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 
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Civilisation – The West and the Rest, Protestant Work Ethic Redux

Earlier this year here at the Ermine’s Nest we pondered whether there was a case to be made for saving £140 odd by outing the TV. That may seem obscure to non-UK viewers, but in the UK there is a thing called a TV licence that you are meant to have if you watch TV as it is broadcast. This largely pays for the BBC, whose programmes don’t have commercial advertising.

Anyway, we decided that we would see if we could find something that pleased us enough to justify the £140, so I occasionally look for stuff that may interest me.  The recent Panorama Finished at Fifty was one of these, and I had recorded Niall Ferguson’s Civilization -The West and the Rest. This was presumably a TV series of the book

Watching this was rewarding and I learned a few bits and pieces I hadn’t known before. Niall comes across as a dapper and personable enough chap, and according to this review in the Grauniad he targeted this series at teenagers.  Which explained why he had this infuriating catchline where he comes across as “Dad trying to be down with the yoof-speak and with it”, by endlessly referring to the six “killer apps” of Western Civilisation. I know he titled his book civilization but I just can’t bring myself to spell it that way, I have enough unwitting typos without adding deliberate ones 😉

Anyhow, that killer apps yoof-speak got on my nerves, because nothing made by the Apple corporation has darkened my door because I don’t have money to burn, and I am a crabby old git who has nothing to do with media and so I don’t refer to apps and folders on a computer but directories and programs. When I see job ads for appers rather than programmers I’ll rethink that.

Despite the killer app-speak, Niall was informative and reasonably to the point, though his perspective is a lot more upbeat about the advantages of the European empires than I am used to. Some people will hate it for that alone. He did at least tip his hat to Mahatma Gandhi’s delightful one-liner on what he thought about Western Civilisation, something to the effect of “yes, that would be a good thing”.

One takeaway I got from the series, particularly in the last program, was the effect of  the Protestant work ethic on the success of the West in economic terms. I’ve spent my fair share on here slagging off the Protestant work ethic, but Niall did make me think that perhaps I should be more nuanced about it.

When I was in America, it did strike me that there were an awful lot of churches about, both in New England and in California (I haven’t been anywhere else in the US, other than NJ, NV, MI, CO and AZ so it may be very different elsewhere). The sheer density of churches was remarkable. Niall made the case that this has something to  do with the dynamism of the US economy compared to those of Western Europe, a part of the West he considers in relative decline vis a vis the US, as it became largely secular after the Second World War.

It puzzled me because the presentation of Christianity in the US came across to me as extremely in-your-face, of a type which I believe is called evangelical. The last time I had significant dealings with Christianity was in the 1970s, and this sort of thing wasn’t around then.

In Niall’s program they showed some clips of what went on in US churches, and what strikes me is that the entire message seems to be mediated through the emotional centres, with rah-rah sessions of  ‘Can you FEEL the power of the Lord’ together with the raising of arms and clapping. The sort of thinking and reflection that I had observed in Christians in the Old World, albeit three decades ago just wasn’t there.

That sort of thing makes me uneasy – somewhere at the back of my mind I feel that if the Good Lord is worth believing in, He wouldn’t demand that His adherents check their brains in at the door. Each to their own, but I could see how this might lead to people being persuaded to defer gratification for other goals. And a lot of economic success seems to be about deferred gratification, so Niall makes the case that Protestant Christianity was a large part of the economic success of the West. In his final program he makes the case that as this fades, so the power of the West will also fade, particularly as it appears that Christianity is on the rise in China.

Now this is a TV program, and though Niall is bright he isn’t infallible. For instance he perpetrated a howler in saying Edison was associated with AC power in the US – he opposed it intensely in the war of the currents due to patent considerations.

I have no way of verifying a lot of what he claimed. I would agree with him that there is a decadence and a lack of people taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions in the West nowadays. There is a general infantilisation of public discourse, where we all too often resort to “the Government should” or “They should” fix one of the current malaises, often the result of earlier aberrant behaviour. For instance the years 2000-2007 where we all believed house prices would go up forever so it was worth lending NINJA‘s money in the knowledge the rising house price would enable them to pay off the loan?

It is also possible that the increasing secularisation means that one common source of a moral compass is lost, and this is why we are regressing and becoming decadent. It isn’t the only explanation, and humanists among others would object to the concept that only religion can provide a moral frame of reference. An alternative explanation would be that life has got materially easier, so we can get away with more lax behaviour. Or I might just be getting older and it’s all really okay as it is, despite the financial crises and the disappearing jobs that the POTUS noted a while back 😉

So all in all I can probably get my £140 worth, over the year. This programme was not on the BBC, so it was infested with ads. However, my Humax Foxsat PVR seems to be programmed well inasmuch as two taps of the >> button skips the whole ad break, so I am not troubled by companies trying to push consumerism on me. I  win much of the simple living/frugality battle by busting as much advertising and junk out of my sight as I can .

This also helps me in the fight against my power bill as it has a standby power usage of < 1W. Obviously that’s still more than if I got rid of the whole TV receiving system, however it is very low, so I can live with the £2 it costs me in power a year, as it spends most of its time in standby.

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 archive.org. 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.