Productive Work Is the Source of Meaning

“States and corporations do not create meaning. Both are abstractions. The nation-state is a convenient abstraction for controlling mass populations, and corporations harvest the surplus of employees to benefit the corporations’ owners.

The petit-bourgeois fantasy of every individual flowering as an artist, musician and creator once freed of work is also an abstraction, one born of the expansion of academic enclaves and private wealth-funded dilettantes fluttering from one salon to the next. The irony of this particular abstraction is especially rich: the more beholden we become to centralized hierarchies for our incomes and wealth, the more heroic the artistic expressions of rebellion against these same centralized hierarchies. But even these artistic rebellions are abstractions. Rather than generate meaning in a system stripped of meaning, these self-referential expressions of faux resistance and newness for the sake of something new to consume are parodies of rebellion and revolution. Artistic expression becomes an inside joke shared by self-referential elites—the very acme of inauthenticity.

Self-expression and consumerism are simply two aspects of the same empty abstraction. Once the emptiness of these abstractions is realized, all that’s left is the individual’s quest for solace in a world that strips away the very qualities needed for fulfillment, purpose, and meaning.

Humans draw meaning from producing, not consuming, and from belonging to a group that provides a larger goal than self-indulgence, which is the ultimate objective of consumerism. The profit-maximizing market and the state strip away these two essentials by turning producers into consumers and groups into atomized individuals fruitlessly chasing the chimeras of consumption and self-expression.

It is ironic that the system’s class of well-paid technocrat professionals have internalized the fantasy of the market/ state system so completely that they are blind to their own profound alienation in a system whose only possible output is exploitation, insecurity, anxiety, emptiness, unhappiness and the destruction of meaning.

Author Umair Haque neatly summarized this internalization of the system’s pathologies in a 2011 blog post on the Harvard Business Review web site. Though he was addressing the pathologies at the heart of the corporation, the question he asks is equally applicable to state bureaucracies. Haque wrote:

‘If you were to walk into any corporation, would you find faces brimming over with deep fulfillment and authentic delight –or stonily asking themselves, ‘If it wasn’t for the accursed paycheck, would I really imprison myself in this dungeon of the human soul?’

The word agency describes the individual’s freedom of movement and choice. In the abstractions of state, corporation and consumerist self-expression, agency is illusory: moving from one meaningless job to another is passed off as choice, and meaningless shuffling between forms of faux self-expression is passed off as freedom.

In the context of our previous discussion, work, self-expression and consumption have all been commoditized. Jobs are interchangeable, employees and employers are interchangeable, and various forms of self-expression and consumption are interchangeable.

The fantasy is that these commoditized roles generate meaning, just as the abstractions of state, corporation and self-expression generate meaning. But none of these create meaning; all are empty and alienating, socially, spiritually and psychologically.

The true sources of meaning are simple: authentic agency (freedom of movement and choice), membership in self-organizing groups, and productive work we can perform with pride. The current system is intrinsically incapable of producing these three requirements. Instead it strips away these three essentials.

The only possible outputs of the new system I am proposing are authentic agency, membership in self-organizing groups and productive work.

· Each individual has complete agency. Any individual is free not to join a group. · Any individual can start their own group, recruit members and tackle productive work in their community.

· Any individual is free to maintain membership in multiple groups, operate a for-profit enterprise on the side or pursue artistic projects after completing their membership duties. Any individual is free to switch groups, or work for the state or a corporation.

· Membership requires following  codes of conduct and fulfilling one’s responsibilities to other members, the group and the larger community.

· Work performed in this structure is productive and meaningful, and as such is fulfilling and potentially even (dare we say it) fun.

Self-organizing groups that generate productive work are the foundation of positive social roles and meaning. A system of opt-in, self-organizing groups offers agency, membership and meaning as well as paid work.

Membership and meaningful work go hand in hand; they are two aspects of the same system. Membership and meaningful work are the foundations of human agency, identity, purpose, pride, fulfillment and meaning. This is why I say that the future belongs to work that’s meaningful.”

A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology and Creating Jobs for All: The Future Belongs to Work That Is Meaningful, pp. 128-131, Charles Hugh Smith

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