Why We Should Question Our Concept of “Work”

Why We Should Question Our Concept of ''Work''

March 4th, 2017

By Mike Blue

Guest writer for Wake Up World

For about twenty years of my life, from my last day on university campus, I would wake up each morning with the bleak prospect that for yet another precious day, I would sell my time and my soul to the highest bidder in this grand farce called work. For those two long decades, work was something I did consistently, obediently, and for the most part unconsciously.

Today however, like all of my days now, I wake to no such prospect.

It is an hour before the sun will send its first rays of today through the palm tree army lined up on the far side of the bay. It is the last day of my current stay here in Sorake Beach, Sumatera. I plan to trade this day, when it shows itself, for a lasting impression in my mind of all of those things that I appreciate most about this place and its people. I will donate the day to a living revision of some of my favourite things.

It’s almost light enough outside to navigate the barnacle walk out to behind where the waves break, and paddle into position for the last perfect waves I will ride for a while. I crawl out of bed, collect my yoga mat and unravel it just outside my bus in which I live, on the gravel, signifying the start of my one compulsory daily ritual. My own mad scientist’s concoction of Qi Gong, Pilates and Yoga wears away gristle and grinding in my bones and muscles. A rooster, maybe two, announces that it could be any time at all. I’ve found roosters keep terrible time. I finish limbering up, swap my mat for my surf board and plaster my face in bright white zinc cream. The clown mask serves as sun protection but I wear it mostly because the smell reminds me of something, perhaps my untroubled childhood beach days. Whoever knows what the olfactory system is reminiscing about.

I walk across the gravel carpark, my most recent home, and to the start of the saw-toothed and rocky shelf that separates me from the bobbing black outlines of the few surfers who have already staked their claim in the line-up. Empty, early waves are the holy grail out here, but right now my sole focus is on hopscotching across the not yet clearly lit rock steps that will take me to the deep water behind the breakers. I can make out three surfers. They are all foreigners. The local surfers don’t tend to paddle out early — they take their time, as they do with most things they do.

Work is a minor necessity.

Not just the surfers, but all of the local villagers, avoid hurry; they avoid busy-ness. This is noticeable most when it comes to work. The idea of working all day every day is not one that has established a foothold here. The prevailing mentality is that work is done to ensure that enough food and basics are provided across the community and then, beyond that, work is a bit pointless. The remainder of the day is spent eating, napping, chatting and gossiping. Some kids go to school for a few hours a day, largely dependent on the surf conditions. Other folks like to go to church, and most have minor daily chores. I accept that I am simplifying things a bit. It is true that there are periods when more work is done, such as the high season for tourism, and even when work is done all day, depending on the rice growing cycle. But in general this is not the case.

Two hours has passed in the water and I can feel my skin on my back starting to cook. I paddle back to the shoreline to where I earlier disembarked. I can make out the shape of Billy, waiting with the barnacles, none of them competent swimmers preferring to stick to the rocks. Billy is the son of a local surf legend here, and my faithful attaché here in the bay. He likes to follow me wherever I go, telling me stories of his surfing prowess which I know to be untrue because they are the legendary tales of his father. His English is broken but decipherable. I reach the rock shelf as I hear his regular morning greeting, “Hi Miss, good afterning.” I like the way he says this and so have never corrected him. We walk across the barnacles together back to Mamma Naya’s hotel carpark and the bus, and still there is very little human activity. It’s about 9am.

I don’t expect to see much activity here for a while either. Mamma Naya’s staff are hard to identify on account of that they do about the same amount of work as non-staff — not much. After several weeks of being here, I have no idea who is on the payroll, or even if there is a payroll. They like to collect around the carpark to chat with me or each other. There always seems to be plenty to talk about. When Mamma Naya needs something done, it seems that whoever is within earshot of her, staff or not, happily get to the task. Some work is a necessity, but it is a minor one.

Work was once necessary.

Work to varying degrees has always been a necessity for humans to varying degrees, depending on the times. Before and until the Industrial Revolution (1760-1830), human toil was needed to produce food, shelter and clothing. The need for and quantity of work was driven by the desire for a more comfortable life. The comfortable life benchmark was determined by a combination of both societal and individual expectations.

With the advent of the steam engine and other production breakthroughs at the time of the industrial revolution, theoretically humans should have been able to work less, without changing our comfort benchmark. Today, only minimal human work would be necessary to produce enough for humanity. This idea seems to have caught on at Sorake Beach and in many other places that I come across in my travels. But in our culture, most people were then, and are still now, working themselves to the bone. Why? They do this because two things happened.

Firstly, the spoils resulting from increased production from the steam engine, other breakthroughs in mass production and more recent technological advances were not equitably distributed. The benefit from the production increment was funnelled into the hands of few, facilitated by the prevailing economic and political systems, while the standard of living of the vast majority remained unimproved. In fact, throughout the late 1700’s and early 1800’s in England for example the standard of living was arguably reduced. This description by Michael A. Hoffman II doesn’t really give me the feeling that progress was good for everyone:

“In the 18th century in Britain and America, the Industrial Revolution spawned the factory system whose first laborers were miserably oppressed White children as young as six years of age. They were locked in the factories for sixteen hours a day and mangled by the primitive machinery. Hands and arms were regularly ripped to pieces. Little girls often had their hair caught in the machinery and were scalped from their foreheads to the back of their necks.”[i]

Nice, huh?

This increased production could not have benefited the industrialists and the elite had there been no consumers. As production grew they needed consumption to grow with it, so the second factor was the dawn of widespread consumerism and materialism. Since then post industrial nations have single-mindedly focused on production and sales and its noxious counterpart consumerism. The beneficiaries of consumerism continue to developed economic, political and social systems and standards that persuade the consumer that he or she needs more, leaving them shackled in wage slavery in order to pay for it.

The systemic elements that keep us working:

So, what are these economic, political and social systems that are imposed on us to keep us consuming and thus working?

Inflation. The weakening of a currency’s purchasing power through money printing comes about as governments needs money for wars, paying off debt and other overspending. With more legally counterfeited money in circulation those dollars or euros you do have, become worth less. The government of Australia makes no secret, in fact it is economic policy, to reduce the value of your money by 2%-3% every year. Reducing it by any less, would signify poor performance. Typically, this money is not really even printed, it is just created out of thin air on a computer somewhere. This funny money then enters the world through the banking system. (For more, see The Federal Reserve Bank – 100 Years of Deception.)

Ancestral Psychic

Debt. Newly counterfeited money is dished out to a country’s retail banks where it finds its way to consumers via loans. When a retail bank gets $1000 from the central bank, via another computer entry, it then entitles the retail bank to loan ten times that to customers. They don’t even possess ninety percent of the fake money! This is called the fractional reserve system. This is how the credit supply grows out of nothing. Interest rates are used to attract consumers to take up the debt. People then borrow what they are allowed to borrow, effectively transforming the printed funny money into debt. This debt then needs to be serviced. That is, the benefit of borrowing money that does not actually exist needs to be paid for. Where the total amount of loan servicing dollars comes from is also thin air. Wages, paid by employers from financial facilities, also originates from this funny money magic pudding. The net effect is that total national debt continues to grow, making us obedient workers and citizens and this is exactly how the system is designed to work. (For more, see The Trap of Debt Economics.)

Propaganda. We are endlessly bombarded with propaganda and advertising by elected governments and those behind production and sales, that success is measured by monetary wealth and that consumerism is good for us. Whether it’s buy now pay later, low interest credit cards, bigger, newer and more is better or keeping up with the Joneses, we passively and continuously absorb consumerism messaging.

Why the system wants us to keep working:

Companies in all manner of industries have hugely vested interests in ensuring people continue to spend carelessly. Financial profit is their number one measurement of success and this is completely dependent on consumption. To better encourage consumers to consume, retaining as many people as possible inside the forty-hour work week is a top priority, as this is just enough time to not leave enough time for much else. Without much free time, spending on conveniences is exacerbated and things that are free, like walking, reading, sports and hobbies are ignored because the time is simply not available.

Government also are dependent on a nation of mostly obedient worker-consumers, as their yardstick of success is closely related to that of corporations, I.e. spending. Regardless of the quality of the spending, all spending contributes to this benchmark, usually called Gross Domestic Product (GDP). George Monbiot, the author of Feral [ii], fittingly surmises:

“Governments are deemed to succeed or fail by how well they make money go around, regardless of whether it serves any useful purpose. They regard it as a sacred duty to encourage the country’s most revolting spectacle: the annual feeding frenzy in which shoppers queue all night, then stampede into the shops, elbow, trample and sometimes fight to be the first to carry off some designer junk which will go into landfill before the sales next year. The madder the orgy, the greater the triumph of economic management.”

As individuals, we are conditioned to work.

This systemic conditioning now has us accordingly playing the role of worker and consumer without question, so much so that in much economic and political dialogue, instead of being referred to as people or citizens, we are referred to as workers and consumers.

And this conditioning starts from a very young age. When I was a boy I was trundled off to my first day of school in my grey uniform to start my indoctrination into standard education. As a five year old, I did not have the intellect to question why this was necessary, why I had to spend between six and eight hours for five days a week under my first set of fluorescent lights. Seated in orderly rows to receive my programming, it never occurred to me that there could be anything else. My days of running wild were, and had to be, reduced from seven to two. With high school started the standard eight-hour day, the type of day that would continue for just under thirty more years. More rules and regulations were imposed including the wearing of a tie, a blazer and high socks held up by a garter. Those things messed with my circulation. Why? The reason I was told was because I needed discipline, I had to learn to obey; to follow rules. But why? Because if you can’t follow rules how will you be a good worker? Why do I want to be a good worker, remind me? So, you can get and keep a good job, spend your able years climbing a corporate hierarchy and retire with enough money to take you through your remaining days. Right. Got it.

By the time my processing was finished I was churned out as a mostly obedient well finished work-ready standardised human unit. I was primed to be plugged in to the work-consume-sleep program for around about the next fifty years. I was allocated a two-day weekend to wind down from the last finished week and wind up for the coming week of work. I was allowed four weeks a year to recover from the other forty-eight weeks, to make sure I’ll be able to go the distance until retirement, when my real life would then be permitted to start. It sounds like some kind of sentence for a crime, doesn’t it? It would be almost twenty years before I would start to see through this disturbing charade.

What are you up to today?

Billy likes to hover around the bus in the mornings primarily because although he has already had breakfast with Cobba, he eats a second breakfast with me and sometimes a third with Mamma Naya on the other side of the carpark. I’m not really sure if he likes my sardines and eggs, it’s possible he just eats it to be courteous. I know he doesn’t appreciate the absence of rice.

“What are you up to today Billy?” I ask knowing that he’s probably up to whatever I’m up to.

He shrugs, “Don’t know, school maybe.”

School seems to be a voluntary occupation amongst the kids here. It also seems a bit voluntary amongst the teachers. I’ve seen some of the material they use for English class and it is amusingly full of spelling and grammatical errors. Students and teachers alike learn English by talking to the surfers. Perhaps they are better off not in school.

“Do you want to come visiting with me, we can take the Frisbee”

“Yes, why not,” he answers, as school is unilaterally cancelled.

Although he is an appallingly inadequate Frisbee partner, he is the best I have, and it means I can keep him at least twenty metres away from me and only periodically have to listen to his fake surfing stories. We walk along the beach, hurling the disk to each other. To any observer, it might look more like I throw it and he fetches it. We stop in on many of the folks I have come to know over the last few weeks. Most of them leisurely undertaking something that only very loosely could be called work, some already napping on their porch, all of them, if conscious call us over for a chat. I see over and again that life here is simple. I see only smiling people. I recognise that I am daily becoming a more simple and smiling person myself. I know that they may see us foreigners and covet what we have, with all our “comforts”, but I know also that they don’t quite comprehend some of the more human things that we have lost along the way.


[i] Michael A. Hoffman II. “The Forgotten Slaves: Whites in Servitude in Early America and Industrial Britain”, http://www.hoffman-info.com/forgottenslaves.html

[ii] George Monbiot. Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

About the author:

Mike Blue

Mike Blue, author of The Consumption Cleanse, is an escapee from the work-earn-consume hamster wheel. After twenty years of working in corporate finance and information technology he now lives a simple, nomadic and minimal life. Since June 2014 he has called a big blue bus named Rosie his home. That bus, which provides transport, a place to sleep, cook, contemplate and write is adrift somewhere in Sumatra, Indonesia. There is no plan and no map but a driving desire to not be bound by the status quo, to live outside of the consumption society and live in a way that prioritises physical and mental well-being, integration with the natural world and human community and creativity.

Contact Mike on Facebook.

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