On the day I was born, my dad was in the brig at the Treasure Island Naval Base in San Francisco Bay, more than two thousand miles from where his very young bride was laboring to make him a father. He had requested a leave to be present at my birth, but an ensign had said "just cuz you were there to lay the keel don't mean you have to be there when they launch the boat."
Dad took offense and hit the guy, an especially bad no-no in wartime. When they locked him up, they asked if he wanted to be put on work detail. Still fuming, he said, "hell no."
A couple days later, my old man was begging to be assigned to a work detail. He was bored beyond endurance, and the prospect of being out of that cell had come to seem pretty inviting, no matter the work. But, of course, the deal was no longer on offer, so he sat in that brig until his ship left port for the war in the Pacific.
I never heard that story from my father. In fact, I only heard him talk about his service once, very late in his life when he and my mom visited us in San Francisco. We spent an hour or so touring the Jeremiah O'Brien, a troop ship docked there as a tourist attraction appealing to the aging and rapidly disappearing veterans of World War II. At one point, Dad showed me how he had spent some time during the war strapped into a harness on an anti-aircraft gun as Japanese planes dove to strafe his ship. It was as exposed and as dangerous a place to be as I can imagine, and it occurred to me that dad's outburst of temper toward that ensign had made him even more expendable than other sailors, had increased the likelihood he would never see the son whose birth had helped put him in the brig.
In Finland, they've initiated a program that grants a base level income for every citizen. It's a bit of social experimentation that deserves planetary consideration.
Which brings me to the point of this piece. Up and over in Finland, they've initiated a program that grants a base level income for every citizen. It's a bit of social experimentation that deserves planetary consideration. As it stands now, the merest handful of people—a few hundred—have as much wealth as nearly everyone else on earth combined. Distribution of wealth and resources seems to be returning to feudal ratios of privilege to poverty.
We are also in a transitional phase as more and more traditional jobs have been or are being replaced by advances in robotics and other technology. The meaning of work has also been largely redefined. Unskilled, semi-skilled, or uneducated working class people are being relegated to the margins, many of them taking refuge from excruciating boredom by becoming addicted to opiods. Far too many people, here and around the world, have become superfluous, without purpose, without ways to fill the long and idle hours.
Here in the U.S., commentators on editorial pages, talk radio, cable news, and social media who have taken note of the Finland experiment have mostly been busy denigrating such an idea. Most of their arguments echo traditional thinking along the lines of "if you don't work, you don't eat."
The arguments from that perspective were used to argue against FDR's New Deal attempts to reduce hunger and battle against the devastating Great Depression. They were also brought up again when Social Security was being proposed, when the Food Stamp program was being debated, when Johnson's War on Poverty program was being hammered out in the House and Senate. Barack Obama was labeled "the Food Stamp president" by Newt Gingrich when he engaged in the all-too-predictable dog-whistle right wing racism that has consistently used the image of lazy people of color sucking up food and medicine they hadn't worked to earn. It has been used to divide people, to divert attention from the massive redistribution of wealth that has taken place with increasing cruelty over the past half century, especially since Ronald Reagan was in office.
The idea, shamelessly offered by some of the richest and laziest people imaginable, is that if things are made too easy for the poor, they will lose the incentive to work. Underlying that idea is the broader "conservative" belief that the poor are lazy by nature. Think of the stereotypes that have attached themselves to some of the hardest work and hardest workers--from the Mexican taking a siesta in the shade of a cactus to a shiftless black field hand who'd rather sing, dance, and strum a banjo than earn his daily bread. If they can successfully make such workers look lazy, think of how many other ways their incessant propaganda may have distorted even your most liberal views.
Nor was the disdain for working people limited to black and brown people. Think of the Chinese coolies who came to this country helped build the railroads, blasting tunnels and putting up bridges, doing the most grueling and dangerous work, dying in disproportionate numbers as they did. Despite that, they were depicted as lazy. So, too, were people who shared last names like mine, those Irishmen who did so many of the hard jobs people tended to avoid doing if they had the slightest choice in the matter. Welsh and Polish miners, too, were routinely characterized as lazy good-for-nothings by their bosses and by the class of people who had gotten rich off their labors.
Ultimately, all of humanity bears this insult because it is undergirded by the idea that human beings are inherently resistant to working unless driven to it by necessity or even force.
But the truth is that people hunger for work, hunger for purpose, hunger to do things that are productive and useful. There are surely lots of things most human beings would rather not do, of course, those numbingly repetitive tasks that have been a feature of assembly lines brought to us through industrialization. There are other jobs that rob the soul, degrade dignity, destroy the body, exploit people mercilessly, make war on our common humanity. There is work no one should ever be asked to do, especially that work that is almost entirely dedicated to the profit of a tiny percentage of plutocrats and corrupt politicians who facilitate their greed.
But think of those days when you've finally found time not claimed by your employer to do a chore of your own. Raking or mowing the lawn, cleaning house, painting a fence or the bedroom wall, mopping the floor--all offer reward--the way your body feels as you do it, the sense of satisfaction when it's done.
Human beings don't hate work. We hate being exploited. We hate doing other people's bidding as we spend our lives laboring more for them than for ourselves. We hate being chained to shitty jobs we cling to out of fear of losing health insurance. We hate the power over us granted to people who decide how our time and how much our skills are worth.
Imagine a world, however, in which the energies of the human race were unleashed, directed toward making life better for all, not just a handful. Imagine the feeling that would come at the end of days spent improving our earthly habitat rather than destroying it. Imagine seeing all the things you see on your drive to work each day, all those things that cry out to be fixed--from schools to roads to bridges-- that might actually start getting done if we redirected human ingenuity, human effort, human power to doing them.
But even as I write these words, I taunt myself for the faint hope they represent, the dreamer's naivete they contain. Nonetheless, the idea of human progress remains alive in me even as I advance through my 70s knowing that the way we live now is doomed. And so are we until or unless we rethink the paradigm that keeps us trapped in a world of endless war, shameless profiteering, perversions of our spiritual hungers, mass starvation, man-made global warming, obscene wealth inequality, and inexcusable ignorance in a world dominated by "communication" technology.
People want to work. Like my young father on the day I was born, they aren't lazy; they're just restricted in what they are allowed to do by people who make the choices for how their time shall be spent. Imagine all the pent-up energies of humankind released, liberated, directed toward education, health, self-realization, growing things, serving others, or simply devoted to raising better kids living in a more equitable and less dangerous world.
A utopian dream? Perhaps. But the world we live in now seems perilously outmoded, just as feudalism was as it was being replaced by capitalism. Work will, inevitably, be redefined. How we do that will almost certainly make the difference between our survival as a species and just another mass extinction scientists talk of in regard to species other than our own.