One of the more common themes throughout history has been disagreement between society’s rulers, and those being ruled, about how society ought to be run. Fortunately, history has also shown that if enough people are able to work together towards a common vision of a better world, we can bring about needed change whether our current rulers want it or not. One difficulty we face is that in the midst of so much messaging designed to present the way things are as the only way things can be, it can be hard to actually find that vision through the clutter. I think many of us have a vague desire for a life similar to the one with which we’re already familiar, but “better”. In a lot of our daily lives, the desire for change is less about wanting something good to start, and more about wanting something bad to stop.
While most people can agree on what our basic needs are, I think it’s generally understood that the basics required for survival do not guarantee a fulfilling life, and that different people have different ideas of what a “fulfilling life” would mean. There are always going to be some limits; my right to do whatever I want doesn’t extend to causing problems for other people. When it comes down to it, though, the common thread in pretty much all the myriad visions of a good life seems to be the ability to control how we spend our time.
The problem of capitalism – in this context – is that “free time” is viewed as an extravagant luxury, rather than a human necessity. Only those who don’t need to work for a living are entitled to free time. For the rest of us, any time not spent earning money seems to be viewed as a vice more than anything else, and sufficient justification for poverty. If I’m not spending every minute of my time in pursuit of money, then any financial problems I have are my fault, and evidence that I am a burden on society, in some way.
The system cannot fail me, I can only fail the system.
Not only that, but the time I’ve spent trying to turn this blog into a source of income that will keep me fed and sheltered is now a liability. If – as is likely – I have to spend time hunting for wage labor again, I will have a “gap” in my C.V./resumé. If I want someone else to pay me to do work that they want done, and that I am competent to do, I will also have to justify the time I have spent not working for the financial gain of someone else.
Throughout 2020, as the United States struggled to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, this cultural hatred of free time was brought into sharp focus. At a time when hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved by keeping people at home, the the capitalists running our country seemed to be mostly horrified and offended at the notion that – for just a few months – a majority of the population might be allowed to simply exist, without having to do work apparently for the sake of doing work. There seems to be a deeply held belief that without the threat of misery and death through poverty, nobody would do any work at all.
I think it’s worth pointing out that for the ruling class, this does not seem to be about whether the resources needed to keep everybody housed, fed, and so on would exist if people were “paid to stay home”, but rather about the endless need for escalating profits. Never in my lifetime has the United States so openly told its own people that their lives are worth less than the desire of rich people to keep getting richer. The justification given, however, is not generally that multi-millionaires or billionaires might stop seeing their “net worth” rise, or might even see it decline a little. That’s not a line of argument that’s very persuasive to those of us whose concerns relate more to the basic necessities of survival.
Instead we are told that if people are allowed to control how they spend their own time, nobody will do the work that’s needed for humanity to survive, and we’ll all starve from laziness or something. We must be coerced into doing the work deemed necessary by those who have more money than us, and their right to decide that is justified by their legal control of that money, and the access to resources that it represents.
It should be clear to most people that this is nonsense. If meeting the material needs of humanity was the driving force behind capitalism’s relationship with labor and production, then we would have eradicated hunger and houselessness long ago. Certainly we would have eradicated them before anybody was able to measure their wealth in hundreds of millions of dollars, let alone billions. The scarcity suffered by so many of us is manufactured for the sake of controlling how people spend their time.
Poverty is the tool used by the capitalist class to force everyone else to work for their benefit, and as a result, most of humanity is denied the freedom – the free time – to pursue happiness.
Any society will require work to maintain, but no society in history has lacked people willing to do that work, provided the ability to do so in reasonable safety, and to have time and energy to spend on other things. The only time coercion is required, is when people are asked to do work that is neither necessary for survival, nor pleasant or interesting to do. If there is a job that needs doing, and there’s nobody willing to do it, then surely we can find ways to make that work more appealing. I’d love to divide my time between writing, growing food, and maintaining my home. I would happily also spend a day or two every week on pretty much any kind of work useful to society, in exchange for the ability to spend the rest of my time on those pursuits. I’d spend more time than that, depending on the work in question, and I know I’m not alone. How many of you have known someone who enjoyed a job that would make you miserable?
Do you enjoy building houses or furniture? What about inspecting or cleaning sewers? What about milking venomous snakes to make medicine, or studying spiders to further our understanding of biology? What about dissecting dead animals to discover what killed them? What about nursing sick people? Delivering mail? Repairing appliances? Teaching children? Farming? Teaching adults? What about composing music, or performing music composed by others? Cleaning boat hulls? Painting houses? Gathering evidence to help settle a dispute? Building roads? Dismantling broken electronics? Cleaning up pollution?
How many pages could I fill simply listing the kinds of work needed for a just and functional society with our level of technology? What jobs, of the tiny handful I’ve listed would you be willing to do because they needed doing, and you had the time and inclination, knowing that your needs were already met?
Which of them would you be willing to do in exchange for access to your favorite form of entertainment, your favorite drug, or your favorite foods?
Which of them would you do because it would allow someone you love to work on something that makes them happy?
I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone who wasn’t willing to do some form of work that would make another person miserable.
A society that actually values the freedom of each human to pursue happiness, rather than endlessly growing “profits” isn’t just one that would be more pleasant for humanity as a whole, it would also be far more sustainable at pretty much every level.
Plenty of us would prefer to have toys or tools that last a long time, rather than disposable ones that pollute the environment when they have to be replaced.
How many of us would prefer to make tools or toys that last a long time, rather than ones that we knew would stop working soon, not because it’s not possible to build a better one, but because it’s more profitable to make and sell more items of lower quality?
With all the incredible technologies available to us, do you really think that it’s not possible for food to be distributed around the world based on need? Do you really think it wasn’t possible to maintain a resource stockpile for pandemics that we’ve always known would happen? Do you really think we just don’t have the resources for everyone to have clean drinking water? Do you really think we need to have people claiming ownership of homes they will never need for themselves, just so they can charge other people for access? Do you really think our society is made better by forcing artists to do work they hate just to survive, rather than making art?
Is it so hard to imagine a society where all of our collective knowledge and skill is used for the health, education, and free time of everyone, rather than for one or two people to own a dozen yachts they never use, or to have private airplanes?
Is it so hard to imagine a society in which nobody gets rich off of war?
I don’t think it is, but it does require that we have the time and energy to do so, and the ability to learn from the passions and expertise of our fellow humans.
We have a finite time as sapient creatures on this planet, and it seems to me that the quality of our lives is centered around how we spend that time, and how our use of that time affects our fellow sapient creatures, both in the present, and in the future.
I believe we can work together to dismantle a system meant to control our existence, and to build a society that values our lives and our ability to enjoy them as best suits us, and I think that free time as the only true “freedom to pursue happiness” should be the central priority around which we rally.
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