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Author's Response - The Struggle for Meaningful Work

Kent Klitgaard


There are at least three components of a Great Transition: we need to figure out what we are and what the nature of the present system is; we need to envision the next, post-transition, society; and then we need to get to work on the most difficult task: determining how we get from where we are now to where we want to be. The two great Karls of political economy (Polanyi and Marx) both concluded that capitalism systematically undermines the material base of its existence: the human worker and nature. Many comments have built on this idea, resulting in several consistent themes, including the role of individual vs. collective purpose, the nature of the present system (which I term globalized monopoly finance capitalism), and the role of collective ownership and democracy in the transition from an increasingly probable Fortress World future to a New Sustainability Paradigm, to use the language of GTI. Other criticisms relate to my focus on the pleasant aspects of caring labor and my views on energy and productivity.

Neera Singh suggested that my focus on care of humans was too narrow, and that the idea should be expanded to include care of the planet. I agree profoundly. Singh’s comments made me wonder whether people who care for one another are more likely to care for the planet as well. My environmental psychology colleague at Wells College, Milene Morfei, was not aware of any direct evidence on this, but also framed the issue as one of individual/independent vs. collective/interdependent purpose. Those who exhibit a collective/interdependent sense of self are far more likely to care for both humans and nature. I would like to believe that people who care for one another also care for the environment and would be interested to learn of any empirical evidence that may be available to confirm that hypothesis.

Nava Kavelin also emphasized this point when she advocated defining meaning and purpose as both individual and collective, underscoring that individual purpose takes on an entirely different meaning within a shared collective purpose. Advancement is the continual flourishing of larger and larger segments of humanity. It must also be a multigenerational endeavor. I question how adept hums are at thinking in the very long run and sacrificing their short-term comfort and convenience for long-term survival or advancement, especially those in the rich world and especially in the United States.

Kavelin places a well-deserved emphasis on the role of education in preparing children and youth to participate in the Great Transition. As she says, our years in education transmit much of our sense of work, meaning, and purpose. Unfortunately, most education is structured to perpetuate a system based on routine and untasteful jobs. While a graduate student, I played in a volleyball league with the superintendent of a small New England mill town. He was clear: “The sole purpose of our schools is to dull enough creativity out of these kids to make them fit for the awful mill jobs they will inevitably work in.” We must transform education if we are to transform work. In early childhood education, children are loud, mobile, happy, and ready to take on new adventure. By the time they finish high school, they are largely passive and demoralized, ready for the kinds of jobs that trade off less than ideal conditions for a steady paycheck. That is, if they are lucky, and the vast majority of the world’s population are not always lucky.

The relation between work, livelihood, and consumption was a common theme among commenters. Simon Mair pointed out that work is a central component of our lives, and we spend up to 40% of our time in paid and unpaid labor. He questions the degree to which work can be decoupled from consumption, and I share that concern. If we were to move simply to increase wages to enable higher standards of living, would there not be a danger that unsustainable increases in material consumption would accompany the improved income? We need to change the consciousness of conspicuous consumption as we advocate for an increase in decent livelihoods at the bottom of the income distribution. The very idea of “enough” found on the fulfillment curve (Figure 7 in the Great Transition) takes on crucial importance. I also applaud the idea of setting maximum incomes as a strategy for achieving sustainability but realize that this change will be a difficult one. For a brief moment in history, a small segment of the working class, mostly white, male, and employed by large manufacturing corporations, received a share of the rising global profits of newly hegemonic US corporations. That institutional structure began to disappear amidst the deindustrialization of the 1970s. Yet some forty years later, many displaced factory workers still feel the sting of the loss of their identities and their incomes, and flocked towards a right-wing authoritarian promising to restore the old ways. The grievances are real, long-lived, and multigenerational. The transition will not be easy, as I do not see how a system in overshoot can achieve sustainability without consuming less, and few people accept less without backlash. That was the primary realization that made me advocate for meaningful work as a strategy for the transition, as well as a goal for the new economy.

I agree with Simon Mair that craft and care can lay the groundwork for post-materialist prosperity. The problem is dialectical. It will be difficult to restore the meaning to work without also transforming our basic societal and economic institutions and nurturing collectively oriented people, but it will be difficult to transform society without a broad social clamor for better and more meaningful work. I should inform people that I am not really a post-Keynesian. What I see is a contradiction. Capitalism cannot exist without capital accumulation, and such accumulation requires ever-growing consumption and investment. Moreover, firms must cut cost as well as expand market share, and the degradation of work into meaningless repetition was a crucial, and undemocratic, component of capital accumulation.

Marjorie Kelly enunciated the idea of democracy loudly and clearly. Our current system is extractive and exploitative. Trajectories of technological change and labor arbitrage are made without consultation with the affected workers. As Kelly says, ownership and control determine whose viewpoint will be represented. In the future, I hope this is the body of associated producers pursuing collective senses of purpose. The hard part is the transition. I strongly support social enterprises, but question whether the growth of small-scale worker-owned enterprises will supplant multinational corporations by themselves. Adam Blakester provided an insightful look into the transition when he asked how people could earn a livelihood while enabling a Great Transition. He argued that we need to broaden the idea of craft to include socio-cultural change. I agree, and I look towards examples found from the ranks of educators to those who work in food banks and refugee resettlement centers. I doubt one will earn a fortune from implementing a Great Transition, but a decent income is possible.

Marjorie Kelly and Lisi Krall both point out that the exploitation and degradation of labor commenced long before the introduction of capitalism. Krall traces the changes back to the rise of agriculture in the Neolithic Revolution. She makes a good point, but I still believe the degree of exploitation and deskilling had to wait for the emergence of capitalism and the application of fossil fuels to manifest itself fully. The processes of wage arbitrage and the rise of a global reserve army of the unemployed continue to exacerbate the problem, providing increasing amounts of misery.

Lisi Krall and Giorgos Kallis point out, correctly, that my essay overemphasizes the pleasant parts of craft and care. As a parent, I know that comforting a sick child when you are yourself ill is not pleasant. As a craftsman, I also know that for every day of custom hand-cut dovetailed joinery, there are 500 days of nailing in hundreds of joist hangers. As a professor, I would say that the act of reading, writing, and responding for this essay was a very pleasant and enlightening experience, but grading papers and attending endless meetings are not. Machines will not eliminate all unpleasant tasks, and we need to develop ways of sharing them.

I regret not enunciating my position on energy and productivity clearly enough. Giorgos Kallis states that I pin my hopes on increased leisure from increased productivity. That is not my position; rather, I put it forward as a debate that is occurring in the sustainability literature. Personally, I believe the energy-short and climate-compromised future will be one of more physical labor and fewer material goods, and I believe this will be a good thing. Degrowth is hardly compatible with globalized monopoly finance capitalism. Periods of reduced growth are called depressions.

Guy Dauncey’s depiction of TAPIOCA intrigues me. It summarizes well the points about agency, purpose, and income made by other commenters. I like his idea of talent. We need to develop the talents of those around us, especially the young. Without some mechanical ability, work is likely to be unfulfilling. He ended with the idea of automation. If factories were fully automated, where would jobs and income go? From the perspective of economic theory, how would value be created in the first place? This is a pressing issue for the present and future that a Great Transition needs to consider.

Finally, I will admit to not adequately addressing the concept of technology. I am not of the belief that some combination of new technology, resource substitution, and entrepreneurial innovation alone will magically transport us to the world of sustainability. My study of history indicates that capitalists implemented technological change to better control workers, avoid disruption, and reduce the cost of production. It is not all about new products and increasing demand. The problem is that technological change not only degrades the mental content of work, but also displaces workers themselves. The only way employment can be maintained is to grow economically. Nevertheless, our proximity to biophysical limits precludes this strategy very far into the future. This is a great dilemma of our time. We grow too rapidly to preserve the Holocene environment but too slowly to provide sufficient and meaningful jobs. Neither Market Forces nor piecemeal Policy Reform can possibly extricate us from this situation. We need a Great Transition. Thank you once again for all those who improved my understanding with their comments.


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Kent Klitgaard
Kent Klitgaard is a Professor of Economics at Wells College in Aurora, New York, where his courses include ecological economics, political economy, globalization, and energy and the economy.  He is co-author of Energy and the Wealth of Nations.



Cite as Kent Klitgaard, "Author's Response to 'The Struggle for Meaningful Work,'" Great Transition Initiative (February 2017), http://www.greattransition.org/commentary/author-response-meaningful-work.




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