How Do We Break the Treadmill?

And now, a bit of political economy with Richard Thompson:

I think it’s safe to say that, despite the ethos of “do what you love” (nice work if you can get it) most people in this world don’t work for fun. They work to pay the bills. Unfortunately, well-paid, secure work is not easy to come by and so many work hard and still struggle:

The money goes out, the bills come in
Round and round we go again
I come close but I never win
Stuck On The Treadmill

The narrator of this song is a steel worker. As Karl Marx would put it, he is “alienated” from his work, yet he knows of no other way to make a living:

Another day of punching steel
Till my arm’s too numb to feel
Like a hamster on a wheel
Stuck On The Treadmill

Is this living?

Wish I knew a better way
To keep myself alive
Shaking sheets of metal
Every day from 9 to 5
Others may be living
But me, I just survive

Automation is changing the face of industry. Robots are taking on the most dangerous and tedious jobs. In a decent society this would be cause for celebration. Instead, it is cause for fear:

Me and the robot working away
He looks at me, as if to say
“I’ll be doing your job some day”
Stuck On The Treadmill

Thompson’s steel worker goes on to describe how workers are unceremoniously laid off en masse (“twenty years and they show you the door”) and strikes and conflict ensue while the town suffers:

Strike’s coming, trouble’s brewing
Whole town going to rack and ruin
Next year, what’ll I be doing?
Stuck On The Treadmill

What’s the alternative to the treadmill? To too many, it is an abyss, nothing more. What else can I do?

People often resent those they think are “benefiting from the system” more than them, collecting welfare, receiving services as refugees newly admitted to a country where they have no right to work and often don’t even speak the language well, and so on. But I think the source of the problem is people feeling trapped on the treadmill yet fearing being thrown off it. They say “I’m working a job I hate and am barely getting by, so why are these people getting something for not working?” For them, the fact that they still have a job makes them a productive member of society and a source of pride even though they hate their work, so that at least makes them better than those who don’t work, who are either “taking advantage of the system” or left on the scrapheap.

How can we change work, and our attitudes about it? Not an easy question to answer, I know.





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