Expensive Lies - The Old Normal
We must work to earn life, and anyone who doesn't is a lazy thief. That's the story. But what is the most profound theft? Who are the biggest loafers?
Hello and good morrow, my friendlies.
Here’s the news:
Professional landlord Donald Trump, after a lifetime of committing crimes right in the open, is, I’m told, maybe possibly right on the verge of being arrested for one of those many, many, many crimes. Trump (in case you hadn’t heard) is the former president of the U.S. and the unquestionable leader of that country’s fascist political party, and he has been on the verge of arrest for a while—years, it seems—but the arrest never materializes, mostly because arresting a powerful rich white person who commits flagrant crimes is apparently not normal, and is very disruptive to the process of law; apparently far more damaging to our everyday normalcy than, for example, arresting and harassing and prosecuting a great many people each day who are guilty of far pettier crimes or not even guilty of crimes at all, but who are not powerful and rich and white. And also, I’m told, Trump’s arrest might result in public violence, mostly because Trump himself is inciting violence to try to avoid arrest. Like flagrant crime, threatening and inciting violence to get what he wants is something Trump does all the time, and his whole party uses all their influence and power to make sure that he doesn’t pay any price for doing so, which ensures that the threat of violence is real, so it has to be admitted that Republican presidents and former Republican presidents inciting political violence to subvert the rule of law is now also part of what must be considered “normal.”
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It’s very important in this times, I’m told, not to disrupt normalcy, unless that disruption is something that makes a lot of money for a few people, often while putting a whole lot of other people out of work. In those cases, disruption is very good and admirable, and is actually a part of a new normal of how disruption drives innovation.
Arresting a powerful rich white person who commits flagrant crimes is not the sort of disruption we want in that version of “normal,” though, so Trump’s arrest must be approached with very special and particular care, and perhaps shouldn’t even happen at all, lest it disrupt the precious normalcy of these extremely stable times, I’m told—and no doubt that’s all completely true. Certainly I appreciate that our legal system approaches its duties with the greatest of care, though I suppose I might dare hope that it exercised similar care and restraint in the cases of others who aren’t quite so rich or powerful or white or guilty; I might even dare hope it didn’t save so much of its deliberation and probity for powerful rich white men who spend their lives committing flagrant crimes, and who incite political violence whenever they feel threatened.
But I guess at least Trump’s flagrancy means we all know something now about our legal and economic and political systems, and what constitutes “normalcy” within it—at least if we don’t decide to not know.
I’d say what Trump’s flagrancy tells us is that these systems optimize for corruption—that is, theft of the public good, for the benefit of a few.
“Theft of the public good, for the benefit of a few” sounds like a pretty good definition of the sort of “disruption” that is favored in this version of “normal,” incidentally.
Anyway, that’s all unpleasant to contemplate.
Let’s change the subject.
Lately I’ve been thinking about tools.
At some point I presume we didn’t use tools—humans, I mean.
Unlike most animal species, we humans use tools. That’s the word from the big brains. By “big brains,” I mean scientists and scholars, people who observe reality and test theories about it, and thus push forward our collective knowledge of reality in ways that allow us to understand and shape reality. To state the obvious, by our collective knowledge I don’t mean what you and I individually know, but what the entirety of human society knows, because we have inherited that knowledge, and because people keep pushing it further outward, by observing and testing.
There appears to be something observably collective about human knowledge. As evidence of this effect, please allow me to submit the fact that I’m communicating this to you right now. I’m communicating with you, even though you’d be hard-pressed to find one person in the world who could explain every single step whereby it happened—every bit of the creation and manufacture and deployment and maintenance of every tool that was created in order to allow me to write this, and for you to read it, possibly on your screen, possibly in a nice warm bubble bath.
Me, I don’t even know how the bubbles are made.
Anyway. The big brains are right: we humans use tools. I don’t think anybody disputes that. I’m not one of the big brains, but it stands to reason to me that if we use tools, there came a point, waaaay back there, when we started using tools, most likely because our distant ancestors were visited by a large smooth obsidian monolith, which activated an evolutionary leap within them while dramatic Strauss music played in the background. For confused kids, this is a reference to the Stanley Kubrick sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I just rewatched, and which you really ought to check out if you haven’t seen it.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a film about how humans made a massive leap forward by discovering tools, but how, because humans lived in a world of domination, they used the tools to dominate other humans. A few years later, after these humans had made more sophisticated tools and escaped the laws of gravity and begun to traverse space, one of their tools—an AI, or an artificial intelligence—became so sophisticated that it could hold all of collective human knowledge and process information even more efficiently than humans could, which meant that the humans could do things that humans otherwise might never be able to do, but it also meant that humans had created a being that was in many ways superior to humans. Unfortunately, having learned exclusively from humans, the AI learned humanity’s assumptions about how tools should be used, and used its tools to do the exact same thing humans had done with their tools—namely, to attempt to dominate humans. The film’s conclusion suggests that humans, who are natural users of tools, would do well to evolve past the rubric of domination, not as some abstract utopian idealist pipe-dream, but as a matter of basic survival, because apparently domination, which is an observable part of the natural order, is also ultimately unsustainable and self-defeating; after all, inevitably there will come onto the scene something you cannot dominate.
Wow, I sure got off topic, didn’t I? How did that happen?
Anyway: if there was a time that we as humans started using tools, that suggests that there was a time, waaaay back there, when some form of what we would call humans didn’t use tools. Anyway, it’s indisputable that at some point in the past we didn’t use certain tools that are in common use today. For example, it wasn’t until the time of the Ancient Romans that we see evidence of the first DeWalt power drill.
This suggests that at some point, waaaaay back there, human life was much harder to maintain than it is today, at least from a screwdriver perspective. I assume this means we had to work very very very very very hard to survive, and because we lived in a world of pure domination, despite all this work, a lot of us didn’t survive.
My understanding is that “not surviving” involved dying, mostly.
My understanding is that humans were not in favor of dying back then, mostly. We’re not fans of it these days, either, mostly. I personally am trying to avoid it.
So I’d imagine that if you couldn’t work, because of sickness or disability, you probably were going to die, unless somebody else worked for you. If you could work, the ability to work would I presume have been seen as a very good thing, and the harder and more efficiently and productively you could work, the better it would seem to be—not because having to work was good, but because it helped secure the basic necessities for life. Meanwhile, if you could not work, I presume that this would be seen as a very bad and dangerous state of affairs, because people who cared for you were going to have to work even harder now to keep both you and them alive, and success would have become even less likely. And if you wouldn’t work—not because you were unable, but because you expected other people to work for you—you’d probably be seen as either a dangerous and contemptable lazy fool, or a god, or a king.
So it was: people had to work hard every day just to earn the right to stay alive another day. The big brains call this “subsistence living.” Getting the basic necessities of life must have felt really good. It feels good even now. There must have come some satisfaction and relief from working successfully and securing those basic necessities for another day. That satisfaction and relief exists even now. Not getting the basic necessities of life must have been horrifying and terrifying. It still is today. The idea of somebody refusing to engage in this work would have seemed suicidally foolish and morally dangerous. And a lot of people still feel this way today.
And this was normal.
Having to work all the time in order to earn life each day was a normal situation, and a natural one.
But it wasn’t a good situation.
As evidence, I submit all the dying.
Then humans used a tool for the first time, and holy shit. Can you imagine the first time Rock-Dragging Larrygot hold of a wheelbarrow? Suddenly dragging all the rocks the community needed, which previously took weeks, only took a matter of hours. Rock-dragging got significantly easier, which meant Rock-Dragging Larry had to work less hard to drag the rocks he needed to drag in order for his community to survive. The community now only had to work very very hard, and more of us—including the newly christened Wheelbarrow Larry—survived.
Another thing happened, too: the ability to not only survive but to thrive; the creation of more time and space to develop other things that didn’t have to do with simply surviving—things like farming, and navigation, and art, and philosophy, and music, and marketplaces, and logistics, and also a certain focused curiosity: an observation of reality and testing of it, which could lead to better understanding of reality, and more ideas, and more discovery added to our inherited collective knowledge, which led to further innovations, which meant even more humans had to work even less hard to ensure the basic requirements of human life, and had more time for other things.
You’ll never guess what, but it seems that when human beings are left with extra time, we tend not to fill it with laziness, but exactly that sort of “unnecessary” work.
(Though I suppose some people do fill it with laziness. That’s probably not the best choice, but then again what looks like laziness to me might be Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree. Anyway, I don’t know that the sudden appearance of Lazy Marvin would make Wheelbarrow Larry want to go back to rock-dragging just to avoid the sight of Marvin lazying around the old watering hole.)
People of course still do the very practical work of directly providing for basic human needs, and everyone benefits from those who do that work, and to observe this truth just go into a grocery store, or better still a farm. We should certainly respect that labor, and the fact that we depend upon it. But the fact that not everyone has to do that work produces generative effects that everyone gains from, including those who do that work—which any farmer knows, unless they are still out there dragging rocks, or digging in the dirt with a pointed stick.
Now: all of that greatly simplifies the history of human progress, partly because I’m a dumbass, but also in order to highlight a real and noticeable effect. What I notice with human innovation is something I’d call generative progression.
As a species we adapt and learn, and grow and inherit and pass on our collective knowledge, and so we improve is I guess the word for it, and though I suppose one could look around and dispute whether or not what we’ve accomplished lately is improvement, average life expectancy used to be about 20 to 30 years for ancient humans, and as somebody who no longer has to show his identification to prove he is above 50to grocery store clerks when he buys a nice refreshing hard seltzer, I appreciate that life expectancy is somewhat higher than that these days.
The progression is from a state of subsistence, where work is necessary to earn life from a world of domination, to a state of thriving, where work is generative and progressive and increasingly untethered from that natural but unsustainable state, in the same way that a spacecraft on a mission to Jupiter is untethered from the natural laws of gravity.
Innovations make it easier to achieve the basic necessities for life with less work, so work becomes less necessary—which is an advantage, actually.
Moreover, you might even say making work less necessary is the point of innovation—not as some abstract utopianidealist pipe-dream, but as a matter of survival—because the world of domination is ultimately unsustainable, and humans seem to have an innate sense of this that makes us seek something better than that. Specifically, it's a matter of moving from basic survival to a point where human beings can thrive. Because look: as work became less necessary to safeguard survival, survival increased.
You might even say that working less for more return represents a new normal that is actualized by human innovation.
Yes. I like that phrase to describe the increased freedom from work that can be collectively shared.
The new normal. Oppositional to the old one. Supplanting it, even.
By the way, this freedom from work brought about by innovation is also natural. It’s based on observation of natural reality, on testing it and learning more and more about it. It’s just as natural as the old normal, whereby you had to work to avoid being dominated.
Got that? It’s also normal and natural.
But it’s good.
It’s generative rather than unsustainable. It allows a state of thriving rather than forcing a state of survival.
Making work less necessary appears to be a good thing is my observation. Not just because it is fun, or easy, or comfortable, but because it is advantageous, and frees us from the law of domination, where constant work is necessary in order to earn daily survival—which, again, is a normal and natural situation, but not a good one. Additionally, making work unnecessary is not just advantageous, but generative—in other words, it builds on itself, producing more of what fed it.
This suggests that reducing the necessity of work as much as possible for as many humans as possible might be considered a good goal for humanity to pursue—because we can observe that the generator for this advantage is not individual achievement, but collective human knowledge, so it stands to reason that the more people benefit from it, the greater the increase to the generative quality of the advantage.
This also suggests that the fewer people who benefit from it, the more that advantage will be reduced, and the less generative it will become.
It seems to me that, if the new normal of generative progression were humanity’s goal, the indicator of success would be the sight of more and more people working less and less, freeing even more time for other things, which would continue our generative progression away from striving and domination.
More people working less hard would be seen as a good thing, if this were our goal.
In fact I would think might be the whole point—the new normal.
That’s what we would see.
It’s not what we see.
Here’s what I’m seeing in 2023.
Our new innovations often don’t make our lives easier, but only ensure that we become more efficient as we do more and more work.
More and more people are working harder and harder, and more and more public policy is generated to ensure that they must work in order to earn the right to survive, and yet fewer and fewer people are able to afford the basics of survival.
More and more people are working harder and harder, yet have no shelter, are food-insecure, have less access to medical care and clean water.
Meanwhile, the greatest danger to some is that anybody should get something they didn’t work for themselves.
Grocery stores post guards to guard the food they intend to throw away, rather than let hungry people eat it.
Communities in need of housing reject offers to have housing built for free.
Doctors who have never practiced medicine spend their careers rejecting people’s applications for medical care.
Politicians and pundits, particularly conservative ones, express genuine moral outrage at the thought of food insure schoolchildren being provided free lunch.
And so on.
Even though it seems that all the work that’s being done is resulting in more and more value, we can see that value being collected by fewer and fewer people who are building truly outrageous fortunes.
It also seems like more and more of the people collecting more and more of the value are the type of people who commit more and more flagrant corruptions—that is, crimes against the common good, designed to steal value from society and deliver it to themselves—and that our systems find that bringing any consequence to such people for their many many many crimes is very disruptive to the normalcy they prefer to protect.
At the same time as all of this regression, there’s rising a dominant old idea that any easing of work requirements at all in any place for any people represents contemptable laziness and moral danger.
And it’s accompanied by an old dominant idea that it is work that actually gives human beings dignity and meaning, and then only if that work is productive, which means (if you lift the rug and look at the assumptions crawling underneath) that it provides some additional wealth for somebody else.
It’s an alignment with the old unsustainable normal of dominance. It insists that life must be earned, and that this is not only natural, but good and righteous. And it insists on disposing of people who can no longer earn.
And this dominant idea—that it is only through work that people earn life—is also accompanied by a general scorn for the value of labor. Surely you’ve noticed that it’s the same people who insist most loudly that work is necessary not only for human survival but for human dignity that are also loudest in opposition to providing labor with any worth or dignity that it demands, and most energetic in their efforts to crush any attempt by labor to organize in order to secure that worth and dignity.
And this dominant idea is also accompanied by a sort of generalized scorn for the sorts of areas of practice and study that don’t really produce additional wealth for somebody else, but which we know do result in the sort of generative progression that powers human innovation: areas of study like art, and philosophy, and music, and history, and also curious unfocused observation, which we know leads to more ideas, and more discovery, and more innovation.
What we’re seeing is a popularized embrace of the old normal—a belief that this unsustainable and doomed state is not something for us to try to escape, but a good in and of itself, specifically because it is a natural state—as if humans collectively sharing benefits derived from collective inherited human knowledge is any less natural a state.
It’s a lie. A lot of people are believing that lie.
Which is alarming, because we know that the old normal resulted in life expectancy of around 20 to 30 years.
So I’d say it’s a pretty expensive lie—wouldn’t you?
Life expectancy is dropping these days, by the way.
As you might expect, this makes me think of rent and artificial intelligence.
Early this month, I wrote a tweet that I didn’t give much thought to at the time. It said this:
Every person who decides to make their money by being a landlord has looked into their heart and decided that they could make themselves OK with evicting people if they aren't being paid.
It was intended as a critique of landlordism. There’s this dynamic in our system whereby people with good credit can take out a mortgage that they can’t actually afford to pay, but then rent the property out, so that the renter pays for the mortgage. Then, at the end of the process, the landlord owns the house outright, having had it paid for by another person or people. The landlord is able to use this wealth to get more houses, which are then paid for by other renters. And if the renter doesn’t pay, they obviously have to go, because otherwise the landlord can’t afford the house.
And this dynamic is a popular way for people with some wealth to quickly grow their wealth, by taking it from people who have less wealth, as a middleman that didn’t provide either the house or the money, and who, like their renters, could not afford the mortgage, but who, unlike the renters, could secure the credit.
I don’t want to go after individual landlords exclusively, because this whole process has been corporatized at scale. It’s happening everywhere. And, in an extremely wealthy country with historically low unemployment, we have a housing crisis and a crisis of homeless people. What a coincidence.
Anyway, my tweet was intentionally provocative and critical, but it also was a little sly, I will confess, because the statement really was just an obvious truth that make the critique implicit. But it’s obviously true: to engage in landlordism is to agree to evict somebody who doesn’t pay. You say it, and then hit dogs will holler, as they say.
The tweet didn’t get much response. This week, it got a bunch of responses, so I assume somebody posted it someplace else. I assume that the place it was posted was rather pro-landlord, because what I got was a lot of people angrily retorting in defense of landlordism. These retorts were phrased like rebuttals, but they were not rebuttals; they did not point out that, no, they hadn’t made themselves OK with eviction. Mostly the retorts simply provided specific ways whereby the person making the retort had made themselves OK with eviction… which I didn't much argue with, mostly because that was what I was already saying.
Most of the ways they have made themselves OK with it is some form or another of the old normal, by the way.
I’m bringing this incident up because I think it demonstrates the ways in which so many of us have internalized the lie of the old normal, and also because I think the predation of landlordism is an apt description of what is happening to almost all aspects of our shared life together.
This brings me to AIs.
There are real AIs in the world now, by the way, so score one for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This could be a huge advancement for us as humans, if we were aligned with the new normal instead of the old one.
Instead, there is mostly fear.
There is real concern that those AIs—which are innovations grown out of inherited collective human intelligence—are going to take a lot of people’s jobs, and this means that those people will no longer be able to survive, because we have believed in the dominant ideas: that life must be earned, and that survival must be a struggle, and so on. It seems we believe that if a tool removes the work burden from a person, that person’s life will get harder, not easier—and if it doesn’t get harder, we see that as a moral hazard and a dangerous disruption of normalcy.
An AI taking your labor away ought to be a massive opportunity, if we were committed to the gravity-defying natural laws revealed by the new normal of human innovation.
But under the old normal, if an AI takes your job, your requirement to work in order to earn life isn’t reduced, only your ability to do so. You don’t get the benefits of that collective easing of the collective escape from the old normal of domination.
Somebody else gets it all.
That “somebody,” I’ve noticed, is usually the sort of person who insists that your work is what gives you dignity and respect, while refusing to dignify or respect the value your labor provides.
It seems to me that the benefits of our inherited collective human knowledge have been captured by a sort of societal landlordism, to benefit people who don’t work harder than me or you—and in truth, in many cases, who barely seem to do any valuable work at all—but whose already existing advantages allows them the opportunity to keep the value while making everyone else do the work.
These landlords of our society have taken the natural advantages of our collective inheritance and rented it back to us to grow their own wealth and advantage. And they’ve done it by making us terrified that somebody else might be stealing something they haven’t earned, and enraged that somebody else might be benefitting from a laziness that we can’t access.
And that’s ironic, because I’d say that already-wealthy people benefitting exclusively from the new normal that all humans have generated together, while insisting that everyone else live in the unsustainable old normal, represents the biggest theft and the most profound laziness imaginable.
I have a sense that people reading this will think I’m saying that work is bad. People might think that in part because in a way, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
I should maybe walk that back a bit.
I actually think that work is generally good … when our ethics are good. I am lucky enough to be able to not only survive but thrive by doing a job I enjoy. I appreciate the value it delivers to me, and the space it affords me to engage in things that don’t involve simple subsistence living, and I know a lot of people feel the same way. And I greatly value being able to deliver the rewards of the value I generate to provide for myself and my society and those I love.
But I also know that this situation I’m in is a lucky situation, and not one shared by everyone. And I know I’m one bad diagnosis or one smart AI away from not being so lucky, in this world where societal landlords have claimed exclusive ownership of our inherited collective human knowledge. And while I know that it’s not my work that gives me my dignity and my meaning, but my humanity, so I know that when I am inevitably unable to work, I will not have lost either, yet at the same time I know that I live in a world that will refuse to agree with me about that.
I think human pursuits are good and meaningful, and human pursuits involve work—so work can be very good and meaningful.
But I think having to work is bad.
Work to survive? That’s the old unsustainable normal. We’ve progressed past that. We know of better ways. Are the demands of the old normal based on a natural law? Yes, sure. Observably so. So is gravity. But we’ve learned how to overcome gravity, by using natural laws. I think we can align ourselves against the old normal, and with the new one.
Work to avoid the crime of laziness? I thought we were trying to progress beyond a rubric of domination, which creates systems of domination, where safeguarding normalcy becomes a matter of never prosecuting the thieves and murders who are capturing and using the value our work creates to create their own artificial ease. I think we’d better do so—not as some abstract utopian idealist pipe-dream, but as a matter of basic survival.
For one thing, AIs are learning from us, and they’re inevitably going to learn what we believe. Right now we believe that the best and most desirable order is to use the way of dominance in order to own the way of generative progression—that is, to create systems that optimize for corruption, and put oneself at the top of that system. Right now we believe that human life is worthless unless it provides profit to the people at the top of the system.
For another thing, even if he eventually gets arrested for one of his many many crimes, famous landlord Donald Trump will probably not face meaningful consequence from systems optimized for corruption, nor is he the only flagrant career criminal still at large.
A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and is co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. He’s stuck down in Mobile with the Memphis Blues again.
A rough estimate.
Rock-Dragging Larry is a composite of rock-draggers from caveman times, as seen in such works as TVs The Flintstones and Gary Larson’s comic strip The Far Side, rather than a known historical figure.
I’m late 40s. The effrontery of these whippersnappers.
I’m not sure when we decided to fear and mistrust utopias—but that’s a whole other essay.
They also claim it’s because a free lunch is not nutritious, but since they also express genuine moral outrage at any attempt to impose nutritional standards on school lunches, we must approach this claim with skepticism.
Worth checking out if you have the time.
These mass-murderers, for example.
A few years ago I had an insight. The lovers of the old dominant paradigm will tell you that the only reason innovation occurs is because someone spent money developing one, based on the hope they would profit from it. I call bullshit; all the basic tools that AR describes in the middle part (sticks into plowshares) came about because there was a need and somebody saw a way to make things better and/or easier, and the profit was to save labour or increase output. For everyone, because once John Plowshares demonstrated is device for tilling soil, anyone and everyone in the village could make a copy and enjoy the benefit, and the whole region was able to use more land more productively for the whole community, and thus people had more time to *live*
The drive to innovate or invent or improve tools and ideas isn't only - and for the majority of human history couldn't have been - the province of Capitalists.
(tiny point: the vehicle headed toward Jupiter isn't free from the law of gravity, but making productive use of it.)
Like living in Star Trek. I wonder if Roddenberry did any philosophizing?