Thursday, June 04, 2015

Reality and Uselessness

A couple of my friends have pointed me in the direction of George Monbiot recently. I have mixed feelings about his article 'Amputating Life Close to Its Base'. He starts the article by talking of what he sees as the vision of what universities should be. They should be an opportunity to 'to seek enlightenment, intellectual or spiritual; to do good; to love and be loved; to create and to teach'. He then goes on to suggest that instead, because of Corporate forces, people end up in 'useless occupations that consume thousands of the brightest students'.

Since most of what I say in this blog is about those wonderful things he refers to, I will assume I can skip the 'Daniel Dennett steps' to being allowed to criticise. Clearly we agree on a lot. 

I have two primary challenges to what he says here, even though the article gets the 18 year old in me very excited. I was also surrounded by incredible people who thought we could change the world. Many, actually most, of the ones I ended up with as university friends ended up in the occupations he describes as useless. Including myself. The difference from the UK, is that South Africa is quite vocational in its approach to studies. We knew what we were going to 'be' in our first year of study. We studied engineering to become an Engineer; Medicine to become a Doctor; Accounting to become an Accountant. A few extra subjects were thrown in, but for the most part the focus was on getting a job - not on the opportunity for enlightenment/ good/ love/ creation.

Not that we wouldn't have if we had been given the choice! I put this down to 'First World Problems'. I would have loved to spend my day reading, painting, acting, writing, philosophising, and teaching. There are however the realities of life to consider. Some professions offer the potential for great satisfaction, but unfortunately just don't pay enough. That gnaws at their satisfaction. You can only start to focus on the good stuff when you have a solid base. A buffer to take whatever life throws at you. Maslow's hierarchy is a triangle. The base is the physiological stuff - food, water shelter. Then comes safety. If these things aren't sorted then you really can't start worrying about the other stuff yet.

I agree with Monbiot that it is hard to extract yourself once you have built that base. I am convinced that Enough is far less than we tell ourselves. Shakespeare and Hinduism both talk about the ages of man. Arguably western industrial life is also divided into stages. School. Work. Retire. Die. What I like about the Hindu stages is the explicit allowance for some of the good stuff once the 'duties' have been performed. There is an end to the Student and Householder stage. I have a strong feeling that much of the enlightenment that Monbiot is talking about needs a few grey hairs and wrinkles. It is part of why I am looking forward to being old. With a better understanding of enough, and less fear of free time, I think we are getting closer to being able to enable more people to pursue that enlightenment.

Besides the 'Get Real First' objection, my second complaint is that those jobs are not all useless. The categories he writes off are Finance, Management Consultancy, Advertising, Public Relations and Lobbying.  Those working in 'abstract jobs' that don't physically make stuff themselves do add value. Or rather they can add value. There are issues such as 'work for work's sakeamongst other problems. But incredible value has been unleashed by Finance (See Finance and the Good Society). I know less about Lobbying and agree that Arm's race style spending gets out of hand when we try to solve disagreement by forming tribes and outspending.


A lot of people genuinely enjoy working in those jobs. They find fulfilment in solving problems. The idea that they are 'slaves to the machine' misses how the workplace is evolving up the triangle too.

Perhaps rather than shooting down one particular choice, a better approach would be to help plan life stages better so we can have the best of all worlds. We don't have to super specialise. But you can't jump to the top of the triangle. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do. 
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