Unemployment: Victory or Defeat in a Progressive Society

[Note: This paper was presented to the World Future Society General Assembly in Washington D.C. in April 1975 and published in the Spring of 1976 in The Renaissance Universal Journal.

No attempt has been made to update it to reflect the now more enlightened way of expressing gender, nor to include new issues such as the global economy, immigration etc. What has been added are some observations brought about by the recession/depression that made its debut in 2008. See addendum at the end.

Don C. Marler

In the United States of America today several revolutions (sexual, technological, social, economic and work) seem to be occurring at once. Perhaps the revolution occurring in work presents more difficult adaptation problems than any other revolution. Consequently, there is need for a new work ethic—for a new philosophy of work. This piece will look at some of the current philosophy and suggest a new direction for the development of a future philosophy. Work, as used here, means the production of goods and services by human effort.

There was a time in the U.S. when the labor of every able-bodied person was needed. The very survival of the new nation was dependent upon the maximum production of each individual. The philosophy that virtue was inherent in work was well suited to the economic and social demands of the time. The usefulness of this philosophy was destroyed, however, by the burst of technology following World War II. In our anxiety about the burst we reinforced the old philosophy and declared a moratorium on developing a new one. We reinforced the myth that there is virtue in work by our insistence that the government or society provide jobs for everyone.

American society still ignores the fact that not all the workforce is needed to produce an over abundance of goods and services.   Thus it continues its policy of trying to reach full employment, while the population explosion swells the workforce and automation takes its toll of jobs. Feather bedding, shorter work hours and weeks, and early compulsory retirement are all evidence of our evasion of the fact that not all the workforce is needed. Our insistence upon keeping income tied to work while ignoring widespread unemployment and underemployment has resulted in more than twenty percent of the U.S. population being exiled from the abundant economy.1 Also, this part of the population is (according to our philosophy) without virtue. Our insistence upon there being virtue inherent in work has defeated public assistance programs from farm subsidy programs to aid to dependent children and aid to the disabled. These individuals are sometimes freed from poverty only to be condemned by society as un-virtuous citizens.

Robert Theobald, following the cue provided by Galbraith, suggests that the concept of an economy based on scarcity of goods and services should be abandoned in favor of an economy based on an abundance of goods and services and the potential for an over abundance. This abundance, he believes, is present in the U.S. today and is at the door of Europe and eventually the rest of the world.2 An economy based on scarcity can work, Theobald says, if there is scarcity and “real scarcity has been abolished on a worldwide basis. Therefore, the barriers to change throughout the world are not primarily economic but social and cultural.”3 Former Secretary General of the United Nations, U-Thant, concurs: “The central stupendous truth about developed economies today is that they can have–in anything but the shortest run—the kind and scale of resources they decide to have…It is no longer resources that limit decisions. It is the decision that makes the resources.”4

Theobald believes that in order to take advantage of the abundance created by the technological revolution there must be a break in the link between jobs and income. “A due income from government should be given as an absolute constitutional right.” 5 The government, he believes, has a responsibility to provide an economic floor under each individual in society based not on the implications of underserved income from an overgenerous government to individuals who are inadequate, but based on the implication that society has responsibility for ensuring that no member lives below certain standards because he lacks purchasing power.6 When income is a constitutional right, man is relatively free from socioeconomic determinants of behavior. This freedom will lead to freedom to choose the kind of work or work activities in which one will engage.

We have been so completely absorbed by the means of production of goods and services and the means of income distribution, we have not seen clearly the end for which the means were developed. As McLuhan 7 suggests, we have moved from the mechanical to the electric age. Circuitry, given enough time, will provide the solution to the problem of means of producing goods and services. As the solution is found and applied, the individual and society’s commitment to human work will weaken.  “In the United States, since the turn of the century alone, the society’s measurable commitment to work has plummeted by nearly a third.”8 Further, as Toffler suggests, a new kind of organization worker is emerging. He is uncommitted to any organization; his main interest being in solving problems which interest him. He is committed to his career. He may be the fulfillment of Sebastian de Gazia’s statement that work becomes prostitution “the bending of the mind and body for hire.”9

The end is no longer only production of goods and services that meet immediate physical needs, but those that meet emotional and psychological needs as well. Increasingly products and how to use them and not the act of producing will provide emotional gratification. We have confused ends and means in the area of work. This confusion has led to our assigning to work an enormous function in our society. Lafargue satirically illustrates this point: “Our moralists are very modest people. If they invented the dogma of work, they still have doubts of its efficacy in tranquilizing the soul, rejoicing the spirit, and maintaining the proper functioning of the entrails and other organs.” 10

When the confusion between means and ends is cleared up, machines will be allowed to take over production and man will be freed from performing as a beast of burden. The function of the machine will be to produce goods and services. Man will be free to use the machine’s products for his satisfaction.

Galbraith, Theobald and many others in recent times have provided the beginning of much needed revolutionary thinking about human work. The goal they seek, an economic floor under every person, is as admirable as their proposals for reaching it are imaginative. This goal is made difficult to reach because it is not underscored by a broader philosophy. Society is not ready to accept the bare proposal of a guaranteed income; it is not ready to establish this as a national goal.  What is needed is a face saving goal of national proportions that could command the backing of the masses. What is needed is a goal or end that is palatable; then we can speak of means more intelligently. Since introduction of such a goal is the primary purpose of this piece, it should be done without further ado.

We should set as our goal that we will explicitly strive to eliminate the necessity for human work. Of course, this is an unreachable end, but once it becomes a national goal of society, we can move toward it with purpose. Presently we are moving in that direction with much reluctance, guilt and suffering. Once this philosophy is accepted, we can abolish feather bedding, we can subsidize dependent children, dependent farmers, the sick and poor without labeling them un- virtuous. When income is divorced from work, these persons can accept unemployment as part of society’s plan. They will become an integral part of society, assisting it in reaching its goal, instead of remaining a separate unworthy segment.

Currently, we are struggling against the trend toward a decreasing percentage of the work force producing all the goods and services. This piece advocates consciously accepting this trend as movement toward our goal. Acceptance of these ideas would lead to a more rational approach to the employment-unemployment problem. We could plan for the machine to take over the work of man. Human dignity was enhanced when man was replaced at the front of the plow by the oxen and horse. Perhaps the crown to humanity’s dignity will be its replacement by the machine.

Unemployment should be viewed not as an unintended consequence of cybernation, but as an opportunity to move a step away from the jungle. But in order for it to be truly a step away from the jungle of economic survival, there must be a basic philosophy that will allow men to be willing and eager to let the machine do their work; willing to separate income from work and willing to risk their virtue. If men can muster the courage to throw off the shackles of the old philosophy and develop one relevant to this century, unemployment will be seen as a success in a progressive society.

One of the persistent questions with which Americans seem to be preoccupied is what will be the effect of the guaranteed income (freedom from the necessity of work) on the incentive to work. Even Eveline Burns, who is probably the oldest and most persistent advocate, is troubled by this question.11 It is only in quite recent times that well formulated answers to this question are being proposed.

Erich Fromm answered the question of the effect of a guaranteed income on the incentive to work in his assertion that man’s motives toward work are varied; there are more forces attracting him to work than monetary income alone. He believes that “a psychology of scarcity produces anxiety, envy, egotism …, a psychology of abundance produces initiative, faith in life, solidarity.”12

A negative force propelling man toward work is the self-assessment he will have to undergo if he is freed from the necessity of work. He will eventually have to ask himself such questions as: what is the meaning of life? What do I believe? What are my values? Who am I?13

Schwartz believes there is some clinical evidence to support that “mature individuals strive to be productive,” but he discusses ways a work incentive plan can be incorporated into the proposal of a guaranteed income. He concludes that there is no proof that there will be an adverse effect on incentive to work.14

All these attempts to answer the question of the effect of guaranteed income on incentive to work, progressive and far reaching as they are, miss the basic point. The answer implicit in this philosophy is simply that as human work becomes unnecessary, the incentive for human work also becomes unnecessary.

The “whiplash of hunger” has not been an unmixed blessing. It is true that we do not know precisely what man’s final response will be when the lash is stilled, but we do know that he has survived an almost fifty percent cut in hours he works per week.

In conclusion, it seems safe to say that if we are to avoid the “future shock” Toffler speaks about so powerfully; we must build in shock absorbers. This will take ingenuity, boldness and consciousness of what is happening to us; it will take planning; it will require using rather than fighting the electronic age. If we are to avoid the shock of an abundance of leisure time in the future, we must now become intimate with the leisure we have.

Addendum – 10/10/10

The above article was presented in 1975. Now after 35 more years of observation of the situation, especially the advances in robotic capabilities, increases in world population and explosion of corporate misbehavior, it seems that an addendum is in order.

Just over a hundred fifty years ago the world, especially the U.S, was in a great debate over whether labor should be owned or hired. The proponents of hiring narrowly won the debate in the American Civil War. In some Muslim countries the other side of the debate won-labor is owned.

Today in the United States we have almost come full circle with unusual twists in the narrative; indeed now much more is at stake than freedom of slaves  — important as that was. Unchecked capitalism is becoming its own worst enemy. Corporations are driving capitalism away from the individual capitalists, including the worker who tries to live by its philosophy. The capitalistic worker is being abandoned by corporate driven capitalism. The worker is increasingly irrelevant as a producer of goods and services.  Corporate capitalism now increasingly owns its labor – ie. Robots and other automated machines.

Several forces at work creating a perfect storm in this debate are:

  1. an exponentially expanding work force,
  2. relocation of corporate facilities to countries where cheap labor resides,
  3. cheap purchase (or rent) of lawmakers who will do the bidding of corporations. These                                        are “Vending Machine” lawmakers — put your money in, press the button reflecting your choice and watch the desire of you heart appear. There is a wide variety of choices ranging from making exploitation of natural resources risk free by having taxpayers pick up the tab and suffer other environmental and economic consequences, to corrupting, taking over and destroying the democratic process, and
  4. replacement of human labor by corporate owned labor;automated robots and machinery.

It is the last of these forces that has brought us full circle. Corporations are now on a clear path to owning labor. It is this development that is running headlong into the philosophy of capitalism. This collision, once as slow in coming as the Teutonic Plates, has increased its pace with the creation of the computer.

The philosophy of capitalism was once needed as the engine propelling the struggle with nature, poverty, hunger and disease. The philosophy always had dangerous elements such as greed, ruthlessness, and corruption, but these were kept under some semblance of control due largely to corporate dependence on human labor. As that dependence lessens and corporations learn to exploit the tremendous potential of the powerful computers only they can afford, the implicitly harmful elements of capitalism rise in proportion.

Meanwhile, in the United States the increasingly abandoned human laborer is suffering because of unemployment for some and un-employability for others. The uncomfortable truth is that not all the available workforce is needed and never will be again. It is this truth as it encounters capitalistic philosophy that causes our confusion.

In the United States the capitalistic philosophy has been integrated into Christianity and the Hebrew religions; there is virtue, if not outright salvation, in human work. In early America the labor of everyone was needed – so the capitalistic philosophy served us well. Now that the necessity for human work is in decline we are confused and afraid.

Ironically, the corporate development of automated means of producing goods and services presents perhaps the most important opportunity for the advancement of human kind in the history of the world. It means that machines can now do the work and free mankind from the necessity of working.

Even now we can see as through a glass darkly that the new corporate mechanized workforce will be idled unless we find an effective way to divorce income from human work. Under our predominantly capitalistic system income is tied to work with the unholy trinity of politics, religion and tradition.

Stopping the mechanization process is not the answer to the problem. Bad corporate behavior has delivered a mortal blow to democracy and capitalism. The captains of industry have seized control of the government and now increasingly of labor. In a frenzy of gorging their greed glands, so to speak, they have become concerned only with short-term gains. If income remains tied to work, and there is no work, the consumer will have no means of purchase and the machines and robots will be slowed to idle speed.

Our capitalistic philosophy has become ossified; it is no longer flexible enough to meet the changing reality of a modern world. It need not be abandoned, but to survive long term it must be tempered with governmental restrictions on greed, deceit, and criminal activity. As this is written the corporate enterprise has a stranglehold on the nation’s lawmakers and the nation.


  1. Robert Theobald, Free Men and Free Markets (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1963), p.20.
  2. Ibid., p. 24
  3. Ibid., p. 187.
  4. Quoted in Harvey Cox, The Secular City (New York: Macmillan, 1965),p.184.
  5. Theobald, op.cit., p. 145.
  6. Ibid., pp. 146-147.
  7. Marshall McLuhan, “Guaranteed Income in the Electric Age,” The Guaranteed Income, ed. Robert Theobald (New York: Doubleday, 1965), pp. 185-197.
  8. Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Random House, 1970), p.289.
  9. Sebastian de Garzia, Of Time, Work and Leisure (New York: The Twentieth Century Fund, 1962), p. 387.
  10. Paul Lafargue, “The Right To Be Lazy,” Mass Leisure, ed. Eric Larrabee and Rolf Meyerson (Glencoe, Ill: Free Press, 1958), p. 115.
  11. Eveline M. Burns. “The Poor Need Money,” The Nation, LL (June 7, 1965), p. 140.
  12. Eric Fromm. “The Psychological Effect of Guaranteed Income, The Guaranteed Income ed. Robert Theobald, (New York: Doubleday, 1965), p. 176.
  13. Ibid. , p. 177.
  14. Edward E. Schwartz, “A Way To End the Means Test,” Social Work, IX (July, 1964), p. 9.

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