One thing that really seems to throw people for a loop, when I talk about a world without rulers, is how we would decide who does what. The really interesting thing about that question is what it says about life today. By asking that question, you are pretty much admitting that
1. People spend most of their time doing shit they don’t want to do
2. All the shittiest work is done by people who have no better options
If you defend the status quo, you are defending a system which forces people to waste much of their lives. And you defend a system that absolutely must constrain our options in order to make sure that there will always be someone desperate enough to do the really shitty work.
There are some cultural beliefs that we are fed in order to justify this system. One cultural belief is that self-sacrifice is to be applauded. Well, self-sacrifice is not all it is cracked up to be. I’m not saying that life is all fairies and unicorns. I don’t think that the whole world will be able to lay around on beaches all day smoking pot and trying to keep the sand out of our beers. (Although more time to do that would be lovely.) And I appreciate those people who have spent their lives sacrificing themselves for their family and community. I also think it is a fucking tragedy that they had to do it.
For instance, I worked with a woman who had three jobs cleaning hotel rooms. She was a Haitian immigrant without a whole lot of options. Her life was spent cleaning up after people, most of whom treated her like shit. I respected her and the sacrifices she made in order to give her kids a chance for better life. But I think it is a tragedy that she had to make those sacrifices.
Meanwhile, other people that I have worked with have never had to clean up after themselves, much less anyone else. There are people who get paid to sit around reading journals and opinionating. They are often surrounded by “support staff” who clean up after them, file their papers, answer their phones, and generally make sure that they can spend most of their time doing what interests them. (And that goes for at home as well, where the support staff are called “wife” or “housekeeper.”)
The difference between the hotel maid and the researcher is usually an accident of birth, one which has largely predetermined how many options they will have in life. Sometimes an individual overcomes the odds. Sometimes an individual screws up every advantage they have been given. But we do not all start off in the same place. We do not all have the same expectations or options.
I think that sucks. I think it is a waste of talent. I think it makes people miserable. And I don’t think it is necessary.
All people should be able to pursue whatever interests them. Luckily for us, people have all different interests. I don’t like playing in the dirt. My parents used to punish me by making me pull weeds. They ruined me for gardening forever. But lots of people love growing things. So they would. So far so good.
What if there are some things that nobody wants to do? In some cases, those things just wouldn’t get done. If nobody out there thinks that knowing how to make a slinky is the coolest thing in the world, then the world will have to live without the joy of a slinky. That makes me a little sad, but not sad enough to learn how to make a slinky.*
What if there are things that take huge sacrifices to learn? What if people need to go to school for years? Who would do that? Have you ever seen the sacrifices that people make to become ballerinas? What about people who go to med school and then go work in some rural village and get paid in chickens? There are some seriously dedicated people out there. A better question would be, how many obsessive geniuses have had to abandon their passion in order to do droll jobs to pay the rent?
But what about the icky tasks? Who would pick up the garbage? There will undoubtedly be tasks that everybody wants to be done but nobody wants to do. And those tasks will need to be split up somehow. In my office, everybody takes turns doing the dishes. It is sometimes a friggin disaster, to be sure. But we muddle through o.k. Perhaps this task could be accomplished more efficiently otherwise, but sometimes it is o.k. to compromise efficiency for fairness.
And the really great thing is that people would no longer spend time doing inane things just because one person with power got a bug up their ass. I cannot tell you how many reports and projects I have completed only to see them filed away in some bosses drawer, never to be looked at again. In a fairer system, that boss would be just another worker. And they would have to convince us that their project was worthwhile or do it themselves.
But what about tasks that come with power? Doesn’t specialized knowledge give someone a certain amount of power? Yes. Sometimes it does. I have told many a nonprofit boss that they should really, actually look at the books once in a while, because I could be robbing them blind. There is a certain power in having that knowledge. Some things should not be in the hand of just one person. In accounting, we have a segregation of duties that is designed to catch mistakes or fraud. Certain types of tasks may be important enough to design those kinds of controls. With other things, it may suffice to simply have backup people, or cross-training as the biz peeps call it. Those individuals don’t have to be at different levels. They can be equals.
Wont some people be doing tasks that are more useful? Maybe. But isn’t usefulness somewhat subjective? It is true that some tasks deal more directly with basic human needs, like growing food, but maybe the person tinkering in their garage will come up with an invention that unexpectedly makes growing food easier. Besides, some of those seemingly unnecessary things are what we live for. Food keeps me alive, but I don’t know how much I would like my life without music,literature, and sex toys.
What about status? Won’t doctors always have more status than people who make sex toys? Not for me! Seriously though, status is also subjective. What confers status in a community of artists is not the same as what confers status in a community of farmers. As human beings, each of us will undoubtedly value some human contributions more than others. We just have to recognize that not everyone will agree with our opinion. And so long as my low opinion of your work does not come with my having power to restrict your life, it isn’t really a problem.
What about rewards? Don’t some people work harder than others? Shouldn’t they be rewarded for that? Isn’t it demotivating when you work hard and other people don’t? Yes. Maybe. And sometimes. Some people do work harder than others. But those people who slack at the job they hate might work their asses off doing something they love. People may want to get appreciation for extra effort. But people are motivated by lots of things besides fear and money. Fear and money are actually really crappy motivators.
I could start talking about gift economies or maybe some of the interesting things that parecon has to say about division of labor. But I will leave those discussions for another day. The essential thing is not the details of how work will be split up or how people will receive what they need to survive, but the principles which we should be looking at when we are deciding how to do things. We should always be aiming for more freedom, options, opportunities, fairness, information, and creativity. We should always be aiming for less constraints, power imbalances, secrets, and mind numbing bureaucracy.
To some extent, what I am talking about is a huge change in thinking. We need to stop ourselves from automatically reverting to authority when we should be focused on process and organization. And there are certainly skills that we could all use more of – better communication and conflict resolution being two of the most important. But much of what I am saying here is widely known and talked about in business.
Read management books and they will tell you how customer service is related to employee empowerment. They will tell you how monetary rewards only motivate employees for a short time. You’ll read about the benefits of cross-training and autonomy. Some businesses even institute policies based on these principles – to an extent. But the people in charge of the policies are always constrained by their need to justify and preserve the privileges that they enjoy within the current hierarchies. So they can never take things to their logical conclusion.
When you talk about a more just system, people will pose all sorts of problems that they want you to solve. These are always problems that are not really solved now. In fact, they quite often aren’t problems to be solved at all. They are tensions to be managed. There are always tensions between pursuing your interests and taking care of your responsibilities. There are always tensions where people have different priorities. We will always have to be vigilant that specialized knowledge doesn’t lead to power over others. But those tensions can be managed much more fairly.
* I now have this song stuck in my head. Damnit