Notes on a work-free society

Since, this is the summer before 2008 election season, perhaps, it might be a good time to just take a step back and consider our situation beyond the next four years, as it may influence how we decide to vote, and what we might demand of those for whom we vote.

Thinking more long term should be easy, since between now and the end of August will be silly season – consisting mostly of catfights among the candidates over who is whiter or blacker, older or more inexperienced, more patriotic, tougher on terrorism, has more flag pins in his lapels, and, more likely to betray every campaign promise sooner.

In another thread, we have been writing on the topic of government’s share of GDP, in light of Barack’s likely November victory over the bankrupt Republican Party, and its unbridled quest to bankrupt the rest of us.

That thread has led us back to the Woodrow Wilson Administration and the earliest moment when the idea took hold in Washington, that it could permanently command ever greater resources simply by actively expanding the economy, and, our collective time on the job.

Which caused us to consider the following: Is it possible to set the goal of creating a work free society in the next twenty years as the national economic priority? Not just reduce working time, but, eliminating work entirely – is this possible?

It is, we admit, an astonishingly arrogant policy objective.

In our collective mythology work has always existed, and, is likely to be a constant companion of humanity until the species is extinct.

But wait a minute – is that really true?

Work today consists of leaving our homes and entering the employment of one or another corporation for wage, salary or commission – each of these being relatively recent inventions. Work, as we now define it, mostly did not exist two hundred years ago, and, is likely an occurrence of only limited historical duration.

In fact, up until about 1940, the time our industrial era ancestors spent at work shrank more or less continuously, and, free time away from work gained a greater share of their daily lives.

So, it really is possible to speak of a future where we – or at least our children – could be free of any economic necessity to work.

If you give it some thought, you quickly realize a work free life has always been with us, in one form or another, for most of human civilization. Imagine a work free life as a product – a widget, for example – this widget has always been available, but it was just a really, really, expensive, and, as such, beyond the means of most members of society.

However, kings could afford it; the upper caste of most ancient societies could afford it. And, there are people of our own age (Warren Buffet, for instance) who could easily afford. Still, by and large, the price of a free time widget remains well beyond the means of most of us – a luxury item.

Conceptually, then, creating a work free society is a simply matter of getting the price of this widget to the point where it is inexpensive enough to be enjoyed by everyone in society – free would be even better.

There is a precedent for reducing the price of very expensive items like our free time widget to zero: see, for example, the History of the Book.

Up until quite recently book production was a very long tedious process, involving many months of intense labor. Just as important, making another copy of a book – the Christian Bible, for instance – consumed as much time as the production of the original.

As you would expect, a book was highly prized as a result, and, as much a symbol of wealth as it was a means of transmitting information.

Today, you can have your very own copy of the Bible by going to this site and creating a copy for yourself in about 5 seconds – depending on the speed of your internet connection.

Of course, the publishing industry is not all that happy with this, but who cares?

The same is true for just about any piece of music you might wish to enjoy – once digitized, a rare piece of literature, or, the latest Jay-Z CD is instantly available in whatever quantities we demand.

When production costs approach zero, price disappears – and, despite the RIAA‘s constant, and, annoying complaints to the contrary, even the most powerful lobbies in the world can’t recover their market when that happens.

The journey from tedious months-long reproduction of the Bible and other ancient texts to a portable document format (.pdf) download took thousands of years and an innumerable series of technological innovations.

And, during this long transition, not one person ever conceived that ultimately the reproductions of books, music, stage performances, etc., might become so cheap as to be costless, and, as a result, without any market price at all.

No one had that as a goal; no one saw any further than the next step in that process, until – BAM- it happened, like a bolt out of the blue. But, that collective effort has, over the centuries, turned those things which would have once been for the exclusive enjoyment of the very wealthiest in society into a common object of use with little more market value than rain water.

And, I think this can also be true for our free time widget: exclusively enjoyed today by the likes of Warren Buffet, enjoyed tomorrow by everyone.

It can be argued that the free time widget is actually composed of hundreds of very important products we likely will consume over our entire lifetime – each of which require a definite amount of time to produce, and, which can’t be simply digitized down to zero production cost.

For instance, my twin his-and-her Hummers cannot be reduced to a few million bits of digital information.

But, as we have witnessed since the founding of this country, the fact that an object cannot be reduced to digital information does not imply it cannot be virtually cost free to produce.

The best example for this is agriculture.

When our nation was founded, 99 percent of of its citizens made their life by farming. It literally took the bulk of all the nation’s work time to set food on the table.

Today, only about one half of one percent of the population remain in farming – an astonishing reduction in the work time devoted to feeding ourselves accomplished in about 200 years.

It is impossible to digitize a Hummer, but, it is still possible to so lower the work time effort of producing one it becomes costless.

Moreover, projects of this astonishing scale have been undertaken several times in the Twentieth Century.

During the Great War and again during the World War II, the United States managed to free more than half its production to wage a global catastrophe. Nations around the globe made similar efforts. This required such a feat of economic management as to have dwarfed any and all previous efforts combined in the long history of humanity toward such an end.

By freeing production to support the war effort, the United States, Britain, France, and Germany were also unwittingly reducing the cost of free time – all that stuff and all those men on the battlefield killing each other were supported by the rest of society, and contributed nothing to society’s living standard.

When you prove a nation has the capacity to devote half of its GDP to a global military catastrophe, you also prove half the cost of a free time widget can be eliminated through sustained concerted effort.

In 1950, as we will show, the Truman Administration undertook a similar effort to sustain an global encirclement of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics which lasted for some 40 years, and, which machinery still is in place today.

In 1961, President John Kennedy proposed the nation undertake an effort to place a human footstep on the Moon – a massive feat of science and engineering which revolutionized virtually every field of human knowledge – up to, and including, breakfast drinks.

Imagine the impact the challenge of creating a work free society would have on our society today.

It is as simple – or complex – as taking a product exclusively enjoyed by only the very wealthiest in our society, and, bringing the cost of producing that product so low as to be free – and, we certainly have experience doing that.

That is the great challenge of the opening decades Twenty-First Century – and, it could be accomplished in as little as twenty years if only there were some exotically different kind of candidate for president in this year’s race.

Barack, can you smell what we’re cooking?

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  1. June 28, 2008 at 7:27 am

    Shorter work time would also contribute to the great greenhouse gas reduction we need make happen. Necessity is staring us in the face. The North Pole will completely melt, maybe this summer, maybe next, but soon. The consequences melting the permafrost in the Artic region will be upon us soon. We will need to collective work on projects which will help us through the great infratstructural changes which need to be made to get us off fossil fuels and onto the renewable energy path.

    In my opinion these kinds of stresses and strains will not be able to be managed within a production system based on wage-labour, commodification and class rule.

  2. charley2u
    June 28, 2008 at 10:42 am

    The interesting thing about wage labor is the complete antagonism to capital. When you think about it, the drive to reduce labor inputs to the lowest degree possible is also the drive to abolish work.

    It was not until work was completely divorced from free time – as it is with labor and capital – that is became possible for society to abolish work. Of course, this is accomplished, spontaneously, by eliminating the worker, but, I believe, it is possible to harness this antagonism to work through the steady, gradual, and, continuous reduction of working time.

    Beyond this, with working people the overwhelming demographic majority in all the most advanced countries, it is possible to go beyond this natural impulse to undertake the abolition of work directly as the central economic goal of their elected representatives – and, here, I do not mean the Presidency, but Congress, which must strip the Executive Branch of the powers, authorities, and resources it has irresponsibly handed over.

    Working people have already won the age-old political battle between property and the propertyless – but, they have yet to exploit that victory.

  3. July 3, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    Interesting

  1. January 18, 2013 at 6:56 am

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