Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Schools of Public Spirit, Plus Corvee


Hillsides as Schools of Public Spirit

By John Taylor; 2010 June 08, Nur 03, 167 BE

We have been describing a neighbourhood with dwellings that move around and whose residents enjoy full-service facilities. These provide even the poorest resident all the luxuries and time-saving services that only a tiny number of super-rich can afford today. Meals are served on time, laundry is completed and laid out, homes cleaned, and so forth. Pleasant as it is to think about what how we would enjoy this posh, leisured lifestyle, it is well to recall the parable of the servants and the master who promises to return like a "thief in the night."

"To whoever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom they deposit much, of him will they ask more." (Luke 12:48, WEB)

This necessary, reciprocal exchange of freedom for trust and obligation has been summed up as, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." In the case of hillside residents, it is milder, "The price of being served is to serve periodically as a volunteer." Or perhaps, "In exchange for being served, I will enrol myself in the School of Public Spirit."

The idea of such a school of public spiritedness comes from J.S. Mill, who believed that a healthy democracy can only come about when everybody engages in civic activities, by which a person "is made to feel himself one of the public, and whatever is for their benefit to be for his benefit." Such work is extremely edifying and should turn every resident from a free but selfish agent into a responsible, caring citizen.

"The moral part of the instruction afforded by the participation of the private citizen, if even rarely, in public functions" results in his being able to "weigh interests not his own, to be guided in case of conflicting claims, by another rule than his private partialities, to apply at every turn, principles and maxims which have for their reason of existence the common good." (J.S. Mill, Representative Government, cited in Mortimer Adler, Mortimer, The Great Ideas, A Lexicon of Modern Thought, "Democracy," Macmillan, New York, 1952 pp. 139-140)

Mill observed that national politics even in his time did not offer much opportunity to involve everybody in direct service. He suggested that local government may be the only practical alternative. Since the 19th Century when he wrote, it has gotten worse. Democracy on the national and even urban levels has become even more dependent on bureaucracies and professional consultants. The average citizen does little more than cast a vote every few years, if that.
The entire purpose of the consultative architecture of hillside projects is to fill the crucial need, pointed out by Mill, for each and all to provide some service, formal or spontaneous, in a professional and amateur capacity, to the entire community. The consultorium, the nerve center and multi-media hub of the neighbourhood complex, acts as a point of departure for researching and finding needs and eliciting acts of service from local people to fill those needs. A great demand for labour will be created by dividing each neighbourhood into blocks, and blocks into households, and households into families and individuals, with each of these groups entirely autonomous, vying with its peers in service of the public good.

The by-word of hillside projects is varied, universal public service by the public itself. Many job positions alternate workers, by lot, as in Ancient Athens. Some services alternate between expert professionals and temporary amateur volunteers from the general community. The labour market is designed to see that every citizen in the hillside has ample opportunity to try out many and various jobs, as both an amateur and as part of their trade. Each will have the chance to learn from each stint in serving the general good what kind of work is compatible with his or her knowledge, interests and inclinations. Local farms, workshops and kitchens, especially those majority-owned by the hillside cooperative, will be open to many kinds of alternative work arrangements, including volunteering and jobs with alternative remuneration, such as corvee labour.

Corvee is an ancient institution that, for good reason, has largely been abandoned. In its time, it was little distinguishable from slavery. It was often a way for tyrants to draft peasants to pay their taxes not with cash but by working arduously on large projects. The Great Wall of China and the roads of Ancient Rome, for example, were built on the backs of corvee labourers.

In the World Belt and hillside projects, though, corvee will be used benevolently, for very different purposes. Corvee will be an accounting innovation allowing workers to change temporary service projects into permanent jobs, or else, should they desire, do the reverse. That is, a clever employee may figure out a way to automate or otherwise eliminate the need for his or her position. This would not be self-defeating, since he or she can claim corvee credit in exchange, or seek other rewards for doing well.

Corvee is a tool to help bridge the large but invisible gap between amateur and professional, between paid work and unpaid volunteering. It will permit both rich and poor to benefit from the "school of public spirit" by doing volunteer work side-by-side, on an equal basis. Nobody will know whether a worker is a volunteer or a working for some kind of credit. For instance, a volunteer worker may wish to work Pro Bono on a project that he or she believes in, or, if money is tight and times are tough, to claim the equivalent wages as credit in taxes paid. A wealthier person would not have to do this and could work un-credited for the public good, or for badges on their escutcheon (We will discuss escutcheons, as well as corvee labour, at greater length in future sections of People without Borders).

The shifting, service oriented design of consultative housing should offer residents many varied and broad opportunities to learn lessons in the school of public spirit.


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