Personal Narrative

On labor and survival of the species

I’ve had a political reckoning, of sorts.

CATEGORY: BusinessFinanceAs much as I hate boxes and labels, I think I’ve finally figured out where my political inclinations actually lean. I’m labor, but we have no party that I’d currently be comfortable with.

Basically, I think the workers should benefit equally with capital, and I’ll work with my own loosey-goosey definitions so I don’t get bogged down by not speaking fluent socialist or capitalist, and trust that a better-read reader will get the gist of what I’m saying. I’m open to correction, but it’s the point, not how I say it that matters. Now, if my gist is wrong, I need to know that for sure. Otherwise, this is what I’m going with.

Without labor, nothing happens. Our labor has worth. Push that idea far enough so that labor takes predominance and one lands somewhere in socialism or communism or some such -ism. But I’m not so quick to condemn the management and financial classes as I believe my comrades on the far left are wont to do.

For the life of me, I cannot imagine a bunch of engineers working on wildly different pieces of a larger system effectively and efficiently managing themselves through to completion. The idea strikes me as absurd to the point where any single anecdote to the contrary would just serve to be the exception that proves the rule. In this, I say nothing about ownership, and I’m willing to entertain all manner of ideas in that regard. I mean only management. Regardless of who owns the firm, and to whom the benefits redound, specialists in finance, logistics, information, and management are going to be needed in order for the whole firm to succeed in its mission.

I can’t imagine a group of mechanics doing that, either. Or doctors running every department in the hospital, right down to marketing. Or teachers. Or carpenters. Or rocket scientists. Or tomato pickers.

Management and its affiliated fields are like government, a necessary evil. Even a community barn raising has one guy pointing and saying, “you, lift that!” Probably while lifting something himself, in that case.

In general, these capitalist manifestations, call ’em bourgeoisie, or whatever one’s proper nomenclature for those who benefit from someone else’s labor, are important. Sure, Douglas Adams may have pointed out a useless telephone sanitizer or three, but generally all these management/finance/Establishment types serve a valuable role, and they’re specialists in those roles. Some benefit should absolutely redound to them.

Without them, however skilled we are, it would be chaos. Perhaps, under the right circumstances, that would even be a desirable end. One can well imagine one such idyllic world, maybe sort of Medieval in flavor and flamboyance and romance, but without all the fleas and plague, where people work at what they will, and do how well they will with it, in localized small markets maybe, where the only policing is breaking up bar brawls and regulation just means keeping one’s thumb off the scale. I think it’s possible. I think it could even be desirable. And I think it would put a cap on our technological progress, which could also be a really nice thing. Two or three generations in, when the kids don’t remember a life before that, 4 or 5 when even the grandparents aren’t around to tell the tales of back when we had smart phones, it would just be what it is, and it could feel good, and nobody would want to change a thing.

But I’m a realist who thinks in deep time. I generally don’t give two craps about the relations of people here now versus the people there now. Oh, in an immediate, entirely human, I have emotions and a heart kind of way, I’m really damned torn up about the Middle East. And Asia. Africa. And South America. And Native Americans. And Americans. Poor ones. Racial identity ones. Racist ones. Ethnic identity ones. Xenophobic ones. Pious ones. Impious ones. Sexual ones. Asexual ones. Poor ones, even. About the only ones I don’t give a flying fuck about are the rich ones. Not that they’re all bad, but they can cry about their problems into their champaign flutes.

But we need those rich bastards, and they’re going to require a certain amount of inducement to re-prioritize how they focus their spending and investment.

What I care about is the species. See, theologically speaking, I’m agnostic. Were I to be a philosophically coherent atheist, I’d probably have to hew to pure nihilism, in which case hedonism and might is right may as well carry the day as well as any other, and those that quibble will just have to deal with the fact that the might is right crowd doesn’t care about their quibbles and will seize the upper hand anyway. Because might is right. Good news: there’s not a lot of philosophically coherent atheists. Mostly I find them to be sentimental sods with a whole different ball of issues, but they mean well and at least tend to think we can reason our way to a better way. There’s a certain intellectual and moral elitism found in those quarters, and it’s valuable in its own right. They didn’t have to be told not to rape and murder. They arrived at an understanding of good and bad on their own, thank you very much, and weren’t so daft as to need someone else to tell them and command them to the contrary. For this kind of atheist, somehow things matter. Somehow there’s meaning.

I think that’s a good thing, because otherwise the problem with the atheists is exactly one of how we face mortality as a species. So we don’t detect killer asteroid X432b in time. Whoomp. Nitey-night humanity. Maybe some vole-like critter will become the top predator for a bit, and maybe given enough millions of years evolution might once again yield some new cousin with some similarities to us, but Homo sapiens sapiens will be no more. So what? There is no ego continuity. It’s maybe the ultimate bandaid pull, even. Because if it’s not a quick death by asteroid, maybe it’s a lingering death from climate disruption, or nuclear winter, or disease, or hunger. Or maybe we get our shit together but somehow never enough to get off this rock anyway. The laws of physics will eventually scour our remains into so much cosmic dust.

Sure, an atheist, thanks to being human and prone to all the same human cognitive distortions we’re all prone to, is likely to be of the sentimental sort that believes things are, and matter, and mean things, and can talk up a good word fog to explain how that belief meets the highest standards of justified true belief as long as you agree on how many zeroes are between the decimal and the first significant digit. But in the end, none of it, none of the good intentions, none of the greater good, none of the legacy matters.

Ultimately, even the perpetuation of species doesn’t really matter as anything other than a survival instinct.

As an agnostic, I spend a fair amount of time speculating about those zeroes and what they signify…a non-zero chance that things actually are, actually matter, and actually mean things, for whatever reason. And those things that are, that matter, and that mean things fall on a range of spectra. Things that are least, things that are most. Things that matter least. Things that matter most. Things that mean least. Things that mean most.

I know my own biases. I lean towards most. If we tend to the things that mean most, that matter most, I posit we also focus on the things that most are. My agnosticism permits me a radical utilitarianism, one philosophically and fundamentally unconcerned with any one particular, even while my body goes through the motions of sating desires. While I weep for the plight of the modern day victim of oppression, the greater good to look to is the perpetuation of Homo sapiens sapiens until such time as selection pressures bequeath to us new future cousins who will look back upon us as but crudely evolved rodents.

To that end, I fervently believe we need to get off this rock. We need to do so in sufficient numbers to perpetuate the species, and we need to do so with sufficient numbers to sustain our current level of technology and advance far beyond it. Millions upon millions of us will need to flee this local star system. To accomplish this, we must surmount tremendous obstacles.

We have physics yet to discover. We have technology yet to discover and deploy. We have to figure out human health in space. We have to figure out self-sufficiency in space. We have to figure out resource extraction in space. We have to figure out resource management and allocation in space. And we have to figure out how to make sure that millions of us, contained well beyond the scope of single human lifetimes, can live peacefully in those confines, for even small conflict could bloom into death for all aboard.

We need to get off this rock, and to do so we need to surmount all of those challenges and more, and we need to figure it out and accomplish it while the clock is ticking. Asteroid. Tick. Climate. Tick. Bomb. Tick. War. Tick. War. Tick. War. Tick.

By and large, that war tick predominates, and why? Ultimately because of the inequitable disequilibrium between management/finance/information and labor where a disproportionately large portion of the benefits redound to the elite classes. It’s a global problem that requires a global solution. The degree to which we’ve solved it here [which, compared to many places in the world, is to a staggeringly phenomenal degree] is the degree to which we have merely exported the lion’s share of inequity over there.

We don’t have the luxury of fixing the world right now. Our best hope is that we can establish the right equilibrium here and that its positive effects ripple outward. Our best hope is that such a plan for equilibrium would yield peace dividends far beyond our own borders. Our best hope is that disorder can be forestalled long enough for us to meet our technological and long-term survival goals.

Maybe a top-down authoritarian regime, a technocracy, even a world-wide establishment, a New World Order (if one pleases) would be sufficient, one where the benefits redound primarily to those whose job it is to get us off this rock, and the rest can eat cake. But that plan is missing one key element: a solution to the problem of insurrections, especially when the failure to solve the problem is so very lucrative for the worst nihilists of the bunch, the arms merchants. I could even see buying into the pomp, circumstance, theatrics and regalia of such a NWO, because damn, I bet that would be stylish as hell, but no. Ultimately, even In spite of the noblest of long-term intentions, I think such a plan dooms the species as well as any other, with misery enough to spread around.

And the system we currently have has led us to yet another precipice.

What we need is a system where, by design, nobody gets to the end of the day feeling screwed. Compromises will always need to be made when we have groups of two or more, and some of them will feel better than others. But we can’t come away from the negotiating table feeling screwed. Equity and comity are the means to that end.

First things first: there will always be people at the bottom. It doesn’t matter what the reason is. It doesn’t matter if it’s because of personal failings or because of systemic failings. I couldn’t care less about individuals and case histories and anecdotes and worthiness or unworthiness. If we throw the population on a curve, some percentage, for reasons that don’t matter, will always fall to the has least, contributes least end of the spectrum. The why of their existence is immaterial. The fact of it is paramount. Globally speaking, this cohort is minority-blind. The screwed of India are a different color than the screwed of Cleveland, the screwed on one side of a border are of different ethnicity than the screwed on the other. About the only equity we have is along gender lines, where screwed men and screwed women, at least on some scale, may be equally screwed.

When you’ve got a bunch of screwed people, you have a hornet’s nest. At best, you’ve got a screw being turned benignly, systemically, that will just keep screwing the screwed until the screwed collectively rupture and birth a havoc with a twin mayhem. We no longer have this luxury. As we should have learned from Syria by now, these havocs and mayhems don’t have boundaries. Chaos is disruptive on a grander scale, and diverts our resources from species survival to the benefit of blood merchants and the cause of our extinction. What does it profit us if some future ermine does evolve and make it away? So life itself succeeds, no thanks to us, and we won’t be there for it. We would be the asteroid they overcame.

So, like it or not, the most proximal causes of unrest need to be solved as expediently as possible, and we have the means. And there’s the realistic probability that doing so would yield more positive returns than negative. It’s the cost of doing business. If someone can frame it as a matter of rights, all the better, perhaps, but to hell with rights. What I propose is a matter of practical necessity.

What I refer to goes beyond recent calls for a basic income. That’s next. First, there is basic subsistence. I believe there is a basic square footage of shelter, a minimum, that is required for psychosocial health, which itself is required for social cohesion, read: lack of unrest. Maybe it’s 64 square feet. Maybe it’s 400. We’ll let the experts figure that part out. But there’s a minimum, and it must be provided. A person needs to be able to fall asleep at night without fear of predators, human or otherwise, and without fear of the elements. There is no socially-adjusted (read: not uprising) waking without that degree of security. There should be no such thing as a homeless person in this country, even if it means the very least of us just gets to sleep in a secured pod while someone else fits the bill.

I believe there is a minimally healthy diet that is required for psycho-social health, again, necessary to social cohesion, again maybe just seen less nobly as lack of violent upheaval. People need to eat. We must feed them when they have no other recourse to food. Again, we can let the experts figure out the details. I’m content to think of non-human soylent or Nutrient Pie (in five tasty flavors) if that’s what it takes. I’m talking minimums here, not desirables.

I believe there is a basic state of health and hygiene that are equally requisite for …the avoidance of violent uprising. Clothing? Baseline mix and match uniform pieces that will pass among the upper classes. Enough variety so there’s no soul-crushing drab appearance of dystopian dehumanization, but nothing fancy. Basic toiletries and cleaning supplies should be a given. Access to healthcare, including dental, vision, and mental should be universal. Whatever the upper classes work out among themselves in terms of quality/luxury of care is one thing. Essential health services must be provided, though I think perhaps it requires a trade-off of mandatory DNR, hydration and pain management only for terminal patients. More than that is the province of market-driven plans.

I believe a certain minimum of education to be equally requisite for…the avoidance of violent uprising, but I have misgivings about compulsory education at the social baseline. I think the unfettered opportunity for education should be compulsory, an obligation of the state in the interest of domestic tranquility, but people need to be induced to personal advancement, not dragged by the heels through it.

One wakes, eats, and lives at the social baseline aware that the road out involves education and initiative, but consoled that should this be enough for them, as long as they’re okay with the policing and inspection compromises nobody is forcing them into anything. They just need to stay out of the way.

So, what are those inducements? The opportunity for education up to one’s desired level, in whatsoever. The arts, crafts, trades, and professions should be equally available to all, depending on one’s individual capabilities and efforts. The state won’t promise to make silk purses out of sow’s ears, only to help water find its level. The programs may not be top-notch by upper class standards, but they’ll do to transition a population of the willing into the larger society and marketplace. Further inducement comes from ubiquitous broadband internet access, for the streaming of bits of data is far more cost effective than the distribution of print and material matter for the purposes of peddling upper class consumer culture. To keep up with the upper class Joneses, the baseline class has to see what the Joneses have. I suggest that this would create two new anesthetized lower classes of Gonna Haves and the Could Haves in between the Haves and the newly placated Have Nots. Any impediment to at least being a Could Have would either be medical or personal (and personal could arguably be medical). Those with a medical impediment could be treated. Those with a personal impediment (the practically and/or philosophically lazy of malignant myth) are just to be tolerated. Again, cost of doing business for the sake of preventing social unrest. I suspect there are actually precious few that would choose to remain at that level when more and better is an unimpeded effort away.

Better is just over there. To do worse, one would really have to try or fall prey to accident. I don’t care what the price tag is. If we can afford the risk of species annihilation and unnecessary war, we can afford this. I suspect when the experts sort out the details, the price tag will be surprisingly small for the benefits such a program buys.

Then we get to basic income. Room, board, health, and education, those essentials are already met, but are they sufficient in themselves? I don’t think so. Whatever paths those in the baseline class choose, I think it’s general human nature to need novelty, to want to get to the end of a day or week or month and feel like, whatever one has endured, there’s some wee treat at the end of it. Something acquired from “out there” among the upper classes. My idea of a basic income is essentially a stipend on top of the essentials. It doesn’t need to be much, something better perhaps than allowance and less by far, perhaps, than a minimum wage. After all, nothing is required to receive it other than to peaceably abide by laws and ordinances intended to keep the peace. A nicer pair of shoes, A better phone. A book. Whatever it is, whatever is available “out there,” if pennies can be saved for it, it could be had. A free taste, you see, until the new product junkie is hooked. After that? It’s on them. They can work their way out and find their rightful place in consumer culture.

I’d even go so far as to suggest that such baseline communities would be hotbeds of creativity and media creation, social factories for new products for the consumer culture of the upper classes. Revenues generated that way could be taxed to defray the costs of the social baseline, and the earnings retained by the creators are exactly their meal-ticket to bigger and better things beyond.

Having put that cohort to rest, we’re left with management (under which rubric I find it convenient to place finance and the professions) and labor, right where we started, and the peace must as surely be kept between them as between all other domestic parties. Both should equally share the costs of the baseline programs and basic income. Both should equally benefit from the production of labor. Both should equally share in the cost of the overhead for that labor, and equally in the costs of governing the social order that permits such an equitable arrangement.

To these ends, I don’t care if the means are capitalist, socialist, or some -ist nobody has invented yet. Having sorted out the baseline, we’ve already got the basis for a mixed economy, and I’m okay with that. Socialism down there, well-regulated capitalism that establishes parity with labor up there? That would work for me. As would potentially any number of other solutions. I’m not ideologically attached to any of them as long as the essential end result is the same.

Without labor, there are no other classes at all. Disregarding the baseline class, without management, labor accomplishes nothing. There is no Reeses cup where the peanut butter and chocolate aren’t conformed in proper proportion and place. When the books are reckoned at the end of the year, half the profits should have ended up in management hands, half in labor hands, and both should have equal access to the political processes that establish the rules by which this outcome is met.

I believe this to be the optimal arrangement that best assures the march of progress necessary to the survival of species, as, to date, all other approaches we’ve tried seem to militate against our long-term survival.

I do not believe our current two party system is amenable to such a solution. I don’t believe that any of the existing third parties is inherently flexible enough ideologically to accomplish these ends. I think the one mass political voice that could stand a chance of accomplishing these ends is necessarily labor, the one counterbalance to the distortions we currently struggle with. But however much I may or may not sympathize with the various issues of identity politics and sentimental terrestrial utopianism, I do not believe that labor should get bogged down in those details, for they are not the details of long-term space-traveling species survival. The pursuit of economic justice as a primary consideration would ultimately yield social justice returns to a greater degree than a program of social justice reforms would necessarily yield in terms of economic justice.

How do we accomplish any of this? I have no earthly idea. Sadly, we don’t yet have an ideologically unencumbered labor party up to the task of hashing out these details in an incredibly short time frame. Were I a wagering sort, I’d hazard that the odds of species survival are vanishingly small short of a radical, peaceful labor-led reform.

2 replies »

  1. Atheists “didn’t have to be told not to rape and murder. They arrived at an understanding of good and bad on their own, thank you very much, and weren’t so daft as to need someone else to tell them and command them to the contrary.” This seems presumptuous. Who’s to say statutory laws and the urgings of society were not teachers in lieu of religious doctrines? How do we know atheists’ moral revelations are not actually a product of fearing the physical repercussions the aforementioned acts can bring? Even in bedlam, actions carry social implications.

    Overt skepticism and disbelief no more indicate superior reasoning than belief. Just because someone ultimately chooses to believe in the principles of an established doctrine does not mean they did so without much analysis and does not mean they don’t continue to ponder shadows within the big picture every day. Perhaps, as Edwin Conklin put it, they consider the probability of a Big Bang leading to all this being as likely as an explosion at a printing press creating a dictionary. They accept that no matter our developments, human intelligence is finite, and that the idea of a deity has its merits. Faith or lack thereof is not a determinant of mental prowess.

    Back to the main argument of this piece, I agree that our system of things is in disrepair. Since 1978, the typical worker’s wages has only increased 10.2% in inflation-adjusted terms. Meanwhile, CEO compensation has increased 937% over that time, figures found by the Economic Policy Institute. The CEO-to-worker compensation ratio was 20:1 in 1965 and 303:1 in 2014. This is beyond justification.

    As you mentioned, there will always be some people rightfully living below the level of the masses. However, the idea that a system could ever be constructed where non-contributors will be forever content to live at the baseline is optimistic to say the least. Perception of poverty and its pangs will simply adjust to this new level. Though better nourished, as long as greater wealth exists there will be those who feel entitled to it based upon some skewed sense of equity that serves their immediate wants. No matter the level of policing, they will continue to devise ways to seize it through circumventing the system because it’s quicker, seemingly requires less effort, and is righteous under their principles.

    Ideas of social engineering always make me think of the film “Equilibrium.” Drugs were administered to the masses to prevent social unrest, but not without also eradicating creativity and aspirations for personal betterment. In effect, dehumanization. Policies and technology carry both desirable and undesirable consequences, and it seems mankind cannot be saved from itself, on this planet or any other. If anything, now is the time society could most benefit from people being joined with the notion that good deeds and sins can have eternal personal effects. Wouldn’t you agree?

  2. Charlie, thank you for your thoroughly considered response.

    A note on my bias as to atheism/agnosticism: I can’t speak to faith. I have nothing to offer a faithful perspective that believes that there is some eternal essence of self that may or may not, depending on conditions, be susceptible to some form of afterlife justice. I may be dismissive of the tenets of various religions. That’s my own personal failing. But to keep it in the context of this post, one of my baseline assumptions is that, from a simple faith/non-faith perspective, there’s not necessarily any particular impetus to get off this planet and perhaps even theological grounds for *not* getting off this planet, where those of faith are concerned. The rest of us (and maybe including some of faith) may or may not feel the imperative nature of the mission. I’m one that does.

    “If anything, now is the time society could most benefit from people being joined with the notion that good deeds and sins can have eternal personal effects. Wouldn’t you agree?”

    While I respect that you feel this way, I couldn’t possibly agree. For me to make that leap, I’d have to agree that there is something of us that is eternal before I could concede that good and bad deeds may have eternal personal effects. I don’t, and not for lack of trying. I’ve experienced a great many things in the course of my life that would convince perhaps a great many of the existence of a soul were they to have had those experiences. At the same time, any of those experiences could have been just an emergent phenomenon resulting from the complex interplay of neurochemicals, overall body chemistry, and my environment. As far as I can tell, the better evidence is in favor of the latter. YMMV.

    More importantly to me as a non-believer, however, is my view that while a faith that includes the possibility of justice in the hereafter may provide a great deal of meaning, even peace (especially for the oppressed) to those who have it, from my side of the fence, it just gives, intentionally or otherwise, incentive to kick the can of justice down the road. Our destiny as a species will be sorted out by some higher power, wrongs will be righted, and peace and/or pleasure will be the lot of those who qualify. As a non-believer, our global state of affairs could be personal (it certainly feels that way most days), but philosophically, personal is the last thing it is. With no eternal self, no afterlife, no deferred justice, I’m often tempted toward abject nihilism, but I can’t quite shake the feeling that something matters after all. Not me, or my progeny (if I had any) or my friends, or their progeny. Nothing of mankind ultimately, because if we are earthlocked until the end of our species the tremendous forces of nature will eventually scrub every last shred of evidence we ever passed this way from the face of the planet. So maybe it’s my DNA crying out to me, a species-level survival instinct, not for myself, but for the species, at least until such time as we branch off into something better adapted to the environment in which it finds itself.

    To me, the politics of labor foremost is a means to that end, because it seems everything else is a distraction from our survival.

    Of course, I could be wrong about a great many things. The odds favor it one way or another. As to faith, if I’m wrong there, I’m okay with that. If there’s a hell for people like me, I’m okay with that, too, because I wouldn’t bow to a deity that created a hell, for there is nothing of justice in that. And if there’s no hell, I’m all right. If I accidentally find myself in heaven, I’ll be pleased that I got there without needing it as an inducement to good behavior. If there’s an afterlife of some other nature, well, I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I close my eyes for the last time. And if there isn’t? I’ll have done what little I can to foster the one thing I think might actually matter beyond a generation or two.