Disclaimer: this post is full of some pretty strong opinions, not all of them complimentary, about global capitalism and in particular my homeland’s role in promoting it. If you are fans of both those things, please discuss.
Just to add more fuel to the fire and keep me warm through these cold winter months, a few weeks ago a Facebook friend shared Miya Tokumitsu’s view of the void. It speaks directly to most of my fears in my last post: how “do what you love” has become an almost Orwellian euphemism for a future in which we should all feel so lucky to have a job at all that we stop complaining either about how pointless that job is, or about the unlivable wages we get paid to do something that has real human meaning. I associate these viewpoints with an American stereotype, self-reliant and “can-do” to an extent which becomes absurd when sound-bitten into Internet memes. I also associate them with the Republican party, perhaps because the Democrats have so often been likened to the closest antidote I find to hand (Scandinavian social democracy), but that may not really be fair. In a more somber moment I might find that in fact, both parties suck.
Indeed, I’ve been staring into the void myself lately. I’ve heard it said that if you stare long enough, the void stares back.
In any event, this piece played all my preconceptions about the worst excesses of global capitalism like a fine violin. When nothing else makes sense I tend to fall back on cui bono logic, which was served up with aplomb: make someone feel lucky enough to be doing a job and they will do it for less than you ever dreamed. It’s a race to the bottom! what’s not to like! And that’s how you get the privileged, as-yet-irreplaceable workers to put in hour after hour of overtime for you — the underprivileged, replaceable workers can’t actually object to this state of affairs and expect to keep their wages, or their visas.
Unfortunately this strikes me as rather lazy thinking. It would be easy enough to blame the current situation entirely on the machinations of heartless plutocrats. But it seems likely to arise even in situations where each of us means well, and we simply work under the assumption that each of us should be able to benefit from the value we create. Then the question becomes how we assess value, and assign benefit. There’s so much technological leverage in the global economy now that Winner Takes All — benefits accrue to some individuals far out of proportion to similar amounts of effort put in by their less fortunate contemporaries.1 Realistically, there will be a set point where those who can find a more accommodating position will do so, but that set point seems to inch upwards towards more hours every year, owing in part to the pathological competitiveness of a few near the top of the ladder, and in part to the acquiescence of the rest of us towards a work culture that seems less and less humane.2
Later, a different Facebook friend shared Mark Linsenmayer’s response to Tokumitsu’s essay. I didn’t know “New Work” was actually a thing, but apparently it is. From context this seems to be more doublespeak people use to describe what I’ve been calling the “postmodern job market”: a nearly or entirely fluid employment situation where we’re all doing odd jobs, trading hours like horses, rather than entering into any kind of long-term contract. Linsenmayer lists several fronts on which we could make improvements: (1) seeking working arrangements with real human meaning, however limited; (2) making our communities profitable in a cooperative sense; and (3) pursuing policy changes to make these possible. While also (4) acknowledging there is a major structural problem with the race of global capitalism towards zero employment (cuts in labor costs make the biggest impact) in the service of infinite profit margins.
In contrast to the first piece’s discussion, I was actually astonished to find that this “New Work” was being advocated specifically for people at the bottom of the economic ladder. Linsenmayer tells us that in fact odd jobs, urban gardens and co-ops are being deployed in the service of those whom global capitalism has failed utterly — trying to give them a way to scrape by, given that no amount of foreign investment will create enough jobs to feed all the hungry mouths and the political systems that are supposed to serve those communities are too broken to advance policy to help them. The odd jobs and co-ops form a shadow economy which is actually supposed to serve the needs of the poor as much as the privileged. This bothers me greatly.
It bothers me because again, where’s the power in this situation? Implement this and in any place you now have two economies, except that one of those economies is vastly overpowered and over-enabled to extract resources on a global scale and at an ever-accelerating rate. And resources on the planet are still finite. What happens when our urban gardens are repossessed and developed into high-rise condos, or land-use restrictions prevent us from growing anything not tagged for export or consumption elsewhere? Or when the local environment is so trashed by intensive resource extraction that you can’t grow anything there anyway? Or when all the local resources are used up? What happens when nobody can afford to hire you for odd jobs because the only local production of value happens in FoxConn-like farm factories? Where’s Henry Ford when you need him — and how much of the blame should we assign him for this state of affairs?
Now, I’ve known myself to blow this kind of thing out of proportion before. Factory farming, Peak Oil, impending doom from a changing climate — these are all things I’ve gotten very worried about for a short time and then eventually gone back to more or less ignoring in order to do physics, despite the fact that they didn’t stop being problems or anything while I wasn’t looking. But our species’s responses to these looming crises are being worked out now, somewhere they are taking shape — and we can either try to influence those solutions to suit us, or we can take a back seat.
In my ongoing “simplification” I plan to re-evaluate how I might be able to save more and get by on less, as a bulwark against a future in which my earning potential might not be what I think it is. Some people who know me may be incredulous at this mindset. But those same people also know I can live quite happily on fairly minimal discretionary spending — or so I’ve always thought myself. Furthermore, at the same time I spend less on myself, I’m going to think about taking some of those savings and putting them to work, making targeted philanthropic donations towards the future I want to see. I’m already doing both these things to an extent, but it’s haphazard and I need to think strategically about it. People who are keen to see how that works out for me, follow here.
1To head this off at the pass, I’m not saying that the entrepreneurs who make the companies that make all our stuff and make people’s lives better didn’t work hard. Of course they must have worked very hard, to the extent that they become offended if you suggest they are where they are because they are lucky. But for every one who works hard and realizes these benefits, how many work just as hard and get left behind? It’s hard to know because we tend not to hear from as many of them in the media.
2Full disclosure: I’m quite happy with the pay and benefits in my current position. I’ve clocked my hours and I know I don’t work an infinite number thereof. As I’ve gotten older and my work has gotten higher-level and more difficult, I see that the amount of time I can put in on it each week is limited, so I have to make harder decisions about what to do now and what to blow off or perform to a lower standard than I’d like. This is all to be expected, but the price I pay for not working so many hours is working weirder hours than most, and accepting a lot of job insecurity in the bargain. If I have to switch sectors the price may change.