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 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  Activities, done by each person for themselves and immediate community, that sustain life, have gradually been replaced by “jobs.”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. 

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