Work, exploitation, and wealth

We need a real conversation about the opportunity The Great Pause has given us and why people are working differently.

We are not dealing with a labor shortage. We are experiencing people’s inevitable refusal to continue to participate in a system of exploitation after the perspective and eyeopening that comes from a forced pause. Civilization and it’s required habits — especially the ones that are necessary for it’s economic propagation — have a momentum. But that momentum is allergic to inspection. Perhaps the most important long-term consequence of The Great Pause is a consequent great eyeopening: the fundamental questioning of the habits required sustain our modern economy.

Modern capitalism requires people to acquiesce to our own exploitation. We need to be willing to subsume our most important principles and priorities to work, to accepting that our value in society is primarily defined by our productivity as an input of labor for the creation of wealth that largely accrues to others. But The Pause allowed us the space (and frankly the emotional disruption in the form of uncertainty and anxiety) to question things that we have accepted as foundational givens for generations. And with open eyes, a blind return to those habits feels intolerable.

Our wealth engine is experiencing a shortage of humans to exploit. What society is experiencing are the consequences of a shortage of empathy. A shortage of systems meant to enable people to care for themselves and their communities first. Systems, policies, and culture that enable and encourage people to use their talents and efforts in service of what inspires them — not to work in service of other’s wealth. People crave the opportunity to spend their efforts in service of a calling, to embrace the flow of being in a zone of purpose, creativity, and realization. People don’t lack motivation or willingness: people are questioning not being enabled to use their talents and effort in service of their own realization and their communities. What we do have a profound shortage of are systems of care. A shortage of support for families. A shortage of care and concern for our elders. The “labor shortage”, the “great resignation” are frames that fit the habit, narratives that support the expectations of a system of exploitation we’ve relied on to drive the economic growth that civilization demands but that turns out to be terrible for people.

While that system remains intact, we should definitively and extensively invest our shortages of support for people, families, and communities. We should provide paid leave, child care, increase minimum wages, and invest in housing, transportation, and food systems that free people and increase access to reduce the cruelty of the system. Not doing those things is 100% a commitment to wealth over people. We should do these things (and more) immediately. But we should not fool ourselves into considering those efforts to ameliorate the cruelty of our base system as transformative. These policies do not transform that system. We aren’t asking society to reimagine how we use our resources, the purpose of wealth, the assumptions of our social contract, or the expectations of our commitment to each other. We aren’t inviting people to work differently: we are simply making our exploitation less painful, more manageable. True transformation will actually reduce the exploitation and shift the systemic priorities from profit to human realization. We may not be sure what to do to make that possible. We may not have the resources not to return to our current systems on some terms, but we are not going to accept the same terms as before The Great Pause. The shift, the new demands that are disrupting the wealth engine are attempts to question the habits. We are seeing our exploitation for what it has always been. The stories civilization tells us about our value are breaking down.

Our eyes are open — we can’t unsee it.