as-possible state: the same idea, please note, that Francis Fukuyama used to justify his risible vision of the first Bush administration as the glorious fulfillment of human history. (To borrow a bit of old-fashioned European political jargon, there are right-Hegelians and left-Hegelians; Fukuyama was an example of the former, Marx of the latter.) I’ll leave such claims and the theories founded on them to the true believers, alongside such equally plausible claims as the Singularity, the Rapture, and the lemonade oceans of Charles Fourier; what history itself shows is something rather different.
What history shows, as already noted, is that the complex systems that emerge during the heyday of a civilization are inevitably scrapped on the way back down. Market economies are among those complex systems. Not all civilizations have market economies—some develop other ways to handle the complicated process of allocating goods and services in a society with many different social classes and occupational specialties—but those that do set up market economies inevitably load them with as many intermediaries as the overall complexity of their economies can support.
It’s when decline sets in and maintaining the existing level of complexity becomes a problem that the trouble begins. Under some conditions, intermediation can benefit the productive economy, but in a complex economy, more and more of the intermediation over time amounts to finding ways to game the system, profiting off economic activity without actually providing any benefit to anyone else. A complex society at or after its zenith thus typically ends up with a huge burden of unproductive economic activity supported by an increasingly fragile foundation of productive activity.
All the intermediaries, the parasitic as well as the productive, expect to be maintained in the style to which they’re accustomed, and since they typically have more wealth and influence than the producers and consumers who support them, they can usually stop moves to block their access to the feed trough. Economic contraction, however, makes it hard to support business as usual on the shrinking supply of real wealth. The intermediaries thus end up competing with the actual producers and consumers of goods and services, and since the intermediaries typically have the support of governments and institutional forms, more often than not it’s the intermediaries who win that competition.
It’s not at all hard to see that process at work; all it takes is a stroll down the main street of the old red brick mill town where I live, or any of thousands of other towns and cities in today’s America. Here in Cumberland, there are empty storefronts all through downtown, and empty buildings well suited to any other kind of economic activity you care to name there and elsewhere in town. There are plenty of people who want to work, wage and benefit expectations are modest, and there are plenty of goods and services that people would buy if they had the chance. Yet the storefronts stay empty, the workers stay unemployed, the goods and services remain unavailable. Why?
The reason is intermediation. Start a business in this town, or anywhere else in America, and the intermediaries all come running to line up in front of you with their hands out. Local, state, and federal bureaucrats all want their cut; so do the bankers, the landlords, the construction firms, and so on down the long list of businesses that feed on other businesses, and can’t be dispensed with because this or that law or regulation requires them to be paid their share. The resulting burden is far too large for most businesses to meet. Thus businesses don’t get started, and those that do start up generally go under in short order. It’s the same problem faced by every parasite that becomes too successful: it kills the host on which its own survival depends.
That’s the usual outcome when a heavily intermediated market economy slams face first into the hard realities of decline. Theoretically, it would be possible to respond to the resulting crisis by forcing disintermediation, and thus salvaging the market economy. Practically, that’s usually not an option, because the disintermediation requires dragging a great many influential economic and political sectors away from their accustomed feeding trough. Far more often than not, declining societies with heavily intermediated market economies respond to the crisis just described by trying to force the buyers and sellers of goods and services to participate in the market even at the cost of their own economic survival, so that some semblance of business as usual can proceed.