Justified by works

12 July 2016 by Jennifer

Some thoughts I wrote as part of a private discussion a few years back, about work and the value of human beings.

I read a thing the other day: [that is, back in April 2012]

French-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz has argued that early in the twentieth century, massive efforts were made to convince people to act upon self-interest. The attitudes that now seem self-evident were deliberately encouraged by psychologists hired to cultivate the qualities corporate capitalism needs. After examining texts from training manuals to self-help books, she concludes that psychologists, acting simultaneously as professionals and as producers of culture, have not only codified emotional conduct inside the workplace but, more crucially, made self-interest, efficiency, and instrumentality into valid cultural repertoires. Throughout the twentieth century, under the aegis of therapeutic discourse, emotional life became imbued with the metaphors and rationality of economics.

Illouz’s conclusions may seem extreme unless you recall that dueling was a social practice that persisted into the twentieth century. To be a man was to draw a weapon if you were insulted, not to exercise emotional control in pursuit of self-interest.

Remembering a world driven by ideas of honor is not, of course, to plead for a return to dueling. It is to suggest that the view of a world driven solely by self-interest is itself a product of history – and of very particular interests.

– Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity

Quote: "... the view of a world driven solely by self-interest is itself a product of history - and of very particular interests." - Susan Neiman.

[More on the work of Eva Illouz]

I take this as pointing to people LEARNING to relate to themselves as products and producers, which is the view of ourselves most convenient to capitalism, and gradually constructing that as the default framework for mainstream culture. (This is reminding me too of the writer Tom Peters and his enthusiasm for “being your own brand” etc.)

In the quote, that’s contrasted with the “honour” framework, but I think it could also be contrasted with a framework in which humans need no justification for our existence – a kind of innate sacredness of human beings (and the rest of the natural world too), regardless of our “productivity”.

It reminds me of how some Christian traditions believe in being redeemed by works, whereas some believe in being redeemed by faith, and some by grace. That’s debated territory, and each of those belief systems has its own implications.

There’s also the phrase “Protestant work ethic”. I’m not sure where that originates historically, and how it relates to the creation of the capitalist framework. I think I still live in some version of it, though.

It’s not that I think I’d want to sit around doing nothing for the rest of all time :-) I think the sheer joy of acting on the world is an innate pleasure which humans (usually?) have naturally when in good health.

But there’s a difference between acting on the world out of sheer joy and acting on the world in order to justify your existence.

In a capitalist framework such as I’m rejecting here, there is no point to the existence of people who can’t “be productive” in commercial terms. In the UK at the moment, there’s a terrible example of the “logical conclusion” of that, in the way in which disabled people are being treated by the current government: suicides and deaths-from-stress because the disability benefits regime has become so much more punitive and unworkable.

One way to deal with that terrible “logical conclusion” is to make a special exception for people who “can’t”. But I think what’s ethically preferable is, as some famous philosopher* said, to treat all people as ends in themselves and not means to ends.

* It was Kant.