Note — Oct 10, 2021

Making a Living, the History of What We Call Work

On Twitter, Aaron Benanav described his review of James Suzman’s new book, Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, as “post-scarcity thinking in both anthropology and economics, featuring Graeber, Scott, Polanyi, Sahlins, Galbraith, Keynes, Freud, JS Mill and (implicitly) Marx.” Which should be enough to get you reading.

The first part of the article screams ‘half-life of knowledge,’ as Suzman goes through history, showing how the decades-long notion that hunter-gatherers were barely surviving was wrong, that humans were quite well-off living that way, which might indicate that we are actually quite able to live simple lives working only a few hours a week. Then why, now that we have all the tools needed to do so, do we still live in a never-ending cycle of perpetual growth, consumerism, and never feeling productive enough? Suzman has his own theory, Benanav exposes what’s missing in it and provides his own directions where he feels the book is lacking.

Beyond history and economics, I’d like to add one component which might explain some parts of the underlying question of the book, one seemingly not covered in there: stories, narratives. One might yell repeatedly “capitalism,” and of course yes, and it’s also largely about power and who wields it. But capitalism has told a story that we’ve bought into, marketing and propaganda have made us all into consumers and often dumb voters. We even, often unwittingly, become marketers for what we buy, bringing others into our wake. So for sure, spending 95 percent of our 300,000-year history as hunter-gatherers might show something of our nature, for sure capitalism, for sure power and inequality through the centuries, but perhaps also noticing the stories we buy into, the ones we forget, the ones that sell us something, the ones trotted out at election time. But more importantly, the need for thinking of the new ones that will show the way out of our current predicament.

Why the wealthy few are able to satisfy so many of their whims before the world’s poor achieve basic levels of economic security has always been an uncomfortable question for the economic profession. But economists assure us that, in any case, the only long-term solution to global poverty is more economic growth. […]

Keynes’s vision of a post-scarcity future was as much a recovery of our species’s pre-scarcity past. Humanity’s “fundamental economic problem” is not scarcity at all, but rather satiety. […]

Suzman gestures toward “proposals like granting a universal basic income,” “shifting the focus on taxation from income to wealth,” and “extending the fundamental rights we give to people and companies to ecosystems, rivers, and crucial habitats.” But he provides no argument for where constituencies supporting these policies might be found or how coalitions working toward them might be constructed. […]

We should set the course not to Mars, for vacationing with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, but rather to a post-scarcity planet Earth on which their wealth has been confiscated and put to better ends. Getting there will require that we overcome the endemic insecurity that continues to plague nine-tenths of humanity, while also reducing and transforming the work we do.