What can we contribute?

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Tue, 9 Jan 1996 17:35:51 +0900

Ruby Rohrlich writes,

John: Did you read Jeremy Rifkin in MOTHER JONES? His pessimism seems
well founded, and makes me remember that I'm basically a Luddite. But I
suppose that's not what you meant when you asked how anthropologists can

Actually, I just finished my first reading of _The End of Work_. One of
the things I like about Rifkin is that he isn't a Luddite. He argues
instead for accepting the new technology but devising institutions that
will spread its benefits more equitably. He notes that historically
advances in technology have put people out of work, so that, for example,
farmers are now only 3% of the workforce in the U.S.A. If the "Third
Industrial Revolution" based on computers did, in fact, promise to create
as many jobs as it displaces, this would be no problem. But the dream
of turning the tens of millions of workers who have sold their labor to
do routine jobs in factories and offices into creative "knowledge workers,"
is a pipedream. What, then, can be done?

A lesson from the past is that previous industrial revolutions have
always resulted in a shorter work week, thus spreading the benefits of
productivity to larger numbers of workers. But workers have always had
to fight for their share, and now the globalization of business, the
increasing weakness of labor organizations, and the sheer replaceability of
workers by automated machines puts us in a terribly weak position.

Is there no hope at all? One possibility is to promote a combination of
shadow wages (a.k.a. tax credits) and social wages (direct subsidies) to
promote the expansion of the Third Sector of community organizations that
are neither governmental nor market-driven but offer those who work in
them the social rewards of altruistic behavior. What is required, then,
is nothing less than a cultural revolution which rejects the perception
and celebration of behavior in purely political (power-driven) or economic
(market-driven) terms.

It's an interesting proposition about which anthropologists should, I would
hope, have a good deal to say.

John McCreery