Thoughts On Work And Freedom
A reader asks: "Dear Rainsnow: Can you explain the idea of work which you write about in The Message of Rainsnow? It seems that you are against work, and believe the future of the world depends on the abolition of work. But I ask you, how could we survive without work? I donít like my job, and it looks like you like yours even less. But without jobs and work, we couldnít live. What the ***** are you talking about? - Puzzled and Irritated."
My answer: Puzzled & Irritated - how did you come up with that interpretation of my theories!? Of course, work is necessary! As Economics 101 teaches us, due to Scarcity, we must work, and organize ourselves to perform work and to distribute what we have produced or obtained through our work, in order to properly extract, develop, use, and benefit from the resources of the natural world, which we need to sustain our existence. The production of goods and services enough to meet our needs depends upon work. If only it were not so - if only we could sit beneath the trees of some tropical paradise, while mangoes and coconuts fell constantly into our hands! But you and I know, sad though it may be, that thatís not the real world.
What I object to is not the idea of work, which goes hand in hand with life, but some of the specific features of the economic and social system in which contemporary work takes place. I object to some elements of the nature and objectives of work, as it occurs within our civilization. And I insist that the following truth not be ignored: that work, for many of us, today, is not gratifying; that it is often demeaning and abusive, stealing away our energy and time; that it often leaves us feeling diminished and humiliated, infected with the sense that life is passing us by, and that we are getting nothing out of it. This anguish, which runs deep and strong beneath the surface of our apparent material successes, is deepened by our knowledge that human technological progress in the last four centuries has been astonishing, vastly enhancing our powers of production, and generating unheard-of potentialities for abundance. As many psychologists and philosophers have noted, why has this vast productive potential not been used to liberate human life from the drudgery, the routine, and the hardship of work? Not entirely, perhaps, but enough so as to restore some of the lost spirit of life; to reclaim something of the art of living from the compulsion to produce? Why are we still working as hard as ever? Why hasnít the increasing power of production lessened the man-hours each of us has to work, in order to survive, and resulted in more free time for us, more satisfaction, vitality, and joy?
In The Message Of Rainsnow, I try to explain this paradox. Here, I will do so again, in a briefer, perhaps drier, and certainly more succinct form, summarizing some of the points made there, and adding some others.
Greater Production Is Swallowed Up By An Increasing Population: There is some truth in this perspective. Material abundance is not increasing relative to a fixed population, but relative to a geometrically-increasing population. For this reason, our earthís increasing productive capacity is being "watered down" by increasing need. Nonetheless, this explanation has its limits, especially since a huge amount of global production is oriented towards goods and services that are utilized within the US & Europe, whose populations tend to be relatively stable, and are not, at the very least, increasing with the dramatic rapidity of so-called "Third World" populations. In the case of "developed" Western societies, population growth cannot be used to explain why expanding technological capabilities, which allow more goods to be produced for less man-hours of labor, have not led to more free time for workers.
What other explanations could there be?
Rising Costs: As the economy expands, the cost of living gets higher.
The more money people make, the more others will tend to charge them for goods and services ("charge what the market will bear"). In the case of rent, and many other basic items obeying rules of "inelastic demand", the consumer has little choice but to pay more when it is required of him. As oneís own costs rise, so must one raise the price of oneís own product(s), in order to generate the revenue necessary for meeting oneís increasing expenses, and the cycle goes on: something like a perpetual motion machine. Of course, as costs rise, oneís "surplus productivity", which could lead to greater personal freedom, is recaptured, and one is , thereby, kept firmly locked within the system.
Dynamics Of Competition: In a competitive marketplace, consumers will generally choose the product which costs less, so long as the rival products being offered are of comparable quality and function. Given a similar technical base and level of competence, the worker who labors longer hours will produce more than the worker who labors less. This means that the company whose workers work 8 hours a day (Company A) will be able to produce more than the company whose workers work 4 hours a day (Company B), enabling Company A to sell each individual product for less than Company B, as demonstrated by the following, very simplistic table, which does not depict any determinant of price, except for labor:
Company A Company B
|Minimum Daily Wage Needed By A Worker To Survive||$ 40||$ 40|
|Hours Worked Per Day||8||4|
|Products Manufactured Per Hour||1||1|
|Products Manufactured Per Day||8||4|
|Minimum Price That Can Be Charged For Each Product||$ 5||$ 10|
Undersold, Company B will lose its competitive edge in the marketplace, and its workers, as well as its noble vision, stand to go under. In this way, the dynamic of competition tends to work against the liberating possibilities of technological innovation and increasing productivity.
Deliberate Underproduction: In certain instances, production is deliberately limited (in the case of many food products, oil, diamonds, etc.) in order to keep prices high, according to the law of supply & demand. This strategy helps to keep revenues up for producers, but, in the process, thwarts the full potential which our technological and productive apparatus has for creating abundance.
Planned Obsolescence: Many producers deliberately create products with limited durability, so that the customer will have to come back soon to buy another. Whereas, in the past, some heavy-duty products might be built to last a lifetime, more and more, as time goes on, they are being built to last only a few years, in order to increase revenues. Regarding this phenomenon, we have the astonishing case of the one-hundred-year-old light bulb - a light bulb which has been in use in a fire station in Livermore, California, for one century (as of 2001)! If, that long ago (1901), they could make a light bulb endowed with such incredible stamina, why is it that, today, our standard light bulb lasts less than 1000 hours, before burning out? The answer is planned obsolescence. (The company that made the light bulb capable of illuminating a century of human life, it should be noted, is now out of business - their product was just too good! While the companies that made inferior products, skimping on materials and workmanship in order to save costs, increase profits, and keep the customer returning, are the ones that survived.)
Of course, planned obsolescence now plays a major role in the manufacture of automobiles, many major appliances, electronic gadgets, furniture, etc.: a fact of life enshrined in the old-timers proverbial complaint, "They just donít make Ďem like they used to."
Naturally, this practice, by introducing an element of deliberate inefficiency into production, helps to neutralize the abundance and corresponding "free time" made possible by our technological advances, by forcing us to produce, and to buy over and over again, items which we could have bought just once. But now we must keep on working and spending our wages in order to buy replacements, every time a poorly manufactured item breaks down or wears out.
New Product Generations: Besides planned obsolescence, which deliberately reduces product quality, technological progress (or innovation in design) sometimes actually does render existing products "obsolete." This obsolescence may be more psychological than real - the original product may still work perfectly well, but one may be swept away by the sense that something newer is much better, and that one is being "left behind" by not getting it. There seem to be many cases of products being enhanced with attractive, but unnecessary additions, such as digital screens, built-in calendars, alarms, and calculators added to watches (in my youth, watches had gears, not batteries inside, and you told time by reading the hands): all additions which are "nice", but not essential to the central function of a watch. No harm done, it seems, except for the fact that it appears to indicate that a huge amount of economic energy and global spending power is being dedicated to making life in the well-to-do countries ever more "convenient", while vast areas of the world continue to wallow in abject poverty, without food to eat, clean drinking water, sanitary neighborhoods and decent housing, and access to medical care and education. In a world such as ours, we can only say, in such cases, that functionality has given way to luxury, and that some element of irresponsibility has entered into our concept of progress.
Although, in cases such as this, the choice to buy or not to buy an "upgrade" or "new generation product" seems to be up to us, in other cases, we are really left with very little choice, at all. For example, when home music technology shifted from the vinyl record and needle to CD-laser technology, music companies ceased producing vinyl LPs, and forced millions of consumers, who wanted to keep music in their lives, to buy new CD stereo equipment, and to repurchase many of their favorite records on CDs. Many now believe that the same process is about to repeat itself in the realm of VCRs and video cassettes, as DVDs become increasingly available and finally "mandated" by producers. Then, we have the realm of computers, where astonishing advances in terms of memory, speed, and performance have recently occurred. People with older machines that are still quite functional, are, nonetheless, being pushed towards upgrading, not just out of their desire to "keep up" and enjoy new possibilities, but also due to the fact that new programs, software, Internet provider packages, etc., are increasing in size and complexity, which the old machines cannot really handle very well. (They are slowing down, freezing, etc.) In other words, the functionality of the old computers is being compromised by the assumptions and expanding capabilities (demands) of computer-related technology, which require bigger and better machines.
In all of the cases cited, the liberating potential of abundance, in terms of human free time and social justice, is being squandered by the fact that, in both reality and illusion, our abundance is being eroded by new developments that keep putting us back at (a higher) "square one", when we thought we were already well down the road!
Advertising And False Needs: Advertising is a gigantic business in our society, and much of it is geared towards creating false needs, and selling superfluous products and luxuries that go far beyond the basic necessities which we require for survival and comfort. In the case of such products, advertising seeks to utilize carefully studied and applied principles of psychology to manipulate us into desiring and "needing" these unnecessary products and services. In some ways, this could be considered a way of turning abundance into poverty, by escalating our wants and altering our perspective as to what constitutes wealth and impoverishment. In his groundbreaking work from decades ago, The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard brought this phenomenon to the attention of those willing to listen, showing how psychological desires and fears that had very little to do with the products being sold, were linked, in the publicís mind, with certain products, thanks to the deliberate crafting of imagery, dialogue, text, and sometimes subliminal suggestion, in advertisements. For example, a certain car might be associated with a certain type of individual who the consumer wished to be - daring, sexy, attractive, admired. A deodorant spray or dandruff shampoo might be sold, by commercials, by first triggering the fear of social rejection, and then suggesting that the product could help one to gain acceptance or even love. Imbedding products with the psychological illusion that they could meet deep human needs, gave these products an attractiveness vastly exceeding their superficial function and purpose; and besides leading consumers to choose one model, brand, or product over another, also helped to spur massive waves of unnecessary consumerism.
The result of this phenomenon is that enough was no longer enough, that abundance was no longer abundance, that wealth was no longer wealth, and that comfort was no longer comfort. The potential fruits of abundance, in terms of (partially) liberating human beings from work, were cast aside. People were kept working as hard as ever, in order to buy unnecessary products they were convinced to need. The result was that they acquired more and more possessions, but at the price of giving up the free time they could have had, in the place of those objects. Paradoxically, the emotional discontent and frequent sense of degradation and loss perpetrated by the workplace, and by the society which leaves us with only a fraction of ourselves outside of the workplace, were ingredients in stimulating this epidemic of consumerism. Workers sought to recapture the status, the sexual prowess, the respect, the freedom, the life that were taken from them by the workplace, by buying products which advertising had helped to "scent" with these stolen longings. Things which should have been available to men and women of our society simply from the nature and organization of human relationships, and from our inborn endowments of vitality, were, instead, imbedded into economic products which had to be worked for, and bought.
Relative Poverty: Relative poverty refers to the fact that standards of poverty are rarely absolute. Far more often, they are relative, meaning that those who have less, in a society, than others, are likely to consider themselves poor, regardless of whether they have enough to meet their basic needs, or not. Years ago, kings and feudal lords lived in damp, cold castles, without central heating, electric lights, indoor plumbing, windows with screens, or competent doctors. But the fact that even the poorest citizens of our own society, may, in this sense, be "living better than kings" - or that they would be envied by the present-day masses of India or Somalia - does not eliminate the fact that they are poor, by the standards of our society. As long as there are those who have more, and those who have less, within any given society, there will, in the relative sense, be "rich" and "poor" in that society, and there will be a natural tendency for the "poor" to try to catch up with the "rich." This is a result of the power of "role models" and of defining social visions; of the drive to imitate; and of the constant human quest for self-esteem and social respect, exacerbated by the effects of advertising, and the values that have been infused into our material culture. What are basic needs? And when have they been met? Is it possible for the majority in a civilization to say, "Now, we have enough", and to cease the drive to consume more (which traps them in the workplace, where the wages that allow consumption are procured)? Obviously, as long as the sting of relative poverty is felt and given in to, "abundance" will never be attained, because to those who have less, "abundance" will forever be defined in terms of what the wealthy have, not in terms of what they really need. Like Tantalus, they will be condemned to forever reach for what is eternally beyond their grasp. The cycle of excessive consumption and excessive labor will continue, without end.
New Needs Created By The Material Civilization: In addition to the artificial needs created by advertising, the very nature of our modern, material civilization may very well have created some additional needs of its own, precipitating some additional input of labor in order to enable the consumption of goods and services which meet those needs. This is a society riddled with loneliness and depression; beset by a lack of social solidarity, genuine community, and access to the regenerating power of nature; afflicted by diminished spiritual resources (which have been eroded by materialism); and filled with stress. The effects are a host of maladies and vulnerabilities which have generated whole new areas of consumption, some of them fueled by hype and the typical machinations of advertising, and some of them, perhaps, truly needed. We have coffee (the essential stimulant of the modern workplace); sleeping pills and antidepressants; new medications and treatments for afflictions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and asthma, whose incidence may be elevated due to the effects of stress, pollution, and lifestyle issues. Certainly, many are willing to pay a great amount of money (and must therefore work harder) in order to secure greater access to nature and some peace and quiet, by moving out of the cities to expensive suburban homes, or taking costly vacations to "get away from it all." If we lived in natural and humane settings, in the first place, this would not be necessary. In addition, the frustration and material values promoted by society have led to increases in crime - more robberies, more muggings, more gangs, etc. - which have also spawned economic reactions: investments in alarm systems, better locks and even surveillance equipment; and moves into safer, but more expensive, neighborhoods.
In just this same way, a huge portion of our abundance is now used up by the military budget. Since war seems to have been with us since about Day One, it is normal that modern nations should continue to have militaries, and normal that, as technology advances, those militaries should be fed by increasingly expensive technology in order to maintain their effectiveness, vis-a-vis other nations. However, one must wonder if the material values of our civilization - which generate tremendous material needs, amplifying our need to protect, control, and dominate global resources for our own use, and which also promote undeniable currents of egotism and greed in our collective psyche, which are sometimes expressed in our political relations with others - may not be contributing to make the world a more hostile place than it need be. If so, then a large part of our military budget may be "necessary" only because we have made it so.
The Limitations Of Part-Time Jobs: As our society is constructed today, part-time work, which could be one solution for many people who want to get out of the vicious cycle of work and consumption, to begin to live more joyful, playful, artistic, independent, friend-centered, meaningful lives, is rarely a viable long-term option. Most part-time work does not offer health insurance, which is a major liability; nor does it provide the income needed to survive the enormous rents and expenses of just trying to get by.
Our Economic System Is Not Geared Towards Individual Liberty: Many social critics claim that our "capitalist economic system" is not geared towards promoting individual liberty, in the sense of creating conditions in which human beings may have more free time in which to enjoy the "free things in life" - things such as friendship, love, creativity, and play, which have not been commodified and turned into sources of economic profit. These critics insist that the system seeks to keep us working at full capacity, in order to enrich those who control and own productive endeavors, land, rentable housing, etc., rather than release us into our own realms of time and activity. Certainly, the system we live in, now, is like a very powerful current in a river which is hard to get out of. Expenses and economic demands of all sorts keep us running, like mice on a wheel, just to survive. Bob Dylan once wrote:
"When I wake in the morning, fold my hands and pray for rain.
I got a head full of ideas that are driving me insane -
Itís a shame the way she makes me sweep the floor -
I ainít gonna work on Maggieís Farm no more."
Unfortunately, most of us are stuck, "sweeping the floor" on "Maggieís Farm." Besides the cost of living, which keeps us in the "rat race", we have been victims of a massive propaganda effort, partly promoted by advertising and the material values and fantasies which it projects into our society in order to sell products; partly promoted by conservative think tanks endowed with the fortunes of business, which wish to blind us to alternative possibilities by making this seem like the only practical one; and partly received as a continuation and embellishment of the "American dream": the "rags-to-riches/poor-immigrant-who-made-it" story, which is beautiful in its original form, but which has begun to degenerate from the poignant, moving soul which first animated it, into decadent and even obscene realms of OVERCONSUMPTION, which has become the new definition of "making it." This cultural brainwashing, which constantly floods our minds, greeting us every day and everywhere we go, like the Saddam posters which engulf the citizens of Iraq, has left us quite barren of alternatives. We are shown the fragments of the Berlin Wall, and the toppled statues of Lenin, and assured that Socialism and Communism are not only dead, but were untenable alternatives from the very first, without any potential for evolution or humanization. When voices rise up to bring us lessons of the beauty of Native American cultures, in which men were not instruments of production, but human beings nourished within the bosom of thriving communities, endowed with a deep spiritual life, and intimately bonded to nature, scholars quickly rise up to "deconstruct" the "myth," and leave us with a deflated view that does not excite our instincts of emulation. Meanwhile, the poets and romantics, with no ideology at all, except for life, are tolerated like wind outside a house, so long as they only occasionally stir the curtains. If they ever acquire force, their passion is quickly attacked by the "logic" of the "experts" who defend the system in which we live with a scientific tone of discourse that seems irrefutable. The dreamersí longings are ridiculed, and their intuitions passed off as naÔve; who will listen to their lives, denuded of jargon? In this way - just like the ancient Phoenician sailors, who defended their secret trade routes beyond the "Pillars of Hercules" from other curious mariners, by spreading stories of great sea monsters, and a flat edge of the earth over which ships that sailed too far might fall off - so the combined weight of business and its intellectual defenses have stolen away our conceptual daring and social imagination, robbed us of the idea that any pragmatic alternative to our present system might be possible, and trapped us as prisoners within a system that, though it has the potential to free us, is directed towards other purposes.
Or so, at least, many critics of society say.
Are Workers Really Unhappy?: Proponents of our current system claim that workers, in our civilization, are living better than ever before, and are generally happy and content. They base these conclusions on statistics and reasoning (these analysts feel that they should be happier, and, therefore, assume that they are happier), and on some studies, interviews, and polls which they claim to have carried out. My own experience tells me otherwise. Not only have I suffered deeply as a worker, but in every workplace I have been in, I have observed the vast majority of workers complaining about the work they are forced to do, the remuneration they receive, and the way they are treated. On the way to work, on the trains and buses, I have seen tired, depressed, hardened faces, joyless, tense, dead, and unhappy. As Garcia Lorca wrote in La Aurora, "[They know] there will be no paradise or loves picked like flowers off a tree; they know theyíll be going into the mud of numbers and laws, to games without art, to struggles without fruit." On the way back from work, I have seen relief, and often some happiness, but also exhaustion. Shells of people returning home, many times to frozen effortless dinners or fast food take-out meals; to the passive entertainment of television, the electronic shepherd of the vanquished; and to relationships hollowed out and diminished by the energy, pride, and hope left behind at the workplace. While workersí conditions have certainly improved since the days of Dickens and Zola, and the heartless factories, workshops, and coal mines of the Industrial Revolution, it is not necessarily constructive or moral to compare the conditions of our own modern workers with the virulent conditions of the past, which drove them to the brink of revolution, and led to major reforms in the way that our system operates (more as a mechanism of stability than justice). Instead, it seems that we might better compare workersí conditions, in the present, to what they might be, if our system began to concern itself more with the happiness of every man, than with the usefulness of some men to others.
In modern society, although material abundance is able to partially anesthetize the pain of our abused, and siphoned-off life force, we remain, essentially, unhappy beings. Many of us are worn out by our jobs, left drained, depressed, embittered, and with diminished energy, once we are set "free", as though we were suffering from some chronic, debilitating illness, or were years older than we actually are. We give away the best hours and years of our lives, and seldom win real security and peace of mind, respect, pride, or joy from our sacrifices. More often than not, we end up with the feeling that we have been used, only to be discarded, betrayed, and forgotten after we have served faithfully, and given everything we had to others. I believe, given the technological capacities of our civilization, which carry, implicit in them, vast new potentialities for human liberty, that this is a shame, if not a crime.
The Material Rewards For Work Are Not Enough: Though we produce far more than any other age of human history - wealth that would boggle the minds of previous generations - it is my contention, from what I feel and have felt others feeling, that lifeís true meaning is experienced and felt on another level, than that of the material. Once a certain fundamental realm of basic material needs is met, increasing levels of comfort and consumption, sought after though they may be, cannot eclipse the fact that human happiness and contentment are creatures of the psychological and emotional realms of existence. Do we have self-esteem? Respect? A sense of worth? A sense of meaning and purpose, that does not evaporate when Death looks into our eyes, and asks us, "Are you sure it was enough?" Are we loved, and do we love others? Do we have the sense of belonging, solidarity, and connection to other human beings that comes from being part of a real community where we actually matter - where we are not just invisible parts in a machine? Are we connected to God, to Spirit, and to the deep feeling of cosmic belonging that is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of spiritual seeking? Are we able to feel the beautiful truth that we are not strangers in the Universe, but a sacred part of a sacred place? Are we connected to Nature, and in touch with its healing, revitalizing, nurturing power, that cleans us and makes us great, binding us to mysteries that our cities shut out?
I believe that the great majority of our workers feel frustrated, sad, even empty, trapped in a spiderís web of demeaning work from which they cannot escape. In family life, friendship, and love, eternal human truths may still be fought for and won in our society. But work takes a great deal of our time and energy away from those more fruitful and meaningful aspects of life, which we yearn for. Of course, as society is now structured, there is no choice. Only he who works can afford the material base needed to develop those aspects of life - money for the movies, clubs, drinks, and other venues and accessories of courtship; money for the apartment, home, car (?), food, clothing, medical expenses, tuition and other props and requirements for successful bonding with a partner, and responsible parenting. What if the potential of our productive system were fully realized, however, and we each had more time and energy to develop the truly meaningful levels of our lives, rather than having to spend so much of our time away from them, often coming back to them only as shadows?
Alienation: For social critics such as Marx, romantics such as Blake, and artists such as Gauguin and Chaplin, the alienation of modern man from the artificial environment of city and factory produced by the rise of industry and capitalism, was a major theme. They saw, first, a great wave of alienation - a sense of feeling uprooted, alien, and estranged - sweeping into the human soul as the result of the destruction and abandonment of the natural environment during the process of urbanization. As cities, often polluted and slum-filled, grew up around factories, ports and later railroad junctions, dehumanizing landscapes of squalor, without the beauty, peace, and energy of nature, became manís new habitat. Unlike the archetypal entrepreneur, who saw in this new urban environment a rational concentration of labor for his purposes, the romantic saw, in this exodus from the land, a cruel blow against the soul of man; and driven by his sensitivity, lamented the blood he saw pouring from this collective wound, in his poems, visions, and art. As time went on, the peopleís pain became so intense that it was finally covered over with numbness, as a form of self-defense. The people were gradually "acclimatized" to their loss, like a man with one leg, who eventually learns to walk without it, using a crutch. Whereupon those who defended the system, taking advantage of the muteness of the wounded, rose up to dismiss the cries of the romantics and critics as sensationalistic and unwarranted. They attempted to describe the workers as simple brutes, too insensitive to suffer, mistaking the natural anesthesia of the battered soul for acceptance of the injustice. They thought the crippled man had ceased to long for his missing leg.
Today, though our cities are not as awful as those wretched slums of the first days of industrialization, alienation, produced as a result of our separation from nature, remains an active force in our psyche.
Marx and others also believed that the productive act, itself, under the new factory system, was responsible for creating massive alienation. In this new productive environment, they claimed, the worker came to feel separated and lost from both himself and his labor. The basic argument was that, in the past, the independent craftsman - who, in the realm of manufacturing, was the predecessor of the factory worker - had had an entirely different relation with his work. He had substantially produced his entire product, and was, therefore, able to feel the satisfaction of a creator who has given birth to something useful, something of quality, something stamped with his life and effort. His work was a source, not only of income, but of pride, and self-respect. From his labor he derived a sense of worth, and value as a human being. The factory worker, on the other hand, was an invisible and minute part of a productive apparatus that brought "pride and prestige" to the entrepreneur, not to the lowly, interchangeable part. The situation was aggravated as the productive goals of the factory worker became much less sweeping in scope, once production was broken down into a series of separate tasks, and workers were assigned to very specific and limited functions within the productive process: absorbed into a system of organization, epitomized by the assembly-line, which is very rapid and efficient in terms of turning out products, but which is devastating to the sense of psychological value which the worker is able to derive from his work. For now, instead of creating a complete product which he can take pride in, and which, in some way, carries his stamp into the world, communicating the value of his life to himself and to others, he now is the producer of only one small component of the product. His relation to the product is diminished and diluted, and the sense of pride and worth which the product could provide him with is, correspondingly, reduced. He is now, no longer, the indispensable craftsman, but just the invisible maker of a part of a product. The lesser level of skill needed to carry out one function of the productive act, as opposed to managing all the functions of the productive act, lessens the amount of pride the worker is able to derive from the act; and also, in many cases, makes him utterly interchangeable and expendable. As this technical and organizational shift occurs, work remains as a source of income, but is vastly diminished as a source of self-respect. One derives for what one does, but not the sense that oneís life is important, meaningful, or special.
Of course, some jobs still seem to be capable of generating a considerable amount of pride and self-respect. For example: doctors, nurses, and firemen all help to save lives. And teachers sometimes make a big difference in the lives of the children they are charged with educating. Not every job is as naturally alienating as working on a factory assembly line, or as a low-level employee in an office. Nonetheless, even in the case of jobs which are somewhat gratifying, from that point of view, there are often hidden stresses and pressures which eat away at the sense of satisfaction that ought to be the natural result of doing something so clearly useful. Many times, bureaucracies, and administrators and supervisors, turn what should be rewarding jobs into punishing, frustrating, and even miserable experiences. In the case of teaching, the attack is often two-sided, coming, first, from unruly students who do not want to learn - products of a society that has neglected and embittered many, and where the value of respect has been undermined by the religion of materialism and by moral hypocrisy, which has discredited treasured values of bygone times; and second, from cowardly administrations and out-of-touch bureaucracies, which fail to provide adequate support to teachers and students, alike, on many different levels. Even doing something of vital importance and great moral beauty may be turned into a painful and humiliating experience, resulting in utter disillusionment or a sense of invisible martyrdom, if the conditions of the workplace do not properly nurture and support oneís efforts.
Of course, as I have already stated, jobs are not the only thing in our lives. Even for those whose jobs do not offer much opportunity for developing or maintaining a personal sense of worth, other sources of meaning remain in life - love, procreation, & family, for example. However, these sources are tarnished and constantly challenged by the aftereffects of hard work, which, all too frequently, takes away vitality and pride, rather than enhancing it. And this is what alienation is all about: bitterness, regret, a sense of being a nobody, of belonging nowhere, of being worthless. Feelings which may manifest in the expected forms of depression, demoralization, passivity, and cynicism, or in surprisingly vigorous compensations and reactions, such as anger, aggressiveness, disregard for the value of oneís own life and the life of others, and violence.
The Dictatorship Of Jobs: We live in a political democracy, and pride ourselves on our "free society" and the liberty which it promotes. And yet - if we stop, for a moment, to open our eyes, and look around, past the assumptions we have been raised with, it does not take long to realize that the political dimension is only one of several dimensions which we inhabit. Which leads us to the question: are we free in other dimensions, as well? Sadly, many of us must come to the conclusion that, in spite of the fact that we theoretically live under a system of democratic rule, forty hours of our lives, each week, or more, are spent living under a dictatorship: the dictatorship of work! Think about it: the boss is not an elected official. He has the power to hire you, and fire you. Although he may be fair, just, and generous, he may also be tyrannical, intimidating, egotistic, abusive, deceitful, threatening, and unfair. He may use his power in a legitimate fashion, to effectively coordinate and direct his enterprise, in an intelligent, visionary, and disciplined way, or he may misuse his power, to vent his own frustrations, to satisfy his own psychological need for exaggerated authority and control over everybody and everything. He may feel that because he is the boss, he does not have to respect others, and that it is his right to harass, humiliate, frighten, exploit, and demean others. Naturally, the power of a boss such as this has some limits. He canít put you in a prison cell or shoot you. Laws make it possible, though not always plausible or prudent, to prosecute him for some forms of harassment, though most forms of harassment are really untouchable. In some workplaces, unions can help to counteract his power, although I have heard of, and witnessed, the failure of unions in many cases of workplace abuse, for reasons of ineffective advocacy, limited contractual means of response, and even collusion with the boss. (For some union chapters have become rather ingested and tamed by the bosses they are supposed to be watching over.)
In spite of the fact that a boss canít lock you up in jail, or sentence you to death, due to the fact that you two donít get along, he can still harm you in very serious and long-lasting ways if he takes a dislike to you. He can fire you, often on the spot: meaning, he can deprive you of the income you need to pay your rent, pay your utilities, pay for groceries, pay whatever other bills you may have, and also cause you and your family to lose the medical insurance that may be associated with your job. He can literally put you on the street, expose you to death, and ruin your life. Although there are some safety nets provided by society, in some cases, the basic fact is that the "dictator of the workplace" can throw your whole life into chaos and disorder, drastically reduce your income, drive you into debt, cause you to be dispossessed from your home, and force you to hang on, and try to rally and start over. Thatís a pretty gigantic form of power for one man to wield in a democratic society. While some people may object that this kind of "monster boss" is quite rare, I can tell you, from what I have seen, and from what others have shared with me, that he is not as rare as you might like to believe. A lot of bosses are corrupted by power, which releases something dark from within them: arrogance, defensiveness, fragility which can now protect itself with cruelty; a desire to gain revenge against the ghosts of their past; a desire to feel important by turning everyone else into a submissive shadow; a desire to be adored and flattered, like Saddam; and hatred of anyone who sees their faults, or insists on clinging to some vestige of dignity or justice.
While critics of this point of view rightly contend that it is possible to leave this sort of dictatorship, whenever it is encountered, and to move to greener pastures, it is not always as easy as one might hope. Often, one merely ends up moving from one dictatorship to another, and there is no shortage of domineering bosses in this world: in fact, it is very possible to "leap out of the frying pan and into the fire", or, as they say in Spanish, to go from "Guatemala to Guatepeor." More than this, is the damage that a tyrannical boss can create by withholding a reference necessary for you to move on to another job, or by providing a reference that trashes you altogether. If you have worked any number of months or years at a given job, he can turn this from an asset in your record, into a deadly liability, a permanent and debilitating stain. If you put the job on your resume, your prospective new employer may call him for a reference, and then, he can essentially destroy you, presenting his own misrepresentation of you, which the new employer is likely to believe. Good-bye, new job! The pattern is likely to repeat, until you will be tempted to leave his job off of your resume, altogether, as a means of self-defense. But then, how do you explain all of the "missing time"? What were you doing during those months and years? Should you stoop to telling a lie, try to invent a false past? If you are desperate enough to try it, can you pull it off? As you can see, the power of a tyrannical boss does not necessarily end at the doors to the job which he controls; he is able to reach out beyond his own workplace, and to haunt you and persecute you even after you have left him, remaining as an eternally relentless and vengeful force in your life, like the Furies or Harpies of ancient Greece. He is, in effect, able to "blacklist" you, and to punish you forever for not being who he wanted you to be. To me, this is dictatorship.
Is this an extreme scenario? Yes and no. Most of the time, it does not occur, but sometimes it does, and the threat of it - the very possibility that it might happen, if anything goes wrong at the workplace - falls like a shadow over the workerís sense of security and peace, reminding him, constantly, that not only his present, but also his future, is, in many ways, very much at the mercy of the man who he works for. There is, therefore, a drive towards being servile, harmless, stoical, "pleasing" to the boss, and passive in the face of abuse and exploitation - all tools of survival - which grates against the workerís sense of fairness and dignity. Some workers give in completely to the fear, surrendering everything for safety; others stand up tall, and are threatened, and eventually fired. Most suffer somewhere in between, trying to strike a balance between the two poles. The result may be acute stress, depression, suppressed anger, sickness, or any number of physical or emotional imbalances. The modern workplace dictatorship is not a social environment conducive to the construction and maintenance of high self-esteem, self-respect, and inner peace.
The Myth Of Job Mobility: Caste System, USA: ( In this section, I plan not to talk about social mobility, which is the ability of people born in poverty to improve their economic and social station through hard work, intelligence, and dedication, but about job mobility, which is the ability to switch from one career or profession to another. Social mobility does exist in America, although the brutal effects of starting from far behind, weighed down by a "rough beginning", insure that this mobility is not achieved by everyone. There is no doubt that upward mobility in America is attainable, but not easily attainable if you come from certain disadvantaged backgrounds. And since "the bottom" always needs people to do its work, it is logical to assume that there must be limits to this social mobility, after all.)
Advocates of the modern economy often compare it to other systems: to some Communist systems, for example, in which workers were, essentially, tied for life into one profession and rooted to one workplace; to medieval serfdom, in which the peasant (serf) was bound to remain upon a given plot of land, and to work for his feudal lord until the day he died (leaving this duty without the lordís permission was enough to qualify the peasant as an outlaw); and to the Hindu Caste System, in which society was divided into rigid strata (castes), determined by birth. One could only marry within oneís caste, and work in one of the professions allowed by oneís caste. Champions of our current system claim "job mobility" as one of its greatest assets: our right, and ability, to change jobs, to switch careers, to enter new professions as we see fit. This is supposed to provide one crucial escape from the sense of being paralyzed and trapped in a workplace or line of work which one has outgrown, or grown weary of. It is supposed to provide one possible remedy to the frustration, the feeling of being misused or underused, of not fitting in, of being in the wrong place, which can sometimes turn work into a slow and agonizing form of spiritual death.
However, there is not quite as much "job mobility" in our society as its proponents claim. Certainly, there is no shortage of schools willing to offer programs to teach people the skills and fundamentals needed to begin "exciting new careers" - no shortage of "retraining" and "preparatory" programs, promising "wide open fields", "high demand", and plenty of jobs for those who successfully complete their course of study. But, unfortunately, in many cases, this is just a lot of hype. Frustrated workers, by the thousands, are lured to spend their money in hopes of "starting over", only to discover, once they face the reality of the job market, that employers feel most comfortable with people who have been in their profession/line of work since day one. After a certain period of oneís youth, in which some experimentation and change is (sometimes) forgivable, workers are expected to have found themselves, and to have developed a "career track", which they are then expected to adhere to. A switch of careers too late in life is often suspect. Why is this person switching? Perhaps they are unstable. Unreliable. They donít know what they want. They might get bored, or change their mind again. They might not stay. They may be too complex. Certainly, the fact that they want to switch jobs indicates that they are capable of being dissatisfied: that could be a problem. Is it possible they might have had some problem in the past? The employers may consider that these latecomers donít have the experience and background needed to be successful in their new job. They may consider them to be underqualified, or, on the contrary, overqualified, which is just as bad. (They need to be just the right size to fit through the door.) If these workers are older, they may be considered to be too old for an "entry-level" position, since they will have less time to develop with the company, and may expect a higher salary than a kid just coming in. The personnel departments, or individuals in charge of hiring for a company, most often have their task reduced to a science, which has little regard for the will and magic of the individual. Profiles and assumptions gathered from statistics and behavioral theories define their approach. They donít owe the person who wants to change his life a thing, his dreams are not their concern: keeping their operation running smoothly, by adhering to "tried and proven" hiring formulas, is their concern. The result is that job mobility is frequently more of an illusion than a reality, in our society.
This is not, of course, to deny that it does exist. But not in the massive and highly accessible way which many imagine. It is hard to make a move between careers, to change professions, to "start over." Hard to break the image which oneís previous work has created about one (typecasting one as "this" or "that", just like the actor who is typecast as a hero, or a villain, or a character actor, or comedian, and canít get any other kind of role except for the kind in which he first made an impression). Obviously, the more similar the original profession and intended new profession are to each other, the easier it will be to switch. And obviously, a genius inventor or entrepreneur, or self-made-millionaire type is going to be able to achieve his goal. Occasionally, an open-minded and astute recruiter/boss/interviewer will recognize someoneís potential, and discard the formulas that would otherwise block the newcomerís acceptance. While other times, an extremely determined and imaginative applicant will be able to "present" himself in such a way as to emphasize his assets and downplay his liabilities (standard operating procedure, but hard to excel at) - to "sell himself", in other words - to the new profession, and, thereby, crack the barrier. But for many thousands of sincere and talented individuals, the move out of one profession into another will not succeed.
The lack of real job mobility for thousands of workers in our society creates a sense of helplessness and imprisonment; a sense of being trapped, frozen in a place one does not wish to be. Frustration, sorrow, depression, resentment, disillusionment increase. Souls fade, hopes die, and life becomes more empty, and less worthwhile. For many workers in todayís society, it seems as though they are defined and limited just as surely as if they were imbedded into the caste system of ancient India.
These Sorrows, Frustrations, And Angers Are Unhealthy For Individuals And Civilization: The stresses, frustrations, and sorrows of our work lives lead to all sorts of problems. On the individual level, they may lead to illness and depression; to addictions (consumerism, drugs, alcohol, etc.) in order to escape from the pain; to bad tempers and abusive behavior, as people in pain lash out at others; and to bitterness and self-destructive behavior, which can also find expression in collective decisions and actions carried out by society. The streets are filled with may thwarted and frustrated people, who are likely to overcompensate for feelings of worthlessness, powerlessness, disappointment and anger, by acting aggressively in international affairs. Societies filled with people who have been disrespected, belittled, abused, and tormented in the workplace are more likely to react irrationally and emotionally to potentially threatening outside stimuli, seeking some way to "get even", recover their lost sense of importance and courage, or just die, by means of aggressive actions, than societies which are psychologically balanced and filled with life. They are, in other words, more likely to go to war.
The Conditions Are Pathological, But Not Revolutionary: In the past, Marxist groups hoped to utilize the "poverty and oppression" of the workers to incite a revolution of the working class, which was to take over the "means of production" (land, factories, etc.) from the owners (the "capitalists"), in order to create a new utopian order in which the work load was to be shared equally among all. No man or class would sit on top of the economy as "the boss", profiting from the low wages of exploited workers in order to enrich itself. (The ultimate goal was compassionate, but most critics agree today that it was not entirely practical, besides the fact that the means designed for getting to this utopia of peace and brotherhood was violent and tumultuous, and that the path taken, by many nations, was corrupted. On the other hand, democratic socialists, as opposed to revolutionary communists, sought to reach the Marxist utopia through peaceful means, without the need for war or the implementation of a proletarian dictatorship.)
This Marxist blueprint for change - which was both a blueprint and a prophecy - was altered by the sheer scale of production made possible by industrial development in Europe and America, and by certain social concessions which the "capitalist societies" made to their workers (such as higher wages, allowing them to more fully participate in society as consumers; important benefits, such as unemployment and disability insurance; and new laws mandating crucial safety standards for the workplace, setting limits on the amount of hours workers could be asked to work, and abolishing child labor). While critics of Marxism use the failure of the Marxist agenda in Europe and America as proof of its fundamentally flawed nature - for the revolution it predicted did not occur (although, due to Marxist pressure, some attributes of socialism were finally grafted onto our basic capitalist structures, resulting in the "mixed economies" of today) - Marxist theorists claim that the revolution they prophesied was not thwarted, but only delayed, and geographically relocated.
According to these theorists, the major capitalist countries of Europe and America secured the wealth needed to "bribe" their own workers with higher wages and increasing material rewards, by means of colonialism and neocolonialism, gaining control of the resources and populations of other lands (in vast regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, today known as the "Third World"), and siphoning off huge new increments of wealth from these exploited lands. This phenomenon was called the "exportation of the proletariat." The internationalization of the economy enabled vast new zones of exploitation and oppression to be incorporated into the economic systems of the "capitalist countries", beyond their own borders; and the workers of the rich countries, with the full load of oppression taken off of their backs, ceased to be a revolutionary threat within their own countries, and now, in fact, collaborated in the oppression of the workers of other countries by supporting their governmentsí efforts to crush workerís rebellions in those countries, under the mantle of "protecting their nationsí vital interests, and the lives and property of their fellow citizens", "defeating bandits" (such as Pancho Villa and Augusto Cesar Sandino), or "fighting Communism." Class tensions within the "capitalist" countries were diminished, and the internal class structure within these countries was, to a limited extent, superseded by a new international class structure consisting of rich nations and poor nations. (Invariably, the poor nations would be dominated by local elites with strong links to the capitalist countries. These elites would be armed and enriched by the capitalist nations, as guardians of their power, and defended by outright intervention whenever necessary.) According to these Marxist theorists, a vast socialist revolution is still possible in the world, only now the battlefield has been removed from the industrial core of the "capitalist nations" themselves, to the global "periphery", where exploitation and poverty are still acute enough as to be capable of producing violent reaction. (Whether such revolutions, if they occur, will return to, or remain with, the possibly passť ideas of Communist theorists such as Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Guevara, or be advanced by other forms of armed aspiration, such as nationalistic populism, Islamic fundamentalism, indigenous resurrection, etc., remains to be seen.)
Whatever oneís take on the above theories and arguments, the basic point can be made that: the abuse and mistreatment of workers in the US and Europe, today, is far too subtle and tame (no matter how intense it may sometimes seem to those experiencing it), to produce the desperate reaction of revolution, as originally envisioned in the classic Marxist model; but it does, nonetheless, produce stress, anger, sorrow, and discontent, which are able to manifest in many unhealthy ways, some internalized, and some expressed in relations between the worker(s) and others. The fact that workers are not fighting on the ramparts should not be taken as a sign that all is well. Nor should the fact that they are no longer a revolutionary threat to the stability of Western civilization, be taken as an indication that it is now all right to ignore their suffering. When the faults of a system cannot be recognized, except by the flow of blood in the streets, that system is deeply flawed, indeed.
Consumption And Growth Are The Keys To Making Life Bearable: Some shades of gray are far more deadly than the color of blood. The angst, or numb despair, of the modern worker, according to Freud and many other analysts, requires a constant availability of material rewards in order to fill the vacuum left in the human heart and soul by the cold, degrading, and regimented lifestyle which we suffer, organized around production, instead of life. For its own survival - to keep the emotions that it arouses against itself in check - society must continue to produce, consume, excite, dazzle, distract, and relieve with its products. In this way, consumerism has become our own version of the Roman Circus.
Economic growth is a crucial component of this economic-psychological apparatus, because the one dream that keeps people going on is the dream that things will get better down the road, according to the only standards that are available to them, which are material. They dream that they will one day make more money, one day be able to buy more, and one day come to own the things they canít afford now: to "live better." They need to be presented with a realistic opportunity for superficial progress, in order to hide the essential fact of their paralysis. It is all about keeping air in the illusion, so that it will continue to float in the collective mind. God forbid the day should come when the illusion falls to the earth! When people wake up to the fact that they are frozen on the ladder, trapped at the bottom or in the middle, that they are giving up the best of their lives to go nowhere! What will happen to the contentment and stability of society when the classes are locked in place, when the idea of rising higher is exposed as a myth, when the distractions run out, and the dream dies?
These dynamics - the need to consume in order to keep the economy, as it is currently structured, healthy, and the need for the economy to grow constantly, in order to keep the dream of social mobility and "making it" alive - impel the Western economies to continue expanding, relentlessly; to continue demanding our full engagement as producers and consumers; and to continue devouring the worldís resources. Slowing down means stagnation, and stagnation means the discontent of waking up. When one thinks of it, our socioeconomic system is like a giant snake charmer, who cannot ever cease playing the flute of material dreams. The trance cannot be broken! It must be maintained at all costs!
This compulsive drive to produce and consume, of course, threatens the ecological viability of our planet. Like sailors addicted to a fire, the time is bound to come when we must finally begin to break apart the very ship we are traveling in, in order to feed its timbers to the flame. When will our planetís supply of oil and coal be exhausted? When will we cut down the last forest of the world? When will our factories and cars destroy the climate of the earth? The addiction also threatens to enmesh us in struggles, with other nations and peoples, over resources and markets, for our enormous need may have to cross over the line of justice in order to satisfy itself. War and terrorism could be the results.
Besides this, it needs to be emphasized: although consumption and economic growth help to serve as palliatives for the pain of living and laboring in an emotionally demeaning and unfulfilling society, they can only patch over that pain, never truly eliminate it. And as long as that pain exists, a great injustice is being done to human beings, who are damaged and wounded; and whose damage and wounds may come back to haunt the world.
Our Whole Concept Of Work And The Economy Needs To Be Re-Envisioned: Those who are on top of the system will doubtless find my comments and exhortations absurd, sensationalistic, and disconnected from reality. But their reality is not mine. Many others who are suffering, just like me, who have undergone similar experiences, will also find my ideas marginal, because they have been conditioned by all the power, ingenuity, and resources of our system, to accept it as a given, a sacred cow, an immutable law of nature. Though they are in pain, they cannot imagine an alternative. But some others whose hurt has surged to the surface, too intense to be buried by custom or by lie, will find some resonance in these things I am saying, and begin to open up to the possibility of another journey, another vision, concept, and way of life.
My starting point is to be honest, and to establish touch with my own feelings: not to let others define my own concept of what is just and unjust, what is fair and what is unfair, what is liberty and what is oppression, what can be changed and what cannot be changed, what I should be grateful for, and what I should resent. In my own heart, and in the hearts of many others whose feelings were exposed to me during the course of my life, either deliberately or without their knowing, I have seen and felt this vast pain, this hidden injustice: the daily crime of our work world. This is my beginning.
My vision drives me to dream, and to search. In my search, I have seen glimpses of other cultures, which were not organized as ours. Cultures in which work was not turned into a religion, and people did not live by a clock, punching time cards "in" and time cards "out." Cultures that were not so dark and cold. Cultures in which no one was assumed to have the right to use another man for his own gain, and to treat others with disrespect and contempt: to threaten to impoverish and exile, from the heart of society, those who did not bow down to them. Although there have been many very oppressive cultures throughout human history, which our own modern-day conditions of life are vastly superior to, there have also been moments that rose high above ours, in terms of the emotional satisfaction that they were able to provide to their people. In their day, while they thrived, these cultures made their people feel respected - cherished members of a community; proud, valuable, worthwhile, and meaningful within the Universe. Wealth that was gained and hoarded at the expense of others was looked upon as a stain, not an accomplishment. Power that was thrown in peopleís faces was despised. People built each other up instead of tore each other down. - A myth? An act of idealization, on my part? Not really. These societies had their flaws, to be sure, and yet, their poverty, their limitations and their failures may not have been so great as ours, only less well hidden. We, in our own times, have built up a giant body, without a heart. Their body was small, but in its center, there was a beating heart. And it is that heart which is what life is all about. Wealth is feeling loved, and good about oneself, and connected to all life and creation. Poverty is possessing everything except oneself. It is counting your gold behind a closed door. - Of course, when I speak of this ancient alternative to our own society, I am talking about the inspiring model of some of the Native American cultures which first existed on this continent, before we brought the seed of our corrupt life ways from Europe.
As The Message Of Rainsnow makes abundantly clear, my use of Native American cultures as a source of inspiration does not mean that I believe we can change our contemporary culture back into one of the many forms of tribal culture that existed back then. But these cultures do serve as living, breathing proof that there are other ways to measure a lifeís value and to define lifeís meaning, than the ones we use today. They help to orient us on our journey, like stars shining in the darkness of our night, pointing us in the right direction.
Nourished by this vision, which meets our imagination halfway, and spares us from the contempt that is hurled at fantasy (because the essence of what we envision once existed), a new set of priorities can begin to emerge. And we can finally sit down and ask the question, with a mind to solving it: isnít it possible to recover our dignity as human beings, and the vast potential of the time we lose to "excess" work, which is forced upon us by the way we are organized, and think? Isnít it possible to use the technological and productive base which we already have, connected to new visions of human life and meaning, and to restructure the way we live, giving ourselves more free time, more liberty, more "pleasure", more joy, more significance and more peace in life?
As Smohalla, a Native American holy man once said: "My young men shall never work. Men who work cannot dream; and wisdom comes to us in dreams." [Jason Hook, American Indian Warrior Chiefs, p. 112.] By work, he meant the white manís way of work and life, not the "work" done by his own people in order to survive, which might be hunting, fishing, gathering, fashioning toolsÖ For the Native American, "work" was not a means of controlling and using others to get rich, or a form of servitude and submission to others. It was not something dictated by clocks and threats, and not something which was used to strip one of oneís pride and dignity, or to crush the energy of life, wonder, and adventure out of one. "Work" followed the rhythms of nature and necessity, not rigid schedules set by men determined to use every last drop of oneís soul for their own gain; and large amounts of free time and vitality were left over for living, dreaming, sitting around, "hanging out", socializing, and spiritually seeking... Not to mention the fact that "work", itself, was never so degrading as ours. Certainly, it was physically harder, in many cases, but it was done amidst friends, with a sense of something shared, and it was filled with camaraderie. It was not done under the threat of ostracism and banishment beneath the whip of someone "tripping" on power, or under a cloud of humiliation, abuse, and disrespect. It was understood to be necessary for the survival of the people, and its pains were, therefore, borne more willingly than when work is done for the enrichment of others, who will leave you to die in your moment of need, without giving it a second thought.
Isnít it possible that we could seek to wed the beautiful essence of this very different "work ethic" with the technological possibilities of our own era, to re-define our own relation to work, and humanize our civilization?
For me, this is a matter not only of "saving our lives", in the sense of rescuing the stolen possibilities of our existence - for now, we are but half alive - it may, also, be a matter of saving our lives in the starkest and most basic sense. For our civilization, so well shielded by our acculturation to it, and by the propaganda which it projects about itself, is threatened with destabilization and destruction by the very economic engine which has been credited with building it up. While champions of this system credit it with being the most "efficient" system possible, it is, in fact, proving to be one of the most inefficient systems imaginable. True, no system can rival its incredible accomplishments of production; the material abundance it is able to generate; and its ability to detect and respond to fluctuations in demand (which it also manipulates, however). On the other hand, consider all the dimensions in which it is inefficient:
Moral Inefficiency: The system is based upon a sometimes excessive commitment to profits and the enrichment of the "boss", increasing the pressures felt by workers, and sometimes the stress experienced by other countries. Why not a little more solidarity, and compassion? Besides this, one must wonder if there is not something wrong with a society which depends upon the massive consumption of goods and services far beyond the basic requirements of survival and comfort, in order to remain economically healthy, while huge portions of the world are struggling to attain the most minimal standards of nutrition, housing, sanitation, medical care, and education. How is it that this system has no mechanism to transfer productive capability and capital to where it is needed most, but is, instead, driven to continue adding to the material excesses of those regions and classes which already have enough? Is this efficient??? (Although advocates argue that the system, as it grows, will eventually bring prosperity to the entire world, many others believe that the blueprints it offers to the poor nations of the world are illusory and deceptive, meant only to provide a compassionate face to its egotistic behavior. They note that these blueprints seem, in cases, to be theoretical doorways justifying the increased penetration of poor countries by the corporations of the rich, which seem more interested in extracting wealth from these countries than in helping them to climb out of the abyss of poverty. Besides this, some critics note that limits of various kinds are at work to stall out "development" in the poor countries of the world. For example: the fact that many vital resources will become increasingly scarce in the future, and that so many resources are already being monopolized by the rich countries; the fact that the earthís climate cannot tolerate vast new increases in industrialization, with the emission of "greenhouse gases"; and the fact that the rich nations already have a "head-start" in the consolidation of a superior economic position - meaning that they have gained mastery of more lucrative industries and technologies, which seems destined to trap many developing countries in a "low income" role as suppliers of lower-priced products which will not be able to generate the revenues needed for their "development." This is especially so, given the frequently crippling debt burden borne by many of these nations, a gigantic drain on their economic vitality which seems very hard to overcome. While the development models offered by the brain trusts of the rich countries theoretically offer ways past these dilemmas, it seems, in practice, that precious few nations that are poor today will ever be able to rise above their poverty by following these formulas. In fact, in recent years, the myth that the global economy is gradually enriching everyone is running into serious problems, as the United Nations has now produced studies indicating that living standards and real income in some impoverished parts of the world, such as Africa, are actually in decline. Is it perhaps true, as that old saying goes, that "the rich are getting richer as the poor get poorer"? - As for those who say that our system is efficient for us, and that the plight of other nations is not our problem, I say that that is an attitude which will only end up dividing the world, turning our success into a form of "aggression" - for how could it be perceived otherwise by those who are dying in the shadow of our wealth? - and laying the seeds of hatred and conflict across the earth. Intimately connected to those nations through the workings of international trade, we cannot distance ourselves from their plight, for we are already involved.)
Ecological Inefficiency: Ours is an economic system compelled to grow, no matter what the cost. It is addicted to a voracious, relentless use of global resources; and trapped by the imperative to maximize profits and minimize costs, which impedes the timely development of new technologies required by the future, and the implementation of appropriate solutions to the vast output of pollutants, waste products, and heat which its prolific activity generates. Its essential dynamics, magnificent for creating abundance, fail us when it comes to respecting the limits of the earth, and preserving the viability of our environment. It must keep digging, keep using, keep polluting. Not only is a great source of beauty, and potential spiritual and emotional regeneration, being destroyed in the process, but the very foundations of our civilization are being eaten away by its thoughtless, untamed growth. What will we do when we have finally ruined the one home we were given in the darkness?
Emotional Inefficiency: This is an economic system which is also emotionally inefficient. As I have suggested, the dynamics of the workplace create frustration, anger, resentment, bitterness, depression, and low self-esteem. For those who understand the sacredness of human life, value the significance of othersí feelings, and truly cherish the concept of the individual - not the abstract "individual" who is so much a part of our ideology, but the flesh-and-blood individual, who suffers and feels the pain of his abandonment by society - these effects are damaging enough, in and of themselves. But the pain of the individual can also spread far beyond his own ruined or diminished life, to become a part of the collective psyche of nations, filling them with rage that needs a place to lash out, and a place where its people can recover the sense of power that they lack in their own lives. Out of pain, enemies may be born. Furthermore, the disenchantment with life that mistreatment breeds in men, often lowers their inhibitions against killing others, as well as lessening the value they place upon their own lives, making it easier to die, and to choose suicidal paths This irrational angry energy can erupt into the world in the form of unjust political actions, unnecessary and uncompassionate actions, aggressive overreactions to challenges that could be met pacifically, and to violence and war. This is no small matter. Besides this, the emotions of resentment, envy, and justified outrage created by a non-heart-centered ideology of economic success which underestimates the catastrophe experienced by the losers of the "economic game", is also highly inefficient, for it lays the seeds of conflicts and disruptions which could far outweigh its gains. Exaggerated wealth that turns the world against one is hardly a blessing.
These, then, are some of the reasons why I wish to re-envision our concept of work, and our assumptions about our guiding economic principles. I want to work to live, not live to work; to use work to enhance life, not give up life to work. I want to be just, not rich; loved, not wealthy. I want peace, not war; friends, not enemies. I donít want to have to struggle so hard to respect and love myself, because I am trapped in a system which demeans me and degrades me. I want to love myself, and love others. I want to see through the fog of lies, and to live in lifeís center, not on its edge.
From here, where do I go?
Transforming The System: Ideas:
The change begins with a vision; with a liberation from the paralysis of believing that this is the only way. This was not the first way, and it does not need to be the last way.
The change begins by fighting to save and nourish the values, within us, that can make us capable of being free.
Generosity, respect for self and others, honesty, courage, open-mindedness, tolerance, compassion, empathy, intellectual curiosity and perseverance, the ability to think freely and love deeply, humility, patience, stamina, reverence for the Universe and the sacred essence of the gift of existence. The desire to enjoy, share, play, explore, grow, help. These desires, these values, these qualities, are what can set us on the path of freedom, as we surrender the weaknesses of cruelty, arrogance, overbearing pride, self-indulgence, insensitivity, selfishness, possessiveness, fear, prejudice, servility, blindness in the way we express our anger and in what we choose to be angry about, and ignorance, the kind which lets others use us as weapons against our brothers and ourselves - the kind which allows us to destroy and steal, while we imagine that we are heroes "saving the world".
We need to cultivate these values in ourselves through a combination of psychological self-awareness, will and struggle, and spiritual and/or philosophical work that connects us with deeper truths and goals, beyond the illusions that are tearing the world, and our own insides, apart. As I write and detail in The Message Of Rainsnow, this individual work would be greatly aided by the formation of new concepts of friendship and community, which could nourish and stimulate our individual efforts by putting us into contact with others who shared similar values, and could reinforce and validate our path.
As we develop these new values, we will lessen our psychological dependence on the products in which our society has imbedded the illusion of life. We will no longer be psychologically dependent upon consumerism to give meaning to our existence. We will be able to treat others fairly, to cease exploiting them, and to diminish our own dependence on the material system, at the same time as we develop new visions of what life could be, outside of working to possess things that we do not need, which cannot satisfy us as much as life, itself.
Needing less to own, hoard, and pursue material commodities, we will not have to work as much. Life will become more worthwhile for us. We will be less wounded by anger, frustration, and bitterness. These internal psychological changes will improve our relations with others, and help to make the earth a fairer and more peaceful place. They will also help to preserve the environment upon which we all depend. (It should also be mentioned, in this age in which fears of government manipulation and repression are increasing, that in the new kind of society which is being envisioned, the ordinary citizen, released from the draining and disheartening effects of the contemporary workplace, might recover more energy and will with which to monitor, control, and direct his government. He might, in other words, be better able to preserve his democracy.)
As I point out in The Message Of Rainsnow, the road to transforming the earth will not be easy or simple. Though I have developed what might be called a utopian goal, I am aware that it will have to be reached by traveling through the "real world."
I foresee that the economic and social transformation envisioned will begin in the context of a movement of individuals, in communication with one another, who will begin to transform themselves on a personal level, through study, spiritual practice, and social relations. They will begin to develop the new values which must underlie any such transformation, and to build new forms of economic and social cooperation with other members of the subculture which they are creating, which will remain imbedded within the mainstream economy as it, nonetheless, begins to head in a new direction. The presence of this expanding subculture will gradually begin to radiate changes within the mainstream economy and culture.
I understand that this subculture will need not only to foster the development of compassionate, clear-thinking, and courageous individuals, dedicated to transforming the world, but to also develop a genuine intellectual element, especially in the realm of economics. Solid expertise, combined with social imagination and compassion, will be needed to develop a project that is actually able to manage a transformation of this nature.
The movement will hopefully lead to significant levels of personal evolution within the "capitalist realm", humanizing bosses and companies, and enabling changes within the domain of "private ownership" to play a major role in the transformation.
It is logical that as consciousness and culture lay the groundwork for it, government and/or private coordinating councils will begin to provide additional guidance, input, and support to the very complex transformational process.
It is also to be presumed that parallel changes, and/or various accomodations and adjustments, will have to be made throughout many societies, on an international level, in order to enable and facilitate this internal (domestic) transformation, since there is no longer, strictly speaking, an "internal" and "external" economy in the interconnected, global system.
Once again, many challenges and obstacles will confront this transformational effort, among them: the ambition and power of those who profit from the system as it is; the assumptions created by years of "brainwashing" and apathy, which have let others define the possibilities of life for us; questions of how an economy driven by consumer spending can be transformed by new values of spirituality, compassion, and "non-material" living, based upon enjoyments that have not been commodified, without being plunged into recession and depression; questions of how a withdrawal from consumerism can be managed without destabilizing and injuring the international system, and without injuring ourselves; fundamental and absolutely critical questions of pricing, distribution, and social support during the period of readjustment. Enormously complex technical problems need to be faced. But the alternative to not facing them seems more challenging still: future periods of violent wars for resources, probably in many different places at once; ecological catastrophe; the collapse of democracy (which is not likely to survive such intense stress - see The Message of Rainsnow, and The Human Prospect by Robert Heilbroner); and the perpetual mutilation of the potential of human life.
For more on my theories, and hopes for the future, see, once again The Message Of Rainsnow, which describes the individual and cultural mechanisms of change in far greater detail; chapter 25 of The Journey Of Rainsnow, which attempts to demonstrate how the discontent, both obvious and subterranean, of modern, civilized life can sometimes lead to terrifying breakdowns, such as occurred in the age of Nazi Germany; and some other writings on this web site, in the "Weapons of Depth" and "Rainsnow Project" sections.
"Puzzled & Irritated": I hope this helps to clarify my thoughts about work for you! Of course, these ideas are just a beginning; but, as the old saying so wisely says, without ever becoming trite: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
Rainsnow Thought Contents
Rainsnow Project Contents