But People Will Get Lazy
One of the most commonly touted objections to a universal basic income — or even to the kind of left-wing policies considered pretty uncontroversial 50 years ago which helped people to flourish — is that it can’t happen because people will get lazy. The same concern is aired, over and over, as a primary fear. It’s like as soon as everything’s no longer down to the hustle created by the invisible hand of the invisible market fisting people into production, that we would just fall apart entirely. That if the State set something like a UBI in motion we would immediately be engulfed into a giant communistic vagina of suffocation and completely and immediately lose both any individuality but also any responsibility to wider society to do any kind of work at all. Instead, we’ll just sit around on our fat lazy asses and game all day and complain when there’s no UberEats delivery available tonight because all the drivers have quit because of their crappy wages and are home gaming themselves.
I suppose it’s an understandable concern in a way. The ship of community sailed over the horizon about five decades ago, when the Great Western Governmental Fire Sale sold off, under our noses and in the name of something to do with the economy and there being no alternative, a great deal of what once belonged to us collectively, belonged to the commons. The fact that many people have never had a sense of living in the type of strong society that helps us feel connected to our local community I guess makes some people worry that we wouldn’t feel any sense of obligation towards anything but our most immediate gratification.
But just because we haven’t grown up in flourishing societies doesn’t mean we aren’t feeling the need for them. Living at the pointy end of fragmentation, with its horrifying loneliness, is killing us. It’s killing our connectedness to each other. Indeed, now the divide and conquer tactics beloved of tyrants and monarchies and aristocrats historywide have gone technological and inserted themselves into our homes, the screens we hold in front of our faces now enable us to willingly divide ourselves from each other. We are divided, conquered, in a meaningless-seeming world that doesn’t feel like something we belong to.
But we do belong here and our services are required. Even here, swimming together alone in a sea of common disconnection and mistrust, surely there is still a blip, a glimmer from some almost-dead fire, some desultorily firing mirror neurons, that remind us that we are in fact meant to be part of something bigger? That all those millions of years living together in the forest and in ancient tribes and cities are sending some evolutionary reminder down through our frazzled nerves that humans working together create something greater than the sum of its parts?
If people were to get lazy and not work if a UBI came into effect, then maybe it would not be anything to do with some puritanical Protestant laziness but something much saner, better, holidayer, our bodies slowing down into a rest and reset. A tuning in, for the first time, to the possibility of what kind of work we could do if our society was geared to us, and our talents, and the world’s need, rather than to keeping the monster machine running. That wouldn’t be laziness. That would be sensibility.
I suspect most people’s strong abhorrence to people getting work-shy is based on the kind of pitted-against-each-other competitive bullshit our overlords have so enjoyed feeding to us, both over millennia but certainly since the advent of capitalism. This divide-and-conquer competition fuels in some of our less imaginative folks a deep, nagging worry that someone else somewhere might be getting something for free that they themselves are not. Isn’t this what it so often comes down to, this worry that somehow the sweat of your miserable brow is directly entitling some lazy bum somewhere to get something for free? Isn’t it almost always this?
It’s built-in, ground right in, this idea of not wanting anyone to get away with anything. If you’re gonna be miserable then everyone else is gonna be too. If you’re slaving from sunup, the correct response in the case of the embittered is not to question the slaving, it’s to insist upon us all slaving. If the god in the sky won’t even allow a free pass to heaven unless you’ve named the right dogma, then that’s just the natural way of it. And now that the god of the earth is the corporatocracy and our society is too, then this gets reinforced by user pays, user pays, all the way down to the final death tax kicking your butt on your way out through death’s door.
Our inner drivenness for hard work, for the satisfaction it bestows, for the fear and shame it quells, is what our corporate overlords must be quite happy for us to continue to harbour. It’s the internalised whip they can use to drive us, because it’s what they use to profit from us.
When at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution the owners of the new manufactories were trying to compel the people off the land and to work for them, they had to use a bit of corporate spin in order to change people’s perceptions of time management. For those living on the land, work ran in rhythms, with the hard work of the harvest counteracted by the fallowness and inside work of winter, where the seeds that would one day be the harvest lay hidden, doing all of their work invisibly. The idea that you started work according to the abstraction of a clock, right when the big hand pointed to the 12 and the little hand to the 6, six days a week, most of the year, made little sense. It took some grinding in, some boots in your face that wed punctuality to personal morality, for the people to start grinding themselves into gear for the benefit of the owners’ productivity. We are ever being coerced to work in ways that benefit others before they benefit reality, or necessity, or form or function. Or our bodies. Or the earth.
We have layers and layers of conditioning and morality around work. And maybe still, too, some vestiges of romance. Who doesn’t daydream about working at a vocation, even if globalisation and the great god of the economy doesn’t allow it? It’s no surprise that the gig economy has always sold itself to us as a positive because of the personal freedom it will bring, once again dismantled from the constraints of a clock. Doesn’t matter so much the hustle, surely, and the lack of benefits if you can work on a laptop on the beach facing the sea? Surely this whole PR exercise wouldn’t be so effective and captivating if it didn’t appeal to some deeper, Vermeer-filtered image of ourselves shaping clay for a living, sculpting a vocation out of our own imaginations?
But even though hardly anybody gets to have a vocation in a globalised world where the money trickles ever upwards and the job you get to do is often dependent upon the country you find yourself born into doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Vocation didn’t make it into the manufactories and it’s certainly not made its way into a globalised, digitised, automated world where now we aren’t so much working for the man as working for the machine. But doesn’t the idea of doing a job because it’s meaningful, worthwhile, creative, beautiful, necessary, economically unviable, become the most radical, unmechanised, holistic way of thinking about work?
It would take some time to recalibrate our thoughts on what work could be is beyond capitalism, what it could mean, what it should mean.
We still continue to see on TV news broadcasts the finance report detailing the ups and downs of the FTSE and the Hang Seng, followed by weather reports of changing climate patterns, and there is still a disconnect in our consciousness between the way we do money, with its continual growth, and the way we do the continual growth that keeps cutting into our remaining forests and habitat like cancer. Our financial system cannot continue on the way it is. It is a major part of the problem we find ourselves in. We don’t need to worry about the State sucking us up into its giant manifold vagina because the economy already has us there. If somehow homo sapiens can be birthed from the shitty, moldy womb of homo economicus — maybe via a future combination of blockchain or holochain finance combined with local currencies based on growth-free models — then of course many of us would stop work. And so we should — especially if our work was of the variety that anthroplogist David Graeber referred to as a bullshit job.
This is why if I became the world’s benevolent dictator, first I’d declare a jubilee on all debts everywhere. Wipe those fuckers clean, from the highest hill to the deepest hole, from the faceless top .02% in the world (who honestly, if they have debts, really do need a financial adviser) to the lowliest worm austerity ever saw fit to smash in the face with its boot of shame, to the countless unpayable debts foisted upon poor nations by the rich countries of the West via the IMF and the World Bank.
A doing-away with debts, and then a doing-away with a debt-based economic system — which really has always been a particularly stupid story, and which has kept us in enslavement to its continual need to grow just to stay alive. Running in place just to keep running in place. Yeah, great idea.
Secondly I would declare a year off for everybody who wants it. One year of universal basic income, funded from my own personal bank, the money of which I shall invent from thin air (just like a real bank!), copious amounts of money to give to everybody, and the bank will then dissolve in a poof of smoke, in a year’s time just because I can.
(And yes, I know, I know, that would create inflation, or whatever — the world of finance I desperately wish to understand but it’s so boring that it’s difficult to retain. But shut up — this is my benevolent dictatorship and you’re the beloved receivee, so sit down and shut up and daydream a bit here. Take your imaginary UBI and let me deal with the imaginary economics).
A year off for us all, in which we are all given two tasks: firstly, to do whatever the hell we want and to learn whatever the hell it is that makes our hearts beat faster, the place in the world where we feel we belong and a rhythm in which to live sanely. Secondly, to volunteer in a paid capacity, if able, and if necessary, so that our world food supply is kept running and our world’s toilets are kept cleaned and our world’s rubbish is emptied.
This year off would be an important one for us to begin to put the jigsaw puzzle pieces together from a world that is now so fractured and fragmented that the puzzle pieces are as small and meaningless as glass shards. To begin to learn what it would feel like to have no economic middleman between us and the great needs of the world that we might find ourselves being willing to fill. For some of us that would mean being able to take part in contributing towards the healing, if possible, of the place that we were taught in our fragmented time to call “the environment,” the place whose components we were taught is dead, but which is really our earth, that living thing on which we ourselves live and move and have our being.
Damn, we’d need a year off to recover from the sanity-sapping shit that’s sunk like trauma into our bones. We’d need a year seeing what we can bring into being that’s something better, more whole, than the raggedy dumbass collection of ideas, subclauses and inanities that made up the end of the current stupid age. A new story of dignity which we know we’re worthy of by dint of our being here at all. There’d be nothing lazy about doing that. In fact, it would be a great deal of complicated, painful work. Denumbing usually is.