Sunday, April 29, 2012

Update: Ralph Boes and My Busy Little Life

Hello all!

Oh, the irony. I step out of the machine only to bring the machine with me, an unwanted habit I am forced to maintain. Work has rather piled up of late, and since I ply new trade with new software to learn alongside its skills, I have had time for nothing but earning money--almost. As a newbie freelance translater, I have decided to make hay while the sun shines, and am doing well at it for the moment. This explains the paucity of posting in recent weeks. I still plan to cover how a guaranteed income might be financed, and will look at three alternatives as soon as I can.

On Friday evening (27th April), I made time to attend a meeting of the Citizens' Initiative Guaranteed Income Group, a ragtag bunch of hopefuls struggling against the steady current of stodgy and ignorant mainstream opinion. As a ragtag hopeful myself, I felt quite at home among them, though the intricacies of holding meetings in strict accordance with the German state's multifaceted requirements left me cold. They have a wierd voting procedure with arcane German terminology I have yet to learn.

Anyway, Ralph Boes was there informing his troops on the latest. He is still receiving Hartz IV income, still contravening all Hartz IV laws, still asking to be sanctioned, still full of fire and passion. His letter demanding to know why he has not been sanctioned remains unanswered. The group's next move on the Hartz IV front will be to set up a website listing sanctioned Hartz IV people who have died from the ravages of life on the streets. There are dead. In a real sense, being booted out of society because you can't find work (900,000 "customers" were sanctioned in 2011) is a slow genocide. As I pointed out in earlier posts on this topic, all applicants (defined as "customers" because the employment bureaus are in fact limited companies, they are not government agencies) are forced to sign an incorporation agreement before all else. If they do not, they are sanctioned. If you have children to feed, you sign away your rights, rather tear your family apart.

This model is attracting attention across Europe. It is a scandal, and I greatly admire Ralph Boes for his courage and determination. His reason for demanding sanctioning is so that he can starve in public. I was deeply moved to think this most humane of humans would put himself through that agony for others. He would starve in as public a way as possible, weighing himself every day on a scales in the street, communicate as often as possible with whichever newpaper expressed interest (interest is definitely growing), and thus draw attention to this hideous situation. It is utterly immoral to punish people, threaten them with death, kill them, simply because our economic power and other creativity has rendered the majority of human labour redundant. Murderers and paedophiles are treated better; at least they get home and board.

So watch out, fellow humans! This model is coming to a nation near you soon, and it takes people of Ralph Boes' courage and humanity to even begin to fight it. The state is a system born of an ethic which no longer applies. But it is a system with enormous self-sustaining momentum; it will grind all before it to dust and never think it is doing anything wrong. It is a machine evolved for growth and uniformity; inlexible, class- and welath-based hierarchies; anonymous violence and stubborn intolerance. And yes, the so-called Market is an embdeed part of its whirring machinery.

I hope to have more time for blogging after mid-May. Until then...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

To Strive is Human, to Laze Divine

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.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Ralph Boes, My New Hero (Part II)

(Part I)

We left our antagonistic hero with the task of drawing up the legally tight yet humane contract he would present to the employment agency at some reasonable later date. Three days after his suggestion to draw up said contract, he received an official letter from his employment officer asking him politely to put his money where his mouth is. It is far from uninteresting that the monolithic state can apparently be forced to deal with a human being as a unique individual, though the degree to which it can be so flexible is limited, as laid out below. The cracks, however, are showing.

Without further ado, I shall translate said contract for you in full:

Considering the fact that industrialisation of human labour frees ever more people from work while paying ever less for it, the following goals are to be agreed:

The release of Herrn Ralph Boes from the coercion to ground his life’s meaning either in earning a living or in having to find paid work;

guarantee of the financial livelihood he requires for the constitutionally chartered right to exist and participation in social life;

recognition of the special social relevance of work which carries intrinsic meaning and has value in its immediate social utility, work which is carried out freely, self-determinedly, and as a labour of love (of cooperation, others, culture, environment …) and not (in the first instance) for remuneration;

furtherance of freedom and self-determination as founded in constitutional law, in particular also
  1. respect and encouragement of human dignity,
  2. the right to unimpeded personal development,
  3. protection of the family,
  4. freedom of movement across all Germany,
  5. freedom to choose a career and the forbidding of compulsory labour,
  6. the sanctity of the home;
and furtherance of individual creativity, such that release from work as brought about by rationalisation becomes a blessing opening new vistas for work, while holding the standard of living in Germany high, though production be outsourced. (Creativity is the raw material of the future -- Adrienne Goehle.)

Responsibilities of the Job Centre:

The job centre recognises constitutional law as well as those basic rights applicable to it in its realm of authority, unreservedly, and diligently fulfils, as an organ of the state, its constitutional duty to unconditionally respect and protect human dignity.

It recognises Ralph Boes as a free and honourable member of society, and works actively to protect his dignity from all forms of discrimination, sanctioning, and paternalism.

The Job Centre helpfully accompanies and supports Herr Boes through his freely chosen career or activity—as long as he meets the necessary requirements thereof, and as long as he so desires.

The sanctions in paragraphs 31, 31a, 31b and 32 SGB II shall not be used, since they invalidate core human rights and contravene constitutional law.

Bureaucratic appointments and necessities shall be kept to a minimum.

Responsibilities of Herrn Ralph Boes:

Herr Ralph Boes commits to meet not only claims made on him by his social life, but also those claims arising from his own life (also inner) and from his personal field, whatsoever it be, comprehensively and freely, and so doing, to also respect and protect his own dignity as well as that of living and non-living things around him.

As far as circumstances seem in want of improvement, he shall assist in their improvement with all available means.

In this context, Herr Ralph Boes continues to make himself available, as before, to hold, without remuneration, public lectures and seminars on guaranteed income. He urgently offers this service to workers at the job centre.

Notes on legal assistance:

No one is entitled to dispossess another of his or her dignity or legal rights! Whoever so acts makes him- or herself liable to prosecution, even if he or she acts on behalf of or is contracted by a governmental agency.


Protect yourself as a worker at the job centre from recourse claims and actively respect human rights…
I’ve cut the rest off, since it quotes long passages from various legal sources, and because the core message of the contract’s final section is clear from the two paragraphs I’ve translated here. Boes is taking the fight to the state by reminding anyone enforcing the constitutionally illegal aspects of Hartz IV that they are not immune to prosecution, no matter how powerful they now feel themselves to be. Oppression cannot work forever.

All in all, I see this as a stealth quasi-guaranteed income through the back door. As the Germans say, from behind through the chest and into the eye! Of course, this is a contract which deals explicitly with unemployment benefit, but its terms are to a large degree those of guaranteed income (more on this in a following post), especially as it attempts to redefine what work is, and what work ought to be respected by the state. Guaranteed income frees the individual to do meaningful work; unemployment benefit is given only to those either looking for or taking on paid work, regardless of its social value. As the German constitution is founded on the dignity of the individual, so the logic behind the growing pressure towards a guaranteed income rests on individual human dignity, which must supersede monetary or waged-labour considerations. And at the heart of that assertion, which I fully support, is the powerful implication that money cannot measure value, or rather, that the market-based price-system cannot measure value flexibly enough in today’s conditions.

Boes points out the simple fact that if someone forces you to do work he or she deems worthy (simply because it is paid work), that if you do not you will be made homeless and hungry, such is coercion and is therefore prosecutable. He cites a case in Duesseldorf, in which a woman was told to continue as a prostitute in order to carry on receiving Hartz IV. After an enormous public outcry, she was allowed to stop prostituting herself, though she was sanctioned. I have yet to look into the details of this, but the point is clear. What matters is the money. Money first, dignity (might maybe arise) as a possible second.

So, Boes mailed his new contract, then had to wait twenty days for a reply. The employment agency sent back the old contract, though with two important differences. Under “Responsibilities of Ralph Boes” (a slightly different title in the agency’s contract) appeared the following sentence:
Herr Ralph Boes commits to meet not only claims made on him by his social life, but also those claims arising from his own life (also inner) and from his personal field, whatsoever it be, comprehensively and freely.
After that, the usual blah blah about restricted movement and other restrictions were there, but that sentence made it through, like a snowdrop heralding spring (to borrow from Boes). This is an amazing concession, a clear victory, though not yet by any means enough. Boes took his time before responding, and responded in length and with much fire. His letter is too long to translate here in its entirety, but the following section warrants your attention:
Dear Frau xxxxxxxxx,

I would urge you to never again sign nor even to present for signature such an “incorporation agreement”, as you have again presented here, since you thereby make yourself liable even by presentation thereof, and even more with each signature (or even application), to possible prosecution.

It would be far better to step into the domain of the Hartz IV people, than to allow yourself to be led, from the low level of security of your own livelihood, to adopt a constitution-contravening, inhumane, unethical and prosecutable position. Or, apply yourself earnestly, as required by your obligation to remonstrate (!), and pass decisions not conforming to the constitution up the chain of command. The higher, the better.

Other than in the DDR, in which there were hardly any explicit laws against injustice, German laws in effect since 1949 proclaim Hartz IV as prosecutable. It and its executors can therefore be retroactively punished back to its first hour of life. Today, actions against human rights can even be pursued at the European and international level.

The neoliberal, exploitative, inhumane era of Schröder, Hartz and Ackerman is over. The tide is turning quickly now. In only a short time you will all be standing in the dock. Even the lawyers of your house will not be able to protect you, for they were instrumental in undoing human rights — they will have to defend themselves too.
Them, ladies and gentlemen, is fighting words.

The second difference was that the contract arrived on Boes’ doormat unsigned. Typically, the contract arrives in duplicate signed by some representative, to then be signed by the “customer”, sent back, with a pre-signed copy remaining in the “customer’s”  possession. His employment officer’s unwillingness to sign speaks volumes.

Also voluminous is the silence. As yet I am aware of no reaction from the state. On the 16th March, Boes sent a reminder to his employment office, asking why he is still receiving Hartz IV payments. Why has he not been sanctioned? He wants to know whether; a) they have written a new law for him and him alone, or b) if they have written new law for all Germans. Again, no reply as yet (April 7, 2012).

If only my non-German speaking readers could hear the passion with which Boes tells his tale and reads out his letters. What I find most inspiring about him is the compassionate fire he is filled with. I hope his example is as inspirational to others as it has been for me. My own far smaller risk has given me many panic-filled nights, made me question my intelligence and honour. Ralph Boes’ example lends me the confidence and strength to fight on. Make no mistake, we are at war against a system and its defenders, whose former pragmatic and practical role is dead. Until we join full voice and in good knowledge of our position and its connotations the battle Boes (and many others) have begun, we will continue to be mere cogs ground down by great but quickly crumbling wheels. No need for foolhardy heroism. Do what you can.

As Boes says, the tide is turning, even though the status quo strains to make it seem otherwise. That said, the nakedness of their criminality is a sure sign of desperation. That, (and/)or unbridled sociopathy. If the latter, the great majority of us, endowed as we are with empathy, need to do what we can to put together a far freer and more open system in which the sociopathic few cannot exploit and extract, with institutional impunity, the dignity and labour of the many.

I will leave you with the delicious tidbit that, late last year, a certain Herr Johannes Ponada drew up his own “incorporation agreement” (as per Boes’), added freedom of movement across Germany (still denied Boes) and it was accepted. Another gentlemen in Peine fights for the same dignity, but has not made the same inroads. Not yet.

Germany, for all its labyrinthine bureaucracy, has a constitution which may well prove the soil from which a far more humane and sensible system can arise.