Sitting behind the register, Stuart recalls former times. He used to own a comic bookstore. Though modest, it had an aesthetic appeal. Recently, a conglomerate opened an expansive store in the same locality, pushing him out of business. The conglomerate, though, was generous enough to grant the store owner a job on the shop floor. His ‘Key Responsibility Areas’ remained much the same. However, it came with added benefits - He gets almost double the salary than what he used to earn. Besides, he has ‘job security’ and added ‘incentives’. He must be a happy man! Or, is he?
While you ponder on that, let me take you to the British Isles -
On Saint Patrick’s Day, 1943, Eamon De Valera, spoke of the Ireland of his dreams. Drawing a scintillating picture, he addressed,
...the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit...
The countryside he described, would be, bright with cosy homesteads...
And its fields and villages joyous; with the
sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens…
Setting aside his Catholic devoutness - What picturesque imagination!
The future that De Valera painted was simple, yet serene; modest, yet lively. A country that claimed to fight for 700 years for its dignity, deserved not only freedom from a foreign Monarch – but more so, freedom of spirit.
At some level, we all share these feelings. However, those are drowned in the overwhelming sea of ‘realities’.
Wealth and luxury, in themselves, may not be judged good or bad, albeit, at what cost they come. The rut of modern life has paralyzed human thought to such a degree, that we fail to see this cost or imagine another world of possibility. As our goalposts are being set by consumerist badgering, day and night; through all sources that it can muster – we have conceded defeat, even without knowing it.
If fulfilment were to be measured in sheer numbers, Stuart’s happiness would have to be multiplied by 2 or 3. We may ask - Is that the case? His wages have surely increased, his new boss is under a ‘contractual obligation’ to grant him remunerations on multiple fronts (even if in theory), and his new enterprise cannot be ruined as easily as the previous one (some say, it is ‘too big to fail’). However, that is one side of the coin. Let us turn the coin, and dare to look at the other. Stuart used to have possession of his store. He knew exactly what he did, and why he did what he did - He was in control of his own labor. In the fancy outlet, he is only a cog in an elaborate machine; which remains under multiple layers of sclerotic secrecy. Earlier, while dealing with his customers, he was on an equal footing. Now, he has to draw tricks of all sorts, to complete his ‘sales targets’. He might not have afforded weekly visits to fancy cafes earlier, but was completely within his rights to close the store early or open it late, to have time with his family. His modest income might not have afforded him the latest electronic gadgets, however, his job description did not require officially begging an entire chain of corporate command, for an off on festival eve.
While the former is well accounted for, how do you propose to calculate the latter?
Stuart did start earning more. He also started dressing well (in a prescribed uniform), became well-groomed (well-regimented!), and if lucky enough, will also pick a word or two from the oxymoronic corporate jargon (that makes slavery fashionable). The cost, though, is dear! He had to forgo his freedom, leisure, and ownership – He had to metamorphose himself into a ‘well-oiled machine’.
Herbert Marcuse, in his enlightening work, One-Dimensional Man, decries this miserable condition as democratic unfreedom - where technological rationality overcomes human instincts, where quantity far outweighs quality - depriving man not only of liberation, but the very desire of liberation.
We must care and dare to ask - What sense do numbers make, if the quality of human life does not improve? And by quality, we cannot confine ourselves to attire and mutual fund investments; unless we consider man not more than a machine. If the latter is the case, we can conveniently substitute consumer items for engine oil, and let the Staticians do the rest of the magic. However, if we consider man, more than a machine – a human - his development shall entail what Development Economists prefer to call expansion of choices – essentially his ability to have more freedoms. Now, how unjust shall it be to confine these choices to LED TVs and the latest i-phones? This must include aspects and dimensions of a man, which make life worth living. His mental health, his ability to enjoy literature and nature, his romantic life, his sense of awe for today, and his zest for tomorrow… even his sense of humor – have to form the essential pillars of human development.
Technological Rationale and Consumerist Culture, though, ensure that such parameters do not exist – These remain in some books, for which no one has time to read, and energy to think. The world thusly created is a cauldron of contradictions. While the exterior of society is shrouded in outdated customs and hollow phraseology, its interior remains soaked in self-degrading toil. Yoked under these heavy chains, man remains alienated - from himself, nature, and other beings. He sees himself as he is sought – his life is in his resume, his culture in his marketing skills, and his creativity in purposeless presentations. He is made to feel, against his instincts, that he has climbed the ladder of ‘social mobility’ by being tuned to work as a through-bred ‘professional’. What he actually does, day in and day out, is still base – earn food to survive. This isn’t much different from how a cat spends its day; just that it doesn’t wear a tie while doing it! That at least makes it discern, having enough to eat is a necessity, not a purpose. It does not feel guilty to sleep 15 hours a day, nor ‘unproductive’ while jumping on trees and attics. For man, the realities of economic subjugation are masked by dehumanizing consumerism. Redefining development, hence, is retaking the essence of man.
This redefining has to be done more in the popular imagination than in textbooks. It demands a more qualitative analysis of life, than a quantitative one. It demands a paradigm shift on how ‘success’ and ‘failure’ is essentially conceived. It demands expanding, not curtailing, individuality. Eventually, it demands a radical restructuring of Labor and Economic Relations - to overcome toil, and liberate human energies for purposeful creation - Herbert Marcuse well framed it, Economic Freedom would mean freedom from the Economy.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.