Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Meaningful Work"
Questions of work are, appropriately, at the center of discussions about a Great Transition. I applaud Kent Klitgaard for putting work at the center of debate.
The call of the article to revalue care and craftsmanship is one that I share. I did not, however, feel any clearer after reading the article with respect to the core question, which is how the economy should, or could, be reorganized to revalue care and craft work. I did not also find much concerning the conditions under which the nature of work might change in the desired direction given current socio-political tendencies, or what the points of leverage for such a change would be.
I was surprised to read Klitgaard rest his hopes on “productivity technologies that can reduce aggregate work hours.” He is well known for his work on energy and has co-authored a book with Charles Hall.1 Hall argues that the energy return on energy investment (EROI) of existing and future energy resources is declining (and even if it was not, it should, since if we are to combat climate change, we should abandon high EROI coal and oil fuels). With smaller energy surpluses, productivity growth cannot be taken for granted. Much of what passes as productivity is in fact machines fueled with oil substituting for labor power. In a future of low EROI, human hands will have to do what “energy slaves” will no longer be around to do. It is not clear to me whether and how in a future of high-cost energy or a limited carbon budget, we will be able to “reduce aggregate work hours.” Perhaps we will, by consuming and producing much, much less. Or perhaps we will reduce paid work hours, but increase unpaid ones, and work in subsistence and care economies in the household like our ancestors. These are complicated questions to which Klitgaard could have shed more light on.
The article focuses on “pleasant” work, crafting and the good part of caring, but I think the important question, that the article only occasionally touches upon, is unpleasant work, and work that by its very nature can never be “creative.” Who is to do the unpleasant work in “a Great Transition”? This is the important question; for arts and crafts, there will surely be many candidates.
Who is to clean the garbage, mine the mines, care for elders with dementia, pick up the strawberries under the sun, or feed the belt in the factory? Capitalism has a clear answer for this. It is the poor that should do it, and for a low wage, unless they want to die of hunger. What will be the response of a non- or post-capitalist system? Will it be some rotation of unpleasant tasks, and how will this be organized given the current scale and complexity of production? For me, this is the most important question, but the article somehow eludes it with the implicit suggestion that we could all do crafts and play with our children, while machines do the dirty work.
Finally, let me note that the magic of capitalism, and a major source of its dynamism and growth, is the detailed and extreme division of labor it engenders. There are people like ourselves specialized in writing papers and giving university classes, and people “specialized” (sic) to clean our houses, pick up our garbage, or mine the mines that provide the raw materials for our computers. Socialists have often talked of “unalienated” work (what in this text is called “meaningful work”): each worker becoming master of her product, creating with craft and care. The problem is that if we were to all become craftsmen, and really take care of our domestic chores, then there would be a dramatic loss in output. Artisanal economies cannot produce as much as capitalist ones. I will have drastically fewer hours to devote to writing papers when I will have to clean my mess and take seriously care of my children (not to mention growing my own food). Instead of five papers per year, I will write five papers at best in my whole career.
Klitgaard probably agrees with me that such a “degrowth” of output is not necessarily bad. Many progressives or socialists, however, would not dare to go as far. This is why I think is important to dispel the illusion of a “luxury socialism” a-la-Keynes and to point to the hard challenges of dividing and distributing work in an energy and CO2 constrained world, especially if we want a limited division of labor.
1.Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard, Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy (New York: Springer, 2012).