Here are the main elements of Frithjof's Bergmann's idea of "New Work" (introduced in this post) as he taught it back at U. of Michigan.
1. Developing a calling. Work can sap our will to live, but the right kind of work can be invigorating. If it's an enterprise you can identify with, that's meaningful to you, then it becomes part of "the good life" that philosophy is always shooting for. Such a goal will of course vary between people, and Bergmann cites Nietzsche in pointing out that people inherently suffer from a "poverty of desire," meaning they don't know what they really want to do, and in fact interests need to be cultivated over time to take hold. Fortunately for us, when people are really given the opportunity to think seriously about what they'd really like to do with their lives, they very often want to contribute something to the betterment of the world, so while a calling might well be artistic or academic or individually spiritual, for many people it's going to be service-oriented. So no, unburdening ourselves from the job system as traditionally conceived doesn't mean everyone would just lie around playing Halo or something, but the complexities involved in overcoming the poverty of desire mean that we need social networks and institutions (e.g. apprenticeships, volunteer organizations, counseling services) to help people figure out their "callings," which could of course change over time.
2. Cutting down the number of hours we work. This needs to be done with the expressed intent of encouraging #1. While just reducing the work week to 35 hrs. would be freeing and certainly raise the quality of family life in our country, little bits of extra free time just add up to the void of leisure, where we do just waste time playing video games. In some cases, a work-3-months, 3-months-off breakdown might work better to really engage some other project.
Politically, this is of course the big sticking point. Realistically, if we recognize #1 and #2 as national goals, then this gives some legislative guidance: reduce incentives for full time as opposed to part time work. Make it easier for people to cut back their hours if they can afford to do so. Health insurance as inexorably tied to full-time employment is obviously a major issue here; it looks like the recent health reform may help, but I'm not clear on this. Reduce barriers for working with tele-commuters. The more policy and technology make the old-fashioned workplace obsolete, the easier it will be for people to work flexibly. Bergmann compares jobs as traditionally conceived to bland, canned food; work comes in all sizes and shapes, and we need to reduce the barriers to fruitfully pulling income from disperate sources.
3. High-Tech Self Providing. How do you maintain a comfortable enough life style if you're working less? Bergmann recommends increased development of technologies to help us do things for ourselves without merely relying on the outside economy. Hydroponic growing, food co-ops, use of the Internet to avoid retail, creating your own goods with 3-D printing. This seems the main focus in the video I posted earlier, and though it often seems the least satisfying element to me, we can certainly see how the economy has already transformed in some respects like this. For instance, I can now record my own albums and make my own CDs at fairly low cost, which has in turn made professional services to do these things even cheaper. On the other hand, in areas like home construction, things have progressed much less. While modular housing is now a viable, commercially available alternative, foam domes (which allow a structure to go up rapidly by essentially blowing up a balloon and spraying concrete on the outside of it) certainly haven't caught on.
I will freely admit my naivety regarding the economic issues involved here. It seemed clear to me from hearing all this in college that deflation is the way to go: get basic commodities so cheap that people can live well on very little money. Well, we do that to some degree, with farming subsidies (that keep the cost of corn syrup low enough so that we can all eat horrible things cheaply) and (some) regulation of energy costs. It's a miracle in this political climate that we have things like public schools and libraries at all, plus public transportation, and some areas are moving towards free public wi-fi. However, deflation means it's more difficult to produce goods profitably, putting especially smaller producers out of business. We've all seen what deflation in housing brings about, though as a long-term prospect it should be good that housing is cheaper despite the short-term harm it's causing people.
So again, I obviously don't have the solution here re. how best to bring about something like Bergmann's vision. I see the need for it: that the mass of men live in quiet desperation, as Thoreau said, and given the glacial pace of social change, my only concrete goal here is to get the ideas themselves out there into the national political discussion and to get rid of the idea that any attempt to steer public policy towards the common good amounts to socialism.
I think there's already recognition out there of the value of our time over just money and the goal of doing something meaningful with your life instead of just taking the highest-paying job you can get. What's missing is the idea that this can be addressed on anything other than a purely individual basis. Maybe I, personally, can figure out a way to work part time from home, make enough in conjunction with my spouse to comfortably support a household, and still have time to indulge myself and others artistically and philosophically, but surely that's just a matter of me gaming the system as an individual... there's no real discussion or hope of figuring out how to make such life-choices legitimate options for everyone.
OK, that much should be aggravating enough for people to facilitate more discussion.
1. As you mentioned HDT below, I think I’ll use him here. What is “desperate” in us is a response to our loss of the simple act of living for living’s sake. We have become “means” of production so much so that this idea of “means” is really our only understanding of what is possible to us. We get jobs to make money to pay for what? The simple right to exist? If yes, then we are already in trouble…money then has replaces all our other “means” to provide bread and shelter. We are lost in our insufficiency of self. We are frightened babes crying for the teat of capital networks to provide a structure to our life.
This is really the core of all these issues. If one assumes a “new work” within the old understanding of social custom then the new work will simply become the old work and old custom.
Developing a “calling”: this is so fraught with layers of meaning that it may be difficult to pare down. Primarily this is a religious term…one is “called” to service. This is a “giving up” of personal reward as I think we conceive it. Making music for fun or self-satisfaction isn’t particularly a “calling” as it does not often attain to a “higher power”, though of course it can. “Life Work”, as Donald Hall terms it, is worth aspiring to and this means doing what you love with total focus and immersion for the sake of doing it. The problem here, as you know, becomes the need for paying for that ability.
And you already alluded to the difficulty of even know what this is–the “poverty of desire”. (Desire itself as “poverty creating” needs to be addressed.) We are not “cultivated” souls. We are born into a culture of rapacity…how is this countered?
2. Europe (France in particular) seems way ahead of the game on this one. These cultures do not “work for the weekend”…work (as making money) only gets one to the next meal or cigarette or glass of wine and loaf of bread. No storing up treasure (Both the Gospels and Thoreau are against this one!). The US equates all success with cash and you’re supposed to have cash to pass on.
Further to the problem is expectation of what kind of life we are to live…one full of stuff is our cultural economic answer. This is the gift of technology, more stuff. You can’t buy too much more furniture, but you can buy lots of TVs and iPods and computers and toys, etc.–and so to number 3…
3. More tech is simply more stuff. This type of machine is monstrous to me and I can’t really believe someone thinks this will lead to the “good life”.
The tech you have for making music is nice…but why the urge to share “beyond” your scope of community? (I’m not asking as a way to condemn the urge…we likely all want to be significant in some way–hence this response!)
Because we are no long in communities. We no longer live near family. We no longer know anyone. We have tech and tech is our only answer to problems. It’s the wrong answer for human animals. It’s the right answer for a future not “of this world”.
(I could use a preview button!)
I know it’s a certain kind of mind that wants to retreat from the progress of the human material world, but I think that’s the mind I have…reduce and downsize and find your happiness in your human interactions very close to home.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Yes, Douglas, you’ve got the point here: How can we make more of our lives about living and not about selling off time for some other end?
The dynamic of “how to not make your life so much about money” is interesting: the people most obsessed about money are those who desperately need it, so being voluntarily poor is not going to address the problem, but of course if to be well-off financially you have to spend all of your time worrying about it, then you’ve also missed the point.
I think there are lots of interesting things to say about your anti-technology argument here. It certainly seems like machines often end up taking up more time than they save. Ex.: we used to have to walk all the time, now we have cars, but that allows me to then work much farther from home, so I’m still traveling for an hour a day. This cycle is hardly inevitable, though, particularly if we have the idea of preserving our time in mind. (Telecommute!)
I think citing our problem with communities is just a non-sequitur here. A lot of the cause of this problem is that we have to burn so much of our energy on jobs that we don’t do a lot of the community stuff that we might otherwise fit in.
Voluntary material poverty, being voluntary, won’t create a desperation the way a “society-induced” poverty does; wealth creation serves itself…you are not the master in this scenario, the wealth is…it is often why we (in the middle and below) can wonder how people who are so wealthy have so little regard for the rest of us: money doesn’t care about you and neither does the person who “Must” make it.
Community and Technology (as we have it) are at odds and this is why it is not a non sequitur. You have to “unthink” the frame of reference you’re born into.
Thoreau was not so “anti-community” or “pro-solitude” as one might imagine, but he was trying to be clear that what goes along with a “capital” advance in machine production is a distancing of human concern/care. One must learn the machine to make a living–to do the machine’s bidding at the behest of the man who has money, and so do the bidding of money. His home at Walden Pond was very near the railroad line and only a mile from the town and society was necessary (human companionship)–he loved his brother dearly. But the truth of the railroad was the ease of moving AWAY from community and family. “We do not ride on the railroad; the railroad rides upon us.” (Emerson, similarly, “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”) Technology burns fuel. And you are simply a portion fed to that fire. (Damn you, Prometheus!)
“Telecommuting” is simply another “option” within the current system wherein “things ride us” and you will still be beholden to the mortgage and the utility bills.
Community doesn’t need electronic toys for entertainment. You would be our entertainment in the square.
I just saw a banner ad–“What if Toyota used their knowledge of hybrid energy to power an amusement park?” (Really? That’s what they think we should do with it?) And I thought to myself, what if Toyota, or GM or some other manufacturing giant, simply decided to only ‘support’ its workers…not pay them, but provide for them…community living–food–clothing–etc., while offering them artistic outlets to pursue “individuality” and expression. Is that a “frightening” socialist thought?
We are social creatures–do we need a “hierarchy” of the biggest/strongest/smartest to dominate us?
You see how these kinds of thoughts just set the mind running!
Daniel Horne says
Some questions and observations:
1. “So no, unburdening ourselves from the job system as traditionally conceived doesn’t mean everyone would just lie around playing Halo or something….” Actually, my limited experience with those who are “unburdened” from work is precisely that the overwhelming majority do in fact tend to just “lie around.” Rather than get into a battle of the anecdotes, I think we can agree that the term “idle rich” is in common parlance, and the term “industrious rich” isn’t. If you want to convince the not-already-persuaded re: Point 1, I think you’d need to cite some empirical evidence. It’s not intuitively true, and there’s much evidence to the contrary.
2. I can’t reconcile your suggestions in Point 2 (to effect “legislative guidance”) with your concluding goal, which is to “get rid of the idea that any attempt to steer public policy towards the common good amounts to socialism.” Exactly how are _you_ defining socialism?* Are you distinguishing between “socialism” and “social democracy”? Because I think any discussion you are trying to provoke will be unproductive without first defining “socialism.” It’s generally accepted that laws that which force (or encourage) the private sector to (for example) reduce the number of hours people can be made to work is socialist legislation by definition. There’s nothing inherently wrong with socialist legislation as such, of course. That’s what gave us the 40-hour work week, Medicare, social security, etc. America’s economy has as many elements of social democracy (i.e., socialism) as it does laissez faire capitalism. But we can’t have it both ways. We can’t say, “There should be laws forcing/encouraging companies to do X,” but also say “We shouldn’t call such attempts socialism.” We can debate whether socialist legislation’s benefits outweigh its costs, but I don’t think we can meaningfully debate whether to apply the term.
3. If enough Americans really wanted the kinds of social changes you advocate, wouldn’t it have happened by now? Or, at least, wouldn’t it be an explicit political agenda of some political party by now? When enough people wanted social security, they passed it into law, when enough people wanted a 40-hour work week, they passed it into law, etc. Isn’t it therefore fair to conclude that _most_ Americans reject the vision you propose?
4. Part of the problem I have with your post (and Bergmann’s thesis more generally) is that it fails to account for how much better things are now than they once were. Bergmann may say that we’re less free than we think, but I would say that we’re more free than we once were, and future generations will be more free 100 years from now than we are today. Technology has already had an increasingly “freeing” effect over our time, in just the sense you describe. That has had as much to do with technological advancement as social legislation. And unlike social legislation, technological change requires no social movements. A good survey of this phenomenon can be found in the “Technological Revolution” episode of The Western Tradition, which can be viewed free of charge here:
*I like the Oxford English Dictionary’s explanation best:
“The term ‘socialism’ has been used to describe positions as far apart as anarchism, Soviet state communism, and social democracy; however, it necessarily implies an opposition to the untrammeled workings of the economic market. The socialist parties that have arisen in most European countries from the late 19th century have generally tended toward social democracy.”
1. Ditching Industrial Capital Labor doesn’t really equate with “doing nothing” I’m sure we can agree. The “idle rich” are not “laborers” but may well be quite “idle” in the sense that the persons who are attached to wealth have “no real importance or meaning” as persons (as beings) but only as holders of wealth.
So, living requires labor. Living equally requires equal labor.
2. I think this is likely an impossible idea in “national” terms. Perhaps Vermont, a state that likely has the quiet “character” and strength necessary to secede, might enact some kind of government as “protector” of a population committed to each person’s welfare. No material wealth (hoarded or “stored up”) allowed!
We are too entrenched in an economic ideology that we call democracy to even begin to have this conversation as regards what the Federal Govt might attempt to enact. However, I do see it as a plausible conversation as regards the Federal Government recognizing a kind of “alternate” method of community living.
The real sticking point now is simply our economic dependence on all things military and our hegemonic goals in the broader world.
The “small” ideas we’re discussing can’t happen within this context.
3. Presently, I think it’s easy to dismiss a blanket idea of “mass appeal” when discussing “a better life”. This is akin to arguing that “green energy” will create jobs (futurity is not security) while “clean coal” will retain jobs (keep what I have and what I can understand and see). “Americans” are socially constructed and the paradigm is lived from birth…how do we know to “want” something better that we’ve never seen before or heard of? We can no longer “go west” to find our way and yet this myth persists in wealth creation. Yet it is a fiction that enslaves our thinking. And what do we see daily? The success of money. And so what Americans want is money (even if, at base, it is just “money” as security or protection from tragic harm).
4. The myth of “freedom” will live forever. So first, admit that we are not ever going to be free of the necessities of biology. We must eat and drink to live. We must gather or grow food to achieve as sustainable life. We have “outsourced” all these necessities and now would be hard-pressed to feed ourselves without our machines. This is not freedom; rather it’s infancy.
Technology is as much a “mind” as it is a way of advancing our mechanical powers. Technological mind drives towards “creation” outside of biology. This may be characterized good or bad or “inevitable” depending on your vantage point. There is no value to poor nations in technology…poor nations, poor people simply fuel the fire of technology to serve the wealthy. To serve the mind seeking immunity from biological necessity. It is a seeking after immortality and a wish to deny a human (animal) death.
The discovery of most note? Clean water alleviates many diseases and early death. Hell, you just need proper water flow in natural environs to achieve that. No chlorine necessary.
Brian Loftus says
My response is to Mark’s synopsis (didn’t read link) and following posts.
If I pare down the idea behind this topic I would understand it as:
A. We need to focus on beneficial callings
B. This seems tenable only through a form of socialism
Douglas’s criticism seems to be that interfering with these callings doesn’t address the problem of what constitutes proper cultural advancement, as in the example of technology. I don’t agree the speed bumps are in the technology/capitalism, community dichotomy. I think the idea there is a disconnect and somehow the connection can be repaired is fallacious.
Let us suppose we have 3 months of work, then 3 months of spare time. If one were to devote this off time to rebuilding impoverished neighborhoods it would eventually occur to them that technology would enable their efforts to succeed with more precision and speed, allowing for more improvements to be done in a 3 month span. Technology goes hand in hand with community.
To address point 2 of Mark’s synopsis, I can’t help but imagine the cyclic nature of tradesmen. Carpenters, electricians, operators and the like work about 9 months a year and have down time through bad economies and bad weather. The foundation tradesmen lay is imperative to creating the infrastructure a community needs. We would need more tradesmen if they were to experience more downtime, but no one usually looks to do trade labor when the idea of telecommuting exists. Tradesmen do not have any particular connection with the earth or nature by dint of working with physical objects, so I would deny that laborers meet the good life.
I doubt that some of the paradigms we follow in our work life are flawed and can be re-evaluated to produce a net positive effect for community, but this is a tremendous task, one that does seem to need the aid of some kind of socialism. However, the desires people wish to pursue toward the good life are not quantifiable in my mind and therefore have no value for determining this ultimate social project.
When I have spare time I make music or read, both of which offer no source for a sustainable living. if I forgo the luxuries of modern living to pursue these desires, eventually I am going to want a better way of making music, and perhaps recording it. Here is technology again, it assists me in my good living. Once the technology is liberated, others pull from its tangents to create their technology assisted good life. Our technologies may but heads, but this is the cost of finding the good life.
Brian Loftus says
I’d like to address point 3 in Mark’s synopsis. Deflation isn’t the way to go since deflation postpones spending (hurting current economy), and makes debt greater than assets. if you hold no debt then it sounds great but I should think the majority of Americans at least hold debt.
The idea that technology will enable people to work less doesn’t pan out since someone has to build the technology and maintain it. This is why I mentioned laborers, someone is going to do the grunt work no matter what, and having a technological utopia means 24-7 emergency coverage. It would start to look more and more like the good life is only going to be available to the wealthy, the lucky, the innovative, and highly educated, but wait, isn’t that what we have now so to speak?!
Ethan Gach says
“The idea that technology will enable people to work less doesn’t pan out since someone has to build the technology and maintain it.”
How do you account for gains in productivity? I think the point is to transform current productivity gains from gains in wages to gains in “free time.” So if I can do something in half the time, I should work less (and perhaps get paid a little more), rather than work the same and just get more money for more things.
Mark Linsenmayer says
@Brian: Yes, there will always be work to do, but clearly the amount of work does and has gone down, and the conditions do and have improved. I’m not arguing against the necessity of paid work altogether, nor that some of it will be drudgery, but there’s a great deal of difference between taking care of unpleasant chores for 10 hrs. a week and being a full-time coal miner. I think this is also where you’re having trouble seeing this as not inevitably socialist: This is not about the government running a bunch of robots to do all the work for us and distributing the wealth according to need. This is about (if I’m forced to start talking about potential implementation here, which I still think is somewhat beside the point when considering ideals in themselves) a concerted effort to encourage technologies and structure regulations so that it’s easier for people to get on top of things financially.
I’m not sure I get your point re. tradesmen. I think what you describe is a great example of the kind of work that individuals can profitably cut back on if they feel secure enough to do so, and because it’s unequivocally necessary work, it pays well enough to attract people, unlike, say, nursing or teaching, which is surely vital, but not in the way that triggers these positions to pay enough to overcome their staffing problems. (Of course, those are also roles that people feel “called” to do, and it’s not unheard of for, e.g. a retired person to volunteer to teach a class or help out caring for people… the number of such volunteers would surely go up if more of us lived like retirees.)
I like that this thread has elicited such global world-view responses, but at the same time those are hard to respond to. Douglas, the form of your argument strikes me a little like this (and this is just a loose analogy to try to convey my impression here): Guy with idea: “Hey, here’s something we can use to improve living conditions.” Nay-sayer: “Alas, our living conditions can never be truly improved until each of us obtains Enlightenment and individual moral perfection.” I’m not disputing that you may be onto something fundamental about the human condition, but I think it’s self-defeating to hang the particular problem about too many hours of work in most peoples’ lives on it. Maybe this is a species of making the perfect the enemy of the good? Of refusing to vote between a sleazebag and someone not so much of a sleazebag because the whole system is corrupt? I tend to advocate trying to do what you can, even if it’s going to leave fundamental issues unsolved.
@Daniel (and I’ll look over and respond to your post more thoroughly later…), yes, I think the recognition of how much better things have gotten is exactly what gives me hope that things can get even better, and without casting off our whole economic and political system. At the same time, there’s something to be said for trying to shift the debate so that the winds of progress push in one way rather than another.
Well, hmm…that seems awfully dismissive. I think all I’m saying ultimately is that the argument so far is framed only in the “given” of current economic conceptions. This seems extremely narrow and will simply create “more of the same”. I for one don’t think the “same” has been great unless your perspective is “landed” or propertied. And that adheres to only a tiny fraction of the population.
Likely that came across as defensive. What I’m saying is that we live in a very complex superstructure. Tweaks will benefit some but the benefit will be “managed” in an upwards direction. Work can be conceived of outside of the industrial machine. Community can exist without it. This is all I’m wishing to point out. Mitigating work ours is a tweak for those who work within the industrial machine and it seems somewhat self-serving.
@Brian: “eventually I’m going to want a better way of making music…” If one admits of this I guess we’d have to define “better way”–one plays the guitar, what makes the making of music on it better via an advance powered by electricity?
Maybe that’s really the thing I’m pushing at here…I can see the “human” wish to innovate as aspirational and inspirational. But I can see it as “co-opted” via external energy towards a “super” human end.
It seems the “means” of technology have become more important that what is the purported end. And I guess that’s why I posted the Unamuno on the Discussion Board (also here: http://storm-nemesis.blogspot.com/2011/01/unamuno.html)
Brian Loftus says
Douglas – “If one admits of this I guess we’d have to define “better way”–one plays the guitar, what makes the making of music on it better via an advance powered by electricity?”
A composer uses paper and pen to write his work. He then gives that sheet music to the orchestra and conducts them accordingly. What if that composer did not have to rely on the output of the band? I know many artists who cringe at the way their music is played by others. Springsteen didn’t want Born to Run to go to print because he was not satisfied, but he was happy with Nebraska, a demo recorded by him alone.
So I get inspired but I’m driving and have no paper. I pull out my phone and hum a few bars into the voice notes. Now they have 4 track apps, so you can hum the bass, the percussion, melody, and some words all without stopping the car on your hour long commute to work. Many songs have gone by the wayside because the artist had no means of recording or writing it. Miles Davis had complained of this problem.
That touches the composition tools available. It makes the music better by making exist. If the artist hears the instrument a certain way but has no means of creating that sound, technology makes the music better if it can produce the sound desired. Can one imagine ‘I am the Walrus’ without the Wurlitzer? If it is imagined in such a way, it’s not ‘I am the Walrus’ .
Daniel Horne says
“At the same time, there’s something to be said for trying to shift the debate so that the winds of progress push in one way rather than another.”
Sure, but wouldn’t that be a political debate, rather than a philosophical one?
Brian Loftus says
I see I’ve missed the point somewhat. I guess I don’t believe positions like full time coal miner will ever go away, it might just transform into full time solar miner, which will carry some other health risk and laborious tasks that seem to come with all energy harvesting.
As far as the tradesman thing goes, what I was thinking was, since tradesmen are specific parts of the workforce, they could never slow down in the way that has been conjectured. An educated professional can work in many different fields, for example a structural engineer can work in finance. There would be enough versatility in educated professional fields. There would also be versatility in menial jobs like pumping gas and working at 7-11.
A carpenter can go into the menial job market but not the professional market. A plumber might possibly go into the electrical trade, but if everything is slowing down there would be no opportunity. These are the people who actually put things in their place for all technology to work. Cell phones need cell towers, and toilets aren’t going away anytime soon. If things were to slow down, those tradesmen usually working, who are now on holiday, need to be replaced, yet these are the things (toilets and cell phones) that can’t take a holiday.
This is why I said that technology (like plumber free toilets) will be great, but will require 24-7 emergency coverage. If more plumbers are on vacation, more will be needed, yet plumbing isn’t exactly a calling like nursing is.
Ethan Gach says
“I guess I don’t believe positions like full time coal miner will ever go away, it might just transform into full time solar miner, which will carry some other health risk and laborious tasks that seem to come with all energy harvesting.”
What would stop it from being two part-time solar miners?
Also, the numbers from the past couple decades have started to show that, in fact, business goes boom every time it can strip itself of x% of its workforce, and a lot of this, especially in the manufacturing sector is not because of cheaper labor abroad, but because of more sophisticated, mechanized, and digitized processes at home.
Mark Linsenmayer says
OK, on reconsideration:
@Douglas: Since I posed this as a question of ideals to start off with, your objection is totally appropriate, and I’ll attempt to actually respond. Likewise, @Daniel: though I started out trying to keep this to a question of philosophical ideals, with this second post, it’s not so easy to keep that separate from questions of implementation, and moreover, I now realize that declaring it a “vision” to be considered apart from questions of implementation is itself a political move.
Douglas, I think since you’re leaning on Emerson and Thoreau for your view here, it deserves a fuller response in the form of episodes on those guys, so I’m going to push off full treatment of it to that point, but you’ve made a couple of practical points here re. the relatively conservative way I’ve been talking about implementation that I find I agree with:
There’s definitely a reason that Bergmann is now more focused on creating technology for “the desert people” as he calls them (meaning people who don’t live in the current small oases of wealth… he finds this term less offensive than “third world” or “poor”). Just like it’s been much easier to get Africa onto wireless tech, it’s easier to get them to look into cheaper, quicker, more environmentally friendly and less dehumanizing ways of sustaining ourselves, because they don’t have the vested interests we have here working to slow things down. Likewise, they’re going to be more politically open-minded if it’s a question of cooperative ownership of resources or whatnot. So as a couple of you have said, the most conservative ways of implementing this (and by this I don’t mean Republican-endorsed, but merely the ones that require least government action, which aren’t quite the same thing) would first and foremost make it easier for people who are already nearly capable of achieving this kind of freedom to realize that, i.e. people that already make enough per hour that they could, if the workplace culture permitted it, cut back their hours and pursue a calling.
Just to bring in Bergmann’s perspective here more explicitly, he used a couple kinds of distinct examples: one set of initiatives was aimed at the poor. E.g. get cooperative food and innovative shelter efforts going in low-income housing projects, so, e.g. you have a group-run garden (hydroponic if necessary) that produces a certain amount of the food needed (fish tanks too), which serves multiple purposes: creating community, involving people in meaningful work, and of course making it cheaper to live for people that aren’t able to make a lot anyway. Bergmann was directly involved in negotiations between the GM management and labor unions in Flint, MI when they were closing down all these plants, with the idea that firing someone was actually very expensive for GM, so instead of firing, switch people to half time work and help them with entrepreneurial grants so that they could pursue callings (i.e. start a business doing something they were really excited about). On the other hand, he also talked about working with, like, doctors’ groups to facilitate shared practices. Doctors are a prime example of people who are often overscheduled to the point of insanity, but whose contribution is financially valued enough that, if they want, they can often, e.g., set up practices with other doctors such that they don’t have to actually be there all the time.
So Bergmann was all for tackling it on all fronts, and I think I agree with this approach. Political and social changes only happen when people complain and throw their weight around, so if, say, young, grad-school educated people are some of the first to figure out how to arrange such situations themselves (And amazingly, after pining for this for a long long time, I find myself roughly in such a situation now, though who knows how long that will persist.), then all the better. But again, the ultimate point (assuming you agree that the job system is in general life-sapping and that it could be made less so) is to figure out how to enable this for the population at large. If this becomes recognized as a real, national problem with some hope of a solution, then I’m actually sort of optimistic that it can be addressed, and in fact, that it can be more easily addressed than some other intractable social problems exactly because it affects nearly everyone and not just the poor.
A couple of hastily composed historical comparisons that may or may not actually be apt:
1. The draft. Having a draft would be political suicide right now, exactly because it at least nominally affects everyone. (Yes, in practice the rich were able by Vietnam at least to wriggle out of it, but this wasn’t a given beforehand, so a proposal of a real draft in this day and age would be scary enough for the parents of the rich for them to object to it.)
2. Low prices for basic subsides. I mentioned the farm subsidies to keep food prices artificially low. People also tend to have fits whenever heating oil or fuel prices go beyond a certain level, and even though there’s only a limited amount that the government can do about these things, and we have occasional issues like the whole California scarcity/over-charging thing that was going on for a while a few years back, the government is generally not shy about doing what it can to keep these things in check, because voters hold them directly responsible for rising prices like this. The same can be said for inflation as a whole, really.
So again, my point is not that either of the above are really great, but merely that conditions that directly affect our lives can change if people bitch enough. I think we’ve just reached that point re. health insurance prices and will at some point soon reach that point re. broadband access. If not having enough time for family and pursuits gets seen as a crisis, i.e. if our standards rise such that people won’t put up with this bullshit any more, than things can get done.
Gotta go. More later. -ML
Thanks…I hope this is okay, but as I was going on and on in this space I felt that I was asking too much of you and the other commenters. So I simply posted my response to my own blog. I won’t expect you to read it or comment and I won’t continue the practice as a matter of course. Thanks for the discussion!
Just to put a face on it–here is the “good life” from a Facebook friend:
“Indoor playground + 5 kids + French fries + wifi = everyone happy 🙂 — “
Mark Linsenmayer says
Hey, since this has turned more explicitly political, I thought I’d ask what people thought of the state of the union speech last night in terms of these ideas.
It’s certainly hard for me to see speeches like that as anything but strategic, and in that respect it seemed very well done, and reflects some of the sentiments I was trying to get across re. realistic social change.
Ideologically, I’d like nothing better than to have an actually proactive, liberal government who (acting with full cognizance of the opinions of economic experts and the experiences of people at all levels of the economy, of course) would take significant steps to reduce inequality and improve our lives, but I recognize the actual political situation we’re in and greatly despair anything getting through Congress that pisses off more than 10% of the rich and powerful.
So the focus is as always on growth, with the idea that the rising tide… well… it doesn’t lift ALL boats, like actual believers in trickle-down economics think (and Obama slammed this pretty directly in talking about being able to start of a factory that employs next to no one, i.e. giving more capital to capitalists is not enough to generate employment), but it raises our standards so that we’re less willing to put up with crappy conditions (i.e. more affluent conditions are perceived as crappy), which in turn spurs social change, if that makes sense.
So, it should be obvious that I find this emphasis on growth and employment myopic and think they should be injected with some Bergmann, but given our current political climate and the desire to get some things done rather than just fight to no avail for two years, his focus didn’t seem unreasonable.
(You may now commence to make me feel ashamed for taking political speeches seriously enough to even bother commenting on.)
I guess I just don’t believe in the apparatus as it stands. Too much is at stake in global hegemony for there to be real “care” for the population as a whole. I’ve come to feel that Obama is very much something like what I guess we used to call Republicans–he believes in markets and that change happens of its own accord via economic pressure; that people run business and in that way “businesses care” about the people (and though this may have been true in some 50s Golden Age it isn’t true now and small business does not run the country or have any leverage)…that this too will pass, in some form, and whether you’re better off or worse off, you’re still livin’ free, baby.
But yes, you should be ridiculed for seeking meaning in the theater of our current media-centric politics.
This is a good post about the thinking of our political/economic/ruling class.
Ethan Gach says
It’s funny, I was over at another blog posting in defense of the overall speech and the aims outlined by the President.
But over here, Mark’s ideals and the expectations he’s set (which I for the most part agree with and applaud) made me feel hyper critical of the same speech.
In political chatter you get so used to arguing over the details of policy and the expediency of tactics, that you forget how narrow the entire spectrum of political discourse (popular and reported on) really is, at least in this country (though I’ve not let it so the same might go for other developed nations).
Brian Loftus says
Ethan Gach – “What would stop it from being two part-time solar miners?”
Nothing, but my point is not in the distribution of time for these workers, my point is that these workers won’t get to the good life if they must do work which deteriorates their health, morale, and ambition to do other things like donate time to charity.
This is all under the assumption that laborers (like coal miners) do not enjoy their work at all. If the two part time energy miners are thinking to themselves that they should have nothing to do with interacting positively with the community since they already contribute in a major way, via their backs and health to mining, then the idea of collectively finding the good life is circumvented.
It may even be a possibility that more people who wouldn’t necessarily do “shitty” work, will now have to since the workforce is being reduced on account of more free time for everyone. How could that introduce more “good life” en masse?
Mark Linsenmayer says
It would certainly be more fair if there’s a relatively small amount of ineliminable, horrific work to do to take turns doing it.
It’s interesting that ideas like mandatory national service and the draft were not considered socialist back in the 1960s and earlier when we had the draft, but at this point, saying “everybody has to help out picking up public garbage for 2 hrs. a week!” sounds like you’re proposing a f’ing communist dictatorship.
Not really taking a side here. Just an observation. Likewise, “socialism” is just state ownership of industry. Very heavily regulating industry does not constitute socialism. The income tax, even if we set a “maximum income” tax (e.g. if you make over 4 million dollars in personal annual income, the gov’t gets 100%) or some sort of regulation re. the maximum ratio between the highest level employee salary and the lowest level one at any given organization… none of these constitute socialism. Even enacting ownership limits, like that an individual just can’t “own” a whole lake or more that X acres of land, just like I can’t personally go and buy the I-35 highway no matter how much money I have. Again, not socialism. All allowed under our constitution, not to say that we should do any of these things. I’m just saying there are plenty of constitutional ways to order people around to create desired economic conditions if that’s what folks vote for and electors carry out, so a “let the rich conquer their work problems first” approach is not endemic in the nominal system… just the practical system, if that makes sense. it’s a matter of political will.
maybe some time with chomsky would help?