Saturday, February 08, 2014

Why do we have to work, anyway?

The answer to a declining need for workers is, of course, not to work so much. Or, seen another way, who says work has to be punishing drudgery performed 40 hours a week for 40-plus years?

We in America are such Puritans that we are constantly in dread that someone somewhere is having fun. We live by the biblical curse: “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground” (Genesis 3:19).

Europeans are no better. Sure, there's the French month-long vacation and Italy’s ferragosto (or, literally closed August), which have spread all over the Old World. The British worker seems to love striking and habitually appears at the workplace following his own unscheduled notion of a short workday, often intoxicated. This behavior actually upholds the very same Puritan work ethic—through transgression.

Effectively, the European welfare states (and American unemployment) have produced masses of people to whom life without work is one long stretch of daytime television watching while drunk or high, with the occasional sex break during commercials or the news. That’s no answer to work; it’s an inhumane wasting of the most precious non-renewable resource we have: life itself.

There has to be a better way. Indeed, there is. It’s called the society of leisure.

The idea has been around at least since British sociologist Kenneth Roberts’ original work The Society of Leisure, published in the 1970s. Sadly it's out of print and I was not able to find it anywhere on the Internet, although there are copious references.

However, I did find Roberts himself and a later work of his, Leisure in Contemporary Society. If you are as fond of social science theory as I am, you will recognize it as a positive and upside-down spin on Thorstein Veblen’s ideas.

“Say what,” you ask? Allow me to explain.

Restated for the era of the Internet and incipient robot-controlled machines, from which the 1970s were very far, the underlying premise is that a society that can produce enough food and consumer goods for all using diminishing inputs of human work—defined as toil for wages—will reach the point at which workers as we know them will, on the whole, become unnecessary.

All that will eventually be needed are a few specialists to check on the systems now and then; there’s no reason they could not be volunteers who simply love to check the running of systems. There will always be someone who does.

This might be something as imagined by Richard Brautigan in his poem "All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace," which in part says

I like to think (it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Next Roberts stipulates that all of us enjoy applying our innate talents in a way that provides structure to our lives. If we could wave a magic wand, we would all choose to do something productive with our brains, our hands, our eye-hand coordination, etc.

I should have been a lawyer and that gene was passed on to the son who became one. I could also have been a programmer and that gene was passed on to the son who became one.

The point is that we all enjoy some quantity and form of what is known as work today. What we don’t like are bosses, or generically, people who tell us to work at their convenience rather than ours. We don’t like the compulsion, mind-numbing tasks (except if we are obsessive-compulsive or temporarily upset), unhealthy work conditions or hours and so on and so forth.

Of course, right now no one is prepared for world without work. Unemployment or retirement are unmitigated human disasters. But what if things changed? What if we didn’t have to bear with work as we know it?

Next: Why society has failed to change.