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Talking with Frithjof Bergmann, Prof. Emeritus from U. of Michigan, Ann Arbor about his book New Work, New Culture (2004, with new English translation release 2019).
Frithjof is a world-renowned ex-Hegel/Nietzsche scholar who has worked since the early 80s on projects to realize the goal of "New Work," which is an alternative to the current, dysfunctional job system. New Work enables people to do work (which is not the same as a "job") that they really, really want. Human nature is not such that we are born free and need restraining by a social contract; rather, we need institutions to help us develop a self, to figure out what we really want and become free by doing things that we deeply identify with. New Work Enterprises promotes technology like fabricators and cutting-edge farming to support community self-sufficiency in places like Detroit that the job system has left behind. Read more about New Work at newwork.global.
Be sure to listen to Mark's overview of the topic. Listen to a follow-up Q&A between Mark and Frithjof. Watch more interviews on the New Work YouTube channel Mark manages. Listen to Mark's introduction. Buy the book).
End song: "We Who Have Escaped," a brand new recording by the new lineup of Mark's band New People. Get the mp3, along with all three of their albums, a Not School discussion of this Bergmann book, and much more by becoming a PEL Citizen, or just support our efforts through a donation.
Great Episode, great topic – And I agree that “work” is an important problem for modern philosophy to grapple with. It’s hugely relevant, but it’s usually brought up in more politically or economically minded conversations – this was a refreshingly optimistic approach. I’d love to see Frithjof Bergmann get more publicity. And one more thing: Mark, that song at the end was my favorite so far. Really fantastic work.
Billie Pritchett says
Mark, the closing song for this episode was my favorite so far. Great tie-in with the topic too.
not sure there is much of an empirical basis for privileging work as The Good for all people, varieties of human preferences/predispositions aside this seems to kind of naturalize some of our contingent social arrangements into the sort of Telos that seems contrary to neo-darwinisms, no?
What Bergmann has to say will be very helpful for those of us, like me, who strive to avoid the job system as much as possible and for all to us to be less hard on those young people who do not or cannot find a place in the job system, in spite of their education, since, as Bergmann points out, jobs are ever more scarce.
However, I doubt that the job system will go gentle into that good night.
First of all, there is a power and wealth elite who benefit from the job system and have no intentions of giving up their privileges, status and money. That more and more people compete for fewer and fewer jobs benefits Wall Street (a convenient metaphor) because competition for jobs drives wages down (Marx’s reserve army of labor). What’s more, a mass who competes with one another for scarce resources, in this case jobs, is less likely to unite to change things, which suits those who benefit from the status quo just fine.
Those with power and wealth are going to do everything that they can to keep things functioning to their benefit, using their control of the media, of the universities, of advertising, etc.
Second, while I agree that not all people are Hobbesian all the time, some people are Hobbesian all the time and even more people are Hobbesian some of the time and for those Hobbesian or semi-Hobbesian people their sense of self is partially or largely based on having a “better” or higher status job than the next person and even though that means that they literally kill themselves commuting to work and competing in the work place, they are going to keep on destroying themselves and destroying others around them, as if their lives depend upon it.
So expect heavy resistence to changing on the jobs system on a mass level from the elites and from
those who derive psychological benefits from feeling that their job makes them “better” than the next person.
I’m in the process of listening to this podcast for the second time. I’m very interested in topic and enjoying the discussion.
I’ve writing down questions raised by Dylan, Wes, Mark, and Seth. It brought to my remembrance a Ted Talk given by Barry Schwartz in 2009–similar themes with Frithjof Bergmann–themes of: “call for ‘practical wisdom’ as an antidote to a society gone mad with bureaucracy. He argues powerfully that rules often fail us, incentives often backfire, and practical, everyday wisdom will help rebuild our world.”
Anyway, I agree with you that residence is to be excepted. However, what I’ve found encouraging when speaking with business owners are the many lessons they learned from experiencing the Dot-com bubble. And here is were I think they have an edge over our more bureaucratic run institutions. I’d like to work for more transparency, open dialogue, and win-win outcomes in a given community.
Khary Tafari Robertson says
Great episode on a topic that is extremely important right now. My only issue is with Frithjof’s characterization of people as fragile. I think that this perceived fragility is a social response to a dominating environment, especially one you cannot control or affect in any way. Other than that, I greatly enjoyed the conversation.
Awesome episode!! Listened to it three times.
Great discussion on an important topic. A nice surprise being able to hear Bergmann elaborate on his ideas.
It was interesting to reflect back on my comments to the precog for this.
His New Work “The Briefest Possible Summary” in part “one half of New Work is the transformation from Industrial to “Community Production.” The result will be the creation of new enterprises, but also progressively the increasing local production of food, housing, and energy, and equally of furniture, appliances and clothing, and beyond that of still more of what is needed for a pleasurable, modern and fulfilling life.”
Makes me think of hunter gathering society ( community sustainability model) in opposition to agricultural societies (consumption and growth model). Where large movement of people into cities or slums and all resources have to come from some where else and so agricultural societies always end up militaristic with elites and a warrior class and slaves.
Whether it was ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Greece, Rome, modern Europe or the U.S.
Let us not be in denial that “middle class” American standard of living is provided by (wage) slavery.
Our clothes and other stuff is made by people who get paid very little and our food is harvested by people who get paid very little.
The agricultural model is the “growth” model. Rome had to keep conquering new lands to provide resources which included humans as resources to be consumed by the masses (consumers) in the cities. Today the expansion for new resources, including people, to consume is called “emerging economies”.
Lierre Keith’s critique of agricultural “civilization” starts 0:18:50
John Durant author of “The Paleo Manifesto” He’s got an evolutionary psychology back ground and has some interesting perspectives.
He speaks of our “habitat”, which includes politics and economics, in reference to how he starts out the book talking about gorillas in the zoo.
The Paleo Manifesto w/ John Durant
“Twelve thousand years ago, everybody on earth was a hunter-gatherer; now almost all of us are farmers or else are fed by farmers. The spread of farming from those few sites of origin usually did not occur as a result of the hunter-gatherers’ elsewhere adopting farming; hunter-gatherers tend to be conservative…. Instead, farming spread mainly through farmers’ outbreeding hunters, developing more potent technology, and then killing the hunters or driving them off of all lands suitable for agriculture.”
― Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
What a fantastic episode! It was so satisfying to hear such an in-depth discussion of this topic – and the way it really seamlessly flows from your guys’ Marx episode, particularly Wes’ closing comments in that regard, was great. When is the translation in English of Bergman’s book coming out?
Also, love the closing song Mark.
Awesome episode! It seems to me that what’s put on the table is a ressurection of the idea of “no bullshit democracy”, in all its getting everyones hands dirty and taking the responsibility to think and act essence; democracy as different and not opposed to the capitalist/marxist -loop, -duality, -thing. Beautiful, an episode refreshening in its pure act of goodness. Democracy as a breeding ground for excellence in small things and trust in true friends: I’m gonna listen to this again.
I have a lot of sympathy for the desire to rid ourselves of the current work structures, which can be best described as wage slavery.
Note that Bergmann may have given up on many of his Hegelian and Marxist beliefs – but he tenaciously holds onto the believe of the perfectibility of people. They just have to be taught… The reaction of Mark et al. about how they now find their workaday lives more dreary now they are living their passion is an indication of how fundamentally flawed is this tenant.
In all the analyses of the failure of the various Marxisms it is this tenant that has lead to the atrocities of the gulags and killing fields. If someone is bored/intransigent/relapsed then the fault lies with the individual, who must be constitutionally wicked, and therefore should be liquidated.
What was disappointing in this is the complete lack of discussion of the insights of Viktor Frankel – who in the 1930s was treating unemployed Bavarian workers for depression. He began to formulate theories as to the cause: one being that these men had lost meaning in their lives. Frankel’s experiences of the horrors of the death camps, and he concluded for people to survive they needed meaning in their lives.
As I understand “New Work” it is a way of trying to inject meaning into work. While this is a worthy goal, it misses the point – is abstracts work away from the greater context. In some cases the work itself may appear to be banal, but it is supporting something much greater. One example from the US Military. Many people volunteer to join the US military – not because they are necessarily attracted to the life, but because it brings many benefits – citizenship and a university education for the children of volunteers. It provides a way of escaping poverty and to give opportunities to the next generation.
Another Philosopher who has much to say about work and the problems of the modern, industrial workforce is Simon Weil. She took a rather experiential approach to Philosophy – taking a job in a car factory so she would know what she was talking about when she wrote about factory work. Her account is well worth reading.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Not sure where you got the impression that B is committed to “the perfectibility of human nature,” and the leap to “if the individual is flawed then we must get rid of him” has absolutely nothing to do with what was discussed. The whole point is to breed authentic individuality, which is acknowledged as difficult, and the experience of work as potentially meaningful and life-giving is a straight-up empirical/phenomenological claim. He does describe in his book the experience of people on the news moving sandbags to fight hurricane Katrina, i.e. the same exact boring work can be incredibly meaningful in a context where you think you’re doing something meaningful.
I do think Frankel is relevant, though if I remember him correctly, he thought religion provides the narrative that people need to provide meaning, which is something that Bergmann would definitely reject. Again, finding meaning is an individual matter, and not just something that can “be taught,” but which is also not just a matter of individual soul-searching. Again, that’s supposed to be an empirical claim born of a lot of experience dealing with people in this respect, but like Jung’s claims of the same sort, it’s not something that’s easy for us as listeners to evaluate without independently confirming this fact ourselves; it’s not a matter, I think, of evident phenomenology, though the base Hegelian insight that we are very ignorant of ourselves is.
Mark Linsenmayer says
I should add that the idea of a “calling” (i.e. using that term for work one “really really wants to do”) was I believe the contribution of the church groups that were involved in the original Flint project in the early 80s. As I pointed out in my reference to de Botton, it’s not that simple for most people, i.e. they don’t for the most part find they’re called to some specific kind of activity as a wanna be artist or academic might be.
Wayne Schroeder says
A vocation (Latin vocātiō – a call, summons) is an occupation to which a person is specially drawn or for which he or she is suited, trained, or qualified. Though now often used in non-religious contexts, the meanings of the term originated back in the days of the monks.
Bear Mathun says
There were a few sentences towards the end of the discussion which indicated that he believes that New Work has a transformative effect on people and they become better. There is a Utopian strain to this – that somehow New Work will bring in the new society in which everyone is fulfilled.
The problem with Utopias – and this seems to affect them all – is that they all become rather brutal in the end. Be it a naturalist, rationalist utopia of the French Revolution ending in the terror; or the religious Utopia of Calvin’s Geneva. There seems to be a connexion between Utopia and the gulag. We can cite example after example of Utopias turning into mass graves.
The example of menial work is also enlightening. The adrenaline rush of stacking sandbags in the face of a hurricane is not the same as performing menial work week after week, year after year. A poet may say that this work drains the spirit and imprisons the soul.
Some work is necessary for modern society, for example working in mines and refineries, but it is dangerous, difficult and dreary. Also the specialisation in production brought about by the Industrial Revolution has drained the work of the individual of meaning. There are no longer craftsmen but simply factory workers. We can also consider the large number of menial jobs in the service industry – call centres, janitors and maids.
Apart from some very conservative religious people, I do not know of anyone who thinks that these jobs are a vocation. To find meaning in work itself is bit of a bourgeois preoccupation – and either does not consider the menial tasks, or has considers some type of people to be suited to these tasks (and that is long discussion in itself).
A more interesting question is that although work might be menial, how do we bring it meaning? Selling asphalt is not necessarily the most exciting job in the world, but it has clear benefits – being able to support one’s family being one.
One of the brutalities of the modern industrial system is the abstraction of production from benefit, the abstraction of rewards from the work, the separation of the producers and consumers, the technicians of management being removed from the workers.
Nietzsche may have considered the state as a cold monster (something that I am in furious agreement with him), but this has nothing on the modern, multinational corporation. An executive (such as a Chief Financial Officer) in New York or Berlin can wake up one morning, scratch his/her arse and demand that the middle managers trim 10% of their budgets without impacting output: he/she is likely to be rewarded for such a decision. However, at the bottom end, many people suffer.
While agree with Bergmann that there is something deeply flawed in the system, and that somehow meaning has to be restored to work and dignity restored to working people, I think that he only has a partial answer.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Hi, Bear, I think you’re getting at some aspects of the program that weren’t discussed in the podcast: yes, the whole point is to liberate people from menial work, and the way to do that is to a) automate the crap out of it so that only a limited, socially necessary, ineliminable amount remains, b) figure out how to divy up this remainder so that no one has to do more than a couple hours a day of it.
So as a miner or refinery worker, the picture is first off of automating these so that you only have a couple people basically monitoring and fixing machines to do most of what miners and refinery workers do now, which makes it not so bad, and then yes, skill is involved, so some sort of specialization is needed for such jobs, and people would have to elect and get trained for them (so presumably you’d get people who are at not so averse to that kind of work), but yet the result would not be doing it day in and day out, but doing it, say, 3 hrs., 5 days a week (so you’re working in shifts, maybe, with other people doing the same job), and then spending the rest of your time pursuing activities that you ARE passionate about, and deciding on those would be up to you (with counseling or whatnot to help you figure out realizable options).
So there’s no suggesting that menial work magically become meaningful, but just that it be marginalized in our lives to make room for meaningful activity. However, as was emphasized in the discussion, one way of dividing the menial work is relegating more of it to self-providing: being a full-time maid may suck, but doing your own chores around the house for a few hours a week is not so bad. Likewise, if high-tech self-providing means that you get most of your food from a community farm and manufacture most of your goods with your local community fabricator, then you’d presumably take on a couple hours a week working with one or both of those. So long as doing so constitutes a better deal timewise than having to work at your regular job to earn money to then purchase such food/goods in the usual way, then it would be worth it.
As far as utopias being tied to gulags, I think that’s a leap of logic. To give one example, what I’ve heard of the Utopia in Atlas Shrugged is entirely voluntaristic. Of course, that’s a self-selected group and not an attempt to reform all of society, but the point there as with New Work is that the utopia doesn’t make us all the same but is supposed to develop/let free the individual. Also, strategically, Bergmann is against any kind of violent revolution or heavy handed political enforcement: if it comes to that, something has gone wrong with your thinking.
I should write a whole blog post to develop this idea, but I’m detecting a strain here as in many objections of self-defeating pessimism. E.g. a Freudian or original-sin-type Christian might say “people are fundamentally flawed so no perfect society is possible” and use that to argue that what we have right now is probably the best we can do. Or similarly one can take Heraclitus’s picture of society holding together through conflict and say that trying to get rid of dischord to allow a more sane kind of living is Quixotic. You can argue “society will never get better until we all as individuals get better,” which is just not going to happen, or “society will never get better until politically we remove the power of the rich who are abusing it,” which is not going to happen, etc. etc. Bergmann’s approach seems to me to be to deny all such roadblocks, not by necessarily denying that human beings are conflicted or whatever, but by merely taking a very practical approach and figuring out what can be done where. Don’t make perfection the enemy of the good. If there’s too much political resistance in one country, try it in a different one. If some people deny there’s any problem with the current system, make strides with those who feel that there is a problem. In keeping with that, this podcast itself, and his book, are explicitly designed as invitations for others to join and figure out the missing pieces to his “partial answer,” and such “figuring” should primarily come in the form of actually doing things… as with the human nature objection that Khari put forward above that I responded to in another post, theoretical disputes matter only insofar as they determine what course to pursue.
Chad Lott says
I just came back from touring some meat processing plants (for work) and I spent last summer visitng some ranches and smaller meat processors.
I’m not advancing any arguments here, but I noticed some real differences in work modes that might be interesting to you guys.
The happiest people were always the owners. No surprise there.
After that, it seemed there was more happiness when the process of breaking down animals was more skill based (traditional butchers) and there was a certain satisfaction from the mechanics that kept the highest tech machines functioning.
The floor workers who were performing totally repetitive tasks that required no skill always looked less than happy. And this is at some of the most progressive, safe and clean facilities in the country. I can’t even imagine what this kind of work would do to humans at a typical meat processing plant.
There’s definitely something for me that’s interesting about developing traditional methods of production for the sake of art, while pushing for highly technical solutions to meet market demands.
Is there someplace where Bergmann discusses the problem of acquiring expertise in fields about which very few people are passionate? I work as an accountant, and there is an oft repeated truism that accountants do not attain real expertise until they have worked full time in the field for about 5 years. I have heard the same thing said about the practice of the law. I am assuming that it is true that 1)There are fields about which almost no one is passionate, 2)Acquiring expertise in these fields takes many years of long hours, 3)These are fields which require a sort of judgment that is not easily automated, and that 4)There is immense societal need for experts in these fields. What would Bergmann say about that?
And just for some additional context, the particular firm I work for does a lot of work for the Federal government, and the work is broadly understood by my colleagues to be in the service of the public interest, and yet most everyone still seems to experience employment there as a mild disease, so to speak.
Brilliant choice of topic ! Really apt for our time. The philosophy of work is the most important practical area for philosophy. It ties into ergonomics and heidegger.
Very much enjoyed this episode. I was able to follow the discussion through without stopping and relistening, as I usually do. 😀 I too loved the closing song.
Stuart Adamson says
THIS is why philosophy is relevant to everyone, every day of their lives.
A simply fantastic episode, and great to hear the ideas expanded so lucidly and practically. The segue from the Marx discussions… wow.
Thank-you so much for doing this.
Thinking this over a few thoughts come to mind.
I think something like New Work might be the only possible way forward for the U.S. and Europe at this point.
I mean “civilization” is a process of draw down. It means that large numbers of people move to cities/slums and resources have to be imported from without.
In the past Europe and the U.S. could just have slaves or conquer new territory for new resources for the masses of “consumers”.
But now the U.S. and Europe can only print more money or barrow. There are limits or an end to both at some time which the U.S. and Europe are essentially at.
So civilization of agricultural societies is a “growth” model. More resources must always be obtained as the consumers consume. But capitalism and socialism/communism are not alternative models. Socialism with people living in cities or slums and the government obtaining resources for the masses to consume is not any different from capitalism. They are the same thing.
I really think Bergmann is onto something because New Work is not capitalism nor is it socialism.
It is something more like hunter gathering societies or like the Amish who all work individulay and collectively to produce all that they consume. A sustainable model.
So for New Work to really work no one is given anything. No basic goods or amount of money is given.
Each individual produces what they consume. And with technological advances in the future each individual will have to work less and less to produce what they consume.
This is where Bergmann differs from Marx. Marx saw technology as a negative and the problem.
For Bergmann it is a positive and the solution.
But I think food production is the really big part of this for it to work.
Our current food production is based on essentially slave labor. We have non-citiezens without rights work in our fields for very little money.
Rod in the Hype Bergmann comments had a link to Switerland condiering giving citezens a $2,800 check every month. They are a very small and very rich country. Some of the rich middle eatern countries give their citezens a monthly check but it’s non-citiezens that do all of the work so it’s essentially a slave plantation model.
And I think food produtcion will be central to making the New Work model work.
Episode 11: Joel Salatin
Mark Linsenmayer says
I don’t think there’s any particular principle about what government is or isn’t supposed to “give” embedded in New Work. Some advocates of something like New Work would be for the Swiss proposal: only with a no-strings-attached grant would we be financially free to pursue a “calling” that is truly ours and not one coerced by the government (e.g. if you have such a handout but say that to get it you have to put in work at an approved non-profit or something, as has also been suggested, then this amounts to the state through its approval process determining what is or isn’t a legitimate calling, so if you want to just go compose symphonies or otherwise do something that isn’t already “established,” then you really can’t). Gorz’s “Reclaiming Work” talks about this a lot (Gorz was a friend of Frithjof’s and brings him up a few times in his book). I’ll try to write a whole blog post on this if I can get around to it…
Thanks for replying. I’ll check out Gorz’s “Reclaiming Work”.
I was thinking of abuses of the system. If some people have to work and other gets grants I don’t know. I don’t think the Swiss proposal could work. They’re very rich because they handle other peoples money and skim off that.
Switzerland is made up of resident foreigners and temporary foreign workers make up about 22% of the population. They’re the ones who won’t get a check and who will do the work.
I was thinking with New Work it could break the cycle of consumption and expansion for resources and exploitation of others labor. The resources to be consumed have to come from some where. I was thinking for New Work to really work each person would produce/ create most or all of what they consume. Each person would essentially work for themselves.
I don’t know I’m still thinking it all through. But I do think he’s onto something important.
I think I was thinking something like each person would only have to work one or two days at a New Work farm or factory on a rotation so each person could pursue their calling.
Chad Lott says
I think you’re absolutely correct about food production being central to New Work. I was actually surprised to hear Bergmann kind of glossing past it with his “not by food alone” talk.
I’ll admit a major bias here. I work in the natural foods industry.
Anthony Bourdain made a comment a while back about how we’re becoming a nation of people making and serving cheeseburgers to each other. He meant it as a jab against the loss of industrial jobs, but why not an economy based on the production of the best, most invigorating food in the world?
Mark Linsenmayer says
Yes, the food issue is crucial; whether or not it’s as “sexy” or “mind-blowing” as making your own car out of 3D printed parts is of no consequence.
I of course get the appeal of the natural food movement for nutritional and environmental reasons, but is part of your goal to make this generally accessible and not just what people rich enough to shop at the fancy organic grocery store get to eat? What does one do concretely to pursue this goal, Chad?
Maponus Monk says
This was a great podcast episode. Is there any way to get in contact with Bergmann to help or assist in any way?
Thanks for your help in advance,
Seth Paskin says
A good place to start would be the New Work, New Culture website.
There is a contact section where you can submit a inquiry.
Maponus Monk says
Thank you very much Seth. I heard this website on the podcast but couldn’t quite make it out.
Once again, great podcast!
Peter Hardy says
There’s a new guest post on my site overviewing anti-work arguments, thought that may be of interest: http://vibrantbliss.wordpress.com/2013/10/30/against-employment/
A tough podcast for a libertarian minded fan to listen to.
Regarding the repeated assertions of capitalisms failure and cherry picking countries that are in distress at the moment as proof, a 30,000 foot view might shed some perspective.
From Yale’s Global Magazine “in 2011 there were 820 million people
living on less than $1.25 per day, down from 1.37 billion in 2005. Whereas it took 25 years to
reduce poverty by half a billion people up to 2005, the same feat was likely achieved in the six
years 2005-2011. Never before have so many people been lifted out of poverty over such a brief
period of time.”
Mark Linsenmayer says
Libertarianism has to do not with being pro-capitalism but being anti-authoritarianism, right? Per Nozick, a legitimate government simply doesn’t have a right to be doing most of the things it’s doing. Very few of Bergmann’s comments in the podcast had anything to do with the state stepping up and remaking the economic landscape: he’s merely recommending that technology be promoted to actually allow people (everybody) to be self-reliant in the way that libertarians would like. (Yes, this requires more community cooperation in most areas than rugged individualism, but he’s NOT recommending a commune but a community of the sort that, again, a conservative should be all for: you could buy into a “maker space” through your church or local Y or a for-profit business or any number of organizations. Making such technology available to people is more an entrepreneurial challenge than anything else.)
I’ve spoken to Bergmann about his apparent contempt for statistics. Basically, he thinks that “scientific economics” is a joke, that the methodology of measuring things such as the quote you’ve given is flawed and apt to manipulation, and that he’s justified in having traveled the world and witnessed first-hand widespread poverty to think it’s safe to say that capitalism is not doing the job in bringing wealth to the world. Moreover, in the developed world, with our job system set up as it is, how many people you know personally are really happy with the setup? Just in the very act of working 8+ hours a day, probably doing more or less the same thing day in, day out. Unless you just have a blind faith that capitalism as it is currently chugging along is the ONLY long-term solution to this problem, and that the best we can do now is to just get a good setup as an individual (e.g. get a flexible schedule and fulfilling work as yet another perk of being a talented, well-to-do person in the first world), then you should be open to ideas of how one might sensibly fix things, and Bergmann gets the point that simply having a government do it isn’t going to get the job done.
He’s also open about the fact that helping impoverished populations is not a moral duty, but just something he gets off on, and that what makes for a fulfilling life is for most people not just the act of making money; all this is very much in accord with libertarianism.
I haven’t heard him express any particular strong principles about what government should or shouldn’t do; I think a New Work recognition of the world’s problems is perfectly compatible with a variety of viewpoints on this issue. The only point that came up in the podcast about this was to prevent big business from corrupting politics by essentially having a veto on every type of legislation: this business-interference-in-government is something that libertarians too want to stop. That was one point Ayn Rand got right; she also got the point right that “the self” must be grown, must be developed: that the Enlightenment assumption common to both Rawls and Nozick, Hobbes and Locke (not sure about Keynes and Hayek, but I assume so as well) that people can be analyzed for economic purposes as having a rational self-interest that they will invariably act on, is bullshit. (See http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2013/06/02/the-self-and-selfishness-and-aesthetics-and-the-fountainhead/)
I think Bergmann sees capitalism as providing tremendous advantages: that certainly it was more effective in THINGS GETTING DONE than the USSR. He’s not obsessed in the manner of Zizek or someone like that that a profit motive corrupts everything or any of that. Simply be realistic and use your own eyes and talk to people to figure out what about the current system is working for people and what isn’t, and be cautious about any new programs of any sort presented, testing new methodologies out thoroughly. It is the oversimplifiying, IGNORING of so much of what we know about human behavior and motivation (e.g. in constructing our educational system or figuring out what constitutes an acceptable work environment) that he’s objecting to.
My understanding of libertarianism is along the same lines as you lay out and as someone who is very sympathetic to the Austrian school of economics, I am also extremely dubious of reducing subjective states of wellbeing to numbers. It is far from obvious to me that the recent financial crisis was the result of capitalism failing.
Be that as it may, although the current working life of those being lifted out of poverty by capitalism is not an ideal it is better than the alternative which was true poverty. Dickens made a great fortune dramatising misery of the early Victorian era but he spent little time focussing on why these people moved en masse to the newly developing cities. Life in the country was no idyll, it was even worse. As Friedman noted, population exploded during this time of apparent extreme material poverty and the century ended as one of the largest explosions of real growth in humanity’s history in every field.
I am sympathetic to any suggestions /experiments to make people’s lives better but you note a lot of what he said on a look through basis is what capitalism (in the bastardised version we have today even) already provides.
Communities of people working for a common goal, sounds like a firm to me? You will still need hierarchy to plan and figure things out.. the 60s hippie communes figured out the hard way just relying on empathy and good will doesnt actually work.
As for his idea that we are post scarcity, goods are abundant with little effort… this is already reflected in the price system. Average customer of Walmart can buy an abundant amount of crap for very little. The problem might be they arent making wise choices with what little money they have but… I for one would not force them to change their goals. If they read Bergmann’s book and set up a community to print all their goods in 3d and grow vegetables and raise chickens then great, but, that option is wide open today. Why is no one doing it if it is something humanity would really prefer?
I think we romanticise agricultural life and returning to our roots but the reality is pretty miserable if you actually have to rely on it to make a living. The BBC in the UK did some shows recreating farming life and making people live the life. Grim. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_Farm
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks for the reply, Jonathan.
Just to clear up a few misunderstandings re. Bergmann: He’s not recommending the pure life of community production with group raising of chickens except for communities that have been essentially locked out of the monetary/job system… like if you think “if we close the child labor sweatshops here, then the kids will have to turn to child prostitution,” then that’s the kind of community he has in mind. Even a Wal-Mart would not be sufficient in those circumstances. The point is that these new technologies, including some of the tech-heavy farming solutions, are new, and aren’t going to just introduce themselves in such communities. It’s the don’t give a man a fish but teach him to fish thing (another conservative chestnut), but with new technologies like geodesic dome building (http://newworknewculture.com/content/new-building).
This “technology transfer” is an issue in the first world as well; there is always a danger with any new technology that some firm or group of firms will essentially prevent its cost benefit from being passed onto regular people. Regular, 2D printing shows the failings of a pure market system: printer ink is about the biggest rip-off there is, and the alternative to paying way too much is to use shoddy recycled cartridges (I do this, and it’s STILL too expensive, the cartridges don’t always work, and they’re clearly not meant to go with my printer, which erroneously says the ink is empty when it’s not all the time). With 3D printing, there’s a lot of open-source momentum (e.g. http://techland.time.com/2013/03/04/how-an-83-year-old-inventor-beat-the-high-cost-of-3d-printing/) to make it so that this technology will not just be something that is served up to us by some big companies. As you say, with any organizational effort, someone needs to actually put in that effort: communes fail; thus “New Work Enterprises” is a corporation.
You acknowledge this, but at the same time ask why people wouldn’t be living the way Bergmann recommends if it were truly something they would prefer. You’ve answered your own question: organization is needed to make anything an option, and many a corporation is born not out of someone saying “what’s the best way I can make money today” but “this is something people need and I’m going to figure out a way to get it to them.” People aren’t currently using “high-tech self-providing” to produce more of their own goods so they can work fewer hours because, as you well know, that’s not on the menu of options our society presents to us, and the New Work effort, including this podcast and discussion we’re having right now, part of the process of making that a legitimate option.
I remember in the 90s when CD burners came out, I as a musician and one of the few that could make use of such things had to pay like $10 for a blank CD. It was not until public awareness and use for blank CDs became more prevalent like 10 years later (you can dupe your own CDs!) that then more companies began offering them, driving the prices down to 50 cents or less per CD. It’s easy to pretend that this was just “market forces” that did this, but what the forces actually were was a matter of the public conversation, of millions of college kids telling each other that such CD copying (which is certainly not something the corporations would want to promote) was possible.
The issue of work hours is even more problematic: I would like to help engender a cultural shift, so that more of the social conversation about quality of life is about having enough time free from work to, e.g. properly raise their kids (and this point IS one that’s floating out there, and I think a great hook for this national conversation), and moreover to pursue a calling: to start a new business, to provide really meaningful service in your community, to promote one of these New Work initiatives, etc. etc. etc… and this point is simply not on the national radar… certainly not among modern Democrats (“those who play by the rules should be able to make a good living”) or Republicans (“Bad government! Bad government!”). Asking “if this is so great, why isn’t it already happening” seems absolutely naive.
I read the link you provided re mises. While yes, I do look forward to looking into this whole Keynes/Hayek thing, and accept the point that the Austrian school does not “treat people like numbers” in the way you say, as a preliminary hypothesis, I can’t help but feeling that any of these “the government must not pollute the economic system with its grubby hands” principles are based an highly abstract and ultimately unjustified (certainly not empirically justified) reasoning. I think things in the real world are highly arbitrary and contingent, and markets can end up well serving people or ill serving them based on the actions of a lot of individual actors as well as just plain luck: companies can or cannot be monopolistic, can or cannot collude; cultural shifts may or may not favor some particular solution apart from any objective consideration of what is best for people. I think my examples about recordable CDs and 2D printing are sufficient to make this point. One can always say when something in a market system goes wrong that, e.g. patent law or government allocation of land/airwaves/other resources was ultimately responsible, and that a truly free market system would have worked, but given that we have never had nor will we ever have a truly free market system (doesn’t SOMEONE, e.g. have to make a decision about who all is authorized to go around installing physical cables all over the place so we don’t have a situation comparable to this: https://webpages.scu.edu/ftp/mgaletto/little%20brother/mics%20for%20press%20conference.jpg in every aspect of life?), I just don’t find that helpful… I don’t think government interference in the economy makes it any less “pure;” it’s already a heaping mess, as is any chaotic system resulting from the combined result of many disparate actors/actions. If you can explain to me in two clear paragraphs why I’m wrong about this instead of referring me to a long treatise, I’m listening. The article you linked to merely claims that following the Austrian school would have meant we avoided all this boom-and-bust economic activity: I saw not actual argument for that claim there.
Mark Linsenmayer says
One more big thing: New Work is not presented as something to be imposed; if some people actually like the current system, they’re fine to stay in it.
However, as we’ve seen with the Obamacare roll-out, when one gets in (whether legislatively or in some other way) and futzes with a market, as New Work is DEFINITELY suggesting in trying to basically deflate the crap out of all prices, then one can’t pretend that lots of folks’ current situation wouldn’t be disrupted.
The overall problem is that yes, people would like in general to work less, but the cost of living is such that what with college education and health insurance and housing and saving for retirement (maybe) and all that, they don’t feel it would be responsible to do this… it’s not an economically viable option. So yes, the point is to change the equation to make it a real possibility to live well while not working full time, and I can certainly understand if one feels the world economy to be best guided by the Invisible Hand why one would be averse to actually TRYING to achieve anything socially in this way: the only productive option under such a view is to try to work your OWN circumstances and/or to start a business. It’s a very pessimistic and unambitious view of social change, I think.
From what I understand, the Austrian position isn’t that the markets solve everything, rather respect the rule of law and allow people, communities, families, corporations or any other voluntary body come up with ideas, products, services, communities. It doesnt have to all be through the price system which is the caricature.
Depending on how extreme they are, they seem to start getting quite cross with government the further it gets from providing law and order.
There are going to be hard cases such as what about laying pipes across multiple properties etc but there are great historical examples in the literature of how this was dealt with before government assumed the job. EG. railways and canals in the UK were privately funded and built.
As to the Austrians being ‘right’ when I re read the article I see he presumes some familiarity with the Austrian theory which explains his title but you are right, it seems like assertions but if you dig around which I wouldnt expect you to do, they were all banging on about the folly of low Fed rates, FNMA, Freddie etc.etc for years and the nefarious relationship with Government officials and the banking sector. Hank Paulson , Goldman sachs chief then Treasury secretary, really?!
Their theory is pretty simple. If you have a price fixer of anything, to the extent the price is not what the market would arrive at, you have distortions. The most dangerous price to fix of all is that of money, given it is the other side of nearly all transactions (when you buy or sell anything, it is usually with money). The central banks around the world fix the price of money (interest rate). It is hard to dispute that it is set too low and has been now with every subsequent crisis as the debts mount up and savings dwindle (exactly what you would expect if rates were too low, people borrow more than they otherwise would and correspondingly save less). The largest debtors in the world are the governments themselves who clearly support central bankers like Bernanke, Yellen etc who keep rates at zero and just print money hoping that somehow that will ameliorate the underlying problems. But, total debt keeps stacking up and the private sector gets the blame?What it actually does is allow banks to borrow money cheaply to support their damaged balance sheets and speculate so benefitting from the policies. The Austrian guys have been banging on about this for ages but of course, no government is going to listen to them much like no priest would give the atheist time in the pulpit. To say they predicted that specific crash is true for a great number of them but then again, I think just because you know that things will end badly doesnt mean you know how or when exactly.
The problem is that most people think their solution is some rampant capitalism where everything is determined by price, some kind of libertarian utopia but apart from a few of the fringe Randian types that is certainly not the case.
Consider this interesting talk:
His article is probably more considered:
What I find interesting listening to you guys is there is an unexpected (to me) sympathy that we have together in the sense we find the same things troubling and you end up on the left side of the spectrum (forgive me if I am wrong here) whereas I find myself on what in Britain used to be called the side of the classical liberals and in America are called libertarians. The problem today is that these groups tend to attract extremists disenchanted with the mainstream binary options which, really, dont differ very much do they. Has Obama done anything materially different than Bush for example. Sure there will be bits and bobs but… not really. Samein UK with Tories or Labour. People love to major in the minors about how they differ but from 30,000 foot..not really.
So for example, in this episode, what has motivated you and an ex Marxist also motivates Libertarians like Peter Thiel of Paypal,Facebook fame to start http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasteading or to pay people not to go to university and start the whole grim career treadmill http://bigthink.com/think-tank/peter-thiel-will-pay-you-to-drop-out-of-college.
Maybe you guys should bring on the show a libertarian that isnt a closet Randian or Republican in disguise. Throw them some tough questions that bother you about their view and why is it that you end up worrying about the same things but think different means to achieve them are necessary? At the least, it will spice up your back catalogue.
Mark Linsenmayer says
I think any lack of difference between the accomplishments of Obama and Bush has more to do with the legislative environments in which they find themselves than anything else, which has to do both with the US Constitution and associated practices (which work to make sure nothing gets done unless there is massive consensus) and American culture at present (there is no massive consensus, and innovative ideas of any stripe are not widely discussed).
I don’t think it should be surprising that we recognize the same problems. Problems are there to be spotted for anyone free of ideological blinders. I see people discontented with the current job system as a problem, whereas I think the meritocrat (i.e. maybe what the neoDemocrat and the Republican have in common) would deny this to be a problem, because the American dream is defined as getting a good, well-paying job so you can support your family and that’s just a fact of nature itself instead of a social construction. It is in general for any practical-minded political actor difficult to recognize as a real problem anything to which an acceptable solution is not apparently available. For example, race discrimination: we can pass a law outlawing employment discrimination, but since we can’t really control people’s attitudes, we just shrug and say that racism is going to be inevitable and hopefully it will go away as old people die off. It’s the philosopher’s job to push past such assumptions and think creatively, and this will be true whatever one’s political leanings are.
On the other hand, there are “problems” created by theories, so you would identify state tampering in prices as a problem, whereas I don’t see that as necessarily the case. …Which brings us back to libertarianism, and I appreciate your patience in explaining this to me. Are you claiming, first off, that there’s no moral component to “the government shouldn’t be interfering beyond enforcing law and order?” So Nozick and his definition of justice is not a libertarian in the sense that Hayek is? I always see a much too convenient confluence between the moral prescription against government interference and the economic argument against it. It would be very helpful to the analysis if we could separate these cleanly and just consider the economic.
To claim that economic interference by government is a “distortion” does imply that there is some undistorted pattern where prices result strictly from supply and demand, but this ignores, again, real-life issues of consumer knowledge and real consumer choice. It’s in a business’s interest to provide a product that gives immediate, high satisfaction but which will need to be replaced. It’s not in a business’s interest to spend resources researching the long-term negative effects (health effects, environmental effects) of their product. There was an article within the last year (I can’t find it right now) about how junk food is chemically created, taste-tested and marketed (with a focus on how cheap-to-produced and irresistable can we make this product) that gave a very good example of how business manipulates the fact that consumers are NOT rational, and if you’re patient, you can look up “century of the self” on YouTube for a long account of advertising’s use of Freudian techniques to manipulate people. In most cases, it’s also in business competitors’ interests to collude (divide up the market, set prices high, and drive out any startups that might challenge the alliance by, e.g. selling certain things at a loss or otherwise abusing their scale) and/or for the biggest business to become a monopoly and then drive up its prices when all the competitors have been put out of business. All if this is “distortion” of supply and demand (and is not likely illegal given the restrictions the libertarian would place on government interference in the economy) before government even comes into it.
What I want to explore in our econ episodes is the question of what justification is available for economic models. The pretense that these models are “scientific” implies that you should be able to look at real-world data objectively and evaluate which model works, but as you point out, when something happens (like the collapse of some particular market), there’s no good way to piece out exactly what caused that, so the best we can do is more unverifiable modeling. I’m not familiar enough with currency manipulation to have any opinion of your account of that, but I’m certainly familiar with the tax dispute: Reagan lowers taxes and the economy improves, therefore conservatives claim that in all cases, that will be repeated, yet when Clinton raises taxes, the economy booms, and when Bush II lowers them, the economy does not improve, leading me to the obvious conclusion that while we can use informal means (polling and historical observation) to posit that raising taxes BEYOND A CERTAIN POINT would cause people to invest less, there just isn’t any strict correlation between taxation and economic activity, so one should be pragmatic and not ideological about it (as the neo-Democrats are).
So likewise, I can see how some price manipulations can and do cause problems (e.g. farm subsidies is one I’m familiar with; tariffs I’ve heard and understood some about over the years), but don’t see any justification for ideological purity in restricting the role of government in this way, and in fact think it’s very clear that some goods (really, any truly NECESSARY goods) should not be entrusted to the free market… do you think that the government control of the water supply has ruined things, such that having private, unregulated companies would be a better idea? (An honest question: is there any country in the world that has such a system and it works better than ours?) Whether or not you’re a fan of (the conservative-modeled) Obamacare, it’s pretty clear that straight-up unregulated healthcare simply leaves poor people screwed and provides perverse incentives to providers, so some government action was certainly welcome, and whether or not this was the right action will, I guess, be seen in how well the problem gets addressed. Is the libertarian (again, going back to my 2nd paragraph) prohibited from seeing the health care problem as a problem at all, or must just hope that voluntary charities and inter-hospital alliances come together to fix it? I take it that the libertarian position is a Heraclitean one: that a lot of conflict and suffering is an inevitable part of the system. I’m not going to accept that kind of pessimism without a damn good reason.
Re. having a libertarian on the show, we’ve of course gotten similar advice about getting an anarchist on the show, getting a real Marxist on the show, getting a real Randian on the show. Given that we’re not Crossfire, I’m not sure this is a direction we want to go, but we’ll see. I think it works plenty well to just give these texts a good analysis, and (as is our current plan for the Keynes/Hayek ep) to get a scholar on familiar with the history and all sides of the debate to help us fill in the gaps from time to time. It would be different if we could get Nozick himself to come on. Bergmann made the cut due to his philosophical credentials (I would put him up there reputationwise with Nozick, Searle, Ned Block, Rorty, Nagel, Chalmers, and the other big-time people we’ve had or have tried to get on the podcast) and my personal history with him (which compensates for Bergmann’s basically dropping out of philosophy after 1982; I’m not pretending that my Q&A with him was a philosophical exploration in the normal manner of our podcast, and should not set the model for future episodes). On the other hand, now that I’ve done that Q&A, I think we’ve opened the door to more one-on-one interviews being used as supplements for regular episodes, so that might be a great way to beef up our presentation, e.g. do our Nozick episode and then (if we can easily find someone willing and good) have a 1-hr follow-up conversation with a smart libertarian. On the other, hand Not School may be a better forum for such an exchange. If you want to set up a group there on this or want to otherwise volunteer yourself or get one of your libertarian idols interested in PEL, that might help.
“He’s justified in having traveled the world and witnessed first-hand widespread poverty to think it’s safe to say that capitalism is not doing the job in bringing wealth to the world.”
I would hope that a remotely scientifically-minded person would realize this is a really problematic way to assess poverty. Mainstream poverty statistics largely support Bergmann’s views that there is considerable poverty, and that there is opportunity to alleviate poverty. What the data don’t support is his repeated claim that poverty has increased. Further, the data finding is large, significant, and robust. So basically, Bergmann needs to argue that a large number of individuals and institutions like the World Bank, the UN, Jeff Sachs, etc. are all in the pockets of “the old jobs system” and are manipulating their data. This is an extraordinary claim, for which he provides little support, and it’s not necessary for Bergmann’s argument. He can easily retreat to: “yes, progress is occurring; this is a way to accelerate progress”.
A greater concern given Bergmann’s skepticism of data is how he determines whether his initiatives are working. If he says, “look, I went to Detroit in the 80s and I went to Detroit last year, and I guarantee that it’s better now, and further that this is specifically because of New Work”, are we to take this as fact? Or can he measure the improvement using GDP, PPP, unemployment, labor force participation, or even something like surveys of people’s happiness. I suspect he’ll gain much more traction if he can measure progress in an objective and quantitative way.
I largely agree with much of Bergmann’s worldview, but there are some tangential pieces here that will lead folks to really question his credibility.
I believe that this link is commenting on Sachs’ attempt to eliminate poverty and not his and others’ claim that poverty has declined in recent years, which is what Bergmann is denying.
Daniel Horne says
I agree with you that Prof. Bergmann should work harder to explain what he means by an “increase in poverty” throughout the world, as that’s a pretty controversial statement. (I also agree its unnecessary to his greater thesis.)
To take the most sympathetic view, I suspect what he may have meant was:
(1) a larger number of people walk the Earth in poverty than ever before, simply because the global population has increased over the past 20 years, and most of those population increases have occurred in the poorest parts of the world.*
(2) the measures and definitions of poverty (including the ridiculous “per capita GDP”** standard) are often inadequate, inaccurate, and generally less objective than one might hope for. But, like the equally silly “BMI test” for obesity, it’s easy to apply, so we keep using it anyway.
That said, I agree with you that Prof. Bergmann should better bolster (or drop altogether) this claim. Otherwise, he unnecessarily exposes himself to easy pot-shot criticisms from economists trained in citing, e.g., “per capita GDP” as an indicator of relative poverty over time or between countries.
*For example, look to the increased size of Brazilian favelas in recent years:
Mark Linsenmayer says
From talking to Bergmann about this, the answer is #2; he thinks that a “science of economics” is laughable and doesn’t want to get hung up endlessly debating the specific statistics. For one of our future bloggingheads.tv pieces I’m trying to get him to interview an economist of some stripe who can back him up or clarify the situation.
How I see it at this point is that Bergmann himself is not going to be the spokesperson for this stuff for long. He’s a super old guy, and he’s spent his time actually doing these projects and speaking where he’s invited, i.e. to sympathetic audiences for the most part. He does want to address harsh, skeptical question about the project, but if ultimately he’s prone to exaggerate, it just doesn’t matter: he’s not like Al Gore running for office, where you have to get behind the man and you’re concerned about how he’s coming across to others. This is about confronting the problem that he’s concerned with, and once you get it, once you can see it as a problem and not just as an inevitable part of the human condition (the curse of Adam), then it’s YOUR problem to deal with, not Frithjof’s. Like every other thinker, you can look at him for inspiration, take the parts you like, reject the parts you don’t.
What I think he adds over and above folks like Skidelsky who talk about this is an unquenchable thirst for actually producing social change. Thinkers don’t tend to have that. They think, they have opinions, they argue about minutia. “Activists” on the other hand, are not known for profound and original thoughts. If I personally go attend a protest march, I don’t bring my philosophical big guns; I say that Walker’s anti-union busting or whatever it is is obviously wrong, and worth my political attention. I’m basically reactive. New Work is all about proactive, about not being satisfied as a cynical critic of society and not thinking that the political answers are just obvious yet unachievable. (We need to get rid of corruption in government! We need to smite down those conservatives and/or liberals who are preventing us from moving forward!) It’s neither about diddling out the ideal society a la Plato’s Republic nor about pushing the same Sisyphusian rock up the hill.
Anyway, that’s my attitude right now until I get tired and disappointed and bitter again. 🙂
I suspect there are economics-minded folks that see value in what Bergmann is saying and doing (I’m one). Bhtv regular Glenn Loury might be an option, as he’s very good at breaking down arguments into their components and presenting objections where appropriate. Another option might be James Hamilton, who’s worked in the past to engage with ideas well outside the economic mainstream. You’d probably want to focus the conversation not on the question of whether economic science has any validity but rather on the specifics of Bergmann’s argument.
As an example: my understanding is that poverty rates in Guatemala are substantively different from those in Mexico, that the poverty experience in Detroit is very different from that in Mumbai, and that nurses who hate doing their jobs are not the same as day laborers who can’t afford medicine. I would base these claims on economic data, but I don’t think even the most ardent skeptic of data collection methodology would question the distinctions.
The point is: Bergmann considers each of these poverty, but they’re fundamentally different, and require different mixes of solutions at both individual and policy levels. I’d be interested to know more about the specific approaches New Work takes for each scenario, and how it determines their effectiveness.
Wayne Schroeder says
I think the problem with philosophy is that it can become just another theory, abstracted from reality. Alternatively, life is meant to engage us with experience, responsiveness and thereby meaning. Perhaps that is the simplicity and complexity of Bergmann.
“life is meant to” is/ought?
Chad Lott says
I really loved this podcast.
My only real friction with Professor Bergmann is his enthusiasm over 3D Printers. I get that they have potential to revolutionize where things are produced and who produces them, but that seems like just a distribution solution.
Is there really much difference between a lawn gnome you download and print yourself and one that’s delivered via Amazon? I guess there’s a reduction in shipping, but the 3D materials will have to be manufactured somewhere and shipped.
I don’t think their availability to the masses will produce more worthwhile products any more than the spread of typewriters produced more worthwhile writing.
At least bad writing will not be filling landfills with more plastic.
Mark Linsenmayer says
I’m still investigating 3D printing, but here are a couple of points I’ve figured out:
1. 3D printing means it’s easier to start small manufacturing businesses, meaning more local production, more variety in what we can buy and from whom, and hopefully, ultimately better, cheaper stuff. Someone brought up Wal-Mart as already providing a market solution (cheap goods readily available) in light of the ease of product, but I’ve bought stuff from Wal-Mart, it’s generally crap. Think of the technologies that allow production of cheap crap but in the hands of smaller producers who might actually give a crap about whether what they’re producing is hideous or not.
2. The open-source nature of 3D printing designs means more do-it-yourself/small-group accessibility here. Right now, if iTunes sells you a song, you still pay (nearly) as much as you did in buying a CD, but unlike songs which are by artists who only sell in certain places, for goods, we don’t care so much who they’re by (assholes and their clothing preferences notwithstanding), so we’ll have the goods-equivalent of the many many free music services there are out there: if all you cared about is finding something fun to listen to and not to listening to Green Day or whomever in particular, you could get all the music you ever wanted without paying anything. (Of course, you can do that even WITH Green Day with Torrenting and such, but I’m not going to recommend that pirating be part of the social model, though that will be inevitable and perhaps morally justifiable when we’re talking about third world communities undermining/ignoring high licensing fees).
3. There area already several machines to grind up existing plastic to use for current fabricators, and Frithjof mentioned one that can use scrap wood. I don’t know that the materials problem necessarily breaks the model. In general, if a company sells you a model that’s supposed to be fun to put together, then it’s no cheaper than if you just bought the damn thing pre-made; if you get hold of plans for something and buy raw materials from a hardware store, then you can get real cost savings. The same goes here, and there are many gradations: Frithjof uses IKEA as a model of avoiding tremendous shipping/storage cost issues and lowering prices by requiring the customer to put together the end product himself. 3D printing is just that taken to an extreme.
I think the success of this whole movement depends a lot on communications; there are already websites dedicated to open source 3D printing designs, where you can rate designs… such a process would naturally lead to people being cautious about what stuff they create for themselves; better designs will rise to the top. The Internet itself is a great model, of course, for people getting info directly from each other and not given to us in small doses by a gatekeeper, though big Internet companies do their best to become such a gatekeeper… they generally find now that they can only do that by being more effective portals (e.g. Google search), not in controlling content. So there is hope that models of production and organization will be able to spread effectively.
Chad Lott says
Thanks for your response Mark!
I read somewhere that there are quite a few downloadable designs that are suspiciously shaped like sex objects. Not that I’m judging, it just seems like something right out of the film Idiocracy.
We’re really only limited by our imagination, I just worry about our imagination.
That said, since I posted above, I spoke with a guy who mentioned the idea of being able to download and print modular building materials for use in low-tech infrastructure areas. That seems like a nice application.
To answer your question about food above (there was no reply option on that post):
I’m currently very excited about the decentralized economy of small scale farms and the way it’s starting to overlap with Ecommerce startups. This seems like a great step forward in getting solid products into the hands of consumers while minimizing markup and shipping.
I’m also very heartened by the rise in diet-hacking for physical & mental performance. No matter the method (vegan vs paleo diet), all the thought leaders in this area seem to be pushing for whole foods grown sustainably. Demand will increase the supply of the good stuff, which will hopefully create more New Work opportunities.
Personally, I’m a great fan of plant based nutrition and interest in that is growing like never before. There’s lots to look forward to.
I think it would be useful to have an economist on the show at some point because a lot of the kinds of issues you raise, understandably, call forth quite one-step solutions which seem to address whatever the issue at hand is. But when you have an economist think through all the links, it is insufferably more complicated than at first blush.
As you say, testing the data is unhelpful. There are ‘told you so’ interpretations from Marxist to Rothbard which focus on the data and the interpretations that fit their facts. Hence my attraction to the Austrian guys who try to think things through from first principles as opposed to looking at oucomes and then fairly arbitrarily fiddling with some macro variable like exchange or interest rate or asking government to spend a bit more or less here or there and just hoping it all works out (current strategy).
Shame you dont live in Dublin but if you do visit, let me know. Would love to have a beer to duke this out with you.
I’m a little disappointed in this episode. I love the subject matter from the get-go. This is one of the core inquires that Marx had which I find fascinating. I just don’t think it was handled well. The author is determined to change our outlook on work, but then reverts back to “eliminating poverty”. These are two separate agendas.
Also, I’m shocked at the techno-boosterism of the author. Won’t the inputs of 3D printing cost money? Where will that money come from? Shouldn’t he be concerned about a concentration of wealth associated around the 3D printing industry? As we’ve seen from the Internet, new technology is not always liberating.
Also, we don’t know what the future holds for employment (among other things)
Finally, the author stresses the social aspect of work, but I find most people hate that the most about their current jobs. “If only the boss/customer/co-worker would get off of my back!” His solution is entirely atomized. Everyone will have their own 3D printers in their living room and never have to deal with that annoying boss/customer/co-worker again.
For future episodes on the philosophy of work, please consider Matt Crawford’s book:
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks for the comment, James. Certainly the podcast doesn’t tell the whole story (you might want to listen to the Precog I recorded for a higher level overview), but it looks like you’ve missed some of Bergmann’s key points:
1. A chief insight here is that poverty and people who hate their meaningless jobs are at root one and the same problem: a job system that uses people as opposed to people using work (which, as Crawford points out, is something we have an existential need for: actually accomplishing things –> meaning). The solutions to these two problems are also overlapping: for the employed, use technology (acquire the means of production, as Marx would say) so that you need less money, so that you can work less and still live well. To show that this can actually be done requires, of course, much more of a case than was made in the podcast, and Bergmann’s book is expressly an invitation to join in efforts to make this actually feasible. Working with the poor, in addition to addressing a frankly more pressing world problem than the personal satisfaction of we the well off, serves to field-test these technologies and techniques… if a group of homeless people working off of a modest amount of grant money can establish a more-or-less self-sufficient community, then we who have some resources and want to simply reduce our hours rather than attain a full-on substitute for a job are in much better shape to use some of those techniques to set up a working situation for ourselves.
2. The point about 3D printing is first, making things cheaper, and second, doing more things yourself so you don’t have to buy stuff. It’s not about making things entirely free; however, a little web research will show you that there’s a tremendous open-source presence in 3D printing (one of the first things out there was directions for making your own, and there are numerous free designs for various things), and some of the options already on offer include using recycled materials as the building material: grinding up plastic or using scrap wood. I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make about the Internet: personally, it’s the single most important factor in my being able to live the way I do (i.e. I work from home with flexible hours with remote clients, do this podcast which now also provides me a small amount of cash and a great deal of satisfaction, and am able to learn and make use of things much much more easily than I would otherwise and reach out to people like you). I think the Internet is actually a great model of a liberating technology, and it does save us time and reduce costs for many things, but what it’s missing is the capacity to actually produce things, to make food and goods, to build buildings, etc. Of course, computers have been involved in doing those things in factories for many years, but it’s only now that it’s becoming actually more economical to create such things in a small environment with little overhead than was gained in the past by economies of scale involved in big factories. Even if I buy the cheapest piece of crap from Wal-mart, I’m paying for all that transport and overhead; if I could be involved in making it myself, those costs would be avoided, and moreover I’d make sure it’s actually GOOD.
3. Not sure what point you’re trying to make about the social aspect of work or what you’re attributing to Bergmann. The point of getting out of a full-time job is that working for other people usually sucks, even if you’re doing something (e.g. architecture, graphic art, writing) that you might otherwise love. So you reduce job hours in order to pursue something truly satisfying, e.g. doing one of those things for your OWN ends. Yes, he says that the “self-providing” element undoubtedly involves coordination with others–he’s not proposing that each of us have a 3D printer in our house–but an organized, cooperative effort to achieve things you want to achieve is clearly different than having a boss on your case all the time. Neither is he proposing a commune of any sort; think more like joining your local Y or being part of a housing association. There’s currently a “maker space” in Madison where I live that appears to fit the bill: you pay I think $200 per month now and get access to a mass of equipment and help in using it. If this kind of thing can actually reduce one’s cost of living (and not just be an expensive hobby), then the next step would be to try to get grants or whatnot to spread this more widely; I know there are already public libraries putting in 3D printers of some sort. There are also farming cooperatives here and other elements of the New Work solution; what’s generally missing is a coordinated vision of using all of these things together to address the problem of the job system on a mass scale.
From what I can tell about Crawford’s book, it’s a piece about the phenomenology of meaningful work. This is all good insofar as it’s pressing home the point that just because your job sucks doesn’t mean that “work” itself sucks: that there are plenty of activities and ways to do them that are truly energizing. However, I wouldn’t get hung up on one person’s generalizations about this (Crawford according to the summary praises hands-on work over abstract information work… personally, I LIKE the creation I do such as music, these podcasts, and many written things that never leave the computer… when I have to, like, cut a million potatoes or fix something in my house I get bored and easily frustrated); every one of us has heaps of experience at our fingertips and can make our own decisions.
I think it’s natural to be skeptical about whether all the proposed technological solutions will actually come through, but to simply dismiss this as obviously off base is I think unwarranted.
I recently heard a prediction that the contingent workforce across the country will increase to 50% by 2020. It seems to me work from people like Bergmann reflect systemic shortfalls in light of human demands. None of the proposals I have seen are flawless, but obviously the current set of fundamentals has come full circle and is causing more problems than its resolving.
The Roman’s preempted civilizations that were on the cusp of industrial revolutions (Rhodes); Invasion stopped China from branching into a marine global power and now we are at the brink of collapsing the global ecology – the wages are increasing – the threat appears imminent and its the economic structures that pose the most present risk.
I’ve spent the past year looking into another attempt at resolving poverty and ecological issues with an organization and self-stylized design science known as Permaculture.
Again there are many issues with the structure but it also picks up in places other methods drop off.
I just published an article concerning contingent workforce in Higher education which may reflect these issues and their growth.
I think this conversation needs to be critically approached but never derided, it is one of the most pressing issues of our time.
One of my favorite episodes! I’d love to continue to hear updates about the New Work project and let us know when the english release of the book becomes available! (I just spent 10 mins searching for it, cursing the censorship that I assumed Amazon was imposing on the book, until I read the intro where it stated the book is only available in german so far).
Mark Linsenmayer says
The book update is that the English version is done, and I believe he’s just going to quick publish right to Amazon a Kindle version rather than waiting on Verso or Notre Dame Press or whomever (though I know he did also write a proposal to submit to those places). So I don’t know what the further delay is re. why he hasn’t gone ahead and published the thing.
Joe Johns says
I LOVED LOVED LOVED this episode. The theme and ideas and actual practical realizations of those ideas are very close to my heart.
I don’t think you need to pretend it is philosophy, because it was very different in flavor from other episodes: There was no “what does this concept really mean?” etc. It was all yes, we understand these common sense ideas, now how are they really implemented and what is really going on with trying to make them work … Great stuff.
Thank you for sharing this great thinker and organizer. I agree he needs a bigger audience in the states. I can see a Ted talk and maybe a documentary leading to more publicity in the states (Oprah and Jon Stewart will be all over it).
To me this is more powerful than “Capitol in the 21st century” which everyone is all obsessed with and also the 99% movement, because instead of pointing out what is *wrong* and *fighting against* that, it points to a vision of what *want* and a viable vision of what we can shoot for.
Ghandi said “It is always much more powerful to be FOR something than against something.” He said: ” I am not against British rule in India, I am FOR Indian self-rule.” I think the New Work project (and other things in that spirit which are hopefully also arising) is a great instance of that principle: Rather than being AGAINST the corporate monopoly on jobs we are FOR self-sustainability, and self-rule.
Greg Pandatshang says
I think that someone with “unquenchable thirst for actually producing social change” would develop an unquenchable thirst for data, both to describe the problem that they are trying to change and to measure the results of changing it. Otherwise, they are really in the dark: even if they personally have some kind of accurate intuitive sense of what’s going on, they are not in a position to demonstrate those facts to others without data. I’m afraid I haven’t seen much interest in data from Frithjof Bergmann so far, which makes it hard to take him seriously.
Noah Vale says
There seems to be a total misunderstanding of the capabilities of 3d printing technology at work here. While CNC machining and 3d printing are becoming more accessable to small manufacturers and individual craftsman, the technology is more suited to product development and customization. It is highly unlikely that it, in the hands of amateurs, will ever be capable of competing either in price or quality with mass production and skilled workmanship. Frankly, this part of his argument sounds to me like an academic spouting buzz words about a subject he knows very little about to support his less than well thought out ideas. This makes me less willing to take the rest of his program seriously. If you doubt what I am saying, go find a 3d printer and try to make something on in. A couple hours later when you have completed several failed attempts imagine what it would be like to try to recreate just the most useful objects you have in your home. Now realize that even when you get a good result there is going to be a lot of post production processing. That takes time and skill. You are going to have to make a lot of bad widgets just to develop the instinct skills and methods needed to get consistently useful results and this assumes that a machine with a big enough work space to meet your needs is somehow made affordable to the average person or group of persons trying to live on 10hrs/week wages. Frankly, the community would be better off getting a Walmart to move into the neighborhood.
I understand that business and retail development is not possible in some parts of our country today. Maybe some of his ideas can make sense in deeply distressed communities. If people have nothing else productive to do with their days then why not start a community garden? No one would object to people working to better their lives. Unfortunately, I can find very little evidence of progress in this area either. The presentation didn’t even include the anecdotal success stories so common these days with these kinds of programs. I did find proposals he and his organization have put forth for redevelopment around a dilapidated community center but as yet they are just proposals and unfortunately they are proposals for government grants to complete the project not for a community to accomplish the goal themselves. In what way does this resemble self sufficiency? Here is the heart of the matter for me: Is asking those who put their 40hrs a week into the system to support the needs of those who don’t or even won’t contribute to the system the definition of social justice these days? Can you on the one hand argue that the 40hr shlep is getting a raw deal and on the other ask him to finance the efforts of others to avoid contributing their share? That sounds like the height of injustice to me.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Frithjof is a philosopher, and while he has done a lot of project with individual communities over the years, I’ve learned first hand now that he doesn’t have much of an organization. So, yes, this talk should be taken primarily as a discussion of ideas.
Re. the technology angle, I’ve now visited the Incite-Focus fab lab in Detroit (http://www.incite-focus.org/) and heard the director Blair Evans’s spiel about community production. Yes, they have 3D printers, and they’re very cool, but right now those are only used for about 5% of the actual production. Hopefully there will soon be a video to point at of his speech at the recent conference, or the tour of his lab (which both had approximately the same information), but here’s the upshot: He got an initial grant or something to start the lab (about $300K of equipment), and has gotten a bunch of deals with schools who want someone to deal with their “at-risk” students, as well as money from industry that wants workers who have this kind of this kind of technical training. They build stuff like bikes and sell them, such that now the lab has paid for itself and no longer needs grant money. The lab is also open to anyone in the community who wants to use it for their own projects, paying only for materials, and several people have started their own businesses selling cut furniture or whatever. Evans refers to the technology as the first of four generations, all of which look likely to happen w/in the next 10-20 years: the 2nd generation is where they use the equipment to actually replicate the fabricating equipment, using less environmentally hazardous components. I’m not sure what the exact status of this is, but it’s in progress now, and the result will be that that $300K worth of equipment will cost only $40K to reproduce (within the next 7 years, I think he said, or maybe it was 9). I can’t reproduce the details of the other two phases at this point, but they involve creating more of the components of things from scratch instead of having to go buy and insert them, for one. They’re freely sharing their methods and are, e.g. working with a group right now to create a similar facility in Baltimore. So Frithjof is an old guy who’s not himself really on top of this technology, but he’s worked enough with guys like Evans to feel comfortable using this in his theory, even if he exaggerates what’s available right now.
I also got to see that Community Garden thing is highly successful in Detroit… this is not “Frithjof and his organization;” if you search Detroit Community Garden on Google you’ll get a heap of results of different organizations that are doing this, and it provides a good model for how the fab lab deal should operate: you have these programs that community members can easily participate in, they get some crops out of it immediately, and they learn the skills that enable them, if they want, to go start their own gardens, and so the practice spreads.
Getting a Walmart in the area is tantamount to sending all of the money paid into it directly to China… an explicit point of both the fab lab and community garden movements is to keep cash circulating in the local economy, and stop feeding the beast of shoddily made, child-labor enabled plastic crap. So likewise a really strong emphasis of the effort in Detroit (and when I say “effort” I mean things that groups are actively doing there, not a proposal made on this podcast) is to foster a sense of community where people are being conscious in this way and not just buying the cheapest crap available.
Re. “the heart of the matter,” here we see the core of misguided conservatism, i.e. fear of parasites, which when applied to actual or proposed government programs usually amounts to some covert racism or at least believe in social Darwinism. First, re. the kinds of programs in Detroit: the government is already spending money on dealing with a devastated community, so asking them to route this money instead to programs that enable to make people more self-sufficient actually saves money. Second, if you feel the force of the Thoreauian argument that the 40 week is bad for ALL of us, then a grant or government subsidy to finance experiments to start to overturn this system should be profoundly justified… this is not a zero sum game where money is taken from the pockets of hard-earning citizens to fund layabouts with no net benefit to the economy. I want to stress that New Work itself does not entail specific policy proposals whereby it’s funded in a particular way, but personally, I think given the massive income inequality that’s resulted from the current system, a national, tax-funded, no-strings-attached guaranteed minimum income that would get everyone to a subsistence level so that anything they actually work for over that is gravy is justified (whether the math would actually work out, I can’t say).
Fantastic discussion, and much loved debate among the listeners. The kind of insights in to similar work and inspiring people here in this blog is much appreciated. Now on the hunt for more materials and sources, or I’ll listen again! Thanks guys, much love
ps. Not a fan of the closing music at all… but i appreciate the sentiment. I prefer lyrics to find an indirect way of approaching issues and expressing one’s self. I should mention I find English to be an ugly language in music, particularly when using direct, raw words and phrases to express any particular subject. Consider how much it detracts from the story telling. Each to their own, I say!
Thanks Mark, Frithjof’s work sounds like all kinds of wonderful.
And I very much appreciated having this on the podcast too.
About to listen up to the follow-up.
Andy Kleinhesselink says
Coming to this episode a couple years after it was recorded. For those sympathetic to New Work (or not) I recommend the recent movie “Two Days One Night” by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. For me it is an examination of the ill effects of Old Work or the current job system. Employee is pitted against employee and not just our financial well-being but our psychological well being has become dependent on having a job.
You’ve had some ‘zany’ guests on here, but this guy was the biggest Quixote so far. I mean, it was entertaining and all, but I spent the entire episode wondering where the law of supply and demand factors into his equation.
I agree with the criticism of the modern work environment, that, due to the pernicious influence of the power structure, the market for labor has gone awry at the expense of the soul of the individual, but I find it hard to say that some artificial system will be any better. I have a hard time believing that instituting such a system would not have disastrous political and economic consequences.
I wish this issue was further delved into.
The market and supply and demand aren’t natural in the sense of being independent of human creation.
There are many people experimenting with alternatives to current economic theory. Steve Keen at the macro-level is trying to build on Minsky (who didn’t presume equilibrium as the neo-classical theory/theories do).
There are lots of experiments about business that ‘do good while doing well (financially)’.
There is work being done to on the economics of the commons.
And there are vast areas of life where economics is (at best) marginal. Friendship and family life (which have the greatest impact on our happiness and flourishing – once the basics are covered, and perhaps even when they aren’t – don’t make much sense in terms of supply and demand.