by Charles Eisenstein

The Age of Separation, the Age of Reunion, and the convergence of crises that is birthing the transition

Work and Art United


Work is a defining feature of modern life. When we ask someone, “What do you do?” we typically mean, “What is your work,” and by that we mean, “What do you do for money?” And work, a defining feature of life, is itself associated with drudgery, tedium, sacrifice, and routine. The daily grind. These features are characteristic of the Machine, and it is no wonder, immersed as we are in a machine civilization, that we view work in contradistinction to leisure and to fun.

The demise of the mechanical view of the universe and the end of Machine civilization holds a new promise—not for the obsolescence of work, but for its transformation. Work in the post-Machine age, in an ecological economy, will take on a new character. This transformation will go beyond the content and nature of work itself to revolutionize the economic relationship of “employment”. Work and leisure, job and life, will become one.

For several hundred years, machines have been replacing human beings for rote, laborious tasks. Paradoxically, most human occupations are still tedious and routine. That is because even as machines have taken over more and more functions, new functions have been born of the expanding megamachine, whose human parts—no less than its inanimate parts—must fulfill the machine’s requirement of standardization. The very effort to eliminate labor demands more labor than it eliminates, because the effort is itself an intensification of machine methodology. Again, the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house. The transformation of work is coming in a different way than two centuries of futurists have envisioned. Not because all routine functions have been once and for all automated, but because society will require fewer and fewer such functions.

One consequence of local currencies and green technologies will be a decrease in scale in many industries. Today, many mass production processes are only more efficient because they externalize costs. Agriculture is a prime example. Factory farming is more efficient in terms of labor hours, but far less efficient in terms of energy use or pollution production, than organic agriculture. When costs are internalized, many industrial practices will give way to more labor-intensive methods. In many areas, mass production will become obsolete, and along with it the archetype of the assembly line, in which work is routine, repetitive, and highly fragmented, requiring little skill, little personal contact, and many layers of hierarchical management.

These characteristics stand in contrast to repair work, which is local, small-scale, highly skilled, personal, and tangible in its results. The economic logic that today makes it cheaper to buy a new stereo rather than repair an old one will be reversed as raw materials come to reflect their true costs and as designers begin to design for durability and ease of repair. The result will be more labor-intensive (repairs do require significant labor) but the nature of the labor will be vastly different, as will the economic model it entails.

Another impetus toward the passing of the factory system, and along with it the whole psychology of the Mumfordian megamachine, is the increasingly unmanageable complexity of engineering processes and business administration (unmanageable, that is, according to the reductionist paradigm of management). The resulting transformation in business, visible already in the flattening of corporate hierarchies, is not some trendy new business fad but a practical necessity, a consequence of the breakdown of design processes under the weight of their own management. Increasingly, today’s complex processes are impervious to traditional cut-and-control engineering, in which the problem is broken down into parts, sub-parts, and so forth, mirroring the traditional business hierarchy. Whether in business or engineering, the old approach to problem solving—break it down and treat each piece separately—is no longer working very well.

In any machine, whether made of human or inanimate parts, the complexity of relationships among parts increases exponentially with their number. The proliferation of variables quickly gets out of control, and at some point traditional reductionistic solutions must give way to solutions that are grown, not engineered. This is already happening in many fields such as circuit design, where evolutionary algorithms search for solutions inaccessible to analytic methods. Software engineering is another example in which the product’s complexity defies hierarchical management; increasingly, solutions grow from the ground up among legions of independent programmers.

Visionary thinkers such as Michel Bauwens have generalized the peer-to-peer (P2P) revolution in the field of information technology as a new model of economic, social, and political organization. Peer-to-peer networks bear a striking resemblance to the gift economies of ancient times, as well as to the characteristics of a demurrage-based economy. As in a potlatch society, status in such a community comes from how much one contributes, not how much one owns. Resources are shared generally, not hoarded, and the exchange of goods occurs on a gift basis. Such networks have produced a new model of journalism (the blogosphere) that compiles, filters, edits, and organizes enormous quantities of information far more efficiently than traditional news organizations can.[32] Other structures with P2P elements include the Wikipedia and the structures growing up around, eBay, and Google. All of them profit by giving information away for free.[33] One by one, the information providers who clung to the business model of amassing and selling vast quantities of proprietary information have fallen by the wayside (the Encyclopedia Britannica is an example). Others in the music, film, and software industries are still struggling to hold on to the information-equals-property model.

Farther out on the margins, a huge shadow economy thrives that is even more explicitly gift-based. The people who participate in file-sharing networks trust fully in the spirit of the gift when they put their music collection or software cracks[34] on line for anyone to download. In some of these subcultures it is considered gauche to ever demand money for data.

The concept of profiting by giving it away is part of a larger shift in the nature of work. Instead of working for money, money becomes a side-effect of doing good work. No longer slave to money, work serves other goals: beauty, service, fun, or self-expression. The worker, in other words, becomes an artist. This is also a consequence of a very different relationship to material objects that will develop in a restorative economy.

Because of the internalization of costs, the mounds of plastic junk we buy today will be far more expensive—so much so that there will no longer be mounds of plastic junk. Consumer goods in general won’t be so cheap anymore, and I mean that in both senses of the word “cheap”. We consider ourselves to be the wealthiest society in history, but lives full of vast quantities of cheap stuff are themselves poor and cheap. To live among objects that are not cheap, but made with consummate skill, attention, and care, would be true material wealth. Can you imagine a society where each person’s talents and gifts were fully expressed in their work, and not suppressed in the interests of machine life? Can you imagine a home in which every appliance, garment, and piece of furniture were so wisely designed, so well-made, so elegant a marriage of beauty and function, that no one would ever miss throw-away things too cheap to really care about? Life will abound with beautifully made objects, because in the restorative economy all of us will be craftspeople, expressing our full talents in our work rather than denying them for the sake of keeping a job. Part of this will be a dramatic revival of traditional handcrafts, as “natural resources” will have become so precious as to merit the best individual workmanship. But even in the high-tech sector the number of narrowly specialized work functions will be far less than it is today, and each person will consider him or herself an artist.

The restorative economy will thus demolish some of our culture’s basic dualisms: work and art, work and leisure, utility and beauty. When this happens, the noble ideal at the heart of our dreams of technological utopia will come to fruition: not in the obsolescence of work, but in the realization of its true nature. When work is seen from the perspective of Mumfordian machine civilization, then it is inescapably narrow and oppressive. That is why the technotopian dreamers looked to the end of labor, each man a king served by machine slaves. Bound by their preconceptions of the nature of work, they could imagine no better than that. But to reunite work and art, to heal the split between work and the rest of life from which arises the selloff of our time, is a much more radical ambition.

It is an insult to our dignity to live off the produce of anyone doing demeaning work because she has to in order to survive. Work done under compulsion is slave work.. A truly wealthy person has no need for such things. Can we envision a life whose objects were all made by people at their best?

From the egalitarian societies of the Paleolithic, humanity evolved into great agrarian civilizations in which the rich were those who owned slaves. In the Machine Age, overt slavery disappeared, only to be replaced with a system in which nearly everyone did demeaning work out of survival anxiety. “Do it or you will die!” That’s slavery, all right. The great promise of machine technology—Every man a king! Every man a god!—has borne its opposite. Every man a slave. Slaves without human owners, all laboring under the yoke of money. But now, with the end of the age of the Machine, we see the possibility of a return to the original egalitarianism, in which the economy is a flow of gifts within a context of abundance.

If there are still career counselors in the Age of Reunion, they will help us answer the questions, “Which of my creative talents do I enjoy most? “Which of the arts would I like to pursue?” No longer will work and art be at odds, but one and the same.

The reunion of work and art accompanies a new kind of materialism. There is a virtue and a pleasure in taking good care of ones things. Before the days of material surfeit and the flood of cheap stuff, people did just that. As recently as the 1930s, people treasured articles like hand tools, fishing rods, tricycles, and children’s toys, which received the care needed to last a lifetime, even generations. Today, why bother? Why spend such time and effort on something cheap? A new one only costs twenty dollars. Like TV repairs, caring for our things has become economically inefficient. From one perspective this is a convenience, as we are freed from the burden of having to take care of our things. But from the perspective of Chapter Four it is slavery. Economic exigencies—the exchange of time for money—have rendered us unable to afford the virtue and pleasure of taking care of things. Today’s flood of cheapness saves time but cheapens life. By undoing the conversion of life into money the restorative economy will free us again to love our things, and will provide us things worth loving.

I am not proposing a disassociation from the material world, or the phony spirituality of overcoming the world and the flesh for the sake of some separate Cartesian soul. To the contrary, I envision a future where we love our material possessions more and not less, so that we care where they come from and whence they go. I envision a future in which we see life in the material world as an opportunity to participate in its constant generation of beauty.

More than just a consequence of our economic system, the cheapness of modern life is a reflection of the devaluing of materiality implicit in the Cartesian abstraction of spirit away from matter. Who cares about the material world, when it is separate from our spiritual selves? The collapse of the Newtonian World-machine will reunite us with the world, and we shall once again fall in love with it. To be in love is to dissolve boundaries, to expand oneself to include an other. Already it is happening. Have you noticed? One by one, we are rejecting our society’s priorities and falling in love again with life. That is our true nature, which we can deny only with increasing effort. It is our nature to love life in both senses of the word: biological life and our personal lives. To love the world and to love our time in it. We have long been frightened into rejecting both, accepting as a result their plunder: the reduction of the living world into resources, things, money, and the reduction of our time into commodified hours, jobs, the grim necessity of making a living. The good news is that when we let go of separation and thus fall in love again with life, these results will also give way to their opposites. For the world and for ourselves, we will accept nothing less than lives devoted ardently to creating beautiful things, beautiful music, beautiful ideas. “Could you or I comprehend, even for a moment, how fiercely my great-granddaughter and her friends loved being alive, and that this love was not an evanescent mood, but a never-ending power which pervaded every sleeping and waking moment of their lives?”

I do not deny that there may always be dishes to wash, toilets to clean, buildings to roof—tasks that we consider mindless, laborious, or repulsive.[35] But what is wrong with exerting bodily effort in order to maintain life? Shall we invent chewing machines to save us the “labor” of chewing our own food? Is the goal of humanity’s ascent to rest forever in bed, hooked up to various machines that provide us nourishment, pleasure, and excitement all without our own effort? That would be the consummation of the machine’s promise, wouldn’t it—a servant that not only does all our work for us, but lives our lives on our behalf as well. No, the movements of being alive need not be laborious. What makes work laborious is the sacrifice of variety for the efficiency of repetition and standardization. Herein lies the difference between farming and gardening: the former has been the epitome of drudgery; the latter is such a joy that people do it in spite of its economic irrationality.[36][37] The more a farm resembles a factory (and the less a garden), the more tedious and life-denying farm work is. Conventional agriculture works according to the same principles as any other industrial enterprise. In a garden, no one spends weeks picking cotton, tomatoes, or grapes. On a small mixed farm no one spends weeks, months or years performing over and over again one step in the process of butchering chickens.

What makes a task oppressive is not its content but its duration, motivation, and purpose. Cleaning ones own toilet is neither demeaning nor particularly laborious—quite different from cleaning hundreds of toilets, all day, for strangers. No one was born onto this earth to clean toilets. And no one would submit to such a life who were not broken or coerced by threat to survival. In a society where work is art and money is not scarce, people will be unwilling to sell their time, their dignity, or their integrity for money. Not only assembly-line work and menial labor, but any work that is degrading or life-denying will need to be engineered out of the economy. How often today do industrial design specifications include such a requirement?

The Age of Reunion is not a return to the past nor an abandonment of technology. Rather it is the motivation and organizing principle of technology that will change. When the psychological and economic forces driving the conversion of life into money are reversed, then technology will no longer seek to make that conversion faster and more efficient. The engineers of the future will design for sustainability, for dignity, and for beauty. They will, in other words, be artists, creating technologies for a world of artists on a garden earth. The conflict that all artists encounter between creating for the market and creating for the spirit will cease, when work and art, money and sustainability, come into alignment.

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[32] This is a complex topic. The blogosphere and traditional journalism are growing into a symbiotic relationship from which something entirely new will emerge. Neither will swallow up or replace the other. A similar process is beginning to transform the tottering scientific journal system.

[33] In the case of Amazon, the free information comprises the vast database of user reviews, reviews of user reviews, and so on. Of course that is not the sole reason for Amazon’s profitability, but giving something away for free is certainly one way in which the company profits.

[34] A software crack is a procedure for making illegal copies of commercial software operable.

[35] Note, however, that much of the work of modern life is an artifact of our compulsion to maintain separation from nature. Woodchucks and hunter-gatherers do not clean toilets or wash dishes. Most do construct and maintain dwellings however. To undo even that form of separation, we must go back to a pre-mammalian state.

[36] When I speak of a garden, I have a concept in mind of cooperation with nature and not control. A garden can embody either. On one extreme there is the Victorian garden of exotic species, each precisely positioned in a total human imposition on the land. On the other extreme, there is simply the altered ecosystem that arises from any animal’s interaction with its herbal environment.

[37] As for the issue of economic irrationality, calculate how much money you save by growing your own lettuce instead of buying it at the supermarket. Then factor in the time you spend. I doubt you’ll save more than fifty cents an hour, even if you buy organic produce.

Creative Commons Non-Commercial Copyright2008 Charles Eisenstein