|September 25, 2013
By Richard Clark
One way to help our unemployment & poverty problems: Adopt a basic, guaranteed-income program (of the kind Richard Nixon and a few renegade economists once favored) & like the one currently in operation in Ontario, Canada. This would allow a transition from a war economy to a peace economy & from a wasteful economy to an efficient economy, as we moved away from “produce all the crap that can possibly be marketed & sold.”
Overpopulation is not the main problem. Rather, it’s the maldistribution of income that is the first part of the problem. The second part of the problem is that such a huge proportion of our labor force is wasted on the production of increasingly superfluous stuff.
Why is it wasted that way? Because billions in profits can be made by certain companies and individuals from the sale of all that stuff.
If by some means we could reorganize society in such a way that people had alternatives to participating in this huge orgy of wasted labor and resources, there would be far more people available to, say, build and maintain affordable housing for all, make cities beautiful and more functional, provide more and better education for one and all, and protect the environment and thereby our health. And if incomes were then to be distributed more equitably, say to the extent that it was in the late 1950s or 60s, people who now live in cramped quarters and “bad neighborhoods’ would have the income that was required to rent or buy larger living quarters.
Yes this presumes they had all been afforded an education that was maximally beneficial to them and which prepared them for some kind of job that was sufficiently useful to society. But in the larger scheme of things, is that really a prohibitively large presumption or requirement?
Freedom from excessive labor and long work-hours
In a truly free society, of a kind just suggested, blessed by such advanced technology as ours is and would be, people would not then be compelled to work anymore than they really wanted to. Yet, as Elliot Sperber recently pointed out, even though the mechanization and automation of agricultural and industrial work has been developing for well over a century, it has not (since the advent of the 40-hr week after WWII) resulted in an overall reduction in work-hours, but rather an increase. But how could this be?
One would imagine, as Alfred Keynes and Bertrand Russell did, that a free society would employ these new technologies in a manner that would create _more_ free time, not less. Indeed, in the 1930s, people commonly supposed that the continuing mechanization/automation of production would lead to a three-day work week! And this was indeed the goal of the more critical factions of the labor movement – not more jobs and ever more work, but the _elimination_ of long-hour jobs and excessive work, and the development of an ever more just and leisurely society!
Needless to say, this goal was not realized. Instead, for the past 60+ years, most people have been working steadily more hours.
Why so? Because as time goes on, they have been compelled (for the sake of corporate & bankster profits) to produce ever more in the way of largely unnecessary and toxic products — everything from toxic plastics and a thousand different kinds of industrial chemicals that are polluting the world, to toxic derivatives and other toxic financial instruments, to toxic (military-industrial complex) weaponry for export, to an unending variety of toxic foods — all this combined with the labor-wasteful and toxic advertisements (created by well-paid marketing professionals) that induce millions of people to buy and consume most all of this toxic superfluity.
Even more excessive and wasteful: the millions of white-collar jobs that have emerged around and within these crazy endeavors just described. And yet, by way of all of this labor-wasteful production of what is in large part toxic crap, people are indeed working more “productively” (in terms of dollar-value output per hour) than ever. Meanwhile, more than half of the poor, trapped souls captured by this grand, duplicitous endeavor are now earning ever less (per hour) than in years past! And for 40% of us, it’s now less than what the minimum wage paid in 1968!
Therefore, not only are people ever _less_ free to relax and rest, and ever _less_ free from stress; they have increasingly become the victims of occupational and environmental diseases: The _pollution_ from our incessant (and in most cases increasingly unnecessary) work and production is ever more effectively destroying our natural environment, and us. Meanwhile, the associated resource squanderingincreases the likelihood of more war, perhaps even world war. Quite perversely then, the great increase in productivity that has occurred over the past 60+ years has not only brought us less leisure time, it has also become a threat to our health and security. “Bullshit jobs” (see next section of this article for more on this) and ever more production do not bring more freedom for most people so much as they preclude and/or destroy it.
Not only should jobs be recognized for what they are — a means to an end, and not the end itself — an emancipatory politics should advocate for _fewer_, not more, long-hour jobs. Except for the people who love their work (and the extra money it provides them) more than the leisure time they lose from this extra work, there should be less work, not more.
A free society necessitates the creation of certain beneficent social conditions as priority number one. Sperber refers to the conditions of health, leisure, peace, general well-being, and more in the way of equality of opportunity. And, as he also says, we should work to create these things directly.
Problem is, as they are rooted in exploitation, and are inextricable from the harms they spread, ever more jobs have become _obstacles_ to conditions of equality (of opportunity), peace, well-being et.al.
How to meet everyone’s basic needs?
You may very well wonder just how everyone’s basic needs could be met if we did manage to transition to directly creating the conditions of well-being for all, as Sperber suggests we must. Could we really do this without creating huge numbers of make-work jobs, in the mainstream economy, so as to gainfully employ all those currently desperate for a job? But how else to get them the adequate income they would need for such a transition?
A simple solution to this problem would be to adopt a basic, guaranteed-income policy (of the kind Richard Nixon and a few renegade economists once favored), and as is currently in operation in Ontario, Canada. This and only this would allow for a transition: a) from a war economy to a peace economy, and b) from a wasteful economy to an efficient economy, . . as we moved from a produce-all-the-crap-that-can-possibly-be-marketed-&-sold economy (so as to create all the jobs we need), to a produce-first-of-all-the-basics-everyone-needs economy. It is imperative that we find some way to give every unemployed/underemployed person a chance to do their fair share of the work required to produce and distribute these basics, regardless of how few hours that might require. And, we must make sure they have, at the very least, the guaranteed means to acquire their fair share of these basic goods and services they produce. To the extent they wanted to work more hours, in the mainstream economy, to get more stuff, they would of course be free to do that.
Would more buying power, with fewer hours of work, be bad for the economy as a whole? Not according to Robert Reich’s latest article. Just the opposite.
Conclusion: If we are to overcome our contemporary barbarism as well as our cultural and societal bee-line to ecocide and world war, we must recognize the need to create conditions of well-being directly – and not by systematically creating ever more jobs and ever more work in the production, sales and distribution of the superfluous and toxic (as we as a society have been doing for the better part of 70 years). Rather, we need to find a way to begin eliminating superfluous (bullshit) jobs and superfluous (bullshit) work as much as we possibly can, while concentrating much more on the production ofbasic goods & services and the conditions of health, education, peace and leisure, for everyone.
On bullshit jobs and bullshit work
Ever had the feeling that your job might be “made up” or unnecessary, i.e. that the world would keep on turning very nicely even if you and others doing your kind of job weren’t doing what you do 9-5? Professor David Graeber here explores this idea. His thinking, quite in line with that of Elliot Sperber, can be summarized as follows.
In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain and the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right . . about what was possible. In technological terms, we have for quite some time been capable of establishing a greatly reduced workweek. And yet it never happened. Instead, technology has been used, with the help of clever businessmen, to figure out ways to make us all work more hours, not less. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are otherwise pointless and in some ways even counterproductive. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe should not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this requirement is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul, as Graeber says. Yet virtually no one talks about it. This article is an attempt to begin that conversation.
Why did Keynes’ promised utopia — still being eagerly awaited in the 1960s — never materialize?
The standard explanation today is that Keynes didn’t figure-in the massive increase in consumerism that was just around the corner. Given the choice between fewer hours work, and more toys and material pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter.
This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be the entire explanation. Yes, we’ve witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new industries and jobs since the 1920s, but comparatively few workers in America today have anything to do with the actual production and distribution of, say, iPhones, other consumer electronics, cameras, fancy sneakers etc., which are of course for the most part produced in low-wage foreign countries, not in the USA.
So what are these millions of superfluous new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture of this. Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed in industry, as domestic servants, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted by Keynes and many others, been largely automated away. (And even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in Asia, such workers, especially industrial workers, are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they once were).
But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, hobbies, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the “service” sector as of the _administrative_ sector — up to and including the creation of whole new service “industries” like financial services and telemarketing, and the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist only because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.
These then are what Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.”
It’s as if some nefarious and unseen but punishing god, operating behind the scenes, was making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working long hours.
Here then lies the mystery: In capitalism, this is exactly what is _not_ supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system readily made up as many jobs as they had to — this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat. But, of course, this is the very sort of problem that market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happened, and continues to happen.
Yes corporations engage in ruthless downsizing; unfortunately, however, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things. Meanwhile, through some strange alchemy that virtually no one can explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers seems ever to expand. And ever more of these workers find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working (at least on paper) 50- or even 60-hour weeks. But how many real, effective work hours do most of them actually put in? In many cases, it’s not a great deal more than the 15 hours Keynes predicted, since much of their “work’ time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their Facebook profiles or downloading/viewing/reading stuff on the Internet.
The solution to this problem clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a great danger to their cushy ruling class privileges (think of what started to happen when this “too-much-free-time” scenario even began to be realized in the 1960s). And, there is also the ruling class dogma (shared by those who cow-tow to the ruling class), that work is a “moral value” in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves to live in poverty. And how extraordinarily advantageous that widespread outlook and dogma is, for the ruling class!
Now, I realize that any such argument, as has been presented here, is going to run into immediate objections, such as: “who are you to say what jobs are really “necessary’? What’s “necessary’ anyway? You’re an anthropology professor; what’s the “need’ for that?” (Indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure.) And on one level, this is obviously true.
Therefore I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those millions who are themselvesconvinced that their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. Once a fine poet and musician, he’s now a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He is the first to admit that his job is utterly meaningless, contributes nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not exist.
There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with: What does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if a very privileged 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, then what we call “the market” will of course reflect what theythink is most useful and important, and not what most everyone else thinks is useful or important.)
I’ve never met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new service “industries” mentioned earlier. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid discussing their line of work. Give them a few drinks, though, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.
There is a profound psychological violence going on in the lives of these people
How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep (if repressed) rage and resentment? And it is the peculiar genius of our ruling class that has allowed them to figure out a way to ensure that this rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems to be a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen if this entire class of workers were to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they all to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in dire straits.
However, it’s not at all clear how humanity would suffer were all private-equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect that the world would markedly improve.)
Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense among those who cow-tow to the ruling class that the current arrangement is the way things should be. And this fact is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see the truth of this when tabloids whip up resentment against mass transit workers for paralyzing a large city during contract disputes: the very fact that such workers can paralyze a city shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys many people. In this way, Republicans in the USA have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers — and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers (who actually cause the problems) — for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and high-quality health care? How dare you!”
If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job.
Real, productive workers, doing essential work, are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The continual speed-up on automobile assembly lines is to great as to make what would be an otherwise quite rewarding job into a source of misery.
The remainder of a developed nation’s workers are divided between a terrorized stratum of the universally reviled (i.e. the unemployed) and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do very little, yet who are in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.) –particularly its financial avatars — but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.
Clearly, this perverse and ridiculously wasteful system we live in was never consciously designed by anyone who had any interest in justice, efficiency, ecology and fairness. Rather, it emerged from almost a century of trial and error, with the greatest influence over it coming from the very rich who were continually looking for ways to maximize their income and wealth, even if it had to be at the expense of everyone else. And this is why, despite our nation’s technological capacities, we are not all working 5-hour days, or 30-hr weeks with 2 months of paid vacation, in a society that has as one of its main goals the conservation of natural resourcses and the health of the environment.
Toward a new definition of progress and new arrangements for work
Instead of economic growth just for the sake of ever more profits (for corporados and stock market investors), with said profits being facilitated by ever more hours of work, for most workers, in this new, hyperproduction, hyperconsumption “squirrel-cage”/activity-wheel/treadmill society that American capitalism has developed for its workers (i.e. workers who have thus been captured by the new economic gospel of consumption), let me propose an old alternative to this general overproduction and hyperconsumption (which, for the time being, seems to be our only way to combat too much unemployment).
The solution: Limited production through a shorter workweek and/or work-year. And by that means let us develop a way to: a) save the environment, b) prevent the need to constantly go to war to assure our nation’s share of scarce resources, and c) simultaneously remove ourselves from all the stress that too many hours of work assure for us.
Historical background, with the help of economic historian Benjamin Hunnicut
Between 1920 and 1934, the shorter-hour cure for overproduction and unemployment was almost as popular and important as the other solution, i.e. spreading the gospel of consumption. The critical debate about unemployment that developed in the 1920s was not, as it has been since the Depression, over how to stimulate demand. Rather the debate revolved around the question of whether work time would continue to decrease, thereby limiting unnecessary production and redistributing necessary employment, **OR** whether new markets would be created and established for the sale of ever more goods and services. Note that both points of view shared the idea that the economy had reached a critical juncture.
The arguments of the supporters of increased leisure and the shorter-hour cure for unemployment may be summarized as follows.
Economic abundance and growing productivity threatened us with overproduction and the resulting unemployment. Shorter hours could decrease the work each of us had to do while at the same time being quite compatible with increasing wages, redistributed employment, reducing unnecessary production and surpluses, and insuring a standard of life for everyone that could not go below some established but not-too-low minimum. Therefore, increasing leisure was as practical a solution (for over-production) in this “New Economic Era,” as were new markets and increased production, and was for several reasons preferable to them.
It was preferable in the first place because leisure could be used to revive the benefits and values that work had lost to ever more advanced machinery. Things such as craftsmanship, creativity, worker control, and initiative could take place during, and through: hobbies, volunteer projects, leisure-time craftsmanship, and other constructive recreation. Leisure was preferable, also, because it would help keep other institutions and traditions alive which were threatened by mass society, standardization, and mass consumption/production. To wit: Individualism, the community of workers, the family and, for many, the church, would be strengthened and would grow as people had more time to devote to these things. In addition, increased leisure would keep open the possibility of what Edwin Sapir called “genuine progress.” The dreams of utopian writers, socialists, and reformers which had been around for over a century — dreams of a democratic culture, worker education, the universal pursuit of happiness, and “humane and moral freedom” — were reasonable possibilities, but only with increased leisure time. Lastly, shorter hours would counter the new “economic gospel of consumption,” which had begun to define progress solely in terms of economic growth, just as it abandoned the other, more humane kinds of progress.
AFL President William Green explained that less work and more free time were natural results of technological advance and the more efficient satisfaction of human needs. This free time could either be forced upon some workers, in the form of unemployment, or it could be rationally distributed, among all workers, in the form of more leisure for all, in combination with higher hourly wages! A. 0. Wharton, president of the International Association of Machinists, argued that “increased production accentuates the problems of overproduction and underconsumption, whereas increased wages and reduced hoursgo hand in hand with increased production. Economic balance could be maintained only if “wages advance and leisure hours increase. If some sort of balance is not maintained, we are headed straight for disaster.” AFL vice president Matthew Woll observed that since “production is overtaking our ability to consume,” shorter hours would serve as a “restraining influence” and limit production to “rational levels.”"
In addition to limiting production to “rational levels,” shorter hours would improve wages according to the labor spokesmen of the day. By reducing the supply of labor, shorter hours would create a sellers’ market for labor, thereby strengthening the unions’ bargaining positions. Thus workers would be able to command a larger proportion — their “fair share” — of the nation’s generated wealth (which in recent years has been increadingly funneled into the pockets of the top 1%, and especially to the top tenth of that 1%. Instead of the rich buying ever more _luxuries_, ever more workers could then buy ever more and better _necessities_, and the direction of the economy would be changed from the production of ever more expensive and luxurious goods for the ever more wealthy, to the tasks of assuring that everyone had their basic needs met. Before 1927, organized labor considered shorter hours as an efficient and fair way to help redistribute wealth, while at the same time assuring that adequate amounts of necessities were produced before luxuries — and without the need for direct governmental action (welfare programs) to aid the poor.
An example of those reformers who actively supported labor was George Alger. Active in New York reform efforts such as child labor laws and penal reforms, he came to believe that reformers in the 1920s should be concerned “as much with the growing social surplus of time” as the “distribution of the social surplus of things.” He argued that the new business view of economic advance led to “artificial demands for useless products” — it led to “a consumer wonderland” and yet also to a “new slavery.” Individual self-expression and creativity had been sacrificed because “the people who can set before us a long list of new things to want, as well as a way to make us want them irresistibly, are the main contributors to our current concept of progress.” He criticized work as specialized, mechanical, passive, lacking in self-expression, dull, monotonous, and the cause of increased drug addiction, insanity and crime. He was also suspicious of industrial psychologists and advertisers who, between them, had led the masses to a “pendulum-like existence” — a “life of producing and purchasing” ever more in the way of comparatively useless things, for artificial and contrived reasons. He reasoned that “the stimulus of what we want to buy, rather than what we want to be, is, in current theory, that which keeps us at work.”
Concluding that, in the face of the “new economy of consumption, any theory of the use of leisure which might make it something else, other than principally an expression of buying power, may be considered an alarming heresy because of its possible effect on sales,” Alger nevertheless suggested such a theory. “The quality of work and the lack of self-expression, through work,” eroded virtues and “paralyzed our powers.”
But “enlarged leisure” could revive “artisan and craftsman” values, such as creativity, self-expression, and individual control. Leisure could also renew cultural and spiritual values.
Through more leisure, Americans could “enlarge their field of self-expression, become active and in control of their lives and their freedom, and come to grips with the greatest practical problem before us, on which depends the future of Western civilization: the reapplication of love and creativity to life.”"
Like Alger, Stephen Leacock thought that industry’s need to grow, to promote more consumption, and to create new markets for luxuries, was socially destructive. He also believed that the concept of progress was changing. Progress has been redefined by businessmen and economists as the chasing after the “phantom of insatiable desires.” But this progress had little to do with old progressive ideals about material or human welfare. According to Leacock, the satisfaction of human needs through industrial production had reached the point of diminishing returns. The creation of “luxuries and superfluities” was a perversion of progress. Businessmen were producing questionable values, as well as new goods and services. “Real human needs” were being ignored in this situation. Leacock maintained that “the shortening of the hours of work, with the corresponding changes in the direction of production, was really the central problem of social reform.”"‘
And he was right.
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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I’ve always been more interested in political economics and what’s going on behind the scenes in politics, than in mechanical engineering, and because of that I’ve rarely worked more than 8 months a year, devoting much of the rest of the year to reading and writing about that which interests me most.
Comment: Yes, stop karma treading the treadmill, see and serve truth, peace, and liberation.