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Workfare, energy and equity

Ivan Illich's ‘Energy & Equity’ shows how large-scale energy systems entail inequality, unfreedom, and loss of human dignity. The workfare debate between Aaron Peters and Tony Curzon Price ignores this crucial social and environmental dimension.

Aaron Peters and Tony Curzon Price, in their important exchange about workfare, both seem to accept a basically techno-utopian view of the future of hyper-automation. But this view ignores two crucial factors which make the fundamental picture much less rosy: the environmental constraint and global-scale immiseration on a global scale. Ivan Illich's ‘Energy & Equity’ (1973) is still the right place to start to understand the nexus involved.

To start with the last of these: the future scenario Keynes described in 1920 - in which increasing productivity make economics essentially disappear as a constraint in our lives has - contrary to what Peters and Curzon Price imply - only very partially been realised. One need only look at the sheer scale of global and intra-national inequality. Immiseration is widespread (and arguably increasing growing), at least partly because, since Keynes wrote, there has been a massive the global population has increased almost four-fold and there has been the emergence of an energy-environmental crisis of the first order (both of which Keynes did not envisage).

Bearing this in mind the fundamental problem we face in my opinion is therefore not primarily - as Keynes would have it – and accepted by Peters and Curzon Price - about the need to effect a transition towards greater leisure activity; nor is it primarily about the distribution of abundant social goods consequent on automated hyper-production (although this perspective is probably closer to the truth).

Instead I would argue that the material basis of the scenario described by Aaron Peters is unstable in relation to three primary factors – the systems’ energy requirements, environmental consequences and social impacts. Aaron and Tony clearly recognise the last mentioned of these problems and both investigate the capacity of workfare to address this source of instability. In so doing, Aaron very insightfully analyses the changing nature of work (including the so-called ‘cybernetic hypothesis), the growth of surplus labour (and even surplus population) under late capitalism, and the wider ‘crisis of the society of work’ as he refers to it. Tony, in his last paragraph, correctly notes “the conditions for this [i.e. hyper-automated] economy seem to be ones of very great inequality ... [and] global plutocracy”. Both seem to see a basic citizen’s income in return for workfare as a necessary and, in the case of Peters, potentially a progressive response, although Tony notes the severe constraints on the potential generosity of workfare payments within a capitalist system.

Although both writers therefore seem acutely aware of the potential adverse social impacts of increasing automation, neither appears to explicitly, or perhaps even implicitly, acknowledge and consider the potential constraints and impacts of the other two sources of instability identified, and the connections between all three. Indeed, both Aaron and Tony appear to treat increased automation – hyper-automation – as an inevitable fact of life unrelated to and unaffected by the issue of energy and its impacts - and also – apparently – immune to political control. Instead both their visions see hyper-automation as providing the basis for reduced labour time/increased leisure in society in general and, to some extent, funding a basic citizen’s income in return for workfare.

To me this is a decidedly second best solution – and furthermore one which is not sustainable in the longer-term.

One needs to understand however that energy - cheap, high quantity energy - has been key to creating this our whole industrial social system and keeping it going. In principle, while we have a host of strong motives, including climate change, environmental pollution, energy resource wars, and rising commodity prices, to wean ourselves off our current high energy (primarily) fossil fuel ‘drug’, unfortunately we also at the moment have stronger and deeply embedded motives not to: myths of social progress, scientific and technological development, consumerism, status, domination, luxury, and greed.

The relationship between energy and social relationships and politics was very presciently and insightfully analysed by Ivan Illich in ‘Energy & Equity’ (1973). Illich argued that high energy consumption is inversely correlated with equity and inevitably degrades social relations and human freedoms: below a certain threshold of per capita energy consumption he found that technology improves the conditions for equity and social progress, and that above this threshold - because of marginal disutility - energy grows at the expense of equity. In societies based on high energy consumption social relations must, he said, be dictated by technocracy which degrades the possibility of choice, autonomy and freedom.

In the end, this is my objection to Tony Curzon Price's entirely consistent advocacy of a nuclear power option for the near term in the UK. While it might be comforting to think that with massive nuclear expansion we have a time-limited, lower carbon emitting window of opportunity allowing us to, as he says "really work to sort out our lifestyles and technology for a truly sustainable future", I think the view is flawed. First of all, experience consistently shows that once we are accustomed to a certain level of energy – and energy growth - the incentive to voluntarily reduce it is severely proscribed through the creation of a nexus of interrelated ‘path dependencies’ within the technological, cultural, and social realms. The idea that we would therefore use this opportunity to make the changes we should is excessively optimistic. At best, such a period would be used to increase energy efficiencies and further develop cleaner energy substitutes. But Illich's critique goes deeper than that – as he persuasively argues, large-scale energy is ultimately the enemy of freedom and equality.

One constantly hears echoes of Weber’s concept of the ‘iron cage of rationalisation and bureaucracy’ in Illich’s thought. Further energy affluence means increased concentration of control over that energy with all its attendant political consequences. For Illich only participatory democracy creates the conditions for rational technology and participatory democracy is for him predicated on a low-energy technology society; conversely high energy consumption is correlated with increased technocracy and a closing of the 'iron cage'.

In short therefore, for Illich the greatest problem with high energy consumption and associated increased automation was not its negative environmental impacts (although this did concern him) – instead it was its social and political impacts, and he strongly believed that it was rapidly becoming necessary to assert political control over the market-driven technological development or reap the dire social and political consequences. Illich thus wrote:

"Even if non-polluting power were feasible and abundant, the use of energy on a massive scale acts on society like a drug that is physically harmless but psychically enslaving. A community can choose between Methadone and "cold turkey" - between maintaining its addiction to alien energy and kicking it in painful cramps - but no society can have a population that is hooked on progressively larger numbers of energy slaves and whose members are also autonomously active".

There's more danger though to the bind energy presents: the existence of abundant cheap clean energy – and increased automation - would also allow for a while a continuation of other serious environmentally destructive tendencies, including population growth, pollution, and pressure on water and other primary products - until eventually more and more people came up against the limits of those resources and impacts too.

The choice as I see it seems to be stark (though not a miserable one). Do we wish to live in a society where we are all autonomously free and equal, where we have choices how we wish to live, albeit with democratic control on high energy consumption and technological innovation, less automated labour, and fewer material goods in general? Or would we rather live in an unequal, unfree – and ultimately inhuman society where choice is regimented, limited and prescribed and where a minority have ever more - and innovative - material goods, personal services and leisure opportunities, predicated ultimately on automated labour and cheap energy, some provide cheap labour, and those not even that fortunate are propped up by workfare?

As far as I'm concerned I hope that we are forced to start ending our addiction to high per capita use of energy before the techno-utopianists manage to invent abundant and affordable clean energy to keep on powering automation (and paying for workfare). I see it as possibly our greatest hope of becoming free. Otherwise, I fear as Max Weber said: “[n]ot summer's bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness”.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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