It has been quite a while since my last post. I have been swamped wrapping up my Master's degree. Today I submitted my thesis pretext, and letting go of that burden seems to have freed some of my mental energy. Just now I started writing a Facebook post and it got out of hand, so I thought I would share it here. It is the most that I have written about an idea that has been bouncing around in my head for years now, so sharing it now is a place to start. It was all inspired by this picture:
|The passing of Hawking has led to a renewed sharing of his words. And if anyone captures the essence of the absurdity of the idea that physical ability is the source of human value, it is Hawking.|
The really interesting thing (in my opinion) about what Hawking is saying in this quote, is that he is describing an approach to economics that hasn't been tried. The Industrial Revolution brought us the clash between capitalism and communism, but we never actually got to the point where anyone got an economic system going that worked for everyone.
True believers will say that this is simply because their ideal system was never done right. But in any case, both of those dominant paradigms were developed to deal with the changing realities brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Both of these economic systems are deeply concerned with labor (because the industrial revolution was about maximizing the productive power of lots and lots of labor). And with those systems came ideologies to support the systems. And one of the toxic byproducts of this focus on labor (particularly in our society) is the idea that industriousness is the chief virtue. The idea that our work makes us valuable. This idea that work is what makes us valuable is useful for increasing productivity as long as there is adequate employment, but it is toxic when opportunities for meaningful employment vanish. This toxic ideology is behind the idea that good people are people who work and "contribute" to the system, while people that "take" from the system are parasites. Employment is virtuous, and needing help makes you worthless. While this ideology was never really okay, it is becoming a rapidly growing hobble to our growth, happiness, and prosperity as a nation and a species. Simply put, the rapid growth of automation is making the majority of our labor irrelevant. We don't need your strong back to make microchips because your fat fingers will just make a hash of the delicate processes anyway. That means that much of the meaningful labor work is gone. And that means that people who gain their sense of human worth through their labor are left parasites according to the ideology they have been surrounded by since birth. Our country has figured out some workarounds for this. The most obvious is "disability" payments from Social Security. The idea is that if you are not "able-bodied" then you cannot generate worth as a human on your own, so you can be subsidized. Being physically incapable of labor makes parasitism honorable. So people on disability can still feel smugly superior to people who need help because they have non-physical limitations. Except the idea that physical disability is somehow morally superior to mental, emotional, or even opportunity based disability is horseshit. Our society already has more strong backs than it can use. Most of the decent paying jobs we have today require mental work far more than physical labor. A bad back doesn't mean you can't type. Treating physical disability as morally superior to other reasons that you don't have a job is absurd at best, and I would argue mostly evil in effect. The worst thing about this ideology is the idea that you only have value as a person if you are a contributing member of society, and the only contribution that counts in this ideology is contributing through having a job. Being virtuously physically disabled allows people a way to avoid feeling worthless, but not the same way that having an occupation would. The simple truth is that your value as a human being is not derived from your occupation, it is intrinsic to the fact of your existence. If you believe that human life has value, and that humans should have rights, then dividing people up into contributors and parasites is unsupportable. Humans don't deserve to live because they have jobs, they deserve to live because they are human. But. In every historical period before our current era, people needed to work to survive. For most of human existence that work was hunting and gathering. Then ~10,000 years ago many people shifted over to having to farm. After 10,000 years people got pretty accustomed to the order of that system, but then things changed. The Industrial Revolution freed most people from having to work to feed themselves. But in that labor intensive system, people needed to be motivated to work, so people had to work to live. But now things are changing again. Automation and post-industrial realities mean that most labor is now superfluous to production. Very few people are needed to do the work of supporting our society, and very few people are needed to do the work of feeding our society. That means that for a system in which human value is derived from working, that most human beings in our society are surplus waste. But our ideology tells us that humans only have value if they have jobs, and so ever larger segments of our population work service sector jobs. Since we are not needed to produce, we are employed as servants to one another. There will always be reason and a market for a good waiter at a fine restaurant, but does having a line cook and a checkout person at a drive through really improve the quality or efficiency of your fast-food eating experience? The truth is no, and with advances in automation, we really don't need most people to be employed as servers anymore. But our ideology still tells us that people need to have jobs to live. But in an economic sense, that is simply not true. Most jobs people work today can be better done by robots, now or in the near future. The idea that people need to work to live is holding back our society. The insistence on classifying people as productive or parasitic is holding all of us back. The simple truth is that we don't need most of the people to work jobs that keep society materially functioning. That sort of employment is a shrinking field. Most people could stop working to survive, and society could run while supporting them. Because we have enough wealth and productive power to guarantee the satisfaction of the foundations of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. We don't need to have everyone working to keep society working, we need them working to keep them occupied. But right now we are still locked in the idea that people need to work to live. We have enough for everyone to be guaranteed enough to live. In the sense of the basic Marxist idea of "to each according to their need," we have enough to provide the material needs of everyone. But satisfying material needs does not satisfy mental needs. People don't need to work to live, but most people do need some manner of occupation to feel fulfilled. And that is a marvelous thing. Because if no one needs to work simply to survive, then people can pursue occupations that satisfy them. A world in which everyone is free to pursue self-actualization (pursuit, not guaranteed achievement) is within our reach, if not quite yet our grasp. We are literally standing at the edge of a future in which everyone in our society can actually be offered _Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit Of Happiness_. We can all live lives where we pursue occupations that satisfy us. There will always be inequality, but we don't need to tolerate poverty. Or conversely, we can allow the wealth of machine productivity to be allotted to only a few people. But that is a dark future indeed. Because that scenario will not end well. If the majority of people are cut out of the wealth of our future, the same thing will happen that always happens when the rich control all the wealth and the masses have nothing. And that outcome is cataclysm. And if the world is burned and the machines are smashed then no one will be left with a future worth having. The choices our society makes now will determine which future we will pursue. If we stay our current course we will be left with shattered ruin, or we can pursue a future in which all people are guaranteed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But wishing won't get us there. We have reached another turning point in human history. And just like capitalist and communist thought emerged in response to the last revolution in human economics, we are now faced with developing new ways of thinking about the ways our systems should be structured in a world where productivity has come unmoored from human labor. As a species, we never really figured out how to make industrialization work for everyone, and industrialization needed lots of workers to function. Now we are faced with a future of automation where we don't even need the workers. We are faced with the question of whether the future is for everyone, or conversely if the majority are to be seen as parasites to be eliminated. It is a choice prior generations have never faced, except in sci-fi fantasies. And it is unexplored territory. We lack economic theory devoted to a world where human labor is not a primary requirement, and we lack ideologies for a world where people don't need to work to live. I hope it works out, because it could be wonderful.