This is part of my Effective Populism series. Read the introduction here.
We have removed living from Life itself. Vulgar Productivism and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.
Robert Kennedy laid out how our worship of The Line leads to an even greater poverty:
Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all.
Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.
It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
The Tyranny of the Metric has led us to be alienated from the many non-commodified connections and goods that truly make life worth living. All that matters is The Line.
I have discussed the importance of focusing on material concerns instead of ideology (like the nonsense of representation/“being seen”). But make no mistake: material well-being is a tool, a means to the end of living a full and good life. And maximizing material well-being does not necessarily maximize our spiritual well-being; in fact, I would argue, it will sacrifice many meaningful things at the altar of Growth and GDP.
The most important part of understanding “work/life balance” more properly as “contribution/leisure balance” is to grasp one of the most profound sources of modern alienation:
For 40+ hours a week, we are taken away from our families, friends, and community in order to do work that does not seem to contribute much at all. (And compensation seems totally divorced from the actual contribution being made)
There is a scene in the movie Margin Call (think a more dramatic, better version of The Big Short) where Stanley Tucci’s character delivers a monologue to Paul Bettany’s character about a bridge he built and the immense material impact it had on the lives of the people who used it:
Of course, the subtext in the scene and its context in the movie is that Tucci’s character feels that his time as an engineer, when he was much less compensated than his current job on Wall Street, was when he had more meaningful impacts on the lives of people. There is an immediacy. One can see what one has done.
On the other hand, in our hyper-bureaucratic and obfuscated world, it isn’t particularly clear what we are doing. Do financial markets actually work towards “proper” capital allocation, or is it all just a game, divorced from its underlying purpose? (My guess is Tucci’s character would argue the latter)
We are alienated from the impact of our labor. It no longer becomes clear what we are doing or why we are doing it. Is it any surprise over a third of Brits see their jobs as not very fulfilling or not at all fulfilling? Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber (may he rest in peace), argues 40% of all jobs in America are B.S. And I think it’s fair to say that “revealed preferences” (Opioid epidemic, SSRI prescriptions, etc.) make it clear that number may be even higher.
And so, if we want to address the poverty of purpose and dignity that Robert Kennedy so eloquently described, we need to focus on building a society that truly allows for people to build lives worth living. It means focusing on a society centered on strong communities, families, close relationships with friends, etc. It demands a rejection of the atomistic focus on individual autonomy, and a balancing of individual autonomy against a range of other goods/values. There are many goods that when pursued too much can lead to bad consequences. That doesn’t mean they aren’t goods, just that they need to be kept in balance with other goods.
And this also means that we need an economic system that properly and fully rewards actual contribution. Our system certainly does no such thing. What that system would have to look like is still up for debate, but our theories of “value” and economics are so flawed that it is likely we will need to blow it all up and start over if we are to have any chance of achieving this ideal.
I hope you all enjoyed. If so, please like and share the post, join the email list, and consider a paid subscription if you would like to support my work.
Plan is to wrap up the Effective Populism series by the end of next week.