There comes a time in every meat-bloggers’ life when you just don’t have anything left to say about raw beef mixed with various pickled things and mayonnaise. This is a painful thing to admit, but I think it’s time to widen the scope, at least on occasion, of this lovely blog. So I’m going to try to write about politics and technology as well as food.
I was recently asked to contribute a ‘good idea’ to a great project unfolding over at OpenDemocracy-UK on New Thinking for the UK Economy (run by @eleanorkpenny). Not having any, I did what any self-respecting meat-blogger would do, I stole one from David Cameron and then complained about work for a few paragraphs. Stole a good idea from David Cameron? you ask! You mean like the Brexit referendum? Even better, the Big Society! I didn’t even bother to re-brand, Dave will understand. He’s an ad man after all, expediency über alles. The good folk at OpenDemocracy agreed to publish a shortened version of my rendering of Dave’s Big Idea, but for my devoted readers I’m publishing the full length version here.
Forget Expanding the Labour Market, let get to Work!
Work dominates pretty much everything. Whether or not you have it, it’s probably taking up your time. Employment is the most-common indicator of economic health and nearly all of the public debate about economics has to do with creating jobs. If you don’t work, it can have a detrimental impact on your health and your cognitive capacities. It’s even the focus of a perverse new kind of poverty porn. But many people think their jobs are useless, and it looks rather likely that many kinds of jobs are going to be become increasingly scarce. So maybe we need to rethink what it means to work and the role of work in our society.
On that note, I’d like to call my proposal, ‘The Big Society’, I know, I know, but hear me out. I’m concerned about what people do after work. Having a job either plays an outsize role in framing our identity or not having one is a major source of anxiety and insecurity as well as a cognitive drag on our capacities. Poverty, which usually results from none, not enough, or poorly paid work, places a cognitive strain on the brain that saps concentration and processing power. If you are poor, precious, finite cognitive energy is being devoted to making micro-financial calculations and the anxiety coming from constant worry about housing, feeding, clothing oneself and one’s family. The supposed poor marco-financial decision making often attributed to those in poverty doesn’t come from thinking too little, but rather from thinking too much about every transaction. I happily tap my card to the contactless reader to buy an ice cream for my child and don’t think twice about it, or rather start to think about how technology changes our lives, what a cashless world will be like, etc.. Someone for whom the cost of an overpriced ball of sweetened frozen milk has a bigger financial impact will be thinking about other things, may suffer some stress and will be generally more cognitively taxed than someone like myself from whom an ice-cream purchase is an all-around emotionally and cognitively productive experience. All those little cognitive stresses take their toll.
Work get worse. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent liberalisation of the Soviet economy, whole towns were often left nearly work-less when a factory that had been the sole employer in the town would close. Many workless men, who had lost not only their source of income but also the social infrastructure of their identities and much of the meaning in their lives turned to alcohol. As a result, Russian male mortality rates shot up in this period (similar studies have been done in the UK and also show a correlation between unemployment and mortality).
Interestingly female mortality rates did not increase at the same pace, though women faced the same if not greater economic pressures. Part of the answer is probably that women were more likely to have social support structures outside of the now non-existent workplace. The sense of meaning that working men got from labouring in the factories alongside others, women got from a broader diversity of sources, including more established networks of family and friends outside of the job. This tells us something, the work that fills our lives with meaning is not always work in the sense of wage-labour. That’s probably a very good thing considering that, according to the anthropologist David Graeber, a great many people think that their jobs are ‘bullshit’.
Modern capitalism seems to rely on the moralisation of work and the de-moralisation of debt. These for the most part impact different groups of people in our societies. Work, regardless of what it is, is often understood to have a moral value. Our culture idolises the ‘grafter’, even while our governments often undermine the possibilities for ‘hard graft’ to lead to a decent life. Hard work is its own moral reward, you should not expect that it will guarantee enough income to live a good life, at least not in this life. The legendary protestant work-ethic, which, according to the famous sociologist Max Weber, spurred Capitalism’s development in Northern Europe has today been shorn from the social-democratic guarantee of good wages and some equality of opportunity for social mobility, to which it was attached for much of the latter part of the twentieth-century. At the same time the de- moralisation of debt still holds, at least on an official level. Apple’s newfound thirteen billion Euro debt to the Irish government is not the personal moral failing of Apple’s shareholders and they won’t be held personally responsible either morally or financially – and that’s a good thing.
I have not painted a very pleasant picture of work here, we need it desperately to fill our bellies and fill our lives with a sense of worth; when we don’t have it we are villainised, cognitively stressed and more likely to die young; but many of us don’t enjoy it in the least, and think that what we do to make money is frankly useless. Not to worry, it looks like this terrible phenomenon won’t be around much longer. As I wrote earlier in openDemocracy, the large scale-automation of many cognitive as well as manual jobs threatens to shake up all of this conventional thinking about work. If robotics and AI driven automation leads to a significant rise in long-term structural unemployment, where there are simply not jobs in the economy that people can do, as many are predicting it will (see my previous piece for more on that), we’ll have to dramatically rethink the role of work as valuable in and of itself. Just as importantly we’ll have to dramatically rethink how to re-establish or rebuild the identity and meaning endowing social infrastructures that jobs, work, vocations, once provided in industrial economies. A good place to start is probably an important distinction between work and labour made by the German philosopher Hannah Arendt. Very coarsely, labour is what we do to fill our bellies, work is what we do to gives our lives a meaning beyond filling our bellies. In modern capitalism, these two have usually, at least to a large extent been coupled; in the next phase of automated capitalism that coupling will become much more difficult.
So here’s where I think that maybe we can turn to another great thinker of the modern age, David Cameron (he used to be prime minister of the UK) to help us address these changes. Way back in 2010 Cameron had an idea he called ‘The Big Society’. For Cameron and his PR team this meant shrinking the welfare state and letting other non-governmental institutions step in to fill many of the roles vacated by the supposedly clumsy and inefficient state. In practice, this meant many people seeking nourishment from food banks after missing a work-capability assessment meeting due to their wheelchairs breaking and being cut off from job seekers allowance for their moral failings. But maybe the big society could be something else. In a world with much less work, new institutions will be needed to provide the identity and meaning that work, however arduous, once provided for many. We will have to think work in a much broader context than wage-labour. This entails nothing less than a full scale revitalisation of civil-society and, if we want to be very concrete, how about re-opening public libraries as the centres of this new society. How exactly we can do this is the task for the coming years. If the predictions about automation and employment are correct, but even if they are not, it seems increasingly important that people be able to look beyond the waged-labour that they do to provide meaning for their lives. This new vision of a big society can only work alongside a reformulation of the welfare state and ‘safety net’. A basic income is probably the best idea for how to ensure that people can live good lives in a world with less work. How will we pay for it? A good start might be for Apple to pay its taxes.