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

Friday, September 21, 2012

Making Sense of Work, Part Two, The Issues:

Most discussions of jobs center on the numbers of employed and unemployed, wage rates compared to cost of living, rates of poverty and the skills/education required for the various types of employment.  The conclusions are considered satisfactory when unemployment is reduced, minimum wages limit the rate of poverty and the social infrastructure is producing enough people with relevant skills.  But this is not even the tip of the iceberg – not even a good drawing of the tip of the iceberg.

Part one of this essay pointed out that the numbers of job and job-like activities done by humans has increased from about 50 or so in our long formative evolution to about 10,000 or more today.  These additional thousands are, for the most part, actions never before taken on the world; this has to be important.  And what does it mean for an animal species with its own behavioral evolutionary history and expression to have made this kind of change?

The first step is to attempt to identify the salient issues that arise from these changes.  To that end I present this humble offering as a first approximation.  I hope that others take up the challenge, modify and add to it.

What should be called work? Bertrand Russell’s definition [1]: “What is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given.”

It is important to make a clearer distinction between the work that moves things around and the activity of ordering, advising and directing that movement: This “work of a second kind” is what creates, first, the possibility and then the necessity that work of the first kind will increasingly stray from activities that meet the primary needs of the workers to activities that will meet the needs of the order-givers.  Separating activity from directly meeting primary needs requires the intermediary device of recorded obligation, eventually codified into the various forms of money. This has made work fungible – any work at all, regardless of its adaptive consequences, can, therefore, meet basic needs by attaching real, need meeting work to other sorts of activities.

Strongly associating work with money leads to the ignoring of a significant part of the human experience: This further confuses the issues because there are need satisfactions that cannot be acquired with money, even though mythology of the present world implies otherwise. Prior to money as an intermediary form it was clear that effort expended went for all the needs, there wasn’t a distinction, at least not a clear one, between needs that could be purchased and needs that could not, since there was no purchasing per se; all needs were directly associated with their own socially and biologically based activities.

“Work” has come to mean doing something for someone else: When work is hired, the focus is not necessarily on the person hired, but on the work to be done (this is especially so when the person who wants or “needs” the work done sees the contribution of the person hired only as a detail in the completion of meeting a need).  This allows a pretty rapid disconnection between the needs of the person hired and the person doing the hiring.  When community needs and social systems of obligation organize the need meeting activities, whole-form relationships guide the exchanges – the exchanges are embedded in the social milieu, which is really an adaptive system responding to the total environment, biophysical and social.

Distinction between work and a job: A job is typically work that produces fungible compensation. In some extreme cases people will do work, that can be called a job, for direct need meeting (sign – “Will work for food”).  More commonly, we “work” around the house and go to our “job.”  Jobs that blur this distinction are the ones that the living organism generally cannot do without.

Very few jobs, today, are directly need meeting: Of the thousands of different kinds of jobs that people do in order to get the ‘money’ to purchase the material that meets needs, only a tiny percentage are directly need meeting; the rest vary from somewhat related to meeting needs to almost unrelated to any of the basic human needs.  What the jobs do is support the activities of some other person or group of persons creating, today, an almost impenetrable structure of interrelationships based on nothing more substantial than its immediate present form [2].

Every activity of an organism has a hierarchy of consequences: Jobs (activities of work) have a hierarchy of consequences that are largely ignored. Jobs also exist in hierarchical relationships to fundamental needs, with some jobs being absolutely essential and others completely fungible.  We, however, are discouraged from measuring jobs in this way.

The design of our social structure and economics distances and hides the consequences of our actions: Our food is on endless grocery store shelves, our water flows from the many spigots that surround us.  Autos, trains and planes, oh my, travel our bodies from place to place.  The doorman helps us with our packages. The dirty work-sick Congolese miner didn’t personally deliver the iPhone 5 and neither did the 14 year-old Chinese girl sent to the factory by her hungry family. The landfill is out of sight.  The sewage treatment plant is in the poor part of town.  Our complete dependence on the millions of others who are dependent on us is denied in our churches, on our media and by our politicians.

Assigning value to work, especially for fungible jobs: When activities (jobs) are directly need meeting the value in performing them is easily derived.  When activities are distantly related to need meeting, or if completely fungible, then assigning value to them, that is, figuring out how much to compensate them, is very unclear and largely depends on the ideology one brings to the argument.  In general, those who have work to be done by others wish to compensate with as little as possible and those whose available work-time is used up doing the work wish to be compensated, at least, at a level that fully meets their basic needs [3].

Consumption of what we do not need is the key to human economic growth: and as a corollary, the jobs that produce what we do not need become a necessity so that people can obtain their primary needs, and then to obtain what it seems we must have, but actually do not need. And then, once almost no one is producing what is essential and almost all jobs are fungible, only increasing consumption of non-essentials can supply the jobs that allow for the purchase of essentials.

Job fungibility is ultimately an illusion: while it is useful to recognize that we treat jobs as fungible, jobs are allowed to be thought of as essentially the same because one acquires the money to meet needs from them, but they are very different in the fullest expression of their consequences.  One job may increase greenhouse gases, put bio-toxins into the environment and be sustained by the rejection of eco-reality and another may make negligible exchanges with the environment, function to increase the awareness of children for the issues that they must prepare for as they grow up and be enhanced by a scientific and philosophical perspective.  Yet, both jobs can have the same rate of pay and, therefore, be valued the same in a one-dimensional economy.

The absolute necessity that all human activities be reconnected directly to biophysical reality such that feedback is continuous and responded to.  The work that we do in the form of our jobs offers the greatest difficulties.  The vast majority of the jobs being done, worldwide, at this moment are destructive of both the biophysical systems that sustain life and the mental, emotional and physical health of human beings.

What is the market? People often speak of the market as if it were an assignable entity, but it is the summed collection of desires that people are willing to act on in any given moment.  Within a society and economic system there is some stability to this broad statement, but that the summed actionable desires of a social/economic community may be relatively stable within a several year period does not in any way mean that the desires are sensible, reasonable or even possible.  ‘Letting the market decide’ would be fine if the market had some meaningful connection with biophysical reality, but it does not.

What kinds of work should people be doing? This is not a silly question – it is the only question?  When the only option for a job is any work that someone wants done, and is willing to compensate, then the adaptive process is driven by those few people who are almost completely disconnected from any but the immediate artifactual reality.
* * *

To me the most important generally unrealized issue is that humans are driven to make more and more changes to the world, to alter the position of more and more matter. The habits were established with the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic, a process without precedent or guidance. The most basic structure of our underlying economic relationships is the misapplication of biological and social patterns evolved and adapted to the Paleolithic way of life; it is essential that our best thinkers begin to apply our newest most complex capacities to help bring the species back into the most basic adaptive relationships with biophysical reality.  The consequences of our human work is the subject of Part three of this essay.

[1] From “In Praise of Idleness.”(pdf)  Being thoroughly accomplished is a marvelous springboard from which to dive in almost any direction one wishes.  Case in point is Bertrand Russell who can say almost anything he wants and it will be understood to be coming from some deeper well with more pure water than most.  Let me say at this moment that you should read his essay on idleness.  I was only reminded of it (his story of the manufacture of pins is unforgettable, but, of course, I had forgotten it) after conceiving and writing most of this one and am somewhat peeved to have been proceeded by so many years, superior talent and depth of thought; I can’t even claim to be writing in a more modern idiom.  Woe is me; oh woe is me.

A note to the reader who intents to read Russell’s essay: What he doesn’t point out when talking about work hours, because it was unrealized at the time – though it was available for the seeing should anyone have looked – is that materially simple communities living undisturbed in their original fecund regions and without the “helpful” intervention of “civilized man” only worked an average of 3 to 5 hours a day to sustain themselves with the degree of comfort with which they were, well, comfortable.  Their lives were not routinely brutish and short, though they were certainly more physical than typical today.

[2] Think of an interstate highway exchange where 3 major roads come together along with important ‘surface’ roads. While you might be only a half mile from some place once easy to get to, now on the other side of the exchange; today the immediate form of the roads can almost completely deny you access.  The roads are totally artifacts of human creation – and once in existence undeniable in their consequences.

[3] It should be noted: social structures that depended on ‘owned’ and kept slaves often caused the ‘owners’ to see that they were best served when the slaves were compensated sufficiently to remain healthy enough for the work demanded and not so dissatisfied that they were not too much of problem to control.  This is not the case with capitalist structures engineering unemployment percentages that let the capitalists treat workers like any other cost.


Michael Dawson said...

Very rich stuff. I'll be re-reading it several times.

Love + work + ecology = meaning of life.

Shame that is at such extreme danger at this point in our history...

Love the Russell quotation!

James Keye said...

Great formulation:

Love+work+ecology=meaning of life

That is it.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting indeed!

I believe that the saying "Let the market decide", is a reference to the law of supply and demand.

But then, people influence the law's demand by their perception, either real or imagined, of what they feel they actually need.

I get the impression you would advocate a return to a society in which each individual worked primarily to support his or her own basic survival needs, and then if there was time left over, perhaps pursue a personal predilection.

We may all get that chance sooner than most people realize, if the banksters and Wall St. are allowed to completely destroy the financial system that has enabled the establishment and continuation of the fungible employment matrix.

I look forward to the next installment of your treatise.

Wandering Bear

James Keye said...

Wandering Bear,

That was my point, that the law of supply and demand is not a law in the normal physical law sense, since it is only a law as long as humans decide to make it one. Admittedly it is more than that, but requires a far more thorough examination – including biologists, psychologists and sociologists – than is typical in economics.

I am not opposed to an economic system than uses economies of scale and specialization to decrease the amount of time required to meet primary needs, but I would want the social mores to include that everyone remain in close contact with those needs through the actions of their own hands, as well as the other items on the list.

I fear your prescience is prescient!

I am slowed a bit in the next part of this essay – so much cool stuff being stirred up as I think it through.