Free Labor

Things have changed a lot for our species since humanity first started working. For all of our existence, work has been tied to survival. Now we inhabit a moment where this no longer applies to the few and is intentionally maintained for the many. The internet overflows with documentation of bad bosses, poor working conditions, and a strong desire to do and be something more. For many, the cost of living is slowly dying. Our choice of an alternative economic order is rooted in our understanding that our notions of work draw from inherited values that we are no longer bound to. For most of our history, the individual mimicked the machine. Rudimentary and repetitive tasks took up much of our focus and energy. Today, many engage in imaginative work, something our present machines cannot do. But our creations are rapidly evolving beyond our conventional definitions of machines. They are becoming self-learning problem solvers. Human and machine differ in our powers of imagination—the ability to distance ourselves from all we understand and create something new. 

Our crisis of productivity and participation is rooted in an economic philosophy that has yet to evolve to meet the needs of the moment. Consider our understanding of labor markets, where the worker commands or lacks power in relation to the skills they possess within the moment. Organizations frame the individual’s productive power through the lens of commodity, something to be bought and discarded for profit. If history has taught us anything about labor markets, it is that their participants inhabit a perpetual state of diminishment. Hierarchical organizations focused on profit value nothing beyond the numbers, and no amount of perks will ever change this core principle within their operation. Sometimes the individual finds themselves in a position of great advantage, like the present-day advanced technologist. Other times, they find themselves replaced to a degree where their professional expertise is no longer a reliable source of security, as is the case for those whose occupations have been taken over by automation and robotics. Here we identify a fundamental flaw of the hierarchical organization of labor in the present. Circumstances now exist where entire careers' worth of expertise can be nullified in a moment. This in itself is not a negative occurrence, but combined with a lack of pathways of transformation, the individual finds themselves stranded. 

Automation and machines entering the workforce and threatening jobs is nothing new. In the 1800s, the Luddites famously destroyed textile machinery to protest against the displacement of their skilled labor. Today, the threat exists in significantly higher degrees. In the past, new machines required human labor to operate. They were also large in size and took considerable time and materials to produce. Today, automation is highly virtual, instantly transferrable to anyone who wants it, and deploys rapidly. Automation also consolidates power into the hands of the few. Those with means deploy automation technologies and maintain unimpeded ownership of their productive powers. Technology reforms old threats but also presents new opportunities. To best understand how we can leverage our technological ascendency toward collective advantage, we must first examine the presently available forms of labor. 

In the United States, more than half of the population works for hourly wages,12 otherwise known as wage labor. Wage labor is rooted in the ethos of competition and, to a more substantial degree, slavery. The individual is locked into a race to the bottom, where employers often deny them access to consistency and benefits. The pandemic of 2020 highlighted the fragility of exploitative wage labor. Under enough duress, people will simply opt out of these occupations. But many of these positions are the foundation upon which society stands—those maintaining the mechanisms of convenience we have come to depend on. Wage labor is the lowest form of free labor because it is a choice people often make within the framework of no alternative. It is a choice that denies access to the dignities required for individual actualization within the immediate present.

In the United States, salaried positions benefit from a more stable income and typically provide access to vital social protections such as health care. Additionally, the ability to take personal time off doesn’t negate income, which is the sad reality for the majority. Unfortunately, these fringe benefits are often coupled with unhealthy work environments, a persistent pressure to overextend oneself, and no more actual security than wage labor. The concept of wage labor was developed during a time of human consciousness that was immersed in slavery and serfdom. Where today the system may seem natural, it was never intended to be permanent. Abraham Lincoln understood that wage labor is a flawed system of work. In his 1859 address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Lincoln spoke about how wage labor is intended to be a precursor to free labor,13 a system designed to bring humanity to a point where our collective progress could free us from hierarchical systems of labor rooted in subjugation. 

Consider also the various forms of self-employment. Self-employment means many things to many people; however, our laws support and provide an advantage to a very specific category of property-owning small businesses. Many self-employed people do not fall into this classification, such as the gig economy worker, freelancers or independent consultants, and the small business owner without property. For many perpetual gig economy laborers, work is a form of involuntary self-employment. It is unstable, unrewarding, and at constant risk of insolvency. Freelancers and independent consultants may be able to command high wages and fees and even enjoy freedoms like choice in scheduling. However, their lack of systemic support ensures that many will enter the profession at significant personal risk. Many small business owners do not own property, existing in permanent states of survival. It is not an exaggeration to say that within our present systems there are times when self-employment should be considered worse than wage labor. At the same time, self-employment provides a pathway to pursuing a passion. Unfortunately, within our present arrangements, many pass on opportunities to experiment and innovate for the risk of destitution. Now, why would a society whose propaganda focuses so heavily on the individual manifestation of success make it so difficult to take risks? Because the idea of American exceptionalism has only ever been about a very specific class of people, the rest are simply commoditized labor. As the comedian George Carlin once said, “That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Free labor is a circumstance where individual security and dignity are unbound to employment. It is a time experience where people are free to direct their productivity and participation toward furthering efforts aligned with their personal interests. In a free labor society, formal degrees matter less than selective depth. It is predicated by education systems encouraging exploration, imagination, and dialogue. Work becomes a combination of short- and long-term projects at the discretion of the individual. Individuals can freely join and exit existing efforts or access the resources necessary to go off in their own direction. This type of labor is empowered through existing and future technologies; the ability to collaborate is seamless and transcends geography. The organization of society around the premise of free labor is a major step toward reinforcing our core values of equity, flexibility, enthusiasm, and courage.

Free labor is superior to wage labor for several reasons. First, it intertwines productivity, education, and innovation into daily life more deeply than what is possible within our existing arrangements. Exploring, learning, and doing become a continuous process. When we possess the opportunity to contribute toward something we’re passionate about, we inhabit a timelessness within the moment—a creative effort that is extremely fulfilling, difficult yet effortless. Some experience this reality today. For others, it remains a fantasy. Our prioritizing of free labor in a systemically actualized society is a commitment to an expansive humanity. Second, free labor encourages individual alignment with the single truth on a daily basis. Considering impact, free labor is the most direct path toward unleashing humanity’s boundless imaginative and innovative capacity to scale. Only an economic arrangement prioritizing free labor can support this shared bigness. All others actively oppress it. 

Third, free labor frees the individual from the inheritance of the past but requires specific dignities to be met. We cannot inhabit time experiences encouraging maximum creativity when the majority are locked into a struggle for basic survival. By developing the foundation to empower people to solve more problems, we retain the incentivization of imagination as a pathway to productivity while rejecting hierarchical competition as the only available form of labor. Central to the crisis are our dogmas surrounding specific economic technologies. Self-actualization in the age of crisis is a journey of decoupling identity and system. We are not our creations, but they are us. They influence us and continually reinforce specific modes of being and must be discarded when those visions of humanity no longer meet the needs of the moment. Our awareness of the single truth and the relational universe places the responsibility upon us to reshape the ethos guiding global society in the present. Cooperative competition fuels free labor. Free labor produces markets that are significantly more competitive than the present, enabling more pure forms of competition. Free from the fear of destitution, individuals and groups no longer sacrifice their visions of the good for the security of a slow death. Collectively we benefit from leveraging exponential growth and imagination at scale, realizing free labor will bring a golden age of productivity and progress.

Individuals benefit from a broad scope of choice. But what of those who might leverage free labor arrangements to not contribute? They are free to do so. In an era of collective abundance, no one should be forced to participate in productive efforts. Access and agency to the resources necessary to live in moderate comfort and security are provided to all as a birthright of inhabiting the immediate present. So long as the individual does not actively deny access and agency to others within their community or group, they should be free to prioritize the direction of their focus and energy as they see fit. Those denying access and agency to others, such as the fundamentalist religious sect providing no escape or alternative for the child, should also be denied access to society’s collective progress. 

Everyone is free to choose to opt out. No one possesses the power to deny another—doing so is a forfeit of right. While it is accurate to claim that we are most fully human when expressing our divinity in the moment, not all will subscribe to this philosophy. Imagine a scenario in which the individual is purely extractive, benefiting from the collective public works enabling a free labor society but adding nothing in return. Systemic actualization guarantees them security and the resources to survive, but not luxury, connection, mastery, or other incentives that encourage creators to imagine more. 

The unfounded narrative that, given the option, the majority will choose to do nothing is pure propaganda. There has never been a circumstance in human history like the one systemic actualization promises, and therefore any claims of its failure to execute are unfounded. For the sake of exploration, we can look at this risk from the perspective of its most probable opportunity for a negative outcome, the early stages of transformation. Those who have spent most of their lives as human commodities within an exploitative labor system come to realize they are no longer bound to it. We can imagine that this might trigger a wave of temporary opting out, allowing individuals to reconnect with themselves and others. Over time, however, the significant majority will choose to rise to the occasion of collective transcendence, as humanity has demonstrated throughout history. Shared visions of the good are a powerful motivator for the individual. Individual and systemic actualization is a spiritual journey for us, a quest for a more expansive being that is presently in our sights but out of reach. Individuals inhabiting a systemically actualized society will come of age in an era of meaning and values that reinforce entirely different perspectives of the world and others. It will only take a single generation to radically redirect the course of human history toward transcendent being. Overcoming the crisis requires a prolonged reimagination of the human experience. We embrace free labor as a rightful and ideal arrangement of human productivity and participation for the perpetual progress of the individual and collective alike. - Free Labor
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