BOOK ONE
I -THE PERVERSE CRISIS

 

3. THE WORKAHOLICS' BACKLASH

Anybody who has tried to raise children on positive reinforcement alone - i.e. to resist the urge ever to "belt one" to the adorable little monsters - knows that the mistake which must be avoided at all cost is not to offer too little reward, even though few kids in our society will bend backward anymore for a dime on Saturday. The most serious mistake is to offer too much, since the kid "who has everything" may be only mildly stimulated by more gifts, and may become unable to establish a clear relation between good behavior and rewards. The kid who feels that he gets the same, whatever he does, is not "positively reinforced"; he is very likely not to pay any attention, and to do whatever he likes.

A greater threat even than the misery of the destitute in our midst, in the fin de siècle atmosphere of transition from toil, may well be the complacency of the "Winners" who have more than enough, take a more relax attitude towards rewards, and have good reasons to believe that it matters very little whether or not they work at all.

The "bets off!" warning

We are addicted to work and it made workaholics of us; it is the same addiction, mixed with technology, which made us rich. We are a "rich" society, and by historical standards the winners win a lot. So much, that for an overwhelming majority of the people working is simply not a matter of life or death anymore. In terms of real material welfare, a little more or a little less work does not even make an essential difference.

Why should people go on working the way they do if they don't need to? Because people, it is well known, do not feel rich or poor because they own this or that, but because they have more or less than the "Jones". The insensitive Jones, on the other hand, are always doing their utmost best not to let their neighbors come close to their own standard of living. This is generally how they turned workaholic in the first place. Nasty? This is the way of "positive reinforcement", and all alternatives that have been tried have proved unsavory; just ask a friend in Warsaw or Kabul. This is the way it goes in our society, and when people do not have to go on working to survive, they are expected to carry on working to compete. But why work and compete if all bets are off at showdown?

All bets are off, first of all, because the winners can hardly put their hands on the prize at all! After the worker has reached a certain level of income, to insist and work more is made to be less and less rewarding. The "Dealer" (meaning the State) increases his "cut" (we call it taxes) to sponsor the unlucky players back into the game, so that for decades 30, 40, 60% of what the winner/worker had "won" was simply never paid. Why work more?

A second reason all bets are off is that, in our society, every pair of arms that works has three mouths to feed. Most of what is left to him after taxes must be used, by our winner the Do, to maintain - (and thus to keep out of the labour market) - the Do-not's of his family... although most of them would like nothing better than to participate! Man the Provider does not get a square deal, so why should he work more?

To top it all, "Workaholic Jones" knows, because he has been told, that there are Big Winners who make a lot of money, even after paying all their taxes, and that they have access to the Good Life. But then what? Maybe there is a 10-to-1 difference, in terms of income, between the upper and lower fifths of the population; but, if we move away from the price-tag, away from the "money" value of things to try and concentrate on their real "welfare" values, on the needs and wants that they are meant to satisfy, we see that the figures are misleading and that the difference is largely immaterial.

There is no correlation between the price of food items and their nutritive contents, cheap clothes protect from the weather as well as the most fashionable, and all citizens have access to the same public infrastructure of roads, television, radio, telephones, etc. Jones cannot feel, deep inside, like real thirst and hunger, the $100,000 difference between the Splashy Luxury Sedan model and the common jalopy. Its mostly all in his head... and he knows.

The difference in terms of access to the necessities of life and real welfare does not reflect the 10-to-1 difference in income. How could it? Mass-production demands some uniformity at the production level, and a power structure based on machine production must make sure that there is enough money in the hands of workers and non-workers alike to buy all the industrial output and keep the system in motion. So, intuitively, Workaholic Jones knows very well that only the very, very few amongst us may enjoy anything material substantially different from what the system gives to everybody.

He knows that working hard is not going to provide him with any goods or services fundamentally different from those that his "take-it-easy" neighbor will get, except for the frills and the thrill in his head. So, it is all very nice to compete, but once he is bored with the frills of production, how will Workaholic Jones keep the upper-hand in a society where machines practically impose the same buying patterns for manufactured goods?

First, he may indulge in more of the scarce commodities of our age, these expensive "services" that machines cannot offer. But then, what if State the Father - out of benevolence or political cunning - picks up the tab whenever one of his destitute children is in need of medicine, legal advice, education or other services that he himself cannot afford, and gives basically the same services free to those who cannot pay for them? Jones, of course, may go for the frills in services as well: not only Cognac rather than brandy and "Caddies" rather than just cars, but also private boarding schools, Swiss clinics... Until the realization dawns on him that, just as Cognac gave the same headaches as ordinary ethyl, the life expectancy is not significantly better in Swiss clinics than it is in American hospitals.

Workaholic Jones begins to reconsider... and keeps playing, but not for material results anymore; rather for "higher values" that money cannot buy: responsibility, prestige, recognition, duty..., intangibles that are related circumstantially only to the extra income that can be derived from extra work.

Jones' higher values

Work, as it fades away, thus becomes mainly a matter of personal ethics, dignity, self-development, ambition. Intangibles? Great! But subjective isn't it? I may feel one way - and you another - about what duty there is to work from dawn to dusk for God and Country... in a country where unemployment is a top priority problem. What responsibility to work for spouse and children, when they would prefer to be given part of my workload and be independent? What ambition, when it is obvious that only a very few can really achieve significant Big Power, and that what "power" the average Jones can control does not mean more goodies and longer weekends but simply more work?

Prestige? So many of our consumption patterns have been levelled by affluence, that "to have" hardly proves anything anymore and the very rich often become simple in their living habits. A "money-I-can-take-it-or-leave-it" attitude has gained ground in our society, and it is actually snobbish to scorn most everything that money can buy. The system now has to rely on "parvenus" and "nouveaux riches", movie stars and rock idols drinking Chambertin with pizza and being reported by pulp or glossy magazines, to play the part of "Big Winners" and show the labour class what the "good life" should be all about. Class often keeps money at arm's length, now, and workaholism proves very vulnerable to the insidious power of derogatory thinking.

It should be rather good news that material needs be so well satisfied, in our society, that abstract interests like Maslow's "recognition", should show in surveys as the prime motivation for action. The problem is that the new motives, however noble, are not so well known, nor so well conditioned and controlled as the old basic instincts for food and shelter. Now that the people feel secure, what if they begin to act fresh and not-dependent, in a society that can survive less than ever without an awareness of mutual interdependence?

Great to aim at "higher values", but the reasons to work are becoming quite subjective. Now that both the points have been made clearly to the workers, that high values are for free and that one does not need to work to get by, why should they? We should remember that the association between "work" and "power" is totally unnatural; unless efforts are made continuously to maintain the specious link in the mind of the labour force, it is leisure, not work, that becomes the normal objective once again.

Which is happening now to a significant number of American Jones. A whole school of economists, called "Marginalists", have devoted much thought to the subtle variations of the demand, showing how a desire that used to be marginal may gain in importance as a person's other needs are satisfied. As more and more people have enough of the goods that our society can offer, what could be bought with the extra money their work might earn - i.e. "higher values" - is often not worth to them the freedom of their own time. It is then the marginal value of leisure that increases.

Omar Khayyam said it all: &laqno;What can the vintners buy, half so precious as the stuff they sell ». More and more, people do not want to sell their time and to work more; after all, time is the stuff their life is made of. Leisure, for them, becomes once again the highest value. What if Workaholic Jones really goes on the wagon, comes back to his good sense and remembers that work is a four-letter word? It is somehow disquieting to realize that our power structure and pecking order, which have rested always on a will to work and to satisfy very down-to-earth needs, now rest on ethical principles and personal values, that is on great golden, beautiful but quite vaporous, pillars of subjectivity.

The average "winner" may be "giving up", and this is quite a threat. How do we protect ourselves from the backlash from workaholism: total rejection of work? A society holds together by the consensus of an effective majority: those who together have the power and take the decisions. In our society, it is the Do's, all the workers from top to bottom, who constitute the broadest effective majority; the most significant power chasm is often not between the boss and his employee, but between the employee and his Do-not wife at home, between the poor but active Jones and their neighbors on a retirement allowance, between those who work and those who don't. The Do's, as a group, are the winners in and as long as they perceive themselves as such and close ranks, there is no risk of turmoil. How united in their ambition to work are the "workers of the world"?

As we face the backlash from the workaholics, on top of the exclusion from the labour force of all those whom our society does not consider "the best", those who do not want to work add up to those who can't, and we are fast reaching the point where the only people fully active in the labour force will be those who, traditionally, had been considered to be the "leisure class": wealthy businessmen, professionals, senior managers... The "top-dogs" have not only joined the labour force, they have become THE labour force, while a lot of the Do-not underdogs are skipping away, and taking a multitude of devious paths to a strange paradise.

Paradise for the "Also ran"

There is a short cut from the Hell of non-participation to some sort of paradise. The access to a paradise of leisure is in the mind, and it opens freely now to Do-not's who renounce the job game as a way of life and join the growing crowd of those who do not want to work. It might be instructive to establish a whole classification of the Do-not angels, but a few examples should be enough for our purpose

First among those immersed in celestial bliss are the genuine free riders, from Ph.D. drop-outs to hobos, who having decided that work is not their bag, will not, if provided with a minimum of funds from any source, ever bother society except to offer grand politico-philosophical advice. These people have always been there, right from the beginning, but they never had it so good before. A generation ago, they were generally found along the railroad and on the wrong side of the tracks; now, they are spread in the Greek islands and all along the coast of South America.

In addition to those who see it as their birthright though, there is now a whole new crowd of angels who are obvious products of the present situation. Those who decide to milk the Welfare system, for instance. They are the couples who split when the husband is unemployed, so that she will get help for herself and the children while he will draw the unemployment benefits; merely a mild inconvenience, as they will miraculously fall in love again as soon as the provider can really provide. More sadly, the unwed mother of two who works diligently on her third and then fourth, to obtain a modicum of comfort from transfer payments.

Then there are those who just come and go. Not yet totally at ease in paradise, the"See-saw" worker is a green and insecure angel who accepts the indignity of an occasional dip in the labour force. The See-saw worker works the minimum amount of time required to become eligible for Unemployment Insurance, moves to more interesting activities until his benefits are exhausted, then comes back again to any job until he becomes eligible again. Done with reasonable astuteness, this approach may keep one afloat in a comfortable mix of little work and leisure.

Best candidates for a See-saw approach are secretaries, nurses and workers skilled in some trades of the construction industry. They may take advantage of rare singularities in the system where demand exceeds supply, and use this strong bargaining position to get some more leisure at society's expenses rather than to press for higher wages. Many See-saw workers are women, some unmarried without dependants, some paired with somebody who draws and shares enough money for both of them. Others are men backed by tough labour unions and who are warned strongly against overcrowding the market.

Innocent enough? Look closer; it is not because there are not enough qualified workers in these sectors that demand exceeds supply. It is the other way around; it is precisely because these workers have the freedom from want or the bargaining muscles to "take it or leave it" when it comes to work that they can, against all odds, create in the middle of a global glut of labour a small "seller's market" which plays in their favor. See-saw workers' behavior may be the advanced signal of the shape of things to come. While we stand hypnotized by unemployment, we do not pay attention to those who do not want to work anymore; yet, with growing affluence, more and more people, with increased frequency, will be in a position to "take it or leave it" when it comes to work... and will choose to "leave it".

Already "leaving it", in a way, from a position where he sits pretty, is the ubiquitous"Lip-Service-Only" worker. Bound to some sort of fake work, or playing dumb operator to a machine that may soon dispense with him, the LSO worker punches the clock and attends... but being perfectly aware of the complete uselessness of it all, he refrains from exertion. The LSO worker is a real problem, much more so than the free riders of all kinds, because it matters very little, in the end, that a little production be lost: we have more than enough. It does not matter to our productive capacity that one more married woman, or one more young worker be added to the crowd of the unemployed and non-participants; but it matters a lot to the fabric of our society, and more so when it is of their own free choice! The real problem is the attitude of rejection towards work that now pervades our society.

It matters a lot that taking the devious paths to paradise is now so very socially acceptable. The See-saw worker discusses his plans for unemployment with his family and fits the extra income in the vacation budget; people shake hands and have a laugh at the system with drop-outs abroad, and most everybody takes a step or two towards the lip-service-only approach. This is what we do, for instance, each and every one of us, when we use up to the last day of sick leaves and social holidays, without a second thought for their original purpose. From top to bottom, more and more people simply desist from playing the game, and even more people go on playing but yet consider it quite acceptable not to play. Intuitively, we are becoming conscious of the futility of the job game and we grab all the leisure we can. We are taking, each one for himself, a "decision for leisure" that we resist as a collectivity.

And, inevitably, the lip-service-only attitude reflects on our self-esteem. The American labour force, which used to be the best in the world, does not compare so favorably anymore to the labour force of more, and more foreign nations. It is no coincidence that, in the last twenty years - and although great efforts are made to be very discreet on the subject - the standard of living of the United States, which used to be the highest in the world, has fallen, and fallen, and fluctuates now with the value of the dollar until we sometimes now rank ninth in the world, behind such countries as Japan Switzerland, Sweden, etc.

The perverse crisis' second threat is more insidious than the anger and revolt of the losers at the Musical-Chair-Job-Game but, unfair as it may seem, can be even more lethal: it is the dissatisfaction of the average "winner" at the great job game, for whom extra work does not mean significant extra privileges anymore. The pugnacious human animal is obviously bored with what our society has to offer, and will not get back to work unless he is presented with a new challenge and more significant objectives. The second threat is that the effective majority of workers will lose the spirit of action, drop out irrecoverably from work and let our society stagnate.

If it happens, we will simply go, &laqno;not with a bang but with a whimper», to be replaced, in the not to distant future, by something more "vital" and more "dynamic", something we may find much less pleasant, though, the way life in the Frankish States was somehow less urbane than before, in the beginning at least, for the citizens of the late Roman Empire from whom the real doers had picked the torch of civilization. One of the major threat in transition from toil is the threat of decadence. We must try harder.... We are only number 9.


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