The end of work….

28 11 2016

Written by James Livingston, professor of history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, this essay challenges everything we think we know about employment and work… Livingston is the author of many books, the latest being No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea (2016). As someone who hasn’t ‘worked’ since aged 42 (and I’m almost at ‘retiring age now!), I found this piece inspiring and refreshing…… my only criticism of this is that he doesn’t seem to realise all work is unsustainable.

Originally published here……

Work means everything to us Americans (and Australians. Ed). For centuries – since, say, 1650 – we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labour, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve believed that, even if it sucks, a job gives meaning, purpose and structure to our everyday lives – at any rate, we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.

These beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.

These days, everybody from Left to Right – from the economist Dean Baker to the social scientist Arthur C Brooks, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump – addresses this breakdown of the labour market by advocating ‘full employment’, as if having a job is self-evidently a good thing, no matter how dangerous, demanding or demeaning it is. But ‘full employment’ is not the way to restore our faith in hard work, or in playing by the rules, or in whatever else sounds good. The official unemployment rate in the United States is already below 6 per cent, which is pretty close to what economists used to call ‘full employment’, but income inequality hasn’t changed a bit. Shitty jobs for everyone won’t solve any social problems we now face.

Don’t take my word for it, look at the numbers. Already a fourth of the adultsactually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line – and so a fifth of American children live in poverty. Almost half of employed adults in this country are eligible for food stamps (most of those who are eligible don’t apply). The market in labour has broken down, along with most others.

Those jobs that disappeared in the Great Recession just aren’t coming back, regardless of what the unemployment rate tells you – the net gain in jobs since 2000 still stands at zero – and if they do return from the dead, they’ll be zombies, those contingent, part-time or minimum-wage jobs where the bosses shuffle your shift from week to week: welcome to Wal-Mart, where food stamps are a benefit.

And don’t tell me that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour solves the problem. No one can doubt the moral significance of the movement. But at this rate of pay, you pass the official poverty line only after working 29 hours a week. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. Working a 40-hour week, you would have to make $10 an hour to reach the official poverty line. What, exactly, is the point of earning a paycheck that isn’t a living wage, except to prove that you have a work ethic?

But, wait, isn’t our present dilemma just a passing phase of the business cycle? What about the job market of the future? Haven’t the doomsayers, those damn Malthusians, always been proved wrong by rising productivity, new fields of enterprise, new economic opportunities? Well, yeah – until now, these times. The measurable trends of the past half-century, and the plausible projections for the next half-century, are just too empirically grounded to dismiss as dismal science or ideological hokum. They look like the data on climate change – you can deny them if you like, but you’ll sound like a moron when you do.

For example, the Oxford economists who study employment trends tell usthat almost half of existing jobs, including those involving ‘non-routine cognitive tasks’ – you know, like thinking – are at risk of death by computerisation within 20 years. They’re elaborating on conclusions reached by two MIT economists in the book Race Against the Machine (2011). Meanwhile, the Silicon Valley types who give TED talks have started speaking of ‘surplus humans’ as a result of the same process – cybernated production. Rise of the Robots, a new book that cites these very sources, is social science, not science fiction.

So this Great Recession of ours – don’t kid yourself, it ain’t over – is a moral crisis as well as an economic catastrophe. You might even say it’s a spiritual impasse, because it makes us ask what social scaffolding other than work will permit the construction of character – or whether character itself is something we must aspire to. But that is why it’s also an intellectual opportunity: it forces us to imagine a world in which the job no longer builds our character, determines our incomes or dominates our daily lives.

What would you do if you didn’t have to work to receive an income?

In short, it lets us say: enough already. Fuck work.

Certainly this crisis makes us ask: what comes after work? What would you do without your job as the external discipline that organises your waking life – as the social imperative that gets you up and on your way to the factory, the office, the store, the warehouse, the restaurant, wherever you work and, no matter how much you hate it, keeps you coming back? What would you do if you didn’t have to work to receive an income?

And what would society and civilisation be like if we didn’t have to ‘earn’ a living – if leisure was not our choice but our lot? Would we hang out at the local Starbucks, laptops open? Or volunteer to teach children in less-developed places, such as Mississippi? Or smoke weed and watch reality TV all day?

I’m not proposing a fancy thought experiment here. By now these are practical questions because there aren’t enough jobs. So it’s time we asked even more practical questions. How do you make a living without a job – can you receive income without working for it? Is it possible, to begin with and then, the hard part, is it ethical? If you were raised to believe that work is the index of your value to society – as most of us were – would it feel like cheating to get something for nothing?

We already have some provisional answers because we’re all on the dole, more or less. The fastest growing component of household income since 1959 has been ‘transfer payments’ from government. By the turn of the 21st century, 20 per cent of all household income came from this source – from what is otherwise known as welfare or ‘entitlements’. Without this income supplement, half of the adults with full-time jobs would live below the poverty line, and most working Americans would be eligible for food stamps.

But are these transfer payments and ‘entitlements’ affordable, in either economic or moral terms? By continuing and enlarging them, do we subsidise sloth, or do we enrich a debate on the rudiments of the good life?

Transfer payments or ‘entitlements’, not to mention Wall Street bonuses (talk about getting something for nothing) have taught us how to detach the receipt of income from the production of goods, but now, in plain view of the end of work, the lesson needs rethinking. No matter how you calculate the federal budget, we can afford to be our brother’s keeper. The real question is not whether but how we choose to be.

I know what you’re thinking – we can’t afford this! But yeah, we can, very easily. We raise the arbitrary lid on the Social Security contribution, which now stands at $127,200, and we raise taxes on corporate income, reversing the Reagan Revolution. These two steps solve a fake fiscal problem and create an economic surplus where we now can measure a moral deficit.

Of course, you will say – along with every economist from Dean Baker to Greg Mankiw, Left to Right – that raising taxes on corporate income is a disincentive to investment and thus job creation. Or that it will drive corporations overseas, where taxes are lower.

But in fact raising taxes on corporate income can’t have these effects.

Let’s work backward. Corporations have been ‘multinational’ for quite some time. In the 1970s and ’80s, before Ronald Reagan’s signature tax cuts took effect, approximately 60 per cent of manufactured imported goods were produced offshore, overseas, by US companies. That percentage has risen since then, but not by much.

Chinese workers aren’t the problem – the homeless, aimless idiocy of corporate accounting is. That is why the Citizens United decision of 2010 applying freedom of speech regulations to campaign spending is hilarious. Money isn’t speech, any more than noise is. The Supreme Court has conjured a living being, a new person, from the remains of the common law, creating a real world more frightening than its cinematic equivalent: say,Frankenstein, Blade Runner or, more recently, Transformers.

But the bottom line is this. Most jobs aren’t created by private, corporate investment, so raising taxes on corporate income won’t affect employment. You heard me right. Since the 1920s, economic growth has happened even though net private investment has atrophied. What does that mean? It means that profits are pointless except as a way of announcing to your stockholders (and hostile takeover specialists) that your company is a going concern, a thriving business. You don’t need profits to ‘reinvest’, to finance the expansion of your company’s workforce or output, as the recent history of Apple and most other corporations has amply demonstrated.

I know that building my character through work is stupid because crime pays. I might as well become a gangster

So investment decisions by CEOs have only a marginal effect on employment. Taxing the profits of corporations to finance a welfare state that permits us to love our neighbours and to be our brothers’ keeper is not an economic problem. It’s something else – it’s an intellectual issue, a moral conundrum.

When we place our faith in hard work, we’re wishing for the creation of character; but we’re also hoping, or expecting, that the labour market will allocate incomes fairly and rationally. And there’s the rub, they do go together. Character can be created on the job only when we can see that there’s an intelligible, justifiable relation between past effort, learned skills and present reward. When I see that your income is completely out of proportion to your production of real value, of durable goods the rest of us can use and appreciate (and by ‘durable’ I don’t mean just material things), I begin to doubt that character is a consequence of hard work.

When I see, for example, that you’re making millions by laundering drug-cartel money (HSBC), or pushing bad paper on mutual fund managers (AIG, Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, Citibank), or preying on low-income borrowers (Bank of America), or buying votes in Congress (all of the above) – just business as usual on Wall Street – while I’m barely making ends meet from the earnings of my full-time job, I realise that my participation in the labour market is irrational. I know that building my character through work is stupid because crime pays. I might as well become a gangster like you.

That’s why an economic crisis such as the Great Recession is also a moral problem, a spiritual impasse – and an intellectual opportunity. We’ve placed so many bets on the social, cultural and ethical import of work that when the labour market fails, as it so spectacularly has, we’re at a loss to explain what happened, or to orient ourselves to a different set of meanings for work and for markets.

And by ‘we’ I mean pretty much all of us, Left to Right, because everybody wants to put Americans back to work, one way or another – ‘full employment’ is the goal of Right-wing politicians no less than Left-wing economists. The differences between them are over means, not ends, and those ends include intangibles such as the acquisition of character.

Which is to say that everybody has doubled down on the benefits of work just as it reaches a vanishing point. Securing ‘full employment’ has become a bipartisan goal at the very moment it has become both impossible and unnecessary. Sort of like securing slavery in the 1850s or segregation in the 1950s.


Because work means everything to us inhabitants of modern market societies – regardless of whether it still produces solid character and allocates incomes rationally, and quite apart from the need to make a living. It’s been the medium of most of our thinking about the good life since Plato correlated craftsmanship and the possibility of ideas as such. It’s been our way of defying death, by making and repairing the durable things, the significant things we know will last beyond our allotted time on earth because they teach us, as we make or repair them, that the world beyond us – the world before and after us – has its own reality principles.

Think about the scope of this idea. Work has been a way of demonstrating differences between males and females, for example by merging the meanings of fatherhood and ‘breadwinner’, and then, more recently, prying them apart. Since the 17th century, masculinity and femininity have been defined – not necessarily achieved – by their places in a moral economy, as working men who got paid wages for their production of value on the job, or as working women who got paid nothing for their production and maintenance of families. Of course, these definitions are now changing, as the meaning of ‘family’ changes, along with profound and parallel changes in the labour market – the entry of women is just one of those – and in attitudes toward sexuality.

When work disappears, the genders produced by the labour market are blurred. When socially necessary labour declines, what we once calledwomen’s work – education, healthcare, service – becomes our basic industry, not a ‘tertiary’ dimension of the measurable economy. The labour of love, caring for one another and learning how to be our brother’s keeper – socially beneficial labour – becomes not merely possible but eminently necessary, and not just within families, where affection is routinely available. No, I mean out there, in the wide, wide world.

Work has also been the American way of producing ‘racial capitalism’, as the historians now call it, by means of slave labour, convict labour, sharecropping, then segregated labour markets – in other words, a ‘free enterprise system’ built on the ruins of black bodies, an economic edifice animated, saturated and determined by racism. There never was a free market in labour in these united states. Like every other market, it was always hedged by lawful, systematic discrimination against black folk. You might even say that this hedged market produced the still-deployed stereotypes of African-American laziness, by excluding black workers from remunerative employment, confining them to the ghettos of the eight-hour day.

And yet, and yet. Though work has often entailed subjugation, obedience and hierarchy (see above), it’s also where many of us, probably most of us, have consistently expressed our deepest human desire, to be free of externally imposed authority or obligation, to be self-sufficient. We have defined ourselves for centuries by what we do, by what we produce.

But by now we must know that this definition of ourselves entails the principle of productivity – from each according to his abilities, to each according to his creation of real value through work – and commits us to the inane idea that we’re worth only as much as the labour market can register, as a price. By now we must also know that this principle plots a certain course to endless growth and its faithful attendant, environmental degradation.

How would human nature change as the aristocratic privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of all?

Until now, the principle of productivity has functioned as the reality principle that made the American Dream seem plausible. ‘Work hard, play by the rules, get ahead’, or, ‘You get what you pay for, you make your own way, you rightly receive what you’ve honestly earned’ – such homilies and exhortations used to make sense of the world. At any rate they didn’t sound delusional. By now they do.

Adherence to the principle of productivity therefore threatens public health as well as the planet (actually, these are the same thing). By committing us to what is impossible, it makes for madness. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton said something like this when he explained anomalous mortality rates among white people in the Bible Belt by claiming that they’ve ‘lost the narrative of their lives’ – by suggesting that they’ve lost faith in the American Dream. For them, the work ethic is a death sentence because they can’t live by it.

So the impending end of work raises the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human. To begin with, what purposes could we choose if the job – economic necessity – didn’t consume most of our waking hours and creative energies? What evident yet unknown possibilities would then appear? How would human nature itself change as the ancient, aristocratic privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of human beings as such?

Sigmund Freud insisted that love and work were the essential ingredients of healthy human being. Of course he was right. But can love survive the end of work as the willing partner of the good life? Can we let people get something for nothing and still treat them as our brothers and sisters – as members of a beloved community? Can you imagine the moment when you’ve just met an attractive stranger at a party, or you’re online looking for someone, anyone, but you don’t ask: ‘So, what do you do?’

We won’t have any answers until we acknowledge that work now means everything to us – and that hereafter it can’t.

Limits to growth: policies to steer the economy away from disaster

21 04 2016

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

If the rich nations in the world keep growing their economies by 2% each year and by 2050 the poorest nations catch up, the global economy of more than 9 billion people will be around 15 times larger than it is now, in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). If the global economy then grows by 3% to the end of the century, it will be 60 times larger than now.

The existing economy is already environmentally unsustainable. It is utterly implausible to think we can “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact so significantly, especially since recent decades of extraordinary technological advancement have only increased our impacts on the planet, not reduced them.

Moreover, if you asked politicians whether they’d rather have 4% growth than 3%, they’d all say yes. This makes the growth trajectory outlined above all the more absurd.

Others have shown why limitless growth is a recipe for disaster. I’ve argued that living in a degrowth economy would actually increase well-being, both socially and environmentally. But what would it take to get there?

In a new paper published by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, I look at government policies that could facilitate a planned transition beyond growth – and I reflect on the huge obstacles lying in the way.

Measuring progress

First, we need to know what we’re aiming for.

It is now widely recognised that GDP – the monetary value of all goods and services produced in an economy – is a deeply flawed measure of progress.

GDP can be growing while our environment is being degraded, inequality is worsening, and social well-being is stagnant or falling. Better indicators of progress include the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which accounts for a wide range of social, economic and environmental factors.

Cap resources and energy

Environmental impact is driven by demand for resources and energy. It is now clear that the planet cannot possibly support current or bigger populations if developing nations used the same amount of resources and energy as developed nations.

Demand can be reduced through efficiency gains (doing more with less), but these gains tend to be reinvested in more growth and consumption, rather than reducing impacts.

A post-growth economy would therefore need diminishing “resource caps” to achieve sustainability. These would aim to limit a nation’s consumption to a “fair share” of available resources. This in turn would stimulate efficiency, technological innovation and recycling, thereby minimising waste.

This means that a post-growth economy will need to produce and consume in far less resource-intensive ways, which will almost certainly mean reduced GDP. There will of course be scope to progress in other ways, such as increased leisure time and community engagement.

Work less, live more

Growth in GDP is often defended on the grounds that it is required to keep unemployment at manageable levels. So jobs will have to maintained in other ways.

Even though GDP has been growing quite consistently in recent decades, many Westerners, including Australians, still seem to be locked into a culture of overwork.

By reducing the average working week to 28 hours, a post-growth economy would share the available work among the working population. This would minimise or eliminate unemployment even in a non-growing or contracting economy.

Lower income would mean we would have less stuff, reducing environmental impact, but we would receive more freedom in exchange. Planned degrowth is therefore very different to unplanned recession.

Redirect public spending

Governments are the most significant player in any economy and have the most spending power. Taking limits to growth seriously will require a fundamental rethink of how public funds are invested and spent.

Among other things, this would include a swift divestment from the fossil fuel economy and reinvestment in renewable energy systems. But just as important is investing in efficiency and reducing energy demand through behaviour change. Obviously, it will be much easier to transition to 100% renewable energy if energy demand is a fraction of what it is today.

We could fund this transition by redirecting funds from military spending (climate change is, after all, a security threat), cutting fossil fuel subsidies and putting an adequate price on carbon.

Reform banking and finance

Banking and finance systems essentially have a “growth imperative” built into their structures. Money is loaned into existence by private banks as interest-bearing debt. Paying back the debt plus the interest requires an expansion of the monetary supply.

There is so much public and private debt today that the only way it could be paid back is via decades of continued growth.

So we need deep reform of banking and finance systems. We’d also need to cancel debt in some circumstances, especially in developing nations that are being suffocated by interest payments to rich world lenders.

The population question

Then there’s population. Many people assume that population growth will slow when the developing world gets rich, but to globalise affluence would be environmentally catastrophic. It is absolutely imperative therefore that nations around the world unite to confront the population challenge directly.

Population policies will inevitably be controversial but the world needs bold and equitable leadership on this issue, because current trends suggest we are heading for 11 billion by the end of this century.

Anyone who casually dismisses the idea that there is a limit to how many people Earth can support should be given a Petri dish with a swab of bacteria. Watch as the colony grows until it consumes all of the available nutrients or is poisoned by its own waste.

The first thing needed is a global fund that focuses on providing the education, empowerment and contraception required to minimise the estimated 87 million unintended pregnancies worldwide every year.

Eliminating poverty

The conventional path to poverty alleviation is the strategy of GDP growth, on the assumption that “a rising tide will lift all boats”. But, as I’ve argued, a rising tide will sink all boats.

Poverty alleviation must be achieved more directly, via redistribution of wealth and power, both nationally and internationally. In other words (and to change the metaphor), a post-growth economy would eliminate poverty not by baking an ever-larger pie (which isn’t working) but by sharing it differently.

The richest 62 people on the planet own more than the poorest half of humanity. Dwell on that for a moment, and then dare to tell me that redistribution is not an imperative of justice.

So what’s stopping us?

Despite these post-growth policy proposals seeming coherent, they face at least four huge obstacles – which may be insurmountable.

First, the paradigm of growth is deeply embedded in national governments, especially in the developed world. At the cultural level, the expectation of ever-increasing affluence is as strong as ever. I am not so deluded as to think otherwise.

Second, these policies would directly undermine the economic interests of the most powerful corporations and institutions in society, so fierce resistance should be expected.

Third, and perhaps most challenging, is that in a globalised world these policies would likely trigger either capital flight or economic collapse, or both. For example, how would the stock markets react to this policy agenda?

Finally, there is also a geopolitical risk in being first to adopt these policies. Reduced military spending, for instance, would reduce a nation’s relative power.

So if these “top-down” policies are unlikely to work, it would seem to follow that if a post-growth economy is to emerge, it may have to be driven into existence from below, with communities coming together to build the new economy at the grassroots level.

And if we face a future where the growth economy grows itself to death, which seems to be the most likely scenario, then building up local resilience and self-sufficiency now will prove to be time and energy well spent.

In the end, it is likely that only when a deep crisis arrives will an ethics of sufficiency come to inform our economic thinking and practice more broadly.

The Conversation

Samuel Alexander, Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Richard Wolff on the coming crash…….

30 05 2015

Of course, zero mention of Limits to Growth here………

On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs – David Graeber

26 12 2013


Found this article while looking for something else, and I thought, this fits right in with my attitude towards the BS “jobs jobs jobs” mantra we are constantly fed, so I’m reproducing it here in its entirety.  Enjoy….

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.unemployment-job-search1

Why did Keynes’ promised utopia – still being eagerly awaited in the ‘60s – never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ‘20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.

So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be).

jobcartoonBut rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done – at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does.

I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.iGod

Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate objections: “who are you to say what jobs are really ‘necessary’? What’s necessary anyway? You’re an anthropology professor, what’s the ‘need’ for that?” (And indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure.) And on one level, this is obviously true. There can be no objective measure of social value.

I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend whom I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, “taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.” Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely. Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.

From Strike Mag

What It Means To Be A Modern Day Slave

3 10 2013

Reblogged from what-it-means-to-be-a-modern-day-slave/


Do you ever wonder about the purpose of life? Why are we all here and what are we doing with our lives? We live in an unprecedented time full of amazing opportunities on the one hand and terrible catastrophes on the other. But for the typical person working a 9-to-5 job (or more likely a 12 hour shift these days), it is likely that neither of these possibilities even registers on their mind. So many people are simply concerned with the business of surviving: finding a job, paying the mortgage, raising their children, and finding what little time there is left to de-stress from it all. Despite all of the labor-saving devices that were supposed to usher in an Age of Leisure, people seem to be working harder today than ever before.

Economist Richard Wolff points to the decoupling of productivity gains from income gains that began in the late 1970s and has accelerated ever since. The world has never been more productive, yet the average worker is getting poorer as most of the income gains in the economy flow directly to the top.  It is obvious that something is seriously wrong on a systemic level, which beg the questions: Why are the majority of people on the planet focused on getting a job and – when or if they do – then find themselves working longer hours to receive less and less reward? If the average person isn’t really benefiting from their hard work, who is?

To answer these questions, we need to understand that there are really only two ways people can derive an income from society. Martin Adams, author of Sharing the Earth: A Proposal for a Tax Free and Prosperous World, describes these ways:

“Broadly speaking, there are only two ways a human being can make an income: he can either make an income by contributing to society, or he can extract an income from society. A person can contribute to society by providing valuable goods and services. When a person contributes a valuable service and gets paid for it, he collects a wage; and when he gets paid for providing a valuable product, he collects what economists call a capital yield or capital return. When a mechanic gets paid for repairing a car, he collects a wage. But when a company receives money for leasing out a car, a capital good, the company receives a capital return. Each entity contributed a useful good or service.

The only other way people can make an income is by receiving what economists call economic rent. They do this not by adding wealth to society, but by extracting an income from society without providing any real wealth in return. When a person owns a natural resource such as land and charges other people for their use of it, he receives economic rent because the money he gets does not pay for any man-made goods or services.”  (Source:

On the most basic economic level, there are two distinct classes of people – a select few have the ability to live truly free lives with absolute sovereignty over their time while most other people must trade their labor or time – which can also be called their life – for the means to survive. Isn’t your labor nothing more than your life’s energy? Isn’t it the same life from which you hope to fulfill your dreams, raise your family, and explore the fantastic experience of being alive? When we trade our life, what we get in return ought to be worth something.

There is another name for a person who doesn’t have sovereignty over his own time. We call them slaves. Up until just a few centuries ago, the elite were actually allowed to legally own other people. For example, in ancient Rome it was estimated that 35 to 40 percent of the population were slaves. Today, involuntary slavery has, for the most part, been legally abolished, but life on earth may actually be worse for the vast majority of the working class: they are subject to voluntary slavery.

In a recent post on the Sustainable Man Facebook page, I asked the following question:

What is the difference between the following two scenarios?

  1. Being in a situation where you’ve been kicked off the land that sustained your family for generations and the only options for providing any sustenance is by taking a job making iPhones at 10 cents an hour; or
  2. Slavery

One of the top responses was: “Slaves have an investment by their owners and are generally provided with at least minimal care, housing and food. In general, they are slightly better off.” Indeed, this is true. Today, workers are generally interchangeable. If they get sick or injured, they can be immediately let go, replaced, and forgotten. If that means that they can no longer pay the mortgage on their home loan, the banks will repossess their home and sell it to the replacement worker, leaving the former in a situation where they must beg for resources to keep them alive.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a famous German writer, once said “none are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” Even though most people today believe they are free, is this really true? You are certainly not free to “trespass” on land owned by others or free to take food produced on privately owned land. In some cities, you aren’t even free to sleep on the street. The entire world is now fully owned. The truth is that people are free only insofar as they have money to buy a limited amount of freedom on an ongoing basis. Without money and without the ability to provide for themselves in nature, people don’t have any other choice but to submit their labor in exchange for the “market” wage.  We have to trade in our time (and our life) in order to survive.

This brings us back to the first question posed in this article. What is all of this for? Is the purpose of our lives simply to submit to working at a job that helps fulfill the goals of the elite while our wages deteriorate? What about our desires for our own life? What do each of us have to give to the world? Sadly, many people still do not have a realistic ability to entertain this question.

Lest I be accused of being a spoiled “hippie” that doesn’t want to “get a job”, let me say that I don’t believe that there is a human being alive that is not interested in performing work that is meaningful to them. The reason why most people hate their jobs is because the jobs generally don’t represent their true desires for what they wish to create in the world. People really don’t want to spend the majority of their waking hours selling chemical dispersants or mining coal or taking orders at McDonalds. Those select few people that derive their income by extracting an income from society are not the ones who must submit to such dispiriting work. Shouldn’t the purpose of our economy be to make it possible for every human being to be truly free to find and discover their true calling?

Martin Adams offers one potential solution. From Sharing the Earth:

What would happen to us if our entire tax system were replaced with public revenues exclusively generated from natural resource values?  We already know that all profits from natural resources are unearned. We also know that anyone who profits from natural resources takes wealth that belongs to society. Given these considerations alone, doesn’t it make sense to stop taxing wages, capital gains, incomes, and sales, and start charging people for their uses of land and of other natural resources?

The United States has a landmass of approximately 2.3 billion acres, of which nearly 60 percent, or 1.35 billion acres, is privately owned. The sheer value of this land is nearly incomprehensible: according to one study, in the United States the value of residential land alone was estimated at more than $6 trillion in 2010 and this figure does not account for lucrative commercial land….the total potential revenues of land fees alone would provide about 60 percent of current U.S. federal, state, and local government revenue – 60 percent of an arguably bloated government budget is substantial.

We need to rethink our current economic model from the ground up, and find within ourselves the tremendous willpower necessary to implement this change. The hurdles we have to overcome are immense, yet we must share the Earth with one another if we are to ever create a world that works for everyone – which is only possible if we create a world that works for anyone.”  (

Whether it is reforming our tax system, developing alternative interest-free currencies and exchangescreating local and sustainable economiesjoining the emerging sharing and gift economies, or just bringing more kindness, compassion, and awareness to our everyday lives, we must begin to challenge the outdated and seriously flawed economic, cultural and social systems that make it literally impossible for us to share the earth. We owe it not only to ourselves, but also to our children and our children’s children to leave behind a world that is stronger, safer, more sustainable, and more beautiful than we found it.

I don’t buy it……

4 02 2013

By the time they reach my age, most people look back on their lives and wonder what was it all about? Most people sooner or later ask the question “why am I here?”….. I like to think I’m here to make a difference. Even though I’m almost certainly not doing it on any sort of important scale, I at least like to think I’ve had some impact on some people’s lives….

Looking around, one could easily be led to believe we are here to consume.  After all, are we not constantly referred to as “consumers” in the media?  Whose job it is to convince us to consume and consume…?  Forever.  Sorry, but I don’t buy it.

Are there any alternatives to work? Even if there are, people are so busy working that they may never have the time to find them.  It was this line from Not Buying Anything that prompted me to write this entry.  As you probably appreciate by now, I love rattling peoples’ cages, I love to wake them up from their torpor, I love to make them realise there are alternative realities to the Matrix where they live…..

The look on some people’s faces when I tell them I’ve only “worked” for six months since ~1992 (over twenty years now…) is priceless.  Glenda is absolutely convinced her sibblings think her mother subsidises our lifestyle…..  whereas in fact we live on the smell of the proverbial oily rag.  I could personally live on even less…….  but women have a special relationship with money, they love to spend it!  This is no way critical in substance, I believe it’s just an observation.

Gregg Koep, the owner of Not Buying Anything, writes “”Get a hair cut, and get a job” is understood as not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do.”  I haven’t been to a hairdresser for well over twenty years I just realised upon reading that….  though of course both Glenda and her (88 yo) mother cannot do without “nice hair”….  I hasten to add I don’t have waist length dreadlocks, Glenda’s been cutting it most efficiently for a very long time and has saved us many thousands of dollars by now I imagine…  Nor am I critical of women wanting to look nice.  And the last two jobs I applied for I got at the first interview…  So I’m not useless.

It never ceases to amaze me though how most people think that if you are not “working” you must be bludging off the Matrix.  Whereas I believe the Matrix is bludging off us.

For overseas readers:

verb, bludged, bludg·ing, noun Australian.
verb (used with object)

1.  to shirk.
2.  to impose on (someone).

3.  an easy task.
1915–20;  false analysis of bludgeon (v.) gives phrase bludge on  to impose on; back formation from bludgeon (noun) gives bludge  (v.) to use a bludgeon, whence bludger  bully, especially a harlot’s bully, pimp, hence shirker, whence bludge  (v.) to shirk
There……  now we are all speaking the same language!
Consumption, or rather over-consumption, didn’t start until credit cards came into being.  I still remember when the magic plastic came into existence.  I put off getting one for a long time, and eventually relented.  In Australia, we had just one flavour then, they were called Bankcards…..  remember them?  It must have been after 1980 that they were eventually taken out of circulation when Visa and Mastercard monopolised the system, because I can still recall the look of bewilderment in 1979 at the Los Angeles airport when, as we were attempting to rent a car, I pulled my Bankcard out when they requested our credit card…..  The hire car people had never seen one before, and nor could they get money from it.  We can pay cash I said.  CASH?!  They looked at us as if we were mad…!  But never let madness get in the way of making money, we got the car.
The power of money……  I know that as soon as I get some (which isn’t often, let me tell you), I start looking for ways to spend it.  The stuff has that effect on you.  No wonder everyone wants to borrow money, buy a new car, go for an overseas holiday, buy a bigger house, or extend the old one……  we never seem to be happy with our lot.  So we engage in wage and debt slavery.  Only by rationally questioning our social assumptions and priorities surrounding the concept of work, and by actually facing the resultant problems, can we then begin to shift toward healthier ways of living, thinks Gregg Koep.  And I wholeheartedly agree.  Of course I am able to say this from a position of having amassed wealth, such as it is, over a working career which in fact has only amounted to half what it could have been.  So while we live well below “the poverty line”, I still feel rich….. and certainly way better off than at least 3/4 of the people who inhabit this planet.
When it comes to work, I like to think of myself as a conscientious objector.  Nothing I could do to participate in the Matrix would be sustainable.  This was seriously brought home to me when I was selling PVs for a living in 2010.  I had to buy a car, a mobile, and a fax/printer device.  Then I had to drive all over the countryside visiting potential customers to assess their needs and draw up quotes…..  while simultaneously another dozen idiots like me were doing the same, and only one of us could get the sale.  Can you see the scenario where maybe a hundred litres of fuel was wasted before a single kilo of CO2 could be saved from green energy?
When I finally quit after a tick bite made me really really sick, it was without regret.  I’ll never “work” again.  I’m over it this time.  In any case, it’s only a matter of time before we have economic collapse, and everything we’ve been brainwashed about comes to pass as the biggest mistake humanity has ever made.
And here’s some light entertainment for you…….