Everything is defined in relation to work. Many writers and thinkers have deplored this for decades but still nothing has changed. The situation has become worse and worse. Particularly, the ideal of education as an end in itself, as a virtuous improvement of the intellect and the soul, has been entirely lost in a language of “preparing young people for the workplace”. And of course as we now see there is little or no workplace to “enter”. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, it was clear that if the problem of large scale unemployment is recognised, the solutions proposed are entirely conventional - making the labour market more flexible (i.e. reduce worker protection), reduce holidays, increase part-time work etc. resulting in an overall “cheaper” labour force.
Edgeryders is another example in many ways. The notion of a precariat, of people whose income and work is precarious, is defined in contrast to the “un-precariate” in other words people who have regular employment. We still seem unable to break away from a definition of human existence and value determine by the concept of work, its value and importance. @dougald in his recent outstanding piece noted three key issues - how to pay the rent, who one is in the eyes of others, and why one gets out of bed in the morning.
I would like in the following text to take these issues briefly apart by posing the question as to whether we are being sufficiently radical, sufficiently outrageous in our conceptualisations of alternatives.
Paying the rent
First of all we need to ask why we are paying a rent at all. This immediately leads to questions of property, ownership, and the uneven distribution of wealth in society, not to mention the lack of social housing - or the provision of housing by not-for-profit actors. The total stock of houses in Europe which are empty or unused is extraordinarily high - over 600,000 houses in the UK, over one third of homes in Greece are empty. Of course this is a classic problem of economic distribution - where the houses are relative to jobs, who owns them etc. We need to question the fundamentals of a world where people need an education, in order to get a job, in order to feed and house themselves. And if any part of this chain fails, people who are not protected by their families or who do not show immense creativity and initiative find themselves on the street . While there are interesting initiatives which create non-monetary opportunities for temporary housing (hospitality exchange), solutions which address the long term housing issue outside the conventional economy are not yet visible.
Why not? Probably because we find it very hard to think in terms which do not involve property and ownership and the corresponding security which it apparently provides. Stepping outside that paradigm will mean for many the abandonment of a dream which has become normalised in many parts of Europe .
The eyes of others
There is an inverse relationship in our society with regard to your income and how useful your role is for the human care of others (and of the environment). Mothers looking after children never get paid and such a suggestion would seem absurd to most people. And yet it is the most fundamental activity for the continuing survival of our species. Most people who are in caring professions (nurses, social workers) are paid very much at the lower end of the social scale. There a particular category for which we have no name who are people who act as unpaid therapists/spiritual advisors/counsellors - often these are people who are unable to hold down conventional jobs. This category may include some priests and minor gurus. All these people in modern contemporary society are neither appreciated nor recognised as offering essential services to society. There are certain limited arenas where people can be active in an unpaid manner and this may lead to peer group recognition. The FOSS world is one such example. But even here, this is often valued because of the eventual opportunity this will lead to obtain a “conventional” job. The definition of value in the eyes of others is almost entirely mediated by the job one holds and nothing is changing that fundamentally.
So – you need an education, in order to get a job, and then be able to feed yourself, house yourself, and have value in the eyes of others. This chain needs to be rethought radically and at a minimum reversed but better still entirely alternative categories need to be envisioned.
Getting out of bed
There are lots of reasons we get out of bed in the morning - habit, necessity (need for food), passion and ambition are just some. But just as we have argued that there is a misallocation in our society of wealth and correspondingly housing and food, and similarly a misallocation of reputation and recognition, so I would argue there is a misallocation of meaning. Work and success with work is consistently taken as providing meaning; or worse still the act of consumption. We have been trained in our society to identify meaning with the acquisition of objects whether the right car, the latest style of handbag or the most fashionable pair of trainers. We must not forget that this is still the vector for access to meaning for a vast proportion of the population.
Both psychological studies and centuries of spiritual teachings have tried again and again to persuade us that real meaning lies in what is least regarded today. These include caring for others, both loved ones and those less fortunate than ourselves, paying attention to the small acts and rituals of daily life, preparing and sharing a meal with friends. What is interesting is the consistency in the message from all the different spiritual traditions and equally the self-help books.
The misallocation of meaning is profound in its impacts and in providing a driving force to many of the problematic activities and behaviours around us. It would be absurd or presumptuous to ask for a different view on the allocation of meaning. There are plenty enough available. What is needed perhaps is mechanisms for the greater adoption and spread of such meaning allocations. Currently we are failing collectively in this area, and this is largely due to the over dominance of “paying the rent” and the “the eyes of others” as criteria in people’s lives. Understandably so.
The role of the State
We seem to be forgetting somewhere in our eagerness to identify and develop parallel institutions/networks/initiations, that the state still exists, and it is unlikely to go away anytime soon. The state has coercive force and impacts on our lives in multiple ways both constructively and destructively. Currently there is no way to develop an entirely parallel system outside of the fundamental provisions of the state. The state provides an officially recognised medium of exchange in money, it provides food and housing by means of its guarantee to property holders of some form of security. The state provides a minimum of physical security. As many of us are aware, it has been an ideological choice of the last 30 years or so, in many European countries, to redistribute wealth upwards to the elite with a consequent reduction in disposable wealth and consumption for the wider population. This is intimately connected, of course, with the current absence of economic activity.
We need to remember that overall we are not starving in Europe , unlike many regions in Africa or Asia. We have a tendency in these discussions to conflate the long term trends towards collapse in western society (resource depletion, excessive complexity, lack of leadership, etc.) with the current highly artificial situation which is solvable by the state. There is no real lack of money, neither in the Eurozone or Sterling area, so all the social consequences of austerity are political choices .
There is some recognition by the elite that the precariat presents a danger to the social order. Concern has been expressed about the levels of youth unemployment in some European countries. There is disagreement how big a danger this represents and whether it has reached critical mass. Academic research points to increased social unrest when governments impose austerity . There are parallels with other revolutions and I suppose one should ask what the tipping point is. But even if we do reach a tipping point with major social disorders, the question will remain whether the resulting developments will substantive or merely superficial. How much change did the 1968 unrests or the Arab Spring really produce from the perspective of the everyday citizen rather than the intellectual elite?
European states and their economies could pursue expansionary fiscal policies targeted at reducing social injustice and creating employment for young people. What is fascinating is that there is no indication of any such move across Europe at present, and that Edgeryders is in complete agreement in not expecting let alone demanding action on the part of the state. In this regard, Edgryders is subscribing to the dominant ideological paradigm. If we look at the “alternative” structures proposed or referred to, none of them are large scale response that can touch that 50% youth unemployment. This does not reduce the importance of these ideas because somewhere, hidden amongst the suggestions, there will be something that will have a lasting impact. All I am suggesting is that at present there is insufficient radical innovation or creativity.
Much more interesting, in my view, are ways to find leverage on the state. It has been stated or implied that neo-liberalism and especially the Chicago School had a long term view, in training people ready to step in when crises hit and offer to provide remedies which would fundamentally change the social and economic order. How could Edgeryders and the people associated with it provide a long term body of expertise and radical thinking which could “step-in” at an appropriate moment to change the social and economic order? How can the appropriate levers be put in place to make that possible. The design of relevant levers is essential.
- I have covered too much ground probably far too briefly here. In essence, I wish to suggest that:
- innovation needs to come in understanding our subservience to existing paradigms/definitions of "work" and "meaning". The very notion of the precariat is subscribing to the existent dominant paradigm concerning the value of work and its nature.
- innovation needs to provide newer or better forms of leverage to change the dominant ideology into one that redistribute resources more efficiently (food, housing, "meaning"). It is not sufficient to provide intellectual alternatives if they are only going impact a very small number of people. We need to find ways to leverage the state to actually make socially just choices and use its (essentially limitless) resources to that end. This sounds terribly boring as in we need political engagement to change the dominant paradigm, but I see little alternative.
- perfection cannot be achieved, but we can much better than we are doing now.
- some of this change may concurrently help us prepare for the longer term dangers of environmentally imposed societal collapse - next year.
|||Not all. In some countries there is a much higher level of rental accommodation, and often this is at much more affordable levels than countries with high levels of property ownership such as the UK.|
|||This is a wild generalisation. Welfare reforms and actions such as the recent "bedroom tax" in the Uk are making the situation worse.|