Buckminster Fuller Rails Against the “Nonsense of Earning a Living”: Why Work Useless Jobs When Technology & Automation Can Let Us Live More Meaningful Lives

We are a haunt­ed species: haunt­ed by the specter of cli­mate change, of eco­nom­ic col­lapse, and of automa­tion mak­ing our lives redun­dant. When Marx used the specter metaphor in his man­i­festo, he was iron­i­cal­ly invok­ing Goth­ic tropes. But Com­mu­nism was not a boogey­man. It was a com­ing real­i­ty, for a time at least. Like­wise, we face very real and sub­stan­tial com­ing real­i­ties. But in far too many instances, they are also man­u­fac­tured, under ide­olo­gies that insist there is no alter­na­tive.

But let’s assume there are oth­er ways to order our pri­or­i­ties, such as valu­ing human life as an end in itself. Per­haps then we could treat the threat of automa­tion as a ghost: insub­stan­tial, imma­te­r­i­al, maybe scary but harm­less. Or treat it as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to order our lives the way we want. We could stop invent­ing bull­shit, low-pay­ing, waste­ful jobs that con­tribute to cycles of pover­ty and envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion. We could slash the num­ber of hours we work and spend time with peo­ple and pur­suits we love.

We have been taught to think of this sce­nario as a fan­ta­sy. Or, as Buck­min­ster Fuller declared in 1970—on the thresh­old of the “Malthu­sian-Dar­win­ian” wave of neolib­er­al thought to come—“We keep invent­ing jobs because of this false idea that every­body has to be employed at some kind of drudgery…. He must jus­ti­fy his right to exist.” In cur­rent par­lance, every per­son must some­how “add val­ue” to share­hold­ers’ port­fo­lios. The share­hold­ers them­selves are under no oblig­a­tion to return the favor.

What about adding val­ue to our own lives? “The true busi­ness of peo­ple,” says Fuller, “should be to go back to school and think about what­ev­er it was they were think­ing about before some­body came along and told them they had to earn a liv­ing.” Against the “spe­cious notion” that every­one should have to make a wage to live–this “non­sense of earn­ing a living”–he takes a more mag­nan­i­mous view: “It is a fact today that one in ten thou­sand of us can make a tech­no­log­i­cal break­through capa­ble of sup­port­ing all the rest,” who then may go on to make mil­lions of small break­throughs of their own.

He may have sound­ed over­con­fi­dent at the time. But fifty years lat­er, we see engi­neers, devel­op­ers, and ana­lysts of all kinds pro­claim­ing the com­ing age of automa­tion in our life­times, with a major­i­ty of jobs to be ful­ly or par­tial­ly auto­mat­ed in 10–15 years. It is a tech­no­log­i­cal break­through capa­ble of dis­pens­ing with huge num­bers of peo­ple, unless its ben­e­fits are wide­ly shared. The cor­po­rate world sticks its head in the sand and issues guide­lines for retrain­ing, a solu­tion that will still leave mass­es unem­ployed. No mat­ter the state of the most recent jobs report, seri­ous loss­es in near­ly every sec­tor, espe­cial­ly man­u­fac­tur­ing and ser­vice work, are unavoid­able.

The jobs we invent have changed since Fuller’s time, become more con­tin­gent and less secure. But the obses­sion with cre­at­ing them, no mat­ter their impact or intent, has only grown, a run­away delu­sion no one can seem to stop. Should we fear automa­tion? Only if we col­lec­tive­ly decide the cur­rent course of action is all there is, that “every­body has to earn a living”—meaning turn a profit—or drop dead. As Con­gress­woman Alexan­dria Ocasio-Cortez—echoing Fuller—put it recent­ly at SXSW, “we live in a soci­ety where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our prob­lem…. We should not be haunt­ed by the specter of being auto­mat­ed out of work.”

“We should be excit­ed about automa­tion,” she went on, “because what it could poten­tial­ly mean is more time to edu­cate our­selves, more time cre­at­ing art, more time invest­ing in and inves­ti­gat­ing the sci­ences.” How­ev­er that might be achieved, through sub­si­dized health, edu­ca­tion, and basic ser­vices, new New Deal and Civ­il Rights poli­cies, a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income, or some cre­ative syn­the­sis of all of the above, it will not pro­duce a utopia—no polit­i­cal solu­tion is up that task. But con­sid­er­ing the ben­e­fits of sub­si­diz­ing our human­i­ty, and the alter­na­tive of let­ting its val­ue decline, it seems worth a shot to try what econ­o­mist Bill Black calls the “pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy core,” which, coin­ci­den­tal­ly, hap­pens to be “cen­trist in terms of the elec­torate’s pref­er­ences.”

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bertrand Rus­sell & Buck­min­ster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More

The Life & Times of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Geo­des­ic Dome: A Doc­u­men­tary

Every­thing I Know: 42 Hours of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Vision­ary Lec­tures Free Online (1975)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Gareth says:

    Hen­ry David Thore­au summed it up: “The mass of men (peo­ple!) lead lives of qui­et des­per­a­tion.”
    What a total col­lapse of the imag­i­na­tion of soci­ety that the big IPO’s of the day are Uber and Lyft. Could­n’t we reach a lit­tle high­er and work on prob­lems that would real­ly ben­e­fit soci­ety. This arti­cle makes a great case for peo­ple work­ing on prob­lems that they find inter­est­ing and, freed up from earn­ing a liv­ing, could be: drug dis­cov­ery, engi­neer­ing bet­ter tran­sit sys­tems, teach­ing Euler’s iden­ti­ty or per­haps mak­ing soci­ety friend­lier.
    Thank you for a very thought­ful arti­cle.

    There is no duty we so much under­rate as the duty of being hap­py. — Robert Louis Steven­son

  • Merle Lester says:

    absolute­ly spot on gareth..cheers mer­le

  • Charles Fox says:

    Automa­tion makes our labor, our drudgery redun­dant, not our lives.

    Uncer­tain­ties gen­er­al­ly induce anx­i­ety. Thus the appeal of the sta­tus quo, no mat­ter how bad it is. Coal min­ing must be one of the worst jobs on the plan­et and yet coal min­ers fight for their jobs. Ter­ror of the unknown.

  • Enrique Ramirez Guier says:

    Yes, excel­lent arti­cle and excel­lent man, we need more lime him, we must find in our­selves the way ofex­press­ing our indi­vid­u­al­i­ty in soci­ety

  • Rob Edlin-White says:

    IT’s true that a lot of the work in “devel­oped” economies is ulti­mate­ly futile. but in order to achieve some kind of leisured utopia in which work is shared accord­ing to peo­ple’s abil­i­ty and skills and in such a way as not to over­load any indi­vid­u­als, and wealth shared so that all will have enough … in order to achieve that we need rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions in pol­i­tics and in human psy­chol­o­gy.

  • Gareth says:

    There are so many things we could cur­rent­ly do to approach a bet­ter soci­ety. They’re easy to find. Just from today’s head­lines: 1) Make uni­ver­si­ty admis­sion based on achieve­ment in high-school, not on who your par­ents can bribe, 2) Make gun reg­is­tra­tion and licens­ing manda­to­ry and con­tin­u­ing, 3) Remove big mon­ey and PACs from polit­i­cal cam­paigns so ordi­nary peo­ple with extra-ordi­nary ideas can get elect­ed.
    If we fail as a soci­ety, let it, at least, not be for lack of try­ing.

  • oroo says:

    Einstein’s Unknown Insight and
    the Prob­lem of Quan­tiz­ing Chaos


    Per­son­al Iden­ti­ty: Who are you? What am I?
    A Philoso­pher’s Take

    Foo Fight­ers — Learn To Fly (Offi­cial Music Video)


    of the work u as engi­neeredinso­ci­ety that make prob­lems per stances, they work on shards under ide­olo­gies that insist no alternative/articulary, but; socie day or mayb arti­cle licens­ing camps over­load sanegis­tra­tio-image-mon­ey and PACs: insub­stan­tial foe­ing on bet.syst.ation._.Likewiseigher and Transfiguration.autOmation…

    The Fall-Win­ter 2018/19 Haute Cou­ture Show — CHANEL

    Edward Snow­den — The Spy­ing Hard­ware used by the NSA — Inter­view 09/09/17
    John Richard­son, crit­ic and Picas­so biog­ra­ph­er, dies at 95
    Silent Weapons For Qui­et Wars Doc­u­ment — Full Read
    Silent Weapons for Qui­et Wars (Excerpt and Intro­duc­tion)
    9th- Mark Pas­sio Truth, Mind, Real­i­ty Con­fer­ence 2018


    Albert Ein­stein — informationphilosopher.com

  • Fred says:

    If you ever had a mind numb­ing job, where the boss kept demean­ing you, that you had to spend an hour to com­mute to and at the end of the week, all you want­ed to do was get stone and sleep, then yea Fuller makes a lot of sense.

  • Jim Shroads says:

    ‘ the grass is always green­er on the oth­er guy ‘

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