Idle Hands

I’ve gone to a Colorado mountain festival called Dragonfest since 1996. It’s a Pan-Pagan gathering in the woods: a giant camp-out for five days in early August.

When the festival was started back in the 1970’s, it was much, much smaller, maybe twenty-five or thirty people, and the founders discovered the magic of shared labor — the idea that not only do many hands make light work, but that sharing the necessary work is actually a good way to have fun. It builds connection between people, it feels good, and it gets the necessities out of the way.

As the festival grew, this practice of shared labor became institutionalized as the Workshift, a two-hour duty required of all participants.

In 2001, I registered and sent in my money for Dragonfest, but then chose at the last minute to not go for entirely personal reasons (yes, it involved a woman). Come early Spring of 2002, when I was excitedly expecting news of ticket sales for the 2002 Dragonfest, I instead received a nastygram informing me that because I had failed to do my required Workshift in 2001, my registration fee would be doubled in 2002, and if I failed to do my Workshift again, I would be Banned For Life from the festival.

I wrote back to the Dragonfest Board of Directors and explained it had proven far too difficult for me to do my Workshift in 2001, given that I wasn’t there. I received a second nastygram, requesting that I prove that I had not been there.

By that point, it had become a sad farce. They eventually backed off, but the experience permanently broke something precious in my relationship with the festival; though I have continued to go, most years, it’s never been quite the same.

Entirely apart from the obvious issues with this unnecessary little drama, there has always been a deeper problem with the Workshift.

At its height, Dragonfest hosted nearly 1000 participants, and because it is a five-day event that spans a weekend, a lot of participants show up late Friday evening or Saturday morning — they have day-jobs, and many of these are jobs that don’t give them much flexibility with time off. They can — or could — even get a discounted Dragonfest “day pass” for Saturday-only attendance.

Let’s do the math.

The festival starts at 10:00 am on Wednesday, and ends at noon on Sunday. If we consider two-hour shifts scheduled from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, we have five shifts on Wednesday, six shifts on Thursday through Saturday, and two shifts on Sunday, for a grand total of twenty-five shifts.

With 1000 participants, that means we need, on average, 40 different jobs for each shift, just to ensure that everyone has a work shift (40 x 25 == 1000). But if we assume that half the people show up on Wednesday, and the other half on Friday night, we really need 62 jobs (500 people spread over 8 shifts) on Saturday and Sunday, and only 29 jobs (the other 500 people spread over 17 shifts) on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

We can debate whether we have even twenty-nine jobs that need to be done. I can get to a dozen easily, and to about eighteen if I really stretch. I can’t come up with twenty-nine, much less sixty-two.

What they do, of course, is to pad the employment rolls. All the jobs are at least doubled up — and it’s admittedly nice to have a partner for company when you’re on gate duty on a slow Thursday afternoon. Where one team could do the job, they assign six teams. Then they make up a lot of extra jobs, just to keep people busy doing something for their requisite Workshift.

Even padding the employment rolls, my experience over the years has been that if you show up late on Wednesday afternoon, most of the Workshifts (and all the most popular ones) have already been filled through Sunday. If you show up on Saturday, there’s no point in even looking for a Workshift.

There simply isn’t enough work at Dragonfest for everyone to do a two-hour Workshift.

But it gets even more interesting: there’s a perpetual and simmering resentment between the Operations Committee, and the general attendance.

Organizing an event for 1000 people is not trivial: there’s contracting with the site, arranging for porta-potties, notifying the county sheriff (in case someone has a heart attack and needs to be airlifted out), and I’m sure a long list of legal niceties to be negotiated. There are festival events to coordinate, fliers to print, tickets to sell, money to collect, signed waivers to cross-check, websites to maintain.

Infrastructure expands to accommodate more people and provide for their safety and comfort. For instance, in the early days, people chopped wood and made fires at night, but that was only two dozen people huddled around one fire. With forty times that many people, combined with pine beetle kill and severe fire danger in the Colorado mountains, we found that propane fire rings were safer and actually more enjoyable (all fire, no smoke). So as a safety measure for the whole community, as well as the surrounding forests, the organizers started to provide propane fire rings for the big circles. Infrastructure expands.

There is, in short, a whole lot of coordinated and specialized preparatory work that has to go into making the festival happen at all. There is also tear-down after the festival is over. Finally, there is the “authority-based” work during the festival: work to be done by the people who will step forward when someone says, “Who’s in charge here?” People-in-charge who get pestered at all hours of the day (and night) for instructions on how to handle this situation, how to deal with that individual, how to take a piss in the dark.

They call this collection of people who do this work the “Operations Committee,” and they’re always hungry for volunteers. I worked setup/teardown one year: two ten-hour days of hard physical labor: a very poor exchange for the dubious privilege of getting first-pick on prime campsites a day early.

Ops doesn’t get to enjoy Dragonfest very much, particularly those who are officially (or unofficially) on duty through the festival. So there’s a definite opportunity for them to resent the “lazy” people who just pay their fee, show up, and want to unwind in good company for five days. The required Workshift becomes, not a sharing of the necessary work — most of the necessary work is already done, or can’t be done until everyone has gone home — but instead a kind of surrogate punishment.

If I have to work twelve-hour days at Dragonfest, the least you can do is your damn two-hour Workshift, and not whine about it.” I’ve heard those resentful words many times, in many variations, from people who served on Ops. Since the Workshift is now a punishment, it’s resented by the general attendance. All the magic of shared work is gone.

Authority eventually passes into the hands of individuals who value process over people, and power over service, and tradition over common sense, and the simmering resentment boils over.

Then you get Banned for Life for missing your Workshift.

Now, I’m not really bashing Dragonfest. I’m observing a microcosmic example of something we are all living right now, on a much broader scale.

There isn’t enough profitable work in the US for full employment.

This statement turns around the word “profitable.” There is plenty of needful work. But one of the peculiarities of our time and culture is that we will neglect prudent, and sometimes even necessary work, in order to pursue frivolities that are profitable.

People complain about this from time to time. “Children are starving in America!” they cry, “We spend next to nothing on them, but spend billions to put violent comic books on the big screen in the movie theaters.”

People go through all kinds of mental and moral yoga positions trying to justify this. “Movies give people hope!” they say, or something equally inane.

The reason we make movies, and we don’t feed starving children, is quite simple — we make movies because they are profitable, and we don’t feed starving children because it is not profitable.

What does that even mean? Profitable?

In our current economic system, profitability hinges on two things: marketability, and ownership. The thing must be sold in a marketplace for more than it cost to produce it, and it must be owned by a person, or a corporate shell pretending to be a person. The fiction of ownership is what allows the owner to legally pocket the difference between the cost of production (which includes all the actual labor performed by other people), and the selling price, which is called profit.

Movies are owned by the copyright holder, and viewings can be sold. Movies are profitable.

Starving children are economically useless. You can’t own or sell them, at least not since the fourteenth amendment to the US Constitution; you can’t exploit them as cheap labor, due to child-labor laws; and you can’t make any money feeding them, because they haven’t got any money — that’s why they’re starving — and no one else has any economic interest in seeing them fed. Starving children are not profitable.

So banal movies are made, and starving children suffer brain damage from malnutrition and eventually die. [Of course, they don’t actually die, because the thieving government steps in and spends the profit it has stolen from the rightful owners through taxation, and wastes it on handouts to the starving children. Surely it’s better that they die and rid the world of surplus population. — the Ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge]

It’s the way our system works.

A brief check of the Internet shows that there are around 150 million non-farm payroll jobs in the US. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows only about 750 thousand agricultural jobs in the US, less than one million. So roughly half the US population (of 300 million) has no work, and no prospect of work. All positions have been filled.

About 23% of the population is under 18 years of age, and they are supposed to have parents who cover for them by working extra Workshifts. About 14% is over 65, and they are supposed to have worked enough Workshifts to cover their remaining years, with any excess years falling upon their children, or spread across the entire working population through Social Security.

That leaves about 13% who are Banned for Life. “Lazy bums” who finished last in our economic game of musical chairs.

You all remember that game, don’t you? Ten people circle around nine chairs while the music plays, and when the music stops, they all scramble for the chairs: one person ends up on the floor. That person is Banned for Life, a chair is removed, and the game resumes with nine people and eight chairs. This continues until there is only one person seated, who wins cake.

I cannot think of a more perfect metaphor for mercantile capitalism.

In fact, it can’t work any other way. In the 14th century, at the very start of mercantile capitalism in Europe, people hit a little speed bump called The Black Death, which resulted in massive agricultural labor shortages. The traditional system of hereditary serfs working the land broke down, and the land was instead worked by paid farmers, who — since there were too few of them — charged high prices. It broke the feudal system of Lords and serfs in half, and put wind under the wings of the merchant class.

If there are labor shortages — too many jobs — workers can demand higher wages, and the profit that the owner can put in his pocket from their labor shrinks. Eventually, if wages keep climbing, the business becomes unprofitable, and the owners close the doors.

If there is a labor surplus — too few jobs — workers compete with each other, and wages stay low. That makes businesses profitable, and so the owners pursue those businesses.

There can never be enough profitable businesses to employ everyone. If there were, workers would stop competing with each other, and would demand higher wages. The profit that goes into the owners’ pockets would vanish, and they would shut down some of the businesses, resulting in fewer jobs and the desired competition among workers.

It’s the way our system works.

I shrug when I say that, because there have been a great many ways of approaching wealth and labor, and our way isn’t inherently any worse than, say, being a subject (property) of the Emperor, who could decide on a whim that he needed one more rower for his galleys, and you — yes, you! — were chosen. I’ve recently been reading about the Khans, and while they had in some ways an extraordinarily fair system of government, especially under Genghis, you really didn’t want to be one of the conquered slaves who didn’t have some mad skills that Genghis admired.

But our system, good, bad, or indifferent, is coming to an end.

It isn’t something I’ve seen any economists take into account: the vast pools of natural wealth we’ve been consuming at an ever-increasing rate for five centuries, to support the concept of economic growth.

Let me propose a business for you. I will take money, burn it, and flush it down the toilet: I claim this will show a profit. The way I do this is by withdrawing — from a virtually bottomless bank account that I never talk about, and that you never think about — exactly five percent more money than I burn and flush. So if I flush $100, I withdraw $105, and at the end of my “business cycle,” I have shown a profit of $5.

So long as my bottomless bank account remains bottomless, this will continue to work. The problem comes when my bottomless account hits bottom; when I try to withdraw $105, and I get $35 and change. Uh-oh.

The endless bank account for our global economy is Nature — our natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable. It is hitting bottom, and right at about the same time that our waste products, particularly CO2, are reaching hazardous levels.

I’m not sure economists have even looked at what happens to mercantile capitalism when the endless bank account of Nature starts bouncing checks. If they’ve considered it seriously at all, I think the only phrase they would use to describe it — economically — is The End Of The World.

For the rest of us, it’s just the end of capitalism. But that is going to raise some interesting issues.

The one that I’m thinking about at the moment is the question of what happens when a really, really large portion of the population is perpetually unemployed, as a permanent feature of life.

There’s a short view, and a longer view.

In the short view, it’s going to kill a lot of people. Not so much because they’ll starve because there’s no food, but because they’ll lose the will to live without work. We’ve been trained for so long, and so deeply, to equate self-worth with work, that a lot of workers, especially the older, established ones, will turn to alcohol and give up. I think that will be the swan song of my generation, or whatever generation is in play when this finally plays out.

Subsequent generations are going to have different attitudes, toward capitalism, toward work-as-virtue, and toward deciding what is worth doing.

The longer view is a lot fuzzier.

To see what this might look like, we can’t go back to rural America — that is an artifact of the early twentieth-century. Nor can we go back to the colonial plantations and farms, which were nineteenth century artifacts. There is no European influence in the Americas that was not under the sway of the ideas of mercantile capitalism. We have to go outside our modern Western tradition: to the native tribes and nations of the Americas; to Shogunate Japan; to the Visigoths or the Romans or the Celts; to the Mongols; to the empires of China; to the villages and cities of India.

When you do that, you start to realize something shocking: that there has never been a people on the face of the earth that has worked so hard for so little real happiness, as our own.




This entry was posted in General.

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