Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Can a worker be happy?

Can a slave be happy? A toiler of coal mines? A peasant cultivating the fields? (Alright, a peasant could be happy, as Christian holidays celebrated in Middle Ages apparently totaled up to 200 days per year). An Animal Laborans who does life maintenance for a living, ‘a beast of burden, a drudge condemned to routine’. A Homo Faber who merely reproduces artifacts of material world. Was a worker ever supposed to be happy?

Aristotle wrote that human happiness is thought to depend on leisure, because the most supreme virtue and pleasure are attained through contemplative activity. In order to cultivate virtue we need free time (that’s why the poor or farmers cannot attain true happiness). Leisure is the most serious activity in human life, the freedom from occupation, what we do when we’re free of necessity to work. It tells much more about us as human beings than our occupation or how we earn money. War is bad, and peace is only needed to make sure citizens have leisure. A truly good political regime should allow its citizens to contemplate and philosophize – by ensuring they have enough of free time.

We learn about happiness from the great books. Books are written by those who have time. Gentleman scientists, intellectuals, aristocrats, wealthy amateurs, inheritors of generational property and family wealth. The class of aristocracy. Some bloody duke sitting in his estate passed on by ten family generations, occupying free time by hunting ducks and maintaining correspondence with ladies from neighboring estates. How come we started to accept that their thoughts on happiness could be considered even vaguely applicable to the dismal subsistence of the laboring class?

So, on the one hand – there’s this class of people with unlimited leisure time. On the other – a class of workers who trade their time for resources sufficient for a mere survival. A worker is just a living tool, a human reduced to a function. This is not a happy condition. Indeed, Aristotle wrote that happiness is not accessible to a slave because he’s not technically a complete human being. It’s not possible to be a friend with a slave either – because he’s not a real man but a man reduced to one specialized activity. A narrow functional specialization is antithetical to human nature – so no wonder that half of all people around are on antidepressants. The bright new world with its soma, no less. People in third world countries are at least seemingly less depressed because large calamities alleviate individual tragedies. There’re almost no suicides during the war times.

The 21st century worker is a white-collar office employee in some field so extremely narrow it’s almost nonsensical. The worker is well-fed, he finds solace in reproduction, establishing a private unit of consumption (family), making purchases to alleviate the meaninglessness of his condition. The worker engages in hobbies, little activities that have no importance by definition. The worker is attracted to amusement and entertainment, activities that bring instant pleasure and gratification (such as watching Netflix – have you noticed that it doesn’t have movies that require a mental effort?). The worker doesn’t spend time on things that demand an investment of time, focus, and serious concentration (such as reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau or learning to appreciate Stravinsky) because his daytime job is already too mentally taxing. Mentally taxing in one little field obtaining proficiency in which doesn’t contribute to an overall intelligence or knowledge of the world at large whatsoever.

The problem here is that all of these are good solid mammalian activities worth of a fatted cattle, but not a human being. No one would choose the life of a dog deliberately, no matter how happy it would be. ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’ – famously stated John Stuart Mill, and we all intuitively know it.

So, in order to to bring himself closer to the ideal of a fulfilled human being, the worker is telling himself lies that his career and profession allow for self-expression, the possibility of personal fulfillment, self-actualization, and personal accomplishment. Accomplishment in one little pathetic domain like drafting marketing proposals. Processing of invoices. Order management. Talent development. Open LinkedIn, a network of delusional slaves trying real hard to believe that what they do makes any sense. And every corporation perpetuates the same narrative by inventing a vague corporate purpose and a mission beyond making profits, aiming to come up with a cause to provide its employees with a meaning.

Obviously, some professional spheres are better than others. For example, artificial intelligence and machine learning are those rare spheres that combine engineering and cutting-edge philosophy (at least a bit of it). They can be inherently rewarding and satisfying. Science and research are fulfilling. Running own start-up with a valuable product offering is great. Nevertheless, the majority of white-collar office jobs remain nonsensical.

However, how truly genius the system is in its deceitful alignment! How perfectly well it creates an illusion of associating personal happiness with a state’s economic output! The alignment manifesting itself most clearly perhaps in America where people worship the grid – normalizing, justifying, and even defending 80-hour work weeks, having multiple jobs, and 2-weeks of unpaid vacation per year. No wonder that America runs the biggest economy in the world. It’s unbelievable that you can trick someone into a deliberate desire to increase his own economic productivity – and yet, here we are – crowds of people reading ‘The power of habit’, ‘The 5am club’, ‘The science of small talk’, ‘The power of positive thinking’, and a whole bunch of personal productivity books deliberately. It would be absurd to think of a 19th-century coal miner who would finish his 12-hour work shift, come home, and open a book ‘10 ways to increase your personal coal output’. Spending time in bars is at least healthier – because it provides an outlet for personal reflection detached from the job, as well as exercising some of our better faculties – thinking, contemplation, reasoning (no matter how questionable the quality bar is).

The paradox is that the current economic arrangement is totally, utterly, entirely reasonable: the alternatives such as socialist revolutions are naive, and communism doesn’t work, no matter how many times we try. Efficient (= free market) economy will set us free. Aristotle wrote that states engage in wars and in politics not for the sake of them, but for the sake of ensuring peace so that citizens have time to philosophize. Efficient economy is just another means to the same goal: the growth of universal prosperity and gradual reduction of working hours through the increase in productivity, labor specialization, as well as automatization, innovation, and technological progress. Capitalism will set us free. The history of past century and comparative analysis of world economies show that it’s simply the fastest and most straightforward way to a universal prosperity with a maximum leisure time (one day – up to 100%). Continuation of what we’re currently doing, keeping the pace of the grind. It even fits into the doctrine of utilitarian ethics: if you aim to maximize a sum total of human happiness, including the wellbeing of all future generations, then a little bit of suffering now is excusable. So the great lie of a personal fulfilment through corporate career and professional specialization is inherently beneficial not only for the economy, but for the long-term well-being of humankind as a whole.

Maximizing wellbeing of future generations is the most noble goal, no doubt, except that it comes at the cost of fooling another few generations into believing that what they’re currently doing could bring any happiness to themselves. Perhaps it would be more fair to admit that we’re not there yet, the modern condition is still suboptimal, it doesn’t make a worker happy – and it cannot do it by definition. Maybe we should accept our predicament, our sadness and misery, and the prospect to waste our lives. Because that’s the only way forward for the future generations to get out of this vicious circle of necessary labor.

What’s better: to keep carrying the illusion, blaming yourself that you don’t quite feel it, and consume antidepressants? Or, is it better to acknowledge that the whole grand alignment is just a delusion, the current economy is neither designed nor aimed at creating conditions for true human happiness right now, to admit that the current way of living provides no possibility of happiness for the majority of population alive, and to accept that unhappiness is just a natural state we should all resort to? I think both options are equally dismal. But the second one is more fair.

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