I have struggled with the concept of work in previous posts, but failed both to drag up the right words to convey my thoughts clearly, and to arouse the subsequent discussion I was hoping for. I’m making another attempt here, aided and abetted by Ralph Boes.
Boes is a passionate supporter of guaranteed income. To demand it, he says, is to also demand the Right to Laziness. If we give all people an income sufficient for a dignified life just because they can fog a mirror, it cannot be said they have ‘earned’ that income. Indeed, should we manage, somewhere on Earth, to furnish all a nation’s citizens with a guaranteed income, we will not only be freeing people to contribute to society as they see fit, but also to laze, to not contribute. For if some choose to do ‘nothing’, they are certainly enabled to do so.
Who are we to stand in their way? There can be no punishment from a guaranteed income system for doing nothing; the income would not be guaranteed were there strings attached.
How bad is this? What are your reactions to this great bogey man, MoneyForNothing?
Goetz Werner is another passionate supporter of guaranteed income (GI), and a very successful businessman too. For years, he has been campaigning full time for the introduction of GI in Germany, and I have gladly given him precious Econosophy inches here before. When confronted by a prominent German (Thilo Sarrazin) at a conference on work some years ago, Sarrazin wanted to know what the hell Werner was doing with all this GI nonsense. Hadn’t it occurred to Werner that a couple could hook up, squeeze out ten rug rats, and lead the life of Riley on the fruits of other people’s hard work? Werner simply asked him if he had ever had to raise ten children.
So, fellow musers, what is work?
Imagine there were no money. It’s not easy, but, um, give it a try. Now try to define work.
Am I at work while asleep? If I don’t sleep, I go mad. So it’s necessary, is an activity my body needs to stay healthy, to process stuff in a particular way.
When I eat, am I at work? I would say yes, for the same reason as above.
When I am having fun with my friends, is that work? I believe so.
When I am having fun vacuuming my house?
When I am not having fun on holiday because my passport was stolen. When I am having fun with colleagues building a bridge, when I am acting a part on stage, when I am in the zone as an athlete, when I am breastfeeding my child, comforting my ailing mother, daydreaming, shitting, breathing, dying, decaying…
Whatever is done must involve energy-transfer and must therefore be work.
Boes makes good use of the happy etymological fact that laziness, in German, is “Faulheit”. “Faul” is lazy. “Verfaulen” is to rot. He reminds us that an apple rots to release its seeds for germination and growth. Laziness is work, is preparation. When we laze, we visit our muse. Hold that thought.
In money, we have a measure of value fused to a price-system informing us—so the myth—about what is valuable work, and what is not. This system had practical utility value some decades ago, when there was sufficient economically valuable work for sufficient numbers of humans. Today there is not, even if we killed off billions of ‘useless’ people; we have massive over-production already, with towards 20 million empty housing units in the US, a similarly obscene number in Spain, and millions of unsold cars and other consumer goods scattered across the planet.
True, we are not so far along that we can ditch money overnight, but we are in a very different place, technically, than we were a century ago. On the other hand, our ideas of work are still back in the good old days. They must be adapted to today’s circumstances if we are to find a reasonable path out of our multi-faceted predicament. The thinking we’ve grown up with doesn’t work any more. You cannot fix a problem with the thinking which created it.
Even without money, when we have to work, we have to work. Work is what we do to get to something we want or need. What we want or need is mostly separated from us by money, so we work at almost any job to ‘earn’ money to get those things. Without money, work would be between us and what we want, not money. If I want a clean house, I do the necessary work. If I want to be healthy and fit, I do the necessary work. If I want to dance, I do the necessary work. And so on.
Now we take an important detour into what I call ‘value assignment’ (a working term on my part). First though, we draw a distinction between explicit and implicit value assignment, before blurring that distinction later on. As I see it, explicit value assignments are effected by money, such as, the value of one pint of milk is equal to $1. That we all understand this kind of equation is an historical achievement, precisely because value is totally subjective; public consensus strong enough to enable bother-free buying and selling is one hell of an accomplishment, even if orthodox economics grossly misrepresents the evolution of this social technology (see Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”). Implicit value is what we engage in all the time when we judge things, like films, poems, friends, or blog posts.
So, in money we have an explicit, consensus measure of value, yet we still assign value implicitly, constantly. We have best friends whom we know well, who have strengths and weaknesses in our eyes. As children we have favourite parents, siblings, cousins, teachers, songs, rhymes, and so on. We make subtle, non-monetary value judgements all the time, often without realising it. Value judgments are inescapable, without or without money. The question then is how explicitly must we measure value? Put another way, are explicit (monetary) value assignments a permanent human, or social, requirement? The answer is obviously, no.
Let’s look at this in the context of work. When we perform work for the public domain—work which we value—, the value assigned by others to what we do—that is, by society—is revealed to us through interactions with and feedback from others. Value thus assigned need only be explicit, mathematical and somehow recorded (monetary), when other factors make explicit value assignment a necessity. Such factors include, little to no automation, scarcity of resources and labour, and a very large population of people living together in some way, e.g., as a nation. Not all of these factors apply today, hence neither explicit value assignment nor paid work (one corollary thereof) are required as before. That is, the enforced division of work into economic and non-economic is no longer helpful. This distinction is now somewhere between misleading and dangerously counterproductive. If we are not to collapse into war, we must leap into very new territory, blur value assignment into more subjective processes.
Because almost all repetitive grunt work can now be automated, what is left for us humans to do for one other is, more and more, imagination- or friendship-based. Both areas are as narrow or broad as we allow ourselves to believe. To be creative, we must laze, visit our muse, rot from old to grow into new inspiration, even if nothing of immediate and explicit social value emerges from our work. GI requires us to trust each other—even in the abstract—, to not be concerned that John is ‘wasting’ his life while Patricia goes from strength to strength. We must let John be, let him laze. And if he ‘fails’, his ‘failure’, his need for help, gives others an opportunity to use their creativity if they so choose.
To stick with old thinking a while longer; you cannot be in society without contributing, and even ‘negative’ contributions lead to work for others. As Boes puts it, as soon as some so-called ‘good for nothing’—leading a life, say, of surfing the net and tossing off to porn 24/7—gets hungry and visits a baker, s/he gives meaning to that baker. The simple fact of our biology compels us to interaction at some level, which, with GI and money in operation, means buying stuff, causing money to flow, ‘contributing’ to the economy in that way; as a paying consumer. Consumerism without consumers does not work.
This is not to say ‘contribution = good’ and ‘non-contribution = bad’. I’m making a broader point than that. GI is an enabler of laziness, which is essential, is work; GI is the destroyer of money’s monopoly on value-assessment, breaker of its death grip on work; GI makes all work societally valid, blurs the distinction we looked at above, because it reminds us that everything we do is and always has been work, always has social significance in some way. (Even a totally unknown hermit living ‘alone’ in a cave ‘contributes’ to (‘effects’) his society of trees, berries and other animals with his mere presence, with the natural rhythms of his biology.) We have to trust each other, have faith that humans do not, as Hobbes asserted, wanted nothing more than total and permanent war.
It was once helpful to distinguish between economically and non-economically valuable work; conditions required it, so we evolved a market system to make that distinction clear and practical. But socioeconomic mechanics have changed. Not only is there powerful automation at our fingertips ready to take almost all repetitive grunt labour from humans and hand it over to machines, Perpetual Growth is impossible, ever-ballooning consumerism is impossible. We can no longer afford to allow money-based value assignments tell us what to value and what not to value. In some ways we are already there: What is more socially valuable, a good parent or a good hedge fund manager? Can it be anything other than misleading to answer that question in dollar amounts?
Guaranteed income challenges much of our cherished, millennia-old ‘instinct’ on work, but, perhaps above all, it compels us to renew the way we value each other and ourselves. I can’t emphasise this point enough. Measuring our utility to each other with money is profoundly limited and divisive, increasingly so as we need each other’s labour less and less. Why do we Just Know economic or money-based work is more ‘valuable’ than friendship, motherhood, fatherhood, sleeping, breathing, dreaming? The answer is a tautology; because we ‘need’ money to live. Think about how profoundly simple that is, and how caught up in its web we are. Why is Perpetual Growth Consumerism the economic model we simply must prop up at all costs? Because money needs it. And money is the most important thing in the world, right? I hardly need remind you that air has a price of zero.
Money needs money. We no longer do; at least, not as we did. This simple fact presents us with an enormous challenge. Speaking personally, I’m finding it very hard indeed to value myself highly, having willingly given up my job and leapt, with my family on my back, into the unknown. Trying to find what it is about me society needs, is like a poison I cannot get out of my veins, even though I am busier than ever. Money is not flowing to me like it did (wages), therefore I am not as ‘valuable’ as I was. And I’m a guy pushing for deep change in this very area, one happiest when writing, who therefore knows how to keep himself busy. So how will ‘uselessness’ hit those emotionally invested in some paid job society no longer needs? Guaranteed income will ravage accountancy, complex tax codes, job contracts, state education, and much else besides.
Just as nothing is, GI is no panacea. It just makes sense—when coupled with a new money system and other deep changes to the broader system—as one strand of dealing intelligently with today’s socioeconomic reality. In my next post I will look at the two main proposals for financing guaranteed income.
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