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Progress & Phenomenology, Part 3
Hi, I’m Oshan. This newsletter explores topics around emancipatory social science, consciousness studies, & together, the worlds they might weave. This is the second of three installments from my larger essay, Progress and Phenomenology: Value Is Vitality.
The story so far: value is not price, but the enactment of vitality in living systems. Markets fail to invest in forms of value that resist pricing, and so, chronically underinvest in vitality. One strategy to expand the scope of value production is to expand the ways society provisions resources, stretching beyond markets alone. But how, specifically?
One piece of this puzzle is unconditionality.
What Is Unconditionality?
In part II, I gave a list of alternative ways a society can provision resources:
Public goods and infrastructure (law enforcement, open source software, transportation and communications infrastructure)
Public enterprises that offer affordable alternatives to market prices (public housing, transit, education, and utilities)
Managing resources as commons (lobster fisheries in Maine, irrigation systems in New Mexico, community forests in Nepal, Wikipedia)
Unconditional cash transfers (basic income, child allowances, baby bonds)
Universal social policies (free at point-of-access services like universal healthcare, public transit, college)
There is a common thread running through each of these alternatives. This thread is the basis of unconditionality:
the key dynamic is to reduce the average amount of one’s life-time that must be exchanged via labor markets to access the necessary resources for a dignified life.
Put differently, unconditionality reduces ‘socially necessary labor time’. The more resources you receive without requiring something in exchange, the less you must exchange in order to close the gap between your current resources and the average baseline of economic okay-ness.
Simplified, it looks like this:
Handouts Are Society’s Promise
To preempt critics, yes, unconditionality is a fancy word for a ‘handout’. I’m claiming that as a society, we’re under-indexed on handouts. Further investment in handouts could help realign the relationship between progress and actually improving phenomenology.
Because remember, everyone already gets handouts. Already existing public goods are handouts. Public education is a handout. Roads are handouts. Wikipedia is a handout. Child tax credits are handouts. Government bailouts of large corporations, or too-big-to-fail banks, are handouts. With a few caveats, interest earned on capital investment is basically a handout. The appreciation of land value is a handout.
Handouts are among the most miraculous of society’s capabilities. The very idea of society is sort of built on the premise that if we join together, we benefit more than if we’d simply live on our own. Individuals cannot provide themselves with handouts. But a society makes them possible, and this is pretty awesome.
The political economist Henry George even defines ‘progress’ as, I’d argue, an accumulation of handouts: “progress goes on as the advances made by one generation are…secured as the common property of the next”.
Handouts are Dividends For All
What is the difference between a handout and a dividend? Very little, actually, except for initial resources. Dividends are self-funded handouts, with risk sprinkled atop. Dividends require that you own some initial resources to invest. The risk your investment takes on is then compensated by dividends. Handouts pay no attention to your initial position.
Unconditionality treats being a member of society as one’s initial resource. You don’t start at zero, but as an equal owner in the social venture, which for generations, has produced resources and capabilities that accumulate a greater stock of initial resources, cemented as George’s “common property of the next”.
Unconditionality is the dividends these resources pay.
What Does Unconditionality Do?
So unconditionality – the common stock of dividends every citizen receives as a co-owner of the social venture – directly reduces socially necessary labor time, expanding the scope of possible behaviors and forms of life people are free to enact. In particular, this expansion allows people to enact forms of life – and sources of value – that extend beyond prices.
The less of your life-time circumscribed by the imperative to exchange – whether your time on the labor market, or the fruits of your creative labor on Etsy – the wider your scope of possibility grows, and the more free you are to follow intrinsic motivation.
I want to dwell on this for a moment – the consequences of unconditionality shrinking the amount of one’s life-time that must operate within the constraint of being exchanged. The imperative to behave in a way that generates exchange value, whether working a job, or producing something to later be sold, introduces a subtle but profound shift.
Time spent within the sphere of exchange already has a destination charted out. Whatever you do, it must ultimately wind up within the sphere of someone else’s idea of value, which exists through the market. For example, your employer’s, or your customers’.
This changes how that time might be spent. No longer is time an open-ended exploration, free to wander into unseen possibilities or ambiguous territories. Instead, this time must navigate towards an already-existing endpoint, as defined by someone else and communicated via the market.
Reducing socially necessary labor time is to shrink the amount of one’s life-time that necessity subjects to this dynamic. It is to detach time-use from the necessity for predefined outcomes, opening to more illegible explorations. If you don’t need to convert your time back into some normalized measurement so as to facilitate exchange, things can get a little more…weird.
You can find value in relishing the crisp breeze along a leisurely walk. Or in spending time with your lonely and aging grandmother. Or in writing newsletters about weird topics like socially necessary labor time. Or birdwatching, or inventing, or tinkering, or reading, or laughing.
All of these can internally register as value if they aren’t forced to produce any form of value that can be exchanged. But the moment your time-use must fit into and produce a form of value that gets externally registered as valuable, the scope of what you can do, of what counts as value, shrinks dramatically.
This is what the social philosopher André Gorzpicks out as the main feature of unconditionality, embodied in his example of guaranteed income:
“In short, the guaranteed income should make possible all those activities that take place outside of markets, accounting and prescribed norms which are not themselves - and do not produce anything - exchangeable for anything else, or anything measurable or convertible into its monetary equivalent. This is why the principle of unconditionality is important - it has to remove the intrinsic value of unmeasurable activities from any social prescription and predefinition.”
To “remove the intrinsic value of unmeasurable activities from any social prescription and predefinition” is to prevent them from needing to be priced. To operate – that is, to spend time – within the sphere of generating exchangeable value is to subject the quality those actions to social prescription and predefinition.
The philosopher Brian Massumi writes of capital as a casing that envelops life-time, capturing and economizing life activity, channeling vitality towards particular actions that are friendly to the generation of profit:
“Capital…concerns time as the qualitative interval priming the actualization of potential…As such, it captures the future of vitality: life’s qualitatively-in-the-making. It captures life potential…When capitalism internalizes the difference between quality and quantity and counts it as profit, it monetizes the intervals of life-time feeding its formal operations. It economizes life activity…Life activity is channeled toward modes of existence and manners of relation propitious for the generation of profit.”
I’m not sure it’s capitalism, exactly, that forms this casing. Instead, socially necessary labor time seems the more fitting culprit. A society with sufficient provisions to reduce socially necessary labor time to 20 hours per week could still be configured in a way we might call capitalism. On Massumi’s own view, capital is the potential for accumulation. I wonder to what degree capitalism can be transformed to drive the accumulation of vitality, instead of prices.
How Much Unconditionality?
Since society already provisions a number of unconditional resources, wherever you fall on it, the question isn’t a binary yes or no to the prospect of unconditionality, but how much? More unconditionality, or less?
Presently, we provision enough unconditional resources in the U.S. such that the equilibrium struck is around 40 hours per week of socially necessary labor time. The least interesting argument to make at this point – which is nevertheless the one I see the most often – is that dropping that number to 0, by fully automating society or whatever, would be bad, and therefore we shouldn’t try to reduce labor time at all.
I find it neither viable, nor desirable, to abruptly shift from a socially necessary labor time of 40 hours per week to 0. That just isn’t on the table with any degree of economic, political, or cultural viability in the near future.
What I do find fascinating, compelling, feasible, and generally ignored, is a much smoother gradient. What if socially necessary labor time just kept up with the pace it was on prior to 1971? Today, we’d be somewhere around 27 hours per week:
An important note: I’m interested in reducing the tediously-named-but-importantly-differentiated socially necessary labor time, not average labor time overall. I don’t actually care how much everyone actually works. I care how much they have to work to live a dignified life. Even with a socially necessary labor time of 15 hours per week, people might still work 50 hour weeks if they enjoy their work, and that’s good.
27 hours is just if things kept pace. In practice, this might mean instead of eroding pro-labor institutions (unions, sectoral bargaining, etc), we continued strengthening them. For example, union membership rates declined from around 34% in the mid-20th century to ~8% in 2021.
Now what if, in addition to reversing the trend of labor institutions, we also leaned into further unconditional programs? Imagine an alternate future where from 1971 - 2022, we invested in a full suite of unconditional programs: basic income, universal healthcare, baby bonds, public housing (paired with zoning reform), natural resource dividends, a social wealth fund, and affordable public transportation (maybe fueled by a land value tax).
Even altogether, these wouldn’t push socially necessary labor time even close to 0. Maybe, we’d shave off another 7 hours, landing us around 20:
Debating 40-hour-full-time employment vs. fully automated luxury communism is a red herring. Instead, we should explore the middle-ground as rigorously as possible. What would a society that only requires 20 hours of labor be like? Or 30? France is already down to 35, and it hardly seems to be making much difference, which is itself a really interesting finding.
What are the tradeoffs at different levels? Would productivity rise or fall? What about innovation? What about the general phenomenology of being a human being? What about vitality?
Unconditionality is one strategy for achieving this, for incrementally increasing the freedom citizens wield to shape their own lives, unbound from the social prescriptions and predefinitions imposed by the imperative to exchange. We gain the freedom to enact forms of value that register internally, with no imperative for externalization.
From an evolutionary point of view, unconditionality increases the diversity of forms of life citizens can viably enact. Increasing this diversity raises the odds that citizens find ways of living that enact greater vitality (since enacting vitality is the natural bias of perception, as discussed in part I).
At heart, I see unconditionality as an invitation to realize alternative social potentials. The landscape of these potentials is vast, awesome, and attentive, always ready to change course. Things can always be otherwise. All around our social reality, parted by the filmiest of screens, lie potentials in wait. What the psychologist William James writes about alternative states of consciousness also applies to alternative realizations of social potentials: “We may go through life without suspecting their existence, but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness.”
There is greater vitality, greater conviviality within reach. A stronger commitment to unconditionality may offer one stimulus to bring it forward. As we gain the freedom to diversify the forms of value we enact, we may yet discover thousands more.
This was the third in a three-part series derived from my essay, Progress and Phenomenology: A Vitality Theory of Value. I’ll send one final dispatch on this, a reflection on the three pieces together. To receive notice when the conclusion is published, you can subscribe below:
And if you’re interested in supporting my work, you can join as a Patreon supporter (which is a form of unconditionality I am deeply grateful for, and makes this work possible).
Until next time,
Karl Marx coined this term in his own theory of value. Socially necessary labor time was the average amount of time necessary to produce something across all society’s producers at a given moment in time. Here, we’re just expanding the notion from a single commodity, to a single life.
Insofar as they’re free at point-of-access. We still pay for them, but at the level of society, rather than individuals, and this confers unique advantages. It allows us to customize where cost-burdens fall, to take advantage of increasing returns to scale, and to draw from unearned rents, spreading them to all.
Incidentally, I’m not sure I’d argue the optimal quantity of socially necessary labor time is zero. The constraint of having to align some of your activities with pre-existing social demand might serve a very important grounding function in the grand scheme of things. Might even foster some cohesion. But 40 hours per week is overkill. I’m on the lookout for really thoughtful analyses of how to compare various benchmarks. What are the differences between a society where people must generally work 15 hours a week, and one where the number rises to 25? How can we think through this? Let me know if you have any tips.
A fun fact about Gorz is that he died in a suicide pact with his wife. She was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and both had agreed they didn’t want to live without the other. So in their 90’s, in their bedroom, they self-administered lethal injections, and that was that.
The point here is that reducing working hours by lowering the overtime threshold seems like the wrong approach (this is how it’s usually been done in the US, and France, for example. Better than mandating a working schedule is empowering workers to bargain for themselves, allowing more diversity.