Thursday, June 21, 2012

On abundance and post-scarcity

How much is enough? Enough means enough for a good life. Enough means enough to meet our needs. However, capitalism channels our hopes and dreams into the acquisition of consumer goods. There are vast commonalities around the world. They reveal broad agreement on what we call the basic goods, food clothing and shelter,  and what constitutes living well good health, respect, security, loving, trusting relationships — these are recognized everywhere as part of a good human life, and their absence is recognized everywhere as a misfortune. Capitalism and conspicuous consumtion puts us under continual pressure to want more and more. The “scarcity” discerned by economists is due this pressure. Considered in relation to our vital needs, our world is one not of scarcity but rather of extreme abundance.

 In abstract terms it is impossible for us to carry on growing without end. Endless growth is an ecological impossibility. Sooner or later we'll exhaust the world's supply of oil, gas, coal, uranium, or its ability to absorb their waste products. Climate change scientists warn of the impending destruction of the planet unless we take drastic measures to restrict growth.  In a world in which we could have enough, collectively, to carry on striving for more is mindless. Capitalism is an inherently insecure form of economic organization, one in which "everything solid melts into air," as Karl Marx put it.

Technology has been seen as the means of lifting people out of poverty and relieving them from drudgery. We would produce more and work less.  The world would be dominated not by the problem of having to earn their living but the problems occupying our leisure. Everyone thought that robots would be doing all the work for us. That this has not come to pass is surely mankind’s biggest tragedy. Today it is still work and not leisure that defines our lives.

There was once a time when the United States was a population of  farmers. Due to technological advances, significantly more agricultural output and products could be produced by fewer people. As of 2008, only 2-3 percent of the population were directly employed in agriculture. That is 2% to 3% of the population now grows the food that feeds the other 97-98%. Scarcity, as most people understand it, has diminished greatly in most societies over the last 200 years. According to David Graeber "One reason we don’t have robot factories is because roughly 95 percent of robotics research funding has been channeled through the Pentagon, which is more interested in developing unmanned drones than in automating paper mills." and that new technologies have been focused upon work discipline and social control rather than being liberatory.

Technology has the ability to eliminate the need for most of us to spend most of our time enslaved by repetitive and unsatisfying toil. Upcoming advances in robotics can eliminate the need for actual human workers. We could live in a world where all our concerns are taken care of by robots and computers and we are free to pursue the things that truly matter to us. We are moving in a direction where machines and computers do all the work allowing humans to focus on their pastimes of choice. But this economy of the future is determined by the conflicting interests of the workers and the master class, the owners of capital. Rather than give goods away for free and have people work for nothing artificial scarcity is introduced. Goods go to waste and people go without.

Let’s prepare for the time in which jobs and employment become obsolete and demand the right to be lazy.

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