Text: Nathaniel Williams [US] | Photo: Camphill Village Market – South Africa | Article published at freecolumbia.org.
Culturally speaking, our notion of work and employment is extremely superficial.
Almost fifty years ago, E.F. Schumacher pointed out that this is connected to the common notion that work is something we need to get rid of.
He writes that “The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task, and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.”
Thus the focus on efficiency that makes work boring and stultifying – often disconnecting us from the social, human purpose of our activity – is counter-productive. It also indicates more concern for goods than people, products over workers. This more comprehensive notion of work is sometimes referred to as right livelihood.
SIF Egypt 2019: Unfolding Individual Potential for the Future, where I met James, was hosted by the Social Initiative Forum, SEKEM, & Heliopolis University. Heliopolis is one branch of a large associative undertaking called SEKEM, which includes many businesses, schools, and clinics. Its founder, Ibrahim Abouleish, was the recipient of a Right Livelihood award in 2003. The success of SEKEM is truly miraculous. And as the shadow of feudalism threatens to darken the future of the USA, the significance of places like SEKEM intensifies.
Both SEKEM and the Camphill Village West Coast in Capetown have done well by focusing on the qualitative, human facet of economic life that Schumacher noted was abandoned by many European economists. They both draw inspiration from the associative economics of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner also articulated a fundamental social law that states the health of a group of people who are working together is greater, the less an individual lays claim to the products of their work, and the more these products support their coworkers, and the more their own needs are not supported by their efforts, but by the productivity of others
Rudolf Steiner, who lived a century ago in Central Europe, described the direction of the modern economy, and the division of labor, as proceeding more and more in this direction, namely, toward mutual interdependence and cooperation. He suggested the social potential of economic life could be intensified if this tendency was recognized and worked with. He encouraged the founding of innovative corporations that strove to separate work from income, to foster regular communications of concrete conditions of production-consumption and production, and to treat capital as a social asset, not solely as private property.
I should be very careful here to note that in separating work from income, he was not advocating for a universal basic income, but an end of wages. He has this in common with Kristof and WuDunn. Steiner showed how wages create the illusion that one is working for money, not in a great cooperative endeavor to meet the real needs of other people.
Also, when he suggested that capital should be a social asset, he was not suggesting it be collected as taxes and distributed by the state. Needless to say, he lived in a radically different situation than ours. Still, in general, Steiner believed that removing these three obstacles would go a long way. One would feel the meaningfulness of one’s daily work and the cooperative community solidarity in daily life. The virtue that would be activated, fostered, and developed, that rests on economic activity, on business, he called fraternity.
The three ideals of the French Revolution were Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. It is a great contradiction today that many of our social justice values are not social, but individual, having to do with individual rights. Whether it is Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, or Milton Friedman, the freedom of the individual is the greatest value.
In Tightrope, and in the USA, where the genius of the corporation and the voluntary associations are most at home, it can seem we are losing our literacy of fraternity. The imagination of the rights needed to protect the individual from the majority, from the government, is articulated in our current Bill of Rights. The question remains of what a social bill of rights, that protects the individual from social isolation and economic exclusion, would look like.
Could it be that the denial of an integrated economy based on collaboration and the fulfillment of one another’s needs through industry and cooperation is as much a social sin as the outlawing of religious freedom or the freedom of the press?