This is a talk I gave as part of the Merry Musings series with Ubiquity University. It is based on the Why Work book. If you would like to join the module with the background materials and online discussion group, you can sign up here For the whole Merry Musings series, see here.
I’m going to be doing a monthly series of “Musings” on a topic that feels fundamental to our current condition and transition. The first one is in a couple of weeks, on money, economics and work. Do join me if you can!
This Merry Musing dives into the core of our current societal system: money, economics and work. With Extinction Rebellion launching the Money Rebellion campaign, there is likely to be increased attention to the core questions of how we organise ourselves economically to ensure fulfilling work for all that contributes to a thriving planet for all life. As in his Why Work? book, Peter describes the psycho-spirituality of work and how our current economics impacts people and nature. He also lays out how each of us could co-create and contribute to parallel local economic systems that would withdraw our consent and resources from the old dysfunctional system and build a new one to make the old obsolete.
By the end of this session you should be able to:
- describe the core psycho-spiritual problem with the current economic system;
- lay out a simple design for a parallel local economy; and,
- motivate others to join you in co-creating a new economy.
One of the positive things to come out of the pandemic is some radical questioning of our current economic system. Fundamental flaws have been exposed in terms of what is valued and how money is used. In the Why Work book I identified three main pillars in terms of policy that would set us on a course for a more sustainable economics: Eco-tax reform, Basic Citizen’s Income and Redistribution of Work.
At present it is more economically efficient for a producer to intensify energy use and cut back on human labour, due to the relative expense of the two. The present taxation system encourages the use of scarce natural resources and discourages the use of abundant human labour. Eco-tax reform aims to reverse that situation. It involves:
- the phasing out of taxes on incomes, profits and value added;
- taxing unsustainable energy at source;
- taxing the unimproved site value of land;
- taxing the use of other common resources (e.g. oceans).
Basic Citizen’s Income
The Citizen’s Income (also known as a Basic Income) is, in its purist form, an income, sufficient to meet basic needs, paid unconditionally to all individuals, independent of all other income and without any requirement to work.
The ideal Citizen’s Income would be unconditional, permanent and cumulative. In more detail, it would be:
- tax-free income paid by the state to every man, woman and child as a right of citizenship;
- unaffected by other income, wealth, work, gender or marital status;
- age-related (higher for adults than children, and higher for the elderly than those of “working age”);
- a replacement for all existing benefits and pensions, but would include additional supplements for people with disabilities and for housing for low-income families.
Redistribution of Work
Bertrand Russell illustrated clearly the ridiculous logic of the present system:
Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins as before. But the world does not need twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. … Half the men are idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a source of universal happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?
Sharing out the paid work that is available more widely would appear to be the more logical solution. A number of different methods could be stimulated to achieve this. They include:
- shorter working week/year;
- overtime restrictions;
- longer holidays;
- more part-time work;
- V-time (trading time for income in employee/employer negotiation);
- flexitime (employee fixes start and finish times);
- mid-career training;
- opportunities for earlier retirement.
For more on each of these areas see the Why Work book.
See my other post of the creation of a parallel economy focusing on what we can all do at the community level (as opposed to policy proposals like the above).
It has always puzzled me how we seem to accept our current economic system when it is clearly so fundamentally flawed. It only values those things that generate monetary exchange, diminishing the value of non-monetized activity carried out amongst family, friends or community. It externalises the negative impact of any of that monetized activity – such as the environmental or social cost of producing stuff – meaning that the real cost is not reflected in the actual price, and that other people and life on earth have to carry those costs. It has become such an abstract system – another part of the expertocracy – that people feel very little ownership of it. And in crises such as corona, it stops working.
The thing is, it is such a huge system, embedded in all kinds of governance and processes globally, that it feels impossible to change. That is why I think we need to build an alternative economy in parallel to the existing one that better meets our needs as people and planet, and will still function when the next crisis hits – which it will. It should be an economy that reflects true cost, which people have an understanding of and which is connected to our local needs and experiences.
When I wrote the Why Work book, I researched what the various parallel economic solutions were, and connected them up to provide a coherent picture of how each and every one of us could engage in creating an alternative on our doorstep. Here is the summary graphic. I will describe the different elements briefly below.
Currency: clearly there needs to be a means of exchange that enables more flexibility than direct barter (although that can of course play a role). What is important is that the money that is generated keeps circulating as much as possible locally, and isn’t siphoned off to companies elsewhere who have no interest in the community’s well-being. Examples already abound of systems that can be used for this: community banks, credit unions, local currencies and Local Exchange and Trading Systems (LETS). The Blockchain of course offers possibilities here too.
Business: for our resilience and sense of ownership, we need to meet as many of our core needs as locally as possible. Food, energy and housing would be good examples. All of these can be run through community businesses that make sure the interest of the community is at the heart of the business. The cooperative structure enables that to happen. There can be an overarching community cooperative to focus on the local interests. Community Supported Agriculture where people subscribe to a weekly package of locally grown food supports local farmers and makes us less dependent on decisions taken by large food corporations whose primary driver is to increase the financial return to their shareholders.
Land: who owns the land determines what can be done on the land and at what price. Often land is owned by speculators whose interest is to make as much money off it as possible. Community Land Trusts enable the community to own and govern the land in the interests of the community – be it for housing, recreation or agriculture.
As you can imagine, there are many other areas in which we can reclaim local ownership of currently outsourced domains – e.g. education, healthcare. The three main aspects outlined above and the graphic lay the foundations.
During Humanity Rising our team have become inspired by the Parallel Polity strategy, that emerged with Vaclav Havel and the Charter 77 movement in the transition of Czechoslovakia. The idea is to just get on and build the alternative in parallel to the current system, enabling people to choose which they want to adopt. Once mature enough, the old system that everyone knows is breaking anyway is able to let go. People can withdraw their consent from the old system and channel their resources and energy into the new. This gives us some ideas on how to do that with the economy. Proceed until apprehended!
I have now updated and reworked the original Why Work? paper and published it as a book. Check out the book website here.
Peter Merry’s book addresses a central question faced by every human: Why should we work? His overview is lively, direct, readable, and very timely. With technological advances threatening to continue to eat away at employable jobs, new solutions are ever-more urgently required for human daily survival. Peter’s work looks at this issue head-on, with both analyses and possible solutions. Well done!”
Ken Wilber—Philosopher and author of over 20 books, including The Integral Vision. Originator of Integral Theory.
Prof Wayne Visser
Why Work? is a brave treatise that refuses to shy away from Western capitalism’s most vexing dilemmas, such as how to create meaningful work and halt the social cancer of growing inequality. Merry effortlessly weaves together philosophical, economic, political and even spiritual perspectives into a highly readable book that is as grounded in pragmatic solutions as it is uplifted by inspiring aspirations. Many of the policy ideas are rooted in the decades old “new economics” and “green politics” movements, which are only recently being taken up and stress tested by various governments around the world, especially in Europe. This makes the book highly contemporary and recommended reading for changemakers in government, business, civil society and academia. A fertile and far-reaching book of possible futures.
Prof Wayne Visser, director of Kaleidoscope Futures, author of Sustainable Frontiers and Senior Associate at Cambridge University
Dr. Barrett Brown
“Once again, Peter Merry is years ahead with his thinking about global flourishing and what it takes for us to bring about a future that works for all. In this work he deftly weaves a tapestry of hope for our future from the threads of ecological economics, consciousness development, and social change theory. This mash-up of paradigms and trans-disciplinary thinking, combined with examples of practical, liberating structures for the individual and collective, is precisely the grounded wisdom that will stimulate real change. With this text, he will continue to positively influence those with authority, power and influence for many years to come.”
Barrett C. Brown, PhD, organizational consultant and author of The Future of Leadership for Conscious Capitalism
Dr. Bernard Lietaer
“Radical, Necessary, Different, and most importantly Timely!!”
Bernard Lietaer PhD, author or co-author of 17 books and numerous articles written in five languages and co-designer and implementer of the European Currency Union.
Dr. Jim Garrison
This is a brilliant exploration on the deep significance of work in the life of the individual and community. Work is what most of us spend most of our waking time engaged in and thus the challenge of how to make work meaningful and ecologically sustainable is perhaps the single most important priority for society, especially at a time such as ours in which alienation, exploitation, and social unrest are endemic worldwide. If we could crack the code for work that empowers individuals and communities, we could create a paradise on earth. Peter’s book points the way.
Jim Garrison PhD was educated at Cambridge and Harvard universities, is the founder and president of Ubiquity University and has served as President of the Gorbachev Foundation and State of the World Forum.
When Peter wrote this he was ahead of his time, as ever. This book is not only still relevant but very current.
Herman Wijffels is the “best Prime Minster the Netherlands never had” – former CEO of the Rabobank, head of the Dutch Social Economic Council and Dutch representative at the World Bank.
Drilling down to essential truths, Peter calls for us to look again at the role of work in these times – and to question how work serves the betterment of both the human condition and wider societal health. Drawing on thought-leaders from over the years and offering grounded applications of ‘new economics’ for contemporary society, this book offers an erudite summary for practitioners, policy-makers and entrepreneurs seeking socio-economic system change. Essential reading for a future that works!
Tatiana Glad, M.Sc. is founder and director of Impact Hub Amsterdam, and co-founder of Waterlution. She sits on the global Impact Hub Association Board, International Supervisory Group of AIESEC International and Boards of Elos Institute and MovingWorlds.
A description of a process that Peter developed to help one team hand over work to another team, honouring all elements of our reality.
Download the PDF here.