Sunday, May 10, 2020

Valuing humans and stopping in an age of profit

Just posted this in a semi-private forum, but wanted to keep a record of it, and open it out a little. I don't know - I think the ideas here tie in with my daily work, which I'm reflecting on a lot as a result of working from home full time. But also they tie in with ideas of simplicity and minimalism coming out of solar- and tao-punk ongoing 'practice'.

The forum started chatting about the value of doing nothing, and why this seems like a rarity these days. There were two threads which I summarised below, but I'm keenly aware there are whole histories of work, religion, productivity and wellbeing that I am mostly occluding for the sake of my own sanity.

1. Up until the rise of a) technological automation and b) money-generating-money (call this 'economic automation'), manual labour was a key part of society. Not only did it keep companies profitable and countries with armies, but it also meant that people were kept 'engaged' in work.

(Note - This 'engagement' covers a broad spectrum of willingness, from slavery through to some sort of idyllic notion of 'working the land'.)

During this time, many ideas in society developed to keep people both 'hygienic' (physically and mentally well) and 'productive'. The idea that 'the devil makes work for idle hands' and that toil keeps us focused is still around today - and for good reason. Knowing what you need to do - whether set by yourself or others - is a fundamental part of identity.

However, after the onset of automation (technical and economic) in the last 200 years, the value of manual labour has declined - or, to put it another way, the relationship between labour as valuable to the individual, and to others, has unravelled. While society does still depend largely on manual labour (eg to pick fruit and veg, as the UK is finding out...), it is a lifestyle which is increasingly hard to think of as 'reliable'.

The narrative has shifted, perhaps, from 'work keeps you fit and sane', to 'mental health is important, so meditate'. Taking breaks, talking through issues, using apps, etc - all these are responses to such things not being valued in our work more broadly, not being a part of *what we do as groups*.

I find this strange. Why do we devalue our own sense of health in order to fit in as robots? And should we look to organisations to lay on counsellors and massages, or should we be trying harder - as employees - to request and/or enforce "more healthy work activities" to start with? What could that look like for different industries?


2. Which brings us back to valuing silence. Because silence is the ultimate example of this - the antithesis of busy business with its always-on, visible production modes.

Silence represents stopping, a lack of output, inaction. It is a terrible and fearsome thing. It cannot be measured or improved, and is fairly difficult to even communicate. And yet, through silence, we reach ideas and realisations. We rest and reflect.

The "old" ritual of church-going and prayer on a Sunday (some of you may still do this) - was/is this a deliberate interjection from the never-ending world of work? (Agriculture is hard and constant.) In the rush to lose religion from society, did we just charge into a world of always-connected-work, and then always-connected-distraction?

Do we now reject silence, afraid that we're either not generating income, or not getting the most out of our expenditure? Have we each become our own little mirror of a profitable enterprise?

Is to embrace silence to laugh in the face of 'profit' then? To accept that to be human is to stop and just exist for a while? Why is this such a 'guilty' pleasure these days - unless stopping makes you anxious?


That's as far as I've got. I carry on looking around me and seeing everyone rushing about, even in lockdown. It feels ... odd. I'm off to have a beer in the wind.

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