III - THE NULL-P. ORBITS
4. O.T. IN ORBIT
Keep manpower at work. Technology really could increase productivity... ! As workers kept coming from production faster than bona fide symbiosis could fit them into the system, something more had to be found which would play immediately, for the displaced manpower, the role that military spending had played for wealth. It would be the labour force's turn now, to be launched into some crazy orbits of null-production while our society would cure itself of its work addiction.
Occupational Therapy - (O.T.) - is a serious business. The basic idea, as applied in a great many clinics and hospitals, is that, in some cases, sick people get better when they are busy working at anything that keeps their mind off their problems. Sometimes, bits of cloth will be used as material, and though it seldom leads to the creation of models to challenge designers of high fashion, people in occupational therapy will learn to cut and sew and, in time, may show a flair for matching colors.
Well applied, occupational therapy may help people to develop their creativity and to gain practical skills. It is not necessary, for the therapy to be successful, that everything made in the wards of occupational therapy be a useful, finished product and should sell on the market; the real purposes are solace, and to acquire some experience and knowledge.
We were already doing it for scientists and the like in military research
centers. Now, the common worker would join them in orbit, there to experience
the madness and frustration of the myriad ways not to work all one should
while at work, and not to produce all one could in production. Occupational
therapy works... But when a whole society decides to take that line of thought
and to put its labour force in O.T., it creates unusual situations. Faced
with a diminishing demand for work in production that symbiosis would not
compensate in full, the system took its leave from earthly sense and began
to create jobs that just circled around real work, and at a safe distance
from real production.
The "quasi" orbits
The first trial launches kept workers circling in orbits close to work reality. The attempts were successful, helped in no minor way by the pride of the workers themselves. Many, who otherwise might have been left without a leg to stand on when our production system moved into low gear, fought bravely on their own for the "honor" of work. Pride became a keyword for quasi-job creation.
First, the quasi-professionals. Some of the workers who had been displaced from the industrial sector, and who were not absorbed in well-structured services for immediate or eventual symbiosis, joined a crowd of self-employed, make-believe professionals. In that crowd were found salesmen working for commissions only in the most marginal territories, non-unionized repairmen working "on the black" without licence, therapists who had learned their trade through correspondence schools and played hide-and-seek with local by-laws, couples who operated a franchise on borrowed money, etc.
What they all had in common was that they worked on their own and were granted the honor to participate in the labour-force, apparently with a status similar to that of highly successful professional people, although we knew that there was not really a market to sustain their activities. The boom for quasi-professionals began in the Fifties; it is still with us although, as we shall see, the rules have changed quite a bit.
How are we to know whether a worker is a successful "high professional" or a poor soul in a quasi-job, who has no real alternative to transfer payments except to exploit himself for pride? There is one easy test. When the poor soul misses a day's work, he is worried and nobody else is; it is exactly the reverse for the successful professional. The work status of these quasi-professional workers is very marginal.
We might say that, in the global economy, the quasi-professionals have reached Poor Lazarus' objective: they may grab the crumbs that fall from the table of the rich... but nobody, though, will bother to bake a bigger cake for their needs. So, the more people in these self-employed activities, the less cake to eat for each of them. They have a marginal status because, working, they are denied nevertheless most of the advantages of work, even while they forfeit for the sake of pride their right to financial help from the community. Whether or not they should be considered as real members of the labour-force is open for discussion, but what we know for sure is that, if it were not for pride, our employment statistics would look much worse.
First quasi-professionals, then quasi-employment. As jobs became harder to get, strange distortions appeared. For instance, we had to grasp all the implications of part-time employment. The part-time work pattern, in itself, is not bad at all. For senior executives, doctors, lawyers and other high professionals on their way to retirement, for high-ranking consultants who are in such demand that they can fix their own working hours and conditions, it is a smart choice they can make. However, it is not socially acceptable to-day for anybody to follow this pattern too early in life, and much worse to be forced into a whole lifetime of part-time employment.
For most people, in to-day's framework, to have a part-time job is not really a choice. Adult males, at least, will generally accept part-time jobs only to "make do" while waiting for a steady, full-time, permanent job. The individual who works part-time because he cannot get a full time job, is in some sort of limbo. He may do some really productive work, be really wanted and thus enjoy a better deal than the make-believe self-employed quasi-professional... but his situation follows the market's ups and downs - (he is either at the bottom or out!) - and enjoys little security. It is harder also to cheat on the welfare system when one has even a part-time employer.
Amongst part-time workers, there are however the lucky few who illustrate a totally different type of distortion: seasonal workers. The seasonal worker we are talking about is not the one who drifts from one seasonal work to another, like people working on cash crops: these are solidly domiciled in shabby self-employment. Here, we refer to individuals who devote themselves entirely to one vital occupation that happens to be seasonal. They seem to be exactly like other part-time workers, except that their cycles measure in months-by-year rather than in days-by-week or hours-by-day. In fact, it is a different situation altogether and, in this case, it is not the worker but the planner who has the problem.
Take agriculture. Workers in agriculture in Northern regions are out of work during a sizable part of the year, and are left with the choice either to increase their income, undertaking another professional activity during the dead season, or just to hibernate. If they are not very eager to find other job during the dead season, are they then "unemployed"... and should they be allowed to draw unemployment benefits while they are not really looking for work in a normal sense? If these seasonal workers are "unemployed" when they are not working, then they certainly have it made to collect unemployment benefits every year, steady as a clock. Is it correct to have public funds pay for part of their normal annual income?
Suppose now that they are not unemployed. Since nobody doing a vital job for society will live long on half-income, it is the whole of their annual income that will have to be derived from their seasonal activities and supported by the immediate buyers of the goods and services they produce. This seems fair, except that the value of each hour of their work is thus increased in direct proportion to the reduction in their working year. Is it fair to other workers that the work of the seasonal worker, because it is seasonal, be worth more?
Before the days of Global Glut, it would have been a non-issue: if workers in agriculture had wanted more money, they could raise their prices - if the market would allow - or find a second job and work more. Not so now; there are no easy second jobs to find in an economy where there are hardly any spare "first jobs" around, and forget about raising prices: no government would tolerate a show of strength from the 4% of the workers who happen to feed us all, together with a significant part of the rest of the world. So it is the planner who has the problem.
His way to solve the problem is to create a never-never type of cozy orbit, further away from common sense work-reality, in which the State encourages surpluses - which takes away the terrifying bargaining power of the American "peasants" - and applies an intricate policy of subsidies to agribusiness that gives to the landowning agricultural worker all the advantages of being "unemployed" without the social stigma.
Same problem with workers in the tourist industry, the waiters, and all the others who hunt the tourist dollar, work for their tips and become some sort of self-employed... and none the worse off at that. Same with professors, who negotiate high hourly rates and research money. It is the same problem, but there are different solutions according to what trump card each party holds up his sleeve.
If someone has the heart for it and a will to go for strong bargaining, seasonal work, for some lucky few, is not the worst orbit to circle in. Planners have a real problem, though, since whether it is gracious or shabby, whether it brings full or half-income, part-time work which does not result from the individual worker's choice, but from circumstances, is part of the crisis. It is a distortion, a bad case of mismanagement of our human resources.
Quasi-jobs created unfair and absurd situations right from the start,
but it was just the beginning. The strategy to keep manpower at work at
all cost would force us to launch workers to more eccentric orbits, further
away from the reality of our needs... and we did. If for no other reasons
than continuing motivation and not losing the trade, it was essential that
displaced production workers be kept busy at something that was, or at least
looked like useful work, although there might be no serious jobs or even
quasi-jobs available. When we reached the point when even these became scarce,
our society began to send workers to what can only be described as far-out
orbits of "pseudo-work" and "pseudo-production"
The "pseudo" orbits
The launching pad for the eccentric orbits of O.T. was "sub-employment", and it was a sad place to be. There began to congregate all the people who could do much better, people whose training, experience and aptitudes would call for work at a job more productive than what the system was able to procure them. The problem of overqualification became rampant in our society, growing worse by the day as a result of the tremendous impulse given general and professional education.
Offering a man with a college education a job that requires primary school competence is not really employing that man: it is just inclusion by pride in the labour-force. It is a remedy against the most extreme negative impact of unemployment, a very crude form of occupational therapy. For most people there was not enough pride in it, so patients were launched on a trip to the far-out orbits where college education could become an essential pre-requisite for jobs that required no competence at all, and where procedures could become mandatory which would have no effect on production but would gratify the worker. Workers were sent further away from work-reality and deeper into nonsense.
Surplus workers who preferred to remain in the labour force rather than join the crowd of the unemployed were sent to circle into two far-out orbits. Orbit #1 would be for pseudo-work; people there would pretend to be working, while acting as sidewalk sightseers of the production going on. To the contrary, Orbit #2 would be the place for pseudo-production, in which workers could really work hard, but would not produce anything useful at all.
In Orbit #1, we would deal mostly with people who had a vested right in being full-status members of the labour force. Here, the trick for toil would be to use more manpower than would be required to achieve a given result. Usually, Labour, would take upon itself the responsibility to launch into Orbit #1 and, often enough, Unions were the immediate agents for implementation and allocation of pseudo-work. It would be naive, however, to believe that pseudo-work could have been sold to us wholesale, the way it was, without the blessings of the whole technostructure. As a matter of fact, as we shall see later, even when Unions did not have the power to take the initiative of labour intensive employment, we had it coming to us just the same... and with a vengeance.
"Featherbedding" has been the most conspicuous example of pseudo-work employment. It happens mainly when jobs are kept alive after some technological improvements have made them superfluous. The archetypal example was the case of the "New Locomotive", as the contraption was argued, ad nauseam, to require 3 rather than 2 operators. The money spent, on publicity alone, to convince the public that the third man in the cab was a "must", might have gone a long way to turn the third man into a very highly skilled professional...
Sometimes, "simple" featherbedding would provide only for present employees to retain their jobs until retirement. Then, there was "compound featherbedding", we could say, providing not only for the actual jobs to be saved, but exacting also from the employer a commitment to the eternal maintenance of the function itself. In this last case, even though the job would be rather obviously superfluous, the employer would have to replace the workers who retired, hiring and training new people to do the job.
Featherbedding still goes on, and workers that technology makes redundant are kept on the job because the worker does not want to lose his job, because the Unions do not want to lose a member nor a fight..., and because the employer does not really want the fight, since he will pass on the extra cost to the consumers anyway. Featherbedding is no great danger, because it is so silly. Should it grow much, it would bring its own solution as bored workers would probably manage to bypass the rules, to divide the real work amongst themselves ... and to end up with a shorter working week.
Featherbedding even has its positive aspect: it introduces a ritual element in jobs that clarifies work's new function in society. No one challenges Religions' right, in setting up their ceremonials, to put four individuals where job analysis would show that one could be enough: Religions are entitled to symbolism and are not bound by the rules of efficiency. Featherbedding is a manifestation, for all to see, that work in the age of affluence is turning into a ceremony. The third man in the cab is going through the ritual of "going to work". He does not contribute to production, but he remains a provider, a member of the effective majority.
Pseudo-work may mean ritualistic fantasy, the last-ditch effort to maintain a way-of-life and old values that our affluence has eroded, the ultimate symbol of addiction and attachment to work for work's sake. But it is also a sin, a sin by omission or commission, against productivity. Featherbedding and the like are a sabotage of our production mechanisms. As such it is a nefarious habit, for there should be no place ever, in our production system, for any way in which to work except the most efficient. The danger of pseudo-work is that it conditions our behavior and responses to have us accept less than excellence as a rule.
Pseudo-work was not the end of the line, however. Stranger things yet would happen in Orbit #2 ... In Orbit #2 we find pseudo-production; not production without work, but work without any production worth mentioning. The first thing we must understand clearly, about pseudo-production, is that the term "pseudo" does not apply to the work itself, and should not reflect on the individual concerned. Pseudo-production can be very tiring work indeed, and may imply long hours, dedication, and strenuous efforts: it is the result which is useless, or at least completely out of proportion to the efforts involved.
If you want to grasp the meaning of pseudo-production, think about your school days, about that beautiful spring afternoon that you had to spend writing one-hundred times over this particular page of Milton that you had failed to memorize, and the memory of which is now your best claim to classical culture. Think about convicts breaking rocks in the prison's courtyard.... Wasn't it a little far-fetched to ask from our society to accept pseudo-production on a massive scale?
Pseudo-work could be acceptable under certain conditions: if Unions took the blame, if the cost increase could be passed to consumers, if the rules were in place to make sure that no employer could escape the pressure for employment to which his competitors would be submitted. But pseudo-production... Tough! As a matter of fact, the first cautious sectorial attempts were not very successful.
Take prefabrication. It was undoubtedly the best way to produce certain elements for the construction industry, and it imposed on the workers much less strenuous working conditions. It was so efficient, though, that it was feared it might carry the day and reduce employment. For a while, some union members in the construction industry were not allowed to accept work on a construction site, if some prefab elements were to be included in the building! It was a fair effort at pseudo-production, but there was cheating and it made it hard to remain in business for contractors who played the game by the book.
So, just as the State had taken over the campaign for wastage, to save industrial production through military spending when private consumption had proven insufficient, so it was the State which would have to take the initiative of launching workers into Orbit #2. Not because the Government was particularly inept, or our lawmakers particularly stupid, but because it was what the system needed and, understandably enough, it was thought at the time that only the Government could afford pseudo-production on a large scale.
Pseudo-production was the thing to do; nevertheless, for a moment our society was in great danger, for the best place for pseudo-production was the Army, and a large Army adding up to huge military spending looked like an explosive combination. Thank Heavens, somebody thought about symbiots!
Do you remember? "Symbiots could proliferate in almost any environment and would necessitate no care at all...". If money was no object (and it was not), the Government could hire symbiots to "manage, supervise, sell and distribute, talk about the goods or otherwise play with them..." Hire a lot of them. No trouble at all; it would be enough not to weed the parasitic formations that had a tendency to grow on the core of even the most useful administrative functions to have them expand indefinitely...
Expand and grow until the "limit" was reached, until "the total wages, of all symbiots and operators living off the production of all machines, would equal the total wages which would be paid to all the workers who would be required to produce the same output without the use of the machines..." The salaries paid to the sum of workers in these parasitic formations would add up to the salaries of operators and "good" symbiots, to constitute an effective demand that would reach the level of consumption and allow for production to be sold.
A perfect regulator. The equivalent, for the "manpower must flee" leg of the original dilemma, of what military spending had been for its "wealth must fight" aspect: a necessary evil, for which there did not seem to be an acceptable alternative, since the choice was between this or real huge unemployment. The State began to launch into Orbit #2, and it would be fundamentally a universe of paper. Just think about clerks filling and filing forms.
First, the State did it alone and civil servants proliferated. This created concern, for a free society should not rely on exponential growth of its bureaucracy to achieve equilibrium. Could part of the burden for pseudo-production be passed to the private sector? Could a plethora of civil servants be matched by a plethora of office workers all around the system? Government contractors could be strong-armed into hiring for full-employment, but who else?
The system might tend towards equilibrium with the arrival of the parasitic symbiots, but not so each small production unit in which investors, operators and symbiots had to share, amongst themselves, as profits or salaries, the result which the machines would yield. Would not each investor resist to the utmost hiring parasitic symbiots in "his" production unit? Would not machine operators heartily agree that parasites were stealing the product of "their" work? How would individual employers, with individual interests and individual bottom-lines to care for, feel about giving tender loving care to parasitic symbiots living off the production of the machines they owned? How could they be convinced to hire? It should have been hard enough to convince investors to accept symbiots in increasing number, and, worst, the parasitic variety. Actually, it proved to be no problem at all.
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