What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Impediments 1: Work

In the first few posts in this blog series I described the problems that face us on a global scale, and them I segued on to how our systems of government and social organisation could be changed to make us better able to respond to these, and other, crises.

The next series of posts are going to be descriptions of impediments to us dealing with the problems that face us and which prevent us reforming our government and society to better deal with the problems. The first of these is work.

At first sight nothing seems more fundamental to social organisation than work, obviously, it seems, people have to work in order to secure food, shelter and clothing and other necessities.

However, it is to be queried exactly how much work is necessary in our society. Back in the 1930s Bertrand Russell wrote an essay entitled ‘In Praise of Idleness’, where he disputed that work should form the centre of everyone’s life. He reckoned then that only 4 hours a day would be necessary on the part of each person to keep society going. (And remember the work of every explorer and ethnologist from the C19 noted the idleness of the natives… as a sign of their degeneracy).

At around the same time John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay entitled ‘The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’ in which he lamented the necessity for everyone working most of their time and foresaw that after another two generations of traditional toil enough economic progress would have been made in order for people to work less and lead less material lives. Of course, the required length of economic progress he predicted was necessary had elapsed by the 1970s, but that decade saw no change of mind generally on the necessity for work—quite the contrary, it saw a retreat back to traditional notions of work and society after the (rather modest) questioning of these that had occurred in the 1960s.

And again from the 1930s to the 1970s futuristic or science fiction works routinely depicted a society of leisure in the future, where work would be done by machines, and people would not have to put in the hours.

All these predictions ring rather hollow now, at a time when working hours, having been declining for some decades are now increasing again, and increasing in the context of a society where dual income households have become the norm rather than the exception.

In my view (and experience) Russell was probably not far wrong when he wrote that 4 hours a day should be enough to keep the wheels turning, anything else is just keeping people chained to their desks, or other work situations, for no good reason.

You don’t have to be a fan of the Dilbert cartoon series to realise that almost every aspect of working life is needlessly elaborated and regulated in order to create a work hierarchy to provide status for managers, and something to aspire to for the drones. I saw a graffito recently that amused me with its truth ‘I don’t mind coming in to work every day, it’s eight hour wait to go home that’s bullshit’. The quaint idea that someone who sits at a desk for 8 hours a day does better quality work than someone who is allowed to set their own hours and work pace is the tragedy of modern life.

(How often, for example, have you read that a scientist, author or philosopher, came up with an idea whilst on a walk, or was somewhere other than at their desk. Certainly any good ideas I ever get about my job happen outside the workplace and never at my desk, or in meetings or brainstorming sessions).

The spectre that haunts most workplaces in our time is the uselessness of most current business activity. Whole sectors of the economy are simply a waste of time. For example, the whole of the advertising industry could simply not exist and everyone’s lives would be so much better. Much the same could be said for the media. And, as these blogs continue to underline, currently the economic activity of the world exceeds the ecological capacity of the planet—it is an even deeper indictment of humanity that so much of the activity that is causing the ecological deficit is simply pointless on any level.

The other spectre that haunts the workplace is the fact that most workers are completely fungible. That is, they can be replaced at short notice by almost anyone else, or not replaced at all. In an age when most of the workforce is very heavily indebted this must be a constant concern.

If we were talking about real work we would note that:
  • People are more inventive, creative, committed and hard-working when they set their own priorities and work-schedule. If people ‘bludge’ then this could be indication of their moral worthlessness, but it might also be a symptom of the pointless or oppressive nature of the work they are required to carry out.
  • People who are harassed, time-poor and in fear of losing their income will produce poor-quality work.
  • People who are tied to particular career throughout their lives will become jaded and uninterested quickly. As most people have general skills, rather than highly specialised ones, there should be a greater facility for people to change jobs and careers.
  • People who have office jobs don’t do enough physical work for their mental health and physical well-being; people who only do manual work are deprived of the mental stimulation that non-manual work can provide. People need a mixture of both for their wellbeing.
  • People who perform menial or routine jobs are usually underpaid, and people who sit at desks are usually overpaid.
  • People need to expand their outlook with more participation in public decision-making (as suggested in last week’s post).
  • All the teamwork training, business management courses and corporate education can’t substitute for a workforce that is not stressed and is fresh-minded.
And we would take steps to address these aspects of work so as to have a more contented populace.

But, as noted above we aren’t talking about real work, we are talking about economic activity in a globally dysfunctional system where the pathology of work culture and its bad effects on the workforce simply reinforce consumerism, production for the sake of production and activity for the sake of hierarchies.

Next week: the Arts

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