The State of Play

In his 1985 essay, The Abolition of Work, anarchist philosopher Bob Black argues that when we stop working, "that doesn't mean we have to stop doing things".  Quite the reverse: it means, "creating a new way of life based on play; in other words, a ludic conviviality, commensality, and maybe even art. There is more to play than child's play, as worthy as that is. I call for a collective adventure in generalized joy and freely interdependent exuberance".  To me, this doesn't even really need arguing for, though I can't count the number of times I've heard people say that if they didn't have to work (from winning the lottery, say) they still would.  Without a job to occupy their time, they say, they'd feel useless or bored.
Let's read that last clause of Black's again:
A collective adventure in generalized joy and freely interdependent exuberance. 
Words to live by, methinks.  Isn't that exactly what life should be?  Raoul Vaneigem asked:
"What do I want?  Not a succession of moments, but one huge instant.  A totality that is lived, without the experience of 'time passing'".
And, last but never least, Wittgenstein:
 "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present"  (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311)

For many of us, work is anti-life.  It isn't something we value or enjoy: it's something we endure.  For those lucky enough to really love what they do for a living, it's said that although they have a job, they'll never do a day's work in their lives.  Work itself is not something to revere.  Still, of those people who said they'd feel bored without a job, it's not because their job itself is intrinsically interesting.  In most cases it seems to be the sense of worth - of being useful - that having a job brings.  Might there not be other, healthier ways to achieve the same sense?  What, in the end, does it mean to be "useful"?

I think that our culture's notion of "a career" is so far removed from the actual, original purpose of work that it exists only as a kind of absurd parody of anything that might facilitate joyful, authentic existence - something that work itself (as opposed to jobs) properly understood, still has the power to do.  Bob Black again:
"People don't just work, they have 'jobs.' One person does one productive task all the time on an or-else basis. Even if the task has a quantum of intrinsic interest (as increasingly many jobs don't) the monotony of its obligatory exclusivity drains its ludic potential. A 'job' that might engage the energies of some people, for a reasonably limited time, for the fun of it, is just a burden on those who have to do it for forty hours a week with no say in how it should be done, for the profit of owners who contribute nothing to the project, and with no opportunity for sharing tasks or spreading the work among those who actually have to do it. This is the real world of work: a world of bureaucratic blundering, of sexual harassment and discrimination, of bonehead bosses exploiting and scapegoating their subordinates who - by any rational-technical criteria - should be calling the shots. But capitalism in the real world subordinates the rational maximization of productivity and profit to the exigencies of organizational control."
The idea of a "universal basic income" has gained a lot of momentum in Europe in the last few years.  As with most good ideas, it's simple: the state provides a fixed, regular payment to all citizens, indiscriminately and unconditionally, whether or not they are employed and regardless of any other income they may already receive.  It replaces all other welfare payments, such as unemployment and sickness benefits, and is not means tested in any way.  On first impression, depending on your political bias, it's a system either of ultimate socialist nanny-state dependency, or the final, ideal solution to the problems of poverty and extreme inequality that seem to be the unavoidable side effects of 21st century capitalism.  What's interesting is that after deeper thought, the idea of universal basic income starts finding advocates from across the political spectrum, not only from socialist ideologues but among anti-state libertarians as well.  On the left, there are powerful arguments that basic income, as a safeguard against extreme poverty, is a human right.  On the right, there are equally persuasive arguments that freeing individuals from the time and energy-sapping drudgery of doing work that will soon be completely automated anyway, will lead to an explosion of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship that will benefit the whole of society.  The really exciting thing, to me, is that these perspectives are compatible.  It's not something that happens a lot in political debates, particularly those involving a potentially paradigm-shifting idea.

It could well be that both are correct.  It could even be that we'll soon find out.  Switzerland is holding a referendum on incorporating universal basic income into their constitution this June.  If they vote in favour, we'll have an actual test subject.  Other European countries are already experimenting with the concept on a smaller or less radical scale.  There's a campaign for introducing basic income here in the UK, where the idea has had some recent mainstream media attention.

It could be decades before the UK even considers introducing anything like a universal basic income system, so given my recent decision to stop working here in the present, it's not something I can, well, bank on.  But I wonder if this mystical state of "living in the present" is something that might be attained, paradoxically, as if the future were already here.  What would I do if the state subsidised everyone to the extent that those of us of a frugal inclination could live very easily without having to work at all?  Would not having to work to subsist lead us to spend and consume more, or less?  Again, the issue comes down to time.  "Free money" means more free time.  The "one huge instant" that Vaneigem demanded can never exist for the clocker-in-and-out, whose future never really arrives, who runs only to stand still, whose "quality of life" always has to rise, who is never satisfied, who can never have enough, who can never slow down, who can never attain the pure serenity of a timeless present.

Perhaps it isn't something that the individual attains at all.  Bob Black called for a collective adventure in generalised exuberance.  What if more people stopped working?  What if you did?

What if we all did?


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