On Saturday, 9/21, we’re scheduled to interview Frithjof Bergmann, Professor Emeritus from the University of Michigan, about his book New Work, New Culture (published in German in 2004 and due for English-language release this year). I’ve written on this topic several times on this blog already, so perhaps you’d like to hear a quick introduction from the man himself, wearing a groovy hat:
Watch on YouTube.
This clip outlines the problem as he sees it and his proposed solution. In the 1980s he turned from the traditional academic’s life in favor of pursuing projects to make a real impact on people’s lives. You can read about those projects, and the entity (“New Work Enterprises”) more recently created to coordinate them, at the New Work website.
First, why is this philosophy, as opposed to public policy or economics or some other discipline? Well, Bergmann’s take on work is a direct result of his assessment of Hegel and Nietzsche on human nature: Far from being self-contained, self-interested balls of greed that need to be reigned in by society (as Hobbes thought), we are born as essentially herd animals: timid and easily controlled (the success of fascism and numerous other senseless political movements wherein people jumped in and destroyed themselves is ample evidence of this). We need to develop a sense of self, to figure out “who we really are,” in order to have authentic desires that are truly ours and not just inherited or drifted into or latched onto impulsively. Moreover, we are tremendously self-ignorant; we generally can much more objectively make judgments about other people whom we know well than we can about ourselves.
Bergmann describes many people’s experience of work as being as of “a mild disease.” Whether or not your job is actively horrible, its sheer mass in terms of time taken out of your life is debilitating. Contrast this with some people’s experience of creating art, of inventing something, of helping out in an emergency, or really of performing any task that they truly find meaningful. That kind of work can really energize people, giving them a sense of purpose. Far from this being a luxury that very few of us can afford in large quantities, Bergmann diagnoses this as a necessity for the good life (eudaimonia). This is an existential challenge: are you truly alive, or only half alive, just going through the motions? Merely having some entertaining side hobbies isn’t enough to mitigate the damage of selling off the majority of your life.
Add to this the facts cited in the video that 1) Jobs are disappearing due to automation at an alarming rate; 2) Globalization has made this much worse: politicians emphasize all these new markets of consumers, but in many of these countries you’ve got 70%+ unemployment and U.S. firms outsourcing to those places; 3) More than unemployment, the problem is poverty; job creation by businesses just isn’t doing what’s needed to get even the majority of the world to a subsistence level, and the gap between rich and poor ever widens; 4) The current job system has only been around since the industrial revolution; it’s not a natural phenomenon and not the only conceivable alternative.
Conclusion: Life-affirming work (work that we choose based on trying a lot of things out, on deep introspection and interaction with those others that can read us better than we can read ourselves) is something that we need. The job system is inadequate to give this to us, and the need to fill our lives with this such a job prevents us from seriously pursuing such a “calling.”
All this so far has been a matter of cultural observation and looking at human nature and our experience of work, and it sets up the problem that we as thinkers face: how do we cope with this clash between our current economic situation and our needs? As individuals, the best we can do is navigate this the best we can: try to learn about ourselves and don’t settle for a full-time, all-consuming job that we don’t really like. This may mean choosing a lower paying but more satisfying profession, locating our “selves” in our hobbies, tending to our personal relationships and not just work. If we want to work for the social good, we could throw ourselves behind political causes to reduce the length of the work week, decouple health care from full-time employment, maybe argue for a national “minimum income” or somesuch.
However, this is ultimately not Bergmann’s solution, and he sees those political maneuvers as hopeless in the current climate where we all rely on jobs and hence businesses will always have a political veto when they threaten to move those jobs elsewhere. Instead, Bergmann points to new technologies as leading us toward a “self-generating economy.” In short, just as computers now let us do just about anything with information without necessarily needing travel agents, librarians, file clerks, operators standing by, etc., in the near future, fabricators will let us create maybe 80% of the consumer goods we currently purchase ourselves. It should be noted that Bergmann thinks that is not an individual endeavor: we will need voluntary organizations (and there are 30 New Work Centers set up around the globe at present to kick this off) to facilitate economics and effort here. Most of his recent efforts have been in the third world, e.g. where a village installs and runs their own water filtration systems, power plants, builds a car, and/or implements cutting-edge farming technologies. Likewise, the goal would be for associations to lower the individual cost of health insurance and other fixed costs. When we maximally use our technology and resources to free ourselves up, Bergmann this will not be a matter of austerity, of “job sharing” and making do with less (although there is a matter of getting rid of the consumer excess that we don’t actually want when we think about it), but a matter of tailoring what we make to what we, again, really really want, what helps us to be whole people and live vibrantly and all that other eudaimonic stuff.
For a shorter yet more comprehensive overview of the main points of Bergmann’s proposal, try this 2008 essay, “A 2020 That We Could Attain.“