Mankind is hard-wired to work, sez Nick Boles

Bollocks, sez the ermine. I could stop there and make this the shortest post on here, but such spurious claims should be consigned to the dustbin of history along with the idea you would die if you went over 30 mph and other such folly. I’ve batted on this wicket before, but it’s a good fight IMO.

Take it away, Nick:

The main objection to the idea of a universal basic income is not practical but moral,” he writes.

“Its enthusiasts suggest that when intelligent machines make most of us redundant, we will all dispense with the idea of earning a living and find true fulfilment in writing poetry, playing music and nurturing plants. That is dangerous nonsense.

“Mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging … we should not be trying to create a world in which most people do not feel the need to work.

Why ever the hell not? If the robots are as good as they’re cracked up to be, then let ’em have at it. Where did this argument that work was an essential part of life come from? Clearly historically human work has been needed to arrange the world to a state more congenial to human life, such niceties as having food in the winter etc. We probably needed a narrative for why things were so shit at times, in Western culture I’d suggest it started with the Bible, to wit

17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground;

Clearly the search for knowledge was disparaged in Paradise1, once the necky Adam had chomped on the apple he got a right bollocking, In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread and all that. No work, no eat, buster, who’s a clever boy then?

When the Ermine household still had a telly, we watched a series by Niall Ferguson titled Civilisation – the West and the Rest. The dapper and erudite  Niall was no match for Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation,2 but he made the premise that this was turbocharged by Martin Luther, to the effect that the rest of the world got to eat our dust up to about 1950, curiously the date so many of us would like to wind the clock back to. The problem with elevating the doctrine of redemption by faith alone is that it is an invitation to slackers to sit on their backsides, so Luther gives these idlers a pre-emptive bollocking

Works are necessary for salvation but they do not cause salvation; for faith alone gives life.

and there we have it, a straight line of reasoning from Luther to Nick Boles, via the collective unconscious transmitted through culture.

In living proof that children have no taste, the young Ermine read a lot of science fiction back in the day. I recall my mother’s face blanching when I told her I had identified Asimov as one of my favourite authors at the grammar school entrance interview after the exam. I got in anyway despite this undesirable taste for pulp fiction.

Today’s readers should bear in mind this was a world where I saw Nasa putting people on the moon live on the school TV. There was no such thing as global warming, and the Limits to Growth hadn’t been published. These were the days when the white heat of technology was going to give us electricity too cheap to meter, well, that is, if it didn’t kill us first. As such the primitive awareness of my juvenile mind saw nothing wrong with the implied myth of continuous progress that underpinned Asimov’s stories, and anyway, he was a good storyteller.

I had a particular penchant for his Foundation series, but the story that Nick Boles and his fellow Calvinist work is good for you boosters need to read is probably The Naked Sun in which we are introduced to the Spacer world Solaria, settled some two and a half thousand years hence. It is populated by humans called Solarians.

Now it has to be said that Solarians are sick puppies by our standards3, not particularly physically but mentally/culturally, they hate being in each others presence, communicating with each other through screens. Anybody with teenagers probably thinks we are nine tenths of the way there already, Asimov’s genius lay in anticipating this pathology of the human makeup before it was technically viable and out there for all to see.

Solarians would never have tolerated being in the same room as each other, but we’re getting there

Solarians have the edge on our teenagers because they have cracked the work problem totally. They are vastly outnumbered by their robots, who do all the work. Our Nick really wouldn’t like it there.

Now I don’t believe for a minute that we will be colonising outer space, ever, and the pressing problem of using fossil fuels to vastly increase our population beyond the carrying capacity of the energy flow into the planet doesn’t bode well for the idea of settling Spacer worlds in a couple of thousand years. It’s not impossible, because perhaps as people get richer they have fewer children and we might be able to reduce the overall population to a sustainable level and have energy left over for that sort of thing. Or we might split into the .01% who own all the robotic resources and the rest of us be left to starve. Let’s hear it from Elon Musk

“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”

— Elon Musk, CEO and Lead Designer, SpaceX

Yup. Makes you wonder why Peter Thiel is such a lightweight then and has given up on seasteading as being technically too hard – at least you get a free atmosphere and fish. Maybe he should hitch a ride to Mars.

One of the main issues with Nick Boles is that a lot of his vaunted work is going to be shit work, like Uber or bussing tables and getting coffee. Now if we could train capitalism to value, or at least tolerate people, then let’s get the robots to do the work. At the moment we have people doing low end work that a little bit of investment could get the robots doing, and then let’s all chill a bit and get rid of this antideluvian work is good for you concept. In a world where human work was needed to keep it habitable and people fed, yes, we needed religious prohibitions on slackers. If the robots are up to scratch then we can let those prohibitions go and stop lauding work as an innate Good Thing. I figure a universal basic income would stop companies taking the piss and employing people on zero-hours contracts doing work a bit of investment could automate. Shit work should be automated out of existence.

Neoliberals will take pot shots at all sorts of things about a universal income. The owners of capital4 like houses will drive up rents and enrich themselves because people can pay more. After all, Piketty identified the problem, which is that the return on capital is increasing faster than the return on labour, so people who have labour and no capital are losing the fight. Not many of us are born with capital to our names, although the Guardian claims there’s hope for the millennials now, as we go back to the future and dynastic wealth starts to matter.

All of these are indicative of an economy running up against natural limits to growth – capital accumulated slowly across generations in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, but when productivity was boosted there was enough so that people in decent jobs in first World countries could accumulate wealth across a working lifetime in some cases. Productivity is falling and growth is lower than it was in the Sixties when I read those stories of extraterrestrial derring-do. Nevertheless, the Solarians have a good message for us, and we can read it in the story of the uber-rich, down to the Kardashians, the Ecclestone girls and all sorts, all the way down to Ermines. You really don’t need work to have a good time. It is a way, and it’s right for some, but don’t generalise, Nick. Work is overrated.

  1. one of the dreadful things the EU has been doing with our money along with spending it on Welsh roads and deprived areas in England has been setting up a website to disseminate European art, from which I got the cover picture The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Rubens and Breughel. You can read all about it and download a massive 9Mb image so you could use your 4k TV as a display of the finest art in the continent, all for free. I really am so glad we voted to get away from such effete pursuits. Presumably the Arts Council will use its vastly improved grant resulting from the Brexit dividend to do something similar in a year or so, focusing on British artists of course… 
  2. I was a little squirt at primary school then. The Ermine household was too poor to even know anyone with a TV never mind have one so I have never actually seen this, but my mother bought the book and I read it. I am of the general opinion that children have zero taste so it was probably largely wasted on me, but perhaps some of it stuck. 
  3. I’m not sure what it says about me, but I have a sneaking suspicion the Solarians would view us as the sick puppies, and I’m minded to say they really do have a point, in a world where for example we pay the Bath vice-chancellor half a million sods plus £2 biscuit money while we condemn young people to indentured servitude paying student loans off without having the balls to tell enough of them they aren’t bright enough to realistically get any return on investment. Not to mention a world where Nick Boles shoots his gob off about work being an inherent good. 
  4. Yeah, I know. And shares 😉 This is why we need regulation, to stop the owners of capital grabbing all of it. Nobody seems to be thinking never mind pitching for the happy medium 

Congratulations to Patrick Pichette of Google, 52 (ret)

The CFO of Google has achieved something that few high earners seem to do. In amongst all the Sturm und Drang of earning shitloads of money as CFO of Google, he heard the faintest sounds of the distant drum at 52, having climbed Kili. In itself that’s not particularly remarkable. What was remarkable, however, is that he took action. He switched the engine into neutral, and planned his glide path out.

say cheese, guys
say cheese, guys

Now the cynical Ermine observes a massive helping of cheese in this pic. Hopefully that photo is a mock-up – it would really, really piss me off to pay all that money and go to all that trouble to find such a ghastly contraption bringing unauthentic consumerism with a Capital C to a natural place. Las Vegas is fine where it is 😉 But if it’s really there, well, it takes all sorts, eh.

Be that as it may, and even if it’s a publicity stunt to promote the ailing Google Plus system, he’s outlined the fundamental problem. You’ve only got so much time in your life, and it’s running out 24 hours every day.

His valedictory post has all the usual things the rich retiree wants to do – travel the world, blah blah blah blah. It’s great- each to their own. It reminds me of the things I thought I would do lots of once I had control of my own money and time. And indeed I may still do. All these things are projected outwards, but retiring well is also an inner journey. I am reminded of the words of the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung

It seems to me that the basic facts of the psyche undergo a very marked alteration in the course of life, so much so that we could almost speak of a psychology of life’s morning and a psychology of its afternoon. As a rule, the life of a young person is characterized by  a general expansion and a striving towards concrete ends; and his neurosis seems mainly to rest on his hesitation or shrinking back from this necessity. But the life of an older person is characterized by a contraction of forces, by the affirmation of what has been achieved, and by the curtailment of further growth. His neurosis comes mainly from his clinging to a youthful attitude which is now out of season….

Carl Jung, 1929 CW 16, para 75

Translated into our times, in youth the ego is expands in strength and influence. Although the West has few rites of passage, the ego follows a well-signposted path, projecting and gradually gaining force and influence – job, career, relationships/marriage/kids. All this is promoted and is in the symbols all around us.

We don’t have many symbols for success after the turning point – look at the ads around you, they are to hang on to youth, to beauty, most commercial symbols of ageing are negative. The ads assume we want to look like we are between 25 and 29.

I lived some of Carl Jung’s neuroses in my 20s  – the young Ermine lived in a rented room in London, putting salt around the room to keep out the black slugs. I was in a decent job, 25, but I couldn’t buy a house and seemed stuck in all aspects of life other than work. I did finally sort my shit out and make changes. It wasn’t just me – the mid twenties seemed a really tough time for several of my peers too. Maybe it’s a London thing, or Imperial graduates. Maybe it’s birds of a feather sample bias. I have experienced worse lows in life since, but none as protracted. Bollocks to all the ads, I never, ever, want to be mentally again in the place I was in my mid to late 20s. For all the lows and the fortunately modest losses I have so far had since, the highs deepen and colour in with experience. That runs against the narrative of the Western Myth, and it is important to be prepared to surrender some of what was valuable in youth in order to deepen and grow. So far I have found Carl Jung’s map to be more true that that held up to me by the consumer society around me.

I did not dodge the midlife crisis[ref]I don’t really understand Jung’s chronology he termed the years from c. age 56 to c. 83 the “afternoon of life,” using the analogy of the passage of the sun through the sky from morning to night. This kind of sits ill with the typical allotment of three-score years and ten.[/ref] – arguably the forces that pinged me out of The Firm were stronger because my inner values began to diverge more an more from the values of my younger life. In particular I found it harder and harder to suck it up to The Man’s stupid metrics and bullshit ways – little empires of small desperate people doing what their immediate higher-ups said despite it being often wrong (in engineering terms) or simply against common-sense, nature and experience. The misery of mendacious measurement and metrics enforcing mediocrity and digital Taylorism continues unabated, but at least it isn’t my problem any more. There are some who simply carried on turning the handle, and good luck to ’em. I wanted to determine how I spend my days. And while I probably have the edge on Patrick on some of the inner changes, he has lived more intentionally, choosing to throw the switches of his life in a controlled manner, unlike my uncontrolled derailment from the Work strand of life. So hat tip to Patrick – a great exposition in how to retire well.

But a word in your shell-like Patrick, from someone else who retired at 52. Remember the question posited by Erich Fromm in To Have or To Be. What you do may matter less than what you become. Much heartache and angst waits for those who listen to the messages from their inner world with the coarse equipment that listened well to the messages from the outer world. We don’t help ourselves with that second half of life by trying to hold on to outdated forms. I liked this article on the adventure inward  – this passage speaks to me

In youth the ego is expanding in strength and influence. Typically, it follows the well-posted paths of society, perhaps gathering accolades along the way. But at midlife the ego is challenged to become a servant of the larger personality and soul. This is why men often encounter a feminine guide–and women, a masculine guide–in their dreams towards midlife. These figures are manifestations, or symbols, of the soul[ref]The translation of soul from German into English is hard. It has religious connotations in English which I don’t believe are in the German original[/ref]. They invite and would guide us to an understanding of our deeper nature and a more personal spirituality. Thus, we could say that in youth the ego is educated mostly by family and society, at midlife and beyond, by the soul.

One of the characteristics of the last two and a bit years is that I see that I made far too many simplifications in my model of the world and how it worked, they had served me okay in work and career. But they blinded me to faint signals from within, and also faint signals from the future too. I come to know much more how much I don’t know, and learning from others becomes easier to do but more daunting as I see the further mountains to climb in the search for wisdom.

To take one example – writing this blog has helped me, both in the obvious way that articulating something makes it clearer and throws light on inconsistencies, but also I have learned from many of readers in the comments – sometimes I have been plain wrong, but all too often there are nuances I may have missed, things I’ve been unaware of and it is always good to refine my mental models closer to the territory.

In this time I have perhaps focused on the inner journey. Maybe the time will come that I balance this outwards, though I’ll probably pass on Kilimanjaro, a quick google search still gives me the feeling of pumped up consumerism

If you’ve ever wanted to do something truly amazing, something that’s as far removed from a lazy beach holiday as possible, then Mount Kilimanjaro is calling you! Join the great explorers and mountaineers in scaling Africa’s highest peak, hiking through lush rainforests, alpine deserts and glaciers that have been there forever. With our Kilimanjaro treks, you can take on a challenge and do something awesome in Africa.

STA travel

It seems a fave for mid-life crises – a fifty-something I know did it to make himself feel better after a divorce. Good luck to y’all, whatever floats your boat.

For some reason I’ve focused on the inner journey in the first couple of years, but life has an ebb and flow. Maybe the time for travel and looking outwards is soon to come, to integrate some of the changed perspectives, to play across the strands of life. Patrick’s message is cheering, because it runs against the Calvinist Work is Good for you meme. Work is a means to an end, but it’s also good to know what enough looks like – when to consider a switch from having more to being more. Happy retirement!

CalvinistWatch – Happiness is having a job, according to Civitas

In a shocking confusion of correlation with causation, Anastasia de Waal from Civitas bangs the drum for the Calvinist world-view that happiness is having a job. I’ve already had a run-in with the Calvinist work-ethic on here. It may be damned fortuitous that this makes the wage-slaves pliant, but it still needs shooting wherever it arises.

Say it ain’t so, Anastasia. Even at Civitas they must know deep down that there’s more to life than having a job. It’s also damned convenient for a right-wing think tank to take the line that the serfs do it for the good of their souls and the money doesn’t matter. So there’s no need to pay the oiks a living wage then, leaving more for Sir Hector Fat Cat’s bonus, presumably.

Clearly the standards of logical discourse are slipping these days. I think that in a capitalist society such as ours, for most people having a job would appear to be a necessary, but not sufficient condition to be happy. Me, I’d kick the job into touch in a heartbeat – it’s having an income that is necessary, though again not sufficient for being happy.

Civitas take a look at the undoubted unhappiness that goes with not having a job if you have no other means of supporting yourself and your family, and flip the sense of it to imply “Happiness…. is having a job” to plagiarize the Hamlet cigar ads of yesteryear.

Anastasia de Waal, a social policy analyst at the think tank Civitas, said employment was central to people’s sense of identity and wellbeing.

“A job is about your life, it is not about your income,” she said.

“It is about every aspect – having the motivation to get up in the morning, self-esteem and being a role model to your children. Income is almost secondary to that.

“People’s lives fall apart if they don’t have a job. They are much more likely to be depressed if they are out of work, and there is a strong relationship between unemployment and family breakdown and health difficulties.”

Well, colour me stupid , but let’s just run that lot again with “have any money” swapped for “have a job”

Ermine, a cynical bastard at the blog Simple Living in Suffolk, said having enough money was central to people’s sense of identity and wellbeing.

“Having enough money is about your life, it is not about your job,”

[Calvinist claptrap omitted]

“People’s lives fall apart if they don’t have any money. They are much more likely to be depressed if they have no money, and there is a strong relationship between being skint and family breakdown and health difficulties.”

Works pretty well for me. None of this is to gainsay the obvious suffering and hardship that many people are suffering as they lose their jobs, but I’d say that the hardship would be a damn sight less if they didn’t lose their income at the same time as losing their job.Some of the wage-slaves might even get to meet their kids and see what they’re up to these days…

We need to understand this subtle difference if we have to re-engineer our societies for a world in which the myth of continuous growth is shown to have been an illusory dream all along. Although it is hard to image from where we are standing, it is possible to conceive of a society where not everybody had jobs, but everybody had enough income to lead an interesting life.

Say, for instance, we were in some sci-fi future where we had matter replicators and robots. Provided we had managed to avoid the MegaCorporation of Earth copyrighting everything beforehand, this could lead to a society where there were no material wants. Of course it would probably be unsustainable and environmentally destructive too, but hey, if you run out of Earths you could always make another, that’s what a matter replicator is there for 🙂

What’s up with this Calvinist Work Is Good For You Thing?

There seems to be a lot of Protestant work ethic out there in the PF blogosphere. We have Frugal Zeitgeist wondering Does a Minimalist Lifestyle Breed Laziness while Financial Samurai is concerned about The Dark Side of Early Retirement and observing Being Overly Content Can Be Detrimental To Your Career.

What’s up with that? We seem to definitely be in the ‘no pain no gain‘ zone. Work is there to pay the rent, not there to give meaning to life. Saying it is necessary and good for the soul seems downright Calvinist to me.

When I started work, true, it did give me some meaning, because it was a continuation of the arc that I had been preparing for, as I accepted society’s view of what a good lifestyle would look like. That path runs along these lines

  1. get born
  2. go to school
  3. go to university
  4. get job
  5. get married
  6. have kids
  7. retire
  8. die

All very 1950s, and I wasn’t even born then, but this expectation ran on through the 1970s.

At the same time, however, I was working and living life, and there was the process of what Carl Jung termed individuation going on in me. According to Jung, it is

the process by which individual beings are formed and differentiated [from other human beings]; in particular, it is the development of the psychological individual as a being distinct from the general, collective psychology.

Psychological Types, Coll. Works V6

Max Weber's seminal book on the work ethic and capitalism

Work is good for the soul is probably the force that drives Western capitalism according to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I’d go along with him in that the notion that work is good for you is part of western collective psychology, indeed I had to get to middle age before I found it possible to conceive that this was not a natural part of the way life is. That takes some doing, for instance this lady waited till retirement itself to challenge it, she has seen the light now 🙂

Compare my failure to challenge the status quo with Weber’s agricultural labourers on page 59:

since the interest of the employer in a speeding- up of harvesting increases with the increase of the results and the intensity of the work, the attempt has again and again been made, by increasing the piece-rates of the workmen, thereby giving them an opportunity to earn what is for them a very high wage, to interest them in increasing their own efficiency. But a peculiar difficulty has been met with surprising frequency: raising the piece-rates has often had the result that not more but less has been accomplished in the same time, because the worker reacted to the increase not by increasing but by decreasing the amount of his work.

Compared with those guys I have 150 years of educational advances, two college degrees, the hindsight of the Enlightenment. They spotted something I didn’t – enough is enough, the aim of life is to have a good time and probably a few beers with their mates. They could recognise what enough looked like, where I had to see more than four decades before I could even recognise the concept.

Of course, I’m selling the Protestant work ethic short. It was part of putting men on the moon, it drove people to cure smallpox and all sorts of good stuff that the West has achieved. It’s problem is it knows no bounds, so it also gives us the BP oil spill, climate change, bad advertising, junk food. It adds energy, but little critical direction, apart from the search for more.

It may even be possible that work is good for some people at some times, but it isn’t necessarily good for everybody, all the time. Yes, we should not become freeloaders on society, to that extent we should do enough work to pay our way. Cutting costs and retiring early doesn’t mean living on benefits for me, unless they are ones everybody in Britain enjoys like using the NHS. I’ve paid my taxes and my NI stamps for more than 30 years.

Early in my career I did get meaning from work, because I had not begun the process of individuation and establishing what my own values were.  As I got older, I realised that I was a debt slave, but in a velvet lined rut. I needed to work to be able to pay the mortgage.

Once I jumped to this, I realised that I didn’t like having other people having such control over my life, and looked at how to pay down this debt. I worked that out without PF blogs and suchlike, because there was no Internet at the time I started. It’s not that hard to work out that you have to spend less than you earn, and it was pretty obvious that if you don’t want other people controlling your life then don’t owe them any money 🙂

Even after paying down the mortgage I didn’t jump to the slavery part, until my declining but erstwhile good employer began to bring in nutty demeaning performance management BS, at the same time as the project I was working on was cancelled. The manager I worked for tried to use this to squeeze me out after having said he’d back me to retrain earlier on, before the credit crunch. It was at this point that I realised working for someone else, particularly in an office, is bad for you. D’oh…. So along the same lines as ‘if thy mortgage offends thee, pay the damned thing down or don’t take it out in the first place’, I realised that my office job was beginning to offend me.

Enter the PF blogosphere. I had failed to think independently and PF blogs made me realise that with grit and determination you can save enough to retire early, particularly if you spin off alternative income sources. I can only do the preparatory work  and learning with alternative income while I am still working as I’m bloody well not going to pay 42% tax on any alternative income streams, sod that for a game of tin soldiers.

I managed to get one final, and pretty high-profile project in an unusual area for which I happen to have the right skills, which is due to complete in 2012.  I have screwed down my outgoings to less than what I would retire on, and save well over half my earnings to the end of retiring early.

So I don’t get the Calvinist angle one bit. Work is not good for you per se. If you’re the sort that needs work to give you meaning, as I was to stage 4 of the list above, then yes, it is good for you. One you have individuated, you can make your own decisions. Work may be good for you, it may not. I’m with Max Weber, when he says

the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

Work isn’t good for me. What’s wrong with enough? Meaning in life can also come from who you are and who you relate to, not just what you do and what you own. To paraphrase the words of a song

I don’t need no stinkin’ iron cage…

Calvinist work ethic be damned. Freedom for self-determination is my birthright, and I’m going to claim it in the second half of life and continue the Jungian path to individuation. Know thyself…

A ropey copy of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism can be read free on Go for the PDF, the text version is rough as guts

Page 2 of the Foreword lends credence to my viewpoint that for modern Westerners this work ethic is an atavistic echo of a religious nature. Like any element of the psyche that is part of an unconscious archetype, challenging the concept that work is an inherent good is met with fierce resistance and rejection. We had it right as part of the 1970s ideal of greater leisure, but urged onwards by those who could not brook the repudiation of such an archetype, we are unable to say enough is enough. We are still paralysed by monetary systems that require a long-term increase in GDP, despite the consequent environmental despoliation that is becoming increasingly clear.

The central idea to which Weber appeals in confirmation of his theory is expressed in the characteristic phrase “a calling.” For Luther, as for most mediaeval theologians, it had normally meant the state of life in which the individual had been set by Heaven, and against which it was impious to rebel. To the Calvinist, Weber argues, the calling is not a condition in which the individual is born, but a strenuous and exacting enterprise to be chosen by himself, and to be pursued with a sense of religious responsibility. Baptized in the bracing, if icy, waters of Calvinist theology, the life of business, once regarded as perilous to the soul

summe periculosa est emptionis et venditionis negotiatio

acquires a new sanctity. Labour is not merely an economic means : it is a spiritual end. Covetousness, if a danger to the soul, is a less formidable menace than sloth.