Never before in recent history has the spectre of mass, worldwide collapse of jobs stared us in the face as it does now. A little virus has punched the global economy so hard it has not only knocked the wind out of it, but damaged both the lungs. As we gasp for breath, and as many peoples and countries struggle to merely survive, we also have some hard choices to make. Do we take the more difficult path of a transformative recovery that takes us towards livelihoods, or do we stagger back into some semblance of pre-COVIDness, characterized by deadlihoods?1
Allow me to explain. Well before COVID hit us (brought about, as everyone now knows, by our own ecological stupidity), globalized economic development and modernity were already decimating millennia-old livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people occupied in farming, fisheries, pastoralism, forestry, crafts, and small-scale manufacture. And in their place, it was offering “jobs”, for the most part in mass assembly lines, with little chance of “labourers” being able to express their own creativity or actually enjoy their work.
Livelihoods that were ways of life, with no sharp division between “work” and “leisure”, which intricately connected the economic with the social and cultural and psychological, have been destroyed and displaced for decades, if not a couple of centuries. What we have in their place, especially in our cities and industrial zones, are jobs, with a neat division between 9-to-5-Monday-to-Friday being when we “work”, and evenings and weekends which are for “leisure”. Soul-deadening, alienating, boring jobs that make us look desperately for ways of escaping, even if temporarily on vacation, or by diving into Netflix or whatever other form of “screen junkie” we are. In other words, a mass transformation in both traditional and new forms, into deadlihoods.
And now with COVID, all forms of both livelihoods as also jobs are impacted; according to the International Labour Organisation, about 400 million may have lost employment in the first half of 2020, and in the second half, there will be a loss of between 34 to 340 million depending on how the economy recovers or a second wave of COVID hits. These figures, dire as they are, do not reveal the huge stress on other essentials for well-being, including hunger.
Is this therefore then an opportunity to re-assess the nature of work, re-evaluate what we mean by jobs, create pathways to re-establish livelihoods in their full sense, resilient to shocks, and ensuring security of basic needs especially food? Can this happen in all kinds of rural and urban contexts, traditional and modern? What needs to change for this to happen?
Challenging the fundamentals
Orthodox “developmentality” has held that progress is about societies moving from a predominant dependence on the primary sector to secondary and tertiary (and now increasingly into digital and knowledge economy). Ironically, therefore, farming, forestry, pastoralism, fisheries, and nature-based crafts, all livelihoods that have kept human society going for tens of thousands of years (and still do), and sustained the elements of nature that sustain us, are labeled “backward”. This is what is taught to us in school; we are told that to “develop”, we must leave them behind, or consider them fit only for “uneducated” and “illiterate”, or to ogle at as an exotic past in some museum.
In India, this sector still directly employs or supports over half its population. But because conventional economic accounting is blind to the enormous contribution it makes (including feeding, for “free”, hundreds of millions of people who would otherwise have to be fed by the state or corporations), and because it values manufacturing and services (and increasingly, the financial markets) as higher, the primary sector is badly neglected. Poor prices for their produce, landgrabbing for mining and megaprojects and urban sprawl, environmental destruction and other forces add to the crisis.
The results are massive unemployment and underemployment, and tens of millions have been pushed out and forced to become labour in industries and cities, or rendered so destitute they are not even able to feed their families. Perhaps the most telling outcome is the world’s largest number of farmer suicides, something like 300,000 in the last decade or so. Less dramatically visible but equally devastating impacts like the displacement of entire communities of people from their farms, forests, and coasts, according to one estimate about 60 million in the last 5-6 decades. Quieter and almost invisible is the pauperization of those still left in their homes but deprived of the natural resources they depended on, as their lands and waters get taken away for industry, infrastructure and cities.
For a moment, let us take on the developmentalists’ argument that this process of moving from primary to secondary and tertiary is inevitable and desirable. They argue that anyway, no-one wants to continue jobs that were full of hard labour, even drudgery; and to some extent they appear to be right, as the younger generations in these communities aspire to urban, modern jobs. Leaving aside for a moment the underlying reasons for such aspirational shifts (to which I will return later), let's look at what we are replacing such “drudgery” with.
For the vast majority of people displaced, the “modern” sector has either no employment at all (people who can make an exquisite shawl with their hands, are suddenly “unskilled”), or insecure, exploitative and unsafe jobs at construction sites, mines, industries, dhabas, and other places. It boggles the mind, how anyone can think of these as less drudgery and hardship than, say, farming?
Well over 90% of Indian jobs are in the informal sector. Admittedly, this includes a few million people who still have access to relatively intact ecosystems supporting dignified self-employment. But it also includes an increasing number of people insecurely and exploitatively employed in the above ways; they are for the most part labourers without identity, kicked out at any employer’s fancy, underpaid, with no rights to decent and safe working or living environment. There has never been focused attention on how to make such jobs more secure, dignified and organized, including by dominant trade unions. It is these people that constituted the vast majority of workers who found themselves on the streets, walking back to their villages in some cases a thousand kilometres away when India’s Prime Minister announced a sudden lockdown on March 24th.
But are the rich better off? In terms of renumeration, most certainly… indeed much better off, if one considers the recent studies: 10% of India’s rich hold 77% of its wealth; globally, 1% of the richest own 42% of the world’s wealth, and just 26 billionnires own as much as 50% of the world's poorest people. But what about the quality of work that the financially better off engage in, or indeed the quality of their lives?
One of the fastest growing sectors across the world is the IT industry. Behind its glamour and glitz, there is the sad story of the majority of its employees being just cogs in a vast assembly line stretching across the globe. Early morning to late night, slouched on a computer terminal, tracking financial market fluctuations day after day, or responding to customer service calls (including Indians trained to sound American in ways parodied in Hollywood movies), or trolling “enemies of the state” without ever understanding the issues involved, or pushing out unending news feeds (without worrying about the ethics of some or a lot of it being fake).
How many of these people can honestly say that these are not deadlihoods, killing the human spirit, destroying or suppressing our independence and our innate creativity? How many can say that they are actually enjoying their work? How many can say they don’t distinguish between weekdays and weekends, for while the latter may be different from the former, both are enjoyable in their own ways? Why do we wait so restlessly for the workday to end, or for the weekend to come? Why is “retail therapy”, supposedly helping to gain happiness by going shopping, such a big business? Are we fit to be called Homo sapiens, or should we more honesty change it to Homo stupidus (or Homo mechanicus)?
It is not funny, how many people have expressed envy about my enjoying my work. And over the last few years the number of modern sector “professionals” who I’ve met, especially IT, who want to opt out and do more creative things, or work on the land, has been increasing. When young people no longer find satisfying livelihoods in either the traditional or the modern sectors, there is something dreadfully wrong, no?
Can we move towards fulfilling livelihoods?
I do not mean to say that all modern jobs are deadening; many have been able to carve out meaningful and enjoyable professions for themselves. But they are an exceptional minority. Nor do I want to sound like I am glorifying traditional livelihoods, for I am well aware that there were (and are) many aspects of inequality (caste, gender, etc.), exploitation, and even drudgery in the socio-economic circumstances of communities practicing them. This needs struggle and transformation towards equality and dignity; but it does not mean getting rid of the livelihoods themselves. These have been ways of life that knew how to harness and work with nature, through collective human endeavour, creating the conditions for human survival and well-being. And of course this essence, of being connected with the surrounding and oneself, being able to express one’s identity in one’s products, being aware of the socio-cultural relations in which livelihoods are embedded, can also pervade modern sector jobs … converting them into livelihoods too. If I love producing open source software knowing it will be of use to lots of people who can’t afford to pay, if I can convert my skills to creating enterprises that work within nature and provide opportunities to even the most “disabled” person, if I can quietly walk through a forest as a field biologist in sync with nature, if I can create an enjoyable learning environment for children as a teacher, I am practicing a livelihood, not a deadlihood.
And so we find counter-trends in all sectors of the economy. In Kachchh, western India, innovations in the production of handloom woven cloth from organic cotton, have revived the craft. Young men who had gone off to work in industries are coming back into it, and women who were never weaving (though they would do much of the pre-loom work) are now sitting on the loom expressing their creativity. According to them, this is not only about earning a livelihood (which is of course significant) but also about being in control of their own time, working at home with the family, being able to express creativity and innovation, and carrying on the community’s heritage. They also happily use “social media” to network with weavers and consumers elsewhere, and market their produce.
Across the world, there are exciting initiatives at sustaining or enhancing the value of satisfying livelihoods, often a mix of the traditional and the new, using hybrid knowledge and value systems. Agroecology, decentralised renewable energy, ethical hacking, social and solidarity enterprises, free repair spaces, transition practice to zero-carbon living, ecologically friendly architecture, local water harvesting, and hundreds of other such occupations are mushrooming, even if still marginal compared to the dominant economy; and they are based on or linking to diverse worldviews, some ancient, some new. I recall meeting young people in Greece and the Czech Republic, some years back, who had set up non-profit or solidarity retail, cafes, or other enterprises, where the main motive was to earn an enjoyable living rather than insane profits, and to make their business socially relevant. We have helped document hundreds of alternative initiatives in India. These have refused to go down the road of deadlihoods that capitalist modernity tries to force them into.
The need for mind-heart shifts
For this to spread more, and to effectively challenge the might of the military-industry-state complex, we need to greatly enhance networking and weaving of the resistance and alternative movements around the world. But we also need mind-heart shifts in all generations. For this reason, one of the most important transformations is in the education sector, for it is when we are small that we learn what is to be respected and rejected in life. In formal schools around the world, conventional curricula and methods teach us the unilinear way of thinking of progress (primary to secondary to tertiary, traditional to modern, rural to urban). Children of craftspersons are taught that their parents are in an outmoded occupation, and that they need to get into “intellectual” pursuits. We have all grown in an atmosphere in which working with the mind is superior to physical labour; in India the caste system is partly justified on this premise. Our minds are trained, to the exclusion of building the capacity of hands, feet, and hearts (a combination that Gandhi emphasized in his Nai Taleem approach)… even physical activity is about competitive sports, in which victory over others is more important than anything else. Physical labour as dignified work (shorn, of course, of its casteist, racist or patriarchal clothes) has to be central to our upbringing as children… and all through our adult lives.
Also requiring fundamental change is the way our economy, including macro-economic policy and individual or group consumer choices, marginalize farming, crafts, etc. Both statism (domination by a centralized state) and capitalism alienate producers from the means of production, an insight that Marx so clearly gave us (at least with regard to capitalism). Re-establishing an ethic of the worker and his tools and her land and their knowledge being one indivisible whole, is part of re-asserting livelihoods rather than alienated jobs. This can come in many forms. For instance, community control over forests has been a crucial struggle for indigenous and other forest-dwelling communities across the world; in India, the Forest Rights Act of 2006 enabled this (though implementation is abysmally poor). Similarly, for industrial workers as for craftspersons, control over means of manufacturing, become vital. During my above-mentioned visit to Greece, I also visited a Vio-me, a detergents factory taken over by its workers after the owner declared bankruptcy. The workers run it democratically, have converted the machinery to produce ecologically safe cleaning agents, and have won support from nearby townspeople including consumers. They spoke quietly of how fulfilling their lives are now, compared to earlier when bossed around by the previous, capitalist owner.
Equally important is how “non-producers” value producers in such sectors. The horrendously low prices that farmers get for their produce, for instance, is a symptom of a society that has its priorities all wrong: we do not want to pay adequately to someone who produces our food but we are willing to pay through our noses for branded shoes and gadgets. We will haggle prices with the vegetable vender on the street, but never so when buying a branded product. In disrespecting entire ways of life, we are not even willing to pay for the basic economic survival of those who continue to traverse them … and who keep us alive!
Every time we think of nomadic animal herders as an anachronism in the modern world, let's consider this: in a few years or decades, even the modern jobs we have or cherish, could be taken over by robots. Artificial intelligence may displace humans in all fields of creativity and work; and robots may then sneer at IT professionals as outmoded and inefficient. Arthur C. Clarke’s I Robot seemed like utter fantasy when published; it seems eminently plausible a scenario now.
So if we don’t want such a future, we have to heed the voices of those who are struggling to sustain ancient livelihoods in new and socially just contexts, or creating new ones that are also fulfilling and respectful of nature and other humans. Each of us individually, and collectively with whatever community we identify with, could transition from being more fully human. More of Marx’s vision of being able “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic”. Or of Ivan Illich’s vision of convivial living, where we are not ruled by “professionals” but are our own experts in the basic things in life, while we also diversify and deepen our individual interests and skills and freely share them with others.
We have some serious choices to make, and what better time than now, when we have a great opportunity to refashion our society? When in fact we have seen how the COVID crisis has required, and brought out in a lot of us, the ethic of solidarity, of empathy, with tens of thousands of people stepping up to help in relief work when they could simply have been sitting at home? We could succumb to the authoritarian tendencies of many governments and the profit-making of greedy corporations (Amazon leading the way), or we could build on the solidarity expressed in these four months, coupled with movements of resistance and alternatives, to envision and struggle towards something very different.
At the very least, in whatever way we can, let us question a system that forces so many of us and our fellow citizens into deadlihoods, and seek pathways of sustaining or re-establishing fulfilling livelihoods.
1 Kothari A., Why do we wait so restlessly for the workday to end and for the weekend to come?, Scroll.in, 2016.