Featured image by Junia Mortimer.
I remember thinking, back in my teenage days, about robotization. The first robotic arms had appeared, and with them, the replacement of the first low qualified jobs in some factories. It was the mid-nineties, and the public debate on whether robots would take people’s jobs one day had just begun.
The tabloids depicted this inevitable event in a gloomy light. My teenage self, however, saw it as a positive development in mankind’s history. I envisioned a future similar to ancient Greece, where a large percentage of the population (up to 40% according to some authors) were slaves. Removing metics (foreigners) and soldiers from the equation, this allowed its citizens to devote their time to the arts, sports, philosophy, and business. Only, it would be a morally acceptable society, as the slaves of tomorrow would be robots.
Obviously, there was an important obstacle to overcome. Modern capitalism. Western societies are built on the dogma of consumerism. For a capitalist society to work, its citizens need to stay in and endless consumption cycle. This requires them to have jobs that keep them busy most of their time, for the majority of their lives, and provide them with just enough money to buy the things they can afford and get into debt to acquire the ones they cannot.
The indoctrination of the 99%
The sadly recently deceased David Graeber described this situation brilliantly in his essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant“. Instead of allowing their citizens to enjoy 15-hour workweeks, like John Maynard Keynes predicted almost a century ago, our societies have created a myriad of bullshit jobs that are completely useless. Jobs people actually hate, and even think should not exist. The goal is keeping people busy, unsatisfied, and consuming as a way of finding meaning to their otherwise unfulfilled lives.
And for that to work, it is important that the 99% of the population that are not in control of the majority of wealth in the world are correctly indoctrinated.
You need to repeat them that productive work is something to be proud of. At the same time, the better paid jobs, the ones that get all the praise and credit, are the ones that don’t produce value. The uninspiring ones. The ones nobody really enjoys or feels proud of. Managers, administrators, bureaucrats.
You also need to keep them jealous. Jealous of their boss, of their colleagues, of their politicians. You need them to crave for a raise to get a new iPhone, a faster car or a bigger house. You want them to aspire to one of those managing positions they so strongly loathe. You need to give them this little carrot that is just enough to keep them a little happier, but not enough to give them too much freedom.
This has worked so well and at so many levels, that one can’t help but admire it much like Sherlock Holmes admired Moriarty –regardless of how much he also despised him– for his brilliant mind.
We need a new model of society
That’s why capitalism won the game. It rewards our most primal desires. Wealth and power are the modern way of guaranteeing the satisfaction of our survival and reproductive instincts.
Ironically, the ideologists of the 99% are so stuck in outdated ideologies from the XX century (communism, socialism, anarchism), and so busy blaming the 1% for our collective ails, that their proposals sound like science fiction novels from the 60s.
As an example, entrepreneurship is generally demonized by most of these authors. If you are a CEO, the head of the company, or the “boss”, you are an evil oppressor whose goal is exploiting employees. The working class rejoices in this fairy tale while secretly aspiring to be in the boss’ chair.
At the same time, most blue and even white-collar workers yearn for a way of escaping. Usually through money, power, or fame. The statistics say that art, philosophy, or being an influencer won’t save you, and only a few privileged escape through entrepreneurship. Technology, as Graeber argues, had the potential of fulfilling the dream of Keynes. We could enjoy 15-hour workweeks. Then, why do we feel like we are working more than ever?
Because technology is not being developed to help mankind reach that dream. Amazon, Facebook, Google, or even Tesla are not helping us to get there. They prey on this consumerist society. It is in their best interest to perpetuate it.
We need a new model of society. One that leverages technology for the benefit of mankind. One that reduces those pointless, bullshit jobs and allows us to work less and enjoy life more.
The problem is: there is no real alternative to capitalism. Or nobody has figured out one that’s good enough yet. Not even anti-capitalist authors. And we can’t base this model on failed doctrines from the past. We need to come up with new ideas, born in the XXI century.
The Kings and Queens of Today
To be fair, you can’t expect companies to push our societies forward. Their goal is profit, not social change.
But what about our leaders?
It defies logic that in 2020, we still have kings and queens in Europe. Sure, their role has been relegated to mere representatives of their countries. But they still enjoy wealth, fame, and privileges by birthright.
But there are other types of privileged oligarchs. Politicians. They are the new kings and queens of our society. If we stop for a moment to think about it, the absolutely most wasteful of bullshit jobs is politician. Most people suspected this, but recently we got plenty of proof. Belgium was without a government for more than a year in 2019, and its citizens didn’t even notice. Their employees kept on working, and their trains kept on arriving at their destinations in time.
They are not just dispensable, though, they are actively harmful. In 2016, Spain was without a government for ten months. The results? The economy grew, unemployment fell, and a lot of people confirmed their suspicions that these absent legislators were not helping to solve their problems after all. If anything, they were creating problems that did not exist before, distracting us with pointless arguments, and artificially dividing our society. A divided society is a powerless, manipulable one.
Even in western societies, politicians have privileges that put them above the law. They make the rules, and make sure these rules benefit them.
And yet, we praise them. We aspire to be one of them. We discuss how nice and friendly they are with us, the peasants. We fight to prove to others that our kings are better than theirs. Because that’s how we have been indoctrinated. Today’s kings and queens are not born, they are syndicated into a privileged group, but their goals are the same: perpetuating their kind.
The emeritus king of Spain is being investigated due to a series of corruption scandals, including paying almost 65 million euros to one of his lovers and her son. With this money, among other things, she bought a 6.7M euros mansion in western England. The budget of the royal family in Spain, which is paid from the taxes of the Spanish citizens, is around 8M euros per year. Still, we are constantly reminded of how lucky we are, being one of the smaller ones in Europe.
This is just a small example. No country has been spared by the plague of corruption and abusive privilege of the ruling class. Not even democratic, European countries.
Since I left Spain and became a nomad, I am not contributing to that anymore. I am not voting them, paying for those sumptuous mansions, or subsidizing elections that are not going to make any real, meaningful change. Ironically some people, part of that 99%, patronize anyone who dares to challenge that model. These people are part of a system they hate. They blame others for not conforming to a bullshit job or not paying taxes in their home countries.
This is not about money, or more specifically, taxes, though. If that’s your goal, you are not contributing to anything. You are just trying to escape, but you are as trapped as everybody else. You have tacitly pledged to money, power, and fame.
We need a new model for distributing wealth. One that is fair, and yet encourages growth, innovation, and excellence. A model that uses the power of technology at our disposal to empower us, not to enslave us. I still believe a fair society is built with the contributions of everybody. The US model of “Every man for himself” has failed miserably. The global crisis at the end of the 00s that triggered the Occupy Wall Street movement first, and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic, painfully exposed this.
We need to redesign the society of the XXI century, and hopefully come up with something more fair, just, and beneficial for all of us. A model that breaks the consumerism dogma of capitalism and leverages technology to allow us to live happier, more fulfilled lives, while still leaving room for ambition, creativity, and competition.
What would that society look like? I honestly have no idea. But I think it is worth trying to imagine it.