A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Monday, December 10, 2012

What Is To Be Done? (With Apology to Tolstoy and Lenin)

Stripped of arguments around correctness and efficacy, humans are at base a ‘doing’ animal.  It is never that as a whole we do too little, but always a matter of what is done.

There is a simple initial answer to the question of what to do: you need to know who to trust concerning the several vital issues confronting you personally, the political/economic structures in which your social system functions and the issues facing humanity in general as we impact the limits of the biophysical possibilities of the earth.  There is another alternative, of course: that you study all of these issues well enough on your own that you can tease out from the various presentations those that are the closest to Reality.  In one of those twists that can sometimes save a bad situation: making a serious effort at the second creates the possibility of the first.

We usually begin trusting parents or other significant “adults.” From that uncertain beginning categories like teachers, preachers, certain political and news media figures and, often, scientists and academics are added. And far too often, because of the massive burden of nebulous information and the swarming bees of self-interest obscuring every issue, we retreat into a local cynicism, even anti-intellectualism.

These are vital considerations since they determine whether our societies are to be functionally totalitarian or democratic (regardless of what we call them).  In a world with great real latitude for action, a world that is forgiving, that has effectively infinite resources and “unused” spaces, people and societies are allowed many errors of judgment; in such a world it is often possible to throw aside the consequences of mistakes and take up other options.  But, in a world of narrow options, when a 5 %, or even 1%, miscalculation ripples through the population with starvation, disease or war, with the consequences spreading through all human societies as well as nature’s essential processes, then decisions need to be arrived at using the best information available, from the most trusted, historically accurate sources.

A disengaged and therefore ultimately ignorant population cannot support a democracy when the collective action of that population has little room for error.  This a stark statement.  It is not that a totalitarianism will be, by any natural process, more aligned with Reality, only that it has a chance while, with a disengaged populous, a democracy does not; it would be a political system poorly adapted to its situation.  To act quickly and massively in situations of great moment requires the agreement of the significant actors in the population…regardless of how that agreement is attained.
* * *
These are the options before us to the extent that we can recognize them.  They are “theoretical” options, not choices, since the forces driving change are generally beyond our understanding and certainly beyond our controlling, especially as we move, more and more, into unforgiving regions.

And as is typical of our species, we have two opposing reactions.  One is to deny that we are facing great demands for the most carefully considered change – thus increasing the disengagement and ignorance – and the frantic and near frantic effort to learn as much as we can, in the ancient habit of survival, so we can overcome the obstacles confronting us.

The human animal will never form a global society of philosopher/scientists dispassionately examining the detail of evidence, evaluating, discussing and concluding by consensus. It therefore, falls to the beliefs that underlie our actions to guide us. Beliefs that disengage us, that lead to distrust and distortion must be replaced with beliefs that allow engagement with the best designs and methods for approximating Reality.
Here are simple statements of belief and understanding that need to be constantly presented to all who can be brought to listen – and eventually to ‘everyone.’  These must be simple statements, clear and unambiguous, regardless of how much they might differ from present beliefs.  Reason, logic and scientific understanding may be used in making arguments, but it is not argument that will ultimately prevail.  It is repetition, recognition and acceptance.  Humans are a community animal and, in their numbers, they believe and act in sympathy with their comprehension of community’s story of itself.

  Humans can change the environment in which they live: a few humans with limited technology make small changes; many humans with powerful technology make huge changes.  Corollary: humans must be personally and individually careful of what they do to the world around them.

•  Humans are part of communities.  Individuals are biologically unique while also only being psychologically complete when acting as an element of community and integrated into its functioning [1].

  Privacy and secrecy are rights of individuals and never of collectives; collectives are too potentially powerful to allow them to act in secret.

  No person or group of persons can be allowed to act with impunity. Freedom is not to be understood as impunity. Corollary: All human action must be limited by the needs of the living world, other humans and biophysical stability.

  Each person and community is responsible for the property in their care; property cannot bethat sole and despotic dominion’ of English common law derived from the history of kingship.  Ownership must mean that the owner learns about and cares for that which is held in the relationship called property.

  The whole community is responsible for its total economic product, its distribution and its excesses.  Individual persons may be moved to lead and innovate, but without the inherent design of community, its many forms of social support, history and infrastructure, such motivations could form no action. Corollary: all members of the community must have a just equity share in the community’s economic product based on a full evaluation of their contribution, not based on distorting power relations.

  Having more wealth than is needed to be safe with basic comfort is obscene and not to be tolerated in our communities.  As a natural function for the maintenance of stability, communities should establish a maximum ratio of wealth between those who have the least and those who have the most. Corollary: desiring wealth in excess of needs is an emotional and ecological illness.

  Individual humans must use as little of natural resources as they possibly can for the greatest possible gains in comfort and safety. Corollary: using little is good, using a lot is bad.

  Health is both a well-working body and a purposeful relationship with community and environment.    If living long is the primary goal of life, it is then a long life wasted giving little account to that which forms a life of value.  Corollary: the hours spent trying to live long are no substitute for the hours spent living with purpose and joy and should not be traded one for the other.

Volumes of argument can be created (and have been) for each of these propositions, but that is not what is needed. These statements, in simple and direct form, can be the basis for a variety of sustainable human-based belief systems.  Of course, these beliefs have little constituency at this time, and there is no method or model to enforce them; in fact, an attempt to enforce them would defeat them. 

Some of the consequences of holding such beliefs can be identified and some of them, that are appropriate, might be separately legislated. But, only by these beliefs taken as a whole, forming the basis of general understanding and action, will human action and the corresponding legal structure increasingly comport with the Realities that humanity faces as the result of our own prodigal behaviors.

The vital question is: how are these beliefs – or a better set – to be made central to human thought and action?  There are two basic answers. People need to see this synergism of beliefs as increasingly commonplace, they must hear them from trusted sources, see them working among their fellows and become comfortable enough with them to speak and act on them for themselves. Simply, if we wish them, we must act and speak them. And secondly, there must be an historically relevant motive force to drive them into those recesses of the human domain that will pay attention to nothing else: such as the imminent and undeniable failure of ecological systems. 

I see various groups of humanity poised to make the next series of terrible mistakes, all based on beliefs that are almost in every case diametrically opposed to the ideas above: terrible mistakes of war, economic and social oppression, environmental damage and generally increased human suffering; driving all of earth’s miraculous life processes to ruinous extremes.  There are humans who realize that there can be no substantive change in our relationship with our fellows and with the earth itself until there is change in belief moving toward those offered here: there must be many more such people to make any difference. That is what is to be done.

[1] Humans are also greatly variable in how some of them might conceive ‘community.’ Most people will take on the common meaning of a local heterogeneous group, living and working in mutual support, but some can see themselves as part of a community of ideas or spiritual relations transcending location and time.  I am, for example, denied community in its fullest manifestation by modern economic ‘life’ and so have a few friends and family in real time, but have extended my community to many others, through out history, who have written, with what I sense as honesty, from their passionate interest in understanding the world in which they lived.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What Is The Best Way To Live?

It contains the roots of a mistake to assume that the present distribution of wealth is either correct or natural and not simply the consequence of the several variables that operate in the present distortions of human relations driven by the rapid expansions of our technical capacities and populations.  There have been no natural forces to guide these changes; the explosive growth of humanity as species and influence, on both the world and itself, is without precedent. And so, these changes will have to run their course until either controlling agencies develop within the human capacities or until the changes themselves reach such a level that biological and physical limits inhibit them.  The greatest hope is that controlling agencies can be made to exist within the human frame of action; the humorless forces of nature would not be kind should such limits be reached that human actions fail to function in the natural, and ultimately only, real world.

One of the pivotal changes that must be made is the distribution of wealth among humans and, as is most often ignored, between humans and the rest of life. To put the matter plainly and simply: material and energy “wealth” needs to be left alone to function in the ecosystems of the world to the largest extent possible. No self-interested person or collectives of persons can be allowed to establish their interests over those of the environment or those of collected humanity.  No person or persons can be allowed to become wealthy in the way that people are presently allowed, i.e., the concentration of material isolated from the flows of energy and matter in the earth’s productive cycles, and restricted to exclusive control and use (the Lockean/Blackstonean concept of property).  Such a functional conception of property is antithetical to ecological reality and therefore to the foundational principles of life on the earth. 

Secondly, compensation for the value added by labor to productive activities must be proportional to the value added and not determined solely by the imbalance of power relations.  Just as humans must not be ‘wealthier’ than the processes of life on the earth, so no individuals or groups can be wealthier than others by more than an understandable and community-based recognizably fair increment [1].

These are the “natural economic laws” by which every species of life has lived in the long history of life on the earth; for human “economics” to attempt to function by parochial principles created out of human trading is to be expected as a phase in our process of discovery, but one with only a limited useful range in time and variety [2].  Ultimately human economics must comport with the natural economics of ecosystems – that is the ultimatum being presented to us by the perturbations we have created in the biosphere.

But rather than realizing these actually quite obvious and simple principles, the entire economic world is crying for a return to and increase in economic growth as the only solution to our myriad problems, i.e., there must be more stuff or we will soon ‘fight it out over what remains’ is the implicit (though sometimes explicit) threat.  The motives are mixed: from the unimaginative certainty that only by increasing our taking, manifest as increased standard of living, can society be organized in a way that allows human life to function, to the simple greedy understanding that by making ‘more’ there will be more opportunity to gather up more for those properly positioned.  The argument that humans must take less from the environment, that humans can use less and that life can still be joyous is considered hopelessly naive.

Of course, we have used less, much much less. The real issues are: what amount of the earth’s productive capacity can humans use – if properly compensated for on sound ecological principles – and still maintain the integrity of the biosphere?  How and by what principles is that amount of productive capacity to be distributed to communities and activities? And, what are the best ways for human animals to live?  The unquestioned assumptions of economic growth ignore and reject these issues in perhaps the greatest single act of madness in the 4 billion year history of life.

What are the “answers” to these issues? And especially, what is the best way for humans to live within the real limits of the real world?

For that question to be answered there is mind-numbingly simple understanding that must be grown into a “popular” view – making it dominant among the social mores – that humans have and use as little as they possibly can for the greatest possible comfort and safety; this is a dynamic relationship in which to use too little wastes the potential of life and to use too much, first, squanders the appreciation of life and then life itself: excesses of comfort harden the heart and excesses of safety anesthetize.  These are consequences suffered by the human spirit beyond the ecological damage that we might do, consequences that dull our senses to that damage.

Using as little as possible for the greatest gain is the natural order of things in evolutionary process – the foundational Operating System of life.  Acquiring the requirements of life necessitates the expending of energy gained only by acquiring the requirements of life: each unit of life gains the greatest advantage from the least possible amount of the earth’s produce, and, as a further obligation to the nature of life on earth, replenishes the system for what is taken.  No other way can work for any significant length of time [3].  The four billion years of life on earth is testament to the stability of the design.

It is my suspicion that everyone reading this (it is certainly true of the one writing it) is using way too much stuff and gaining too little of the ordinary pleasures of being alive – the sort of joy one can see in a dog when it is tossed a stick. It is my suspicion that in our present mode of thought we would willingly allow the very conditions of life to slip through our collective fingers so to keep on with how we are right now, to say nothing of the conditions of desperation we would deliver to the essentially clichéd  ‘starving and brutalized children’ of the future that just about every reality-based thinker suspects is coming.

Collectively humans have never turned down an increase in their powers to influence the environment or each other; that is the basic form of the human adaptation, to imagine the control of events, to identify the processes that function in the world and to use them (biophysical, social/political and religious/mystical – what ever works). 

But, it is imaginable for humans to control their own motivations for expansion and domination.  Just as a little over a hundred years ago powered flight seemed impossible, just as 50 years ago space flight and “going to the moon” seemed impossible, 250 years ago large scale democratic governance seemed impossible, we must turn our prodigious powers of imagination and fruition to controlling our own powers.

The powers of expansion, domination and personal ascendance have been driven by a few; the powers of contraction, egalitarianism and eventually an ecologically based stability may only be possible when driven by the many.  It would be a world foreign to most of us, perhaps even very uncomfortable to many, but the options are certain; and only a “madman” would argue for destroying life on earth in preference to keeping his Ferrari or his 1983 Toyota tercel.

We have been brow beaten with the simple notion that wealth is good, after thousands of years of mistrusting those who twist their humanity to attain the condition.  We must return to that reasonable distrust – and even more, we must make the social price of wealth accumulation very high, especially when such accumulation is accompanied by an infantile selfishness, which it very often is.

Stripped of rhetoric and sophistry the present economic situation can be summarized as: approximately one tenth of one percent of the world’s people have collected (read: created systems to extract from others) so much of both the real material wealth and the arbitrary wealth of financialized transactions that they don’t know what to do with it all. Since they have worked (read: schemed) very hard to extract from transactions and to amass (read: isolate and protect from others) the wealth, they have no intention of allowing any of it to be taken out of their control: the wealth must increase perpetually; it is no longer like the wealth of the rest of humanity which is used to supply nutrient, comfort and safety needs.  It is, rather, the tokens of status and power greedily and selfishly sequestered away from the rest of humanity and used only when it can be increased in that use.

The greatest struggle, then, for those who have stolen the work and wealth of the human community and concentrated it to their own use, let us call them economic criminals, is to find ways to grow that wealth some more: this is what the economic criminals call work!  Let us be completely clear: The wealth is not to be used to allow minimum levels of comfort, safety, health, education, etc., for the humans that actually do the activities that produce the wealth.  It is to be used to make more wealth for those who have sequestered it away from the rest of humanity.

In a simple act of the imagination, however, it is possible to imagine that a critical mass of the people realize that these few are not the most valuable and imitable people in the community, but the most dangerous; are not the source of the community’s best qualities, but are destructive of them.  It is in that moment, not by the passage of any law, that the antisocial, anti-communitarian influence of wealth is restrained.  And it is that moment that many other ecologically sound imaginings become possible.

[1] This is a process that our ancestors would be familiar with, but for us today not so much; we are too overwhelmed by the sophistry of the times.  It is not too difficult to establish what is essential for the minimum comforts and safety of life. Such a modal standard could eventually create broad and completely understandable community expectations.

[2] Money wealth at present represents more than that total productive capacity of the earth.  The absurdity is completely lost on those who “hold” the “wealth.”  They seem to believe that to act on the money wealth by taking “everything” is an absolute right granted by a number written by a banker on a computer screen.

[3] The earth in its companionship with the sun is a closed system with a fixed energy input.  Only by the evolved designs that replenish and maintain the billions of material and energy exchanges that structure ecosystems is life possible.  No species is even remotely independent of any other and each must contribute to the whole in exact proportion to its taking from the whole.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Making Sense of Work, Part Five, Epilogue

(Preamble: If one begins a construction project, the basic laws of the universe are naturally engaged by using the formulas of physics and the established principles of chemistry and materials science; no one would trust a contractor who denied the importance of calculating loads and tensile strength measures or refused to use standard mathematics.  We are not, however, offered the same assurances with social and economic constructions.  We must always be reminded of our biological origins and the role that history can play in both the understanding and the facts of our actions.)

Each organism has, in body and behavior, the capacity to supply (do the work for) all of its own needs; additionally required is an environment containing the complete range of need-meeting opportunities; otherwise life would not exist on the earth.  This is not to say that meeting basic needs is always easy or can always be fully accomplished; a percentage of the time some degree of needs are not met and if not met enough, the result may be the death of that organism.  The ecology and ethology of the organism gives understanding of the particular ways in which the species and its individual members function their capacities: every organism ever studied is seen to have specific adaptations and evolved designs matching it to environmental conditions and opportunities, often with shocking elegance.

Thousands of examples can be given of these adaptive solutions, even millions; any species that is well enough known would serve.  There are however two broadly different approaches to how organisms have evolved and adapted within this overall description: individual action and group action.  Most organisms act as individuals, though on a common species pattern.  This is easier and requires less complexity of body and behavior: the biology stamps out a jellyfish, it goes off and does its jellyfish thing; living or dying by its own actions.  That this may happen in the company of thousands or millions of its own kind is only an issue of the total environmental condition and not organized group behavior.  On the other hand, many organisms have evolved to live in intimate communion with the integrated behaviors, and even the bodies, of their fellows.  It is simplest to live in collections of bodies as do many of the corals where “individual” polyps attach their “skeletons” together and communicate by various cellular connections and chemical “displays” through the water.  But this is still largely individual life grouped tightly and necessarily together.

Some insects and most mammals show the other form of organization: group structures in which individual organisms have functions within the group first and act as individual survival units second [1].  The Hymenoptera, the insect order containing bees and ants, carries one form of communal living to the absolute zenith that exists in our world: where the total commune is actually the functional organism, where individual bodies serve specialized and completely interdependent roles like the cells of organs in a single body.  Mammals have evolved several different forms of group function from herd groupings to the tribal behaviors of monkeys, apes and humans… with various other species mixing and matching aspects of both: elephants and cetaceans, for example.

I begin in this way because the human species has no reason to be seen as functioning differently than the billions of other species of life in the history of the planet. The religions and social hierarchies that we experience and claim as the basis of our special status are no more than complex behaviors originally evolved to control and organize our powerful adaptive functions in the ecosystem [2]. With the foregoing and the background of the four preceding essays it should be possible to see human work in the context of its biological functioning, as part of something more comprehensive than simply that portion of the social hierarchy defined as economics.

What the summed total of the previous essays in this series do not consider – though they do begin to draw images of the terrain – is how, in practical terms, to connect the activity design, in which humans have direct responsibility for their meeting their needs from primary sources, with the design in which essentially no one meets their own primary needs with their own hand; the design where individuals are fungible links in a vast network of activities with several competing goals, of which meeting the essential needs of its participants is only one, and not necessarily always the most important goal.  This is where seeing work (and other human actions) in a deep biological context serves two vital functions:

First, it removes the consideration of the activities from the narrow confines of political and economic advantage and, second, it places the activities in the context of the full spectrum of natural, Reality-based events and energy flows. The major multipart issue that we face is how to rearrange work and distributions of value created by work so that needs can be met, so that net human activity no longer negatively impacts environmental systems and so that the total human process appropriately compensates the biosphere for our extractions of material and energy.  What we cannot do is keep on doing what we are doing, it cannot be an excuse that we are unable to think of anything else or that other options are too difficult and disturbing of our present expectations.  These three absolute demands on our species, however, are umbrella over the nitty-gritty of a parochial reality that fails utterly to recognize the need. 

The key element in all of our options is how work and its value-creation are arranged. Frederick Engels summarized Marx's theory of historical change: “The materialist conception of history starts from the principle that production, and with production the exchange of its products, is the basis of every social order; that in every society that has appeared in history the distribution of the products, and with it the division of society into classes or estates, is determined by what is produced and how it is produced, and how the product is exchanged.”  C. Wright Mills gave a compact paraphrase to Marx’s theory of history writing in The Marxists (1962): “Political, religious and legal institutions as well as the ideas, the images, the ideologies by means of which men understand the world in which they live, their place within it, and themselves--all these are reflections of the economic basis of society.”  And As Upton Sinclair said in even shorter form, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”  The work that people do is the nexus of social order and expectation.

We know where we need to be, how we must organize our economic and social systems: briefly put: heterogeneous natural community sized groups serving as the functional interacting units; much reduced levels of the collection and manipulation of materials and energy (less economic expansion); the storage and exchange of economic products must support the social system by lessening the dependence on money based systems, using rather a hybrid of natural mores-based obligation and currency systems; community based mores that limit the accumulation of wealth and its attendant power.

I think it can be plainly stated that our current beliefs, mores and laws make these potential changes impossible.  However, if Marx’s theory of historical change is correct, as it certainly seems to be, the place to begin is with the nature and design of work since this is the contact point for all elements of society: the poor and middle-classes do it and the elite classes depend on them doing it!  Rather than attempting to “get a man to understand something” that “his salary depends upon not understanding,” discover ways to change how he works, at what and how he is compensated.  To do this other options must be available to see… and seen as not only just possible, but desirable.

Of course, this is not as easy to do as it is to say. The Cultural Revolution in China, a major example of an attempt at rapid large-scale social and economic change, got it monumentally wrong: autocracy cannot be the sustaining force for such changes [3].  What is required is a diffuse but functional community (much like a natural community, but held together by respect and ideas rather than geography and direct material interdependency) that actively looks for problems arising in the present model and develops solutions that can allow new understandings to develop.

We need large-scale social and economic engineering, but our recent historical experience with such things (1930s Germany, Soviet Union, Cultural Revolution in China, Cambodia in the 1970s, Chile in the 1970s and 1980s) are all either completely negative or have been become so in our compartmentalized history.  Such engineering requires some form of leadership; present distributions of power would almost certainly quickly resort to autocratic and plutocratic control designing change for narrow constituencies at the expense of the vast majority.

On the other hand, there is one basic reality that must be faced if large-scale directed change, as distinguished from normal processes of adaptation, is to come from the masses: Human belief systems are not based in biophysical Reality, but are a collection of historically derived myths, present habits and experienced “reality” (including education).  I see no remediation for this fact other than the unrelenting presentation of these kinds of arguments.

I am sure that there are several ways that our species might adapt to the world events that our population growth and technologies are precipitating, but I present only one as a teaser to invite others.  I am basing it on the notion of natural community and the biological principle that an organism is only fully formed when growing up and living in the environment that meets its biological expectations.  And that being a fully formed member of one’s own species is the most desirable of all states.

Imagine that rather than the amorphous social organization of modern industrial societies that humans began to organize themselves into small effective communities based not so much on common belief systems as on geographic expediency and mutual need.  There are a variety of possibilities for how such a thing might happen, but I will not go into them at this point.  Further imagine that such a community unit formed and functioned in the present larger social/economic environment as that economic system was contracting – as it will be contracting in the future.  My example is one possible way that the community structure might form and direct the actions of its members.

The first requirement for the primary community unit, or nutrient group, would be to produce sufficient food and water for itself.  If in the process of this it was favorably situated to produce excess (this would be inhibited by the time element to some extent), then the over production could be traded or sold through the system of currency created.  Each person could be, and most would be, associated with some other activity or skill than food production, as well as being responsible for a certain number of days of community service per month.  Among the items of service would be maintenance of community infrastructure like garbage collection, recycling, cleaning and repairing paths and roads, maintaining water systems; school support (including teaching – especially for parents); policing, local administration, community planning and so on.

Some people might be restauranteurs, various sorts of retailers, various craft persons like tailors and repair people. There would be scientists, writers, artists and entertainers as well.  But while people might consider these things full time occupations, only 15 to 20 days a month would be devoted to them [4].  Everyone would be expected to spend as many as 10 days working on food production and as many as 5 days on community service projects out of every 30 days.  No one would be exempt.  Of course, specialists would develop, and would be appealed to to increase the quality and efficiency of all the various operations, but they would still be expected to be part of all of the productive and community maintenance activities.

Working to community standards would give the person or the family unit full access to the community productive capacity.  The goal of production would be to meet the needs of the community with a cushion of surplus against periodic dangers.  Since everyone would have to spend less time on the production of essential needs and maintenance of infrastructure when everyone contributed efficiently, there would be a natural social design for such efficiency, but failure to contribute would have the added disadvantage of probationary levels of access to the community’s production and protection.

Since something like this kind of organization is the only viable option to the most draconian forms of a future divided into multitudes of “animal” poor fighting over scraps and a militarized elite jetting around the world driving the poor to produce for them, there needs to be some possible route to such a different future.  Here is a simplified form of the best I have thought of so far:

Once a person (of a collective of persons) as become attached to a specific activity of work – no matter how isolated or narrow it is in the context of the “ecology” of the human economy – that person will most often do all manner of rationalization to maintain it and give it importance.  The thought that, in the ‘growing down’ of the economy, thousands of occupations and work activities will cease to be specific jobs by which a person “makes a living”, in favor of more generalized human functioning, will face massive resistance and will be demonized to an incredible extent.  But, there is nothing else for it (to use a British phrasing).  The process of job creation, not just in total numbers, but also in variety, is at the beginning of a reversal of historical trends. As humans captured more and more energy, first with behaviors, solar capture technologies and then fossil fuels, total numbers and aggregate consumption increased. Energy production, as well as mineral and biological resources, are reaching or have passed peak levels, and so, total numbers and aggregate consumption will begin to trend down with the necessary corollary that the varieties of jobs will concentrate back into fewer more generalized work activities.

One of the obvious and increasingly discussed responses to the reduction in job opportunities is the growing of some of one’s own food. The “proprietor” of a home kitchen garden – especially one that saves its seeds, establishes perennials and collects a nutrient base from composting – has collapsed a large variety of jobs into the single complex occupation of gardener/food grower.  If enough people grow significant amounts of their own food in such gardens (with the additional consequence of freeing themselves and their families from having to do some amount of remunerated activities), then the occupations that are replaced by the gardening activities will be greatly reduced or disappear in their present form.

But not only would the gardener have disconnected from the seed and fertilizer factory, but also from the middleman, the financier and banker, the regulator, the trucker, the warehouse, the politician that thrives of agricultural subsidies and others. Not necessarily replaced, though changed, would be the agricultural scientist, the ad agent, the insurance agent, the policeman, the farm tool and equipment manufacturer and again an increasing variety of down-stream economic participants. All this from a critical mass of people growing enough of their own food that they might feel themselves safe from the most immediate consequences of the loss of remunerated employment.

The forces that drove the segmenting of full human activities into more and more narrowly defined employments, that is forces of expansion and capital based economic advantage, will be weakened by economic contraction.  As people begin to take on more of the immediate responsibilities for food raising, equipment repair, personal entertainment, low cost low impact transportation and so forth, then the forces will have turned face and will move more and more people to become the generalists that humans have always been.  Organizing into heterogeneous communities of mutual support and obligation would be one possible outcome.

[1] Each phylum, class or order of living things can be described, in part, by how their species relate in these terms.

[2] …and have become wildly distorted as we have increased in number and power within the world’s normal functioning.

[3] The attempt to remake the social and economic structure of a country from the top down using military style force will only empower the sociopathic.  Rather than leaving existing patterns in place and attempting to show alternatives, existing work and social structures were criminalized and new work patterns harshly enforced.

[4] In some cases only a very few hours in a day would be devoted to the give task, while in other cases activities might be concentrated into almost constant attention over multiple days.  Some tasks might be done for a short amount of time every day and others only periodically.  In a small community, based on mutual obligation, these adjustments can be easily made.  The sense of personal choice in these decisions would be far greater than in our present situation.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Making Sense of Work, Part Four, Prognosis

It occurs to me that in an ecological system, the behaviors of species (made entirely of the behaviors of the individuals of that species) are constructed in such a way that actions supporting the individual also support the species and also support the ecosystem in which all events occur.  A very special form of competition has to be occurring – in a far simpler form, not unlike the competition of a baseball game – where support of the commons, the rules and principles of order, is accomplished in the very acts of individual ascension. This is a design long in coming, many trials in random attempts with only the most stable lasting, until an arrangement emerges – a new system of order – that is so stable it cannot be dislodged except by the destruction of the more underlying system upon which it depends.

In the case of natural ecosystems this process was (is) mediated by the principles of interaction called, by (English speaking) humans, biological evolution.  There is nothing that requires those same evolutionary details to operate in other systems of order; it is only necessary that there be principles with the potential to form stable systems. If we are to understand work (and other large scale cognitive subsystems of consciousness order), we must begin to understand the principles that mediate the changes, the principles of adaptation, occurring within the system of order that includes imagination, wishes, models of events and maps of both physical and mental terrain; a system of order that is mediated by language and projects futures, tests options and measures a world that has not yet happened [1].

The simple fact is that the organizational structure of work, with its intermediary device of money as the way of providing basic needs, cannot continue.  We have come to the end of the effectiveness of that adaptation because work, in the present design, is only sustained by economic expansion, which is only sustained by greater and greater use of the earth’s limited productivity; and because of the destruction of the human condition that results from work’s present form.

Work has been cognitively separated from the people who do it; the activities are measured only by the products produced and not by the life-allowing needs the activities are ultimately intended to satisfy.  Measured in this way only those who make a profit from the work activities are seen as having value since it is they who accumulate the only positively considered work product – all the rest is lumped together as a cost [2].  For the species to continue on without damaging, beyond repair, the earth’s productive systems (in our species’ time frame) this paradigm must be exactly reversed: the value of work activities must be seen in the quality of the lives sustained, with all of the time expended, products and services created by work seen as the cost.

Those who profit from the present design easily take on the habit of thought that “the workers are trying to take my profits.” It is natural to see the wealth coming to you as right and proper, especially if it provides the impunity of power; natural to see attempts at equity as assault.  This result is inevitable when work activities are organized as they are now and have been for thousands of years.  And the consequences of inequity are equally inevitable: to put the case in graphic terms, the rich are always surprised when the rabble rise up with the natural intelligence and organizational strength of the species and remove heads as a somewhat excessive therapy for their delusion.


We can say without much danger of error that the multiplication of human activities comes from imagining some new form of profit [3], a special form of the simpler imagining of ‘having more.’ The original (pre-Neolithic) model had the ‘desire for more’ moving people into direct interaction with an environment that “instructed” them on how human capacities functioned in the ecosystem; it was an immediate, all embracing cure for natural species’ arrogance and the special arrogance of consciousness.  We can also speculate with some confidence that, devoid of direct feedback systems attached to biophysical reality, the movement of changes created by the desire for more would be erratic and destructive of fine-tuned environmental relationships .

There seems to be two quite different ways of thinking about profit, economic and ecological. The present economic community is concerned with how profits are distributed by the various kinds of actions that businesses (entrepreneurs) take; that there should/could be a difference between the total costs and the total revenues doesn’t seem to be of major interest or is considered a non-question.  But, even the ingredients that contribute to there being a difference seem also to be classed as significant and insignificant more on ideological grounds than epistemologically sound principles.

Present economic “theory” seems interested in the business mechanisms by which profits are obtained and not the origin of profits per se; and so, the interest in entrepreneurship, entry barriers and monopoly, risk and uncertainty, equilibrium-disequilibrium and various other conditions that influence the ratio of supposed total costs to total revenues.  This is all very much “inside baseball” stuff and does not either realize or care that the motivations to create a game in the first place might be of underlying interest to both its existence and form and, at an even deeper level in the case of economics, that profits, as representatives of physical energies, must come from somewhere: that is, defining profits as the difference between costs and revenue tells us nothing about the origin of such differences [4].  What are the consequences for the various methods of reducing costs? What are the consequences for the various methods of increasing revenue?  What are the consequences for discovering/disclosing a new processes, product, service or coercion of labor?

Free Market:”

The Market is supposed to be a natural system that mediates the relationships among resources, products (from those resources), patterns of consumption, labor and wealth accumulation all through the assignments of prices: if everything were but to have its “true price,” then the world would work as smoothly as it is possible to work.  This is, of course, one of the most broadly held and flagrant madnesses of the modern world.

What the Free Market does is impose a powerful incentive system on the weaker and deeper incentives of primary needs. It is as if you were to move a powerful magnet into the region of a gravitational field; the behaviors of objects in the sway of the magnetic are distorted. Some, like iron, realigned with great disproportion, but almost all realign to some extent.  It would be a great mistake to assume that the local magnetic field was the natural order of attractive and repulsive systems – even though certain mathematical relationships could be established and would be reliable with appropriate limiting conditions defined.  However, if one lived long enough in such an arrangement it would appear completely natural – and failures of the model utterly inexplicable when its logic had to incorporate information and realities beyond its narrow boundaries.

The failures of Market thinking and consequence have largely gone unnoticed or mis-explained.  The billions of people in the most excruciating poverty are seen as suffering from cumulative personal failings; the sufferings are not seen as the product of the Market, when, of course, they are.  Resource wars and wars of territory are presented as coming from the insanity of particular leaders or the inherent “evil” of a religion (never one’s own) and not from the incipience of war in Market thinking. The nature of work in such a distorting incentive system cannot be free of monumental distortion. 

The “Free Market” argument is, essentially, that the numbers of people needing employment, the skill requirements of the job, the number of job positions and the importance of the work to the maintenance of the economy will work out a “price” for the employment, i.e., a wage.  The hidden assumption for the proper functioning of this argument is that the economic system must be just exactly at full employment; that is, that everyone who wants a job can find one, and more, that each potential worker has some (though not complete) choice so that needs, interests and talents can find appropriate opportunity.  Part of this assumption is that employers must compete for the best employees.

However, employers don’t want to compete for the best employees; their interests, really short-term interests, are best served when there are a large number of people from which to select.  To actually compete (which can only happen when labor is correctly priced) wages must be raised, working conditions improved, incentives of various kinds offered; in general, the employee ‘costs’ the employer more.  The consequence is that employers want a consistently higher level of unemployment than is optimal for the society as a whole. 

Consumers of products and services, both market and socially delivered, want to get them for as little as possible; they therefore want low prices in the store and low taxes.  But, consumers, first and foremost, want the products and services – just as, in the end, employers must have employees. Now, with our attention sufficient distracted with these kinds of considerations, it is almost hopeless to think about whether a job is good for the world or not.

This state of affairs has created the driving forces and tensions that move the social structure and economic designs.  And what is missing is a consideration of the fundamental usefulness and consequences of the jobs that are being done.  Part of the present design forcefully ignores these questions by requiring that everyone who is capable have a job as the only way to get the means to remain alive, safe and reasonably comfortable [5].


Humanity and the earth are suffering from the almost complete disconnection between the systems that generate human activity (work) and the structures and functions of the biosphere including the biological nature of our species.  Humans will perform those activities that allow them to eat, sleep warm, reject dangers, spend time with agreeable others and see their lives in some perspective (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – they are all there, though, combined or euphemistic).  If the activities offered also contribute to the destruction of the space in which we live, too bad.

There is really is no option; the thousands of activities that we call ‘jobs of work’ must be reduced and simplified.  This can only happen if human expectations are simplified and returned toward sustaining the biological nature of our existence.  I have no illusions about the difficulties associated with those few words.  Those with powerful vested interests in the elite/slave paradigm will not approve these ideas.  Those who have lost almost all touch with any options for safety, comfort and status other than in the present structures will not approve these ideas.  But this paradigm is finished; only the frantic whirlwind of summing up remains.

Each and every human contains the possibility for natural community engagement and for the generalized need meeting behaviors that have been the hallmark of hominid adaptation for millions of years – these things are there just beneath the surface.  There exists the small positive probability that ideas such as these will reach some critical mass and then spread rapidly as the evidence for the described realities becomes unavoidable.

There is a simple life affirming way to be, a way (Tao, The Way) that has been sought for thousands of years.  In every generation some people have discovered and followed it even as the Great Many were drawn along by the madness of the elites and the shiny objects of technology.  The answers to our problems are not more and better jobs in a growing economy, but are in the broad engagement of life by people in natural heterogeneous communities that are organized around the value of human activities as part of ecosystems. 

The earth’s rejection of the human enterprise, demonstrated through its failing biophysical cycles, is pushing us toward such a way of life, but with the terrible disinterest of evolutionary processes.  Human consciousness order can mitigate the most devastating part of these processes, as we have done so often in the past in smaller ways, but this time it will be an effort of solar-flare proportion if it is successfully made.

[1] I return to this argument again and again, not because I have a limited imagination (though that may be so), but because this idea is like gravity – every time I turn up a new thought, there is this one ‘pulling’ on it with a constant force.

[2] This is essential to understand: almost all of the life affirming things that the Great Many do are considered to be a cost to business.  Since wages and salaries are considered to be a cost to business and since it is these wages and salaries that supply the means for everything from the most basic biological needs to the various luxuries of middle class life, the design of our present economy has an incentive to reduce or eliminate non-work, life affirming activities – regardless of the rhetoric that may be wrapped around business actions.  Listen to the “speech” about the value of the ‘working man’ made by Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” for a guileless presentation of the attitude still seen today and still spoken with equal candor by today’s elite when in the appropriate company (some of the Enron ‘boys’ caught on tape talking about California elderly; Romney talking to millionaire/billionaire donors, nay, bribers).

[3] The gaining of a profit is ultimately tied to the uses of impressed or hired persons performing myriad activities of work.

[4]A physicist, when doing certain types of experiments, measures the energies going into an interaction (exchange) and the energies coming out of the interaction, and when the energies are different, the origin of additional energy or the destination of energy “lost” must be accounted for. Economics, seemingly taking to this model, rather acts more like the alchemist or the vitalist and makes up both destinations and sources to suit ideology while ignoring so-called “non-economic externalities” like biological systems.

[5] This has glossed over a vast and fecund literature.  It is essential to have some experience with Marxian economic and historical theory.  Reading Adam Smith, comparing to the present presentations of economic thinking, reveals just how much damage the perverse incentives of The Market have done in the last 240 years.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Making Sense of Work, Part Three, Consequences

Disclaimer: My motivation for writing about these things is not to change the world – although that could be a motivation, to try to make the world a more just and equitable place for my children, if it were possible.  But, the trajectory of the human presence on the earth seems fixed and has been for thousands of years.  I write to understand, not just understand, but to comprehend with depth and clarity.  I know that there is nothing new in what I am saying. I can find the shards of these ideas in the oldest writings: Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Plato; and more contemporary sources clearly surpass my efforts: for example, Smith, Mill, Marx, Whitehead, E.O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, but I am not helped directly by these sources as much as I am by starting, first, from the things I know in my own experience and trying to construct an understanding piece by piece and then exploring these hard-won ideations in the writings of great thinkers.  These are not arguments to convince those who might disagree, though I wouldn’t mind empowering those who might agree with the method.  I don’t necessarily believe my own words, but I have faith in the desire to understand.

Billions of people require that a certain amount of selected activities be done by others on a regular, continuing basis.  The activities beyond the required ones and the distribution of those activities are the variables available for adapting to new circumstances.  Up to now we have adapted by adding activities beyond those required by basic needs and by distributing activities into more and more specialized activity-forms called jobs.  Activities, done by each person for themselves and immediate community, that sustain life, have gradually been replaced by “jobs.”  We cannot even imagine a world without the tens of thousands of different activities, integrated into the ecologies of economic systems, that allow the reliable conversion of a five-dollar bill into a latte.

When the thinkable fails, then only the unthinkable is left.  Fortunately, the unthinkable is something that Homo sapiens do with some facility: each Great Difference in how the world is perceived was at one time unthinkable.  A small, integrated community, functioning on principles of obligation, could not imagine the use of money.  A large dis-integrated social system of emotionally isolated individuals cannot imagine functioning on systems of mutual obligation.  A monarchy cannot imagine constitutional democracy and vice versa.  A work-based society cannot imagine a leisure-based society.  Idée fixe is as much a part of the human repertoire as imagination [1].

When the thinkable becomes unthinkable the normal dilemmas of dialectical human life are critically compounded.  A relevant example is the idea of work.  Through a long history of propaganda driven only partially by strategic intention, more an adaptation to economic power, it has become unthinkable that a person should not ‘work for someone else.’  A vague sense of ill-ease attends anyone whose direct work product is devoted to their own needs (one measure of this is that many readers will not even be able to quickly think of what I mean by these words).  And in one of the greatest ironies in the long and evil history of irony is the almost absolute requirement, both social and economic, that every person ‘work for someone else’ in a vast ecology of interdependence; this is the functional reality underlying the myth of personal self-sufficiency and individualism: individualism as the goad cynically used to drive the collectivism of work.

When people work directly to meet their needs, the activities have two obvious qualities: (1) the relationship between the felt need and its satisfaction is transparent and purposeful, and requires no search for meaning; (2) the satisfaction of need and the environmental sources of satisfaction exist in adaptive relationship through long established, functional feedback systems.  The consequence is that all of the elements of life, recognized or unrealized, function together with biophysical reality.

When people do work to get the secondary means (regimens of obligation or money) to meet their needs, doing jobs that have nothing to do with directly meeting primary needs, the activities have four obvious qualities: (1) there is no adaptive connection, only circuitous economic links, between the work and the ultimate sources of satisfying needs; (2) there is no reason to do the work unless it is “paid” for; and (3) there is no reason to offer the work to be done unless the person offering the work can gain more from the work being done than the cost of getting it done; that is, some form of profit. (4) The gaining of a profit is ultimately tied to the uses of impressed or hired persons performing myriad activities of work.

It is the loss of the adaptive connection and the great head-of-steam that the remaining 3 qualities contribute to the ‘new’ design of work that concerns us.  The natural ecology, like all designs of reality, has limits.  The designs followed by human expansion have no inherent limits beyond those imposed by the natural ecology, which are thus seen as impediments to be overcome rather than cautions – the consequence of the loss of adaptive relationship.

We are now at a place where, perhaps, 10 % (700 million) of the world’s population is in some position to take care of their most pressing biological needs should the economic system cease to reliably deliver and less than 1%  (fewer than 70 million) have all the tools of knowledge, emotional competence and agreeable physical surroundings to carry on the species should there be a complete collapse (this would largely not include the wealthy).  This is not the failure of ecological systems; it is the result of humans expanding into the many thousands of activities of  “altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter.”

The essence of that expansion has been the using of the time and energy allotted to each person for their own maintenance as a tradable service, exacerbated by the failure of community as the primary organization of the human unit.  To that strong statement I will add the even stronger one: work only makes sense in the design of the “native human community;” all other applications and conceptions of work are compromised by both reason and function.  I am claiming that the very idea of work cannot be understood in the present paradigm.  A different language and conceptual structure is needed; the present one is so distorting and misinforming that only confusion and false conclusion can come from it, there is no way to use the present language to even get to a point from which to proceed.  This is, unfortunately, of great value to maintaining the present designs of practice and understanding since to challenge them with the language that will be listened to is to give up the game at its beginning.

The key is community.  Humans are communal organisms, this has been true since before our genus, before our family and is the most common form of organization in our taxonomic order; all of our closest relatives are communal as are all known representatives of our own species.  We gather in groups even if it is only with a face drawn on a soccer ball.  It would be remarkable if our most life sustaining activities were naturally done through isolated “selfishness.”

The counter example is instructive: What would the world be like if everyone was out for themselves at some absolute level? To even consider it requires the negation of the central premise: without some system of order there would be no life in the first place, and without the fantastical ordered system of social designs, from language to learned perceptual consistencies, every human ‘mind’ would be mush. The delusional condition that claims self-sufficient individualism in a world of cell-phone towers, super highways and international economic mechanisms is really just the most modern brand of the failure to make the difficult and complex transition from infantile to adult cognition [2].

Work in a community is measured against the value to the community first and to the individual second.  It is this order of priority that is most frightening to our present colony of “aliens.” Personal and individual “freedom” is supposed to be inviolable, but what this really refers to is impunity not freedom at all (see The Nature of Impunity on my companion blog).  This natural and essential order of priority organizes and gives meaning to work – actually removes the “job” from work and returns work to activities of purpose.  That we have moved so very far from that design in no way implies that such movement and such distance is a good thing or even a possible thing.

The adaptive pragmatism that has led us to this moment can be more and more clearly seen as an adaptive dead-end, the kind of random “effort” that litters evolutionary and adaptive history.  Human work – the collected activities in which we have engaged – is the prime mover of the events that presently surround us, and surround all of earth’s living processes.

Should not these concerns be of primary importance to economics?  The answer seems to be, no.  Present day economics is concerned with studying, if not actually supporting, maximizing profits, minimizing costs, optimizing input/output ratios, discovering financializing devices, “controlling” economies, growing wealth – by and large, to return to Bertrand Russell’s styling in essay two, to alter the position of as much matter relative to other matter as possible, and to convert as much of that activity into profit making as possible; all with monumental, studied, disregard for any of the concerns and issues that might inhibit these actions.

The work activities of billions of people doing many thousands of different kinds of jobs is taken as a given rather than as a great mystery and even greater destructive force. Work as we presently understand it is a means for creating and increasing profits.  The shift from activities of work that had, in their origin, the most primary and essential functions in life generates two vast questions: how the shift of work from essential life functions became essential to profits and the consequences of all this non-adaptive activity has on the natural world.

I am again closing in on my self-imposed limit of about 2000 words and will, therefore, have to make a fourth part to this essay.

[1] It is instructive to look at Marx’s understanding of historical process in this context.

[2] I have written before about the adult condition not being a state that everyone can or should attain in the natural community – that ‘adult’ is a personality/talent style like extrovert or musician.  The human community could contain a wide variety of options for human expression with certain people embodying the qualities that others could adopt acutely in times of need.  When communities are lost as a primary organizational design, humans lose that reservoir of optional experience, thus the pathology of celebrity.