An automated bartender pours your beer at Narita airport, Japan
Here is how populism works, in Ian Buruma’s crisp description: “Resentment feeds off a sense of humiliation, a loss of pride. In a society where human worth is measured by individual success, symbolized by celebrity and money, it is easy to feel humiliated by a relative lack of it, of being just another face in the crowd. In extreme cases, desperate individuals will assassinate a president or a rock star just to get into the news. Populists find support among those resentful faces in the crowd, people who feel that elites have betrayed them, by taking away their sense of pride in their class, their culture, or their race.”
“This has not happened in Japan yet,” he says, where “self-worth is defined less by individual fame or wealth than by having a place in a collective enterprise, and doing the job one is assigned as well as one can.”
For example, “People in department stores seem to take genuine pride in wrapping merchandise beautifully. Some jobs – think of those uniformed middle-aged men who smile and bow at customers entering a bank – appear to be entirely superfluous. It would be naive to assume that these tasks give huge satisfaction, but they offer people a sense of place, a role in society, however humble.”
This is one reason Japan has skirted some of the problems of neo-liberalism, he thinks, along with some other less savory reasons like “corporate interests, bureaucratic privileges, and pork-barrel politics….”
Removing any sense of community in the name of efficiency, Buruma believes, has been the road to neo-lib perdition. (His example: “Thatcherism has probably made the British economy more efficient … by crushing trade unions and other established institutions of working-class culture.”)
Buruma ties populism (in Japan, at least) to job satisfaction, and while debate over populism rages everywhere on the internet these days, talk about jobs seems to come (as it ever was) mostly from the left. What once was a debate centered narrowly on the loss of jobs due to automation has now opened up to include the very future of work. It’s a subject that has caught my imagination. I’ve compiled a list of relevant articles and websites below the fold, in case you’re interested.