Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Thoughts on Avoiding Identification with My Job

There is a great veil over our eyes that blinds us from all spiritual matters. The veil causes us to equate our personal freedom with the tyranny of the free-market. The veil hides from us our ability to grow spiritually, and leaves us scrambling to grow our retirement portfolios instead.

The veil originated with the Protestant Work Ethic. In the words of Erich Fromm:
“In making the individual feel worthless and insignificant as far as his own merits are concerned, in making him feel like a powerless tool in the hands of God, [Luther] deprived man of the self-confidence and of the feeling of human dignity which is the premise for any firm stand against oppressing secular authorities. In the course of the historical evolution the results of Luther’s teachings were still more far-reaching. Once the individual had lost his sense of pride and dignity, he was psychologically prepared to lose the feeling which had been characteristic of the medieval thinking, namely, that man, his spiritual salvation, and his spiritual aims were the purpose of life; he was prepared to accept a role in which his life became a means to purposes outside of himself, those of economic productivity and accumulation of capital. Luther’s views on economic problems were typically medieval, still more so than Calvin’s. He would have abhorred the idea that man’s life should become a means for economic ends. But while his thinking on economic matters was the traditional one, his emphasis on the nothingness of the individual was in contrast and paved the way for a development in which man not only was to obey secular authorities but had to subordinate his life to the ends of economic achievements.” [Escape from Freedom. p. 83-84]

With the loss of pride and dignity of spiritual pursuits, the church planted the seeds for its increasing marginality in today's increasingly globalized, media-driven culture.

The puritanical doctrine that humanity is first and foremost sinful tore down centuries worth of spiritual wisdom and allowed the predatory, survival-of-the-fittest nature to come crashing back into the center of the Protestant's consciousness. Hard work shifted from an external pressure that people pursued with specific aims, to an inner compulsion undertaken as a moral duty. The willingness to soberly and determinedly work indicated faith in the Protestant doctrines of the individual's powerlessness and hopelessly sinful state, and so the dutiful believer placed faith instead in the authority of a higher power (the Church, or the political orator, or the infallibility of the free market.) [Fromm, p. 119]

Markets, like anything, have both pluses and minuses. While they efficiently produce and distribute material goods, they unfortunately treat human labor as just another commodity also.

Imagine for a minute that every occupation made roughly an equal amount of money, with the more arduous jobs (coal-mining, jobs involving lots of heavy lifting) and jobs that required extensive training receiving a deserving percentage more (between 10% - 50% perhaps). Presumably people would pick their careers on the basis of natural interest and emotional considerations.

Markets, however, manipulate people into doing otherwise. Markets will pay a worker upwards of 200% - 1000% of the median income to development a specialized skill, often involving intense rational development within a narrow field of knowledge. Anyone making upwards of three, five, or ten times the median income has a strong incentive to permanently identify their career with who they are, whether or not they have a natural interest or emotional fondness for the work. The man who has a strong emotional love for music might instead choose to attend law school. The woman who has a great passion for teaching might instead choose the business profession, because of the market wage. A psychological tension between the person's rational side and emotional side develops, and the role as spouse or parent suffers as a result.

Those who are paid below the median income are predisposed to a different sort of psychological tension. The market culture teaches that a person's social contribution is equal to their market-determined income. The perception within a market society becomes that a person's worth is determined by the material “blessings” they possess. A market culture literally worships money, because money is an indicator of social contribution and thus, moral aptitude. From a Christian perspective, this association of wealth with good morality is the great sin of our society. See Jesus's statement in the Sermon on the Plain:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God... But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” [Luke 6: 20, 24]
Jesus spent much of his ministry preaching love for the scapegoats that society's traditional power structures blame for the society's faults. Jesus replied to such hypocritical scapegoating saying “as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” [Matthew 25:40]

The inability to provide materially in our culture can lead to deep feelings of inferiority and individual powerlessness. The belief in her individual powerlessness leads a citizen to place her hope behind a centralized socialist state, which creates a whole other set of tensions, that I won't go into here.

Markets produce good material outputs, but bad social outputs. As long as the positive material production outweighs the negative psychological tensions, then certainly markets are on the whole a good thing. And if the goal of society is to produce social stability, then maybe markets will provide solutions to these psychological tensions, as in Huxley's Brave New World. However, if the goal of society is to produce a full spiritual life, as the world's great religious traditions aim to do, then the psychological tensions would need to be rooted out at the source, and not covered up by medications or methods of conditioning.