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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.


Anonymous said...

Hello James

I agree with your position on the pressing need for a re-formulation of our collective work ethic, but as you have pointed out, many will disagree vehemently. They will be the ones who stand to lose the most in social power and prestige. The trouble is, they are the same individuals who own the biggest guns and control the present legal system, that is--prisons.

Biology dictates that when a phylum exceeds it's carrying capacity it invariably crashes. When other animals need to experience a re-adjustment, they rather quietly experience a die-off until sustainable levels are achieved. When humans finally become re-acquainted with the fact that we are only higher-order animals to which the laws of biology still apply, our crash could very likely destroy the planet in the form of concurrent variations of holocaust.

The only way to avoid this fate would be for humanity to reach a consensus on how to manage this monumental crash. And if humanity has proven to be completely incapable of achieving one thing, it is a consensus on anything!

I don't like being so pessimistic about our capability to survive the upcoming challenges we all must face, but it is what it is.

Still, in the time we do have left, there is much beauty and love to savor.

Wandering Bear

James Keye said...

Wandering Bear,

The most important point that I am trying to make is that we humans are not what we appear to be in the present zeitgeist. As long as we think that we are what we seem to be, then the outcome is essentially certain; the one you so clearly see and present – that I also think is the most likely. There is a terrible mixture of biological nature ( the only ‘nature’ we have) with the rejection of the biological that has come to form our present intellectual view. The consciousness system of order is not our nature, but is a design for selecting, storing and implementing information, forms and methods, unavailable to biological systems. Our conflicted struggle to manage consciousness and our rejection of what we are as animals has driven us to this brink. The collapse of our economic systems, in synergy with the collapse of ecosystems, is unavoidable without a major change in how we think about ourselves and the world around us. I am trying to weave together other ways to think with connections to the present designs sufficient to begin nudging the zeitgeist in the right direction.

As you will understand, I am really only doing this for my own benefit, my own sanity. But, I am writing it and posting the thoughts in the possibility that my observations might be right, or might, even if thoroughly wrong, jog someone else’s thinking in the right direction.