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Working for the commons after the end of the labor market

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
31st December 2012


Maybe a lot of those kids who come out of university or professional training don’t need a job, or a labor contract. They need to start to think, from the perspective of the commons, about building their own project. And, of course, above all, they need to know they are capable of doing it and moving forward. They must conquer their fears, and gain their sovereignty.

Republished from David de Ugarte:

“I just saw the video of a talk by Claudia Kodja at TEDxMauá. Part of the idea that unemployment among people under 24 years old (the global average is 20%, 18% in the US) is not a passing product of the crisis, but the result of a long-standing tendency that reflects fundamental transformations in the productive system.

The perspective for more and more youth, she tells us, is that spending time working at a business should be purely “opportunist” and temporary, just another phase in the training process, which would culminate in incorporation into the market as autonomous sellers of their capacities. Only a few of them would be really innovative, and would form businesses that include others, and if they are successful, would obtain rents. But everyone would make a living off that, except that the hegemony of the business-to-salaried-employee relationship would change to one of business-to-autonomous-worker.

There’s a dimension of her speech that dovetails with the framework given by the reduction of the optimal scales of production: let’s extrapolate her perspective, and add in what an ever-growing commons would provide. Those youth, those people, would no longer be simple “talent sellers” for organizations.

They could propose projects, just as hundreds, or thousands of free software small businesses and cooperatives do today, forming alliances in the market to offer services or produce things. That is, what’s normally called the labor market would dissolve in a network of people and small organizations doing projects starting in the knowledge commons (which, as a consequence, would be developed even further).

Turn your thinking on youth unemployment around. Maybe a lot of those kids who come out of university or professional training don’t need a job, or a labor contract. They need to start to think, from the perspective of the commons, about building their own project. And, of course, above all, they need to know they are capable of doing it and moving forward. They must conquer their fears, and gain their sovereignty. Just what the State doesn’t educate them to do.

In a companion article, David adds some musings about what ‘working for the commons’ actually means and requires:

” … the hacker ethic, the idea that work is worth as much as the knowledge it provides to the one who does it and to others, breaks with the moral perversion of all these ideas. We would also be in sharp contrast to the artisan ethic, according to Richard Sennet: pleasure and self-esteem are not born of repetition, but of making it unnecessary. As Erick S. Raymond says, one of the characteristics of a hacker is thinking that “no problem should ever have to be solved twice“… which is why, among other things, he releases his knowledge to the commons even before he has it polished.

What does it mean to us to be responsible?

In our work ethic, to be responsible is not take on pain as an inevitable command, to overcome the natural resistance to a mediocre job, and even less so to be willing to do anything without looking at the consequences for others. To be responsible is to accept talent and subject it to an ever-changing effort.

Why ever-changing? Because knowledge exists only in community. To value work for the knowledge it generates means that there first exists a community for which it’s developed, and that this community (or others) has had a problem posed to it. There’s no knowledge without a who and a for whom, and at least the first of the two should be able to answer with a “we.”

In reality, in the hacker ethic, in our work ethic, individual work doesn’t exist; work is personal, and can only make sense in relation to the contexts and values of a community. A job is a personal talent on the move in the framework of common contexts, which makes them grow by responding to needs with answers. A job is better, and is done better, the more it allows us to know effectively, which is to say, if it broadens not only our knowledge but also the common context of the community, so that even as it expands our horizons, it also serves our surroundings.

That’s why it will always be different, because every time, the questions will be different, and the procedures to answer them will be different. If there’s any kind of effort that makes sense at work, it’s inventing a procedure for each new question, a path that allows our talent to work to resolve it.

That’s why all responsible, ethical work is creative work. And that’s also why it’s so distant from the suffering, from the routinized effort of a stable procedure, and from the individualist madness of success that represents the project as a mere superimposition of jobs with concrete objectives which, ably directed through an organizing heirarchy, will obtain a common result.

But then, our habits will say that we already knew that, the idea that demands the imposition of an external order, the idea that measures work by the unhappiness that it generates, is not only alienating and destructive to each of us, it is, above all, irresponsible… and yet, many still cling to it. But, today, we haven’t just gotten a bird’s eye view of the myths that sustain the narratives, we’ve taken a step towards understanding how the supposed value of unhappiness and the alleged need for a disciplinarian external order mutually support each other.

And, a bit of personal advice: if you feel like your job is like this, if you feel like your job is worth as much as the suffering it causes you, and the only way to relieve it would be to have more routine procedures and a clearer vertical order, if you’re disturbed by the self-organized chaos Koldo talks about… Stop!! Think!! Unhappiness is not the way… and irresponsibility, even less… at least to work in the Las Indias, and, I think, in more and more communities.”

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2 Responses to “Working for the commons after the end of the labor market”

  1. Tressie Says:

    This only works if education is free. Student loan debt effectively mortgages future knowledge production. Nature of repayment conditions workers to need regular remuneration characteristic of business-employee model. Healthcare works similarly.

    But interesting.

  2. Bob Haugen Says:

    I agree with Tressie that this is interesting but problematic.

    The precariat is good for employers because it provides a more-exploitable labor pool. Student loan debt and the US health care system also force people to scramble for jobs.

    The commons will need to provide, not just allow.

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