The only 3 ways of making a living: Reflections on sustaining life

Yesterday, I had a breakthrough in how I think about economic relationships when these are understood in the most basic terms possible. The occasion for my thinking about this question is my upcoming fall course, ‘The Good Life and Sustaining Life,’ at Kaos Pilots. There are three principal questions that make up the course I’ll be teaching:

1.) What are the conceptions of the good life that are available to us in modernity? (I lay out a schema of these conceptions in this post.)

2.) What is sustaining life?

3.) How is it possible to sustain the good life in a way that is consonant with this way of life?

Elsewhere, I have argued that the third question is perhaps one of the most vexing questions for those of us living in ‘unsettled time.’ In this post, however, I am concerned to provide a sketch of an answer to question 2.

To sustain a life is, of course, to survive. How most human beings have sustained a life is by making a living. But then making a living just means making concerted, lawful efforts in order, day after day, to meet one’s material needs as well as those of one’s dependents. These material needs are food, water, shelter, transportation, warmth when it is frigidly cold, coolness when it is threateningly hot. (Other things like health are not a material need. Being healthy means, in part but not in whole, just surviving.)

I believe there are three and only three ways in which one can make a living, with these three ways capable of mixing in some fashions but not in others.* I will formulate these ways of making a living as injunctions or maxims.

I. Use what you’ve got.

The ‘getting’ part refers to acquiring something or other. The ‘using’ part may have as its referent land, waste, plants, animals, tools, people, etc.

Examples of using what you’ve got: Hunting and gathering, forcing people into slavery, foraging, subsistence farming, fishing, Skyping, drinking from a well on own’s land, permaculture, mining, drilling for oil, etc.

II. Exchange what’s in hand.

By ‘in hand,’ I mean what is available to me. It could be my skills or ideas; it could be my money or property; it could be stock; it could be my labor; etc.

Examples: buying and selling, providing a service, brokering a deal, creating a patentable product, wage laboring, contracting, bartering/swapping, renting, etc.

III. Offer what you can.

Examples: sharing, giving, borrowing/lending (without interest), requesting, doing a favor, helping (another in need).

NB. I believe this list of examples is complete.

When one engages in any economic relationship, one is, I submit, performing one or more of these social acts.What will emerge in future posts will be the confusions we fall into when we move impermissibly from one category to another. For instance, an unskilled fundraiser is someone who is supposed to be asking for a donation, yet he proceeds as if he were robbing you or begging for alms (I) or as if he were making an exchange (II). A second example: I believe this schema accounts for why the caring profession is not well-paid: because it confuses what was hitherto an instantiation of III with what is now a commercial relationship (II), one whose vocabulary is desperately muddled.

What will also come out in future posts will be the sorts of appropriate addressees for each category. In Category I, the addressee is ‘up for grabs.’ In Category II, one is addressing a stranger. In Category III, one is addressing either a friend or someone with whom one is on friendly terms.

*I owe this breakthrough in part to Pete Sims of Kaos Pilots. It was Pete who pointed me to Jane Jacobs’s Systems of Survival, a work that, though potted in its dialogical format, carries some important insights nonetheless. Jacobs thinks that the two ways that people have made a living are ‘taking’ and ‘trading.’ I have modified her thesis for reasons I won’t spell out in this post.