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When 99.99% of people don't work, is it communism?

Sean Carroll promotes a quote by Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983, an American futurist/philosopher) that promotes a society in which technology allows a vast majority of people avoid any work:

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. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors.

The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

"The New York Magazine Environmental Teach-In" by Elizabeth Barlow in New York Magazine (30 March 1970), p. 30
I added the source – Carroll wouldn't even tell you that it comes from a pro-hippie article from 1970.

Sean Carroll likes the quote and he even says that it isn't a socialist idea because it doesn't violate the rules of the free market. Wow.

First, let me tell you something "positive". I do think that many people work way too much. It's not just about the work. They're doing many things that aren't really making them happy because they feel that they should. They've been trained to do such things, think that they are important, and they judge their own value according to various criteria that the society seems to impose upon them (even drinking lots of alcohol in a pub is something that doesn't really make most people happy but most people pretend that it's so great). They don't have enough time for the things that would actually make them happy (and spending time with science is surely a natural candidate) – even though they could actually afford to reorganize their lives in favor of things that they find important or pleasant themselves.

Yes, I've largely grown out of this influence of the society when I was a teenager if not much earlier. It's especially the freedom from many of these things that makes me happy despite all the hard things I sometimes have to go through. However, I would still be unable to claim that I am never working, I haven't been working, I haven't earned any money, I am not earning any money, or I don't care about the money. So let me get to the main, "negative" side of the ideology above.

While it's true that the Western society may "feed" and sustain the life of pretty much everyone by work that can be done by a tiny percentage of the nations (plus machines), it doesn't follow that the society "collectively wants" to rebuild itself into the regime in which most people don't work.

The reason is simple: the basic food requirements and other biological requirements for the survival are not the only needs that people have and feel. They want to have better food and beverages, better housing, but they also want to travel, have better vehicles and means of transportation, and millions of other types of products you could surely enumerate.

At any level of the technological progress, there is always something that can't be given to everyone for free even though they would want it. These things may be getting more "spiritual" in character as the society is becoming more advanced – people pay e.g. for music or iPad/Android applications or similar "immaterial" things that their grandfathers could consider a complete waste of money – but the medium doesn't really matter. At least some products/commodities/things are not available in an infinite amount so the access of the people to such things must be organized in some way. The concept of the money is the most peaceful, most quantitative, most accurate way to assign the people's access to things that can't be for free.

In the previous paragraph, I made capitalism sound like a particular design in social engineering but capitalism is something else. It emerged spontaneously. It's natural. It works.

It's also important to mention that while the inventors of some crucial technologies produce benefits for the mankind whose value exceeds the benefits produced by an average person by many orders of magnitude, the society could still not function with these people only. The society still needs some people who work with the engines, whatever they are, and do similar things. And it's this bulk of the "ordinary enough" people for which the concept of the money is very important – well, it's important for the society that the money is important for these people. Warren Buffett or Bill Gates may vow to spray 1/2 of their wealth to random places of the world and it makes no qualitative difference for their wealth and for what they may afford (pretty much anything). But it's the people who earn either $50,000 a year or $100,000 a year (or $5,000 vs $10,000, in poorer countries) who will notice what the doubling means.

Some people in the comment thread under Carroll's article conjecture that people won't need money – they will prefer the social status etc. That may sound natural to someone but this opinion is a complete misunderstanding of the concept of the money. By its very definition, the money is the most comprehensive, all-encompassing measure of the things that people want but can't get for free ("automatically"). Even though the social status and wealth aren't the same things, the social status is one and just one component of the wealth that people have.

What I want to say is the following: Some people find their status important; others don't. Some people find it important to drink lots of tequila, others don't. People have various desires and they may transform their work, their time, and their wealth to the things they want to have, at an "exchange rate" that is given by many factors in the real world. More precisely, people mostly create products or services that are fulfilling other people's wishes, desires, and dreams. For the earned money, they may afford to buy what they want and need. Money is just making barter more accurate, it allows more complicated "generalizations of barter" whose transactions involve many participants, and money also allows intertemporal barter (saving, borrowing etc.). It's clear that people had to invent them because it's just better to use money than to be satisfied with barter.

The precise things that various people (or most people) want or dream about may be changing with time. The technological progress makes certain things that used to be scarce cheap. But new things are created and they're often scarce. Nothing is changing and nothing will ever be changing about the fact that there will be things that are scarce. One may assume that the change of the priorities is continuous which means that the concept of money may be extrapolated from one moment of the history to another (but what one should mean by the "inflation rate" is a slightly more complicated and not so canonically settled question).

So is Fuller's vision communism?

It depends which communism you mean. If you mean communism in a general sense, it surely is. If you mean some particular real communism that has existed in the Soviet bloc, it's surely not. Communists would have a trouble with 99.99% people who don't work. In fact, they were shocked by every single individual who wasn't working in a factory between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. or so.

Even today, when I do the shopping, for example, at such a random moment of the workdays, I meet some hardcore pensioners – who have lived through the whole communist era which shaped their values – and they sometimes seem stunned that a person above 20 and beneath 65 years of age may be walking in a supermarket at the time when everyone in that age is obliged to work in a factory, unless he is one of the nasty members of the burgeoisie (the criminals who steal from the working people, e.g. entrepreneurs and intellectuals). ;-) Fuller's vision surely doesn't describe the communist ideas from the 1950s or 1960s or 1970s or 1980s sketching how the real world should have worked in those decades.

On the other hand, we would be learning that the system we "enjoyed" before 1989 was just the socialism, one of the first stages in the evolution towards the full-fledged communism. In communism, everyone works according to his ability and gets everything according to his need. This is a slogan from Karl Marx from 1875. We would repeatedly hear this slogan (in Czech) during several brainwashing classes we had to undergo as kids.

Needless to say, Marx's explanation why this arrangement would ultimately materialize and why it would be a good thing is pretty much identical to Fuller's (and therefore Carroll's). This is one of the reasons why I generally count all such Fullers and Carrolls among Marxists. If it barks like a Marxist, walks like a Marxist, stinks like a Marxist, sucks like a Marxist, steals like a Marxist, brainwashes like a Marxist, executes like a Marxist, and wants to suppress your freedom like a Marxist, it's probably a Marxist.

Marx was a pompous guy and his misguided ideas (and the ideas of several other key people who mattered to a comparable extent – bloodthirsty practitioners like Lenin and Stalin and yes, Lenin was a much more obsessed and cruel killer than Stalin although his opportunity to mass murder were limited) have crippled approximately one third of the world economy for approximately one-half of the 20th century (it was much less than 1/3 at the end) and provided various top followers with an excuse to murder about 50 million people. But while he completely misunderstood what's essential for the human society to work and develop, he was not a complete imbecile (just a partial one). He has read a lot, thought a lot, and invented pretty much all the "wonderful" left-wing ideas we're hearing about these days about 140 years ago.

I am only ready to use the term "non-Marxist" without a hesitation for someone who
  1. understands why all the money-free, work-free, competition-free societies are utopian and impossible to realize in practice;
  2. actually thinks that even if they were possible to be realized, they would turn the society into a worse place for life.
Someone who only obeys one of these conditions is a "partial Marxist" in my eyes. Human desires and wishes are eternal. And so is the human work and the human efforts by which the humans attempt to fulfill (and sometimes do fulfill) their wishes and desires. The money is nothing else than the most quantitative and most comprehensive measure of how much they have helped other humans to fulfill their desires and wishes.

The more correlated the wealth is with the actual contributions to the realization of the desires and wishes of others, the more a given human society will become able to fulfill the desires and wishes of its members. Taxation, income given for free (without work), subsidies, and all such things make the correlation less tight so these things simply turn the society into a worse place for life, into a less efficient engine that makes people's dreams come true. It's that simple. Everyone who supports higher taxes and similar things is ultimately hurting the people's dreams.

And all the fans of Fuller's and other Marxist ideas: Please stop with your preposterous arrogance and attempts to pretend that you are cool. You are not cool. You are sucking some of the stinkiest stuff from the cesspool at the dumping ground of the human history. It's a stuff that has turned some prosperous countries such as mine into borderline third-world banana republics and the books in which the recipe for this transformation was outlined were used as fuel in the early 1990s. Your stuff is no better than Marx's original stuff. You're just late to the party – relatively to Marx and the "pretty much normal Marxists", you are retarded by approximately 140 years.

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reader alejandro rivero said...

Which is the Marxist level of Kropotkine? Or, in a different level, of Kantorovich? The former atacked Marx by relying heavily on linearity for most of their economical arguments. The later was atacked by pure marxists on the grounds, I read, that langrange coefficients in the minimisation methods are similar to a price system, and thus to money.

reader RAF III said...

"Marxism is intellectualism for stupid people" - Moe Lane
At least I think it was Moe Lane; in an ideal society someone would look it up for me.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Yup,, even in a real society, you may be confirmed right. ;-)

reader James Gallagher said...

Hi Lubos

You recently argued that a few trillion human beings just need a ~1m sq solar panel each to survive, energy-wise.

So it's funny that you get your underpants in a twist about this debate.

The current society only works because lots of people are not so educated. If everyone could be educated to medical surgeon or physics researcher level then society might not survive much longer once such an educated generation became the majority.

Luckily, this will never happen, but you're not allowed to say that ~50% people are below average academic ability without facing lifelong ostracism from "high" society these days.

And in any case, theoretical physics profession these days is much shitter than being a car mechanic or bricklayer - at least they achieve something each day

My thoughts above may be random, I've just got back from a football match (Spurs 2-0 Norwich) after a few beers.

reader RAF III said...

The ideal has become real! At last we are all free to pusue our dreams!
Well, except for you and all the other fact-checking slaves.
But don't worry, you will all be treated well.

reader lukelea said...

For myself, all I ever wanted was a part-time job in the country.

reader CIPig said...

Rest assured, Lumo, that if such a society could ever develop (unlikely) it won't be anything that Marx contemplated or could imagine. Of course I realize that your political brain is too small to contemplate that there could be anything in the world that is not Marxism or whatever imaginary version of Capitalism you are worshipping at the moment.

reader Peter F. said...

I liked this gem-packed (as if prepared by the finest lapidists) outline of the Lubosian overview of/outlook on socioeconomics. :-)

For one, I noted and was glad and satisfied to see the well-chosen last two nouns of the sentence
“The money is nothing else than the most quantitative and most comprehensive measure of how much they [rich people] have helped other humans to fulfill their desires and wishes.” [Please excuse my insertion and meant-to-be-helpful highlighting.]

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Pig, what is true is that whatever operational society will ever develop, it will not respect the principles stated by Marx - or any left-winger in the mankind's and pigkind's history.

reader Andrei Patrascu said...

Yeah, "no work society" is another method of introducing some nonsensical ideas in a fashionable way...

reader Shannon said...

Nice. Sounds like an Amish life style. I think for me this life would be too intense in term of relationships with people around... I have a problem with the way Nature sets Her hierarchy among us humans. ;-)

reader Shannon said...

French 35h work per week were imposed by a bourgeoise socialist who never worked. This is one step towards this all idea of no work society. It was supposed to give space for unemployed but of course companies found a way to work around it without hiring new people ;-). Probably the reason why France has lost its competitivity and unemployment rate keeps growing...

reader Shannon said...

Well I tell you one thing about car mechanics in Ireland: they achieve nothing, they make it worse if anything.

reader anna v said...

Dear Lubos,

"The money is nothing else than the most quantitative and most
comprehensive measure of how much they have helped other humans to
fulfill their desires and wishes."

In contrast to quantum mechanics, which seems to be the lowest level of reality, for me, this is not the lowest level of "money".

There exists a sub-level defined (by me) as "money is the proxy of energy available to the social system" and energy includes goods ( in which energy is transformed) and services ( which is another form of energy spent in calories in braincells and muscle cells).

We do have an experimental example of a class of people where 99.9% of them did not work. This was the aristocracy in the feudal times, people who did not have to work for food to come to the table or heat in their homes. They had cornered the energy market by arms. Both the goods and services were offered under real threat to life. Neither slaves working their ships nor serfs working their fields gained anything except maybe a feeling of protection, which might have been true to start with, but became flimsy when real threats came. The aristocracy were the leisure class, and the serfs provided the energy. Money, gold and jewels were a medium that was a proxy to how much energy the feudal lords had for deals and dowries between them.

Of course I suppose we should include all the best physicists of the early years, from Newton on ,to this class, but they were the exception.

So I am proposing a science fiction scenario which is getting closer and closer. Energy from fusion sun or whatever becomes very cheap, robotics advances to the stage of Asimov undertaking all menial mechanical service ,engineering etc jobs and anybody alive then will belong to a leisure class, because there will be nothing to do except fox hunting and star adventures and physics of course :) .

Those will be interesting times because we are going there in a basket. There would have been very little unemployment if the tractors were not invented and we still gathered the eggs from hens by hand.

(taking cover)

reader Eugene S said...

Dear Anna, an agricultural subsistence economy is not necessarily a guarantee of full employment. What happens when your major crop is struck by a blight? Who will then pay the wages of the farmhands? The same with natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes. Subsistence economies are too poor to mount a vigorous response to such external shocks. Mass starvation and war are likely outcomes then.

reader scooby said...

Lol, I know exactly what you mean \shannon.

reader anna v said...


On the other hand, here in socialist Greece we are ending up with practically 30% unemployment because from 70% of people occupied with agriculture we are now to something like 10%. Every farmer's kid has gotten a degree and the lucky ones with connections a post in the civil service, which is trying to keep some privileges with long strikes.

It is just that I think with the way scientific advances, from medicine to engineering , are changing the world the labels capitalist and socialist/communist are outdated. New social models are necessary if we are to end in a stable society.

reader Mephisto said...

$410 billion

Whos wishes and desires were fullfiled by this money? Politicians who make wars and owners of the weapon companies who are friends of the corrupt politicians?

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Anna, money isn't linked to energy in any way. Various types of energy cost something but it depends on which form of energy, where and when it is bought, and so on.

You talk like a typical leftist who always searches for some "particular" measure of wealth one should get obsessed about. So at various points of their history, leftists got obsessed about millions of tons of coal they mine, millions of tons of steel, carbon dioxide they avoid emitting, career, social status, whatever. But it's not your business to dictate what people should find valuable or spend money for. People have many and diverse things they want to buy or dream about and this diversity is actually critical for the health of the society.

And it's just a fact that energy spending represents less than 10% of average people's spending - otherwise we really talk about their "energy poverty" if that's otherwise. So energy is just one of dozens of basic things and thousands of other things that people buy for money and it is nonsensical to assign it a special role in the definition or understanding of wealth.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Anna, the number of people in Greece who work in agriculture is still pathologically huge. CIA says

that it was 12, 22, 65 percent in 2005 for agriculture, industry, services. It's almost the same numbers as e.g. the Dominican Republic.

This is also like something we had 200 years ago in the Czech lands. Today, we have 3% in agriculture, 39% in industry, and 58% in services. Our country is pretty much self-sufficient in food products. If you have 12%, it means that you are assuming that there are 4 nearby countries of the same size who won't have their own agriculture and wait for yours, or it means that about 75% of the people who "work" in the Greek agriculture are redundant.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Most directly, it was the wishes and desires of the American soldiers who needed some tools to beat their enemies. It wasn't really about just their wishes and desires; it was about their lives.

Indirectly, those $410 million and more fulfilled the generic Americans' dreams about a permanently safe life in a country that is strong enough to defend itself.

reader Mephisto said...

At least from my point of view, the government money would be spent better combating

Hunger in America than some in part hypotetical security threats around the world.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Wow, people have obviously proposed almost all kinds of nonsensical ideologies that are syntactically possible.

Note that in Europe, this movement was represented under a different label primarily by Alexander Bogdanov, a "non-Leninist bolshevik", whatever that meant. ;-)

reader James Gallagher said...

That made me laugh. I visited Ireland many times in my youth and my Dad had something like your opinion.

reader Eric Anderson said...

Some good thoughts about money in your post. Interesting to see the challenges and difficulties you've identified for the hypothetical "no money" society. I particularly like your idea of money allowing for a "temporal" shift of bartering. That is very important.

reader Honza said...

Here is one old demotivator.