To the praise of laziness?
Professor Gunnar Adler-Karlsson and the basic income
Do we live to work or do we work to live? Gunnar Adler-Karlsson asked this question in the 1970s. He created a debate about the future of the labour market that is still lively at an international level.
The world of work is facing transformative changes. The pulse, technological development, opens up possibilities but also means uncertainty for many. Maybe it’s like a free fall from a high-rise building. Is the politics of full employment a viable path, or is it perhaps an ideology – a mantra for covering up a social development in which not everyone can fit?
Gunnar Adler-Karlsson, who leans towards the latter, I heard lecturing sometime in the 80’s at Stockholm University. I can still recall in my memory his charismatic appearance and special voice – easily docing and teasing. He is still working as a writer. He now lives on Capri.
In 1977, his little book ”Tankar om den fulla sysselsättningen” (English: ”Thoughts on full employment”) was published in which he questioned the starting points of the Swedish model. He has since continued to pursue his thesis even though his research has shown him to reassess other positions.
”What we must oppose with all our might is the notion that one can be scientifically satisfied with the conventional self-evidentness of very generally accepted value judgments. The special function of science, it seems to me, is exactly the opposite, namely to ask questions about the very conditions that are taken forever for obvious,” said the legendary social scientist Max Weber. It’s something of a motto for Adler-Karlsson as well.
Full employment historically laudable
Although Gunnar Adler-Karlsson argued that the policy of full employment has historically been commendable as it has served to maintain a fairer distribution of work, the latter has been given a different role. There is no way to work for everyone. Instead, technological developments – resulting in inevitable structural unemployment – lead to social exclusion, increased inequality, crime and more stress.
The criticism is also based on an environmental perspective. If two people work with a machine to produce goods and we invent a machine that can do the work in half the time, the need for work changes. Only one is needed. If we still stick to an objective of both full employment, economic growth will be created – which in the long run leads to environmental degradation and the risk of resource scarcity. The question is also to what extent economic growth has led to happiness. Instead, Adler-Karlsson argued that in society – despite the material improvement – there is a constant dissatisfaction. There is a ”class of climbers” who are constantly looking up the career ladder. Other groups have also been better off. But since people’s relative level in the income, wealth or consumption hierarchy is the same, apparent progress does not lead to greater happiness.
Instead of the slogan of ”work for all”, he advocated a division of labour according to the motto ”some work for all instead of full employment for some”. Today, people’s identity is largely linked to work. Therefore, unemployed and new pensioners – in addition to often often being faced with financial difficulties – often undergo a psychological crisis as a result of the very value we attach to work.
Other aspects of human life will also have to stand back if we stress work too much. When will we have room for play? Adults are also engaged in creative activities with no direct practical purpose in all cultures: e.g. games, dance and painting. Human interaction is also important, as is participation in a democratic conversation. In modern industrial society, these aspects have often withered away: replaced by a constant climb in the squirrel wheel.
The opposition to Adler-Karlsson’s ideas came from both employers and trade unions. The criticism from employers was perhaps expected.
So, what is the alternative? In ”Thoughts on Full Employment”, he drew a sketch for a new society – a system he believed was a synthesis between capitalism and socialism – according to which society would be divided into four sectors.
Material basic needs
The first was a sector of necessity that – according to Adler-Karlsson – should be state-owned and meet the material basic needs of people. In it, we would calculate the sum of the needs that the state should guarantee. We would also calculate the amount of labour input needed at any given level of technological development to produce these material goods.
This amount of labour is distributed proportionally, as well as a right as an obligation throughout the people. Adler-Karlsson calculated that it would take a work effort significantly below today’s average life working hours to provide people with material basic security.
For people seeking a higher economic standard, there would be an overflow sector. This would be a completely private sector for people interested in business of various kinds. There you could buy and sell, speculate, win or lose. There would also be a sector of freedom – with room for culture, sport, social relations, etc. There, people could devote themselves to realizing their dreams — whoever they may be. There, the ”playing man”, the creative needs of man, could come into its own.
Finally, as in today’s society, there would be a political power sector with politicians and general elections to determine conflicts of interest. Moreover, a constitution would be needed to ensure that the different spheres of society did not encroach on each other.
Of course, this is just a sketch – nothing that can be realized in the short term at the level of the nation-state.
Does his utopia have anything to say about today’s society? In the global world of today, Adler-Karlsson believes that his ideas are still current, even necessary. According to a relatively new estimate, there are 800 million unemployed people in the world. This is a development that must be seen as a major political challenge. In a later paper, he argues that the rulers of the world’s seven major economies should start thinking in new terms. Today, there is distrust from many ordinary people about political and economic development – what is called globalization. A new form of social policy may then be needed to give those in power a new political confidence – a world citizen’s salary. Something that could give the world’s people basic economic security in the midst of all the hysteria for change. The issue is currently being run by the members of BIEN – Basic Income Earth Network. Is their www worth a visit? Moreover, the principle has already been implemented at the local level – for example, in the Namibian village of Otjivero.
By Leif Jacobsson
Master of Philosophy in social anthropology and co-worker at TAM-Arkiv
TAGS: #bien #basicincome #doweworktoliveordowelivetowork #interview #tothepraiseoflaziness #thefuture #thefutureofthelabourmarket #thoughtsoffullemployment #fairerdistribution #gunnaradlerkarlsson #interviewwithgunnaradlerkarlsson #interviewbyleifjacobsson #leifjacobsson #someworkforall #work #materialbasicneeds #societydividedintofoursectors #otjivero #niotillfem #midwaybetweensocialismandcapitalism #profitcontraenvironment #basicincomeearthnetwork #tamrevy #2010