While making people work shitty jobs to “earn” a living has always been spiteful, it’s now starting to seem suicidal. So perhaps it’s time to reclaim job-killing environmentalism, this time not as a project that demonizes workers, or even work — but rather, as one that rejects work done for its own sake. Instead of stigmatizing, criminalizing, and imprisoning the unemployed and “non-industrious poor,” perhaps we should see them, as David Graeber suggests, as the “pioneers of a new economic order” — one where we all work and consume less, and have more time for other pursuits.
Jude and I had a seemly-radical discussion a few years ago about the concept of a universal basic income, or what would essentially boil down to making Social Security payments to every person in the country, regardless of age. Newborns, old people, poor people, rich people, everyone gets a check for the same amount once a month. Coupled with single payer healthcare, it’s a thing that small-government supporters should absolutely love, because it means a lot of government assistance programs could just go away. Unemployment? TANF? WIC? Make the checks a reasonable enough size to cover basic existence and poof, you don’t need those anymore. You also don’t need a minimum wage regulation! Minimum wage is “don’t have a job”!
A universal basic income means that people aren’t shackled to jobs they hate, either. The old advice of “if you hate your job, leave it” is plausible again, not because there are other jobs you might not hate, but because you’re not exclusively reliant on your job for things like heat in the winter and food on your table and having that table in the first place. Jobs will still need doing – and people will still want to do some work so they can purchase small luxuries – but the Keynesian prediction of a 15-hour work week suddenly becomes much more plausible.
We’re at the point as a society where there’s a limited amount of shit that actually needs doing, and too many people trying to do it. Particularly – as the post argues – if we want to start being actually environmentally friendly, we’re going to be consuming less. That means we’re going to need to produce less, and we need to account for that somehow. But also:
Proposals to shorten the workweek are often defended on the basis of giving people more time for what they will — to spend time with friends, family, and loved ones, start a band, write a novel, cook a meal, and so on. But calling those activities “leisure” diminishes their importance in making a life with less stuff a worthwhile and fulfilling one. Likewise, the word “leisure” doesn’t credit the fact that strong communities are as important for surviving natural disasters as strong seawalls. If we’re paying people to build the latter, shouldn’t we also pay them to build the former?
Emphasis mine. When you’re not spending your entire life behind a desk or sweating over a machine in a factory so your kids can eat, when you’ve got the additional help of a monthly check for every person in your family, you have the time to go meet your neighbors. You have the time to organize that kickball league in the park down the road. You have the time to make the park in the first place. And then, if Shit Goes Down, it’s not some anonymous family from across the cul-de-sac that you never see because you’re just too tired after fighting with corporate all day and you just want to watch American Idol and pass out, it’s the Robinsons and the Ramirezes and we need to help them because they’d help us.
I thought, when Jude and I first talked about this a few years ago, that this was a crazy radical idea that would never get any traction anywhere. I’m really heartened to see that it’s becoming a thing that more and more people are willing to say this is a thing we need to seriously talk about.