A Laborless Eden?

A utopian fantasy has always served as an engine for scientific progress—the fantasy that, one day, we might harness enough fossil fuel, enough computing power, and enough mined mineral wealth to ...

A utopian fantasy has always served as an engine for scientific progress—the fantasy that, one day, we might harness enough fossil fuel, enough computing power, and enough mined mineral wealth to create an army of machines that could finally deliver us from work and back to a laborless Eden. Paul Lafargue promised this to us over 125 years ago, in the closing paragraph of his infamous jeremiad, The Right to be Lazy: “The philosophers of capitalism … do not yet understand that the machine is the savior of humanity, the god who shall redeem man … from working for hire, the god who shall give him leisure and liberty.”

But in a cruel twist of fate, an equally strong undercurrent of dystopian reality has always undone Lafargue’s prophecy: the more machines, the more human labor. We all know too well that much ballyhooed “labor-saving devices” only increase our work-hours. This bizarre, but consistent, outcome darkly hints at the possibility that human labor underpins our economy; labor is the lifeblood of the system, which cannot survive without it (this would explain the age-old and awful treatment directed toward those who do not provide transparent evidence of the labor they contribute). And yet, as the machines now start coming for the white-collar jobs, Lafargue’s prediction tantalizes once again, feeling closer to hand than ever before. Mechanization no longer puts only the working class out of work, but also the travel agency owner, and the radiologist in Manhattan.1 And thus, an entire field has emerged that confronts the toppled 20th century illusion that used to hold out a world of full employment for all those—both countries and individuals—who followed the straight and narrow path. Gaining steam at least as far back as the writings of André Gorz, this body of work can today quickly assemble around the ascendant question of a “post-labor” economy.

With ethnographic data and theoretical acuity, James Ferguson’s recent book Give a Man a Fish has entered this debate about the diminishing availability of work. But it has done so with enough subtle iconoclasm that it is worth spelling out the sacred taboos he aims to eviscerate. Not least, the book asks us to search for new pathways to social inclusion, if the traditional pathway—meritocratic labor—is suffering its terminal demise. To do this, he argues that we need to first acknowledge the deep connection, in modern ideology, between labor and self-sovereignty.

There is a significant irony in the idea that hunter-gatherers might share a central economic concept with capitalism

Long accustomed to studying social structure and the myths and ideologies that can sustain it, anthropological research has identified the self-sovereign “western individual” as a myth for decades. Anthropologists are in general consensus that, underneath this founding myth, all individuals are, in truth, interwoven into broader fabrics of society and culture that make any claims to self-sovereignty specious, if not downright laughable. And yet, after extensively documenting the vast dependencies that organize everyone’s lives, Ferguson points out that many anthropologists themselves then proceed to agitate for “recycled modernization” policies that paradoxically aim to increase self-sovereignty. In short, the myth of Western individualism is so powerful that it infects even those who seek to destroy it.

Self-sovereignty attains this mythic power precisely because of its historic relationship to labor. “Sovereignty” clearly overlaps with “ownership,” and the latter has famously—or infamously, depending on one’s stance—been justified based on Locke’s notion that personal labor, mixed with the material of the external world, confers ownership. A simple tree, encountered in the forest, may well be in the global commons. But if chopped and harvested for lumber, society extracts the tree from the commons and hands it to the lumberjack.2 Addled with this Lockean vision, perhaps we fear that we cannot truly own ourselves unless we labor. Crucially, in this schematic model, the non-laborer strides forth as the unsovereign, or, in darker times, as the supposed parasite.

Ferguson wants us to abandon these intertwined attachments to self-sovereignty and labor. The sun has set, he suggests, on the traditional socialism that so intimately relied on labor and its “politics of production”; to find alternatives, we must delve into the “politics of distribution.”3 Distribution, says Ferguson, is everywhere, before our very eyes; and yet, outside of feminist anthropology, we have almost entirely failed to attend to it, surely because the dialectic between production and distribution has itself been gendered.4 Mythically male production has only reigned as “primal” for at least 150 years because of an intense laboring effort (no pun intended) to erase the role of mythically female distribution. But this primal position of production has always been more of a wishful hope than an empirically based observation. On the contrary, as he argues, “before a man can produce, he must be nursed—that is, the receipt of unconditional and unearned distribution and care must always precede any productive labor.”

As he explains, a “declaration of dependence” would confound these myths, dismantling their tremendous power by openly recanting the illusory promise of self-sovereignty via labor. The international movement for a “Basic Income Grant” (BIG) could serve as a key vehicle for transparently organizing the entire polity around dependency rather than self-sovereignty—without shame or fear, since all citizens would receive it (e.g., a simple bank transfer every month from the state, whether in Switzerland or Namibia).5 While BIG has brought together the proverbial “strange bedfellows” from the left and the right (Ferguson himself points out its neoliberal elements), the idea nevertheless opens up, for the first time, a truly pragmatic (rather than merely ethical, as per the likes of Lafargue) attack on the mythic power of labor and self-sovereignty.

Orwell provided the language, but not the technique, for the BIG movement long ago, when he wrote, “Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no essential difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless respectable people. Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is work? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc.” In these short sentences, Orwell transforms non-labor into a form of labor.6 And yet, this feels more like capitulation to a regime of logic than its undoing. Via policies such as BIG, a new politics of distribution would expand upon the basic anthropological insight that all humans are enmeshed in endless and intricate webs of dependency, rather than try to sweep more and more social groups into the ever-shrinking (and ultimately illusory) category of “self-sovereign labor.”

This would feel quite rational, since the dark secret is that (supposed) non-laborers—or, as Marx called them, the lumpenproletariat—are essential to both societal and individual wealth. For, as any economist will tell you, the most sure-fire way to erode the value of money is to have 100 percent employment of the labor-force (i.e., to eliminate non-labor from the economy).7 As soon as the unemployment rate falls below 4 percent or so,8 workers begin to demand increased wages (because the supply of labor is so limited that they can threaten their employer with quitting, and easily seek employment elsewhere). These increased wages at the bottom of the economic rung then have dissipating effects throughout the entire economy, causing inflation as each class of worker on up the chain begins to insist on higher wages. Then, the prices of goods must also increase (unless they are produced in higher numbers), so as to maintain the equilibrium of supply and demand. And equally significant, the share of profit that goes to capital necessarily declines, as employers proceed to fight over the scarcity of laborers.9

<i>George Orwell press photo, 1933</i>. Photograph by Branch of the National Union of Journalists/Wikimedia

George Orwell press photo, 1933. Photograph by Branch of the National Union of Journalists/Wikimedia

And yet, prominent forces in society seem entirely unaware that their own wealth would collapse if idleness were to disappear. Whenever this basic tenet of standard—even conservative—economic theory is pointed out to someone who wails against the idlers, they are typically speechless, since it would seem to present an unassailable case for welfare10; in those moments, one senses that their only technique for salvaging the mythic ideology of labor is to simply ignore the obvious facts, since they incur such profound cognitive dissonance. And yet, BIG could readily fill the vacuum of our tattered myth by finally granting monetary compensation to the many millions whose supposed non-labor structures the entire system of wealth in today’s society.

If this is the case, then BIG, and the new politics of distribution that Ferguson is outlining, might well invert the standard eschatology of Marxism. The future socialist world would not be a dictatorship of the hard-working proletariat, but rather a dictatorship of the seemingly idle rentier—the social class that is incessantly critiqued for receiving income without work. Ferguson hints at the possible veracity of this claim by turning to a term of art that we all know well: “Share.” As Ferguson points out, the idea of a share does not come exclusively from capitalism, but is also well known within hunter-gatherer society. Intriguingly, both the capitalist and the hunter-gatherer concept of the share flagrantly violate the traditional Lockean connection between labor and ownership.11 Rather than labor activating ownership (and therefore rights to distribution), the share dictates that people have an a priori claim on communal wealth, regardless of input. In such systems, ownership is tethered to (a given form of) communitarian socio-legal ethics, rather than individual material action: “If payments can be conceived as rightful shares … then there is no expectation of a return, no debt, and no shame. No one is giving anyone anything. One is simply receiving one’s own share of one’s own property.” Were this logic to prevail, the horrific rhetoric of the “parasite” that has always lurked dangerously within the standard politics of production would thankfully disappear, in one fell swoop.

The sun has set on the traditional socialism that so intimately relied on labor and its “politics of production”

There is a significant irony in the idea that hunter-gatherers might share a central economic concept with capitalism, since anthropology has long had an interest in hunter-gatherer society as a foil for critiquing capitalism itself. This occurs so frequently in the literature that it is almost a cliché. But what if, as Ferguson mischievously suggests, the share is universal? What if the share is merely a cognate of the same a priori material claim that babies might have with their parents? What if the share, as a foundational principle for economic distribution, could seamlessly cope with the realities of both labor and non-labor, rather than the current ideology, wherein the advocates of labor unreasonably fantasize about erasing non-labor from existence, and forever fear its ascendance?

Perhaps, then, both capitalism and socialism would stand as bourgeois fever dreams, each unhappily grounded in an ideology of labor that could never manage to adequately reflect the power of non-labor in the lived world. If that is the case, then the question for a politics of distribution would be two-fold: Firstly, it would need to overturn the faulty western paradigm that envisions individuals as trending forever toward increased self-sovereignty via labor (and loss of sovereignty via non-labor). But secondly, grounded in various forms of civic membership rather than meritocratic labor, a share-based system would present new and quite terrifying possibilities for exclusion; what we gain by foundationally undermining the old critique of “parasites” could just as quickly be lost by coupling disbursal to social ties. BIG and its proponents must therefore address both where the newly transparent declarations of dependence will be built and severed. As a starting point, the politics of distribution outlined so helpfully by Ferguson in Give a Man a Fish would need to contend with the fact that cruel and exclusionary hierarchies were surely one of the primary reasons that the western myth of the sovereign individual arose in the first place. icon

  1. While platforms such as Orbitz and Kayak have laid waste to the travel agencies of yore, a simple shared file server now allows a radiologist in Indiana—paid a far lower wage—to analyze an x-ray just as well as the one based in Manhattan.
  2. If one doubts the power of this standard claim to property rights, simply visit Chicago or Boston after a heavy snowfall. Parking spots that were previously in the commons have magically transformed into private property, by mere dint of the personal labor infused in the removal of the snow. See here.
  3. Here his book falls within a long-standing, but largely neglected, trend in “non-Marxian socialism.”
  4. In this sense, the production/distribution divide maps onto the well known “market/home” divide.
  5. E.g., Bruce Bartlett, “Rethinking the Idea of a Basic Income for All,” The New York Times Economix blog, December 10, 2015; “Basically Unaffordable,” The Economist, May 23, 2015; Declan Gaffney, “Even in Finland, Universal Basic Income Is Too Good to Be True,” The Guardian, December 10, 2015; Charles A. Murray, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State (AEI Press, 2006) ; Philippe van Parijs, Real Freedom for All: What (if Anything) Can Justify Capitalism? (Clarendon Press, 1995); Judith Shulevitz, “It’s Payback Time for Women,” The New York Times, January 8, 2016; Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, (Duke University Press, 2011); Almaz Zelleke “Feminist political theory and the argument for an unconditional basic income,” Policy & Politics, vol. 39, no.1 (2011), pp. 27–42; on the related idea of negative income tax, see: Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, (University of Chicago Press, 1962).
  6. See Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (Penguin Books, 1989) p 206. “Non-labor” is a problematic term, since it seems to suggest that non-laborers are “doing nothing,” which is emphatically not the case. Alas, competing terms that spring to mind feel equally problematic. “Leisure” is, in many ways, the opposite of labor, but it suggests agency, whereas non-laborers might well be unwilling leisurers, or they might view their supposed non-labor as hard work that is simply unremunerated. Equally, “unemployment” strikes the wrong tone, since it appears as an aberration rather than a structural necessity—to say nothing of the agency that colors the word, too, in that the unemployed are always “looking for” or “trying to find” employment, whereas there are many forms of non-labor that are not actively trying to alter that status (e.g., the suckling baby). For these reasons, the cumbersome term, “non-labor,” seems to be the best option for now.
  7. Sweden was studied intensely during the 20th century primarily because it is the only modern industrial society to have reduced the unemployment rate to, effectively, zero, without causing inflation. Prior to the Swedes’ accomplishment of this feat (via a corporatist model), it had been deemed a mere utopian hope.
  8. The precise rate that can cause inflation has been disputed and challenged for decades, but the general idea is not.
  9. Chapter 33 of Marx’s Capital, footnote 16, has a satirical commentary on this phenomenon.
  10. Incidentally, this stands as additional evidence of Ferguson’s and others’ claims, that much of modern ideology is less about promoting capitalism in some scientific sense and more about disciplining subjects into following bourgeois norms. See also Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, Page 141.
  11. This would explain much of the left-wing critiques of share-based wealth. Critics of share-based wealth are often offended by what they see as laborless wealth. In so doing, they fit nicely into Lafargue’s long-ago insight, in which he notes that socialists, in fighting for more work, were buying into a standard capitalist ethos, grounded in the ideology of labor.
Featured image: Swiss activists from Generation Grundeinkommen supporting a referendum to incorporate the concept of basic income in the Federal constitution. Photograph by Stefan Bohrer/Wikipedia