Love of labour: a bad romance with the illusion of security

The more things change, the more they stay the same. But this time it is really different:

employment is an illusion of security

What an uncomfortable graph. Sometimes when things scale, they are just a bigger version of the small thing. However, at times, they also develop new properties. A population of cells becomes an organ – and has new properties. A large teddy bear can be used as a pillow, while a small one cannot.

What can a large human population do that a small one couldn’t? What does it mean for the individual?

The above graph of world population vs time scares me because we’re going into the unknown. In a sense, each one of us is less important. It takes much more to compete. If you are “one in a thousand”, in 1800 that would have got you places. Today, not so much.

What does that mean for individuals? Can such a demand for food, water and energy be met, never mind sustainably? How do we find a place in such a competitive imminently expanding world? Albeit we’re no longer accelerating the growth, the sheer numbers are a little bit unnerving.

competing with a growing population

Not to fall into conspiracy theories or 1984/Brave New World despair, but for the sake of an analogy, consider cows, or minks, or any other farmed animal. I’ve always felt that breeding animals to kill them is a kind of (?necessary) evil, but it is somehow made better by the fact that they are bred. They don’t have to worry about food and get to have lots of babies. In a roundabout way, they have won in the Darwinian casino.

But then I wondered: if cows and minks are bred for their meat and their fur, are we kind of… bred for economic growth?

Each one of us has to comply with the assertion that success comes from having lots and lots of things in order for this to be perpetuated. Few people look for fame and fortune to exercise some kind of power (if you prefer “change the world”) – and to be fair I have respect for such people.

employment in the context of a growing population
“Idle as trout in light”

I get the sense though that to most people, fame and fortune is an end in itself. Furthermore, I suspect it is a product of our culture rather than just hedonism. For a proper first principles hedonist, it would never make sense to work so hard to have things they will never get time to enjoy.

I’ve always found it fascinating that the very people I know from school that were so rebellious that they just wouldn’t comply with the simplest of instruction become exemplars of compliance and obedience when there is a paycheck involved.

It’s someone’s birthday?

“I’ve work tomorrow.”

Can’t stand the sight of the boss?

“I have to go to work.”

Wife giving birth?

“I better get to work, so.”

It seems that no amount of personal problems can stand in the way of being at work. And when it does happen, the rest of the working tribe treats it as some kind of weakness and/or deceit to get out of doing work.

Buckminster Fuller comes to mind:

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

“Inspectors of inspectors”… The irony. A friend of mine, a former employee of a multinational once pointed out: we have trackers for trackers. Entire days are spent changing amber to green and red to amber.

Some also theorise that very few jobs require 9-5 x 5 days a week. A lot of time is spent being idle. Why then do the employers insist of you being there? I would argue it isn’t the employer: it’s the culture. Some people won’t take their job seriously if they are given the autonomy to manage their own time (though I always bet on the opposite when looking for people in my own ventures).

If you think about it, it’s kind of disrespectful to insist that someone is there just so that their boss has the option of coopting them into some work engagement. Another interesting (?side) effect is that predictably a person has no strength to create anything outside of work. An eight hour day of being surveyed and judged, a draining commute, an uncomfortable suit and a toilet seat you cannot sit on… As Taleb puts it:

“In short, every organization wants a certain number of people associated with it to be deprived of a certain share of their freedom. How do you own these people? First, by conditioning and psychological manipulation; second by tweaking them to have some skin in the game, forcing them to have something significant to lose if they were to disobey authority –something hard to do with gyrovague beggars who flouted they scorn of material possessions.”

I wonder if it is becoming harder, though, to be a gyrating roaming monk (these days they have a Mac and are called digital nomads) given that the population is growing. Is there room to be an individual? Nietzsche has his concerns:

“Those who commend work. – In the glorification of ‘work’, in the unwearied talk of the ‘blessing of work’, I see the same covert idea as in the praise of useful impersonal actions: that of fear of everything individual. Fundamentally, one now feels at the sight of work – one always means by work that hard industriousness from early till late – that such work is the best policeman, that it keeps everyone in bounds and can mightily hinder the development of reason, covetousness, desire for independence. For it uses up an extraordinary amount of nervous energy, which is thus denied to reflection, brooding, dreaming, worrying, loving, hating; it sets a small goal always in sight and guarantees easy and regular satisfactions. Thus a society in which there is continual hard work will have more security: and security is now worshipped as the supreme divinity. – And now! Horror! Precisely the ‘worker’ has become dangerous! The place is swarming with ‘dangerous individuals’! And behind them the danger of dangers – the individual!”

It’s pretty clear that Nietzsche’s talking about institutional employment.

This essay of mine isn’t about robbing the rich or some other way of getting out of work. It’s not promoting Zuckerberg’s universal basic income. It’s about the fact that work is indeed glorified. Much of what is called work is being trapped in purposelessness.

employment is an illusion of security

And it’s not even work that is glorified: nobody cares about the labour of a painter who hasn’t (yet) made their hobby into a job or a blogger, or whoever. It is the stamp of approval from some institution that people really respect. Perhaps, it is just easier to relate to.

I suppose, being Russian, I can’t help but be reminded of how easily institutions fail. Countless Russian firms have risen to unbelievable heights and quickly died in the last 20 years. Even the USSR itself: seeing such a behemoth collapse shatters one’s faith in institutions.

And it wasn’t even that weak, with real industry and gargantuan natural resources. In a completely different context, where I am now – Ireland – also has become a State and gone through a couple of different names in the XX century. That empire disappeared too.

Nietzsche above and Taleb (in multiple works) have spoken about this security that people look for. The security that people trade a portion of their freedom for. Clearly though, it is an illusion. Remember 2008?

nietzsche fuller taleb on work and employment
The chap in the pink shirt knows how to party like it’s 1728

Meanwhile, the seaside restaurant beside me boasts having been established in 1728. Chin chin, Mr Taleb, and chin chin to everyone being creative and working hard to not lose your individuality among the impending billions.

philosophers on employment
Chin chin!

 

Can we live without evil?

Black or white?

What you label as evil essentially depends on which side of you are on.

Being directional, having a goal, being in pursuit involves labelling things and people as allies or obstacles. In pursuit of our goals, we do many things which we may think are perfectly okay, but somebody else will thinks are evil. I am typing this on a MacBook Air. If I were a Chinese person, I would probably have good reason to consider Apple evil. As I am on the consumer side here, I feel somewhat overcharged and not having a lot of options beside MacBook, nonetheless meaning that they are my ally. Good and evil, all at once.

My actions inadvertently lead to the death of the cutest and friendliest cat you can ever hope to meet. This made me see myself as someone who can do evil, even though it was never my intention to do evil. Whenever someone else did evil previously, I felt they were, well, evil. Bad. Shouldn’t exist. This experience has taught me to see things differently.

Another throwback to my 1990s Russian childhood: there were some Roma people around. They have vanished since; I’ve no idea where they’re gone. I guess that’s just part of the lifestyle of those people I witnessed. The unfortunate prejudice was that you need to hold on to your wallet when one is in sight. Indeed, on occasion, I would witness some cursing shopkeeper shouting as a Roma woman was running away. As a child, I recall wondering what stimulates these particular women to live this life. It is really quite clear and much more relatable when you are an adult.

Indeed, a lot of the the men and women whom we may regard as criminals are in pursuit of their goals: they have babies to feed, bills to pay, whatever. We may feel that it is unfair for them to rob what we’ve earned with our hard labour (as if robbing isn’t labour). They may feel it is unfair that we sit in a comfy office pushing paper (as if pushing paper is that easy). Our motivations are actually quite similar.

I really don’t like that variety of philosophy that ends up telling you that white is black and black is white. So I am not doing that. All I am saying is that good and evil are subjective and transient.

how do you tell good from evil
Grim but beautiful. Wicklow mountains

A Darwinian life

Any kind of goal-directed behaviour is likely to result in someone else’s suffering. Maybe, in fact, it isn’t even the goal-directedness of our behaviour, but the fact that nature makes us compete. Are win-win situations really that great when you consider the wider context? Tesco (a kind of British Walmart) not only allows residents of small towns to purchase goods cheaper, but it also creates jobs in the small town: someone has to pack the shelves, look after the purchasing decisions, etc. It is also well known that whenever the likes of Tesco move into a small town, for every job they create, they kill two jobs (who wants to buy from the butcher now that you can get the “same” stuff cheaper). Whether it is good or bad on balance, it is Darwinian and it causes suffering for the butcher.

Or consider my poor moths. I lived in a carpeted apartment for a while. Mid-plank I noticed that some bits of the carpet were bare and then found that there were moths living under it. I had to commit absolute genocide against them. Three rounds of poisonous chemicals. They must have “thought” I was evil. But did I really have a choice? Again, a Darwinian reality of them versus me.

In an insect’s mind, the most important life on this planet is an insect’s life. It’s all the insect has – nAot unlike us, though some of us think of life in a more abstract manner.

In a Darwinian world, is it possible to never do evil? How about a better question: is it that clear what good and evil is? Doesn’t it all depend of perspective?

why can't we live without evil
You can have perspective even when its cloudy. Kerry mountains.

Happiness and accomplishment

This is why being terribly obsessed with goals and accomplishment is so disturbing: it relies on a concrete framework of wanted and unwanted events. For those who are especially interested, the 1996 Mount Everest disaster is a great example of how being goal-directed can cloud one’s perception of good vs bad.

A lot of readers indicated that they wish to hear more on the subject of happiness. Read the fable “Blessings in disguise” in this context. Events that we see as undesirable could well be good. I sometimes look back at my failures. In what now seems like a former life, I was interviewed with McKinsey. After what seemed like 17 000 rounds of interviews, I received a phone call from the partner. As he greeted me, I assumed I had it in the bag. Why else would he call me? No, it was a kick in the stomach. I went digging and found out that some slightly younger guy with a reasonably unremarkable CV got it instead of me. I couldn’t figure out the conundrum for ages (I naively believed I could). I now feel that it was a lucky escape.

I even look back at some of the events I then labelled as successes and think: I wonder where I would be now if I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole.

My working hypothesis is that to feel happiness one need to experience or perceive change and have perspective. Perspective is largely a set of cognitive judgements. I don’t want the reader to think that absolutely any event can be rationalised into being perceived as good when it was first thought of as bad or evil.

I want to simply highlight that some of our judgements about good and evil are completely off the wall.

I recall one scientist tell me that he won’t consider his career successful until he gets a paper published in Nature as a first author. Even if we ignore the needy narcissism, what a miserly contract to make with yourself! This is what I call off the wall.

Furthermore, everything is a chain of events.

If my aunt hadn’t suffered a medical negligence case, I wouldn’t have had the chance to go in on a rescue mission and reconnect with her, something that was way overdue. At the time of course, it all seemed like a bad dream.

can we live without evil
Grey’s a happy colour. Mizen Head

 

 

“What… is water?” asks the fish

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

David Foster Wallace

I got into a merry debate with the lovely Pink Agendist about choosing day-dreaming versus being in the moment that ultimately elicited that we broadly agree: reality is a hugely interesting topic. In his touching speech, David Foster Wallace says :

The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

In a disarming manner, he admits that he isn’t saying anything ground-breaking. His point, however, is that it is so hard to keep the important thoughts in front of us that they are worth repeating. It seems that from Buddhists to Seneca to Darwin, the main philosophical thought that resonates with me is: be aware and adapt. Even in his seemingly grim Letter 61, Seneca says:

Let us set our minds in order that we may desire whatever is demanded of us by circumstances, and above all that we may reflect upon our end without sadness.

Few concepts send my mind into a spin like this. Part of me resists: humans accomplished what they’ve accomplished by defying their odds, not by accepting what is demanded of them. Siberia demands that you freeze to death or leave, for example. However, I think it is a misinterpretation on my part. Seneca is instead saying: find a way to use this situation. What is demanded is that one figures out how to chop wood and sustain a fire, so one has to manage themselves in such a way that they could do this eagerly and well. This one sentence explains the nature of cognitive behavioural therapy used today: changing one’s mind will change one’s emotions – and how one behaves. The point isn’t to idolise Seneca. I am sure that many generations of John the Caveman said it before him. The point is that the concept is as relevant today as it ever was.

Another part of me says: what are the circumstances – and what do they demand? I made a little graphic to show the nature of my confusion. Understanding the circumstances may require the sort of insight that I am not even aware exists.

developing self awareness though mindfulness

I haven’t figured out another way to get closer to understanding any of the above other than through mindfulness and reading the works of philosophers that stood the test of time. Even then, reading a philosopher’s thoughts is secretly wishing that someone else has it all figured out. This is another brilliant point that David Foster Wallace brings up: even if one doesn’t think that they have a religion, they still worship something – and have some kind of default setting:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship… The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings.

Just like Pema Chodron explains, it is part of human nature to assume that someone else has the answer. After all, that is what we are conditioned to believe as children through the behaviour of adults – they always know best. When we ourselves become adults, that void is then filled with some kind of worship. The only way to snap out and have the ability to choose again, even for a moment, seems to be by being in the moment.

I am tangentially involved in game development and recently came across a game called The Stanley ParableIt involves a corporate employee and his choices. The game is incredibly philosophical, touching on the concept of choice and free will – and I couldn’t do it justice here. However, if you have nothing to do on a dark January night, it will rock your world.

Have a mindful weekend, everyone.