A Modern Day Dilemma, Explored.

This Aeon magazine article, long and meditating on details, encapsulates my ideas – the kind of ideas that are increasingly becoming my main point of interest – on the two major irreconcilable forces that drive our identity: the fulfillment (or lack of it) that we find in work and our desire (and inability) to be good people. Can we have day jobs (the kind that can pay our bills) and be the good guys at the same time?

As I wrote a lot of posts on the topic, I could not have better condensed my sentiment into a simple sentence:

“The innocent moral imperative to stand on your own two feet helps sustain structures of inequality that have come to seem – no lesser word will do – barbaric. The work ethic has a lot to answer for.”

In other words, as we struggle to survive under the current economic structure and get better at it, as we become more resourceful at and more dedicated to our jobs, we inadvertently help sustain this vicious circle of inequality. What we think of as a virtue – being good at what you do, or, to be more precise, being good at no matter what you do – is, in fact, a vice.

The author makes a point that television, albeit a what we call high-quality TV, can actually provide an idea of what it would take to be a better person while doing your job, as opposed to merely lament, as old traditional TV shows did, on how meaningless our day work is. Here I want to put the TV part aside, however, and just focus on author’s superb analysis of the status quo.

“The work ethic used to mean putting yourself on the line. Today, physical risk has been replaced by speculative risk.”

The author juxtaposes a cop and a finance guy (and we don’t really need a TV show for that) to demonstrate that, while both work hard, one of them gets all the goods and the other is assigned with protecting the former’s property while risking his life doing it. If you’re doing good at your day job, like enforcing the law or care for the sick or the elderly, does that make you into a sucker? Then he goes to make a point, or rather ask a philosophical question, that I have been pondering for years:

“How much of what we call respectable work is something that nobody under any circumstances should be allowed to do? Such subversive questions are actively provoked by the long-running gangster shows The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad. These particular series are all about men, and all a man wants to do is provide for his family. But given the rules of the game, providing for your family might entail committing acts you can’t tell your family about, including murder. That’s just how it is. It’s not your fault. You’re just doing your job.”

By veiling our dedication to our jobs, no matter how unethical, in a shroud of ‘providing for the family’ is a mental escape that many of us use to get through the day. And because we’re so busy, we have no time to examine it, to think of it from this angle, let alone to change anything about it.

It is interesting to see the author to conceive a situation, albeit utopian, where we would reconcile the competition and cooperation: a Zombie apocalypse. This is a situation where we would abandon a sharp division of labor and our individual specializations. As I routinely mock finance guys who go out of their way to seek physical hardships, whether out of boredom or excess energy or preparation for a total economic collapse, perhaps there’s some real truth to my scorn. These demonstrations of physical prowess are their subconscious manifestations, perhaps even a longing, for the world where the real meaning would exist. But if and when the real Zombie apocalypse happens and we’re forced to apply our physical skills to survive, the upheaval would also force us to have a conversation about what it means to do meaningful things. Are we prepared or even mentally equipped to have that conversation?

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