Is 100% unemployment realistic, desirable, and statelessly doable?

I find it hard to imagine a situation in which all real needs can be satisfied without any work being performed by people. I find it equally hard to believe that we will ever see full employment; understood to mean enough jobs to go around. Automation is real, and it’s inconceivable to me that the future needs all of us. Thus, as long as we are living under a market economy, some of us will be expendable.

Kurt Vonnegut envisioned this scenario in Player Piano, in which people not in-demand enough to merit a paying gig were relagated to the humiliation and indignity of the “Reeks and Wrecks,” a make-work program created to provide the illusion of being a contributing member of society, but the illusion wore thin rather quickly. In Player Piano, the “engineers and managers” are the last dominos left standing. As the nightmare is materializing right now, it looks more like nursing is the hardest occupation to automate.

It seems apparent that somewhere between the staffed economy and the unstaffed economy is the partially staffed economy. With substantiated complaints of “jobless recovery” for at least three economic cycles, I’d say we’re definitely in that middle zone right now. I think we are managing this transition in the least humane way imaginable. Instead of dividing the reduced workload, some can’t get out of mandatory overtime while others can’t get out of part time employment, and the market denies still others any employment at all.

Spreading out among the working-age population all the work that can’t yet be automated or otherwise obviated may mean training a sizeable fraction of the population in those health care fields that somehow manage to be still in demand. There is an obvious inefficiency involved in investing in the training of millions of people, most of whom will subsequently be working part time, but I never accepted efficiency as the yardstick by which all practices should be measured. We have to evolve from a culture in which unemployment is unacceptable to one in which it is unavoidable, without destroying the self esteem of millions. As Marshall Brain tells us, “‘If you don’t work, you don’t eat’ is a core philosophy of today’s economy, and this rule could make a rapid robotic takeover extremely uncomfortable for our society.”

One benefit of widespread automation and resulting decrease in work requirements/opportunities might be what they call a “universal basic income” or “basic income guarantee.” The downside is that most proposals for such a thing posit the government as the agency which disburses these benefits. For the non-market, non-state sector the trick is to create a non-state method for accomplishing this or the equivalent. It probably falls under the general heading of mutual aid. Click here for a review of some of the literature of mutual aid by one Eric Laursen. It’s mostly about secret societies, which is a little troublesome for someone like me who hungers for inclusivity, but there’s a lot there on the treadmill of economic growth, the isolation of suburban sprawl, and so many other social ills. The concluding remarks (emphasis mine):

But the labor movement never succeeded in creating a health and old-age benefit system that provided for all workers, either. Today, mutual aid still appears to be the only way to create a humane, caring, and fully participatory society. But anarchists have not begun to consider their biggest challenge yet: how to make mutual aid universal. This doesn’t mean the movement needs to renounce the autonomist principle—only that it needs to take confederalism just as seriously.

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13 Responses to Is 100% unemployment realistic, desirable, and statelessly doable?

  1. Derek says:

    Tom Walker has an excellent essay arguing for a “labor commons union” to manage issues of technological unemployment. I think this could be part of an economic federalist program that Proudhon talked about and Eric Laursen writes about. Likewise, I think a basic income guarantee or social security type scheme could be administered through the Bank of Exchange that Proudhon advocated, utilizing insights from modern monetary theory. I’m just speculating now but this is something I’d like to write about in more depth in the future.

    • Derek says:

      I should add that in a geoanarchist community a basic income guarantee could be funded through the community collection of rent.

  2. As much as I want an egalitarian society, I think the goal of making a mutual aid system universal places precisely the wrong emphasis on solving the problem (much in the same sense as making employment efficient). I don’t see how you can have any sort of universal guarantee absent the state – hell, I’m not sure thinking of things in terms of guarantees isn’t the problem in the first place. People who want things to be taken care of by others often slide into dependence. To my mind, anarchy is not supposed to be utopia.

    I feel like the core feature of any genuine mutual aid system is the involvement beneficiaries have in the project. Mutual aid means you are not merely a customer. So instead of devising a grand scheme that can take care of everybody, what would be better would be to see everybody taking active roles in solving their own problems through their own particular societies.

    “Secret societies” might be a bit over the top, but it certainly can’t be less exclusive than the corporate/government complex we have now. This allows for a diversity not just in mutual aid systems but in conceptions of what kind of aid is necessary or desirable. Whatever it is, the system has to get people invested in aiding fellow members on an intrinsic level for it to work at all. I don’t see any way of hoping to accomplish that without a set of mutual aid systems as diverse as the people needing them.

    • Raoul says:

      I agree, in so far as that we have truly a lot of problems to solve, new borders to breach out towards, and a mutual aid system like an unconditional basic income could be the foundation for people in their societies big as big and small, to start solving those problems, challenging new frontiers, out of their own intrinsic motivation, or motivated through their social surroundings, societies.

      Universality isn’t a questionable concept to me here, because how else would you get people, societies, to start looking at solving their problems, when instead you give em conditions, hurdles, riddles, trifling matters that offer a lifetime of make-work to solve.
      As if third parties with no insight into people’s problems could ever know what’s the course to take to solve a problem.

  3. I never accepted efficiency as the yardstick by which all practices should be measured.

    Let me just say I’m thrilled to hear another libertarian say this. Too often, efficiency is used as an excuse to make us serve our systems rather than the other way around.

    • n8chz says:

      Another possibility is that efficiency is an appropriate yardstick, but the criteria of efficiency are not the criteria that actually do the most good for the most people. One problem is the underlying assumption that more wealth (“social welfare” they call it) is automagically preferable over less wealth, and that whatever social problems exist would be worse were the GDP smaller. One problem with this is, it’s only a few derivational steps away from the conclusion that we live in the Best of All Possible Worlds™.

      Perhaps it is OK to keep the definition of efficiency as “ratio of outputs to inputs” but define outputs in terms of shared goals such as minimizing the percentage of the population that isn’t in some sense “making it,” or put another way, maximizing the “survival rate” of the species. Freedom, of course, if of utmost importance, so maximizing the amount of freedom for the inputs is also part of a freedom-friendly version of efficiency.

  4. Lindsay says:

    Thanks for this post — it deals with some of the same things I’ve been thinking about for a long time, about how our society should change to avoid violently imploding once the realities of limited natural resources finish catching up with our economic system, which makes infinite growth, expansion, and infinitely-increasing energy use preconditions for a good life for most people.

    Like you, I’m trying to see a future in which there’s a lot less wealth, but people also thrive in a way they’re not thriving now.

    • n8chz says:

      Hadn’t thought to include limited natural resources in the analysis, but it is something I’ve been thinking about. Could put the kabosh on the whole notion of ‘post scarcity.’ But of course, to the extent that there is work to be done (and less combustible fuel may mean more humyn toil), doing so should not be a privilege. How to reconcile that with ‘voluntarism’ is tricky, but surely involuntary unemployment must somehow violate any meaningful understanding of voluntarism.

  5. Pingback: Why I’m not ready to jump on the P2P bandwagon | In defense of anagorism

  6. Lynn Patra says:

    Reblogged this on Work-Life Strategies & Solutions and commented:
    Is it conceivable? Thinking of a way to reconstruct a society in which all the work is being performed by technology makes for an interesting thought exercise indeed. However, some thinkers (such as Andrew McAfee in his TED presentation – see my previous post “The Move Towards Self-Employment”) do see the possibility of a life where people are freed up to do other things. Can the currently assumed exchange between work and consumption be broken? If money no longer mattered, perhaps some people would still be working and striving, but for different rewards (such as popularity or mere thrill of competition) as one of my conversation partners hypothesized. This possibility has optimists exclaiming “100% unemployment now!” However if we are striving towards this type of society, one of the worst risks we take is that our creations turn on us and we live out an even akin to “The Terminator: Rise of the Machines.” However, the way we currently work is already ruining people’s health and therefore slowly killing a good number of us so, if things keep going the way they are, the issue of our welfare becomes moot. Check out this interesting blog post, “Is 100% unemployment realistic, desirable, and statelessly doable?”

  7. Lynn Patra says:

    I enjoyed this post and the ensuing discussion very interesting, and have reblogged this on

  8. Pingback: Can UBI be done statelessly? | In defense of anagorism

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