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AlterNet Covers NWNC 2014 Conference (Is New Work an Economic Theory?)

AlterNet Covers NWNC 2014 Conference (Is New Work an Economic Theory?)

One of the goals of this website and our communications group is to get coverage of New Work in more major press outlets. I’ve pitched to Salon and Slate with no luck so far, but was happy to see that Terrell Jermaine Starr from AlterNet showed up to the conference to report on it. Go read his article here.

Let’s face it: we’re facing an uphill battle in trying to explain New Work to a larger populace. Starr casts the project in terms of economics being put into practice by real people, but if you look at the comments on the article posted by Alternet readers, you see the same eagerness to dismiss this as a ridiculous fantasy, or as misunderstanding capitalism, or overlooking the obvious, as I encountered in pitching this via (I’ll say that, unsurprisingly, the reception I’ve gotten through has been much warmer; though there are still plenty of skeptics, the philosophically inclined seem less eager to jump to conclusions and dismiss someone’s life’s work out of hand.)

It’s interesting that Starr refers to New Work, New Culture as an “economic model” (and provides a hyperlink from that term to this site, no less!). Per the recent posts here about the need for a new culture, I think of it as primarily a recognition of skewed cultural values. People’s lives are simply too dominated by their jobs, or their lack of jobs, or their needing to get more paid hours from their jobs. Jobs are presented as a means (making money) to an end (paying for the necessities and hopefully comforts of life), but yet the means takes up so much of our energy and time and focus that it practically blots out the end, leaving not enough time for families, and certainly not enough time to seriously pursue a passion project of service or art or invention. Instead, we get “leisure,” we get enough time to watch TV and screw around on the Internet.

But of course, people don’t like to admit that problems exist that don’t have ready solutions. Death and injustice and other bad things are just part of life, right? No sense in dwelling on them. And certainly our jobs aren’t as bad as those things? So stop whining! Or if your particular situation is bad enough, then do something to change it: find a better job, move to a better job market, get some additional training. All solutions must be individual, because collective action is anathema, and we’ve lost faith in our ability to bring about change through government.

New Work is an appeal to common sense: our productivity is high enough, our affluence is great enough, that there’s no reason that we need to still be crucified by the job system. In a recent New York Magazine article, Melissa Dahl points to a growing trend towards flex-time and reduced work hours. At the same time, there has been serious consideration in Switzerland and other European countries of the idea of decoupling jobs from providing basic necessities by guaranteeing a basic minimum income.

The barriers to such proposals here are largely cultural, not economic: we’ve still got this myth that the only proof that any work is worthwhile is that someone pays you to do it, and that therefore the amount of paid work you do is a measure of how much you contribute, and so how much you deserve.

For such an ethic to be supportable in the long term, we would need a strong economy: lots of buying and selling happens, putting money in the hands of people who spend it, and so create more demand for supply, and so suppliers hire more people and pay them more, and so the cycle continues.

But what happens when money paid into industries does not translate into more jobs, but instead, primarily, into more automated operations (often moved to countries that are less expensive to operate in) and enhanced corporate profits? In a city like Detroit, this is an established reality. Do we really need to just wait and see if this kind of scenario spreads across the nation before we adjust our thinking and try out alternative arrangements?

We as a people are not known for our consensus-based proactive planning. While a different attitude towards work, and consequent changes in structures and practices, would benefit us all (including overworked CEOs who are missing their kids grow up!), change comes only where it must, and Detroit is ground zero for experimenting with other options. (I should point out, though, that Frithjof Bergmann’s primary work has been in other poverty-stricken areas of the world; most “third world” countries look more like Detroit than like the Bay Area, and Detroit is by no means alone in pioneering New Work efforts.)

Starr’s article describes this new approach in outline as well or better than I could: Detroit is trying to use community-based projects to support itself. People there that can’t get jobs are trying instead to use older methods of organization and exchange coupled with cutting-edge technologies that make these things easier. Instead of working at McDonalds and then using your wages to pay for goods at Walmart (or vice versa), work for yourself in a community setting to provide for most of your needs. Maybe you can keep a part-time job (if there is one available) and still spend some of what you make at Walmart, but the job, and the consumer culture, and the pressure that goes with our being squeezed between them, are supposed to recede, becoming less of an impediment to our having fulfilling lives.

In the several preceding paragraphs, I’ve told a story with a number of elements: The philosophical part, the part about jobs being a real problem, is probably the easiest to communicate, the part that people will not only most readily agree with, but which they will fill in with details of their own lives and the lives of their friends: how (to quote Thoreau, one of the primary sources of inspiration here) the mass of us live lives of quiet desperation.

The economic diagnosis that the job system is unsustainable is more controversial, and it’s easy to get stuck on the details here: How terrible is poverty worldwide? Is the rest of the U.S. in any danger of ending up like Detroit? How will continued automation affect the world in the long term? I think there’s a case to be made (Frithjof often makes it!) that the world situation is really quite dire, that the “job apocalypse” (a phrase Frithjof hates!) is coming sooner than we think, and that, yes, immediate action is warranted, but I want to stress that you don’t actually have to believe any of this futurism stuff to recognize the validity of the cultural critique.

The alternative being enacted in Detroit and elsewhere is the hardest part to argue for, because people naturally want proof: they want to see the numbers; they want to see successful models already in place. A main task of this website is to communicate the successes that are going on in this area, but again, the legitimacy of the philosophical insights about jobs and their dysfunctional relationship with human nature is not endangered in the least by the failure of any given real-world proposal. If you don’t think the approach being used in Detroit sounds reasonable, then let’s hear your alternatives. The job system plagues us all, and solutions will be different in different environments. If you recognize the problem, and see that (unlike death), it’s not an inevitable part of life that we all have somewhat unpleasant work that takes up much too much of our precious time, then you can start figuring out solutions. We invite you to work with us and encourage you to reach out in your own communities to engage with this challenge of the 21st century.

-Mark Linsenmayer