Where is the horse? (Who pays for it all? The fallacy of economics.)
The engineer explains to the peasant exactly where the steam goes and how it moves through the engine and so on. And the peasant says: ‘Yes, I understand all that, but where is the horse?’
— MIT physicist Victor Weisskopf
When I try to explain to the proverbial common man in the street why we need to promote adventure sports and get rid of the ‘work ethic’, nationalism (‘patriotism’), and religion, I come up against the religion of uncritical conformity. (“Who would pay for it?”) These folk are as aware as I am that automation has largely eliminated the need for human labour in providing the essentials for human existence. So their apparent inability to comprehend this idea is not caused by lack of intelligence or lack of knowledge. It seems to me that it is caused by a fear of being different from the norm.
The four-day work week is a reality in over 360 companies, and some firms are already exploring the idea of a three-day week.
— Editorial of Life magazine, September 3, 1971
Can such a fear block reason in the intelligent mind? I suspect that it can. In Star Wars, 1977, by George Lucas, the android R2D2 was provided with a ‘locking bar’ that prevented him from recalling a secret message to be displayed (as a holographic moving projection) to General Obiwan Kenobi (until he was in the presence of the general, presumably). An allegory of the mental mechanism, I suspect.
Devotion to nationalism, the work ethic, and pseudo-speciation of all kinds seems especially prevalent in provincial Britain where, when I moved there from London in the 1960s, the main driver of behaviour was a fear of being labeled abnormal. (I was told that, until recent times, the population of the countryside suffered a high rate of birth defects. If you add to that the confusion of the differing medical and statistical usage of normality, perhaps such fear is understandable.)
The tables are crowded with American civilian construction engineers, men getting $30,000 a year from their jobs on government contracts and matching that easily on the black market. Their faces have the look of aerial photos of silicon pits, all hung with loose flesh and visible veins. Their mistresses were among the prettiest, saddest girls in Vietnam.
— Michael Herr, Dispatches, 1977. ($30,000 in 1970 is equivalent to $199,000 in 2020.)
If we are to evolve into a proverbial race of ‘brave men and beautiful women’ (a simplification of humanity’s varied talents obviously) living in equally proverbial sunny uplands, we need to replace war as the arena where men demonstrate their right stuff with action sports. That project was well underway when I was at school in the late 1960s and early 1970s (when every normal boy wanted to be an astronaut or motorcycle racer).
I recall one teacher telling us that, because of the automation of the means of production, we were the first generation in history that would never need to suffer a five-day working week. (A popular joke was the story of the manager who announced to the gathered work force that, from that day on they need only turn up on one day a week. Instead of the expected cheer, a voice pipes up from the back, “What, every week?”) Young men would compete for the attentions of young women in the realms of sports, science, art, and literature.
I recently (2013) discovered that Buckminster Fuller was also on board:
We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist.
—Buckminster Fuller (1970) from Wikiquote.
I merely accepted all that as obvious. (Was I guilty of uncritical conformity?) Had I looked around me at my schoolmates, I might have realized that the masses would not be as keen on such a world as I am.
Indeed, a radical reaction has characterized attitudes in the west since the 1970s. Perhaps its root cause lies in modern man’s recent evolutionary past, maybe post-agricultural revolution, as hinted at by a fellow I met while working as an unskilled manual labourer in a machine shop in 2000 to 2001:
He was unable to resist sounding out political opinion among his workmates. “No, you’re simply wrong,” said one, who described himself as a working class intellectual. “More free time would be disastrous. You think it would enable the people to engage in the pursuit of sport, art, literature and science, like you do in your free time. It wouldn’t. It would enable the people to pursue car boosting, smoking, drinking and doing drugs, same as we do in our free time. Hard labour and the controlling influence of television are the only effective ways of regulating our population. You’re of a different race. Yet, probably because you have approximately the same skin colour as us, you think that by adjusting the education system you can make us be like you. You can’t.”
(—From my still unpublished novel…)
When I was at the Polytechnic of Wales (1977-9) one of the many self-styled ‘working class’ students said this to me in one of our periodic conflicts:
“You’re an individual and I respect that. But we’re not individuals. We’re a class.”
That particular conflict arose from a motion proposed at the Students’ Union annual general meeting. The proposal was that, when a woman/girl denies sex to a working class male, she is denying him his ‘birthright’. (The committee chairman stated that, while he sympathised with the idea, they could not even accept it as a motion to put to the vote because it interferes too strongly with the individual’s ‘rights of self-determination’.) Some of this was of course just students letting off steam. However, there was a hard-core of red-faced haters of individualism. Their spokesmen were articulate and polite, but there was no bridging the gulf between my view of how human life should be and theirs.
And here is something I heard on the radio in late 2010 that reinforces my suspicion that the self-styled working class might be drawn from a segment of human evolution that created a different form of consciousness, albeit within the same species. It was a radio talk that assumes wealth (‘class’) rather than genes drives learning behaviour (of course differences in private wealth play their part too, which is why in the early 1970s we were going to abolish private wealth) but it makes interesting listening nonetheless:
In the 1950s the socio-linguist Basil Bernstein argued that working class and middle class people communicate on such entirely different terms that the former were automatically disadvantaged by an education system which valued abstract reasoning over the affirmation of shared experience.
—from Wall in the Mind by Lynsey Hanley (episode 1, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on November 10th and again on November 14th, 2010)
I fear that education is not the root cause of the prevalence of abstract reasoning predominating in some minds and ‘the affirmation of shared experience’ predominating in others. Like most things behavioural, it is largely genetic. I suspect that it is, therefore, the result of differing natural histories of distinct human sub-races that have converged only recently (in an evolutionary time scale).
He expected the villein to bring him the tithe of his crops, a proportion of the yield of his wretched industries, the virginity of his female children.
— from Verdun, The Battle by Jules Romains, 1963
Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists.
— John Kenneth Galbraith, 1908-2006, Canadian-born American economist
Blade runner blues (language and consciousness)
Generation BMX, a socioeconomic comparison of my generation with generation X and Generation Z