If you're poor, it's probably because you're lazy

Tuesday 6 June 2017 at 23:33

TL;DR: It’s a tent-pole belief, that holds up the broad set of Conservative policies and their voter support, and in general allows the believer to have peace of mind in the face of growing hardship, inequality and business as usual. It is though a toxically soothing lie. Get out and vote accordingly on June 8th. This piece is about understanding why this belief is so important, how it arises, why it’s false and what to do about it.

Why is this such a significant belief?

This is a crucial believe, because it underpins a whole political and social disposition. One which forms part of a struggle within modern civilization that has existed from its beginnings and which continues to shape the world we live in.

Unsurprisingly in a market economy (arguably the defining feature of contemporary civilization), much rests on money and the distribution of wealth; not least health, education, social opportunities and innumerable ways to self development and societal contribution. And it is the attitude we take to that wealth distribution, individually and collectively, that determines how it and our society evolves.

“If you’re poor, it’s probably because you’re lazy.” belongs to a constellation of beliefs, including: “Society gives everyone a somewhat fair shot at success.”, “Your fortunes are your own making and your own responsibility.”, “Because I worked hard and made a ‘success’ of myself, everyone else can too.”, “If you’re poor, it’s probably because you’re lazy.” Let’s call these beliefs together the ‘the wealth you get is what you deserve’ cluster.

Looking at “If you’re poor, it’s probably because you’re lazy.” (or more generally the ‘the wealth you get is what you deserve’ cluster) together with the policies of the Conservative party, it could easily be the party’s motto. Consider how it serves to justify Conservative positions on various social conditions:

There isn’t sufficient funding to maintain a world class free health service for everyone, so people are suffering from equipment, space and staff shortages.
But if everyone worked harder, they’d be able to afford private health insurance. And if they took better care of their diet and lifestyle they wouldn’t get so sick in the first place. Why should I pay for other people’s laziness or stupidity? So the situation is to be expected and I’m comfortable with decreased public funding as a fraction of GDP and lowering taxes.

Most social security benefits are dropping in real terms and more stringent means testing being enforced, meaning many more people are now being denied, who would previously receive benefits, and those who are receiving them are finding it harder to make ends meet.
This is a good thing, because it will give people the push they need to be less lazy and work harder so they can take care of themselves. For those few cases were people are genuinely very unlucky a smaller benefits budget would be fine and there are charities that can offer help. Again, reducing budgets and lower taxes are the way forward.

Public sector pay freezes to well below inflation, including for nurses, teachers, the fire service and the police, have meant effective pay decreases relative to inflation for the last 7 years or more.
‘We have to live within our means’ - meaning, there isn’t the tax revenue for much more of a budget for the public sector and people should be free to spend their money as they wish without being burdened with more tax. If employees of the government are not satisfied with their pay, they are free to find another job and take out a loan for retraining for another career if they need to. They shouldn’t worry, because providing they work hard at it, they should succeed.

The general case:
The rationalization (following from the ‘the wealth you get is what you deserve’ set of beliefs) for cutting and privatizing any public service, and of course lowering taxes, is that almost everyone realistically can and aught to be responsibly for providing for themselves and their own families. And so to subsidize that provision is to encourage dependence and laziness and place a drain on the wealth of the nation. It’s an instant justification for the whole of austerity politics.

The above rationalizations of Conservative government policy (regardless of softer sounding election time rhetoric) read very differently depending on whether you subscribe to the ‘the wealth you get is what you deserve’ belief cluster.

If you don’t share those beliefs, they appear thoroughly heartless, self-serving and blind to the reality lived by the majority of people. But if you do hold such beliefs, then these rationalizations are not at all heartless. They are pragmatic, responsibly minded and even encouraging. Because if you truly believe a person’s dire straights are mostly due to their unwillingness to pull their thumb out, and that if they did they’d soon be much better off, then maybe if they listen to your words they’ll get their act together and take some responsibility, then everyone will be better for it. They might even thank you. See how it becomes, still tough love perhaps, but nevertheless clear headed, positive thinking? That is the power of such belief.

Why would you start to believe this and why is it appealing?

How do beliefs such as ‘if you’re poor, it’s probably because you’re lazy’ take root and come to be so strongly held?

An obvious route is being born into privilege. Most people have an innate sense of fairness as well as a desire for the good life. So then to avoid guilt over a lingering sense of injustice and systemic exploitation when looking at the rest of the world, there is a choice. Either reject the idea of fairness and suppress your empathy, by embracing the dog-eat-dog, Malthusian vision of the world, or find a way of rationalizing your privilege. That could include seeing yourself as having generally superior traits and abilities to those born less well off and thus being the best suited for positions of power and wealth. Where you spend wisely, they would only sit idly and fritter it away. Such attitudes being the norm in your peer group would make it hard to think otherwise.

From such a position is would be relatively enlightened to think that people were poor mainly because they were choosing to be lazy, or had undesirable role models, and not just because they were congenitally lazy and feckless. And of course these responses to privilege are seen across society wherever relative privilege is apparent, not just between the upper social classes and the rest. Also in some sections of the working or middle classes in regard to immigrants or the unemployed, or indeed other races for example.

The essential rationalization is: ‘because that group is less well off than my group, there must be something inherently or culturally inferior about them to explain it – because otherwise I’d have to deal with the realization that my group is being exploitative or parasitic’. When it comes to relative poverty, the longer established your relative wealth, the more necessary it is to believe that those worse off (if not people in general) have an inherent disposition to idleness and must be forced into work to be productive members of society. This is, if you are to continue seeing the disparity in wealth as natural or fair.

Another route to this belief is having gone from rags to riches yourself, or to see yourself as well on the way there. If you come from a community where at least relative poverty is endemic, then you’ll probably have seen a lot of apathy, low aspirations and maybe the occasional instance of dodgy attempts to get free money (as so furiously pounced on by certain media sources owned by billionaires). Without considering too deeply the socio-economic reasons for such attitudes, it’s easy to label it simply as laziness, especially in the context of your own success and hard work.

Whether its selling houses or having a highly successful shop or trade, what’s to say everyone else in the community you grew up in couldn’t do the same, if they just applied themselves? Believing that is preferable to thinking you were just one of the few lucky ones of the actually far greater number who do struggle hard to succeed but end up failing. Or to realizing that apathy, hopelessness or low aspirations (all quite different from laziness) are a fairly natural response to seeing how the odds of escaping relative poverty are so slim. No, that would be a miserable perspective. If you’ve achieved some success, it’s natural to want to enjoy it with a mind at peace. And to do that, it’s helpful to see your success as existing within a system that, while not perfect, is at least fair enough to give everyone a decent shot, if they only applied themselves. And hence, if you’re poor, it’s probably because you’re lazy.

A third path to this belief is essentially blind faith, where you are not comfortably off yourself, but you’re trying and part of that effort is to adopt the attitudes and beliefs of those you see as successful. Especially the romantic vision of fortune being won by hard graft and ingenuity, and the corollary that the poor are that way because of laziness and fecklessness. By thinking in the same way you reason, you’ll have more chance of making it. For this reason you’ll also read from a selection of right wing newspapers/websites, which ceaselessly repeat those same mantras. The fact that these media outlets are owned by billionaires whose financial interests are served best the more poor people share those beliefs, far from an alarm bell to you, is more like an act of benevolence, for them to share with you the faith of the successful.

It is along that third path that you're likely to think more about benefit claimants, with the impression they're mainly scroungers, popping out kids for cash and frittering it away on fags and bigger TVs than you have. Each of the regular exposés you read reinforce that impression. The actual figures involved probably do not occur to or concern you. But you might be puzzled to learn that the total officially estimated figure for benefit fraud is only 0.7% of the benefits budget, or around £1.6bn. This figure compares to a conservative estimate of corporate tax evasion of around £5bn. Tax Research UK estimate £85bn per year in tax evasion though (and a further £19bn in tax avoidance). So even though tax evasion is a between ~ 400% and 5400% bigger problem for the economy than benefit fraud, it shouldn't be a surprise which issue the billionaire owned media prefer to focus on.

Whatever the route taken to believing that the wealth you end up with (or don’t) is deserved, because of the psychologically supportive effects of this and similar beliefs, it becomes natural to view those who challenge such convictions, in a negative light. Since having the faith challenged risks undermining the peace of mind afforded by it. Inconvenient facts are rare exceptions, or being blown out of proportion by jealous, free loading whingers, who feed off the success of others and seek to bring them down with their defeatism and idle entitlement. But you’re a winner and you wont let them do that to you. Etc.

What if it’s not true? Would you want to know and how could you tell?

Does it even matter if it’s not true? If you’ve carved out a lifestyle for yourself and a world view that helps you enjoy it, why is the truth so important?

What would it cost you to see things differently, if you’re a current subscriber to ‘the wealth you get is what you deserve’ belief cluster?

Would you be able to enjoy your current lifestyle in the way you currently do?

Would you be able to have the same kind of conversations with your friends, or even keep the same friends if your views changed in this regard?

If not further personal material success, how else would you apply your energies with a different perspective?

What would motivate and inspire you?

Could you maintain economic security, or would you go back to struggling to get by?

Beyond the repercussions for you, suppose for a moment you are wrong. With that belief gone, it wouldn’t take long then to see the gross injustice and waste in the current distribution of economic opportunity and outcomes (wealth), if it wasn’t just down to people not really trying. Would you then want to continue supporting, in how you vote and spend your money, a government, a set of economic policies and a world view that is inherently abusive to the majority of society and depends on the continued squandering and diminishing of that human potential, and the promotion of conflict, environmental destruction and greed for its continuation? Would that sit well with you?

Change is hard work and often scary, uncomfortable and inconvenient. Which is why many people choose to carry on believing, regardless.

Please only read on if you still feel the truth matters.

What else would need to be true?

OK, so you decided you’d prefer the hard truth over comfortable illusion, how could you tell the true? What evidence could you gather? One approach to testing this ‘if you’re poor, it’s probably because you’re lazy’ belief (and similar), is to consider what else in the world would need to be true to support that belief, and then checking to see if those other things are true.

Here’s a list to get you started. If the large majority of poverty and relative poverty was due to a lack of work ethic, we’d also expect to see:

  1. Income reflecting how hard working or at least productive a person is.
  2. There being opportunities for decently paid work for everyone who wanted it.
  3. Inequality decreasing in times of the greatest economic growth.
  4. The wealth you’re born into having little impact on the wealth you end up with.
  5. The wealth of most countries per capita being roughly equal.

Let’s go through those one at a time.

Income reflecting how hard working or at least productive a person is

This is a logical consequence of the belief we’re testing, because if wealth was not a direct result of hard work and productivity, how could relative poverty be a result of laziness? So then does a big hedge fund manager who takes home ~ £1,000,000,000 per year (and this is not the highest income for such work), work literally one hundred thousand times harder than a single mother, juggling several zero hour contract jobs to make ends meet on ~ £10,000 per year? Perhaps not.

And we know it's not about meaningful productivity since most hedge funds lose money relative to the market and if the mother stops working it's food for the children and crucial amenities that are at stake, rather than that new private jet (made by skilled workers, which according to our beliefs could easily find work elsewhere if they put their mind to it). And it's not about intelligence either, since the greatest artists, scientists, engineers, mathematicians and philosophers are rarely if ever the best paid.

But what about a more middle of the road example? Does a factory production line manager work 2-3 times harder than the line workers he supervises? Unlikely. What about an estate agent doing a reasonable business selling foreclosed houses in a town where the factory recently shut down, compared to a husband and wife who having lost their jobs there, now have their days filled with running between part time work to pay the rent, job interviews and looking after the kids? Does the estate agent work 10 times harder? Hard to believe.

OK, what if the relationship between wealth and hard work was just highly non-linear? Could we still hold our belief? Well, consider this scenario. There is a call centre employing over a thousand people. The service is considered essential to the business but the wage labour is a major expense. Fortunately for the bottom line a new automated system is installed that replaces 80% of the call operators at a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately for the now jobless, they live in a town unable to absorb that many people into other work and so most of them end up with no or only a little part time work.

Does their drastic and sustained drop in income reflect a sudden outbreak of laziness? No. But it does demonstrate that your earnings are less about how hard you work, and more about whether you can do something that someone else is willing to pay you for. That willingness is ultimately about profitability or the hope of it and your eagerness to work hard only sometimes has much baring on that and even then only in a highly non-linear way. In other words, if you are poor, in no way can that be a clear indicator that you are lazy.

There being opportunities for decently paid work for everyone who wanted it

If there were no such opportunities then we could not say that poorness was down to laziness could we? Discounting occupations such as drug dealing or prostitution, this should fairly obviously not be the case, providing we set a reasonable bar for a living wage. Industries come and go, technology advances and displaces labour over time, supply chains are subject to unpredictable disturbances, currency exchange rates can drastically affect the profitability of employing a work force, and stock market crashes in highly financialized economies can lead to deep recessions and mass lay-offs.

All of the above factors and more mean that very often, large numbers of people are unable to find work fitting their skills and abilities (let alone passions), without any change to their willingness to work hard. What’s more, if there is an increased supply of labour, without a proportional rise in demand for what they do, then either unemployment will rise, or wages will fall.

Of course, if a person is willing to work for whatever pay is offered, then sure, there is usually something available. But here the supposed connection between work ethic and wealth again becomes broken. However many hours you spend as a fruit picker, or a shoe shiner or a leaflet distributor, you will still be poor. So the conclusion here must be that there are often not opportunities for the kind of paid work that would raise a person well out of poverty, however willing to take that work they may be. And so once again, a person being poor, is not an indication that they are lazy.

Inequality decreasing in the times of greatest economic growth

If wealth is a result of people working hard, then when an economy is booming that should be an indication that more people are pulling together and working hard. And if more people are doing that than before (so creating the growth) then the profit should be shared amongst that greater number of people (because wealth is a result of hard work) and thus inequality should fall.

In reality, do we see that? No, we don’t.

Here’s a chart of the GDP growth rate and various measures of income inequality in the UK over the last half century. (Click it for clearer, larger view.)

If the fact that inequality rises as economies boom puzzles you, consider that while markets grow as a result of productivity and consumption, productivity (useful work) is rewarded only as much as it must be rewarded. So then you can see how globalization, deregulation of financial markets and erosion of labour protection rights would all reduce how much most productivity must be rewarded. Hence a rise in inequality, on the backs of increased productivity.

The wealth you’re born into having little impact on the wealth you end up with

If it’s really true that wealth and poorness are primarily down to hard work and laziness respectively, then starting off wealthy cannot give a significant advantage in the long term. Because if it did, then in a competitive market economy people would be poor who lacked that advantage, rather than simply because they were lazy or lacking in some other way.

There’s a straightforward way to test this one, look at the statistics. Maybe you can guess the result already now?

According to studies by the IFS and LSE, if you have wealthy parents you’re much more likely to succeed in life in terms of both income and educational outcomes, than someone with poor parents.

Even without the statistics that prove it, it’s easy to understand why inherited or early life household wealth is such an advantage. From having a house with plenty of space to play, with funds for all the books or educational aids you’d benefit from, to having money for a healthy diet, to living in an area with a great school and having a peer group of friends that expect to do well and are supported in doing so. All those factors help create a strong foundation for later success. And once you’re ready to join the world of work, knowing you have a safety net there in your family means you’d be more willing to take the kind of risks that successes often require, and you’d have funds to pay for any further training, or capital investment you might need to get started in business. What’s more, having wealthy parents and a wealthy peer group means you’ll have access to people who work for, hire for, or own successful businesses, which means it’s that much easier to get the recommendations and interviews.

It’s also true that being born into wealth would make it easier to waste money or spend it in a non-financially profitable way. But of all the people wanting to succeed financially, if you start off with wealth then you have an undeniably huge advantage. And so once again, the fable of the poor being that way because they choose to be lazy is disproved.

The wealth of most countries per capita being roughly equal

Unless we want to adopt racist theories about other countries and cultures, then we’d have to assume that on average people are about equally able and inclined to generate wealth in one land mass as in any other (perhaps excluding a few paradise islands). And through human ingenuity most disparities in natural resources could be overcome with the ability to offer a variety of products and services wanted by other countries for trade. So then, if wealth if primarily a result of hard work, we’d have to expect that per capita wealth would be roughly equal between most countries wouldn’t we?

Of course, that’s not the reality at all. Compared to international wealth inequality, national inequality is often trifling. Reason being, history is a story of conquests. The desire and sometimes the desperation for wealth provokes war. It’s not by far the only way countries behave with each other (there’s a lot of productive cooperation too), but when they do, vast inequalities result.

And just like some countries exploit other countries, through economic, technological or military superiority, in order to further enrich themselves, some parts of society exploit other parts, to further enrich themselves, using the advantages they have of wealth, better education, political and media influence, and the threat of income insecurity.

And the results are..

Remember, not only one, but all of these conditions would need to be met for the belief to stand up to scrutiny. And none of them are met.

The unavoidable conclusion then must be that ‘the wealth you get is what you deserve’ is a soothing and rather toxic lie. The tragedy is it’s only really the foolish, the misguided and the poor that genuinely believe it, because it gives them hope. Those that have become rich with their eyes open will know better, even if they tell themselves and others this lie of meritocratic wealth and the lazy poor, as some attempt at moral justification, or simply as a way of ending an uncomfortable conversation. They know better really, because their daily profit flows from the contradictions to those beliefs, from the luck, the exploitation and the cumulative advantages of wealth.

What to do and what not to do

If you’ve followed along and found your mind genuinely changed, first let it sit for a moment. Then..

Do not:

  1. Fall back on the other crutch of the right wing hard core. “OK, the meritocratic vision of wealth is utter BS PR talk. But people are all ruled by selfish greed and are opportunistically corrupt anyway, so there’s no point in trying to be any different. Better carry on with business as usual.”

    This is just an excuse for those already behaving in the way they seek to suggest everyone does, to avoid sorting themselves out. It only takes a moment to consider all the valuable time, energy and resources given by parents, friends, mentors and loved ones, and from all the volunteers for charities or community groups to people they have no other relationship with. Then all the labours of scientists through the ages, for the sake of knowledge and contribution to humanity, often without pay, that have made the world we live in today possible. Any of these examples show such a reaction to be feeble, lazy thinking. Yes, people can be treacherous dogs to each other, but there are other, better choices that people allow to guide their lives all the time and live happier, more fulfilled lives because of it.
  2. Get distracted with wanting an exhaustively detailed and water-tight account of a new paradigm for paradise on earth, before considering changing your thinking or behaviour.

    That’s just not how social change happens in reality. It’s a collaborative, emergent, gradual thing, that you become part of by sharing an understanding and an intent. This reaction is essentially, ‘sure, I’ll stop doing this bad thing, as soon as you answer this impossible question to my satisfaction’.
  3. When (re)considering your voting choice on the 8th June, fall for the desperate anti-Corbyn headlines, about ‘radical’, ‘unrealistic’ policies or ‘terrorist sympathizing’. These papers are playing you for a complete fool. Have a look at the policies of other major, successful European countries such as Germany, Denmark, Sweden, France and Norway, to see that practically all of the Labour party manifesto policies (like public ownership of transport and energy systems and free education and child care and more funding as a fraction of GDP for a public health service and higher corporation and top rate taxes) are actually just normal elsewhere. Then have a look at what was actually said or done regarding acts of terror and the context from other sources, not just from the right wing rags, and also consider how much terrorism does selling billions worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and other brutal regimes support? And if you think it’s Labour that can’t be trusted with the economy because of the market crash and recession, read a little more on the actual impacts of spending and debt on the economy.


  1. If you were going to vote Conservative (the party essentially held together by this lie), change your vote to help get them out for the good of the country. Use a site like www.tactical2017.com to see how best to do that in your constituency.
  2. With an open mind, learn more about the real effects of and reasons behind Conservative policies from a news source you might not normally access, such as:
    And there are of course some more mainstream, marginally left leaning options, like The Mirror, the Independent, the Guardian. As with any news source, do your own research to verify claims. But it’s helpful at least to have some serious countervailing opinions to those you normally hear (and not just the token left field column of your usual paper).
    You can learn about media bias from reports such as this from the LSE.
  3. One time in particular where this soothing lie is told frequently is election time, because otherwise voting Conservative would just feel too much like being a vassal of darkness. But once you’ve seen clearly through the lie, can you really keep voting to support it? For that reason, talk to your Conservative voting friends, especially where you see them sharing this belief, to help disabuse them of it and then encourage them to vote differently.
  4. Share this writing if you think it would help someone change their mind and their vote.
  5. Beyond the vote on the 8th June, make a plan for how you can stay better informed and help to inform others.

Thanks for reading.

The Environment and Capitalism

Friday 6 March 2015 at 12:14
I was invited to represent the Green party at a discussion panel titled 'Capitalism and the Environment' at Southampton University on 26th Feb, organized by the Southampton and District Young Greens, Soton Marxists Society, and Green Action Southampton. In preparing for my presentation I wrote this article:

The Environment and Capitalism
Article for Green Action panel, 26th Feb 2015


What are we really evaluating?

To have a constructive discussion about the conflicts between Capitalism and the environment we need to be clear what we really mean by ‘Capitalism’ and ‘Environment’. Then, based on a set of values we hold in common we can collectively identify the conflicts and exactly where they lie. We can then say to what extent reform is possible and desirable, and whether any proposed reforms can contribute to a sustainable society, or whether they are in opposition to, or lay the ground for more radical and progressive social change.

What do we mean by ‘the environment’?

What has the environment ever done for us?

Silly question right? It doesn’t take much thought to realize how important clean air and water is, how priceless fertile land which allows our food to grow is, or how vital the fuels we use for heating and production are. Beyond that we can see that different parts of the environment are deeply connected and interdependent. There is the water cycle, where evaporation from oceans leads to rain cloud formation, which provides water for plants and food to grow, eventually cycling back out to the oceans. There are food chains where the health and population of one species depends on another, and that species on another, in a chain of predation. Most minerals also have cycles through nature, including the calcium in our bones.

What these simple observations reveal is that disturbance or damage to one part of nature’s cyclical operation will result in disturbance or damage to the other parts as well. Remembering that we have only one planet, it also becomes obvious that the supply of all resources are limited, and many are either irreplaceable once they are used up (like coal, gas and oil), or unrecoverable once an ecological balance has been tipped far enough (like the breakdown of crustacean shells with rising ocean acidity, or the extinction of species from climate change, pollution or over-hunting.

In summary, the environment is a set of interwoven systems that are:
  • Formed from and provide finite resources
  • Limited in carrying capacity
  • Cyclical and interdependent
  • Limited in ability to absorb disturbance, over-exploitation or other damage
  • Indispensable to human existence and well-being, not separate from us

What do we mean by ‘Capitalism’?

With Capitalism there are common associated ideologies about how the world is and should be, and there are fundamental organizational institutions. It’s the latter that really defines it, and those are:
  • The recognition and protection of private property by the state or equivalent authority.
  • Managing and distributing the resources of an economy through trade and markets.
The origins of these ideas can be traced back to the neolithic age and the agricultural revolution around 12,000 years ago. It was at this time that it first became possible for humans to store material value, or accumulate wealth, at any significant scale, and for large concentrations of people to exist together.

Under these conditions of wealth concentration being possible and large numbers of people co-existing together, the idea of private property can extend beyond the fruit of a person’s own immediate labour, and through trade and wage labour come to envelope the fruits of other people’s work as well. Because of this leveraging potential and a particular characteristic of markets, the division of social classes and the “haves” and “have nots” within a population arises.

That property of markets which leads to the enrichment of a few and comparative impoverishment of most, can be understood as cumulative competitive advantage. This begins where, all else being equal, small fluctuations in fortune and circumstance lead to one party of a trade doing better than another. At that point, that additional profit represents a competitive advantage, because it is additional resources to be invested in some way for yet more profit, it is additional security to allow more flexibility for when and how to trade in future, and it is additional volume to allow more competitive pricing compared to those with less. While fortune and circumstances will cause such advantage to fluctuate, it will in aggregate naturally compound, leading to yet more competitive advantage and hence further concentration of wealth.

Thus the natural tendency of markets left to themselves is monopoly and feudalistic distribution of economic means (only where the landlords no longer have to pay taxes to the king).

This is why all countries with somewhat reasonable average living conditions have things like anti-monopoly laws, taxes, and social safety nets. Because otherwise the market economy would eat itself, and the hierarchical social order would collapse (at least in its present form).

Implications of Capitalism for the environment

So how does all this relate to the environment and existing harmoniously or otherwise with it?

One major issue is that trade for profit seeks to externalize costs. Whether that’s the cost of not properly processing industrial waste before disposing of it, or increasing production to a rate that the soil or water or wildlife in a particular area can't sustain, or using dangerous chemicals in a product to increase profit margin, or lobbying for more oil industry development despite dire consequences for climate change, the environment often ends up paying. Attempts at legislating against such behaviour, though helpful, have proven inadequate. This is partly because of the influence concentrated wealth has over government and the legal system, and partly because whatever laws get put in place the pressure to find new ways around them and externalize costs always remains, so long as an economy is primarily controlled through markets.

Another key connection comes from realizing that organizing an economy around markets requires perpetual growth.

This follows from the wealth concentrating effect of cumulative competitive advantage. Without growth, wealth and resources either continue to concentrate, leading to social collapse from mass impoverishment, or the rich and powerful have to give increasing amounts of their wealth away – either through increasing taxes or by some voluntary means – thus undermining the social hierarchy which is the sociological fuel of capitalism. In a steady state economy, large inequality would become increasingly less socially acceptable, because the piles of riches being sat on would grow increasingly conspicuous, so even finding some technical way of maintaining the gap between rich and poor would be less tenable. Thus Capitalism inherently requires perpetual growth (or a totalitarian police state to manage economic decline). This requirement holds true even for a static population size.

It is also worth noting that the unquenchable hunger for growth is further entrenched and intensified by two other intrinsic elements of Capitalism:
  • The idea and use of interest baring debt, and a debt based money system, which accelerates the arrival of insolvency without growth. Due to wealth concentration, ongoing debt is necessary in order to allow general participation in the market. Having it accrue interest at a certain percentage follows from lenders wanting compensation for the lost access to capital/wealth which would otherwise accumulate in a market (due to cumulative competitive advantage). This ensures that the economic growth required is exponential.
  • Dependency on wage labour. In order to participate in the market and so take care of material necessities and pursue any social aspirations, the large majority of people have their labour as their primary source of value to trade. This means they become dependant on employment. Thus not only the rich but also the struggling parts of society and even some groups concerned with labour rights and social justice become ideologically and literally bound to economic growth – under Capitalism.

Doesn’t this built in requirement for endless growth completely disqualify Capitalism from being compatible with a sustainable coexistence with the environment of our finite planet?

Can Technology save us?

Those in favour of a market controlled economy (Capitalism) might argue that technological innovation and the resulting rise in resource usage efficiency offers a way for growth to continue even on a finite planet.

The trouble with this theory is that innovation is sporadic and unpredictable, while the structural dependency on growth is constant. So far, our rate of innovation and efficiency improvements have fallen far short of our growing energy and resource usage. Unfortunately another aspect of Capitalism is the threat-focused and narrow minded mentality it engenders, which is an impediment to the kinds of technological and social innovations that would be needed to bring civilization into a sustainable state. Yet another reason why under Capitalism technology isn’t going to save us is violent conflict. As technology advances so does our ability to devastate the environment with increasing ease, and there’s no business like the war business.

Finally there is the inherent conflict between technological development and wage labour, where there are ever fewer tasks a person can do that a machine can’t do more cheaply, now including such things as journalism, software development and medical diagnostics. The above issues are summarised in the table below.

Technological Innovation
Sporadic, unpredictable
Dependent on constant growth
Thrives with collaborative sharing
Engenders a threat-focused, short term mentality
Increases capacity for environmental destruction
Thrives on war and armed conflict
Leads to increasing redundancy of wage labour
Depends on wage labour
Conflicting characteristics of technological innovation and Capitalism

But will consumption really fall with falling inequality?

If high concentrations of wealth of the sort we have today (without descending into complete totalitarian control of an increasingly destitute majority), guarantees an endless rise in consumption and resource usage, what is to say that total consumption would really fall if wealth was less concentrated and so more people had more opportunity to consume in a market economy?

For the last 100 years the averaged GDP growth rate of the richest countries was about 1% faster during the mid 20th century than during the rest. It was during that period when the gap between the rich and poor within each country was smallest (due in part to strong labour organization and much higher top rates of income tax, and in part to the capital expenses of the two world wars).

What this shows is that consumption certainly can increase with more equal distribution of wealth. But whether and how much it does will depend on the mainstream culture and legal framework around economic activity. The mid 20th century was when the then new culture of consumerism got into full swing. In the context of reduced economic inequality in addition to a widespread awareness of ecological limitations, strong legal restraints on production based on those limits, and a reduced systemic dependency on wage labour (which reduces requirements for consumption to create the profits to pay the wages), then there is at least decent scope for substantially reduced resource usage. In the present arrangement of concentrated wealth and power there is no such scope, not without a global cataclysm forcing it on civilization.

Capitalism Recap

  • Requires perpetual exponential growth due to wealth concentrating nature and thus ever increasing demand on limited natural resources.
  • By locking a host population into wage labour, the commoditisation of value, and the protection of social class, corrodes collective community and empathy.
  • Depends on technological innovation to perpetuate growth, which it also hinders through the threat-focused and short-term mindset it engenders, and which will ultimately make wage labour (a corner stone of social class) redundant.
  • Seeks to externalize costs of production and consumption, frequently leading to the environment taking those costs in the form of destabilisation, pollution and destruction.

Charting exponential growth and resource extraction

The following series of charts show the largely exponential growth in the use of various types of finite resources.

Agriculture related resource usage (source  FAO, 2003; International Fertilizer Association, 2008; FAOSTAT, 2009)
The intensive farming methods which are reflected in resource usage charted in the previous graph are resulting in massive erosion of top soil, which is already severely impacting food security for millions of people across India, Africa and China. Already tens of millions of people across this region can only afford to eat 5 days a week due to worsening arable land shortage. If the trend continues there will be an unprecedented global food crisis within decades.

Global water usage

Source: Geology.com
GDP is the standard measure of economic growth, which is the driving force for increasing rates of resource usage.

Not a simple population problem

Alongside run-away resource usage, the global population continues to rise. While this does increase demand for resources, the size of the present population is much less an issue for sustainability than the way resource usage and consumption is so highly concentrated amongst a small, wealthy fraction of the global population.

Source: World Bank, 2008 World Development Index, 4

What we have now and the kinds of reforms it would take

So it’s not looking too rosy for Capitalism’s compatibility with the environment. Is there any hope for reforms making it workable?

Let’s consider the reforms or tweaks to a market controlled economy that we already have:
  • Income and trade based tax system, with a relatively small addition of property based tax.
  • Means tested welfare system with a still largely free at the point of access health service.
  • Some legal framework to limit the extend of monopolies developing, damage to the environment, and the amount of privately directed money that directly determines the decisions of government, through 'donations', lobbying, and other means.
In addition to these there is the crucial voluntary sector that picks up the short fall of the market to meet the needs of the population, for various kinds of support and caring. To get just a narrow sense of the value of the volunteering in the UK the total number of hours volunteered to charities and NGOs, valued at the median wage, is over £23,000,000,000 pa (source: NCVO).

Getting back to this list of current reforms or social policy interventions, clearly they are not sufficient, since resource usage and environmental damage continues to increase from a point that was already unsustainable decades ago.

Tax reform

Starting with our tax system, the problem with relying so much on income and transactions as a basis for tax is that it’s relatively straight forward to hide or repackage those things to avoid paying tax. Indeed this is exactly what happens. Many of the largest businesses in the UK, including Google, Apple, Amazon, Vodaphone, Starbucks and Boots (not to mention the banks) pay almost no tax at all. Even without that problem, to begin to stem the power concentrating effect of markets, income tax must be set at a progressive rate (higher for higher incomes), which sets up ideological conflicts with those who believe in the myth of self-made fortunes.

In terms of effectively tackling the wealth and power concentration which is forcing the pressure for economic growth, which is destroying the environment, tax based on property value is the most straightforward and robust. It also takes pressure off tax revenue when economic growth slows and total income declines. 

The current Green party policy document proposes the introduction of a land value tax (from EC791) to replace the dysfunctional Council Tax and National Non-Domestic Business Rates. Such a property tax, providing it is set at a sufficient level, forms one lever in freeing us from the environmental death grip of concentrated power. The Greens also support the principle of introducing a more general wealth tax (EC743), which could eventually and more efficiently replace income based taxes.

In combination with land value tax and reforms of income and corporation tax, the Greens propose phasing out VAT and replacing it with ‘eco taxes’ (from EC780), environmental damage taxes which directly disincentivize the kinds of consumption and production that are most damaging our eco-systems and undermining social wellbeing.

Of course, down-scaling production and consumption calls for wage labour no longer being necessary for subsistence, since putting the breaks on growth will depress employment. In the short and mid-term, reducing jobs in unsustainable businesses can be off-set with ‘green jobs’, employment based on transitioning to sustainable infrastructure and services, including energy production, transport, materials, construction, education, health, recycling and R&D. But ultimately the reliance on profit turning wage labour and consequently economic growth for livelihood must be removed if we are to have a sustainable and equitable future.

Welfare and Citizens Income

This leads on to the welfare system. Presently the complex system of means tested aid that we have creates both poverty traps and social stigma. It results in huge wastage of human time and potential, both to administer and to be on the receiving end of.

The Greens currently propose to have a Citizens Income, otherwise known as Universal Basic Income, which is unconditionally paid to everyone, regardless of any other income or employment status or intent. By making this sufficient to meet bare living requirements, the security this provides creates tremendous opportunity for the a large portion of the population to learn, development themselves and pursue genuinely productive and in some cases innovative work, paid or voluntary. This would be opportunity they don’t currently have with means tested benefits which effectively coerce people into accepting whatever wage labour is available, and so act as a subsidy for concentrated wealth wanting cheap labour. Its unconditionality would also remove the existing poverty trap of having most additional earnings removed by reducing means tested benefit payments (equivalent to a far greater tax on income than the very richest are supposed to pay). And since everyone would receive it, the stigma of social benefits would be lost.

While they are still fleshing through the details, the concept of an unconditional income for everyone actually has support from both the left and the right of the political sphere. Some of the right (e.g. Milton Friedman and followers) see it as a way to allow the market to continue even in the face of mass technological redundancy, while some of the left see it as laying the ground to exit Capitalism and transition to a sharing economy or collaborative commons. How much of each it will be, of course, depends on implementation details and what other political and economic policies accompany it.

The Green policy document for this year is not yet finalised, but I can express my own views on the matter. Previous research (see also this) has focused on revenue neutral implementations and on fairly minor changes to income tax levels. This is understandable with respect to not affronting too heavily the mainstream way of thinking about economics, in terms of money, and the so called ‘trickling down’ of wealth from the rich. But consequently it severely limits the level of CI so that the initial effect on wealth distribution is negligible, thus leaving the pressures on economic growth and environmental degradation unchanged. Nevertheless, by removing much of the means tested element of the social safety net, it would still be a substantial progressive step from which higher levels of CI could be moved to, which would start to allow a greater economic transition.

If we look at a Citizens Income as a key tool in a transition to sustainability then it must ultimately be about wealth redistribution and supporting a zero growth economy, or rather only intensive growth (coming from efficiency improving innovation) rather than extensive growth (coming from using up resources at a higher rate). If we can bring ourselves to face that fact then setting taxes and using other funding methods for more progressive levels of CI becomes a little simpler.

According to the ONS, the total private household wealth in the UK is £9.5 trillion, of which 44% is owned by the wealthiest 10%, and the least wealthy half of the population having just 9%.
ONS data also shows that the average (mean) income is £29,600 (2013), with 30,000,000 in some kind of employment. That’s equivalent to £13,875 per person in the UK.

With these figures it’s not too hard to imagine a combination of wealth and income tax that would allow a Citizens Income at a level that supports a dignified existence. In doing that it would also aid the transitioning to a zero extensive growth, sustainable economy and foster creativity and innovation, while still allowing some differentiation in income. Naturally, as the amount of paid wage labour decreased, tax funding would have to shift more from income to wealth tax in order to keep money circulating.

Regarding income tax, taking an historical perspective, much higher top rates should not be alarming. For much of the 20th century the top rate was between 70% and 98%. It’s only been since Thatcher that it’s tumbled, with predictable rises in inequality.

An additional source of intermediate funding, were it needed to smooth the transition, would be quantitative easing – providing the Citizens Income was set to automatically track any inflation.

Legal framework and governance

Regarding the legal framework that we have to curb the worst excesses of concentrated power, given the well known revolving door between government and industry, frequent corruption scandals, and distinct lack of big corporations paying much tax, not to mention the prospect of ratifying TTIP, it is rather inadequate.

Much of the problem can be tackled with increased transparency, and the devolution of real decision making power to a larger portion of the population. It is the concentration of both economic and political power that forms such a viscous cycle. The entrenchment of a political establishment makes economic reforms much harder and insufficient on their own in securing a sustainable socio-economic system. On this front the Greens have a clear policy and philosophical basis for de-centralising political power and having a finer grain and more participatory form of government, along with a genuine power of recall for representatives, and the forming of a politically and socially progressive legal constitution.

As a direct result of such reforms, bringing public services, including energy supply, back into public control would be much easier, as would be protecting the NHS. Similarly passing effective environmental policy that reflects the public will, without being subject to the profit making convenience of big business, would be achievable.

Regarding the problem of creating national debt when creating central bank money, and of commercial banks creating the far larger fraction of the money in our economy through the provision of loans far beyond their deposits, the Green policy (from EC660) is to reform this to remove much of the unsustainable growth forcing factor of runaway debt interest (along with other gross social iniquities of the present monetary system), somewhat along the lines of the Positive Money proposals.

The intent of reform and taking the chance

After that summary of our existing tweaks to Capitalism (sometimes euphemistically referred to as ‘Social Democracy’) and brief introduction to progressive Green policy, perhaps you’re getting a sense of the type of reforms it will take to get off the path to collective destitution that we are currently on. This transition calls for:

Going from: Reforms that effectively service and support the continued concentration of power and capital amongst the few, and thus facilitate ongoing environmental degradation, whilst perpetuating a threat-focused short term outlook.”

Moving to: Reforms that actively dismantle or diffuse the forcing factors of markets and property which exploit to destruction both physical and social environments; allowing a progressive, more collaborative socio-economic paradigm to emerge.”

By making that shift we will simultaneously wind down the manufactured and divisive culture of consumerism, which in itself will free up tremendous amounts of human time and energy for more genuinely enriching pursuits.

Clearly if we as a social collective were to see through such reforms, we might still for a time have markets, but we would have made a paradigm shift in our sense of value and social and environmental awareness that is clearly outside the bounds of Capitalism, and which I believe lays the ground for a sharing economy or the collaborative commons.

But is there time?

It’s true we are running out of time to implement these progressive reforms, and for that reason some groups are advocating a good old violent revolution, or the types of capital repossession that would instigate widespread violence. While the prospect might feel exciting and satisfy frustration and a sense that something big must be done now, the reality of mass violent social upheaval would almost certainly be terrible for everyone and help to create a worse version of what we already have. It would help to create more of the threat-focused, short-term, authoritarian thinking that is already steering us collectively in the wrong direction.

Even without setting the streets alight, there is already a much darker future being prepared for, which would take the perpetuation of concentrated power and market economics on a finite planet to its logical conclusion – diminishing growth along with rapidly diminishing population and civil liberties and increasingly literal economic slavery of the masses, so that as resented as the exploitation and domination is, there is little that can be done about it.

As we all now know, the infrastructure of the surveillance state is already in place across much of the world, while the police become ever more militarized and the definition of ‘terrorism’ and ‘national interest’ ever more broad and flexible, resulting in a growing crack-down on peaceful protests. If this dystopian picture seems hyperbolic, consider that the last century saw several such societies establish themselves in a matter of years to threaten world domination, with lesser technologies for mass control than exist today. The longer mass austerity and social injustice continues, the more dangerous the situation becomes.

If we don’t want more of that and believe a better way is at least worth trying for, I’d suggest we can start by rejecting the political parties that have helped lay the ground for such a dark future, and support one that shows a clear understanding of the challenges we face.

I believe the Greens offer a sensible and progressive set of policies that really engage with the realities of our existence in the world, and are something you can actually vote for. And while success is not guaranteed, unlike with the other parties on the voting slips that are still enamoured with Capitalism, neither is failure.

I hope that we can collaborate together to find a more collectively prosperous and sustainable way forward.


Talk for Dangerous Ideas Southampton on Economic reform

Friday 3 October 2014 at 16:43
Earlier this week, the Dangerous Ideas Southampton group held an event to explore the concept of money and various projects in place around the country aiming either to make it work in a more socially progressive way, or do without it altogether. Graham Woodruff, the technical directory of the Bristol Pound and Frank van Lerven, a researcher from Positive Money spoke on how local currencies and non-debt created currency, respectively, helps significantly in that progressive aim.

I was delighted to also be one of the speakers. I wanted to share some ideas on the inherent trait of markets to concentrate power, and start some conversations around that and its implications, together with briefly presenting some measures besides monetary reform to make markets less collectively damaging while opening space for broad social development. Here is my talk:

Here is the transcript:

"Rather than ask what is the problem with our money system, I'll start by asking what is the problem with our economic system and how might our progressive values be more truly and fruitfully reflected.

Broadly speaking what do I mean by progressive values? I mean valuing equality of opportunity, and the view that it's in everyone's interests to collaborate with and support each other, in our communities and in society as a whole, and that by doing that, quality of life, scientific and cultural development and sustainability all improve.

Regarding our economic system, my premise is that determining access to and control of resources through a market and the exchange of property is at the heart of the problems we face, because a market economy inherently dis-empowers the large majority and obstructs free collaboration.

Of course there are people who claim the issue is that markets are corrupted by government connections and big subsidies, and just need to be set free for a better society. On the other hand there are those who claim there is insufficient regulation to make markets work for everyone rather than just the few, that if excesses were better controlled and markets were perhaps a bit less globalized then markets as they are, are a reasonable way to organize an economy.

I'd like to briefly challenge both those views and offer some ways of steering us towards a better system.

If markets are set completely 'free' then the state is reduced to its core function of protecting private property, and the process of cumulative competitive advantage takes over. Essentially, small differences in wealth and circumstances get amplified by exchanging property for profit. If you have control over a bit more resources than most of the people you trade with you'll tend to be in a slightly stronger bargaining position. You can better take advantage of economies of scale, you can afford to take more risk for better potential returns, but you also have a bit more flexibility to pick when, how and with whom you trade to reduce your risk. Conversely if you have less control of resources you'll be in a weaker bargaining position because you have less flexibility, choice and scale. Left unchecked the disparity compounds and this 'free market', for-profit trading process inherently ends with a wealthy few effectively controlling everyone else, economically, politically and socially.

But what about keeping the economy (the management of resources) organized around markets, but with regulation focused on protecting its growth and continuation in a more sustainable way, perhaps as they were before the 1980's and the financial 'big bang'?

While this kind or protective regulation of markets necessitates some restraint and provision of social safety nets (inc benefits, labour rights and minimum wages, together with tighter control of what can be traded), it does nothing to alter the inherent growth of large economic and social inequality (from which social classes form). It's for that reason of large power disparity, that the kinds of corruption between business and government that we see are inevitable. In other words if we want rid of the corruption and injustice we must massively reduce the inequality of economic and social means, that a market economy brings.

So then what kinds of reforms or regulations could help bring the most robust progressive change and reduce the destructive power concentration of a market economy?

Besides monetary reform and reducing debt burden and the exploitation that comes from that, which is extremely important, here are two more reforms that are gathering popular support and which connect with values that everyone can relate to, as well as integrating in a progressive way with the existing market paradigm.

First up, Unconditional Basic Income, or UBI. This takes the progressive value of caring for each other for the benefit of all to a logical conclusion and makes a dignified existence unconditional on accepting market determined wage labour. Everyone, regardless, of status and wealth, receives the same basic amount, which allows a healthy standard of living. In this way we would have our many intrinsic motivations for learning, making, contributing and collaborating freed from the narrow and corrosive filter of what can be used to concentrate wealth and so justify the existence of a paid job. Nevertheless the market and wage labour would still exist, but the scope for exploitation and wholesale wastage of human potential would be substantially reduced.

Funding for UBI can be sourced through streamlining existing social safety net schemes, combined with monetary reform and potentially tax reform. The question of how certain jobs get done can be answered simply through a) market mechanisms which find the price at which people are willing to do them, and b) there being more scope for automation since menial wage labour is not depended on for a livelihood. UBI has been tested very successfully in many parts of the world.

The second innovation I'd like to introduce is tax reform. Currently our tax system is a complete birds nest, riddled with loop holes and large bureaucratic overhead. With income tax bands and inheritance tax it also sets up ideological conflicts which obstruct progressive social development. A far simpler, more effective and just form of tax, which Thomas Piketty has recently helped to gather support for is a flat rate* net financial worth tax. In other words all private property, from savings, to land, to materials and other resources would be taxed, per annum at a flat rate, for everyone. By linking in with insurance provision it would be much harder to evade, and since everyone pays the same rate, much harder to complain about. By making the tax revenue redistributed for the large part evenly (making up all or part of a UBI), inequality is effectively reduced. Also by making ownership of property only worthwhile where it is being put to productive use, money and land hoarding would be largely diminished and markets could find a more socially tenable place in our society – until we're ready to move beyond them."

* Actually it seems Piketty proposes a variable rather than flat rate. I currently think that providing distribution of most of the revenue was evenly spread, a flat rate would be more achievable and perfectly sufficient.

UBI: http://www.basicincome.org/bien/index.html

The Work That Work Does

Monday 5 May 2014 at 20:45
When discussing social, economic and political reform, the subject of work, or having work often comes up. It is a contentious subject, with much of the disagreement being about 'jobs', how to create them, how the employed can and should organize, and the relationship between the employed and unemployed. Around these issues are various perspectives or narratives that support the mainstream 'left' and 'right' political positions.

The mainstream political position

Starting with what those mainstream left and right positions have in common:
  • Jobs are good for people and the economy.
  • Exchanging work for money (or economic opportunity) is in principle a fair and effective mechanism for stimulating both essential and beneficial economic activity.
  • Because there is no better way, jobs are necessary.
Accompanying those shared beliefs are naturally some common rhetoric, or aims, such how important it is in a recession to 'get people back to work' and for the government and public/private sector to work together to create more jobs, or how the solution to unemployment or low wages is for capital to be invested in reinvigorating our industrial base, services or the technology sector. Offered in support of job creation are observations of how those out of work often suffer a reduction in self-esteem, social engagement and general health.

There is also a shared belief in and revering of a strong 'work ethic', which is seen as the root of a productive citizen and a productive economy. This connects with the common understanding that if we all pull together and coordinate our efforts then everyone is better off, but if some are lazy this makes it harder for the rest. (It is an understanding that would have been perfectly clear from our long history as nomadic hunter gatherers, where everyone doing their bit and looking after each other was the best way to survive and prosper.)

Where these two corners of the mainstream political ring differ on the subject of employment (and unemployment) is in their emphasis on public and private control of the enabling resources and thus opportunities for economic participation, and what kind of social safety net should be in place.

While the gap is narrowing, traditionally the 'left' favour more public (government) control over resources and thus employment, as well as a slightly more substantial social safety net for the unemployed. Similarly the 'right' favour more private control of resources and thus employment, and a more meagre social safety net. From this, then, the left appear to be more collectivist, while the right individualist. However, such a division is not so clear cut.

Both mainstream left and right are a product and advocate of hierarchical social order through the concept of private property and markets, including the wage labour market. Hence the larger public or state sector involvement of the left is subservient to those power and opportunity concentrating institutions (as well as the power concentration of political class). Similarly the right's common championing of freedom for all is undermined by the very same institutions, which inherently act to distribute freedom in an extremely uneven way.

In their own ways, the mainstream left and right political approaches are both authoritarian, since they both operate in and propagate established social hierarchies with strong concentrations of power. At the same time they function as a double act, with their back and forth serving to maintain conditions for the majority within a liveable band and so as not to undermine the established social order. For this reason, for all the improvements in living conditions that the left establishment have at times supported, unless thinking is taken beyond jobs and labour rights, people will remain subject to the same opportunity and power concentrating mechanisms of markets and the endless struggle to maintain living conditions in the face of it.

Between work and jobs

Coming back to jobs, as an exchange of work for money (wage labour) they are simply one component of the market economy paradigm. But work also serves a more immediate and corporeal purpose, of getting stuff that needs doing done.

This mixing of the two different functions or meanings of 'work' – wage labour, and getting useful stuff done – is how the elements of genuine productivity, utility and human development get mixed up with serving the capital eating machine.

A common defence of having work be stimulated by the institutionally created need to 'earn', is that it increases productivity and ultimately collective benefit from increased work. Of course in a world where the same economic and political institutions tirelessly concentrate the profits of work and the benefits of capital and where there has long been sufficient methods and technology to ensure everyone's basic needs are well taken care of without the drudgery or squalor that is currently prevalent, such a defence makes little real sense.

The incentives to do work need no helping hand from a social elite to move people to productive action. The perpetual human needs and drives for sustenance, meaning, understanding, connection, contribution and creativity push us to action all on their own. The extent to which a social elite stimulate and direct work, and thus serve to concentrate power and cement their position, is the extent to which the utility of work is shifted away from collective benefit to the perceived benefit of that elite (within the bounds of dependency of a parasitic relationship).

Another defence of the market economy paradigm is that money or the flow of capital is simply a liquid mediator for what is generally useful and desired, thus helping the most beneficial work to get done. The idea is that some needs or desires create demand, which stimulates supply, enabled by the flow of capital. But this is very far from an accurate picture, due to the element of profit, power and opportunity accumulation inherent in markets. Those with increasing power and opportunity increasingly get to judge what is useful and desired, and how best to exploit resources (including wage labour), while the rest are increasingly left in a position of having to get with that program. There is also a precariously positioned middle band who are kept on the rat race through status competition and the appeal of perpetually updated creature comforts. Those with less wealth can taste a little of that lifestyle through taking on more debt - another major component in the wealth concentrating machine.

With the more fundamental idea of what work is, exerting effort to achieve some aim and meet some needs, it's easy to understand the social and economic benefits of it, completely beside the current market economy paradigm. If not used and challenged regularly the mind and body atrophy, becoming weak and sick. Work, in the general sense is the primary means through which the mind and body are engaged. Work is also one of the primary ways through which social bonds and meaningful relationships are formed. Since fundamentally work is about doing something useful, it's hardly surprising that doing it has a big impact on our sense of being useful and making a contribution.

The gatekeepers of work and the impediment to synergistic collaboration

In this general sense, work is crucial to human survival and health and carries with it its own intrinsic motivators. The question then is how are people best enabled to work, in this general sense of the word? The obvious answer is through economic and social opportunity. Now, in a society hinged on wage labour, employers and capital holders are gatekeepers for that economic and social opportunity. It's well known that opportunity to start and resource a new business is far from equally distributed and for most people making ends meet necessarily means finding an employer willing to employ them. There's also the fact that many new or old businesses completely depend on having others in a position of needing employment and thus is a weak bargaining position for their wages.

Since a basic property of markets is to concentrate economic (and thus most other kinds of) power and opportunity, it, together with the most wealthy employers act as a choke on the ability of most people to do useful work, tightening or loosening according to whether some particular work or skill can be of profit to the employer. From this perspective, 'wealth gatekeepers' is a more accurate term than 'wealth creators' for those holding the choke. Untold opportunities for innovation, cultural development and joyful living are lost through the institutions of wage labour and a market economy. If we wanted to find those not only selfishly profiting from but significantly increasing the hard graft of others, in other words parasites, it should be clear where to look.

But naturally, identifying individuals in that elite position and blaming them for the ills of society is almost as irrational and counter-productive as blaming the poor for not working hard enough. Those at the top may often do their best to stay there, at the expense of others, and have much to answer for from a moral perspective, but they are also a product of the paradigm they are so successful in. If those particular people were not there, there is no shortage of others that would and are in a position to take their place in a heartbeat. And at any level of the pyramid there are many that hold the same faith, ready and willing to perpetuate its pathological culture.

Due to the concentration of power and opportunity, the effect of the wage labour, market economy paradigm is sadly an epic failure to harness the synergies of equipoised collaboration (our needs are equally important), and a shoehorning of society and economic activity into a threat-focused selfish (my needs are more important than yours, and we're in competition) mode of operation. Of course this is the aggregate outcome, it is not to say that everyone feels exploited by and miserable at work, because there are clearly many exceptions and we find ways of looking on the bright side. It is also not to say that some employers cannot be progressively minded, or that as an employee you cannot sometimes work to empower yourself and others - necessarily, many jobs are also useful work. It is simply a recognition of the general, systemically resulting case of our wage labour and market economy paradigm, which concentrates power and opportunity, a behaviour which our top heavy social and economic hierarchy completely depends on for its existence.

A better way

To more fully realize the synergistic potential of collaboration from enabling people's ability to work, the dominant emphasis would need to shift from accumulating profit to more evenly distributing economic opportunity and allocating surplus to sustainable, collective and shared gain, where it will yield the greatest multiplicative power, by enhancing everyone's ability and opportunity to do work. The process for determining that allocation of surplus would be in the same spirit as for enabling work – non-authoritarian, collaborative and equipoised.

There are various examples of such progressive decision making processes succeeding where they have been trialled, often in hostile environments, over the last century. Online there are countless examples of successfully allocating resources in large projects in the open source world, using far more fluid and collective decision making processes than typical in the corporate or government sectors. Offline, perhaps the biggest example of more egalitarian economic and political organization is the Spanish social revolution in Aragón and Catalonia, during the civil war of 1936-39.

More recently the concept of participatory democracy (distinct from 'representative' democracy) has taken root in many countries, such as Brazil, where in Porto Alagre over 50,000 people participated in forming the city budget between 1989-1999. The World Bank reported sustained high public engagement throughout the period, large improvements in public services and reduced inequality from the experiment, which has since been extended in other cities around the world. Notable in this experiment, as remarked by former British diplomat Carne Ross, was the drop in divisive partisan politics, and the rise in a more collaborative and inclusive attitude, as people were less boxed into party identification or political class.

In the UK the Transition Towns movement is spearheading the way to a more collaboratively and sustainably managed economy. The Occupy movement which began in 2011, for all the frustrations some people had with it, has opened up the conversation about such socially progressive decision making and economics, and spurred many people to go on and begin to put those things into practice in their communities. This is clearly not something that is beyond human will or ability to do at scale.

The divisiveness of wage labour and its supporting rhetoric

From both mainstream left and right, the rhetoric around wage labour often stirs tensions and conflicts between the most pressured parts of society, whether majorities or minorities. The virtue of having a strong work ethic, for instance, is one common source of divide and conquer rhetoric. Here wanting to apply yourself to useful work is conflated with being willing to compete for available wage labour and accept the going rate, regardless of how liveable it is. In this way those struggling economically are set against themselves, since those unwilling or reluctant to enter into the wealth concentrating market economy paradigm are labelled as having a bad work ethic, or being a drain on others.

From this divisive and narrow perspective, the victims of cultural and economic poverty traps are blamed for their plight by those either within or on the margins of it, not grasping the larger institutional reasons for their and others hardship. To fuel this self-defeating venting, the tabloids gleefully provide an ongoing parade of extreme outlier cases of where the social safety net leads to tragic excess or abuse, with the bilious invitation to grind your teach over how hard you're working for so little, while they have more without the toil.

This basic approach to leveraging the common respect for work ethic for the purposes of concentrating power or protecting privilege can be spun in numerous ways. For example, there is a narrative that suggests if you're concerned about added competition for your job from immigration, then you could be a xenophobe, your work ethic is lacking and you aught to just get more competitive. A related narrative is commonly found inciting tensions between native and immigrant workers: "You take a modest wage but you work hard to support your family, and now these foreign workers are coming to undercut you and take your jobs. Your miseries are their doing." This is the 'look over there!' approach, since of course both native and immigrant are in a similar boat, doing the best they can, and the downward pressure on wages is simply a result of market forces. In all cases, the problem of economic hardship ultimately has less to do with work ethic than with the institutionally created pressure to compete for wage labour.

The ascent of innovation and technology is another area of conflict with wage labour. With wage labour as the gatekeeper of economic opportunity, the more technology advances, the harder it becomes to create jobs that couldn't be better or more profitably automated. You don't have to be a Luddite to be concerned about being displaced, and your livelihood taken by a computer or robot. In this way technology becomes a tool for further power concentration, as much or more than one to better and more broadly empower people. But this is not a conflict between technology and work, because work always remains. It is purely an issue with the wage labour, market economy paradigm and the choke it holds on opportunity for participation and engagement.

Our relationship with and protection of our environment is a particularly tragic and catastrophic area of conflict with wage labour (but not work). Since our market economy, wage labour paradigm creates an insatiable hunger for extensive growth, and at least a political and social pressure for new jobs, we end up destroying our home to feed our cultural disease. How often do we hear the sickly refrain "Yes, it's sad about the [forest, park, river, mountain, wildlife and pollution, loss of community resource, your children and grandchildren's future] but this development will create jobs. People need jobs. It will be good for the economy. Vote for jobs!"

War, while not only a huge profit maker (perhaps the biggest) and provider of jobs, also serves to smother awareness of and action towards social reform (although the period immediately following a war can be more conducive to reform). In tandem with economic austerity measures, having an enemy or some desperate situation that needs coping with, keeps you in a state of short-term, threat-focused thinking, in which conflict, competition (for possessions, rather than between ideas) and just getting by, become all that matter. Again, this scenario is a fertile source of divide and conquer rhetoric: "How can you undermine our unity in facing this threat? While you're complaining and talking about vain hopes, the rest are working hard to keep us all secure and fed. The time for talk has passed. Your ideas are dangerous, and you'll keep quiet and get back to work if you know what's good for you." and such like. This is not a conflict with work, which through ongoing and open communication can better adapt and find the best solutions to problems, but with threat-focused social hierarchy which plugs into the idea of wage labour.


To conclude, the socially progressive stance is not to create jobs, but to create, or more broadly share, opportunity to do work. The distinction is crucial, because while a strong work ethic is surely a fine thing, to make that subject to employment is to severely constrain its individual and collective utility and to perpetuate the essentially master, servant relationship of the present social order.

The work that 'work' does, then, is to make work harder, and less rewarding for those doing it. Our independence, personal responsibly and liberty are all better taken care of without a gatekeeper of opportunity. By returning to the core meaning of work, we are liberated to ask, for a given aim, not how can we create some job(s) or private profit opportunity, but what is the best work to meet it? How can we work in the most effective, healthy, respectful and enjoyable way?

As a progressive alternative to the earlier list of uniting mainstream political assertions, the following is suggested:
  • It is work, distinct from jobs, or wage labour, that is good for people and the economy.
  • Exchanging work for money (or economic opportunity) is a primary mechanism for ensuring ongoing exploitation and wasted human potential, through the power concentrating property of a market economy.
  • Useful work provides its own intrinsic motivators, and without the leach of market based profit incentive, the collective and individual utility of work and cooperation can increase.
  • Because there are better ways, jobs will become unnecessary as those ways are explored and implemented.

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