Thursday, 11 August 2011

Irreducible human need

It seem a no-brainer that society/the economy/the planet needs to be organised to fulfil human need, and it's easy to sustain an argument that human need isn't being fulfilled, and therefore it could logically follow that society is not structured to fulfil it. Some problems are identified when we look at what people say they need. In part 3 of Brandy Hume's excellent RBE 101 videos on the web, she includes some footage from a video about Amartya Sen's Capability Approach - something I want to look into in more depth at some point.

An example used in the video segment is people saying they need a car. The presenter goes on to show quite simply that this is not (to use my term) an irreducible need. When pressed on why they needed a car, common answers revealed more irreducible needs, such as freedom, special identity, and affection (in that the car enabled visits to frends and family). It can easily be seen that these needs could be fulfilled (in part if not in full) by other means than car ownership or even car use.

We can apply the same approach to jobs. Now a job may provide opportunies for autonomy, mastery and purpose (Daniel Pink's components of motivation), but these could conceivably be provided by hobbies and voluntary work, but the obvious "need" is for money, but this is not an irreducible need. A better candidate is nutrition (probably via food). [OK we could all scientific and reduce nutrition to a biochemical level, but I think nutrition is sufficiently irreducible to make the point].

Because money has stood as a proxy for all the goods and services provided by the planet, such as nutrition and labour, it is hard to get away from the idea of a "need for jobs". We historically had to work to produce the food we needed for nutrition, but as productivity rocketed, much less work was needed for the same production and we are increasingly faced with the fact that money is no longer a good proxy for necessary work, yet it is the key to acquiring the means to fulfilling many of our needs. Instead of facing up to this flaw, we try to generate work for its own sake, in direct opposition to the efficiency we know makes more sense.

Given that our social system is so obvioulsy failing alongside the monetary system that is suppose to underpin and facilitate it, don't we need to re-examine how we organise society to fulfil irreducible human need? A good starting point would be the basic one of nutrition, or we might say subsistence.

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