Abolition and Escape

“More jobs” is what protesters always ask for. And later, “Better jobs”. Quantity and then quality.

Nobody seems to want to get rid of jobs. Abolish work, I say.

Bob Black is always worth revisiting:

“Liberals say we should end employment discrimination. I say we should end employment. Conservatives support right-to-work laws. [...] I support the right to be lazy. Leftists favor full employment. Like the surrealists — except that I’m not kidding — I favor full unemployment.”

We struggle to see past employment because we have evolved in a world in which work is the main culture. Even art is seen through paradigms of work.

We’ve forgotten that “job” is a euphemism for “income”, itself only representative of personal dignity, societal order, and quality of life. We’re two logical steps removed from the actual things that matter.

We are like pigeons pecking at a button that releases corn. We’ve learned that certain actions lead to certain results. Phwoar, that button. Can’t get enough of that button. But can we have those results without those actions? Can we escape?

Escape! New Escapologist looks at the possibilities. Citizen’s Income. Cottage Industry. Idling. Play. Collegiality. Absurdity. Anarchy. Automation. Autonomy. Fun.

You may be wondering if I’m joking or serious. I’m joking and serious. [...] I’d like life to be a game — but a game with high stakes. I want to play for keeps.

Don’t buy into the system. Buy this instead.

Buy our complete back catalogue

I sometimes get informal requests from readers who want to buy our entire run of print magazines at a discount.

I’m usually happy to oblige. It’s an honour to find that people enjoy New Escapologist enough to want to acquire the whole run.

Since this is becoming a more frequent request, we’ve added two “Complete Back Catalogue” options to the shop. You can now

1. Get the complete back catalogue with a 10% discount;

or

2. Get the complete back catalogue and subscribe to the next four issues with a 15% discount;

The total cost of these offers will change as we bring out new issues. If you’re looking for discounts on specific combinations of issues, you can still just email us as before.

Such bundles would, of course, make a half-decent Christmas, Hanukkah, or Festivus gift for yourself or for a loved one with escape on the brain. So, indeed, would anything from our shop.

Ten points about Citizen’s Income

Economist Sam Nair covers the subject of Citizen’s Income quite nicely in New Escapologist Issue 4, but let’s enjoy a quick summary since we mentioned the dignity (or indignity) of government stipends in our last post.

1. Citizen’s Income would guarantee a basic, government-administered, living allowance to all citizens.

2. It would be paid for by existing rates of income and consumption taxes.

3. It would make work less essential but would not abolish it. All that would be abolished would be the pointless and demeaning work usually done out of economic necessity.

4. The idea of a bread line would become redundant.

5. Tax money would no longer be spent on the massive bureaucratic architectures that currently support the welfare systems.

6. The “stipend” (currently in the expensive and threatened forms of welfare, disability benefit, tax relief etc) would no longer be undignified or demoralizing since everyone would be in receipt of it.

7. People who still want to work, could afford to take their time over finding the right job.

8. Since people would no longer be desperate for work, employment standards would have to be higher. People would be able to take less shit in the workplace since they’d be better empowered to walk away from bad work situations.

9. Part-time work would become a more reasonable employment option. It might even become the norm.

10. People could spend their unemployed time doing something useful for themselves or for society instead of flipping patties in fast food outlets or watching the red hand of the office clock tick away their youth.

There’s a nice website about Citizen’s Income pilots around the world and its feasibility in the UK. And the UK Green Party are pretty keen on it, as explained in this handy PDF.

For clarification (since this discussion began with the Player Piano dystopia) we do not need a system of machine automation in order to make Citizen’s Income feasible. But Citizen’s Income could be a solution to the human employment crisis after the robot uprising*.

(*if you can call it an uprising. Johnny Metalfellow only wants to do our shitty mind-numbing jobs. He doesn’t want to bum our loved ones or wear our skins. Yet).

Work for work’s sake

There’s an employment crisis in the West. It is partly because of a Player Piano-style lean toward automation. It is partly because of the availability of cheap outsource labour in China. It is partly because of a gradual shift toward a post-materialist, post-oil mindset. And it is partly because of a global financial crisis brought about by corrupt speculators.

Whatever the reason, we are facing a situation in which we might want to think of the alternatives to employment.

The issue was tackled slightly in an interesting blog post by the creator of Choose Your Own Adventure books!

What if machines could do more work at less cost than all those in the bottom quintile of intelligence, education, and training? In no instance would it make economic sense to hire one of these individuals rather than plug in a machine to do the work. What happens to these people? We can’t let them starve. We don’t want to drive them to drugs or crime in response to the hopelessness of their situation. It would be demeaning and demoralizing to pay them a stipend so they could survive. Instead they should be given work opportunities in specially designed enterprises, even though machines could accomplish that work at less cost.

The “do it by hand regardless of inefficiency” solution comes up a lot, but such enterprises deny the reality that we can be free of toil, as a society, if we want to be. There’s a danger of becoming a “work for the sake of work” society, with the terrible belief that to be unemployed (or unused, rather) is the ultimate disgrace.

At least in earlier days of the consumer economy, one’s labours would be of some use to someone. If you worked on a pencil sharpener production line, you could at least be satisfied that your work provided much-needed pencil sharpeners to the pencil-sharpening public. Today, if machines can do the same job more efficiently, you’re wasting your time and your energy. To toil regardless of the machine reality is a mistake. I wouldn’t work for no reason. That’s the most undignified option of all. I’d take the “demeaning and demoralizing” stipend over pointless toil any day.

Player Piano

I just read Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut‘s first novel. His trademark style is only visible if you squint and hold the book sideways, but it is still a splendid book and worth a read.

There’s a problem with it though, and it’s a problem I see everywhere. It’s not really a criticism of the book or of the author, but of a commonly held idea trodden into the carpet of the society in which it was written.

The story is set in a dystopian America in which tasks originally intended to improve quality of life have become automated. That is, machines take care of almost all manufacturing and service tasks. The only positions occupied by human beings are those in higher-echelon engineering and management, positions reserved for cherry-picked citizens of a certain IQ (and even these function beneath the tactical leadership of a supercomputer called EPIAC). The employed and unemployed seldom socialise. The unemployed majority either join the army or live invisible and aimless lives in an urban reservation called Homestead.

In some ways, the book should have pride of place in the Escapological library. It’s protagonist, Doctor Paul Proteus, wants to escape his tedious career among the managerial caste and bring about something of a proletarian revolution. Great! His solution, though, is to destroy the machine society and to return to a state of employment for everyone. And here lies my problem with it.

It is based upon the idea that to be unemployed is the ultimate disgrace.

It is based upon the romance that primitive graft is the only place to find dignity.

Well, it isn’t. If society were fully automated and human application were no longer required, we would find dignity in the new challenges: finding a way to support a society without mass employment, and ultimately finding something to succeed the consumer society. Given that unemployment in the Western world is increasing (due to automation or other factors) I think it is time we started thinking about it.

Some questions:

Why can’t we be allowed to do nothing? Why is it not decent to be idle?

Do we have the imagination to do something other than prop up a consumer economy? Can we, as a society, say “Good riddance” to grunt work – just as we saw an end to prepubescent chimneysweeps – and get on with something worthwhile, or at the very least, accept our bounteous inheritance as idlers?

Buy Nothing

Thanks to regular reader François for showing us the logo of this year’s Buy Nothing Day. People escaping a barcode!

Equality

Undoubtedly late to the party, I recently read and enjoyed The Spirit Level: why more equal societies almost always do better.

The book is a fascinating body of evidence and a collection of intelligent suggestions about fixing the first-world problems of violence, mental illness, obesity, poor educational performance, teenage pregnancy, and barriers to social mobility. It is put forward that these problems can be tackled by addressing equality.

Using data from twenty-three rich countries and fifty US states, the authors found that such problems are considerably more common in less equal societies. As the most equal, the Scandinavian countries and Japan tend to be at one end of the scale, while the US, UK and Australia are at the shameful other. Social problems, the book shows, increase with inequality.

The political right are not fond of these findings (though David Cameron praised the book and seemed to take it quite seriously in its early days) and so various think tanks have emerged with the sole aim of debunking the thesis. Sensible debate should always be encouraged, but the think tanks don’t seem to engage very well with the evidence and instead focus on sewing seeds of doubt among those on the political right. This is a shame because we need the political right to get on board with this, or it’s a no-starter.

A prominent critic of The Spirit Level called Christopher Snowdon does not believe the claim that the psychological effects on society of income inequality are great enough to cause widespread social ills. He says, “I don’t think people outside the intelligentsia worry about inequality. The working class don’t worry about how much Wayne Rooney is earning.”

Urgh. First off, the working class (and I suppose I count myself in that, even though I don’t actually work) are most definitely bothered by the earnings of celebrity footballers: it’s a popular conversation topic in the pub and the entire of tabloid culture is based upon a complex working-class relationship with such tall poppies. Secondly, whether members of the working class worry about inequality is besides the point: a person doesn’t have to know she’s drinking contaminated water to be made sick by it.

This year’s riots in England were the result of people having no money in tough economic times, while simultaneously having their noses rubbed in the fact that they can’t have the material junk (read as lifestyles) that the rich have.

Escapologists should be interested in social equality because once we’ve freed ourselves from the shackles of work, debt and urban lethargy, we might want to help a few other people to escape too. A Spirit Level-inspired better world would be a truly massive prison break.

So please borrow The Spirit Level from the library, read it, and tell your pals about it too, especially the most Hitlerish of them. If you have blogs or whatever, there are various resources at the authors’ website to help get the word around. It’s the only way to counter the drivel from activists on the right.

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