Monday, December 29, 2003

Anti-work, pro-community
by Jan Lundberg

I propose the word "community" as a verb. When someone communities she or he does service for the greater good. Such activity may be to restore a watershed to prevent erosion. In so doing, the person is helping oneself as well.

Work is a noun and verb that has characterized civilization to a T. This dominant civilization, stretching back to Mesopotamian pre-empires, features lots of work and worse: slavery, basically a worse form of work. Or, working to kill: making armaments or certain industrial toxins.

Money and similar forms of exchange are not limited to civilization, but their domination is found just in civilization. In non-Western civilization and quasi-civilization there are or were other forms of wealth-manifestation, such as how much one shared, as in the native American potlatch.

Back in the day v. today
Prior to this cultureís civilized development, and in "primitive" societies that still exist, work as understood today is unknown. People went about their daily lives without specializing into types who only did one thingósuch that others fed them. Each person or household participated in finding and producing food as a daily activity in a cooperative, tribal effort. Being a professional was apparently unknown for the longest time in our speciesí history, but there were always masters of certain arts and crafts.

Villages close to the land have roles differentiating peopleís special functions to a degree, but there arenít whole segments of society in servitude to others. But modern servants are the mass of humanity, and can most often be seen comprising the daily commute.

It ainít voluntary; a worker doesnít have much choice but to do so much work (and commuting) that one can easily have no concept how to build his or her shelter, for example. Day in, day out, we face drudgery in order to bring in the dollarsójust to keep dry, fed, and quiet or distracted. Watching videos can be provided almost universally, as a great control tool or pacifier. People either accept this offer as their "lot in life," or they opt for dominating others or some other means of skillfully bringing in more money than average. The Third Way is supposedly reserved for dreamers or layabouts, but that could include you if youíre unconventional enough.

Rich and poor
The work and pacification (or diversion) lasts a lifetime, until one can no longer physically work. Or, until one wins the lottery or gets rich some other way. Comfortable retirement is not a given. There may exist a semblance of equal opportunity (not equality!) in the U.S. where anyone can own a luxury car no matter what oneís origins, but the rich are a tiny minority. They are also out of control and irresponsible. They are a symptom of the culture, so that their replacementówith other individuals whoíd become richówould not solve the problem. But "the rich and the poor" is not the whole subject of this essay.

Work, Work! Work, Work, Work, Work!

- The Animals: "We gotta get out of this place" (a popular song of 1965)

Working is almost always in service of the rich, in order to make a surplus beyond oneís own needs. It can be claimed that the poor benefit from the work as well, as in the distribution of "crumbs" or services available to one and all, such as prison and the military. What a coincidence: it is the non-rich who are in prison and the armed "services."

Public education, cheap oil, and other dreams
If one believes war is perfectly acceptable and necessary as a cost of civilization, then the pacifists must be anti-civilization. Be that as it may, there are other services or utilities that supposedly benefit everyone, such as educational institutions. But the fact is that these schools basically train workers, and the main major is wryly called "upward mobility."

With the end of cheap oil as of the 1970s, the easy entry into the middle class and upper-middle class no longer exists. Work has gotten longer, and few households can afford anymore a stay-at-home spouse or parent. It should be understood that cheap oil cannot be deemed as existing today when so many hidden costs and subsidies mask its real adjusted price.

People were taught a few decades ago that working people would eventually average a 20-hour work week. That bubble of propaganda and sci-fi hooey has been burst, but almost no one has reacted. The reason people increasingly doubt "progress" is that they know resources have been depleted, the land is increasingly all fenced or paved, and people have had to work more and more in order to buy less and less. The gap between the rich and poor has gotten to this: the U.S.ís top executive class earns 450 times the amount an average worker makes. Government is not about to change this relationship, and people arenít going to fight back until they feel hurt badly enough.

Alternative "working"
Today the "need" to work is pervasive, and understandably so. One needs food, one needs to earn money to go to college, one needs to pay for transportation, etc. And one who does not work enough, when that person, for example, has a child to support, is a person widely considered wrong or bad.

But those realities do not mean that there are not ways of cutting back on mind-numbing work thatís inefficient or too favorable to the boss. Nor does the necessary aspect of work today mean that the current system involving work is the only way to have a culture or society. How is it that sometimes there are no bosses, as in todayís affinity groups that, for example, save a stand of trees threatened by industry? Suffice to say that much of what is widely assumed today is questionable.

Community service can become an entire alternative system to capitalism and other unfair schemes that do not lift everyone to a better standard of living. By "standard of living," we should not consider only material measurements such as the proportion of the citizenry hooked up to electricity. And we must include other species, with whom we share the Earth, as the community. A standard of living that values any harm to the rest of lifeóthe environmentóis an unsustainable sham. Poor peoples may have no dishwashing machines, but spend more time with family. This does not benefit the owners of banks, so the International Monetary Fund undertakes to remake local economies to export the wealth or to create the demand and infrastructure to import dishwasher machines.

"Everyone Can Cut Potatoes" is the name of an essay by Solomon DeMontigny, a do-it-yourselfer activist and performing artist in Arcata, California. He started a bicycle-powered delivery service for his baking business. In his essay about everyone being able to help prepare a meal, his point was that we can cooperate and voluntarily have fun, while providing for our common needs.

If that sounds Utopian, he is at least right in keeping with village life where traditions hold sway and the society is healthyóand people act as one for the greater good. Solomon works, but he knows that it is so wasteful, when people are not voluntarily contributing freely if they are not liberated from forced labor. And in his regular job the learning period did not last long. He is now "sacrificing" in Americorps in order to attend Dellí Arte, the renowned theater school in Blue Lake.

A shining example of working for community instead of a wage is an activist in southern California devoting his life to spreading Permaculture and learning about sustainable living. He is taken care of even in this cold, cash-and-carry economy, because of his helpfulness, positive attitude in sharing his skills, and contributions to the community such as putting on seminars for the public.

Better than work
Many works have been written on community and anarchy, and many studies have been done on traditional societies whose peoples have been indigenous thousands of years. Analysis of the "work" factor has not been neglected. But almost never do the grade schools or the bastions of employmentónotably the mainstream pressóinform us that hunters and gatherers spend only a few hours a day a few days a week gathering food and setting up shelter. [Our Magazine Resources section has some references, but books are better on traditional cultures, and abound at libraries and used-book stores.]

One can easily confirm that there was no equivalent of "work" in languages separated from the dominant civilization of work. It is true that being a hunter and gatherer is not possible almost everywhere due to trashed ecosystems and too many humans. But this does not mean we should just keep on doing what we are doing in order to shop. There is work but there is the alternative form of it which could prevail again: community service (not the court-imposed community service). People can also maximize personal relationships for sharing and needs; regimented service would not necessarily be in service of the community if itís a concentration camp. The IRS wishes to tax bartering, but itís hard to track. Not shopping so much is a threat to the economy as dominated by the rich.

So, when some service to the community is necessary, especially in order to secure food from damaged land that must first be depaved, for example, we need not call that work. It is rather "getting food together"ócommunitying!

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