George Walford: Back to Work

Social Inventions is the Journal of the Institute for Social Inventions. (£15 for Institute subscription, £3 each back issue of the journal. [address]). No. 26, 1992, reprints a passage from the article Work, Who Needs It? which appeared in IC56 May 1992, and adds the following comment:

If it is true as George Walford argues, that those who work are merely repressing their desire not to, then a fairer and more politically feasible scheme would be the Human Scale Basic Income described in Social Inventions No. 25 page 13, where elected local neighbourhood councils require work or artistic or creative contributions to the area in return for basic income payments (those with handicaps and others would be exempt from these requirements but those too busy on ‘normal’ work to contribute their time would have to pay a basic income tax); so that the work that is needed or that would enhance an area is shared out. Such a scheme would calm the riot prone inner cities, whereas Walford’s approach would not.

That closing sentence carries such an air of magisterial certainty, of finality and conclusiveness, that one almost hesitates to question it. Does the scheme proposed justify this degree of confidence? It seems rather to beg the question. The elected local councils are to ‘require’ work or artistic contributions in return for basic income payments. No more than that. But if the authorities had only to require compliance in order to receive it there would be no problem to solve. (There would not be much freedom, progress, or interest in life either, but let’s not go into that). What happens when compliance is refused? Here the difficulties begin, and here this comment from Social Inventions offers no help.

The main point raised does have substance. If those who work are ‘merely repressing their desire not to’ then the Human Scale Basic Income proposal would indeed be fairer and more feasible than relieving of work those who prefer to avoid it. The logic is sound. But valid conclusions need sound premisses as well, and here Social Inventions falls short, for the article Work! Who Needs It? did not argue that those who work are merely repressing their desire not to do so.

The trouble centres in that ‘merely.’ The movement, from an inclination away from work to a leaning towards it, comes as one facet of an almost endlessly complex ideological transition (in the jargon of s.i., from expediency to principle / domination). Those who accomplish it do indeed repress their previous inclinations, but they do a great deal more than that. They adopt a new ideology, a new set of inclinations, values, opinions, aims, outlooks, methods and much besides, coming to accept this as a controlling influence upon their behaviour as they earlier accepted the former one. They come to need work for a satisfactory life (and continue to do so through any further developments).

The main theme of Work! Who Needs It? was two-sided: First, that the inhabitants of a modern industrial society fall into two groups comparable in size: those inclined towards work and those inclined away from it (or at least not towards it). Second, that the productive process has reached a stage of development where society no longer needs to call upon the labour of all its members. Already advanced society maintains vast numbers of non-workers at a level which by historical standards is rather high than low, and progress continues. There is good reason for holding that those who have developed beyond expediency, acquiring in the process an inclination towards work, are (or will soon become) able to provide plenty for all.

Put these two observations together and there emerges the prospect of a society in which all, both those who prefer to work and those who prefer not to, shall be able to satisfy their inclination. The main obstacle to its realisation lies in the assumption, made by most of those inclined towards work themselves, Social Inventions among them, that everybody needs it for the good life, that those inclined away from it fail to realise where their best interests lie and should be brought into line for their own sake.

The original article stressed the distinction between activity (a universal requirement for health mental, spiritual and physical) and work (activity performed to satisfy a social requirement). The people inclined away from work all engage in activity. All of them create and many do so in an artistic sense, but they do so for private satisfaction, for their own pleasure or that of the small group with whom each, one of us is personally identified. This does not constitute work as that term was used in the article. Neither does it satisfy the conditions Social Inventions would impose. In order to receive Human Scale Basic Income it would not be sufficient to write, paint, sing, dance or carve for private pleasure; the product would have to constitute a ‘contribution to the area.’ All would have to meet social requirements; all would have to work.

We already have elected local councils; they have been responsible for tower blocks, for tearing children from their parents, for keeping needed housing derelict. They have also done much good; no doubt we are better off, overall, with them than without them, and no doubt the councils envisaged by Social Inventions would be elected on a different system, the localities and neighbourhoods probably smaller. But let us not imagine that the words ‘elected,’ ‘neighbourhood,’ or ‘local’ solve any difficulties. Or ‘human scale’ or ‘basic’ either. Take the fashionable costume off this well-meant invention and it stands revealed as the ancient curse: In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread. The article Work, Who Needs It? offered reason for thinking we have got past that.

Humanity achieved one of its greatest advances when it adopted work (at first mainly in the form of agriculture). Now we can take the next big step, beyond the imposition of work on all but a favoured few towards a condition where each of us shall enjoy the freedom to take it or leave it.

from Ideological Commentary 57, August 1992.