This week, I am going to do one of those blog series, where each post is a different aspect of a connected topic. The topic is "Making A Living". Several things have cropped up that I think are all connected, these are:
Traditional Work Ethic (or absence of it)
The Welfare State (mostly a British phenomenon, of course, but it's also appropriate in North America)
Poverty (as a whole)
Personal Financial Responsibility (the desire to acquire)
Real Socialism (sharing, OHMIGOD!)
There's a lot there, some political, some historical, some ethical, some common sense, and overall, a lot of Melanie's opinions. If you disagree, or have something to add, don't be afraid to use the REPLY button. It's much more interesting when it's not just me doing all the talking, and you can talk among yourselves too.
Some of you prefer to discuss things on Facebook, and that's fine. I'll be advertising the posts there. But do speak up.
Let's begin with an interesting concept that I was mulling over with a friend on Facebook last week, the idea that the very system of work itself could be changed completely. He sent me to a link, which is a very long essay (bordering on manifesto) detailing how this could be done.
I would like to offer in advance the opinion that this wouldn't work, and even if you could make it work it would take a very long time, and you'd need to do it gradually to avoid total collapse of the existing system. Which means you'd need to have other systems as a transition.
As a long-term goal, therefore I don't see it entirely unreasonable, but I have many, many questions about it, as I'm sure all readers will. The first hurdle is to read it. It is, as I said, very long and all in one piece. BUT, I think if you read it, you'll find it thought-provoking..
So, having stuck my neck out and said that it won't work, I am obliged to say why.
Well, it's because people are involved. Humans are a funny bunch, and I write about them all the time. They have a lot of negative characteristics that prevent just about any utopian ideal from working. These include (but are not limited to):
Those will look familiar to you. They are the seven deadly sins, as promoted by the early Christian church, and probably one of the wisest things that ever came out of said tradition. These are the obstacles to a perfect society, but the church never solved the problem of people having these "sins", and they never will, because these are normal, natural human failings.
I personally speak out against all of these in my own way, from time to time, not because I'm perfect myself, not by any means, but because I know harm when I see it, and all these are indeed harmful. But they are also each on a scale, by degree, of seriousness. A little lust is fun, and somewhat important too. Envy, pride, and greed can manifest as ambition, if it's not taken too far. We all need a little drive inside of us.
No, the real problem is when these occur at the greater end of the scale, for example when greed wins out over all else, so that acquisition of wealth becomes more important than any form of compassion or kindness. When money matters more than life. And this is a common situation, and one that we see quite plainly and regularly in politics and corporate policies.
When the ordinary man, who we are going to call Fred, is unable to make a basic living, because of the negative behaviour of Them In Power, whoever they are, then society simply isn't working.
You see, the whole point of society, of humans living together in some sort of co-operative arrangement, rather than "every man for himself", depends upon any individual or group who take (or are given) power allowing Fred to meet his needs.
The smallest unit in a society, after a family, is a "band". That is, a group of humans who may or may not be related, who live close to one another, who help one another when necessary, and who share resources. A big band may live in a settlement that we call a village, and when we talk about the village, we means both its physical location and structure, and those who live in it. Same applies all the way up to city state, and eventually, to nation.
These people live together for a reason. By living in groups, in addition to the benefit of "safety in numbers" we can specialize a bit. Some can concentrate on construction, some on animal husbandry, etc. We don't all have to do absolutely everything for ourselves, and therefore we don't have to become experts in everything. Indeed, as the society becomes more sophisticated, it is not possible to become an expert in everything.
It's a good system, and it's the reason humans have reached the point we are at. You don't have to like it, but modern society is an incredible achievement. The fact that you are reading this is all the example you need. Centuries of technological development have culminated in the situation where you can read the written thoughts of somebody who - with a few exceptions among my readers - you've never met, within seconds of her typing them into a keyboard in her own home, and you can even do this on a phone while you are in a cafe on the other side of the world.
While there are a few people who would prefer to live alone in the woods, making flint tools and hunting for dinner, the rest of us enjoy the benefits of this modern world, however selectively. We acknowledge the value of this arrangement of grouped resources and specialization.
What many of us don't value, is how it tends to play out, with an elite few arranging things, and everyone else being stuck in a system we have no control over. We are the proletariat. How does that happen?
In order to benefit from the group, we must be part of it, and of course there are certain commitments required. Rules. The rules are created by those within the group, by majority consent. That is the natural order of things. Consent is a funny thing though. It can simply mean lack of opposition. If the group allows some within the group to have power over the rest of them, then the group are all responsible for what happens next.
You don't need me to tell you how this goes. It works the same in small organizations and in empires. From the lead singer in a rock band making all the decisions, to a power-crazed tyrant invading other people's countries, and all of this can be nipped in the bud by solidarity among others in the group saying "no". But we don't. We hand power to them on a plate.
Which is why Sloth is actually the deadliest of all sins.
But it happens. It happens every damn time. And by the time we realize it, it's usually already too late. And if you are born into an established oligarchy (and ALL systems are oligarchies) it's awfully hard to change the system from within.
Inevitably then, you are part of the system, and if you are lucky and you work hard (and you need both luck and effort) you rise to the top and gain some power yourself, but few of us do. Most of us are just a cog in the machine, one way or another.
Most of us don't even mind too much, so long as we have our needs met. Fred doesn't mind. He has a roof over his head, food on the table, and he doen't ask for much else. If he's a bit short he goes without luxuries, and if he's in really dire straights, the system will stop him from starving to death huddled in a freezing doorway. Well, that's the theory anyway.
He doesn't like it that a tiny minority live in absolute luxury, and that often includes the luxury of "getting away with murder" (sometimes literally), but he can't do much about it, so he counts his blessings, casts his vote thinking it does some good, and just sort of muddles through.
Fred, or at least a lot of Freds do have power. Incredible power. The power of many against the few. They just don't exercise it. It's too frightening. Staging a revolution is a lot of work. There's a lot to lose. And getting everyone to join in is really, really hard. Ordinary people generally simply aren't suffering enough to risk the violence and the loss of what little they do have if they revolt. So they don't go out and man the barricades. Those in power are careful not to let the little people suffer too much, because they know that desperate people, in large numbers, are extremely dangerous.
While all the time the Freds have enough to muddle through on they will not risk damaging the status quo, and those in power know this.
No matter how rough you have it, you see, it could be worse.
The utopian dream of everyone doing whatever they enjoy, and for this to work as a society isn't completely crazy. But for it to work it has to become a system, like any other. Inevitably rules would need to be created to stop the greedy, envious, gluttonous, and lusty taking more than their fair share. Because otherwise there'd be an awful lot of wrath. And if you take pride in your output, you have no desire to see some bastard too slothful to make his own stuff, run off with it.