Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Erasure Of Work From The Human Narrative


            The other day I attended a zoom meeting of the Chicago Ethical Humanist Circle, where the guest speaker was a man who specialized in sustainable investments for a very large asset manager from the U.K.  The company for which he worked went out of its way to invest in companies that took moral stands on climate change, racism, sexism and other salient moral issues of modern life.  I asked him what was his and the company’s position on automation and the resulting loss of jobs and he sort of waffled and said, in effect, there were people on both sides of the issue.  However, he also said he did understand my concern.  Then someone else in the meeting said automation was inevitable, and that the United States should focus on giving every one of its citizens a basic salary of $30,000 a year.  This reminded me of Spain’s recent decision to give its citizens a guaranteed monthly salary of the equivalent of $1,145.  It speaks to the idea that has been floated of a universal basic income.

            On one level, it sounds great, doesn’t it?  No more hunger and homelessness just because a person is unable to find work.  But contrary to what some conservative Republicans think, not everyone, when given the opportunity, would want to stop working altogether.  And this is because work satisfies other needs besides money.  Most important, it allows people to make and preserve organic imprints on the surfaces of the fields of experience that surround them.  By acting as a vehicle for making imprints, work helps people to feel alive, to feel engaged with the external world.  By acting as a vehicle for preserving imprints, work acts as a means for creating a surrogate immortality and thus prepare for death.  Work may not always be pleasurable, but in the exchange of human effort for payment, it provides satisfaction.  A certain sense of accomplishment.  Of relevance in the cosmos.  Many people who don’t have avocations or hobbies and who don’t enjoy spending a lot of time just having fun, won’t know what to do with themselves if work is eliminated.  They will feel disconnected from the external world in a big way.  In their minds, they will be floating in an experiential vacuum.  They will sink deeper and deeper into numbness.  They will feel themselves in a living death.  Some will literally die from boredom.

            Yes, some people will be able to survive without work.  Some people will be able to immerse themselves in avocations.  Avocations combine some of the elements of work – doing linear projects – with some of the elements of pleasure or, more precisely, fun.  Pleasure is what moves avocation projects forward.  The joy of moving a project forward as a personal organic imprint totally free of considerations of payment.  Payment, of course, is a dominant goal of work.  With avocations, pleasure represents the imprints that are received from an avocation experience.  Work is measured more in terms of a series of imprints made for accomplishment events.  Although an avocation has some of these events, it also includes some pleasure experiences.  An avocation is based on serious projects done out of love.  There are meaningful goals involved in an avocation.  Unfortunately, most people, when they retire, do not get involved with avocations. 

            However, many people, upon retirement, will get involved with hobbies.  Hobbies are activities in some ways similar to avocations, but less serious and less meaningful.  Hobbies do not usually involve making and preserving organic imprints on other people.  For instance, with a hobby, one does not concern oneself quite so much with making craft objects that can evoke pleasure and admiration from other people.  One gets involved, in such circumstances, in making craft objects for the pleasure they give oneself.  For the imprints that an artist receives from what he is doing.

            The last major category of human activity is fun.  In fun, there are no projects to finish.  There are no formal external goals.  Fun is all about receiving pleasurable imprints.  About enjoying oneself more passively and not worrying about accomplishing anything.  A social gathering, a fine meal, a walk by the beach, a street fair, a resort vacation, good sex (when not for procreation).

            As we can see, the four basic categories of human activity go from an almost exclusive focus on making imprints to an exclusive focus on receiving imprints.  From a person being primarily a producer to being primarily a consumer.

            Returning to the original theme, it is one thing if a person can’t work for health or other reasons. Or if a person is in the arts and his work doesn’t draw decent money.  But most other people are going to be floating in an experiential vacuum, if they don’t have some solid work to do.  They’ll go out of their minds from boredom.  And they won’t feel like they are accomplishing anything.  They won’t be able to leave meaningful organic imprints and prepare for death.  And most people simply aren’t self-starters who are capable of creating long-term linear activities that can become the foundations of avocations.  Now most people are capable of generating hobbies where the organic imprints received from the experience of participation are greater than the organic imprints generated by the person in making and preserving accomplishments.  But for most people, hobbies are not going to be enough to lead a meaningful life narrative.  Unfortunately, for those people, there will probably develop a tendency to try and feel alive through different forms of destructive behavior, both towards themselves and towards others.

            The situation is complex.  So I have nothing intrinsically against a universal basic income in human work economies.  This will be particularly helpful for people who have health problems, as a supplement for people who can’t find enough decent-paying work in certain fields, or for people in the arts.  But as a means to allow all people to survive because there is no work available at all, that is a cause for concern.  The vast automation of work activities is not going to be a good thing for the human race.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow

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