Last month I referred at some length to the writing of Robert Anton Wilson, and this month I want to examine another of his essays from my “deep green perspective.”
It opens with these words:
If there is one proposition which currently wins the assent of nearly everybody, it is that we need more jobs. “A cure for unemployment” is promised, or earnestly sought, by every Heavy Thinker from Jimmy Carter to the Communist Party USA, from Ronald Reagan to the head of the economics department at the local university, from the Birchers to the New Left.
I would like to challenge that idea. I don’t think there is, or ever again can be, a cure for unemployment. I propose that unemployment is not a disease, but the natural, healthy functioning of an advanced technological society.
The inevitable direction of any technology, and of any rational species such as Homo sap., is toward what Buckminster Fuller calls ephemeralization, or doing-more-with-less. For instance, a modern computer does more (handles more bits of information) with less hardware than the proto-computers of the late ’40’s and ’50’s. One worker with a modern teletype machine does more in an hour than a thousand medieval monks painstakingly copying scrolls for a century….
Unemployment is directly caused by this technological capacity to do more-with-less. Thousands of monks were technologically unemployed by Gutenberg. Thousands of blacksmiths were technologically unemployed by Ford’s Model T. Each device that does-more-with-less makes human labor that much less necessary.
Aristotle said that slavery could only be abolished when machines were built that could operate themselves. Working for wages, the modern equivalent of slavery — very accurately called “wage slavery” by social critics — is in the process of being abolished by just such self-programming machines.
Wilson wrote this in the late seventies, and for the most part it is as true today as it was then. Politicians promise jobs, but businessmen, guided by economics, are working even harder to eliminate jobs, or at least move them out of the high-priced US economy and into a country where workers expect and receive less–like China. The result is that we are stumbling towards not just a “post-industrial economy,” but a “post employment economy.”
Wilson suggested that we junk the concepts of “welfare” and “unemployment compensation” in favor of a “national dividend,” a “Guaranteed annual income,” or a “negative income tax” to ensure that everybody in the country could meet their basic physical needs. He also proposed coupling this with
a massive investment in adult education, for two reasons. (1) People can spend only so much time (schtupping)…and watching TV; after a while they get bored. This is the main psychological objection to the workless society, and the answer to it is to educate people for functions more cerebral than (schtupping) … watching TV, or the idiot jobs most are currently toiling at. (2) There are vast challenges and opportunities confronting us in the next three or four decades….
But something has gone awry. The “idiot jobs” have largely vanished (call “idiot job” a twentieth-century evolution of Marx’ term “alienated labor”), but the economy has not been socialized to make sure everybody is included, much less educated; instead, the massive savings created by eliminating the American middle class have gone to the wealthy few, increasing the level of class division in the US to the point where we are now one of the least financially egalitarian countries in the first world. The top 20% of Americans control 85% of the country’s wealth: the middle 40%, about 15%, and the bottom 40%, only 0.3%. Among the top 20%, the breakdown is just as breathtaking: the top 1% of America’s wealthy control about 35% of the country’s wealth, while the next 19% control half the country’s wealth.
It is also worth remarking that Wilson, in the palmy 70’s, expected that, in addition to lifespan and intelligence increase, we would turn to space migration. This was before we started coming to the realization that we have used up our planet’s resources fighting wars and filling the oceans with plastic tschotschkes and the air with carbon dioxide, and no longer have the wherewithal to embark on a major space program, if indeed we ever did. The answer to the question of “why haven’t we had evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy?” may be that planets the proper size to produce critters like us are too small to bankroll, as it were, interstellar travel, unless the critters out there are a whole lot wiser than we’ve been. We have no way of knowing where we fall in the intergalactic intelligence bell curve, y’know?
. Then again, maybe we’re just so psychologically toxic that they’ve got a quarantine shield around us so we won’t be able to detect and infect them….after all, our radio and television transmissions have, by now, reached other stars, and between the news and the soap operas, that’s not the greatest PR for our species…the first major TV broadcast was Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies…but I digress…
What has most especially gone awry, as I was saying, is the distribution of income in this country. There are twenty-five hedge fund managers in America who “earned” (if you can call it that) twenty-five billion dollars among them last year. If it were taxed as “income,” the government would get 35% of that, but instead it’s taxed as “capital gains,” so the government only takes 15%. That twenty-five bil alone is enough to pay $30K a year to about 1.2 million people. OK, that’s just a drop in the bucket–there are 22 million people out of work in this country right now. Well, our military spending, including “supplemental appropriations,” comes to about $1.25 trillion dollars.
Five hundred billion–less than half of it–would be enough to pay every unemployed American $30K a year. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, folks. And sure, military spending is borrowed money, but putting it in circulation here in America would do a whole lot more for our “national security” than using it to blow up what’s left of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Another example–the government bailed out the banks to the tune of $4.7 trillion dollars, and corporate profits in the US last year hit a record $1.6 trillion–in part because they’ve “cut labor expenses,” i.e., put people out of work Let’s see…. 44 million people could be paid $30,000 a year out of a trillion dollars, and we are looking at about $7.5 trillion between defense, bank bailouts, and corporate profits. Defense and corporate profits alone come to $2.85 trillion, enough for 125 million people to receive that $30K a year. That’s half the adult population of the country. Throw in the bank bailout, and the slush fund that currently goes to a few wealthy individuals and corporations could pay out that $30K to 330 million people–that’s every man, woman, and child in the country and then some. So, the money for Wilson’s proposal is here, but we ain’t getting it. It’s going to the uber-rich and we’re footing the bill, losing our jobs and homes in the process. Somehow I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind when he said “Unto them that have, shall be given.”
As Wilson said, “there are vast challenges and opportunities facing us in the next three or four decades,” all the more so because in the three or four decades since he wrote that, this country has largely been making a determined effort to deny and ignore those challenges and opportunities.
I sincerely doubt that jobs as we have known them in our lifetimes will be making much of a comeback. As Les Leopold points out in Huffington Post:
We now need 22 million new jobs to get us back to full employment (5 percent unemployment). In addition, each month the economy must generate another 105,000 jobs just to keep up with new entrants into the workforce. To get to full employment, the private sector would have to create about 630 firms the size of Apple (35,000 employees each). These numbers don’t lie. Does anyone on Wall Street really believe that the private sector alone can pull off this miracle? But really, why should they care? They’ve got theirs, thank you very much.
And neither the higher education that Wilson hoped for, which involved propagation of culture and teaching people to think, nor the practical education we now know we need to meet the challenges of a hotter, fossil-fuel deprived world–gardening and food preservation, blacksmithing, hand weaving and sewing and the like–are being funded. Instead, the mega-corporations who have stolen our birthright use outlets like Fox News and the “Conservative Christian” networks to hypnotize people into believing that what’s bad for them–complete corporate control of their lives–is good for them, and what’s good for them–ecological consciousness and self-direction–is bad for them.
Can you say “sheep,” boys and girls? How about “lemmings”?
There’s a lot more to talk about here, but I’m running out of time…to be continued next month! Those of us who are far enough away from Big Brother to think for ourselves have a sacred trust, if you don’t mind me using the s-word, to guard our insight and share it as best we can. The interplanetary possibilities Wilson saw in humanity’s future are probably no longer possible. Longer lives may be slipping from our grasp, as well. The intelligence increase of his vision is still within our grasp. Let’s give it all we’ve got. We’re going to need it.
music: James McMurtry, “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore”