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, 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.