So, the right own the future, the left are trapped in the past. So says John Harris in the Guardian, at least. This is a perplexing argument, as I agree with much of what he says about the problems that he enumerates (changing nature of work, environmental issues, ageing population) but it is clear that all of these require long-term, structured and global collective action (which is pretty old fashioned socialism, frankly) if we are to have any chance of even beginning to address them.
I started thinking a while ago about a Generation X “to-do list”, given that the preceding generation has utterly failed to sort any of this stuff out (seriously, come on people…). So this is the list of stuff we literally have to do in the next 10-20 years if we have any ambitions of either surviving and flourishing as a species.
I’m well aware that everything that follows is hopelessly naive. I don’t care.
1) Everyone is miserable. Human life in the c21st is so rarely an enjoyable experience for anyone that the entire basis of civilisation is up for question. If we’ve build this huge machine to live in which is making most of us unhealthy, tired and lonely we should fix it or build something else.
Q1a) Waged work is fundamentally flawed. The dominant model of survival we have is that where we are allocated value based on the work we do for others, and can use this value to purchase goods or other work from other people. But with the “purchase” side of the system driven by a need to reduce production costs – using technology and/or straight up human exploitation, the odds are stacked against the “realisation of value” end. In other words, if we want to buy cheap stuff we will have to employ less people.
1a1) We need to buy less stuff. Buying stuff is a rubbish proxy for happiness. Time, human contact and the pleasure of creation, are much better ways of realising the goal of happiness so…
1a2) We need to work less. For the first time in history there is less work that needs to be done than there are people to do it. A lot of people are doing work that doesn’t need to be done, either because there are machines to do it or it is just flat-out useless. But we have an economic system where if people don’t work they freeze/starve.
1a3) The way we share stuff is utterly unsustainable. A few people have everything, most people have nothing. This is not going to end well for either group.
A1a) Global Basic Citizens Income. Everyone receives a basic income sufficient to live happily on. Where people do choose to work, some of the value realised could be in additional money, or other opportunities. The remainder of the value realised (and all the value realised by automated labour) should be used to fund the global basic income. This is going to need multilateral state government agreement, and there is no other way of running it that as a (global) state owned project.
Q1b) The environment we live in is horrible. It is either disgustingly expensive or unhealthy, often both. Much of this is driven by waged work [1a)] . People “have” to live in horrible places because they have to work nearby. But it is also driven buy the myriad stupid things we do to the planet in the name of facilitating our economic model.
1b1) There are few spaces for humans to live. There are actually loads of places for humans to live, but the majority of us live in places designed for workers. They’re all piled up on top of each other near (enough) where we work so we can get there. We spend most of the money we get from work on them, thus perpetuating the waged work cycle. The spaces for workers who don’t work, where these exist (and they are becoming fewer and fewer) are in the same places and have the same problems.
1b2) There are very few spaces for anything else to live. Because we all live piled up together, the accumulated filth has to go somewhere else or it would be literally deadly. So we burn some of it, pump some in the sea, and put the rest in the ground. This poisons all of the other wonderful things that we share the earth with. And us, of course.
A1b) We need to better manage the places that we live. Living in huge cities is a very unhealthy state of affairs, both for those who live in them and everything that lives outside. We need to think, on a global level about where and how people live, and relocate and re-educate people in how to do so. This – again – is a global managed solution that needs state control. It will not just happen, no matter how many “downsize” articles are written and read by rich people.
Q1c) We are using too much power. It’s an expensive and dirty business being this miserable. Historically we’ve solved this in the time-honoured manner of burning stuff. We started with burning other living things, then we graduated to digging stuff out of the ground and burning that. These days we’re all about causing huge cracks to appear in the ground with explosions and then burning what comes out. All of these things are running out, so are increasingly expensive and increasingly dirty.
1c1) Our way of living uses too much power. For half the year we burn stuff to make our buildings hotter, for the other half we use poisonous substances and burn stuff to make our buildings cooler. We occasionally want to go to other buildings, and to do this we burn more stuff in engines.
1c2) Power is dirty. Even the newer, “cleaner”, ways of generating power we can use are pretty messy. Partly because we need so much of it, and partly because we need it cheaply and quickly, this is not seen as an issue. But it will become one.
A1c) Radically rethink the way we live. We need to use less machines, and the ones we do use need to be as efficient as possible. We can use machines to replace labour, and in some cases we already do where it is cheaper than employing people. But we should use any surplus to ensure that the machines are cleaner than employing people. This requires tough new laws, and only some kind of government can make them. Or, more likely, it requires government control of industry.
2) We are uninformed. I’m not saying that we are stupid, because we are not. But most of us know very little, and what we do know is of very little use. There’s a whole range of reasons why this may be the case.
Q2a) Our education system is focused on preparing us for waged work, and this is increasingly explicit. We are training generations of people to function in a structure that will depress and eventually kill them. And we are designing out the creative, lateral thinking that would allow us to adapt as this model of civilisation breaks down. As a delightful foretaste of work, our education system is also making people ill, and making the places we live horrible.
A2a) We need to redesign that system to prepare people for the world that they will (hopefully!) live in, rather than the rather horrible world we do. This takes firstly a global will to dream of a less miserable future – a big job in itself – and secondly the support of the kind of institution and people that could offer the education the people would need. Both these, with the best will in the world, require political will at a global level.
Q2b) It is almost impossible to get good quality information. Here, we can grudgingly award a mark to the generation before us, as the internet is unquestionably the best thing to happen in this space for a long time. But then we remove that mark for the internet we now have, which is no longer neutral and is generally becoming another way to buy things we don’t need and/or make each other miserable. Away from this, much knowledge is locked away in expensive books and journals, and read by very few. However, we have a great deal of “information” about new things to buy and a lot of gossip.
A2b) Set knowledge free. It should be a human right for anyone to access any knowledge that interests them, and to use it in the ways they want or need to, and to share the results. Of all the “answers” in this list, we are closest to this one because of the existence (in some spaces) of excellent library systems and because of the open education movement. But both of these are under pressure from commercial interests, and the big solution is to enshrine this access in some kind of international law. (if we have A1a implemented here the copyright issue becomes much less of an issue and we could safely abolish it.).
Q2c) We don’t know how to make anything we are proud of. Most of what we use every day, be it food, art, or artefact, is mass-produced. Very few people are able to produce things for themselves, and self-produced things are mostly seen as inferior to mass produced things.
A2c) Make stuff, dammit. A population with more time, a better aptitude to learn, and less need to “earn” would be far better placed to begin to enjoy the delights of making things. Be this food, art or anything else. Those lucky enough to have leisure time and disposable wealth are already beginning to re-discover these things… there’s been a huge growth around the “maker” movement, gardening, digital arts. But this is not yet widespread, and a much larger global cultural change is needed to give everyone these opportunities.
3) We are lonely and scared. We are trained from an early age to see everyone we meet as potential competition. Competition for the chance to work, competition for housing, competition for resources. So it is difficult for any of us to experience the pleasure of trusting and being trusted. Our constant suspicion tends to undermine temporary states of happiness, and to get beyond this we self-medicate with various legal and illegal drugs, and with consumption. Our consumption and ability to consume has become such a marker of status that we fear crime and physical attack.
Q3a) Our status is more important than our friendships. In general, people develop friendship groups amongst those they work with, and marry (a good “official measure” of friendship) within their own demographic group. We tend to interact with people that are “like us” in terms of education, background and lifestyle – and whereas in some ways this is very human and is bounded by opportunity, in others it can lead to isolation and polarisation.
Q3b) Interaction has become commercial. The ways in which people interact, both socially, as peers doing the same things, and romantically are now seen as an opportunity to sell products and experiences. This serves to normalise interaction into scripted events that are opportunities for consumption.
A3) We need to change the way we think and act which will also involve shifting the underlying contours of our economy and civilisation – which is a job for us, as the facilitators or those who run it. Of all of the tasks I’ve set out here, I think this is the hardest one as it is reliant on so many of the others and yet is almost a prerequisite. It is very, very difficult to change a lifetime of taught behaviour concerning the way we interact with others.
In particular this requires acting together as a species and as a planet, something which we have yet to master. Fixing a single state would be hard enough, and would require a governance by and for the people. Fixing an entire global civilisation is, well it is something that the futurologists of my youth predicted would be easy. It won’t be. But we should at least try – and we need to use tools and structures we own to do it right.
On the work/employment stuff this recent post by Charlie Stross is a nice overview.
On the culture/creativity and environmental stuff see Dark Mountain
On the education and labour angle see (always) Richard Hall or Brian Lamb.