This article is a slightly modified version of a piece I did for the P2P Foundation in 2011 (https://blog.p2pfoundation.net/unemployment-is-the-cure/2011/09/21), which was itself an extended and modified version of a bit I did in 2003 entitled “The Unemployment Economy.”
The original was published because Douglas Rushkoff had invited me to the “Contact Summit” in NYC in October 2011, and I wanted to provoke conversation around these kinds of radical reformulations of our world.
Since the original article was published, we have seen the rise of Universal Basic Income as a legitimate topic in public affairs, as well as an increase in the number of conversations about robots, work, artificial intelligence, and their combined effects on human livelihoods. In addition, we witnessed the birth of the “Platform Cooperative” movement whose ideals are in accord with my premise in this article.
I am republishing this now because the trends of automation, pollution, and the failure to address basic human issues continues unabated. I am republishing it here both for archival reasons, and also because the key points it makes are still relevant.
I have revised some of the formatting for this version.
Unemployment Is The Cure
I don’t often write longer pieces, so before I begin to explain such a provocative title, let me note a few points:
- I was spurred to write this after reading Douglas Rushkoff’s CNN piece “Are jobs obsolete?”(Sept 7, 2011)
- Some of what follows was in a work I originally did in 2003 called “The Unemployment Economy.”
Having said that, let us move on.
The first time I ran across the idea of “unemployment” as a desirable goal was in 1979 in Robert Anton Wilson’s work, in particular the “Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy.”
If memory serves, Bob mentioned the idea of a public stipend paid to anyone who could invent a device that would make their job obsolete. At first glance, this seemed to be yet another in a long line of failed promises left over from the days of “the dreams of automation,” but the idea of paying people to create new efficiencies in infrastructure lodged in my cranium. So did the idea that changes in technology would produce massive unsustainable structural unemployment. I was 11 years old.
The Logic of Leisure
In 1932, Bertrand Russell wrote “In Praise of Idleness” ( http://www.panarchy.org/russell/idleness.1932.html ) in which he states:
“Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone….. [T]he road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”
The logic of “production” goes like this:
If the world requires a certain amount of something, then there are two choices:
- some number of people work all of the time to produce the desired amount, or
- some larger number of people work part of the time to produce the desired amount.
Ah, but, the logic of “consumption” is quite different, and goes like this:
- we need to employ people all the time,
- such employment produces a surplus,
- people need to be convinced to purchase the surplus through marketing and advertising,
- the surplus has to be quickly converted to waste, so people will purchase again,
- this is accomplished by denying basic needs to everyone so that they have to work in order to consume.
The first story is a recipe for a civilization that spends some of its time meeting its obligations to society and the rest of its time in pursuit of leisure and other interests and projects. The second story is a recipe for a civilization with planned obsolescence, waste, pollution, and mass slavery.
The spread of information technologies and mass computerization creates unemployment. Daniel Yankelovitch notes:
“In today’s global economy, employers can grow and be profitable by restructuring their operations so as to be less dependent on large numbers of full-time, full-benefit, locally recruited employees. They systematically can reduce their own work force, utilize the work forces of other nations, and organize their work in such a way that much of it can be done by a contingent labour force, a labour force that does not have to be paid benefits, and that does not have to be granted even the most limited job security… [In this way, they] achieve economic growth by employing only a fraction of the total number of people who are seeking jobs. The result either is high unemployment, as we are seeing in Europe, or the steady substitution of low-wage, low-benefit jobs for high-wage high-benefit jobs, as we are seeing in the U.S.
(“A Critique of the ‘Information Society’ Concept, Daniel Yankelovitch, in “Changing Maps: Governing in a World of Rapid Change, Steven A. Rosell, 1995)
Unemployment indicators in the entrenched [developed] countries have risen steadily since the 1950s. In addition, the decline in birth rates already experienced in these countries will generate increasing numbers of elderly with less of the younger generation in the workforce. Even if birth rates rise again, those children will be unemployable during their youth, straining the system even further. The total number of non-working individuals cannot be handled using traditional economic methods.
The Income Crisis
So ultimately it comes down to this. For the employers, which is to say, predominantly large hierarchical structures that exist by skimming surplus value off of their workers’ work and simply paying them some portion of that value as a wage, there is an “employment crisis.” However, for the people, a job merely serves as a conduit for income, and consequently, the crisis is not an “employment crisis” but an “income crisis.”
This is a crucial point, so I’ll make it again another way.
An Employment Economy has to make people think of their “income crisis” as an “employment crisis.” An Unemployment Economy has no such necessity.
An Unemployment Economy begins with the premise that people perform best at activities in which they enjoy intrinsically and for which they volunteer. This self-selection principle is a key ingredient of current open-source coding economies, and was even used by Google to allow it’s employees to self-direct a portion of their daily work-time. Self-selection is not volunteerism; it’s compensated work. Otherwise someone is still exploiting you and getting the benefit of your labor, only for free.
Furthermore, calling it an “employment crisis” implies that the solution is to create more employment, but calling it an “income crisis” implies that the solution is to create more income. This can be done in a variety of ways, many of which have nothing to do with getting a job.
For example, in 1980, as part of the birth of cyberpunk, ZBS Media aired an award-winning radio drama (Produced by Thomas M. Lopez. Written by Meatball Fulton) called “Ruby, the Galactic Gumshoe” which featured a conversation with an alien named “Monet” from a society which had purportedly solved these issues. Monet tells Ruby:
“Unemployment is not a disease that needs to be cured by creating more employment. Unemployment is the cure. So we devised a better system.”
Maker Culture Means Freedom
As we move forward, the numbers of people making their own things and self-organizing into “maker” communities is encouraging. Nevertheless, these activities are parasitic on a legacy economy that still requires people to work jobs in order to provide basic needs for themselves and their families. In this sytem, some get rich, but most stay poor, rather than everyone having “enough.”
The emerging peer-to-peer economy then is one which functions more like Kropotkin’s “mutual aid” (thank you, Howard Rheingold), than the “help yourself and let others help themselves” that arises when citizens are pitted against each other in a struggle for jobs and resources that are made scarce just so that the people will not cooperate to provide their own shared infrastructure.
It is worth noting here that the political theorist Hannah Arendt pointed out in 1951 that preventing the masses from having or doing anything which would result in the production of a “common” (something that only exists horizontally between individuals and groups) is a recipe for tyranny, oppression, and ultimately fascism. She called it “The Origins of Totalitarianism.”
Furthermore, Kropotkin had foreshadowed this very point in his “Mutual Aid” saying:
“[T]he institutions in which men formerly used to embody their needs of mutual support could not be tolerated in a properly organised State; that the State alone could represent the bonds between its subjects.”
Referring to the birthplace of Western democracy, Arendt stated it best:
“Not Athens, but the Athenians, were the polis.” (The Human Condition, 1950)
(This is why if you are going to work a job, I have always felt it is best to work where you can feel like you are helping others, for example, at a non-profit or university).
Not An Employee — “Better Without Bosses”
Again we clarify the difference between employment, i.e. labor which is coerced by the necessities of survival, vs. an individual’s career or passion. Bob Black, in his essay “The Abolition of Work” defines work as “production enforced by economic or political means, by the carrot or the stick” (Black, 1985). In an economy where accurate information is crucial, economic decisions based on having to have a job to survive are neither fruitful nor desirable. The information economy needs recombination, reification, and innovation, and it also needs a lifestyle solution to free up the collective creative potential of its members and allow them to fulfill their roles in the information economy. Enter unemployment. The general causality of this is:
- Computerization creates unemployment
- Unemployment creates free-time
- Free-time generates innovation
What is wrong with unemployment is not its increase, but the unsustainability of a system where employment is “good” and unemployment is “bad”. The end of employment is by no means the end of doing things. Human beings are by nature creative, innovative, and vigorously pursue their goals. This is why the first tier of a panarchy economy provides necessities: to give individuals and groups the foundation on which they can make informed decisions and communicate those decisions to the system in a cybernetic way.
The Simple Solution
The solution to all of this is simple, really:
Empower people to create shared infrastructure.
Shared infrastructure is co-developed, co-owned, co-maintained, and is not subject to appropriation by anyone, i.e. it’s existence as shared infrastructure is supported by legal and political mechanisms that secure its basic freedoms in perpetuity. It’s good for people, governments, businesses, because it reduces costs and shares the workload required for upkeep. Anyone building that should feel well compensated for their labor indeed.