World Without Work? | Amor Mundi 2006

According to an article over at BBC News, “[r]esearchers from Gothenburg University in Sweden have been studying published data on what makes people happy… They believe working to achieve a goal, rather than attaining it, makes people more satisfied[.]”

In a discussion of the article happening on the technoliberation list friend and ally James Hughes points out that “[t]his is the kind of research that Luddites and ‘workerist’ progressives point to to suggest that a post-work, basic income society would be bad for us.”

(Of course, conservatives are just as likely to point to such studies to rationalize their own feudal “work-ethic” ideology, since we all know how they love to preach about austerity measures and “market discipline” for the “unworthy poor” all the while grubbing endlessly for corporate welfare, usually in the name of “Defense.”)

Anyway, Hughes also suggests that the study raises questions for many of us who advocate for basic income guarantees as part of our technoprogressive politics.  “To what extent,” he asks, “can people shift their work-satisfaction motivations and socialization from for-profit labor to voluntary, non-profit labor?”

Now, it seems to me that a world in which conscript and duressed labor is eliminated by the introduction of a global basic income guarantee wouldn’t in fact be a “post-work” world at all.  It isn’t even clear to me how the question of basic income has much bearing finally on the question whether or not meaningful goal-directed activity is usually an important part of a flourishing person’s life.

The public provision of a basic life-long guaranteed income should be thought of first of all as the implementation of safeguards against arbitrary misuses of authority in peoples’ workplaces.  It would provide everybody with the means to “opt out” of the current circumstances in which they attain their livelihoods.  Thus, it would provide a constant check on misuses of power in the workplace by institutionalizing a permanent position of security from which workers could renegotiate the terms of their employment and demand redress for abuses without fear of unjust reprisals.  It would also encourage people to grow and take chances, try new things, learn new skills, invest in new enterprises to the benefit of all, and all without the threat of utter devastation to bedevil and constrain them.  A world with a basic income guarantee would still be a world in which many worked for profit, surely, and in which many more would work voluntarily in projects that are especially important or satisfying to them, or provided unique benefits for them.

The fact that most technoprogressive positions on basic income connect it to assumptions about the likely proximate emergence of ubiquitous automation and longevity medicine introduces special complications to our arguments, certainly, but I don’t personally think even we technoprogressive types are arguing for a “post-work” world, either, really.  I think we are arguing instead for a radicalized version of the “liberal” world Alasdair MacIntyre once derided (and which Richard Rorty then notoriously defended) as a world of “managers, therapists, and rich aesthetes.”

Even if ubiquitous automation is implementable in principle I doubt its absolute ubiquity will be achieved precisely because many people will derive a therapeutic benefit from certain kinds of voluntary manual labor, just as they might likewise crave the interpersonal contact afforded in many service and civil support jobs.  I argue for the use of digital peer-to-peer information and communication networks to implement more collaboratory policy assessment in representative democracies and scientific citizen juries and clinical trials and the like.  I argue as well for the public subsidization and encouragement of citizens to put creative and editorial content on the web.  Quite a lot of this incentivized employment would constitute demanding and satisfyingly goal-directed work, and much of it would also require comparably demanding certification, education, training and re-training.

It seems to me that quite a lot of what people I know seem to mean when they speak of “hard work” is to register how hard it is to cope with stultifyingly repetitive, palpably meaningless, humiliating jobs in which they are subjected to the whims of capricious authorities in rather feudal hierarchical institutional arrangements from which they cannot easily escape if they are to maintain the way of life to which they have grown accustomed.  To the extent that the cited study means by “work” demanding, meaningful goal-directed acitivity, I fear far too many of us are already in the post-work world.  What advocates of basic income seek to do is democratize the authoritarian organization of this post-work world, such as it is.

The arrival of ubiquitous automation and computation, molecular nanotechnology, and rejuvination medicine in a progressive and democratic world offer up at last the hope of the life of a rich aesthete for us all.  I have little doubt, however, that most of us will still find room in our lives for the valuable and demanding managerial work of democratic citizens engaged in peer-to-peer collaboratory policy assessment and administration.  And I suspect that there will be a growing and deeply emancipatory space for the therapeutic work that keeps us in touch with the needs of people different from ourselves, work that provides support for others even as it provides the means to satisfy our own needs always to become people whose futures will differ in ways we cannot yet completely fathom from our pasts.


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