Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Secularism’

Enter the Shaman

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 17, 2017 at 6:01 pm

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I’m spending a lot of time talking about economics in these recent posts – partly due to the fact that this is the topic of much of my current reading. But partly because it is one of the most pertinent questions we face in the US and around the world today – should economic policy be progressive, giving more to those who have the least (the liberal view), should it be based on Biblical or traditional principles (the conservative view), or should economic policy be set by closely examining hard economic data (the rational/secular view)? In short, how we gear our economy says a lot about us as a nation. And due to what I see as an undeniable influence of ‘theology’ over at least one party’s economic philosophy, it is certainly a topic within the scope of this blog.

Is hard work its own reward? From the very beginning of the Reformation through today, this is the economic message promoted by the Church – a message which is a key part of the economic agenda of today’s GOP conservatives, at least so far as it applies to those of us who work for a living. The ‘tough love’ doctrine we hear repeatedly from Republicans is that liberal policies de-incentivize work; if you don’t give someone a welfare check, they must go out and work at the local Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, no matter how lousy the work or pay. This eliminates slackers, and is not only good for them, but for society as a whole. Bible principles make it clear that people who don’t work shouldn’t eat (or have healthcare, education for their children, etc.)

Now let’s set aside my original question – what happens when technology eliminates even the low-level jobs like this (which, by the way, is already happening in Seoul. My last visit there, December 2016, McD’s have already replaced cashiers with computer terminals – just the beginning, I’m sure) – we’ll come back to it in a post or two. Notice again how scriptural interpretations of a ‘Biblical economy’ fit hand-in-glove with what benefits most the owners of the economy, which is employees working as hard as they can for as little pay and few benefits as possible. I agree with a comment on my earlier post, that it’s difficult to decide what’s the chicken and what’s the egg here – who influences whom the most, plutocrats or theocrats – but there’s little doubt that there is a mutual benefit to the relationship between the two, and the loser is you and me.

If I can digress a bit – I’m sure this relationship between those with economic authority and those with spiritual authority has been around for as long as we humans have organized ourselves into groups larger than extended families. It’s easy to imagine that the first leaders of human tribes were those individuals with physical prowess. Being able to run faster, throw a spear with greater accuracy and force, and fight off competing tribes would undeniably be rewarded with greater status – along with a bigger share of the hunt, a higher quality hut or tent, and access to more desirable mating partners. His power (and leaders in this sort were/are always men) might be limited in some ways – tribal traditions, filial concerns, etc., but it is safe to say that the earliest warrior-chiefs would have been the mightiest members of their tribes.

This ‘might makes right’ way of doing things explains 90% or more of our recorded history – most all of our political boundaries exist as they do today because someone was able (or not) to kick someone else’s butt off of a particular piece of property. Angles and Saxons ended up in the British Isles because Huns and Mongols mostly ran them out of their German homelands. The Swiss and their ancestors have inhabited the Alps for centuries because it has been a fairly easy territory to defend. And the manifest destiny of European Americans was largely fulfilled through ugly force – not because of any claims of ‘superior culture’. Bringing that up to our current times – no one runs a Microsoft operating system or buys a General Motors automobile because they make the best product – both companies put a lot of effort into stabbing competitors in the back or buying them out to get to where they are today.

Enter the ‘shaman’ – this is the beloved Joseph Campbell’s term for a person with religious power in a society. He (or she in this instance, although men have predominated here too) goes by a variety of names – mystic, guru, yogi, pastor, father, priest, nun, monk, to name a few, depending on the culture. While warriors and chiefs were also sometimes mystics, in most cases, the power of the shaman was a separate claim to power apart from physical prowess. One imagines that a spiritual leader is a personality type that could only come along as humans developed psychologically. This individual does not excel at the hunt or physical contests. Often, according to Campbell, there is a physical or psychological calamity in a person’s life that causes him to turn inward to his dreams and thoughts – he is horribly injured in a hunt but miraculously survives, is marked or disfigured in some way – or is not for some reason as terrified by omens such as comets or eclipses as others are. While he cannot throw a spear, he has dreams that seem to predict the future. These dreams put him in contact with the dead – Campbell and others postulate that the first primitive religions were based on the fact that people we love continue to exist in our dreams after they die – leading us to believe that they must still exist on some other plane.

There are entire college courses if not major areas of studies that go into these ideas in depth – well beyond my area of expertise. It’s not hard to see, however, that the warrior and the shaman would do better working together than in opposition. A chief who attacks an enemy and fails might lose his clout within the tribe, as well as his fine hut, wife – or even head. How convenient if a shaman can place the blame elsewhere. A shaman can be easily out-muscled by a warrior, so of course it’s in his self-interest to interpret dreams that reflect favorably on the chief – and well, you can put two and two together from this point. Over time, resources are increasingly taken from the tribe to provide more for the princes and priests. You, the modern day Christian, are comparatively lucky that your church wants only ten percent and your employer pays you wages that keep your head just slightly above water. In the first cities, the vast majority of people were serfs, while the elite built palaces and temples of such grandiosity that some remain to this day.

In my opinion, it is the ideas of the Enlightenment alone that keep this from being true today.

I’ve said all that to say this: religion does not make for good economic policy, nor does a warrior-like survival of the fittest. Logic would dictate that if I work harder or longer hours, I should be compensated in greater measure. This is not happening in the US today. Many jobs that used to be hourly have been turned into ‘management’ jobs as to escape paying overtime. We are once again becoming serfs – powerful corporations and religious beliefs controlling how much work we do, what kind of work we do, how we are payed for it, and pretty much every other factor that makes up our working life. And our shamans, our clergy, twist their own scriptures around to oppress the lower classes for the benefit of the rich.

I do not prove myself as one of the ‘elect’ by working harder for less. Work is NOT its own reward – money, security, and personal fulfillment are just rewards for our labor. The sooner we get the plutocrats and theocrats out of economic policy, the better.

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Exploit the Protestants

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 13, 2017 at 8:04 pm

In my last post I talked about the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE), and asked what would happen to this concept if technology rendered 95% of us unemployable. The reason I use such a drastic number is 1) I’m not alone in believing this is a real possibility in the coming decades, and 2) I’m pretty sure I know the answer to the question if that number were more like 35% – the unemployed third of humanity would be demonized by the two-thirds able to somehow hang on to a job. Low moral character, unwillingness to work, looking for handouts – these would all be named as ’causes’ for unemployment, even with clear economic evidence to the contrary.

Why do we feel that work somehow equals virtue? I’m only just re-acquainting myself with Max Weber’s collection of essays, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the basic idea of the PWE. It is an idea as old as the Reformation itself, and it permeates American thinking about work to this day.

“Protestants, beginning with Martin Luther, reconceptualized worldly work as a duty which benefits both the individual and society as a whole. Thus, the Catholic idea of good works was transformed into an obligation to consistently work diligently as a sign of grace….the notion developed that it might be possible to discern that a person was elect (predestined) by observing their way of life. Hard work and frugality were thought to be two important consequences of being one of the elect. Protestants were thus attracted to these qualities and supposed to strive for reaching them.” (Wikipedia)

Weber says this is why Europe and America have the dominant economic position in the world today – the superior belief system caused them to work harder. Therefore, they worked for it and they deserve it. That’s an oversimplification for sure, but one probably a majority of Americans and everyone who voted for Donald Trump would ascribe to.  A recent example here.

It’s no surprise that these ideas spring from the 1500s, at a time when great economic changes were occurring, stressing the medieval hierarchies of lords, priests, and peasants. A Catholic peasant farmer had only to give his earthly lord and heavenly one what was due – fruits of his labor in exchange for subsistence and tenancy to the former, performance of sacraments in exchange for eternal life to the latter. The Protestant believer had to be ever-working and vigilant to prove himself part of the elect.

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Notice how neatly this idea fits the demands of the workforce required by the Industrial Revolution. While farm work was done in seasons, with downtime in the heat of the day and during the long winters, cottage labor could be done year-round and by candlelight, and factories need never close. Is it accidental that a new religion would promote frugality and hard work as it’s own reward, at the exact same time factory owners needed laborers to work round-the-clock? Could it be – and I’m just postulating here – that the PWE was a way of maintaining the advantageous relationship (exploitation?) the aristocracy and clergy had enjoyed for centuries?

Now I know some of you are saying these beliefs are not constructs invented to keep the lower classes where they are, but instead are Biblical truths. My question to you would be – why wasn’t this the predominant Christian view for the first 1500 years? Isn’t it strange to you that a doctrine promoting the workaholic as ideal Christian comes around at precisely the time that the owners of the economy needed workaholics?

In America, the prevailing view is that hard work is its own reward. We tend to view our work as a contribution to the company we work for, and to society as a whole. Since we spend so much of our time focused on work, either doing it, preparing for it, or thinking about it – and because by nature we resist the idea that our lives are spent in exercises of futility – we see ourselves as key to our employer’s success. How could they ever make it without me? Look how much income I generate compared to what I’m paid! As Thoreau says in Walden, “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do….”

We unquestionably believe that working for a living is virtuous. We don’t like to think luck has played any role in what success we have – we are ‘blessed’ to have what we have – a word that has, much to my annoyance, replaced ‘lucky’ only in my lifetime.

But corporations and capitalists seldom look at labor the same way. Employees are expenses. They require ever increasing pay to keep up with inflation. They want paid vacations and perks. They get sick and old, and over time become less efficient. They require expensive insurance and need sick leave. Employers are ALWAYS looking for a way to employ fewer people – often through using technology to get more work out of fewer people, finding a way to employ those who are willing to work for less money and fewer benefits, or investing in computers and machines that can do the work without using human labor at all.

Perhaps Americans are the most productive workers in the world because of the PWE – but is that a good thing? Our productivity increases almost every year, but our compensation has remained stagnant for three decades. Why should we work harder for ever-diminishing returns? Are our leaders using our religious beliefs against us to enrich themselves at our expense?

What Happens to the Protestant Work Ethic When There’s No Work?

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 10, 2017 at 8:45 pm

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It is a rare opportunity that a working stiff like me gets to take a few weeks off from work for no particular reason – not sick or laid off, haven’t received a financial windfall or a lottery payout (I wish!), nor have I suddenly become a member of the moneyed leisure class. I’ve simply finished up a contract with my previous employer, and so far am not overly excited about any of the others I’ve been offered. So, I’ve temporarily absconded to SE Asia where costs are low enough that I can do absolutely nothing, on the cheap while job hunting. (If you’re interested, I’ll soon be posting my travel adventures at nevercomingback.com).

When not engaged in the monotonous tasks of writing cover letters and doing Skype interviews, I’ve been catching up on all the books, articles, and TED talks I didn’t have time to indulge in when working. I find that a lot of what I’m reading/listening to has to do with the decline of the American Dream, and the precarious future in store for those of us who need to work for a living.

Of course, whenever a person is out of work, even by choice, there’s at least a tiny voice in the back of his head telling him he’ll never work again. Go a few days without even so much as an automated response to your inquiries, and that voice becomes decidedly louder. Perhaps that’s where my interest in this topic is coming from.

But I think I’ve also sought out information of this sort because of the recent elections in the US; it seems a man laughably/frighteningly unequal to to the task of being president was put in that office because of the great anxiety people have about the disappearance of quality work. There’s a common belief, it seems, that the grand old industrial economy of yore will come roaring back, once the demons of over-regulation, over-taxation, illegal immigration, and poorly-negotiated trade deals are exorcised.

However, I’m finding that the truth of the matter is that kind of economy is disappearing forever – not because the Chinese or illegals are doing them on the cheap, but because technology is making them obsolete.

Elon Musk thinks we could easily be looking at 15% unemployment in 10 years’ time, due to new technologies. Two Oxford scholars say that 47% of American jobs are at risk of being taken over by algorithms in the next 20 years. A recent Business Insider article predicts that automation will create unemployment rates of 50-75% worldwide in the coming years. In some European countries, unemployment of twenty-somethings already stands at 20%. And it’s not because they picked the wrong majors – those much-vaunted STEM degrees provide the kinds of skills that are MOST likely to be replicated by a computer in the very near future.

Yuval Noah Harari writes in ‘The rise of the useless class’ that “99 percent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs.” Ironically, our over-specialization over the past decades has made it much easier for us to be replaced by a machine or algorithm.

In a way, this is basically what happened 300-500 years ago, during the English enclosures. For centuries, there had been common areas of land that were reserved for public welfare. The landed gentry controlled the vast majority of real estate, but peasants were allowed to hold back a portion of their agricultural produce, and were free to hunt or cultivate crops in these common areas in order to ensure their survival. However, by the 1500s, land owners were finding they could make better returns from large scale agriculture, so they began to purchase common areas, enclose small holdings into larger plantations, and to remove unnecessary laborers from their land. For centuries the labor of small farmers had been required; when no longer needed, thousands were removed from the land with little or no consideration as to how they might survive.

Wikipedia says, “Marxist and neo-Marxist historians argue that rich landowners used their control of state processes to appropriate public land for their private benefit.” I hardly see how it can be argued any other way – and we see a similar government takeover by the wealthy elite happening in the US today.

Fortunately, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution were just underway and, although I’m sure there were instances of deprivation and hunger, perhaps starvation, the towns and cities where cottage industries were starting up were able for the most part to absorb that labor. Historians seem to be divided as to whether this excess labor allowed the Industrial Revolution to occur – or whether it was just lucky timing for the displaced farmers. In any event – people were able to find work, and were able to continue to exchange their labor for the necessities of life.

But what if they hadn’t?  What if those deprived of a livelihood suddenly had nowhere to go?  What if the financial and technological changes of that century had simply created a surplus of half of the labor force, with millions of people finding there was no market for their skills?

Coming back to the 21st century, consider a not-so-hypothetical situation. Imagine an incredibly powerful artificial intelligence (AI) is developed in the next couple of years, a breakthrough so dramatic that by say 2025, it could replace the jobs that 95% of us currently do. All of the goods and services we currently enjoy in the West could be provided to everyone in the world, with dramatically improved efficiency and reduced cost. Natural resources would still exploited, cars and iPhones still assembled, food still produced and packaged, beer still brewed and whisky distilled. it’s just that the services of you and me – and six billion other people – are no longer be required.

Let’s assume that the owners of such a technology just happened to be the top 1% that control the vast majority of capital in the world already – safe enough assumption. Perhaps another 4% would be needed in some kind of maintenance or management role. What would we do with everyone else?

What does this have to do with secularism, you might ask? Well, as the title suggests, there would have to be changes in our assumptions, especially the Protestant work ethic and all that idea entails – God helps those whose help themselves, those who don’t work don’t eat, etc. Think about what effect that would have on our current assumptions about work, labor, respect, compensation, etc. Both conservatives and liberals tend to think of what we deserve based on our labor. Even as I write this, GOP legislators are hoping to insert a work requirement into ACHA – you wouldn’t be eligible for health insurance without working.

How would these assumptions about contributing to society (the topic of my next post) be turned upside down?  When nobody’s work is needed – and work is no longer a commodity – what then do people deserve?

What would we do with all those unemployed – unemployable – people?

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