- Unemployment is not a disease; so it has no cure

2 09 2009

I love this extract from Robert Anton Wilson’s essay The Rich Economy

I don’t think there is, or ever again can be, a cure for unemployment. I propose that unemployment is not a disease, but the natural, healthy functioning of an advanced technological society.

The inevitable direction of any technology, and of any rational species such as Homo sap., is toward what Buckminster Fuller calls ephemeralization, or doing-more-with-less. For instance, a modern computer does more (handles more bits of information) with less hardware than the proto-computers of the late ’40’s and ’50’s. One worker with a modern teletype machine does more in an hour than a thousand medieval monks painstakingly copying scrolls for a century. …

Unemployment is not a disease; so it has no “cure.” …

Unemployment is directly caused by this technological capacity to do more-with-less. Thousands of monks were technologically unemployed by Gutenberg. Thousands of blacksmiths were technologically unemployed by Ford’s Model T. Each device that does-more-with-less makes human labor that much less necessary.

Aristotle said that slavery could only be abolished when machines were built that could operate themselves. Working for wages, the modern equivalent of slavery — very accurately called “wage slavery” by social critics — is in the process of being abolished by just such self-programming machines. In fact, Norbert Wiener, one of the creators of cybernetics, foresaw this as early as 1947 and warned that we would have massive unemployment once the computer revolution really got moving.

It is arguable, and I for one would argue, that the only reason Wiener’s prediction has not totally been realized yet — although we do have ever-increasing unemployment — is that big unions, the corporations, and government have all tacitly agreed to slow down the pace of cybernation, to drag their feet and run the economy with the brakes on. This is because they all, still, regard unemployment as a “disease” and cannot imagine a “cure” for the nearly total unemployment that full cybernation will create.

Suppose, for a moment, we challenge this Calvinistic mind-set. Let us regard wage-work — as most people do, in fact, regard it — as a curse, a drag, a nuisance, a barrier that stands between us and what we really want to do. In that case, your job is the disease, and unemployment is the cure.

“But without working for wages we’ll all starve to death!?! Won’t we?”

Not at all. Many farseeing social thinkers have suggested intelligent and plausible plans for adapting to a society of rising unemployment. Here are some examples.

1. The National Dividend. This was invented by engineer C. H. Douglas and has been revived with some modifications by poet Ezra Pound and designer Buckminster Fuller. The basic idea (although Douglas, Pound, and Fuller differ on the details) is that every citizen should be declared a shareholder in the nation, and should receive dividends on the Gross National Product for the year. …

2. The Guaranteed Annual Income. This has been urged by economist Robert Theobald and others. The government would simply establish an income level above the poverty line and guarantee that no citizen would receive less; if your wages fall below that level, or you have no wages, the government makes up the difference. …

3. The Negative Income Tax. This was first devised by Nobel economist Milton Friedman and is a less radical variation on the above ideas. The Negative Income Tax would establish a minimum income for every citizen; anyone whose income fell below that level would receive the amount necessary to bring them up to that standard. …

What I am proposing, in brief, is that the Work Ethic (find a Master to employ you for wages, or live in squalid poverty) is obsolete. Delivered from the role of things and robots, people will learn to become fully developed persons, in the sense of the Human Potential movement. They will not seek work out of economic necessity, but out of psychological necessity—as an outlet for their creative potential.

As Bucky Fuller says, the first thought of people, once they are delivered from wage slavery, will be, “What was it that I was so interested in as a youth, before I was told I had to earn a living?”

The answer to that question, coming from millions and then billions of persons liberated from mechanical toil, will make the Renaissance look like a high school science fair or a Greenwich Village art show.


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6 responses

23 10 2009
Toby

Hi,

I find your site here very interesting and a refreshing change to the usual droning Puritan dogma pushing waged-labour and sweat-of-the-brow work as godly, worthy and beautiful. I believe, like you and Bob Black, that forced work is bad, and that work chosen from some creative urge is good. To my mind though there is only one way to achieve this once and for all (with the help of technological development of course) and that is via a resource-based economy.

Where there is money, there is necessarily scarcity and competing for as large a slice of the scarce pie as possible. Where there is money there will always be forced labour, the drive for profits and the need for an ever expanding GDP. The solution therefore is to redesign society around producing an abundance so as to render all mediums of exchange redundant. This is of course a radical solution and not one that most people are ready to entertain. However, interest in it is growing. See my website (nothing like as elegant as yours!) for my essays on the matter and/or http://www.thevenusproject.com for the “main HQ.”

There isn’t space here to do justice to the idea, or to capture even in brief all of its paradigm shifting ramifications, but I hope you will at least find it interesting enough to explore more deeply.

Cheers
Toby

24 08 2010
freemarketanticapitalist

Another possibility: flush all the artificial scarcities and rents on artificial property rights out of the system, along with all the artificially inflated overhead costs and mandated capital outlays, so that price falls to marginal cost for everything. That also includes, by the way, reversing the government’s uber-Hamiltonian policy of propping up bubble-inflated asset prices by using taxpayer money to buy them at face value; instead, they ought to be letting the price of housing fall to actual market value, and marking mortgage principals down to that value. Imagine if the average rent or mortgage payment were half its current value, and the artificial scarcity rents and overhead costs were washed out of healthcare (the licensing cartels, patents, the cost-plus administrative culture, etc.). And imagine if the portion of manufactured good prices that consist of embedded rents on patents were flushed out by competition and price reflected actual labor and materials cost.

The labor that’s still required to produce stuff should be evenly distributed through a shorter work week.

The idea is to make us less dependent on labor by making stuff cost less.

Most “technological unemployment” scenarios, and the solutions to them, presuppose a mass-production industrial model — just without the workers. But the implosion of the cost of physical capital required for manufacturing ($10k worth of homebrew CNC tools can do what a million-dollar factory used to) is destroying the entire rationale of the wage system. The factory system and wage labor originally came about because of the shift from cheap general-purpose artisan tools to expensive machinery that only the rich could afford. When we can afford the tools that produce the things we need to consume, the whole idea of both “jobs” and “unemployment” becomes meaningless.

2 05 2012
Karen Berthine

I love your essay. Capitalism is based on two key factors: (1) A available and inexpensive labor force, and (2) consumers. In order to secure higher profits, manufacturing has moved out of the U.S. to developing nations, and as labor demands more $$ in those nations, manufacturing will simply move to a slower-developing nation. There is a growing number of unemployed in the U.S., so I’m not sure how long they can be consumers. But should the number and condition of unemployed in the U.S. increase, social instability is a reasonable expectation.

(Sorry – forgot to put in “wordpress” in my blog address.)

29 06 2012
Sugel

First, government assistance increases the measure of unemployment by prompting people who are not working to claim that they are looking for work even when they are not. The work-registration requirement for welfare recipients, for example, compels people who otherwise would not be considered part of the labor force to register as if they were a part of it. This requirement effectively increases the measure of unemployed in the labor force even though these people are better described as nonemployed—that is, not actively looking for work.

16 05 2013
Hans

There’s a lot of radical talk, especially from the new anarchist and market-minded libertarian-type people, but it is very utopian and not in a good way. It’s no doubt a fact that unemployment is a structural reality, but imagining that people would rather not work than work is misguided. Its not work that people hate, but exploitative work or mindless work that goes on for hours, or unfulfilling work. It doesn’t matter how much technology is developed or even how many hours a person’s work contract is, the nature of a highly organised division of labour smply creates work alienation.

Too many proposed solutions seem to imagine that the actual creation of usuable objects and food production is not still largely produced by a lot of boring slave labour, but it is. Or that the cheaper tools’ that everyone supposedly has access to now are not actually produced by people according to a classic production model, usually somewhere in East Asia. It’s Western-centric dreamy nonsense.

18 05 2013
Michael

Thanks for your comment – you make some good points. My concern is that it may be also a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
It is very important to be aware that part of the reason why the West is so materially well off, is that a large section of the world’s population works under what is little different to slave labour – long hours and poor conditions for little pay – so that we can get cheap clothes, computers and white goods etc. This is not a tolerable situation.
But it is also crucial not miss the main point of the essay ‘Unemployment Is Not A Disease So It Has No Cure’ as well as of this blog. One of the great unrecognised economic problems is that we see unemployment as a problem, rather than seeing it as a sign of a major positive development. Once this is comprehended it could free us to significantly reduce the work that is boring and mindless as well as that which is wasteful and destructive, using the time thus gained for meaningful and fulfilling work/leisure. We could then also devote ourselves to work of real priority, such as the ending of hunger and poverty in the world, rather than be driven to create unnecessary work for employment’s sake.
To my view when we finally realise the so called hard-nosed, realistic paradigm of modern economics is in truth operating in a dream and that that dream is in large part a nightmare, then a powerful energy to transform the world will be released.

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