It’s taken as a given among educated Westerners that Western nations are ‘post-industrial economies’ — meaning that employment in industry as a proportion of the population has declined and will decline for the foreseeable future, and that they will be replaced by jobs in information technology (meaning anything involved with a computer) and in stuff like cleaning up hotel rooms.
This isn’t actually entirely accurate. What’s happened since the 1970s (setting aside the monetary issue) is that the industrial economy was made mostly illegal in the United States and Europe. A combination of labor and environmental regulation intended to improve quality of life made it so that, effectively, the government legislated entire sectors out of existence. At the same time, much of this economic activity was pushed overseas.
In this way, Apple can portray itself as a ‘post-industrial’ company, even when its hardware manufacture supply chain is absolutely enormous. The most efficient structure for them is to keep manufacturing overseas, and much of the retail, design, and software engineering in the United States.
Since the democratic political culture seeks to be comforted and to avoid pain, the often difficult & dirty existence of a factory worker was deemed to be insulting to human dignity, so it had to be pushed on to foreign shores. Putting people on welfare rolls who might otherwise be working on an assembly line at least comforts Americans that they will never find themselves working in a factory no matter how poorly suited to other forms of work they might be.
This shift also tends to be portrayed as a directed form of history — labor agitation ended ‘abusive’ labor practices (in reality it just shifted the ‘abusive’ practices overseas), universal education granted everyone more opportunities, and now no one needs to work in a grimy factory for 16 hours a day, except that plenty of people still do in order to manufacture the same products, just that much of it happens in other countries rather than domestically.
Quibbling about tariffs and most-favored-nation-statuses and even mass immigration all misses the core of why this political structure developed in the way that it did. de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America” that:
If I turn my observation from the upper to the lower classes, I find analogous effects produced by opposite causes. Amongst a nation where aristocracy predominates in society, and keeps it stationary, the people in the end get as much accustomed to poverty as the rich to their opulence. The latter bestow no anxiety on their physical comforts, because they enjoy them without an effort; the former do not think of things which they despair of obtaining, and which they hardly know enough of to desire them. In communities of this kind, the imagination of the poor is driven to seek another world; the miseries of real life inclose it around, but it escapes from their control, and flies to seek its pleasures far beyond. When, on the contrary, the distinctions of ranks are confounded together and privileges are destroyed – when hereditary property is subdivided, and education and freedom widely diffused, the desire of acquiring the comforts of the world haunts the imagination of the poor, and the dread of losing them that of the rich. Many scanty fortunes spring up; those who possess them have a sufficient share of physical gratifications to conceive a taste for these pleasures – not enough to satisfy it. They never procure them without exertion, and they never indulge in them without apprehension. They are therefore always straining to pursue or to retain gratifications so delightful, so imperfect, so fugitive.
If I were to inquire what passion is most natural to men who are stimulated and circumscribed by the obscurity of their birth or the mediocrity of their fortune, I could discover none more peculiarly appropriate to their condition than this love of physical prosperity. The passion for physical comforts is essentially a passion of the middle classes: with those classes it grows and spreads, with them it preponderates. From them it mounts into the higher orders of society, and descends into the mass of the people. I never met in America with any citizen so poor as not to cast a glance of hope and envy on the enjoyments of the rich, or whose imagination did not possess itself by anticipation of those good things which fate still obstinately withheld from him. On the other hand, I never perceived amongst the wealthier inhabitants of the United States that proud contempt of physical gratifications which is sometimes to be met with even in the most opulent and dissolute aristocracies. Most of these wealthy persons were once poor; they have felt the sting of want; they were long a prey to adverse fortunes; and now that the victory is won, the passions which accompanied the contest have survived it: their minds are, as it were, intoxicated by the small enjoyments which they have pursued for forty years. Not but that in the United States, as elsewhere, there are a certain number of wealthy persons who, having come into their property by inheritance, possess, without exertion, an opulence they have not earned. But even these men are not less devotedly attached to the pleasures of material life. The love of well-being is now become the predominant taste of the nation; the great current of man’s passions runs in that channel, and sweeps everything along in its course.
The taste for physical gratifications leads a democratic people into no such excesses. The love of well-being is there displayed as a tenacious, exclusive, universal passion; but its range is confined. To build enormous palaces, to conquer or to mimic nature, to ransack the world in order to gratify the passions of a man, is not thought of: but to add a few roods of land to your field, to plant an orchard, to enlarge a dwelling, to be always making life more comfortable and convenient, to avoid trouble, and to satisfy the smallest wants without effort and almost without cost. These are small objects, but the soul clings to them; it dwells upon them closely and day by day, till they at last shut out the rest of the world, and sometimes intervene between itself and heaven.
Although industry created America’s world-leading wealth, the factories themselves seemed to be something to be overcome and progressed past. The factories and refineries were dirty (notwithstanding that there are still many factories and refineries out there — it’s just that people in the middle class don’t want to know anyone involved in ‘dirty’ labor for the most part), physically demanding, inhospitable to women, and oriented to the concrete world of physical production rather than the more subjective aerie of information.
In America, the educated classes tended to strip workers of dignity except as victims exploited by cruel capitalists, in need of rescue by the intellectuals. The intellectuals then proceeded to make the means by which those laborers eked out independence and property illegal in the name of ‘rescuing’ them. Dignity came to be conferred by education and having the right intellectual-opinions rather than by acting out the ethic of work, saving, and religious duty.
In the name of equality, actually being a good person according to the past measuring-stick of virtue no longer mattered. You could have dignity and still be worthless or a malefactor by the old rubric, so long as you had the right opinions or were a member of one of the ever-proliferating victim groups.
In this the democratic revolutions just created a new class of ‘enlightened’ masters deigned to continually liberate the ever-propagating new classes of ‘slaves.’ First it was the actual bonded slaves, then it was the laborers, then it was the women, then the blacks, then the colonized, then the homosexuals, and now the bigamists and barnyard-lovers.
The value is not in the actual liberation, but in the sense of meaning and motivation created by each new ‘liberation.’ Since actual equality is impossible, what changes are the stories about equality and the pretensions to it.
Yet despite all the pretensions to historical progress, many things continue as they have before, with perceptions changing much more than the underlying reality. Because it’s not possible for men to be women and women to be men, you can’t actually change one into the other — but you can demand that everyone pretend as if it’s possible. It’s quite the same with the ‘post-industrial economy’ and the ‘information age’ — it hasn’t been possible to abolish factories, but it has been possible to pretend as if it’s been mostly accomplished.