An Interview with Frithjof Bergmann: Rethinking Work on a Global ScaleSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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What is New Work?
There is, in the foundational walls of New Work, two questions that stick out like knives: Yes or no, does freedom mean having choices, and if so are those choices as we experience them now hopelessly, abysmally less? Imagine you give a vegetarian the choice between pork and beef: just how much freedom have you bestowed with that choice? Any at all? Could picking political candidates only too often be like a choice between pork and beef? And when we shop, do we walk down long aisles and choose among a proliferation of junk that we do not want? I hope these questions throw a shaft of sunlight onto the question that so many, in one massed chorus, have asked: Free? Really? For the last 200 years? If we are free, then freedom has certainly not lived up to the expectations it once so gleamingly raised.
If being given the choice among things you do not want is a hoax, a spoof pulling you by the nose, then to want differently might be the key. Perhaps freedom requires the chance to do something that you in earnest and seriously want. Being free, then, is for the person who acts hell-bent from the rock bottom of his or her passionate soul.
If so much more is needed to free us, and if the direction we must move in is so different from the one we supposed, then what would be the meaning, the aspect, even just the sheer feeling of freedom in this more authentic and demanding sense? And what arrangements and institutions, what structure of a social order would lead to the realization, to the implementation of this idea? In the fewest possible words, New Work is one answer to that round and sweeping question
The last section of my book, On Being Free deals with the subject of work. Tellingly, that is not how other books on freedom end. So, why work? For one, because in the realm of work the contrast between indifference and serious desire is starker than in any human endeavor. Much of work is horrific; it maims and disfigures people, physically and emotionally. But work also has an opposite pole; it can be ecstatic and entrancing, so much so that "sex has to be good indeed to stand the competition with the most delicious and fantastic work."
The second reason drives the point closer to home: many other activities besides work are similarly polarized, but there are few in which political change can be effectively and usefully applied. New social institutions and laws cannot assure that most people will have a blissful love life. But in the realm of work a transformation in that direction can be achieved! In its twenty-year history the community associated with New Work has developed a gamut of strategies designed to liberate people from "soul-killing," "mind-extinguishing," and "body-maiming" work. More arduously we seek to help "plain folk" perform work that inspires them and gives them more energy, work that lifts them to higher levels of vitality, vigor and life. Demonstrating that meaningful work is possible is one of the achievements of New Work. The techniques we have developed to help people discover what kind of work they "really, really want," and also the history of our successes (and failures) I am describing in a book on New Work that is now close to complete.
Our view of human nature is diametrically opposed to the platitudes of our culture: human beings are not by nature rapacious and intent only on their own advantage. Far from it, the vast majority is frail, easily intimidated, and has great trouble even answering the question, what is it that you seriously want?
On this score, New Work is practical and serious: if you really want to strengthen people, then the promulgation of a new consciousness, or of new values (as advocated by Nietsche and the Western philosophical tradition) will not be very effective. But changing work - creating a system that allows people to work at something in which they believe - has a chance. Once people discover their desires in relation to work, their understanding might spill over into other aspects of their lives. They might even uncover what they seriously desire in love.
December 16, 1998
J: Your projects appear now more than ever to be going "international," but what resources here at Michigan helped you lay the foundations for New Work?
Bergmann: I feel that teaching in particular has been of enormous value to the development of New Work. Teaching has given me an opportunity to get feedback, suggestions and criticism, but also positive reinforcement on a project that, bit by bit, little stone by little stone, has evolved for over 20 years.
J: What are the drawbacks to working in an academic setting?
Bergmann: Let me give a moment's backdrop. During the 60s I knew Herbert Marcuse, who had written many books and was considered at the time the intellectual leader of the left. But despite being a leader of the left he wrote in sentences that nobody except another philosopher could have any interest in deciphering, let alone really understand. It is, nonetheless, extremely difficult in the academic world to write simply and still be taken seriously. The prevailing attitude is that if an idea is comprehensible it can't be good.
But the great thing about teaching in a university is that you have an audience that lets you know if you are comprehensible or not. Many academics think, "Okay, I have to teach, that's how I earn my living. But that's not my real work. My real work is what I write for my colleagues." For the last 15 years I have made it a top priority to find ways to communicate with people outside my professional circle. And if I can't communicate with students then I'm certainly not going to be able to communicate with people on the street.
J: What new opportunities do you see outside academia?
Bergmann: Some time ago, a close associate said, "Frithjof, where is your market?" And it then struck me that my market is every place in the world except the United States. Everywhere people realize that something major has to be adjusted with respect to work, from Russia, China, and Japan to Thailand, Malaysia, and South America. All around the world, the future of work, the transition to new forms of work, the absence of work, and the lack of the right training for work have become the most burning issues.
Why not in the United States? Bergmann: The United States is like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, though sooner or later the head has to come out or the ostrich will simply suffocate. We've been hyped into being optimistic, into feeling that everything is wonderful, and that the current job system functions to redistribute the social wealth. On another level we know that isn't true. We understand very well that poverty is increasing, that something like 40 percent of all children in the U.S. grow up in poverty. The current system, however, has been successful enough that it will take a jolt to awaken us. I think that maybe that jolt has almost arrived.
J: Of all the places where New Work ideas are taking hold, Germany has emerged as the most prominent. Why?
Bergmann: Germans themselves often ask me, "Why are you here? What calls you?" There are two sides to the answer. The notion of having work, identifying with work, and gaining the meaning of your existence through work is more embedded in Germany than any place else. Germany is identified with its capacity to work. Everyone knows that when a product says, "Made in Germany," it really means something. It is no accident that Porches and Mercedes and BMW's have a certain prestige.
But this is only one side of the picture. The other side is that while in no place is one as committed to work as in Germany, in no place is the pressure to distance oneself from traditional ways of working as great. It is like in the Middle Ages when people argued about what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. It's ironic, because the Germans always feel that they are dull and uninteresting when it comes to imagining new ways of working. I tell them, on the contrary, at this moment Germany is the place of greatest drama because the conflict over work is carried out with the greatest intensity.
J: And the continuing economic hardships posed by the reunification of the Bundesrepublik with the former East Germany must only add to the tension.
Bergmann: Yes, precisely. Even while on one hand there is this strong allegiance to work, on the other there are great forces pushing people out of it. In their minds this is like one of Kepler's laws no longer functioning. That is, if an economy can be as successful as their economy and out-produce and outsell everybody else, why is it the case that work becomes scarcer? The coming together of these two facts is like a paradox. It splits their brains.
The result is that Germans, as staid and as conventional as they are, come right out and say, "We need a new approach. We need a whole new take on the situation because none of the old things seem to be true anymore and none of the conventional suggestions, such as increasing productivity, have fixed the problems."
J: The Hanover Exhibition 2000 appears to be looking for new answers. How is New Work going to showcase itself there?
Bergmann: Inside the Hanover Exhibition, "The Future of Work" is the single biggest topic, which is not surprising. As I stated earlier, if you look outside of the United States, the future of work is the issue. On top of that, in all of the introductory material about the fair, the organizers say they are not interested in some new gimmick. They want someone to show that technology can be used differently, that it can serve a different purpose. How, for example, can new technology be combined with a respect for humanity and the environment? Well, I became very excited when I read their materials because the exhibition is tailor-made for New Work. Once I spoke with the organizers they said, "Wow, this fits."
But on the future of work, who has anything to say? I very often feel like the one-eyed king among the blind. It's not that I have such good eyes, it's just that nobody else has thought about this issue with any kind of intensity, while I decided in 1980 that I would do little else. Other people, when they talk about the future of work, are instantly reduced to insipid and abstract slogans like, "Of course we have to get more flexible," or "Of course we have to get used to changing jobs," etc. But what we need are not small tinkering adjustments but changes of a quite different magnitude.
J: Give us an example.
Bergmann: I have struggled for years with the idea of how to make visible and dramatic the fact that on a technologically advanced plane we can do things for ourselves. In this respect I have had the most incredible fortune, because though I never anticipated it, there has evolved a very different way to make cars. Meanwhile, I have a relationship with the car industry dating back to 1981. With machines a whole level above those of the last great industrial period we can now make our own cars. Making these cars requires only a small group of people, relatively little capital, and a few tools. The huge companies, with their centralized, hierarchically organized bureaucracies, are obsolete. The next major development will be small, mini-plants with only very few but vastly more flexible and productive machines. One can imagine 15 or 20 such small plants electronically linked together which produce all the parts needed to make a car.
J:Isn't it cheaper to buy these products from someone else?
Bergmann: It is right now, but it may not be much longer. For example, think about what you spend to purchase a house when you could participate in its construction directly (and there are of course lots of people in this country moving in that direction). If you visit a building warehouse, many of the products are already designed for inexperienced people to do their own building. So in construction self-providing is already visible, and the reason is that it is cost-efficient to be so. In financing a house you pay approximately twice what it is worth - half of your total cost is in interest payments. From the perspective of New Work you put yourself through 30 years of servitude in order to pay off a mortgage. If you put some labor and technology into your house you can enormously reduce the cost. New Work can show you how, and this we do for many people with great success.
J: So, assuming it costs less, what about the difficulty presented by consumer culture? America is a society of shoppers, not producers.
Bergmann: But even in the United States there are already very large numbers of people who are fed up with the consumer culture. They are saying, "To hell with all of these choices among various kinds of trash, we don't want the junk you are selling us." Our approach toward Christmas is a good example. Spending has become for us an absurd situation. We buy things for people that they feel embarrassed receiving. If people are materialistic it is because being so is the only option left open. It is all they can do.
The underlying notion that people are avid consumers because they are fundamentally egoistic seems very doubtful to me. An expression I use a great deal is that people more nearly suffer from "a poverty of desire." Many people are baffled if you ask them, so what do you seriously want? Though I don't have space to develop these ideas here, I believe one could use them to develop a critique of modern political philosophy. Much of the machinery of modern political philosophy has assumed that people know what they want. That seemed simple enough, and therefore one created a system that allowed people to translate those wants into political or consumer choices. But if people have great trouble discovering what they seriously want, then a lot of this machinery is spinning its wheels up in the air. This brings us to another aspect of New Work, namely our centers for New Work. A Center for New Work is, among other things, an institution that helps people discover what they really, really want. If this can be accomplished, the machinery, at long last, might begin to make sense.
Some postmodernists have said that reason failed us. Baloney. Reason has so far not been tried. We never got to the place where we could exert our reason to understand this social machinery. But we can still do it. It is not the case that history is coming to an end, that it is running down or is over; on the contrary, so far 80 percent of humanity has lived only a crippled existence. If we could use technology so people could do more work that they seriously want to do, and do less work that they must do - which is the essence of what New Work advocates - then in some sense History could at long last begin!
J: Assuming these technologies could one day be readily available, can they really overcome the massive inequalities that characterize the world economy?
Bergmann: I decided a very long time ago that the very concept of equality was a booby trap, a hole that you fall into with bamboo spikes that pierce your body in different places. I am in good company: Emanuel Kant said that equality is too tricky to be trusted. Because I do not trust the concept I do not aim for "equality" or claim that it will occur. We should work rather to address the real hunger and disease experienced by most of the world's population so that some minimum of a decent quality of life is achieved for everybody. That is a goal worth striving for and I think New Work can help attain it through high-tech self-providing.
J: Let me rephrase the question then: how will New Work principles help achieve a more just redistribution of the world's wealth?
Bergmann: Some people attribute the possibility for change to the Internet, that it will have an immense democratizing effect, but I don't believe that. Real change, however, is possible through decentralized manufacturing, or what I call "New Work Manufacturing." This holds the promise of unsettling the elites and creating a redistribution of power. The task of the second half of my book will be to argue that.
But we are working on other projects as well. Recently I had an opportunity in Berlin to talk with some of the leading bureaucrats that administer very large amounts of money to alleviate the pains of unemployment. It is clear that what was done in the past has not worked. I made a very specific suggestion: instead of allocating funds to push people into jobs that don't exist or to train them for jobs they don't want to perform, why not create scholarships or grants like for students in the U.S.? Make the grants competitive so that anyone with a really good idea has an incentive to apply. We give Guggenheim fellowships to those who want to write a novel or get tenure. Why not make grants available for unemployed people?
The money needs to be channeled in a different direction, made available on different terms. It is interesting to note that the other people participating in this discussion said it has to be completely without bureaucracy. People must have access to these opportunities in an immediate way. I could imagine these grants working well in any number of countries.
J: What is the next great frontier for New Work?
Bergmann: Possibly China. There are 150 million people in China who have recently lost their jobs and are now a sort of floating refugee population. They aren't going to find employment. In addition, the government is only now beginning to downsize its bureaucracy so there will be additional great numbers of people looking for work and not finding it.
J: Those in power in these countries are bound to recognize the threat that New Work represents to their control over production. Won't they squash your efforts, or simply relegate them to the fringe of their reform projects?
Bergmann: Let me say that from the beginning people have said that whatever I'm doing is a nice little thing, that it has its charm, but that I'm just a mouse. The cat will allow the mouse to play for a little while until it puts a paw on the mouse's neck and kills it. In a conversation with a leading Michigan financier we discussed whether the big car industries would destroy New Work with one blow, or how will they react? But we are in a world now that even if they wanted to stop us it wouldn't be easy because the news that this can be done is spreading at a speed that was unimaginable before. Even if they wipe it out in five places it will grow up in 15 new ones.
In the past the mega-industries had enormous power because they provided everybody with work. But they don't do this anymore. We're gradually waking up to the fact that the goose that used to lay the golden eggs has long stopped. And so we don't have to be so deferential to them anymore. Many governments still practice a kind of "cargo-cult" when it comes to the big companies and will perform all manner of rituals so that they will only settle in Ohio, or Germany, or Honduras. But it is very expensive to get a company to come and it doesn't do much when it gets there. Also, as the great industries become more and more one gigantic industry, they become more susceptible to one gigantic collapse.
J: Like a teetering giant.
Bergmann: I look forward to the point where we will dictate to them, where they will be as irrelevant as people say politics is becoming now. And of course this power shift has everything to do with the development of an alternative mode of production. As high-tech, self-providing increases, we smile at the people who say, "We will give you computers," and respond: "Thank you very much we are making our own computers. And they're cheaper and better than yours." The case that will demonstrate this at the Hanover Exhibition is the car, which could not be more fortunate. The car has an incredible symbolic status all over the world. The one thing that signals whether a country is successful or not is the number of cars it has on the road and the years in which they were built.
J: What is the best way to make these technologies available?
Bergmann: After 16 or 17 years of working by long trial and error, experience has shown me that the mechanisms that lead to a successful implementation of our principles are Centers for New Work, and nothing less. Grants and stipends alone will not do it; what you really need is a Center for New Work, with all the personnel and resources. There is not time here to spell out what a center comprises but I would maintain that in a country like Nicaragua, for instance, a center for New Work would make sense and would work.
J: How is New Work going to configure itself in relation to other organizations as it increasingly becomes an "international" player?
Bergmann: I published an essay years ago called, "The Future of Work." I concluded the piece by saying that one of the hopes of this project is that it can make its presence ubiquitous. New Work doesn't have only one place where it can set its wedge and hammer away at things. It can act with young people in schools, in the boardroom with business leaders, with unemployed people, and with governments. It can form alliances with environmentalists, with people who reject excessive consumption, with people who are concerned with the not - developing countries, and with those who want to work at something in which they really believe. It is precisely this sense of spread, that there is nothing where we can't get our two cents, that gives me hope for New Work.
Frithjof Bergmann is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan. He is also director of New Work, an organization that emerged in the early 80s in response to the massive layoffs of GM workers in Flint, Michigan. Originally intended to give people practical guidance in exploring new employment opportunities, New Work has come to embrace a more ambitious program dedicated to reformulating the way people conceive of and engage in their work. Essentially, New Work involves giving employers the leeway to cut costs and boost productivity through automation; spreading jobs more equitably to make it easier for people to work shorter, more flexible hours; and turning workers into "high-tech self-providers," able to manage their personal lives more efficiently and spend more time in entrepreneurial ventures, education, family care and other meaningful activities of their own choosing. As Bergmann explains, the labor-saving power of automation has been "ludicrously underestimated." In the highly competitive market of modern capital societies, people will need fresh approaches to work that are better suited to a leaner labor environment.
New Work has established over 20 offices worldwide, from Mullhausen, Germany to Vancouver, British Columbia. With an $80,000 grant from the Mott Foundation, the Detroit Eastside Coalition of Churches has established the Entrepreneurial Development Center (EDC) based on New Work principles. The center teaches neighborhood residents computer skills, ways of packaging and marketing ideas, and where to look for seed money. In Vancouver, New Work's 1993 "Living Wall Garden Project" taught young people how to build "BioBlock" gardens, which are wooden containers that produce high-yield vegetable crops but that can be installed on city rooftops. As Bergmann points out, projects like these teach people valuable skills while the "fruits" of their labor stay in the community.
From June 1 to October 31, 2000, Bergmann will be participating in the Hanover EXPO 2000. The exhibition's motto is, "Humankind, Nature and Technology," and subjects cover issues of the environment, food and nutrition, education, and the future of labor. Some 40 million people are expected to visit the exhibition. For information about the New Work exhibit or any of the ongoing New Work projects worldwide, check the New Work web site at www.newwork.net or contact Frithjof Bergmann directly at email@example.com. He was interviewed by Journal editor John Ramsburgh on October 7, 1998.