This post is of course tightly linked with work (and wages as reward/payment for productive work), but warrants its own entry in Econosophy’s annals, such as they are.
One of the thought-avenues that has been catching my attention of late is productivity. I’ve explored work’s two apparently separate domains – economic and non-economic as we currently envision them – but my explorations remain incomplete without a similar exploration of productivity. When I draw the distinction between economic and non-economic, the word ‘productive’ is loud and bright in my mind. It’s a positive word; it’s a Good Thing to be productive. Non-productive work is a Waste of Time. From this (protestant) vantage, we can despair of the non-productive, lazy South. We can say “Work before pleasure” and mean the former is productive while the latter is not. We can split work and pleasure and not think twice about it. We can feel guilty for being paid to do something we enjoy. None of this represents profound insight on my part, but the negative effects of this antiquated mind-set are now rising to the cultural surface, even in Germany.
I strongly suspect this love affair with productivity is a primary emergent property or network effect of Eisensteinian Ascent: ever-increasing ‘control’ of Enemy Nature in pursuit of Progress. Productivity and Progress can be thought of as the twinned offspring of Adam and Eve’s mythical ejection from Eden. We could even say rewards. Once we were naked savages rutting, burping and lazing our way through subsistence existence, now we have progressed to civilised productivity. Behold! Skyscrapers, streets, automobiles, cities and electric light, conjured into existence by State-Money-Market, now reign where once idle jungle and ocean blindly recycled stuff for no apparent reason.
From this self-aggrandising perspective it is easy to believe that cleaning your own house is not as productive as being paid to clean someone else’s. Staying at home to raise your kids is not as productive as being paid to raise someone else’s. In short, work is productive if and only if its product causes money to change hands. (I exaggerate, but only a little.)
Why are money and productivity now so inextricably intertwined? Perhaps because the work that produces the stuff that characterises civilisation is mostly unpleasant. Its unpleasantness is a consequence of its machine-like anonymity, and must thus be explicitly rewarded. Perhaps, too, because waged work replaces the land as the soil from which the stuff of survival, money, grows. Obviously it is a mix of these and other factors. I happen to believe that capitalism is largely responsible for this process, is this process, though it too has its own deep roots of course, with sweat-of-thy-brow Protestantism no innocent bystander.
Capitalism began, in part, by cutting people from land and self-sufficiency (enclosures), people who were then ‘free’ to work for money to survive (I am not saying that being tied to the land is more or less free than being tied to waged work, only that freedom is a difficult word to define). The entrepreneur’s ‘rational’ pursuit of profit must mean poor working conditions, typically speaking. Work is unpleasant. It must be rewarded. Work is unavoidable. It must be rewarded. Without payment, you cannot survive. Work has thus become intertwined with money, where money is now the one conduit to survival; specialisation has come to mean dependence on anonymous others to produce that which we do not and cannot.
After a few centuries of this, we can today boast that subsistence is no longer subsistence because of Flat Screen TVs, Entertainment, Shopping etc., which are apparently more important than health and contentment. If you doubt this, ask yourself which set produces more profit.
Anyway, over time our sense of productivity has been boiled down by the heat of economic progress to mean economic work judged valuable by the Invisible Hand (where “economic” narrowly means exchange of goods and services for money).
But ecosystems! Ecosystems pay for our ride, and yet we have not been all that aware of their needs or our total dependency on them these last few hundred years. To grow the economy forever so as to increase productivity and human productive work forever requires enabling systems (the environment) that allow this. Infinitely forgiving and generous environmental support systems do not and cannot exist.
But automation! Automation is becoming ever more sophisticated. Machines and computers are now responsible for most ‘productive’ work. But because productive work is Good while non-productive work is Bad, by definition, we must find ‘productive’ work for everyone. If you don’t work, you should earn no money. Why should someone receive money for doing nothing? Doing nothing is not productive. It should be punished, not rewarded. We must find productive work for everyone, even though doing so makes no real sense under current cultural definitions.
This is a circle that cannot be squared, but few want to accept this. Consumerism plus infinite growth plus automation cannot be sustained. By extension, our cultural sense of productivity cannot be sustained. It is wildly out of date, far too narrow. While we cling to it, we wring our hands and hold futile discussions on what is to be done to perpetuate the system, we castigate scroungers and prescribe Austerity, we reject ideas that come from outside the dominant paradigm while paying lip service to Change, then recycle defunct solutions to ‘solve’ the crises generated by repeated application of those solutions.
And what is nothing, exactly? There is certainly no action which consists of nothing. Our frantic system of economic growth ad nauseum cannot alter this fact, even though it has engendered stubborn cultural perceptions that insist sleep, rest, spending time with friends, travel, etc. – all activities requiring energy exchange – are somehow non-productive, somehow constitute Doing Nothing. We fear breakdown if we relax our grip on proceedings, if we enjoy ourselves too much or yield to our ‘bestial’ nature. If we ease up even a little, everyone would decide to laze around or collapse into pointless warring (Human Nature), harvests would fail, factories would lie idle, productivity would cease. Civilisation would go to seed: a fear as old as civilisation, as old as elitism. Until now, civilisation’s engine has been precisely this control-based fear. And I am as riddled with it as the next guy.
Consequently, recuperation, pleasure and adventure have no economic value (unless they are causing or will directly cause money to change hands). Surely we can enshrine their obvious value in a new economics? Surely we can at least agree that there is intellectual and practical room for manoeuvre in this area, that our attitudes must change, that our survival depends on new thinking? Must we always see pleasure as ‘reward’ for ‘productive’ work? Must one always precede the other? What would need to change to allow their merging? If we need distinctions between forms of work, what mix of ‘economic’ and ‘non-economic’ makes sense? How dynamic and flexible should this mix be?
Can we begin to imagine other ways of socially valuing each other and our work?
Can we imagine agreeing on a larger definition of work, of productivity?
Dare we imagine that we don’t have to ‘earn a living’ anymore? Of course we will always have to earn respect and admiration and other effects of social standing, but there is far more to this than measuring and rewarding successful work via price and money and calling only that work productive. In other words, if the economic system must change deeply for humanity to have a shot of outliving this century, we need not fear that respect and admiration will be rendered impossible should we embark on a path of radical change. We need not be paralysed by fear of collapse into chaos, into Hobbes’ Warre. Indeed, they are upon us because we lack the courage, compassion and imagination to change.
As I see it, changing our cultural attitude to productivity can only happen as part of a larger process of changing our cultural attitude to value and measuring value (if the latter is at all possible). A simple observation to make, a mighty challenge to overcome. Together, we are the system in which social value is measured almost exclusively via money, price and market exchange. While we do not need to and cannot change in lockstep, social change cannot be other than a collective effort, the sweat of the brow of the global mind. Though perhaps effort is the wrong word. How easily ‘work before pleasure’ slips through into our analysis, even when arguing against it!
Courage, compassion and imagination are called for. Maybe one day the right mix of these will produce a social form which lauds and rewards ‘non-economic’ work as wisely as it lauds and rewards ‘economic’ work, assuming such a distinction remains valid.
All work is productive by definition, since work is necessarily any action which causes change to happen, any action which produces a discernible effect, as all action must. The trick is reaching dynamic, flexible and durable societal consensus on how to value work’s produce. Money and price in their current form can no longer fulfil this function constructively, because state, paid work and infinite economic growth are inescapably interdependent and thus required in their current forms for today’s money to be beneficial to society. Joined at the hip, all three are quickly going the way of the Dodo at the hands of constant change.Their joint crumbling is highly disruptive.
Of course it would be infantile to demand a society in which each individual spontaneously obeys every single urge then unilaterally declares its outcome productive. There will always be creative (though upsetting) tension between a person’s particular desires, evaluations and needs, and what their friends, family and society perceive and want. Tension is good, the grain of sand in the oyster. Work is good. Work is inescapable. Even resisting work is work. What is needed is a new relationship with and understanding of productivity (as one of many other things).