Unemployment Is The Cure

I don’t often write longer pieces, so before I begin to explain such a provocative title, let me note a few points:

  1. I was spurred to write this after reading Douglas Rushkoff’s CNN piece “Are jobs obsolete?” (Sept 7, 2011)
  2. Some of what follows was in a work I originally did in 2003 called “The Unemployment Economy.”

Having said that, let us move on.

The first time I ran across the idea of “unemployment” as a desirable goal was in 1979 in Robert Anton Wilson’s work, in particular the “Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy.”

If memory serves, Bob mentioned the idea of a public stipend paid to anyone who could invent a device that would make their job obsolete. At first glance, this seemed to be yet another in a long line of failed promises left over from the days of “the dreams of automation,” but the idea of paying people to create new efficiencies in infrastructure lodged in my cranium. So did the idea that changes in technology would produce massive unsustainable structural unemployment. I was 11 years old.


The Logic of Leisure

In 1932, Bertrand Russell wrote “In Praise of Idleness” ( http://www.panarchy.org/russell/idleness.1932.html ) in which he states:

“Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone….. [T]he road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”

The logic of “production” goes like this:

If the world requires a certain amount of something, then there are two choices:

  1. some number of people work ALL of the time to produce the desired amount, or
  2. some larger number of people work PART of the time to produce the desired amount.

Ah, but,
the logic of “consumption” is quite different, and goes like this:

  1. we need to employ people all the time,
  2. such employment produces a surplus,
  3. people need to be convinced to purchase the surplus through marketing and advertising,
  4. the surplus has to be quickly converted to waste, so people will purchase again,
  5. this is accomplished by denying basic needs to everyone so that they have to work in order to consume.

The first story is a recipe for a civilization that spends some of its time meeting its obligations to society and the rest of its time in pursuit of leisure and other interests and projects. The second story is a recipe for a civilization with waste, pollution, and mass slavery.

The spread of information technologies and mass computerization creates unemployment. Daniel Yankelovitch notes:

“In today’s global economy, employers can grow and be profitable by restructuring their operations so as to be less dependent on large numbers of full-time, full-benefit, locally recruited employees. They systematically can reduce their own work force, utilize the work forces of other nations, and organize their work in such a way that much of it can be done by a contingent labour force, a labout force that does not have to be paid benefits, and that does not have to be granted even the most limited job security… [In this way, they] achieve economic growth by employing only a fraction of the total number of people who are seeking jobs. The result either is high unemployemnt, as we are seeing in Europe, or the steady substitution of low-wage, low-benefit jobs for high-wage high-benefit jobs, as we are seeing in the U.S. (“A Critique of the ‘Information Society’ Concept, Daniel Yankelovitch, in “Changing Maps: Governing in a World of Rapid Change, Steven A. Rosell, 1995)

Unemployment indicators in the entrenched [developed] countries have risen steadily since the 1950s. In addition, the decline in birth rates already experienced in these countries will generate increasing numbers of elderly with less of the younger generation in the workforce. Even if birth rates rise again, those children will be unemployable during their youth, straining the system even further. The total number of non-working individuals cannot be handled using traditional economic methods.

The Income Crisis

So ultimately it comes down to this. For the employers, which is to say, predominantly large hierarchical structures that exist by skimming surplus value off of their workers’ work and simply paying them some portion of that value as a wage, there is an “employment crisis.” However, for the people, a job merely serves as a conduit for income, and consequently, the crisis is not an “employment crisis” but an “income crisis.”

This is a crucial point, so I’ll make it again another way.

An Employment Economy has to make people think of their “income crisis” as an “employment crisis.” An Unemployment Economy has no such necessity.

An Unemployment Economy begins with the premise that people perform best at activities in which they enjoy intrinsically and for which they volunteer. This self-selection principle is a key ingredient of current open-source coding economies, and was even used by Google to allow it’s employees to self-direct a portion of their daily work-time. Self-selection is not volunteerism; it’s compensated work. Otherwise someone is still exploiting you and getting the benefit of your labor, only for free.

Furthermore, calling it an “employment crisis” implies that the solution is to create more employment, but calling it an “income crisis” implies that the solution is to create more income. This can be done in a variety of ways, many of which have nothing to do with getting a job.

For example, in 1980, as part of the birth of cyberpunk, ZBS Media aired an award-winning radio drama (Produced by Thomas M. Lopez. Written by Meatball Fulton) called “Ruby, the Galactic Gumshoe” which featured a conversation with an alien named “Monet” from a society which had purportedly solved these issues. Monet tells Ruby:

“Unemployment is not a disease that needs to be cured by creating more employment. Unemployment is the cure. So we devised a better system.”

Maker Culture Means Freedom

As we move forward, the numbers of people making their own things and self-organizing into “maker” communities is encouraging. Nevertheless, these activities are parasitic on a legacy economy that still requires people to work jobs in order to provide basic needs for themselves and their families. In this sytem, some get rich, but most stay poor, rather than everyone having “enough.”

The emerging peer-to-peer economy then is one which functions more like Kropotkin’s “mutual aid” (thank you, Howard Rheingold), than the “help yourself and let others help themselves” that arises when citizens are pitted against each other in a struggle for jobs and resources that are made scarce just so that the people will not cooperate to provide their own shared infrastructure.

It is worth noting here that the political theorist Hannah Arendt pointed out in 1951 that preventing the masses from having or doing anything which would result in the production of a “common” (something that only exists horizontally between individuals and groups) is a recipe for tyranny, oppression, and ultimately fascism. She called it “The Origins of Totalitarianism.”

Furthermore, Kropotkin had foreshadowed this very point in his “Mutual Aid” saying:

“[T]he institutions in which men formerly used to embody their needs of mutual support could not be tolerated in a properly organised State; that the State alone could represent the bonds between its subjects.”

Referring to the birthplace of Western democracy, Arendt stated it best:

“Not Athens, but the Athenians, were the polis.” (The Human Condition, 1950)

(This is why if you are going to work a job, I have always felt it is best to work where you can feel like you are helping others, for example, at a non-profit or university).

Not An Employee – Better Without Bosses


Again we clarify the difference between employment, i.e. labor which is coerced by the necessities of survival, vs. an individual’s career or passion. Bob Black, in his essay “The Abolition of Work” defines work as “production enforced by economic or political means, by the carrot or the stick” (Black, 1985). In an economy where accurate information is crucial, economic decisions based on having to have a job to survive are neither fruitful nor desirable. The information economy needs recombination, reification, and innovation, and it also needs a lifestyle solution to free up the collective creative potential of its members and allow them to fulfill their roles in the information economy. Enter unemployment. The general causality of this is:

  • Computerization creates unemployment
  • Unemployment creates free-time
  • Free-time generates innovation

What is wrong with unemployment is not its increase, but the unsustainability of a system where employment is “good” and unemployment is “bad”. The end of employment is by no means the end of doing things. Human beings are by nature creative, innovative, and vigorously pursue their goals. This is why the first tier of a panarchy economy provides necessities: to give individuals and groups the foundation on which they can make informed decisions and communicate those decisions to the system in a cybernetic way.

The Simple Solution

The solution to all of this is simple, really:

Pay people to create shared infrastructure.

Shared infrastructure is co-developed, co-owned, co-maintained, and is not subject to appropriation by anyone, i.e. it’s existence as shared infrastructure is supported by legal and political mechanisms that secure its basic freedoms in perpetuity. It’s good for people, governments, businesses, because it reduces costs and shares the workload required for upkeep. Anyone building that should be well compensated for their labor indeed.

If you want to discuss these ideas in more detail with Doug and me and other interesting folks, join us at the Contact Summit in NYC in October.

20 Comments Unemployment Is The Cure

  1. Avatarjj

    I was with you up to the end, when I got puzzled by the whole “pay people” solution. There’s obviously tension between a job that helps paying rent/mortgage and building something of value together. If a shared infrastructure is co-* as you described, where’s the money (rent) coming from to pay people to create the shared infrastructure?

  2. AvatarmrG

    This is, of course, the very meaning of free software in the gnu.org sense; the systems today that flourish quite fabulously profitable running on the Linux gnu kernel have reaped rewards sewn by countless corporations and smb’s who employed their staff to creating this common resource. IBM alone has invested billions in Linux, and one of their chief as400 engineers said to member “All of a sudden, work is FUN! I never expected that. At conferences, the speakers all end their talk with, ‘have fun!’ and that never happened when we were working on proprietary software projects.”

  3. AvatarNeal

    Cool post Sam. A few comments.

    I’d say the crisis is equally about costs. They have been inflated to a degree as to put many in a state of virtually slavery.

    The activities of those entering a p2p mode are as much about working together to reduce costs as it is about creating income together.

    The relevant domains are production, consumption, and governance.

    Oh, and if you can free up time by peer production and consumption, you then will actually have time to be a citizen, community member, parent, etc.

    So it’s about increasing time wealth as well. All related.

  4. AvatarDimitris Tzortzis

    It was great! Thank you! I want to read more about that! What do you suggest? I already read Rushkoff’s article 🙂

  5. AvatarStray__Cat

    While I agree to the basic vision (a society where you work less is better than a society where you work more for the same income), I think that humans should be much better that they actually are to fully enjoy such a society. It is likely that many will reap the rewards of the “common wealth” with no contribution whatsoever. That’s the same reason because socialism doesn’t work.
    It’s a tough subject, actually. In the longer term I hope that technology will give us a world with such an high productivity where almost everything an individual can desire can be obtained with no or little effort.

  6. AvatarmrG

    Of course we pay some not to work; we do that now where we pay farmers not to grow certain crops (or we destroy the crop to inflate, er, I mean ‘maintain’ the prices) and we pay windmill operators to shut down production when the supply exceeds the demand (in the UK, I hear they pay a premium price for non-production!)

    as for prices, what are prices? The natural resources are free, the energy is free, so all the materials are freely provided to us (or rather, we just take them from Nature) so all we are paying is not costs, but wages, but why? because the producers need to pay other wages on the goods they consume and the garbage they produce, and why? quickly you see that prices are (a) imaginary in a p2p economy as they are in the real economy, and (b) costs are a circular argument, at best a means to manage scarcity where, today, there is no scarcity of labour OR resources, there are only absurd escalations of wages.

    It gets worse when we want future-money, because that implies interest; I can pay you your costs, that’s one thing, but I had to pay more because you have interest building in the background, interest that is entirely imaginary (was once based on my lending you my herd as collateral and you keeping any born while I awaited my ship coming in) — because your costs involve paying the interest your service suppliers must pay, the situation compounds. Buckminster Fuller estimated that as much as 90% of the cost of anything (which he computed as the energy to produce/ship/dispose of it priced at the then current NYC utility costs) 90% was lost in middlemen and interest.

  7. AvatarTodd S.

    I definitely agree with the gist of this article, but this final bit seems to have some inner contradiction to it:

    Shared infrastructure is co-developed, co-owned, co-maintained, and is not subject to appropriation by anyone, i.e. it’s existence as shared infrastructure is supported by legal and political mechanisms that secure its basic freedoms in perpetuity.

    There will be no political mechanisms to support this; it runs counter to the very notion of political economy. I feel this p2p economy is more along the lines of Bucky Fuller’s notion of creating a new model that displaces the old.

  8. AvatarEdward Miller

    Yes, we should pay people to create shared infrastructure… and that money ought to come out of land values. That is a crucial point.

    Except there’s a lot of land value, and it all belongs to everyone, so all of it should be reclaimed by the community and any surpluses should be paid out to everyone equally, like a dividend. That would provide a means for people to support themselves in a jobless society, but unlike other revenue sources it wouldn’t hamper production, in fact it would spur production.

    See: the Citizens’ Dividend

  9. AvatarJuno Moneta

    Edward Miller, the problem is that we no longer have “communities” with the means and authority to equitably redistribute resources based on local needs. Over time they have morphed into The State which redistributes resources based on plutocratic powers politically and geographically distant from the resources.

  10. AvatarJuno Moneta

    Perhaps an initial step would be for Unemployment insurance to be tied, after some period (say 26 weeks), to service in a non-profit. The insurance money being paid to that organization for disbursement to the individuals. Some community service resources otherwise unavailable would be realized locally.

  11. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    well that’s workfare, really another term for slavery, and it’s already being done … Much more interesting is the proposal for an Economic Transition Income by Christian Arnsperger.

  12. Avatarnorete33

    Nothing new, please read Karl Marx. The problem is we already have the efficience to work only a couple of days a week, but the capitalism system can’t make it work. We need Socialism, not stalinist Socialism but democratic Socialism from below by making all the big means of production public and working under a rational plan. Anything less will not work.

  13. AvatarmrG

    is it possible to pair democratic and rational in the same sentence? This is the essential argument of Edward Bernays in his 1920 book, Propaganda where he asserts that the masses lack the necessary skills to make good choices, and our modern psychology then adds the further oft-repeated result that this same lack of skill results in a populace who even more strongly believe they are capable! And so, said Bernays, the objective of the ruling elite is to make it appear to the population that there is choice, but to orchestrate those choices such that they democratic voter is only offered the products that (a) can be delivered and (b) do not upset the process being managed by the elite. In this sense, the problem is not with capitalism or socialism or any of the other flavours of otherwise identical soda we’re being sold, but the problem is the stewards of industry have the wrong idea about the objectives of Humanity, or probably more accurately, they have, through the Money Cult, painted themselves into a corner. Nonetheless, however much its application has taken a wrong turn, isn’t the propaganda methodology still sound?

  14. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    This has always been the argument of the elites, but there is actually evidence that inclusive systems fare better than exclusive systems. Ancient democratic Greece and the European free medieval cities didn’t do that badly at all … and would you really live rather in say north korea than say Finland or Sweden?

  15. AvatarmrG

    that’s the logical fallacy of the the straw man isn’t it? Clearly there is more dimensionality to both North Korea and Sweden than your argument presents, and you also don’t demonstrate Sweden as being, in fact, ‘inclusive’ any more than the United States. As for the medieval cities, I’m not sure of the metric you’d be using, but I do follow the reasoning of Charles Eisenstein when he points out that the Serf was not a prisoner or a slave, but belonged to the land in the same sense that many aboriginal peoples sense that they ‘belong’ to the land rather than the land belonging to them, and Eisenstein points out how the Feudal Lord was not given license to buy and sell his domain, but only to manage it, so he wasn’t ‘free’ either, just merely executive.

  16. AvatarChristian Debray

    I appréciate and mostly agree.
    There is a way to improve (at least temporary)the actual system.
    Like in 1948 a international conference to change economy.
    International economic system must accept in GDP the cost of constructing a man (education, healt, etc.).
    If it is accepted the international crisis of unemployment is temporary over because all contry will have enough money to do so.

  17. AvatarSepp Hasslberger

    The work of Silvio Gesell (“The Natural Economic Order”) is interesting in this connection.

    He also suggests that income from a community’s land resources should be turned into a kind of general income by paying all mothers for bringing up a family. The argument was that the women actually shape the next generation by what they are doing, and it’s a valuable contribution to society and the common wellbeing.

  18. AvatarChris Baulman

    We are ALL now dependent on exploitation of others & of the environment, not just for our lifestyles which are clearly unsustainable & unjust, but for our very survival. Literally, if I am to be able to keep a roof overhead I need to be able to continue to pay the rent/ mortgage. To do that I need to maintain a job for life, working for one of those exploiting businesses or their agents or lackeys. This is the result of the fact that the elite once stole our birthright of access to land & we can only have access if we agree to serve them & their descendants, agents & lackeys forever more.

    Don’t believe it? Try telling your boss you object to his ethics, or Centrelink that you will not work for any of these … you will immediately find yourself without money, without a roof, exposed, getting sicker and dying soon enough. Until landrights are restored there is a gun at our heads. We will continue to operate on the basis of survival of the fittest until we are free to choose a different path, & that requires that the natural foundation for life, OUR NATURAL RIGHT OF FREE ACCESS TO air, water sunlight and LAND is restored.

    How might that come about?
    Revolution? No! The elites, & their working & middle class servants who enjoy & depend on social stability for this crazy system to chug on delivering our lifestyles have the guns!

    What they (we) want is MORE of everything, except tax which we want less of … especially less welfare for those unemployed bludgers! So why not reduce their welfare dependence by letting them take some responsibility for their own food & shelter? They already have free access to land via public housing & rent subsidies, so instead of forcing them to look for ever shrinking job opportunities (maintaining the crazy system) why not ALLOW (NOT FORCE!) them the OPTION to satisfy their mutual obligation to society by reducing their welfare dependence by taking more responsibility for their own food & shelter? see https://www.facebook.com/pages/Change-Centrelink-Activity-Test/111159512287661?id=111159512287661&sk=info

    Why might the beneficiaries of the current crazy system support this? It would save taxes, would enhance social stability & give them vital, safe neighbourhoods to return home to after their 40 hour week. see http://ntw.net46.net/NTWmodel/NTWModeloverview.htm

    Chris Baulman

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