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… “keep unemployment low”. The appeal is easy to see, but what’s really going on here?
Consider the great economist John Maynard Keynes’ prediction, in 1930, that by the year 2000 the onward march of technology would lead to an average 15 hour working week in countries like the U.S. and U.K. Naturally he saw this as progress–not a doom-laden prophecy of mass unemployment–and this fact begins to expose the inherent contradiction in the aim of maximising employment. What economists see as wastefully underutilised ‘spare labour’ is what most of us might call spare time–time enjoyed outside the formal economy–a welcome part of a life well lived rather than a ‘problem of unemployment.’
Of course, modern life is not noted for the utopian, leisurely daily routines enjoyed by the bulk of the population. So why was Keynes wrong? Certainly not because the rate of technological advance over the past century failed to live up to his expectations. No, rather because our economic paradigm literally makes widely-shared leisure time impossible. …
In a competitive market economy a large amount of roughly equally-shared leisure time–say, a three-day working week, or less–is hard to sustain, because any individuals who decide to instead work a full week can produce for a lower price (by working longer hours than the competition they can produce a greater quantity of goods and services, and thus earn the same wage by selling each one more cheaply). These more competitive people would then be fully employed, and would put the more leisurely out of business completely. This is what puts the grim into reality.
So in an economy like ours, a technological advance that doubles the amount of useful work a person can do in a day becomes a problem rather than a benefit. It tends to put half the workers out of work, turning them into a potential drain on the state (or simply leaving them destitute).
In theory all the workers could just work half-time and still produce all that is needed, as Keynes predicted, and as is promised all over again by today’s latest wave of automation techno-utopians. But in practice workers are often afraid of having their pay cut, or losing their jobs to a stranger who is willing to work longer hours. In the absence of a sense of community or mutual trust, and having been taught to seek their security in a wage, people instead compete against each other for the right to perform the pointless tasks that anthropologist David Graeber memorably characterised as “bullshit jobs.”
Meanwhile, governments see that the only way to keep unemployment from rising to the point where the system breaks down is through endless economic growth, which thus becomes a non-negotiable obligation–a dogma. …
… we need to present an alternative politico-economic vision that can restore identity, pride and economic well-being. We need to tell a beautiful story of how we will make the future better for the desperate, rather than a fearful one. To provide a grounded, compelling alternative to a future I have no desire to live through.
… what might a life-sustaining, nourishing economy look like, after the impending end of economic growth?
[David Fleming] reminds us of just how unusual today’s ‘ordinary’ is, and how profoundly unrealistic it is to pin our hopes on market capitalism–an economic system that has existed for less than 1% of recorded history and is already not only destroying its own foundations, but those of life on Earth. …
Most of human history had been bred, fed and watered by another sort of economy, but the market has replaced, as far as possible, the social capital of reciprocal obligation, loyalties, authority structures, culture and traditions with exchange, price and the impersonal principles of economics.
This historical context is critical. The New Economy that we need is, in many ways, the Old Economy. It is time to rediscover the ways human beings related to each other for hundreds of thousands of years before we were ripped into isolation by the brief historical anomaly of market capitalism, into which all of us alive today happened to be born. …
… Fleming provides the radical but historically-proven sequel to today’s capitalism: focusing neither on the growth nor de-growth of the market economy, but on huge expansion of the ‘informal’ or non-monetary economy–the ‘core economy’ that keeps our society alive, even today. This is the economy of what we love: of the things we naturally do when not otherwise compelled, of music, play, family, volunteering, activism, friendship and home.
… the key to sustaining a post-growth economy is culture and community. Those extensive holidays of former times were far from a product of laziness. Rather they were, in an important sense, what men and women lived for. ‘Spare time’ spent in feasting, performing, collaborating and merrymaking together formed the basis of communal bonding, membership and trust. As one of his readers put it–when productivity improves, “in our system you have a problem; in Fleming’s system you have a party.”
These shared cultural ties then bind people together in cooperation, support and solidarity, the essential foundations for the communities which have thrived throughout history in the absence of economic growth or full-time employment. …
This is a key lesson for our organising and our community work. … Fleming’s writing reminds us that nurturing the core economy back to health–getting to know people, enjoying time together and helping to provide for each other’s basic needs–is not merely some quaint and obsolete sharing longing, but an absolute practical priority.
Over the past couple of centuries, this core economy has been much weakened, as the ever-growing stresses of precarious employment and rising prices have left people with less time and energy for friends, family and fun. But as we in communities around the world spend our days relearning how to seek our security in each other rather than in money, we notice that the unfolding collapse of the omnicidal growth economy becomes less something to fear, and more something to celebrate.
We think less about what we might stand to lose and far more about the joys we had already lost and are slowly learning to regain, together. At long last we are remembering how to build a world in which, as David put it, “there will be time for music.”
This is an excerpt. To read the entire article, click here.