also posted on here meaning at work or why utility is a priori only to itself
When I was growing up, my parents presented me with a life path. It went something like this:
- Go to public school
- Go to College
- Get a job
- Get married and buy a house
- Have kids
- Work until your kids have left home
- Work until you retire
I asked them, what's the point of that? They didn't have much to say, I'm not sure why, but their basic argument was to say, well, look at us. We are doing it and it's fine.
(Ironic perhaps, but they are at step 8 now, and the four question marks seem to loom over them everyday.... such that they still have no answer.)
But at the time, being something like, 10 years old, I didn't have much to say. I'm not going to fight-club my way through this, but I will mention that this post will survey a growing trend that I have noticed across different areas of our online media, that of where meaning and work inter-relate. After all, even if you don't follow the schema above, if you wish to be "standing on your own two feet" you're going to have to contribute to society in a meaningful way.
Contribution doesn't always mean being paid but it does mean earning a living somehow and not soaking up someone else's resources.
But that's the catch isn't, it? I mean, how I defined the problem: in a meaningful way.
If you're on the blogosphere reading this post written in American English, most likely you're in the upper part of the Global Economy. Not necessarily at a leadership position, but certainly in the upper stratas of the global-economy. So you think of the world in terms of $$$$ in terms of capitalism. How does meaning fit in?
After all that's what this blog is about: Meaning. In particular:
Meaning in the Workplace
I'd like to cite an article first written by Tammy Erickson
. You can find the article in the Harvard Business Review Blogs
. The article is titled: Meaning is the New Money
, although the url suggests an earlier title was about challenging deeply held something... (probably belief?) To sum this article: Erickson challenges the common belief about what best holds us together as a work-force when we work at a job. For instance, my parents suggested that I do something I like. What I like, like many teenagers, had nothing to do with earning money because it was pretty much focused on pleasing myself. And no one will pay me to do things that please me.
So while many of us like money, working a job to make money isn't something (I hope) most of us have to do. What my parents meant is that we should do something for a living that we at least enjoy. If you think about it, most of us spend more time with our coworkers in a week than with our loved ones, at least during our waking hours. That's kind of a sad thought. All those turn-key children. Left alone without guidance from parents who slave away....
No, Erickson argues that we all need meaning in our jobs, we all need to be energized by what we do, to believe that it matters. Here's a compelling quote:
My research has clearly shown that high levels of engagement, and the associated discretionary effort, occur when our work experiences reflect a clear set of values that we share. For many today, meaning is the new money. It's what people are looking for at work. Clear company values, translated into the day-to-day work experience, are one of the strongest drivers of an engaged workforce, one primed for successful collaboration.
Now if that doesn't convince you read, or at least skim, the article I don't know what will!
Isn't what all the corporate magazines talk about? Team-building a corporate culture with a cohesive message so everyone is on the same page, working happily towards a shared goal?
So now, if I get this right -- companies not only need to produce more value for their customers than it costs (monetarily) to produce that good or service -- they also need to produce meaning for their workforce so that their employees are on board the project too... not just as a wage earner, but with a clear vision and focus as to how their work at the company is meaningful and helps others in the long run.
Sounds like managers also need to become teachers! And CMOs and CEOs need to be philosophers! So then, if I take this article literally, business organizations need not only a clear cash flow that makes fiscal sense for them to operate and survive business cycles, but also that businesses need a clear pedagogical skeleton so that the message is disseminated from the philosopher-CEOs and COOs and CFOs that drive a business towards its strategic goals.
Certainly many of the more successful corporations that have exploded since their founding today have that clear mission and vision of the kind of company they want to be. But besides the issue of meaning, what else is at stake?
What happens when we lose meaning?
The Great Depression of the early 21st Century
Certainly in our current lifestyle, we find ourselves amid a "Great Depression" comparable to the many depressions in the earlier part of the 20th and latter part of the 19th century... For instance, Detroit basically has 50% unemployment (from World Socialist Website
via Jodi Dean
, here: The Depopulation of Detroit
). If we take Detroit as a sintome of our current employment life, what does that entail?
The issue as I see it has less to do with what happens if we get meaning back in our life, but what happens if we lose it. If we treat our jobs as vehicles for money, which is how we might traditionally look at our job, we end up in a completely different kind of "depression".
From the Socialist Worker
via Jodi Dean
, we get an article about Capitalism's Crisis
. This article hails from a Marxist view of what has traditionally been seen as a deficit on the part of laborers. I'm not a big Marx expert, or even fan, but I do find him useful. The idea is that the surplus value of a laborers' only real commodity (his time, energy and life-force) is where capitalists make their profit. The crisis of capitalism that Alex Callinicos talks about is the end of capitalist profit. I don't want to talk about capitalism too much here as a system, but the basic idea is that as long as capitalism is profitable that profit can be spread among everyone (albeit unevenly). When that profit stream dries up, it needs to get its $$$ from somewhere, so Callinicos talks about how it is going to try and take more of it from its working class by deducing wages or benefits.
So the lack of jobs that say, Detroit faces (along with the rest of us) also stems from the lack of profit that is to be had (eating up all our equity from our finance instruments circa 1980 to mid-2000s). By the way, Alex Callinicos also wrote a book called Against Postmodernism
which I read trying to figure out what Postmodernism was. I was an undergrad at the time, and frankly, my first attempt to grasp what he was saying resulted in a huge fail.
But in any case, if Callinicos is correct, then our current recession is actually a depression. And as such, it is unlike the depression resulting from the speculative crashes in 1929 -- this depression is actually a crisis in the logic of capitalism. If the system of economic redistribution is no longer adequate to redistribute... meaning or money or whatever it distributes, then it has failed us. To quote Callinicos,
The great Russian revolutionary Lenin said there’s never a really hopeless situation for capitalism as long as workers allow it to survive.
Sooner or later the system can recover from any crisis. It would be difficult for it to return to the pattern of the recent past, as the financial system has been seriously weakened.
While the slump continues, it’s important to see that it’s uneven. One section of the system, the historical core in North America and most of Europe, is still quite depressed.
But if we look at China and the economies associated with it, which include Germany and Brazil, they are growing quite quickly.
This reflects the way in which the Chinese state threw everything into preventing a protracted economic slump.
The fact that this bit of the system is growing is a further destabilising factor, however.
It produces tensions between the US as the dominant capitalist power, and China—increasingly seen as the major challenger. That makes it harder to manage capitalism.
But even if they do find a way of muddling through, what produced the crisis was the logic of capitalism and the system—a system that is driven by blind competition in pursuit of profit.
That system will continue to produce crises and continue to try to solve them at the expense of working people and the poor.
So the only real guarantee of escaping crises like this one is to get rid of capitalism altogether. That may not be a bad idea, but it also may not be necessary. Callinicos seems to adhere to Marx to understand what Capitalism is... but you should also understand that Marx himself did not really see capitalism as a horrible system
. Faulty, to be sure, but not without its merits.
Nonetheless, we can take this Callinico's call to action a step further. Richard Seymour
, author of the blog Lenin's Tomb
, in an article titled Towards a new Model Commune
critiques the basic segmentation that happens in capitalist culture -- the organization of the workforce, the regulation of our 9-5, the unthinking box each of us puts herself in when we think, oh I should get another job
, often with a helpless conviction that there is in fact no other way for one to live.... that we cannot effect a change in the larger system because I'm just one poor little me! What can I do?
The question then comes as a parallax reversal of JFK's statement
, we should not live for our system -- we should ask that our systems live for us, allowing us to live.
Beyond Nihilism: Meaning without Utility
Having followed me thus far, you'll be impressed with how far "left" I have gone. But this is not a matter of liberal or conservative however; the status quo has no substance in itself. People will only adhere to a meaning if it continues to service them well. So the question is more aligned with Immanuel Wallerstein
's dichotomies from his World Systems Analysis. We have rather, three parties, a defense of the status quo for no change, a desire for some carefully measured change, and then we have those few who want radical change. Critical theory, or at least a philosophical eye on the relations that be want change, push for change. It's doomed to be, a measure of how things can be "better". The Americanizations of Liberal and Conservative are anything if not misleading. Conservatives may want change, but it's not so much change of what is fundamentally sound, but a tweaking of our current day back to the intentions of "the good ole days". Liberals more would more on the side that what is fundamentally sound has yet to be conceived of.
Thus, the content of both sides is irrelevant, their positions are metered around what is seen as being fundamental "change" or not.
So my point in bringing this up, if anything is that while you'll see that while this entry has gone into the very "liberal" ideologies of Marxist critiques of capitalism, you can find similar thoughts echoed, if not in the right then at least in the status quo.
My evidence for this? Straight from the business blog of Tony Schwartz
, We're in a new energy crisis. This one is personal
. While much of this blog's purpose is to promote their "The Energy Project" which has to do with auditing tasks that businesses (and their front running exes) to save energy. Not energy like green energy or electricity, but personal energy. What does this blog post reveal about one of his key principles? It's worth quoting:
Companies need to take up the cause of a new way of working.
The companies that build competitive advantage in the years ahead aren't going to do it by seeking to get more out of their people. They'll do it instead better meeting people's core needs — physical, emotional, mental and spiritual — so they're freed, fueled and inspired to bring more of themselves to work every day.
What energies people -- what meets their needs is to give them meaning, to energize them with a goal, exactly what Erickson writes about above.
But then we knew this already. Victor Frankl
wrote Man's Search for Meaning
which is actually a memoir of his survival from a Nazi Concentration Camp. His analysis and conclusion is that human beings need meaning to survive. He observed that those who survived the camp did so because they had sufficient reason not to give up.
I don't think that we of the global economy are ready to give up. And our daily lives DO have meaning, albeit personal meaning. For many of us, our jobs mean a little bit, we find a way to incorporate what we do into the larger picture of how others live around us. Even still though, to get supreme satisfaction is requires more than just knowing that we did our part in some small way. Having a personal disjunction between our life with our family and friends and what we do in the office is perhaps one of the greatest conundrums of the modern era.
Both Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari
and Jean-Francois Lyotard
(to mention a few) cite our postmodern, post-industrial society with its circularity of capital (C-M-C and M-C-M) and its built in limits as without producing meaning. Instead, meaning is foreclosed between production on one side, and consumption on the other-side through the parallax multi-faceted kernel of $. The only thinker I know of who seems able to transcend this analogous gap between money, commodity and capital is Kojin Karatani
and he proposes a barter type system as a way of side-stepping the dialectic.
Anyway, such discussions between meaning and money are fit for another time, however. And my reading of Lyotard's Libidinal Economy
is quite rusty. I did try and tackle this subject before here: On Capitalism, a Tragedy
although the approach was quite philosophical.
No, I don't think capitalism is a tragedy, I was just playing off of Michael Moore's Capitalism, a Love story
So the takeaway? If anything it's not that we can work more hours in a day. Or that we could be more productive if we paid our employees more, or save our economy by shrinking the benefits to those who have jobs. I suppose I can write a little bit on that some other time, maybe. But what I want to end with here, is simply that if we are to find our way out of the current economy deadlock, and our collective dissatisfaction with how much we work then we need to take a risk and alter the way we approach work. This can't happen until businesses collectively see their mission to be more than just greed and profiteering. The world today is remarkably different from when Adam Smith
wrote The Wealth of Nations
. The main difference is that the world then was much bigger. Today we live in a sandbox. We find our resources dwindling and our pollution with no where to go. We used to shit in someone else's backyard -- but only now we see that someone else's backyard is also our backyard.
If anything we need to forcefully reinstill meaning into our existence. Instead of embracing the null of capitalism and relying on transactions and cash flow to be the determining factor of meaning and rationality (decision making) we need to find some other means. Which will be hard, because we wouldn't be changing the tangible pieces on the table. We would be changing the intangible relationship of those pieces, the logic of how they work together. I think if anything, the experiment of a centralized bureaucracy like the Soviet Union's most likely isn't the answer...
So to get back to the takeaway, we have to understand that Homo Economicus
cannot be the basis for Rational Choice Theory
. This kind of maximization of utility can only be cohered when understood in conjunction with a meaningful metric. Only one kind of meaningful metric exists: MONEY.
One could argue that the metrics don't need tampering and the basis for rational choice is sound, it's rather the instrumentation needs to be refined. But then if you use the Energy Project as above, can we actually put a dollar sign for every effort spent on pedagogically infusing an employee with the company mission? Or the time spent by a manager to explain to an employee how they fit into the company network? Or the extra productivity an employee may show (or not lose) because such time and energy was spent?
Well, business has a vested interest in these things, and big business has a ton of money and a need for quantifying studies so I am sure someone has been insane enough to create tools to describe what I've described directly above.
But in all seriousness: I am not alone in voicing a concern that economy theory is insufficient in properly modeling and putting into practice what is healthy for human beings. This article: Goodbye, Homo Economicus
from Economist's View
voices concerns about the insufficiency of linking rational choice theory (with its model of humans as homo economicus, interested mainly in external measurable values of maximizing utility and minimizing cost).
What the “madmen in authority” heard this time was the distant echo of a debate among academic economists begun in the 1970s about “rational” investors and “efficient” markets. This debate began against the backdrop of the oil shock and stagflation and was, in its time, a step forward in our understanding of the control of inflation. But, ultimately, it was a debate won by the side that happened to be wrong. And on those two reassuring adjectives, rational and efficient, the victorious academic economists erected an enormous scaffolding of theoretical models, regulatory prescriptions and computer simulations which allowed the practical bankers and politicians to build the towers of bad debt and bad policy. ...
Which brings us to the causes of the present crisis. The reckless property lending that triggered this crisis only occurred because rational investors assumed that the probability of a fall in house prices was near zero. Efficient markets then turned these assumptions into price-signals, which told the bankers that lending 100 per cent mortgages or operating with 50-to-1 leverage was safe. Similarly, regulators, who allowed banks to determine their own capital requirements and private rating agencies to establish the value at risk in mortgages and bonds, took it as axiomatic that markets would automatically generate the best possible information and create the right incentives for managing risks. ...
The scandal of modern economics is that these two false theories—rational expectations and the efficient market hypothesis—which are not only misleading but highly ideological, have become so dominant in academia (especially business schools), government and markets themselves.
I am not familiar with the author of this article. Where the article stops, is in suggesting how economics could be reformed so that the internal models that build our current understanding of how resources and finances should be handled. That's okay though, this is a blog about economics, not about meaning in the face of rational nihilism via utility... an understanding of money that is nearly a priori due to its near-circularity.
But if anything, the takeaway should be that our current system needs to change in some fundamental ways because of a lack of meaning in our workplace and the lack of integration between our system of resources and how people live.
It's not enough to BS a company work-place environment. That environment needs to be genuine. People today are quite savvy at detecting bullshit. Likewise any meaning a company creates, like the lessons in a public classroom, for it to be meaningful, need to be integral to our personal lives, in some way. And that choice has to be allowed by each individual, we need a society that sets the proper conditions for such connections to thrive. What such a society should be, or how it should be transitioned onto is of course, a difficult but collective choice each of us needs to make on a daily basis.
The next time you go to work decide for yourself, if this is what you ought to be doing. Not today or tomorrow, but next year, or ten years from now. Understand that maximizing a paycheck is like maximizing utility. Getting a pleasant job that is close by is like minimizing cost. Is that really the best way to live?
After all, in the journey of being alive, we collect things, bank accounts and stuff. It's not been accepted that anyone who has died has come back to really talk about it. Even still, we all see that No, you can't take it with you.
So the worthwhile part needs to be the journey, not the destination. Why else would be possibly be here and now, alive today?
If anything, society should try and maximize its populations' "journey" instead of maximizing utility in the form of numbers in a corporate bank account...