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The Wages of Wages

Excerpts from an excerpt from The RICH Economy by Robert Anton Wilson from The Illuminati Papers:
I don't think there is, or ever again can be, a cure for unemployment. I propose that unemployment is not a disease, but the natural, healthy functioning of an advanced technological society.

The inevitable direction of any technology, and of any rational species such as Homo sap., is toward what Buckminster Fuller calls ephemeralization, or doing-more-with-less. For instance, a modern computer does more (handles more bits of information) with less hardware than the proto-computers of the late '40's and '50's. One worker with a modern teletype machine does more in an hour than a thousand medieval monks painstakingly copying scrolls for a century. Atomic fission does more with a cubic centimeter of matter than all the engineers of the 19th Century could do with a million tons, and fusion does even more.


Aristotle said that slavery could only be abolished when machines were built that could operate themselves. Working for wages, the modern equivalent of slavery -- very accurately called "wage slavery" by social critics -- is in the process of being abolished by just such self-programming machines. In fact, Norbert Wiener, one of the creators of cybernetics, foresaw this as early as 1947 and warned that we would have massive unemployment once the computer revolution really got moving.

It is arguable, and I for one would argue, that the only reason Wiener's prediction has not totally been realized yet -- although we do have ever-increasing unemployment -- is that big unions, the corporations, and government have all tacitly agreed to slow down the pace of cybernation, to drag their feet and run the economy with the brakes on. This is because they all, still, regard unemployment as a "disease" and cannot imagine a "cure" for the nearly total unemployment that full cybernation will create.

Suppose, for a moment, we challenge this Calvinistic mind-set. Let us regard wage-work -- as most people do, in fact, regard it -- as a curse, a drag, a nuisance, a barrier that stands between us and what we really want to do. In that case, your job is the disease, and unemployment is the cure.


What I am proposing, in brief, is that the Work Ethic (find a Master to employ you for wages, or live in squalid poverty) is obsolete. A Work Esthetic will have to arise to replace this old Stone Age syndrome of the slave, the peasant, the serf, the prole, the wage-worker -- the human labor-machine who is not fully a person but, as Marx said, " a tool, an automaton." Delivered from the role of things and robots, people will learn to become fully developed persons, in the sense of the Human Potential movement. They will not seek work out of economic necessity, but out of psychological necessity -- as an outlet for their creative potential.

As much as this line of thinking fills me with hope for a more tolerable existence, it also feeds the fire of my despair (or what feels like it would run away and become despair if I didn't keep a lid on it). Why? Because RAW wrote those words in 1980. I was twelve years old at the time, and the start of my tours of duty in the hierarchies of wage slavery were still nearly a decade in the future. Here I am, forty years old. Bob is dead, and the institution of wage slavery and it's near universal acceptance as the natural and proper role of man seems as unassailable to the hive mind as it did nearly 30 years ago. Not only may I not escape, but I fear my children will also spend their decades rolling the frakking boulder up the hill.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 22nd, 2009 01:51 am (UTC)
These are big issues that in this rapidly changing paradigm are over my head.
My 22 year old daughter is asking some pertinent questions about what her time (and life) are worth.
I feel so split in half on the issue. She can't just slack, but then I don't wish wage slavery on her. It's become a painful dilemma, I don't even know what to say to her any more.
I just want her to travel and explore the world, something that any parent richer than I could provide. I bowed out of funding some senseless wars and now I find myself without hard assets to offer my children. Right now, just this moment, it seems really cruel and I have no answers at all. I hate this.

I don’t know why exactly, but I still somehow remember a time when doing something that was wanted and needed by your community made for a fulfilling life. That community doesn’t exists any more, or if it does we can’t find it.
Do I dare have a hope?
I made a choice myself when I was her age, and in that choice I decided to take a path other than the peace corps. But I came very close to choosing to sign up. And now, would I even suggest to her to do such a thing? Nah, I doubt it seriously. Too many years of scouring web pages have made me cynical of everything, or at least fed into the lack of faith I had before.
Look at what has happened in the past couple of days, or months. There are so many who truly do have hope, in a new president that might bring something beneficial to the table. That Americans could somehow no longer be seen as the most destructive force on the planet. But NO, every day we read that it’s all a set up. It’s all rotten to the core. That if we join in on the brigade we are all Hitler’s slaves. I am so fed up. Does the truth exists anywhere? Did it ever exist? It’s a creation isn’t it? Can’t we just create this… something better?

Personally I think I have reached a point where I don't need any answers, and maybe I was delusional to think I could ever provide any to my girls.
I used to revel in the glory of "not know" so much better than "knowing about", but right now that isn't making me, or anyone I know, happy.
Jan. 22nd, 2009 02:48 am (UTC)
I have a really dumb question for you (or anyone else reading for that matter):

When people propose this idea of a workless society where machines are doing all the boring stuff, what is the assumption re: where everyone is going to get an income from to support themselves?

I'm not trying to be an asshole and imply that there isn't one, I'm just really curious because I've never heard it / read about it. Like, is the assumption that all these people with their spare time are going to become brilliant scientists and artists, or that they are going to spend all their time watching TV, or what? Where do they get money from? Is it the government? Or does the structure of the whole economy change so much that this question becomes irrelevant? etc.

Part of why I ask this question is because I'm thinking that the people who see unemployment as automatically-bad may have that view in part because they can't conceive of what a whole society of unemployed people would actually do.
Jan. 22nd, 2009 03:33 am (UTC)
RICH is an acronym
Jan. 22nd, 2009 06:44 am (UTC)
Re: RICH is an acronym
Thanks. That was informative, useful and generally awesome except for the "now I feel dumb for not just clicking on your link" aspect. :)
Jan. 22nd, 2009 03:13 am (UTC)
Reading the Schrodinger's Cat trilogy in 2004 was an extremely bittersweet experience for me too. Far from alienated labor vanishing, it feels as if we'll be damned lucky even to continue enjoying the few freedoms and the little control over our destiny as workers that we've had in the last couple of decades.
Jan. 22nd, 2009 05:51 pm (UTC)
viva the ludic revolution:: http://deoxy.org/endwork.htm
Jan. 22nd, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC)
I'm skeptical. Wage slavery does one needed thing: it gives people a need. Without a need, yes, there are folks who pursue actualization of whatever direction they find preferable. There are, though, a bunch of folks who, finding themselves without direction, become a menace to society.

I think the problem might just be that we have descended from hierarchically organized primates that, when they sense an opening, will vie for Alpha status. In my experience, idleness tends to serve as a time for organizing Alpha moves, often with disastrous results.

Furthermore, wages serve as an imperfect but nonetheless effective resource management tool, helping to value necessities through market anarchy. Without this pressure to pay, for example, to fill the car's tank, one needs not think about checking the tires for proper inflation or limiting one's trips in times of high prices. The gradual innovation cited in the article could all but disappear should wage slavery vanish as well.

There are existential considerations as well. Shallow as it might often seem, the pursuit of the all-mighty dollar does give otherwise despairing people a beacon of hope to which they can trudge along. Some of the article mentioned the RICH model. . . which is straight out of Vonnegut's Player Piano (or vice versa). One should note that PP is not filled with happy, fulfilled characters. It's far more of a dystopia, one of the worst, and one that comes crashing down.

I do like the concept of the Work Aesthetic. I like that a lot.

(Sorry, didn't mean to ramble.)
Jan. 22nd, 2009 10:35 pm (UTC)
"Delivered from the role of things and robots, people will learn to become fully developed persons, in the sense of the Human Potential movement. They will not seek work out of economic necessity, but out of psychological necessity -- as an outlet for their creative potential."

Forgive me for saying so, especially because I happen to love reading and listening to the late great Mr. Wilson, but he was a writer, (and a very good one at that) and an entertainer. And this is the sort of comment a writer would make. He imagines a world made up of writers, or of happy writer-like creative individuals engaged in similarly happy and fulfilling occupations.

And though famous and brilliant and funny and well-loved, he died pretty much broke, depending on donations from friends and fans to help pay for his medical bills. He also seems to have died happy, though in much pain. I really don't think his final days would have been made any less painful had some alleged Calvinist-mindset anti-cybernation conspiracy been defeated and a technological singularity shown up ahead of schedule, but I do think that's a fantasy he entertained, a fantasy many of us born into the middle years of the Cheap Energy Era entertain: that we live in a situation that can be “fixed” with the introduction of this or that piece of efficient machinery.

What confounds our thinking about this problem is the notion that we can build a Machine that somehow exists outside of nature and that cares for all of our needs without our ever having to bother to think about where the energy to run the Machine comes from. Wilson supposes that it comes from human ingenuity, imagination and creativity applied to a technological problem, and I suppose, in part, that it does. He also imagines that it runs on money, on debt and wage slavery. In fact, it runs on energy – energy stored and energy transformed. Money’s just a way to measure the energy flows, but it can (and does) also obscure the reality of the Machine’s operation.

There are other ways to manage the energy flows, healthier, sustainable ways. We know what they are; human beings have had this knowledge for almost as long as the species has been on the planet – had it, and lost it, and found it again, and lost it. In that sense, we are a tragic species. We employ this knowledge; then we get a surplus, and the next thing you know, we get priesthoods and caste systems and debt and whole armies of accountants to keep track of the surplus and manage the debt, and other armies to manage and control the expanding population, and other armies to manage and control the growth of the surplus through empire, and so on. Energy flows, from sun to plants, from meat to machinery.

We are currently in the process of re-learning our lessons all over again, however painfully. In permaculture, they say, “The problem is the solution.” Depression (or “correction” as the MBAs like to put it) presents us now with this re-educational opportunity, as reality reasserts itself and our hallucinated wealth and the dreams it ignited flicker out of existence. We (and you, and your sons, and me, and my daughters) will adapt; the question is, how much of the Machine will we think it wise or prudent to preserve?
Jan. 23rd, 2009 12:38 am (UTC)
Excellent point.
Jan. 24th, 2009 08:03 am (UTC)
A great "seminar" type video along these lines
This speech, "The coming collapse of the middle class," is somewhat along these lines. Given by Elizabeth Warren to the UC Berkely community.


Definately worth the watch.

Jan. 24th, 2009 02:07 pm (UTC)
Re: A great "seminar" type video along these lines
Someone posted a link to that on this blog last year (or so), and yes, it is very much worth the time. Thank you for posting it.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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