We should organize our society around something else that employment

Last year I read the blog of Doug Rushkoff  “Are jobs obsolete?”. And it really made me think about our approach to employment. I don’t think there is any political party who doesn’t have a focus on reducing unemployment in these times.  Rushkoff’s daring question however is:

“I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks -- or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?”

If you look at the question more thoroughly you can also state that we even don’t want to have money. We do want to have food, sheltering and all other kind of stuff.  Rushkoff elaborates on this issue too. 

I am curious what you think of Rushkoff’s blog and if you have ideas about how to build a society around something else than employment.

Maybe one of the answers could be the so called ‘basic income’ for every citizen.  We had some discussions in the Netherlands about that 20 years ago. Nowadays I don’t hear a lot about it. Does anyone know about countries where the basic income for every citizen has been successful implemented?




Of course

Alberto's picture

Hey Carlien, it is always a pleasure to read you :-)

Rushkoff's post is a little blunt (for example when he dismisses a centuries-long theoretical discussion on wheter human labor, in the face of rise of automation, can be reallocated to inventing, making and maintaining the machines as "it never really works that way"), but the issue is definitely there. Many people think the problem is now income, rather than employment.

What I think about this is not particularly important: it s a fascinating topic, but not one that I ever thought I could make a difference, even a small one, about. Since you ask: it seems to me that the numbers add up in the aggregate, i.e. we are now producing enough wealth to be supporting everyone in a dignified lifestyle (by "everyone" I mean everyone in the West, conveniently leaving it to the Chinese state to move 300 million people away from subsistence agriculture and illiteracy and over to the cities). But the redistributive plumbing is not there, and I really don't see how we could build it by democratic means.

Basic income just makes sense. At a social level, it has zero cost, because people need to eat and take shelter anyway, and I don't notice anybody starving or freezing to death in the Netherlands. Even the poorest eat more or less every day, and they go to sleep somewhere at night. With basic income, the resources to do so would come from the State rather than others (charitable organizations, or families in the case of  young people); not much difference, it is the same population supporting the same poors, with the added value of more human dignity and a better sense of security. I have even argued that basic income might be regarded as innovation policy: promise a young person her bills will be paid for a year or two, and that person will (with some probability) use the time to build something of value: voluntary work, a company, a work of art. No brainer, right? Wrong, apparently.

It would be incredibly important to get beyond the job paradigm. Realistically, however, I don't see it happening any time soon - unless by the semi-autonomous nomadic tribes imagined by Bruce Sterling in his visionary book Distraction (recommended). So, I am not fighting this particular battle. Did I make the wrong call?


basic income as innovation policy

Carlien Roodink's picture

Hi Alberto, I really liked your blog (and was glad that you wrote it in both english and italian, because I don't read or write italian). Where basis income is mostly regarded as a distribution method in case of high unemployment rates, it indeed can also be used to set people free in order to make a contribution to social innovation. More in general basic income is a way of distributing resources (human capital) towards things towards those areas where resources are most needed. Because we are failing to do so at the moment I believe. People are being fired at nursing homes etc because of cutting back budgets but the call for health care is the same. We are losing so much energy and time in budgettary and other kind money related issues instead of working on the problem itself. 


This guy thinks he can solve it

Alberto's picture

You should be talking to elf Pavlik. He has this idea that you can actually separate completely economics (the flow of goods and services) from finance - and, true to this principle, he has not touched money in three years! We are trying to get him to Strasbourg - a major headache because building security requires ID, and he refuses to use State ID because he does not believe in States either. Talk about living on the edge... 

Apart from elf's biography, he seems to imply that pulling away from state currency and onto a more mixed form of accounting is per se a major form of redistribution. You have the capacity (for health care), you have the need... how hard can it be? Just supply it, the people you are keeping healthy will find a way to keep you doing your health care. The free rider problem can be kept at bay with variuous accounting techniques.


semi autonomous tribes

K's picture

have no holidays :(


The Abolition of Work

Matthias's picture

Found this just now and thought I'd add a thought to the mix :)

The "job" concept is just one of the ways how a society can organize the distribution of resources and work. It's the most petty one of all. Apt for those who want to profit from eymployees in a mechanical way which does not have to imply any generosity, care or adherence to society as a whole. This petty joy-based accounting of course also binds much resources just for accounting itself ... and for checking that the employees work ...

But now that "we" as Western society have taken hundreds of years to develop and refine this accounting based system of paid jobs, and all of us got raised in it, I doubt it could easily change on large scale to something like the communal work found in some African tribes. Or just to basic income - we have that discussion again in Germany, but it's stuck in its infancy. We're infected with a renitent meme and have no quick way out (as a whole society, not as individuals).

But the first step is unlearning this mindset and these values that ties us to organize work in jobs. Once, I found a great classic article that really helps to do so. It's quite sharp and exaggerating (and hilariously funny), so everybody take it with a grain of salt. But for recognizing just how much my own mindset was tied to the job idea it really helped:

Rob Black: The Abolition of Work


unlearning our mindset

Carlien Roodink's picture

thanks for your comment! I agree that the first step is unlearning our mindset and get rid off the values that tie us to organize work in jobs. I certainly will read the work of Rob Black for this. to be continued...

grtz Carlien


The Idler and other thoughts

Darren's picture

My uncle occassionally writes for a magazine called The Idler. From their wikipedia page

"[a] characteristic of the idler's work is that it looks suspiciously like play. This, again, makes the non-idler feel uncomfortable. Victims of the Protestant work ethic would like all work to be unpleasant. They feel that work is a curse, that we must suffer on this earth to earn our place in the next. The idler, on the other hand, sees no reason not to use his brain to organise a life for himself where his play is his work, and so attempt to create his own little paradise in the here and now."

His life is suspiciously like a big game and he is a pleasure to be around.

I think that its very important to enjoy yourself :)  Also, like apparently many other Edgeryders, to stand back and think what it is you really want to do/achieve in life, rather than concentrating on a "good" well paid job with "good" career prospects.


Sounds familiar...

Kevin Carson's picture

The "Protestant work ethic" of the working classes sounds like a typical form of authoritarianism, in which the resentment of the powerless against the powerful is sublimated instead into resentment against those who manage to evade their power.


May be the point here is

K's picture

May be the point here is "job" VS "meaningless job I hate".

Rushkoff has a good job.


Excellent article

Kevin Carson's picture

There has always been work, in the sense of transforming human effort into subsistence. But that's only been organized in the form of "jobs" for a comparatively short period. And the main reason for that was that the shift in the First Industrial Revolution from production primarily with general-purpose, individually affordable craft tools to production with extremely specialized, expensive machinery in factories. The result was that only associations of the very rich could afford the factories, and then they hired propertyless proles to work the machinery for them on terms set by themselves. Today, with open hardware micromanufacturing, permaculture and open-source information production, that trend is being reversed -- most production can be carried out now with individually affordable tools. It's mainly patents and copyrights, and other state-enforced monopolies, that enable the corporate dinosaurs to retain control over access to the means of production. So we need to destroy the power of the corporations (by ignoring their monopolies and rendering them unenforceable) and the concept of the "job" along with it, and shift work into household self-provisioning and the informal and local economies.


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