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Why Work As We Know It May Be Immoral

Thoughts on the Redistribution of Labor

What are some of the phrases that come to mind when you think about work? Maybe you think about a “hard-working person,” or having a “good work ethic.”

If you’re having a bad day, you might think about the “daily grind” or the “9 to 5 life.” Some days you’ll even think about “escaping from the cubicle.”

But chances are you associate words like “idling” and “leisure” as slightly less admirable. Fine in moderation, of course — but too much free time can’t be good for anyone. Right?

In America these days, it’s hard to find someone who thinks that working less might actually be a virtue.

And yet, I’m convinced that not only do we as a society work too hard, but we value work too much. Our insistence that work is inherently virtuous doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

In a recent article on LA’s car culture, Stephen Bondor cites the fascinating statistic that “There are more artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, dancers and musicians living and working in Los Angeles than any other city at any time in the history of civilization”.

That’s remarkable. But what are these people doing with their time? Where’s the creative Renaissance that such a large population could surely bring to life?

For most of them, as much $8,000/yr of their income (and a substantial portion of their work week) is going toward owning a car so they can get to and from work.

Their creative projects are crammed into evenings and weekends, and funded by whatever money they have left after paying down student loans and car insurance.

In a rather convincing breakdown, Bondor demonstrates how an aspiring scriptwriter, simply by getting rid of his car, could reduce his day job in half and spend the remaining time “pursuing his passion”. He could be a professional screenwriter in half the time.

And yet … “pursuing his passion” has an unsavory ring to it, doesn’t it? It sounds kind of … selfish. Shouldn’t he be “doing his part” to “contribute to society”?

Bullshit. Passions are what change the world.

As Buckminster Fuller — the great scientist and unconventional thinker — once put it, “We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest.”

The implications of this statement are obvious: Having more of our human workers get replaced by machines is the best thing that could possibly happen to us.

They free up the greatest capital there is — human ingenuity and intelligence — to devise better and more effective ways to solve global problems.

And yet in all the time that’s passed since Fuller made that statement — and all the technological advances since then — we’ve clung stubbornly to a 40-hr workweek.

I propose that this is not only stupid, it’s immoral.

It’s immoral to ask people to work when there’s no work that needs to be done. It’s immoral to create unnecessary labor so people have “something to do”.

According to the writer David Graeber, “This is a profound psychological violence. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment?”

No wonder we face an epidemic of workplace violence, prescription drug abuse, and ballooning student loan debt.

Graeber’s hope — and mine — is that some day we’ll come to value the forms of work that actually contribute to our well-being: education; physical and psychological therapy; the creative and intellectual arts; scientific exploration.

“It’s only when we reject the idea that … labor is virtuous in itself that we can start to ask what is virtuous about labor,” he writes. “To which the answer is obvious. Labor is virtuous if it helps others.”

“Helping others” will of course be open to interpretation, and good people can disagree on which efforts really are the most valuable.

But we need to stop associating all forms of labor — even those that may be harmful to other people and the environment — with unquestionable virtue, and belittling those who reject that system.

“Submitting oneself to labor discipline,” says Graeber, “does not make one a better person. In most really important ways, it probably makes one worse.”