By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing – kill yourself.
I am no aficionado of Superman, but I must admit, I am one of “Seinfeld.” With reference to the latter and by default, the former: Everything around me these days makes me feel like I am living in Bizarro World. Everything is exactly the opposite of what it should be. To quote fictional Jerry, “…In the backwards Bizarro World….Up is down. Down is up. He says hello when he leaves, goodbye when he arrives.” The only problem is that unlike in “Seinfeld” this Bizarro World is far from hilarious.
I find nothing much less bizarre than our notions of jobs and work. Because we westerners premise every aspect of our lives on money and the economy, we are all (but a very select elite few) wage slaves who have become totally and utterly dependent on working for an income in order to pay for our basic necessities of life. Part of the problem is that we have (purposefully) lost most of our previously held skills. Renaissance men and women and people who possess wide-ranging abilities are less valued than those who focus on a particular specialization. And of course, by specializing, we become more reliant upon the corporate-controlled structure of production to acquire our basic needs.
Yet, as we can readily know from non-western, indigenous cultures, these basic necessities are not predicated on money. In reality, human beings as a particular animal species do not need money to live. So, why do we rely on this monetary system, dominated by corporate capitalism? We can give excuses like this way of life enables technological, intellectual, and creative “progress” that could not be accomplished otherwise. That is a nice conceit. The premise is based on the false assumption that our modern way of life has led to more leisure time during which we do not have to work for basic necessities and can accomplish feats of intellectual, creative, and technological marvel. The truth is we have less leisure time than we used to, and most of it is spent observing and imbibing the spectacle of bread and circuses.
We can also pretend that we all have very valuable roles to play in our society, and that working hard in these roles is virtuous. But our jobs are no longer (if they ever were) for the benefit of us, our communities, our society; they are for the benefit of the corporate elite. We are merely their dutiful servants, and for the most part, the more success we have in our job, the more likely we are to be an unethical, immoral drone, generating widespread damage to our world.
In my youth, many children aspired to pretty altruistic professions like firefighting or teaching. They recognized, however unconsciously, the moral imperative to mix productivity with service. Yet, by the time we reached high school, pragmatism and careerism reigned supreme.
Most people do not bother with the “service” aspect of their careers. And who could blame them? From a very young age, what is presented as of principal concern is making a good living to provide for you and your family – or better yet, making lots and lots of money as fast as possible. How that is accomplished, and what harm may be done to other people, communities, or society in doing so is wholly and utterly neglected.
Of course, many people have fewer career choices than others. They have no opportunities in terms of attending college, let alone graduate/professional schools. In some cases, these marginalized peoples turn to crime because they see it as their only means of making that decent living. But in reality, the crimes of the marginalized members of society, such as the drug gangs in inner cities throughout the U.S., differ little from the crimes committed by people who work for multinational corporations in the U.S. The only subtle differences are that gangs kill far fewer people directly while corporations kill far more people indirectly, and that gang crimes are prosecutable while corporate crimes are completely legal. (David Simon beautifully, poignantly, and realistically portrays this parallel yet inequitable work structure in his magnificent series “The Wire.”) In both instances, concern about self trumps concern about community and others.
This self-concern is the primary objective given to work today. We are constantly reminded about the virtues and rewards of hard work. We work mainly to amass wealth for ourselves and our families – or, more likely nowadays, to try to maintain the basics needed to survive. However, not only is this self-concern an illusion promulgated by corporate interests to feed our egos and make us feel empowered as indentured servants, the value of work in and of itself is a fallacy. Jobs do not have inherent value; indeed many, if not most, do much more harm than good.
When I was an undergraduate at a Roman Catholic university, the Jesuit influence in our education held both academics and service in high esteem. Ironically, while the majority of undergraduates at my university were on pre-professional tracks – going into law, medicine, or business – no one thought to ponder the service of these professions. Careerism there, and on every college campus dominates. What service meant to our school was charity and volunteerism. But what good is charity when your career necessitates the need for the charity in the first place? This idea is rarely thought, much less spoken. Hard work, goal-setting, and dedication to a successful outcome is viewed as worthy of honor, even if that outcome is unethical, immoral, or of little to no qualitative value whatsoever.
To rationalize our self-absorption and selfishness, we engage in charity/volunteering. So what we are left with is one step up, two steps back for society. Charity merely signifies an excuse for injustice and demonstrates the failure of a society as a whole.
In graduate school, this careerism flourishes as well. Few conversations are had about the value and worthiness of research. What are more often discussed are the criteria necessary to gain prominent positions in the future. Time spent conducting studies of quality geared toward the betterment of our society or of our environment is secondary to time spent just getting a study – any study – done. Quantity of research and publication is far more important than quality, and success is measured in terms of how much is accomplished, not how valuable those accomplishments are.
In Hollywood, for actors and film/television crews, being booked on a job is seen as a success. Nearly everyone in these fields takes whatever jobs they land, as these jobs are scarce and competition is fierce. Until you have “made a name for yourself” or made certain connections, it is all the same to land work on a creatively innovative movie or an offensive reality show, a cerebral satirical program or a broad mindless comedy, a politically and culturally educational film or a porn flick. (The latter is sometimes the sole criterion for turning down a job.). Not too much is different in other fields, either.
While people fortunate enough to have college educations frown upon working at places like McDonalds because of the lack of prestige, non-living wage, repetitive mindless work, and lack of benefits, few mention problems with McDonalds’ direct connection to the proliferation of agribusiness and destruction of family farms, of factory farming and torture of livestock animals, or of environmentally destructive farming practices and commodification/monopolization of seeds.
The fact that corporate business models are revered as the lone models to emulate in each and every career field now only aggravates the problem with work. For example, when I (not proudly) worked for a short time at a large bookstore chain, I was paid barely over minimum wage and had no benefits. The company attempted to spew propaganda about being a work “family,” but did not even attempt to pay a livable salary. When their quarterly profits turned out to be less than anticipated, they fired a third to half the workforce and had the rest of us fill in – i.e., take on more responsibilities – for no more pay. Mind you, profits were garnered handily by the corporation, but the yield was not high enough.
Contrast that job with the time I spent working for a local sandwich shop. This business had limited hours, not because it wouldn’t have profited from being open longer, but because the owners preferred time spent at home with family to time spent making more money. They did not advertise and relied only on word of mouth, so that they could keep their business at a manageable scale to enable their modest but comfortable lifestyle. Despite the popularity of their business, they did not want unlimited growth and unlimited wealth for its own sake. They paid me almost twice the minimum wage to be a cashier, order assembler, and delivery person because they valued me as worker and did not feel the need to pocket the extra cash they could have taken for themselves. They even respected my vegetarianism and allowed me to stay clear of the meat in their sandwiches! Indeed, theirs was a vastly successful and useful business following an anti-corporate model, which exemplified how you can make a very good living, treat your workers well, and remain successful on your own terms rather than society’s.
But that sandwich business remains a huge anomaly. And though I could probably find small ethical quandaries in that job as well, they were minimal compared to most other jobs that currently exist.
The Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians, commonly translated as “do no harm,” rarely enters into the careerist picture for any workers – not even for doctors. There is a reason that we experience a decrease in deaths when hospitals temporarily shut down, and why environmental conditions tend to improve when the economy is bad. Our work – even in those professions that purport to be of service – is often harmful (at the very least) in the way it is currently conceived and conducted according to corporate principles.
The fact remains that we seldom question the corporate model of efficiency in work, in which the most amount for the least cost and/or least amount of time is the only value. Nor do we question the qualitative, ethical, or moral value of the work we do. Occasionally, people quit or refuse to participate when direct effects of harm are obvious in their job, but more often than not, our jobs produce tremendous amounts of indirect harm for which we remain complacent and complicit.
So, while unions currently remain one of the few means of protecting us workers from completely being enslaved, they are but an interim piece in the sustainability of working in general.
We need to rethink all the jobs we do, and look toward creating alternate paradigms of “making a living.” We should stop rationalizing our jobs with excuses that we are “just earning a living,” and “just paying the bills”; we should make the ethical and moral implications of our work of paramount importance. Furthermore, we need to reinvigorate local connections, renew sharing and bartering, and relearn basic skills to help us become less reliant on corporations to provide the necessities we need in life. We need vibrant local communities to help one another outside of the corporate structure, rather than compete for the scraps that corporations throw our way as if we are vermin.
And while we vigorously fight the austerity measures being forwarded by our governments – which do nothing more than redistribute wealth from the people with the least to the people with the most – we should reconsider voluntary austerity in our own personal lives.
My partner’s beloved uncle, may he rest in peace, was an icon to emulate in this regard. Not only was he a vibrant member of the community at large, giving and sharing with his neighbors, he was a college professor who voluntarily worked part-time to enable the hiring of another worthy employee. His austerity allowed for another’s prosperity.
Through a qualitative reassessment of our work values and our jobs, in addition to a reinvigoration of local communities and camaraderie, and a re-education in basic life skills, we may help allow for the prosperity of both people and the planet. Through the rationalization of careerism, corporate efficiency, and self-concern in work, we foster individualization in our society and ensure its inevitable collapse.
(Still to come … Delusion and Denial Part 2: Ecology)
KRISTINE MATTIS is PhD student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, and a member of the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), the union of graduate employees. She was also previously a secondary school teacher and a member of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). She blogs at www.rebelpleb.blogspot.com•
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