Utopian thinking: let’s embrace precariousness as the road to security

Bruce Chatwin understood how ‘civilisation’ represses our need to wander. The ‘gig economy’ may allow us to ditch the ballast of routine for the tonic of change

Utopian thinking: let’s embrace precariousness as the road to security
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A Tuareg camel rider in Niger’s Ténéré desert ‘exemplifies the lifestyle pursued by nomadic pastoralists.’
Photograph: Alamy

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This article titled “Utopian thinking: let’s embrace precariousness as the road to security” was written by Tom Whyman, for The Guardian on Monday 20th February 2017 07.59 UTC

With artificial intelligence and the robot revolution helping to destroy traditional forms of employment, the world of work is being profoundly transformed. Traditional jobs are being replaced by the so-called gig economy, in which workers perform a selection of piecemeal roles for different employers.

I guess that’s me too. Since completing my PhD a year and a half ago, I’ve mixed temporary lecturing gigs with freelance writing work (such as this article). It works pretty well for me: I get to spend my life discussing the ideas I’m interested in and how they relate to the world; I mostly get to set my own schedule, be my own boss and – generally speaking – earn enough money to get by.

Nonetheless, I still find myself spending quite a lot of my time applying for full-time academic lecturing and research jobs – because what I really want, deep down, is security. I want an income I can rely on, month by month. But sometimes I’ll reflect on the ideas of one of my favourite writers, Bruce Chatwin, and I’ll think: I should be careful what I wish for. Chatwin is best known as a travel writer, and his ideas are explicitly fragmentary and unsystematic, but they nevertheless form something coherent enough to be given a label. I call his philosophy “nomadism”.

The general idea is that civilization, settled life in general, is bad for human beings. According to Chatwin there is a convincing body of evidence – psychological, anthropological, archaeological, even epidemiological – to support the hypothesis that our earliest ancestors were essentially migratory, and that the need to wander survives in us, often unrealised, as an instinct.

Bruce Chatwin
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‘According to Bruce Chatwin, there is a convincing body of evidence that the need to wander survives in us, often unrealised, as an instinct.’ Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
We know that this instinct survives in us through what happens when we sit too still: monotonous surroundings and tedious routines make us fatigued, depressed, even violent; they lead us to seek cathartic release through habits we know are likely to drive us to an early grave. Moreover, Chatwin considers that the compulsion of civilisation to repress our wanderlust is what leads to hierarchy, authority, and the fear of the unknown: thus, ultimately, to totalitarian repression and even genocide.

If settled life is bad for human beings, then what must be good for us is a migratory life lived largely on the road. Chatwin sometimes cites individual exemplars of this mode of life: homeless people or travelling salesmen who he’s met, Che Guevera, the travel writer Robert Byron, the Chinese poet Li Po. But it is most particularly exemplified in the lifestyle pursued by nomadic pastoralists – tribes, from the Tuareg to the Tartars to the Mongols to the Lapps who live, or lived, by following herds of animals such as goats, sheep or reindeer from pasture to pasture, in ways dictated largely by the seasons.

Nomads often figure in the settled imagination as “primitive”, but central to Chatwin’s philosophy is the idea that the nomadic and “civilised” ways of life emerged, at least in Eurasia, together – during the neolithic revolution in the Fertile Crescent circa 8,500BC. The nomads domesticated livestock; the city dwellers are the descendants of the first farmers who cultivated grain. Nomadic life thus constitutes a robust alternative political order to the settled one – an order that is able to accommodate, rather than repress, our migratory instincts.

For millennia, nomadism and civilisation existed side by side, their interaction often marked by mutual hostility. But gradually the “civilised” have triumphed over the wanderers, and made more and more of the world settle down. It is not hard to see why: technological and therefore military advantages aside, settled life seems to be able to offer its practitioners a life marked by the security of knowing where you will be, what you ought to be doing at all times – building towards a future that you can say with some degree of certainty you’ll be able to possess.

It is significant, then, that – in the conditions that have given birth to the gig economy – we now see the promise of “settled” security beginning to unravel. Neoliberalism, with its hostility to welfare and belief that the “natural” forces of the market ought to be unleashed, should be considered nothing other than the state’s abdication from any duty to enforce general conditions of security for its members.

So no matter how empowering it can be to “be your own boss”, the advent of the gig economy primarily just means more people living precariously, struggling to approximate a sort of security we still want but are increasingly finding ourselves unable to possess. Reflecting on Chatwin’s ideas might help us to see how the erosion of settled security could get us something more than that, something better.

Deliveroo rider
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‘For someone like the Deliveroo driver, flexible hours are dictated by other peoples’ mealtimes.’ Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
Nomads might not have the same sort of security as the settled, but nor do they pursue a disordered, wholly insecure mode of existence. The settled might (ideally) be able to lay claim to the security of homes, property, and routines – but for Chatwin, this is really ersatz, since in truth it will lead only to boredom and despair, and ultimately to repressive authoritarian violence.

The nomad, by contrast, is able to lay claim to the deeper security of the road, knowing that there is always something just as good or better in the next pasture. A great illustration of this is provided by Chatwin in the form of a quote he finds in a 19th-century traveller’s account, articulating the attitude of the Bedouin towards religious authority: “We will go up to God and salute him … and if he proves hospitable, we will stay with him: if otherwise, we will mount our horses and ride off.”

The security of the road is the utopian promise of the gig economy. What if these changes to the way employment works meant that a form of personal nomadism were possible? What if, by exchanging settled professions for piecemeal gigs, we were afforded the possibility of migrating from place to place, moving from gig to gig, perhaps – like the pastoralists – with the seasons? We might not be able to accumulate property indefinitely, but we would live a life constantly enlivened by new experiences, new friends and colleagues, washed down every few months or so with the sure tonic of change.

At the moment, gig economy workers are unable to lay claim to this form of security. I myself always feel somehow weighed down, tied to my desk by the compulsion to be constantly at a computer, writing or online; tied to my house by my neuroses about my health and finances, by a poor transport system, by the dull ballast of routine. This situation can only be worse for someone like the Deliveroo driver whose “flexible” hours are dictated by other peoples’ mealtimes.

In truth the transformations our mode of life would need to undergo in order to unlock the spirit of nomadism are profound. We would need to radically alter our orientation towards housing, property, employment rights, tax and education – towards our very selves. And in particular, we would need to alter our attitude towards immigration, which is getting more and more closed every day.

A better world is possible – but if the gig economy is going to be put to work for real human purposes, we must fight for more openness in all things

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