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Is It Possible To Build An Economy Without Jobs?

Humans will always work. But that whole employee-employer thing is optional. It's time to start looking for another model.

Photo Credit: cheukiecfu


Suppose that something caused iTunes, Sony Music, "American Idol," SiriusXM and every other commercial music entity to disappear. Would humans still make music? Of course we would.

Although capitalists would prefer we think otherwise, human ingenuity created capitalism—not the other way around. And work long precedes the existence of the capitalist system of jobs. Like music and art, work is intrinsic to the human condition. It is essential not just to our survival but to our progress as a species. It is something we do naturally, regardless of the economic and political systems in place at any given time or place in human history. 

Of all the systems that contain and define our lives, perhaps the most opaque is the job system. While it is common for us to think about our individual job—or the lack thereof—it is rare that we consider the job system itself. It seems to us that humans have always been either employers or employees -- and we always will be. It’s the ultimate TINA (There Is No Alternative). 

Who do you work for and what do you do are interchangeable questions in daily social discourse. Parents spend many of their waking hours thinking about how to best raise and position their children so they will be attractive to the person or entity that will “hire” them. From Dlibert to National Secretaries Day, we assume that the job-based system of organizing what gets done, who does what and how our effort is compensated is an immutable component of human existence—almost like air, water and food. 

For many, the day-to-day management of the job system is a full-time job of its own. Unions, educators, “human relations” professionals, and many others spend their “working” hours preoccupied with the nitty-gritty of who gets hired, who gets fired, who gets “disciplined," who gets trained, who gets a raise, who gets overtime, who is entitled to unemployment payments -- and who isn’t.  

Our political discourse is dominated by mostly empty rhetoric of vigorous promises that certain government “policies” will deliver jobs, jobs, jobs. Whatever the question, there is always someone available to say the answer is jobs.

Really? What if jobs are the problem, not the solution? What if the survival of the species homo sapiens depends on imagining and creating a different way of organizing work? What if the job system is inseparable from the tyranny of the 1 percent and the incredibly stubborn persistence of racial inequality?  

How did we get this system? What are its benefits? What are its costs? How does the whole system operate to make itself invisible?

Invisibility started with a proclamation disguised as a principle. Adam Smith defined the "invisible hand of the market" as "an unseen force or mechanism that guides individuals to unwittingly benefit society through the pursuit of their private interests."

In other words: it’s supposed to be invisible. So don’t even bother looking or trying to figure it out. What you're supposed to be focusing on is the visible but prominent “achievement” of the invisible hand. Affluence. Prosperity. Technological innovation. Wealth. Men on the moon. Smart phones. Two cars in every garage. Medical miracles. "American Idol." Mass obesity—oh, wait, that’s off-message.

Truth be told, the job system does coincide with much progress. Many aspects of human existence are enormously better for vastly more people than was the case under feudalism. Over just a few hundred years, millions have come to live longer, eat better, have more leisure time, experience more individual freedom, and become less subject to violence. And that is to name just a few areas of extraordinary development. 

At an individual level, millions are satisfied not just with their jobs at the moment, but also with the arc of careers that offered meaningful work and sufficient compensation to afford a lifetime of workplace gratification, affluence and economic security. Presumably those who are content with their place in the job system are inclined to defend it rather than question it. 

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