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

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.

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