I’m catching up with some 2016 articles on work now, so I thought I’d take a look at an article by Mike Dowson (no, not that one) called, Why are we Still Working? published on New Matilda, an independent news site for Australia.
An article like that was sure to garner my attention, but the results are ess than promising.
First, from a pure writer’s perspective, the article is a bit messy. Dowson keeps building us up to what the problem is for why we’re all stuck working but never seems to draw to a conclusion.
In fact, he keeps reaching separate conclusions and then working from there to another.
- It’s capital!
- It’s the profit motive!;
- The de-emphasis of labor!
- It’s debt!
- It’s practice of unfair automation!
And then the questions keep piling up on the narrative of his article. Every time he builds up with one question he moves to another as if the previous one was never asked. This doesn’t come off as smooth as it does unfocused and giving the reader false-starts.
Throughout the article we’re also asked various, seemingly unrelated, questions:
- Why has productivity stalled?
- Why was Keynes wrong?
- What can we do to pay off debt?
- How can productivity grow yet work increases?
And then at one point in particular Dowson just…
- Let’s talk about how climate change is happening and mass-extinction is too!
There’s simply too much going on in Dowson’s article and it makes it hard to read.
There’s a few things to like however.
He references David Graeber, a prominent anarchist and anthropologist, and that was great. He mentions an interesting phenomenon known as “the great uncoupling”, which I’ll perhaps look at another time. And anyone who’s going to criticize the institution of work deserves praise on that front alone.
Still, ultimately, I couldn’t help but be peeved by Dowson’s strategy for undoing the tyranny of work:
People don’t register their desire for a healthy society by shopping for it. Capital doesn’t get that signal through the market. The argument that consumers somehow direct the course of civilisation by choosing dolphin-friendly tuna and “eco” cleaning products is stupid ‘and facile. The factors that most affect our destiny are not options in the supermarket.
If a healthy society is something we want, we have to act collectively. Since few people are active major shareholders, for the time being that task tends to fall to governments.
Whether enacted via direct spending, or by ;creating incentives for private investment, government initiatives are funded from collective surplus – in other words, tax revenue or borrowing against future earnings increases. Despite political spin to the contrary, our tax is low compared to the OECD as a proportion of GDP. (emphasis added)
I’ll be upfront about the obvious: I don’t live in Australia.
So my perspective is an American one. That means I have an outsider’s view and I’m going to try to keep that in mind as I go along criticizing the article.
For instance, I’m not very well knowledgeable about the cooperative economy in Australia. The emphasized part of the quote annoyed me so much at first. Even if the government is the best shot you have at present, why not work to build other things? But perhaps their cooperative economy is so low that that’s untenable, I can’t say for sure.
But even if that’s the case, it seems like putting any and all problems on to the government is a recipe for disaster. And isn’t the government the organization that’s supposed to keep these things in check? Isn’t it supposed to make sure that the general populace isn’t floundering in debt? Isn’t it supposed to, at least in part, make sure that jobs are still bountiful for those who need it?
So even from a narrative viewpoint, Dowson’s case makes no sense.
He keeps building up how much the government has failed Australia and how politicians have, “…so far failed to even acknowledge our present circumstances, let alone articulate a credible vision for change. Many of them became rich from property investment. Our Prime Minister is a former banker.”
If this is the case, as it similarly is in the US, then why would something change?
Dowson doesn’t really give us any sort of outline of how the rich and the political class will somehow disentangle themselves from each other. Nor how that would happen long enough for some sort of meaningful change to happen. Dowson can’t keep building up the failures or partial-failures of a given institution and then say, “but see if we just had the right policies things would be different!”
I believe Dowson is guilty of something Michael Munger, public-choice economist, has called Unicorn Governance:
My friends generally dislike politicians, find democracy messy and distasteful, and object to the brutality and coercive excesses of foreign wars, the war on drugs, and the spying of the NSA.
But their solution is, without exception, to expand the power of “the State.” That seems literally insane to me—a non sequitur of such monstrous proportions that I had trouble taking it seriously.
Then I realized that they want a kind of unicorn, a State that has the properties, motivations, knowledge, and abilities that they can imagine for it.
Similarly Dowson is presuming with just the right people and the right mechanisms, Australia could improve in some dramatic ways. His aims, to reduce work, are noble. But his means, using the government, are disastrous towards these ends. They make little sense, especially given that most of his complaints about the Australian economy seem to stem from misguided policy makers, not markets per se’.
Speaking of markets, another thing that hit a nerve was Dowson’s typical liberal chiding of marketing:
This process has been fuelled by a deluge of marketing, which persuades us to consume things we previously didn’t recognise a need for.
As usual for liberal thinkers (I’m not sure what the international equivalent is in Australia), Dowson treats marketing as some sort of indoctrination process that individuals are, for some reason, powerless against. Yes, it’s likely that people have realized that they have new desires they didn’t know they had before. But why is that such a bad thing?
I’m sure that plenty of people didn’t ever think they needed computers. But now computers are an integral part of many people’s lives and I don’t see Dowson complaining about this. I don’t see Dowson explaining exactly what is wrong for getting individuals to recognize new desires within themselves. Shouldn’t we always be trying to elicit new desires in others?
I understand that marketing can often involved under-handed tactics. And to the extent that the advertising industry exists, we should probably just kill it. But killing the advertising industry doesn’t mean we have to glorify what marketing does to us.
And it also doesn’t mean we have to belittle the individuals by claiming more than we plausibly can.’;
Now, where the government isn’t responsible for these issues Dowson mentions, things like credit card companies and big time property investors, it’s often a partner to these things. Either because of corporations being a product of the state, the stolen land that these investors can seize on, etc.
So Dowson isn’t out of the ideological woods he’s lost himself in.
There’s also just a general lack of effort in Dowson’s vision. He offers things like, “direct spending” or “creating incentives for private investment” but no real idea of how or why politicians would do this. Why would they act against their own interests at this point? Are we working with the current politicians Dowson are complaining about or some ideal politicians that Dowson would like to think?
I’m guessing it’s the latter.
But this analysis misses the forest for the trees.
In Munger’s article he quotes four different classical liberal thinkers to further this point: Edmund Burke, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith.
Out of the four, I think I like Smith’s quote the best at expressing what I mean:
It is the system of government, the situation in which [people] are placed, that I mean to censure, not the character of those who have acted in it. They acted as their situation naturally directed, and they who have clamoured the loudest against them would probably not have acted better themselves.
Indeed, as Munger suggests, wherever Dowson says “the government should do” Dowson should replace it with, “…politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist.”
I conclude by remarking that if Dowson and others still think it’s a good idea, then let’s talk.
Otherwise, his dream of getting Australians less work may as well include unicorns.
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