Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The End of Work

Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work, 1996

The increasing violence taking place on the streets of America is being played out in other industrialized nations throughout the world. In October 1999 in Vaulx-en-Velin, a depressed working class town near Lyon, hundreds of youth took to the streets, clashing with police and later riot troops, for more than three days. Although the riot was triggered by the death of a teenager run over by a police car, local residents and government officials alike blamed increasing unemployment and poverty for the rampage. Youths stoned cars, burned down local businesses, and injured scores of people. By the time it was over, the damages had run to $2o million.

In Bristol, England, in July 1992, violence erupted in the wake of an accident uncannily similar to the one that occurred in Vaulx-en-Velin. A police car had run over and killed two teenagers who had stolen a police motorcycle. Hundreds of youth rampaged through the shopping area, destroying commercial property. Over 5oo elite troops had to be called up to quell the disturbance."

French sociologist Loic Wacquant, who has made an extensive study of urban rioting in first-world cities, says that in almost every instance the communities that riot share a common sociological profile. Most are formerly working class communities that have been caught up in and left behind by the transition from a manufacturing to an information-based society. According to Wacquant, "For the residents of flagging working class areas, the reorganization of capitalist economies--visible in the shift from manufacturing to education intensive services, the impact of electronic and automation technologies in factories and offices, and the erosion of unions... have translated into unusually high rates of long-term joblessness and a regression of material conditions." [..]

A growing number of politicians and political parties--especially in Europe--have been playing off the concerns of working class and poor communities, exploiting their xenophobic fears of immigrants taking away precious jobs [..]. Rarely, in their public statements, do any of the leaders of the extreme right broach the issue of technology displacement. Yet it is the forces of downsizing, re-engineering, and automation that are having the most effect on eliminating jobs in working class communities in every industrial country.

Nathan Gardeis, the editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, summed up the prevailing mood in terms remarkably similar to the arguments used to characterize the plight of urban blacks just thirty years ago, when they were uprooted first by new agricultural technologies in the South and then by mechanical and numerical-control technologies in Northern factories. "From the standpoint of the market," says Gardeis, "the ever swelling ranks of the [unemployed] face a fate worse than colonialism: economic irrelevance." The bottom line, argues Gardeis, is that "we don't need what they have and they can't buy what we sell." Gardeis foresees an increasingly lawless and foreboding future--a world populated by "patches of order and swaths of pandemonium." Some military experts believe that we are entering into a new and dangerous period of history increasingly characterized by what they call low-intensity conflict: warfare fought by terrorist gangs, bandits, guerrillas, and others.

Military historian Martin Van Creveld says that the distinctions between war and crime are going to blur and even break down as marauding bands of outlaws, some with vague political goals, menace the global village with hit-and-run murders, car bombings, kidnappings, and high-profile massacres. In the new environment of low-intensity conflict, standing armies and national police forces will become increasingly powerless to quell or even contain the mayhem, and will likely give way to private security forces that will be paid to secure safe zones for the elite classes of the high-tech global village.

Two very specific courses of action will need to be vigorously pursued if the industrialized nations are to successfully make the transition into a post-market era in the twenty-first century. First, productivity gains resulting from the introduction of new labor and time-saving technologies will have to be shared with millions of working people. Dramatic advances in productivity will need to be matched by reductions in the number of hours worked and steady increases in salaries and wages in order to ensure an equitable distribution of the fruits of technological progress. Secondly, the shrinking of mass employment in the formal market economy and the reduction of government spending in the public sector will require that greater attention be focused on the third sector: the non-market economy.

It is the third sector--the social economy--that people will likely look to in the coming century to help address personal and societal needs that can no longer be dealt with by either the marketplace or legislative decrees. This is the arena where men and women can explore new roles and responsibilities and find new meaning in their lives now that the commodity value of their time is vanishing. The partial transfer of personal loyalties and commitments away from the market and the public sector and to the informal, social economy foreshadows fundamental changes in institutional alignments and a new social compact as different from the one governing the market era as it, in turn, is different from the feudal arrangements of the medieval era that preceded it.

Health Apocalypse Now

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