The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Don’t Call It Degrowth, Call It the “No Bullshit Society”

Or perhaps the leisure society, or the choice society.

As Mark Pontin pointed out, manufacturing is increasingly automated, with one Chinese factory reducing workers by 90%. This is the future and not just in manufacturing.

Whenever you point this out, people panic, scared of the jobs going away, but that’s ridiculous.

If we can produce more with less workers that should be a good thing, not a bad one.

The problem is our insistence on distributing the good, or at least acceptable life thru jobs, a holdover from pre-Industrial revolution times, when every worker was often needed.

That isn’t true any more, and we should be automating and reducing the work week: first to four days, then to three. Get rid of bullshit jobs and harmful jobs, which is probably half the jobs out there (almost all of Wall Street & the City are harmful jobs) and you might be able to get down to two day work weeks.

Focus AI and automation not on taking away work people love to do like artistic and intellectual jobs, and focus them on hard or degrading labour. Move heavily to true rapid transit, and get rid of cars. Make all manufactured products (or almost all) built to last, modular and designed for repair, so that we only have to make things a few times per human lifetime.

Reduce work. Let people find other, meaningful things to do with their lives. The worship of work, meaning crap you wouldn’t do if you didn’t have to, is a relatively recent thing, coming mostly out of the Protestant revolution: virtually no one before that believed that work was a good thing: it was necessary, but the good life was about art, learning, athletics, civic involvement and so on.

To create this sort of world we need to take “getting rich” off the table. You can get wealthy: say have four or five times as much as the median, but not rich. Focus competition towards status and prestige, and towards living a good life and contributing towards others.

And there will still be important things to do which require humans, not the least of which is fixing the environment. There will always be meaningful labour to do: action that matters, just not drudgery so that rich people can play “who has the most” games.

What’s so frustrating about human society is that it could be so much better, and we have almost everything we need to get their. But we’re stuck in path dependence and power games, unable to imagine or build the good world our technology makes possible.

What people want isn’t “growth” its better lives. Make a credible promise of better lives, and deliver and no one but psychopaths and greedaholics will look back.

Forget degrowth: let’s waste a ton less, build a ton less and live a ton better. It’s more than possible.

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22 Comments

  1. Paul Harris

    I agree that it’s more than possible. But just how probable? I cannot see how we turn society around considering the powerful vested interests there are embedded so deeply in everything.
    Opting out is one possible way, maybe.

  2. Dan

    This came up this morning, particularly appropriate in the face of another looming port strike and the bleating about the damage it would do to our economy, blocking the sloshing of stuff from point A to point B so we can buy it before we throw it out.

  3. marku52

    This can’t be done. It requires disempowering the people that run the show today, as employment is nothing but a power play.

    Maybe after the revolution (jackpot)?

  4. Willy

    I’d never held a bullshit job, mostly. My products always had to be designed and built in a timely manner lest my employer go out of business. If I had any bullshit job, it was after I was forced to go into business for myself to design and build shit my customers didn’t really need just so they could feel happier, since something perfectly functional had gone out of style.

    As we all know, in our modern world if all your shit isn’t in style, then you are definitely not a good person. Not to be taken seriously. I once had an old Japanese man tell me that “westernization” wasn’t necessarily the embracing of western culture like sneakers, baseball, and Hollywood, but the mindless mass addiction to the consumption of new and trendy shit, which somebody else had determined was “new and trendy”.

    So maybe one pathway towards everybody living a better life would be if we all didn’t buy so much robot bullshit, and tried to be less of a bullshit robot. Unfortunately, most people are of the “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance then baffle them with all your bullshit” mentality. It’s hard to have nice things when so many don’t know even know what nice things are anymore.

  5. StewartM

    To create this sort of world we need to take “getting rich” off the table. You can get wealthy: say have four or five times as much as the median, but not rich. Focus competition towards status and prestige, and towards living a good life and contributing towards others.

    Your metric of ‘four to five times’ matches mine.

    For those who complain about such a system ignoring differences in talent, I challenge to go to a local athletic event—say, a 10k race. Go to one that’s open to the public but still have elite, world-class athletes (my small town had such a race where a world record was set!). What you’ll see is that the world-class, fastest runners only cross the finish line in something like one fifth of the speed as the 80-year old grandma chugging in at the end. And maybe only one-twelfth of the speed of someone who walked the course at a slow conversational speed.

    That’s not even normalizing the data for age, for training, or gender, or for health conditions. It is a true reflection of the differences between the ability of reasonably able-bodied humans. There is no justification or rationale whatsoever to say that there’s any skill in contributing value to a society which would justify one person having many orders of magnitude more than most others.

  6. mago

    What a wonderful world it would be. Won’t happen in my lifetime, but it’s all possible, especially after catastrophic events force change and all the Atlanticists die off.
    A spiritual reawakening would help. Death to nihilism.

  7. Joan

    I’d love a two-day work week. I’d get so much more reading and spiritual self work done, maybe even find time for community service like the local gardening club. I’m a book-binder as a hobby. Maybe I’d have the time to see whether I could start a little online shop for it.

    I’m about to time out so it’s off the table, but if I’d had a two-day work week starting in my twenties I’d’ve had kids.

  8. different clue

    I was talking by phone last night to friends in Wisconsin. They told me about picking cherries at a u-pik orchard in their area. After you have picked a bunch of cherries, you can take them to the on-site cherry pitting machine ( which is really a cherry de-pitting machine) to take your bunch of pitted ( really de-pitted) cherries home to use for whatever.

    The pitting machine looked pretty old and venerable but still works just fine. The company who made it still exists. ( My friends didn’t ask what that company does now). Anyway, the owners of the orchard decided to ask the company when a machine of that sort might have been made. The company said that, based on the serial number stamped onto the machine, that machine would have been made in 1910. And is still working just fine with no old-age limit on its lifespan appearing to come into view.

    There is an example of a machine having outlasted two or three human lifetimes at least, with more to go. And if electricity goes extinct, that machine could probably be retro-rigged to be operable by hand-cranking or foot-pedaling . . . . maybe with several people cranking or pedaling at once.

  9. different clue

    Or maybe, now that I think about it, when electricity goes extinct, that cherry pitting machine could be driven by a little steam engine. Or a super-durable Lister engine ( which is a sub-type of stationary diesel engine capable of burning vegetable oil . . . which, after all, is what Rudolph Diesel had in mind when he first invented the Diesel engine to begin with.)

    https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rudolf-Diesel

    https://listerpetter.com/
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R_A_Lister_and_Company

  10. Even many products that people consider “necessary” or “important” or “good” arguably make life worse.
    The amount of products, and make up women slather on their bodies isn’t making them happier, it’s just contributing to their worsening health.
    Social media isn’t improving friendships it’s degrading them.
    Cameras everywhere hasn’t made people safer, they’re just an expensive spy apparatus.
    Some people have a dozen different knives for cutting different foods.

    “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” –Guy selling soap made from flesh to rich ladies.

    “The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything. –Insomniac

    “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.” –Tyler Durden

  11. bruce wilder

    the logic of organizing production systems with hierarchies has yielded enormous surpluses but not much analytical insight into how it all works together as or in emergent systems . . . let alone into how it practically could all be made to work better

    i guess humans have had social hierarchies at large scale at least since the neolithic, but hierarchy looking back over centuries looks like mostly a way to amplify violence. the idea of using bureaucracy to leverage technical knowledge and fossil fuels to achieve massive increases in productivity is historically very recent.

    it seems quite plausible to me that further centuries might need to pass before our common understanding is sufficient to make bureaucracy work well enough. simple formulas seem still beyond us, collectively, like the social equation that would allow democratic polities to choose competent leaders or govern bosses or distinguish hypocrisy from virtue in one’s self or others

  12. Jan Wiklund

    On the other hand, there are some social traps we have to get out of to get there.

    1. Human transactions are often a kind of negociation: I do this and you do that. But in a negociation one can press one’s wish according to how many resources one has. It’s for that reason inequality rise unless one does something to check it.

    2. It is always easier for a few people with big resources to get together and make plans than it is for huge amounts of people with small resources. A lobby group for business people is easier to organize than a trade union.

    3. Then we have the “social trap” situation in itself. The term indicates the situation when everyone tries to get it good for him/herself with the result that he/she makes a mess for everybody else. For example driving a car. Or taking bribes. Or standing up in a concert to see better.

    All these three call for a lot of conscious organizing work, to make people coordinate what they are doing. Like people did in the early 1900s. But they were reasonably successful then, there is nothing inherently impossible in it. It’s just that one shouldn’t stop organizing and coordinating when it seems as one have reached something that could be lived with, as they did in the 1950s.

  13. Dan

    There’s just one problem with that proposal: we still live under the capitalist mode of production

  14. Oji

    @Willy At the risk of diverting the thread, I would add “westernization” includes adopting a belief in Justice as a basic property of the universe, e.g., “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards Justice,” that manichean notion of Good vs Evil– and the Good always triumphs. This is not a product of Hollywood, btw, rather, underlies that which some Western people hold most sacred: their religious beliefs. It seems to me, Western foreign policy has a great deal of this belief intertwined with more worldly goals of resource extraction, wealth, domination, etc… Unlike many, it seems to me many of our leaders do not merely cynically use these cultural notions, no, they, too, are True Believers. Internally, then, we presume life outcomes to be merited, deserved, therefore, we admire the wealthy and despise or revile the poor, and we strive to acquire all the trappings of wealth and “success”, such as it is, to prove not only to others, but also to ourselves, we are among the Good. Results, you see, are always someone’s fault, because our lives, indeed the World itself, is what we make it.
    Generally speaking, Eastern cultures– at least traditionally– adopt a much more ‘grey’ version of reality, of right and wrong, good and bad, fairness, etc…As the Japanese say when confronted with something unfortunate, or even tragic, “shigata ga nai.”

  15. Ian Welsh

    It’s important to say WHAT we want, what the goal is, what the better world looks like. Other posts have dealt with how, this one deals with “why it’s worth doing.”

  16. Senator-Elect

    Thanks for another great post. You put your finger on it when you say the link between good living and having a job must be severed.

    Incidentally, this is another topic where the left can propose wildly popular policies. Childcare has been a winner lately in Canada, but even better than that would be guaranteeing the option of working part-time. At least give people the choice of working somewhere in between full-time (40+ hours) and zero hours, which is impossible in many lines of work. Many families could better balance money vs. time needs this way (see Joan’s comment above).

    Alternatively, even a 7-hour day would be a huge benefit to many. It would allow much more schedule flexibility for parental, caregiving or even simply errand-running obligations and reduce traffic congestion (by spreading traffic over even more hours of the day).

  17. different clue

    Here is a bunch of ” no bullshit” images. One of these images could be a logo for a ” No Bullshit” Party by whatever name.
    https://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images;_ylt=AwrE_PbmOo9m4QQAa0ZXNyoA;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzEEdnRpZAMEc2VjA3Nj?p=no+bullshit+image&fr=sfp

  18. Sam

    Producing with far less work seems like a no brainier, but someone once said it’s really about who owns the means of production. If the same people own the means of production tomorrow are the same as the ones today, then this transition to a world of a two day work week (or whatever we arrive at) will never happen. So the problem becomes how do you change who owns the means of production so it benefits everyone?

  19. Chris West

    Sure, just as soon as we get humans to stop being social primates better adjusted to living in troupes of no more than a couple hundred people and start being eusocial insects in their throngs

  20. Mark Pontin

    Sam: ‘So the problem becomes how do you change who owns the means of production so it benefits everyone?’

    [1] There’s an answer, but I shouldn’t write it on Ian’s site. Isaac Asimov’s short story ‘The Winnowing’ has the same answer, although since Asimov wrote it in 1976 technology has moved on.

    ‘The Winnowing’ available as PDF here —
    https://epdf.tips/the-winnowing29b1f521ee443d7cf9a5c9aee94aae8a33518.html

    [2] Because make no mistake: the history of the last 3,500 years of ‘civilization’ as we currently have it has been about elites collecting and manipulating human populations to create surpluses for those elites. The Great Wall of China and the walls of the early city-states were as much to keep bondsmen, slaves, serfs, peasants from running away, as to keep out aggressors.

    In that spirit, forex –

    Dodge v. Ford Motor Co.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dodge_v._Ford_Motor_Co.

    ‘By 1916, the Ford Motor Company had accumulated a surplus of $60 million. The price of the Model T, Ford’s mainstay product, had been successively cut over the years while the wages of the workers had dramatically, and quite publicly, increased. The company’s president and majority stockholder, Henry Ford, sought to end special dividends for shareholders in favor of massive investments in new plants that would enable Ford to dramatically increase production, and the number of people employed at his plants, while continuing to cut the costs and prices of his cars. In public defense of this strategy, Ford declared:

    ” My ambition is to employ still more men, to spread the benefits of this industrial system to the greatest possible number, to help them build up their lives and their homes. To do this we are putting the greatest share of our profits back in the business.”

    ‘While Ford may have believed that such a strategy might be in the long-term benefit of the company, he told his fellow shareholders that the value of this strategy to them was not a main consideration in his plans. The minority shareholders objected to this strategy, demanding that Ford stop reducing his prices when they could barely fill orders for cars and *to continue to pay out special dividends from the capital surplus in lieu of his proposed plant investments.* Two brothers, John Francis Dodge and Horace Elgin Dodge, owned 10% of the company, among the largest shareholders next to Ford.

    ‘The Court was called upon to decide whether the minority shareholders could prevent Ford from operating the company in the direction that he had declared.

    ‘The Michigan Supreme Court held that Henry Ford could not lower consumer prices and raise employee salaries.’

  21. mago

    All sentient beings seek happiness and a better world—from worms burrowing underground to nest building birds to neglected children, dogs and the elderly, not to mention the imprisoned and all beings in war zones.
    Dominant toxic ideologies running power act contrary to that.
    Reminds me of the lyrics to an old blues song, Tobacco Road.
    I was born in a shack/ all I had were the clothes on my back/mommy died and my daddy got drunk/it’s the only life I’ve ever known. Blow it up build it over again.
    Sorry. Working from faulty memory. Just talking.
    We need a true new world order, just as we all need a friend.

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