This post puts me back in old territory after a long journey through inner landscapes, prompted in part by my own personal transformation—which is unending of course—as well as the Occupy movement, which is, for me, part of The Venus Project, The Zeitgeist Movement and all other attempts to self-educate, together, into the new; to make sense for ourselves of where we are, and of the nature of the challenges we face. And although economic matters such as money and labour prompt us to ask the deeper questions, it will soon prove to be a transformation of consciousness—which is anyway ongoing and perpetual—, value, and meaning we are wrestling with. Key battlegrounds are selfishness-altruism, competition-cooperation, rights-obligations, scarcity-abundance, work-pleasure, waste-food, and more broadly that dichotomies themselves are illusions, scales, perception-filters with which we have co-evolved, learned, grown wiser. It is my sense that we are now coming to experience dichotomies as embedded ‘tools,’ as interwoven through our reality as life and as subtle as language, rather than as insoluble Platonic absolutes. All institutions and their driving ideologies are thus on the table; everything is caught up in this transformation. We are tasked with doing good work, both for and in ourselves, and for and in the network which enables us—where “both” suggests a separation not there.
That broad backdrop denoted, it is appropriate to zero in on, anew, a topic which is now finding more column inches in the mainstream than previously; technological unemployment. I’ve written on this before, but that was then, and this is now. Today I begin by pointing out that employment itself is a technology. Exchanging labour and time for a wage is new in human history, particularly as fused with self-worth and ‘independence.’ Typically we do not penetrate that concept, that how we value ourselves is reflexively, autonomically associated with our ‘job’ or ‘career.’ We tend to leave that association unexamined (though I ought to point out that introspection itself is also a new phenomenon; the word ‘self-conscious’ didn’t appear until 1690). However, feeling that we have a place, are somehow contributing to the network which sustains us, is a ‘deep’ urge arising from being a social animal capable of abstract language. This urge is present in humans of hunter gatherer groups to city metropolises. That combination—social + abstract language—makes homo sapiens sapiens myth- and symbol-based creatures. We exist in language, as Fritjof Capra stated. Language is a landscape, a repository of accumulated wisdom we are steered by when we understand, communicate, learn, do. ‘Technological unemployment’ is an expression with a rich history and layered symbology, bound up in value, identity, utility, Cartesian Dualism (nature-nurture). Its shifting meaning to us is as important as the ‘problem’ it has perceived into existence.
What is the problem it identifies, exactly? There are many answers, what follows is mine.
Systemically, socioeconomically, we equip consumers with purchasing power via the labour each worker exchanges for money. Money has purchasing power enabling those holding it to take ‘ownership’ of the goods and services their and other workers’ labour has helped to produce. Jobs and careers (in the contemporary sense) are ‘inventions’ for allotting or distributing (via wages) symbols of value which also have the power to affect exchange. We get purchasing power—a vital component to the spiraling cyclicality of consumerism—via wages. The fewer people equipped with lasting purchasing power the fewer consumers there are. This is of course a big and ongoing problem in a growth-based system.
The human realm in which this cyclical distribution takes place is called ‘the economy,’ which, quite by chance it seems, must grow, or spiral outwards, forever. The surface reason for this is to be found in the design of the usury-based money system; the deeper reason we have a usury-based money system in the first place lies in our sense of ourselves as Masters of Nature, the Good Ones, Separate, growing and conquering the Idle Resources of the Wild. We have been multiplying, battling Enemy Nature all the way, fulfilling our Destiny of Ascent. But now, as Charles Eisenstein points out, our once unshakable belief in our Dominion is crumbling. Hold that thought.
Parallel with our briefly explained system of value-distribution, we have increasing ‘efficiency’ and ‘competition.’ In the allegedly hot melee which is evolution we have ‘technological advances.’ Change is nature, nature is ongoing accrual of wisdom, we are of nature, nature is a ‘technological’ process we are embedded in (“technological” meaning the perceiving and ‘solving’ of ‘problems’). Change is the only constant. In my view there is nothing ‘unnatural’ about computers and robots. There is nothing ‘better’ about the past than the present or future, other than what we perceive, imagine. Efficiency and competition are, in part, doing economically better than the Other; producers strive to deliver goods and services for sale to consumers at lower costs so as to increase profits, get their hands on more purchasing power, and enjoy life more. Part of this has been automation, which is millennia old, including tamed fire, store, pickling, pulleys and anything else which Makes Life Easier. But as we Make Life Easier we shrink—after some juncture, slowly and fitfully at first but now very obviously—the economic usefulness of human labour, on balance and over time. As Andrew McAfee recently pointed out, “The list of things humans are demonstrably better at than computers is shrinking pretty dramatically.” We humans are less and less necessary to economic production, and yet we are still socially, 'humanly' important to each other. “Humans need humans.”
So it comes down to value; how to value each other, how to reward, punish, share our ingenuity. What is value? Whence does it arise? Should we ‘measure’ it? If so, then how? If strangers exchange smiles on a bus should they then use a smart phone application for measuring smile effectiveness, then bill each other accordingly—since both strangers derived ‘value’ from the exchange—to keep the ‘economy’ going? What of the wide gamut of human activity should we include in the economic realm, should we call labour, should earn money? If humans become economically redundant, should we commit mass suicide because we have thus become useless? How dominant in terms of power and decision making should the economic realm be? How unquestioningly should we idolize it? Youth unemployment in Greece is 45%, 49% in Spain. In the States, the labour participation rate is at 64%, close to how it is was during the Great Depression. The Great Depression. Useless people everywhere, starving because they were useless, are useless. Meanwhile, I hear factory production is at around 40% capacity across the planet, but we don’t need more humans to produce more, we need them to buy more. Why? To appease Perpetual Growth. We don’t need to buy more, Perpetual Growth does. How ‘useless’ have we become? Where is our vaunted imagination?
As our unshakable faith in our Manifest Destiny crumbles, as we tire of consumerism, no longer want more and more; as population growth slows, to zero and less in some western lands; as our ingenuity and restlessness render us economically redundant, every pillar that supports the usury- and growth-based system cracks more deeply, loses strength. Without Growth, we have Recession or Depression. That these concepts stand in opposition to each other tells its own story. That we can converse about greed, about consuming too much, about a simpler life, yet still demand jobs, decent wages, a Return to Normal, tells another. But more and more of us are seeing through the veil, experimenting with different ideas, perceptions. The Story of Ascent unravels as we peer through its mists, and as we peer, we seek and we probe, adding fuel to the process of creating the New, which is gathering strength. The energy we want to contribute to Ascent is shrinking, thus the Old is deflating. The New is gaining strength as a direct consequence of this, struggling to its feet, getting ready to walk, becoming more visible, more charismatic, clearer. And nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.
Technological unemployment will remain a ‘problem’ while we too tightly and rigidly associate utility with job and career, while we distribute purchasing power (value) via labour, while we measure value exclusively via market processes and call only its result True Value, while we insist ownership of property in larger amounts is what life is about, and while we battle to sustain our usury-based money system. Because the old associations are so deep, the direction which is taking us away from them appears to lead nowhere, for now. But it’s always like that. You could make a good case that Rome’s collapse was in part due to ‘technological’ unemployment: “In AD 28 there were three million slaves and four million people in Italy.” (Rifkin, “The Empathic Civilization”, p229.) Systemically, machines and slaves are producers we don’t pay, we don’t furnish with purchasing power. In this system, that is a problem.
But what the ‘goal’ might look like is not the issue at this stage, nor any stage. Is there agreement on the goal of the current paradigm? The journey is the destination. There is no ending, no Final State, no perfection. Everything is always emerging, changing, learning. As we probe, question, create new interpretations and ideas, so we imagine different ways of being, cut new paths. Imagination, folks, imagination! Isn’t that the source of value? Drink of its spring, do not be too afraid, be open to change. Isn’t that what the challenge of crisis demands?
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