Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On Productivity

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?

Questions, questions…

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).


Tao Jonesing said...


Good to see a new post! Thanks.

"Can we imagine agreeing on a larger definition of work, of productivity?"

We are better off destroying and replacing the current definitions of work and productivity than trying to expand them. The fact is that the "work" that is most valued in the Western world--i.e., Finance-- is the least "productive" and least "work" under the current definitions. And not too far behind bankers are lawyers (my profession). These days, bankers and lawyers exist to help a privileged few get a free lunch, and we get our cut as a result.

"Why are money and productivity now so inextricably intertwined?"

Because he who has the gold makes the rules. Money is a means of control, and defining "productivity" in terms of money is a basis for enslaving the masses while providing the illusion they are free.

I hope all is well with you and your family.

Toby said...

Hey Tao, thanks and you're welcome.

I don't think definitions can be destroyed because they emerge from cultural understandings which change slowly over time. Right now there's a lot I'd like to destroy to build again, but things don't happen that way from personal desire. That said, discussions such as these should be free to roam everywhere.

Any yes indeedy, money is about power and control. I don't believe, though, that the Bad Guys knew this from the get go. I think it became increasingly apparent to the upper layers of the state that money was the best tool of control there is, and they've milked the hell out of it ever since. Intellectuals don't really address this point, and if they do get laughed out of court. So accidental 'conspiracy' becoming conspiracy over time.

Other than that, my family is well, as am I, but the floods in Germany have played havoc with my free time. My commute from Berlin to Wolfsburg (where VW is based) has beeen hit hard. I now spend about 35 hours a week on a train of one kind or another, as home office work is strictly verboten. It looks like staying this way until the end of this year, and perhaps beyond.

I hope all's well your end.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe there is anything to be gained by searching for other ways to measure value and productivity. Progress will come when people realize those are abstractions extraneous to the necessary processes of creation and distribution.

Commons oriented movements exist to break down the artificial ideological barriers between owners, producers, and users. When you are working with others to produce something for the sake of having it, the value is intrinsic and obvious. The product represents itself - no other measurement is needed. The relationship between the product and any individual is a personal one, so any universal measure will be a misidentification.

Toby said...

I agree with you Karl, in that I strongly suspect things will tend as you describe, are tending that way, even though this is still very much a minority view. I see a vast conceptual gulf between the future and the present and thus try to bridge it with articles like this one.

There's something impenetrable about the transition that I cannot leave alone. Will there be a kond of binary switchover, or a long and bumpy process? Maybe a mix of both. Some people get it in a flash, others need more time, still others will refuse to change.

When I venture into the mainstream I am struck by how rooted in the old paradigm the vast majority of people are. Where is the good material in the mainstream pointing people in the new direction? Nowhere that I can see, and crappy stuff is everywhere like poison. Though I know efforts like mine are minimal, I cannot help but make overtures to the old paradigm that entice towards the new. Doesn't there need to be a visible thought trail from there onto the new pathway? I think so...

Toby said...

Had to copy this across from NC, which I am visiting again since I started work at Wolfsburg:

"The best book on this topic is William Ophuls “Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail,”.

Quoting from the book:….. “human societies are addicted to their ruling ideas and their received way of life, and they are fanatical in their defense. Hence they are extraordinarily reluctant to reform. “To admit error and cut losses,” said [Barbara] Tuchman, “is rare among individuals, unknown among states.” Instead of changing their minds, leaders redouble their efforts to do what no longer works, wooden-headedly persisting in error until the bitter end…..A gradual and gentle transition to a viable agrarian civilization capable of supporting large numbers of people and a reasonable level of complexity is extremely unlikely….We must recognize that the deep structural problems elucidated above have no feasible solutions….Hence…the task is not to forestall a foreordained collapse but, rather, to salvage as much as possible from it, lest the fall precipitate a dark age in which the arts and adornments of civilization are partially or completely lost”.

This echoes Jarred Diamond. The problem is that the elite are the elite in part because they are wholly invested in the story. The strengths that got us where we are are strngths in all circumstances, must therefore be adhered to in all situations, come what may. Greed, selfishness, ruthlessness, and so on. Those from whom we expect guidance can only sing the same song, the old song. It can be no other way. Hence, collapse must precede profound change. But how will the debate be conducted after collapse? Collapse will be global and devastating and allow little space for discussion about what went wrong and what is now right and appropriate.

Ah me, the future looks grim indeed.

Debra said...

Tss, tss, Toby.
I see myself as a prophet crying in the wilderness sometimes, particularly when it concerns the convenient paradigm of evil leaders and exploited proletariat, or other.
What you see depends on where you are looking from. The angle.
Much of what you see on the Internet reflects the very ideas behind the Internet, so there is no reason why you should see what you are looking for from the angle of a medium that is not designed to show it.
I keep saying that the MONOPOLY of money to measure value and serve as a medium of exchange is our biggest problem, and the rise of money goes along with the rise of... democracy, and more for more to more.
What hurts is not money, but squeezing out other forms of exchange, and other value systems, like grace.
We can't destroy definitions of anything.
We are subjects of language... which means that we are subject TO it, and don't control it.
Perhaps the rise of finance is a response to monomoniacal devotion to the work paradigm as an absolute ?
My husband loves his work, which puts our meat and potatoes on the table.
It represents little effort for him, and little constraint too.
So... is he a parasite ??
And I, who physically get down on my hands and knees for no pay... am I working ??
And if I am working, why so little recognition for it from the social body itself ??
Not that I'm griping, because I'm not.
Work is its own reward, in many respects.
As long as you don't realize that work is its own reward, you can keep griping forever, right ?
Too bad about all that transportation. That's a drag.

Toby said...

We all like to self-indulge from time to time. Maybe we even need to, seeing as this is a period of such rampant narcissism. So I hope you forive me mine as I forgive you yours, fellow Cassandra. ;-)

As to money, I still get the feeling that I have not communicated my position accurately enough, since your corrections of my position read as restatements of elements of it.

Money IS the problem in that it is one of the primary blooms arising from the central 'wound' (for want of a better word) of what we might now call the insufficiently identified illusion of separation or War Against Nature or Ascent. But I would add that these aren't problems either, but are parts of human progress, which we also misunderstand. Money just happens to be a deliciously fruitful blindspot (aren't all blindspots fruitful when examined) since it is so famous and so central and so misunderstood. It is also a gateway. There are others, but it's the one that occupies my attention.

A second point is definitions. What is money? It's a very hard question to answer. It is not a measure of value, as value cannot be measured. Addressing this wee nugget requires addressing measurement itelf, which is another of the primary blooms arising from the deeper 'wound'. Which is only now a wound since consciousness is struggling to evolve towards a different paradigm. So what once was fine has become restrictive, or a generator of dissonance.

Make sense?

I'm sure we agree fundamentally on this stuff, it's just the nitty-gritty of definitions which bogs us down a bit. And what with blog posts being necesarily brief, it can all get rather circular...

And as to your points on work/productivity, well ... exactly. The term needs cultural renewal.