Success, Dependency, and Alienation: A Discussion

public-domain-book-clipart[Recently, on the Facebook page associated with this blog, a quote I posted from Charles Eisenstein spawned a fascinating and friendly discussion with two of my readers.  I thought it deserved a wider audience than it would get if I left it buried in a Facebook comment thread, so with the permission of the participants, I have reproduced it here, after slight editing for readability.]

It’s been quite awhile since I quoted Charles Eisenstein, one of my favourite authors. Time to remedy that! Eisenstein is brilliant in a way that is unusual for scholarly non-fiction writers: his writing style combines intellectual rigor, exceptional emotional intelligence, systems philosophy, radicalism, and spiritual depth.

The following quotes are from Chapter 14 of Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein. Note that, in keeping with his gift model, the book can be read in its entirety online.

“Not only is the experience of scarcity an artifact of our money system, but the laziness we view as human nature is a valid response to the kind of work that system engenders. If you find yourself being lazy, procrastinating, doing slipshod work, showing up late, not concentrating, and so on, then perhaps the problem isn’t your character after all: perhaps it is a soul’s rebellion against work that you don’t really want to do. It is a message that says, “It is time to find your true work: that through which you can apply your gifts toward something meaningful.” Ignore that message, and your unconscious will enforce it through depression, self-sabotage, illness, or accident, disabling you from living any more a life not aligned with your generosity.

[…]

“Sacred Economics envisions a world where people do things for love, not money. What would you be doing in such an economy? Would you be reclaiming a toxic waste dump? Being a “big sister” to troubled adolescents? Creating sanctuaries for victims of human trafficking? Reintroducing threatened species into the wild? Installing gardens in inner-city neighborhoods? Putting on public performances? Helping decommissioned veterans adjust to civilian life? What would you do, freed from slavery to money? What does your own life, your true life, look like? Underneath the substitute lives we are paid to live, there is a real life, your life.

“To be fully alive is to accept the guidance of the question, “What am I here for?” Most jobs today deny that feeling, since we are evidently not here to work on an assembly line or to push product or to do anything complicit in human impoverishment or ecological destruction. No one really wants to do such work, and someday, no one shall.”

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D. JoAnne Swanson:

I think Eisenstein is asking very powerful questions here. What would YOU do, freed from slavery to money? I have known for a long time that my first answer to that question would be “finish writing my book,” but Sacred Economics has inspired me to think much more deeply about this question and answer it in more detail.

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H.V.:

One has two choices in a capitalist society. Either plug yourself into a paying job or become an entrepreneur. If you do neither, then you are categorized as “dependent” and are shunted into one of three sub-categories: sick, disabled or lazy.

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D.J.S.:

Sad but true…and the USA is an extreme version of this, where “dependents” who aren’t economically productive are treated with thinly veiled disdain at best, and often outright abused. This is but one among many ways the Puritan work ethic continues to hold sway over so much of our culture. One of the maddening things about the prevalence of this kind of ideology is that it draws attention away from the way the money economy we have now is extracting real value away from goods, services, relationships, and ecosystems. Look deep enough and it can be seen that the money system we have is actually dependent on gift culture and unpaid work…but because our culture is so deeply in thrall to a toxic ideology of work, and so preoccupied with determining which of the “dependents” are “deserving” and which are not, it can be difficult to dig deep enough to understand how the process actually plays out.

——

H.V.:

Of course, if one doesn’t conform to capitalist expectations there are some strategies which can minimize or delay the corrosive effects of the label on the psyche. Taking marriage vows or enrolling in university are two such strategies but they will end in failure because the commitments were based on false pretenses.

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D.J.S.:

Well, I don’t doubt that one of the motivating factors for some people who marry or enroll in university is to minimize the shame our culture mercilessly heaps on people who are considered economically unproductive or “dependent” (although marriage doesn’t necessarily help much with this; homemaking work, for example, is still viewed with thinly veiled disdain). However, I think it’s more effective to focus efforts on helping people realize the true value of their unpaid labour than it is to point the finger at them and tell them their strategies will “end in failure” (whatever that means in this context.)

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H.V.:

I am not pointing fingers. It is intended as a bit of wisdom. Ultimately, it is better to “fail” than to be miserable trying to a “succeed”, because you will be miserable if you are not honest with yourself. However, the norms of capitalist society drive many individuals to practice self-deception out of fear being rejected and stigmatized if they are true to themselves.

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D.J.S.:

Ah. That makes a lot of sense, and thank you for the clarification. I agree that it’s ultimately better to “fail” in the sense of not living up to cultural standards than it is to than spend one’s life being miserable in a quest to “succeed” economically. Still, I can’t really fault people for not being fully honest with themselves about these things, because as you rightly point out, the cultural norms and the pressures to be “successful” are very powerful, and there are real costs borne by those who don’t conform. (Yes, I learned this the hard way myself…how else do people learn?) 😉

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H.V.:

I am not sure. If we only learn through failure then I would say life is absurdly cruel and not worth living. Are we not allowed to learn through joy?

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D.J.S.:

Oh, indeed we are allowed to learn through joy! In fact, that is my favourite way of all, and it happens to be one of the reasons I started Rethinking the Job Culture in the first place – because I want to live in a world where that happens more often! (I put that little wink at the end of the sentence because I meant those words in a tongue-in-cheek way.)

Also, I think it’s worth noting that while misery can result from lack of honesty with oneself about one’s real motivations, it’s also true that misery can result from being so relentlessly driven to seek the truth that one eventually becomes completely alienated from one’s own culture. That’s a different kind of misery, but it can be equally debilitating, I think.

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S.E.:

I think the statement that truth seeking can be taken so far as to make oneself miserable is very compelling. I get the sense that there’s something irreducible in such a misery. I mean, you arrive at that misery because you think everything happening around you is wrong, destructive (i.e. not truth); so what are you going to do? Will you resort to the same kind of wrong, destructive actions yourself in order to cure your misery? Wouldn’t that be turning your back on what’s true? I’m not sure the resulting misery and alienation are debilitating things, necessarily. I think other influences in our upbringing, in our culture are responsible for each one of us approaching misery in such a way that it becomes a debilitating thing.

———

D.J.S.:

You have some interesting thoughts there.  This line of thinking is relevant to my own struggles, so I’ll take it out of the realm of generalities and abstractions, and speak from a more personal perspective.

I’m in my forties now.  I have struggled all of my adult life to reconcile my creative vision and drive as a writer – and the considerable demands it makes of me – with the need to “make a living.”  I knew when I was very young that I wanted to write, but was not ambitious in the conventional sense.  I knew I didn’t want a “normal” job, and I knew – though I couldn’t articulate it until much later – that there was something fundamentally wrong with the script I was given for how to live a good life (go to college, get a “good” full time job, buy a house, have kids, etc.)  I was stubborn and rebellious.  I was driven to seek the truth.  I wanted to understand WHY there was so much pressure to live my life according to this script.  I resisted the pressure to “get a job, any job” as much as possible.  Out of this struggle, Rethinking the Job Culture (originally Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery) was born.

I would very much like to live in a culture where people with creative visions could have the freedom to develop their arts and crafts without being forced into jobs they don’t care about just to earn money for their basic survival needs (including health care).  That’s one of the reasons I support an unconditional basic income.  However, I don’t live in that kind of culture.  I live in a culture that shames people like me, and evaluates the importance of creative work by whether or not it brings in money.

All my life I’ve been told in various ways that the problem I’m pointing out is not actually systemic or cultural, but individual: if I don’t fit into the job world as it stands, there must be something wrong with ME.  So, as you might imagine, I have been dealing with feelings of alienation and misery for quite a long time.

Are these feelings debilitating?  Sometimes they are, yes.  I relentlessly sought out the truth – I wanted to know why there seemed to be no place for people like me.  And the conclusions I came to have left me profoundly alienated from the culture of my upbringing, which is an ongoing source of misery.  I won’t turn my back on the truth – I can’t, anyway, because once you’ve seen behind the curtain, so to speak, you can’t ever un-see it – but you’re right that there is something “irreducible” in such a misery.  There is a price to be paid for such knowledge.  And it is a high price indeed.

Thanks for reading my mini-essay.  I guess I was inspired today.  😉

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