Today, as I returned to the hostel from dinner, I noticed a young man sat despondently on the floor of the computer room. He looked past me as I placed my purse back in the security locker. I know him. He is a student doctor currently working at a children’s hospital on an elective. Everyday he sits at the bar and talks to me. I don’t think he understands that the barman is my boyfriend. He tells me about his ambitions; how he wants to make his money young and to make it fast. I’m not sure I understand why he wants to be a doctor.
For the first few days here, he spent the daylight hours in the hostel and the nights at a locals’ house, snorting cocaine. He lied to the hospital, saying that he had altitude sickness. I know from putting beers and cigarettes on his tab that he rents a private room. I suspect he may already have a fair amount of money. He tells me that the work at the children’s hospital upsets him.
During one of our conversations, I asked him a question recently put to me by a friend; should we follow our passions, chase our dreams even though we can only hope to earn a modest living? Or should we take a more practical path towards a higher earning potential, but specifically to be able to give that extra money away to charity, even if the job itself brings us little happiness. The doctor replies that he thinks you can only do what you really want to do after you have earned some money to fund your passions and that you should always have a back up plan.
I tell him I may never make any money, I don’t have a back up plan, and, anyway, he has not really answered my question. This is a shame because I could do with an answer. The question, whilst somewhat rigid, has been bothering me for some time. Cynically, I feel that most of us, whilst we might chase that high paying job and promise ourselves that we will use the profits to benefit others, are not saints. Without pleasure or meaning in our everyday life, it would be difficult not to feel we deserved the proceeds, even when earning vastly higher amounts than the average person. In general it seems much more common that people do not ask themselves what they really need or deserve at all.
Some are lucky enough to become wealthy from doing what they love, but it is certainly not a guarantee in life. It is difficult not to conclude that chasing our dreams, even if it does entail sacrificing our own monetary security, is mostly a selfish effort and therefore hard to defend when contrasted with charity or working for the benefit of others. However, whilst I realise it is not the greatest sin, I personally feel the need to excuse the strong desire to pursue ones passions as an individual choice that perhaps could also be beneficial to society. That in fact, how we work, our attitude towards it and why, might have a lasting effect on us and the world around us.
In his essay on ‘The Freedom of the Artist’, Herbert Read (2005, p112-124) argues that through a particular form of work common to the artist, happiness is indeed work. Work is also a crucial way in which we interact with the world, and quotes Eric Gill as to its importance:
‘that human culture is the natural product of human living and that human living is naturally and chiefly a matter of human working’
Read argues that all people are potential artists, some better or worse than others, but that they all have the capacity to work creatively if given the opportunity. The ability to work in a way that balances both the inner life and its imaginings and desires, with the external world by placing something within it – whether it be an art work or a completely different bi-product of human endeavor – leads to what Read calls a ‘harmonious being’. The balance between the life of the individual and society is in a state of agreement.
Perhaps a world in which each individual were able to work in this way would be one in which a balance between ones responsibilities to others and to our own ambitions and desires would appear more natural. Where our personal ambitions are realised through an active connection with the external world, there might be a more positive relationship. As our own happiness becomes linked to this specific interaction, it is possible we would feel more responsibility towards a less confined personal sphere. If working was crucial to our existence in the dramatic way that the ability to write is to the starving novelist, maybe we would feel the need to extend such opportunities to others with greater strength.
The Romance of Utopia
‘If we come to the conclusion that this complete and harmonious being cannot exist in our modern form of society, then our aim should be to change that form of society until such a life becomes possible.’
I can only come to the conclusion that it does not; that people fortunate in personal circumstance do not question what our responsibility is to society within our own endeavors or, indeed, to ourselves,. Often enough, we choose to work neither for the benefit of others, not for our own pleasure, but for the comfort and security of monetary gain. That is not to say that in a state of need, this is not entirely sensible. Nor is it, in a state of less desperate need, not completely understandable. We have responsibilities to our families, perhaps, which confine us to working in certain ways. Equally, we have become accustomed to a certain level of need or want that has more to do with status and perceived wealth; we would rather sacrifice even our dreams to the power of commerce. Such decisions of what to do and why are difficult in the contemporary world of work. Asking the question posed to me, even more so.
Only in the many varied and fantastical worlds of the fictional utopia, would such deliberations be unnecessary, as the problems of scarcity and inequality have been removed. In particular, the Utopian romance, ‘News from Nowhere’, written by the designer and poet William Morris, comes to mind. The novel describes not only his political hopes for a socialist future, but also a mode of living that would agree with him personally as an aesthete. Morris believed in the import of creative work and the transcendence of meaning and beauty into everyday life through not only its products, but also the affect such work would have on the people who take part in it.
Within his rural idyll, the people of this 22nd century world have a strong creative impulse to work hard. In particular, to produce beautiful things for the benefit and enjoyment of others and to take pride in having created them. They worry about little, except the incomprehensible problem of a lack of work, and balance their time perfectly between manual labour and intellectual or artistic endeavors. For example, early on in the tale, the hero who has been magically transported into this future paradise meets a man who is both an able mathematician and proficient weaver. It seems that the work ethic people have towards their own passions is as equally directed to house building, road maintenance and agricultural labour.
The problem of laziness or of one person taking advantage of the hard work of others seems not to be an issue in ‘Nowhere’. People are contented with what they have and regard wanting more than one needs to be nonsensical. Indeed this is cited as one of the key breaks from the capitalist past; the prevention of unnecessary production simply for the point of commerce. The peoples’ desire is to enjoy life and create only in order to underline the pleasure they have in what is already there. The constraints of need, social hierarchy and organisation have been completely removed, leaving only the creative will of the people to work unhindered with joy. People move about the country, staying with family or friends and working as they may, reminiscent of the gap year wanderer who puts off the responsibilities and decisions that await them on their return home.
Morris’ creation is clearly fantastical, a completely controversial attitude to Hobbes’ State of Nature, and there is little explanation for how such a state of affairs came about. However, it does highlight Morris’ belief in not only the possibility of a utopian world resulting from social and political choice, but also its connection in his mind to the expression of freedom and appreciation of life through significant work. When reviewing another socialist fiction, ‘Looking Backward’ by Edward Bellamy, he wrote:
‘I believe that the ideal of the future does not point to the lessening of men’s energy by the reduction of labour to a minimum, but rather the reduction of pain in labour to a minimum, so small that it will cease to be pain; a dream to humanity which can only be dreamed of till men are even more completely equal than Mr. Bellamy’s utopia would allow them to be, but which will most assuredly come about when men are really equal in condition”
In a world transformed by socialism, Morris, believed that this would be the way in which people would work; for the glory of it, for others and themselves.
However, to achieve the utopia of ‘Nowhere’ we would have to make key revolutionary choices and changes. While Morris hoped to escape the dirt and grime of the 19th century industrial city, we are becoming more and more aware of the adverse affects our way of life has on the environment and the lives of others. Huge advancements in communication technology have changed our perspective on how activities on one side of the world affect people on the other. Society is becoming global. Any musings on our responsibilities to others have become increasingly complicated.
In all honesty, we know that we cannot, nor do we want, to go backwards. We are too accustomed to the benefits and conveniences of modern technology. Indeed, utopian socialists writing at the beginning of the 19th century were later seen as naive by following movements that held greater faith in human advancement to bring about a socialist state. Indeed, the founder of evolutionary economics, Thomas Veblen, believed this to be the case, although he did not see it as an end point or goal, but simply another stage in our economic advancement.
We have hoped that technology itself could eventually solve the problems of humanity and also eradicate the problems it itself creates. Such an opinion can be equated with the zeitgeist of the 90’s dot com explosion in California. Liberal views pulled to the right allowed people to believe that if they continued to let technology expand and evolve, it would change things for the better, as well as being highly profitable. Whilst entirely contra-verse to Morris’ fantasy there are some striking similarities, including an escape from the industrial city, but in this case, a technological one.
“The dirt, noise, and chaos that invariably accompanied industrialization in the real world were to give way in the future to perfect cleanliness, efficiency, quiet and harmony…”
In such a world, ‘self-empowered knowledge workers’ would follow their own enterprises to the benefit of all in an atmosphere of calm and beauty. Crucially, the difference between this ideal with Morris’ is its inevitability. ‘Nowhere’ is the product of social and political revolution. A technological utopia comes about from a continuation of contemporary enterprise and societal structures. Current inequality is allowed to continue as a necessary bi-product in the face of a hopeful future that must surely come about through our own advancement.
This positivism feels faded and worn; fraying around the edges as we lose faith in our ability to solve the problems we create. Tired and cynical, no-one appears to be able to give us the right answer. Instead we face a barrage of small, seemingly ineffectual decisions: Organic or free-range?; Guilt over plastic bags and light bulbs; Transport decision nightmares whilst questioning the ethics of holiday travel; The ideological tangle of opinions that question our responsibility as consumers for exploiting or helping our own or global economies.
The perversion of Morris’ utopia is one in which we conversely wish that the fatalistic Malthusian prophecy would come true. The complexities of the global problems we face are removed from our responsibility by an apocalyptic disaster from which we can start anew. That is, for the lucky few left alive. We are thrown back in time to a simpler age in which survival is the main aim for human labour. The reduction in people and the removal of any organizing force allows for an appealing simplicity in endeavor, despite the serious difficulties that must be faced whether that is zombies, climatic extremes or simply the ability to find food and shelter.
Take, for example, the recent re-make of the 70’s scifi television program ‘Survivors’, which aired on the BBC. The survivors are a disparate group formed though the accident of survival from a flu virus that kills all but 10% of the human population. Throughout their trials and dramatic intrigues, their continuing goal is to build afresh. Whilst the program deals with the need for security and the dangers of those who prey on others weaker than themselves, or indeed those that take power and abuse it, the moral of the story is quite clear. The idealized settlements and characters are of a decidedly rural and communal cooperative stance. Organized settlements which are friendly to the group of main characters are close in character to rural communes, working within the framework of subsistence agriculture.
This mangled utopia is one that appears to haunt the imagination; one that we do not have the power to choose. Hope, in the style of Morris’ vision, is thin on the ground;
‘Fear and Hope – these are the two great passions which rule the race of man’
Morris, 1946, pg 561
This fatalistic wish expresses the desire to wipe the slate clean and start again. We cannot envision another way of breaking free of the global problems that loom over us; ominous storm clouds of bold newspaper print. Such a vision allows us to start again, but without faith in the ability to choose differently, there is no guarantee that we would not end up skipping utopia and simply end up on replay. The epic, but almost laughable movie 2012 creates the possibility of such a future. As the world is hit by an apocalyptic climatic disaster, a few people are saved in massive ark-like survival capsules. The rich and the lucky are saved to start afresh in a world wiped clean by the massive rise in sea levels.
In such a world the scope of our responsibility is greatly reduced; shrinking to a small band of survivors. There are few people and communications between the settled groups is difficult, let alone communication with the world at large. The world of the ‘Survivors’ removes the irreducible question of what to do with our lives, by violently destroying the ability to ask it.
A Hopeful Choice
The original question posed to me dealt with a choice. A choice between responsibility to yourself – although we should bear in mind that this is not simply in terms of survival or even base happiness, but that of ambitions or dreams – and the moral choice to work for the benefit of others less fortunate than yourself. Even for those with the luxury of being able to ask this question, those who are somehow freer for conflicting responsibilities, find this question difficult. It occurs to me that asking it at all is not only made far easier when free from need, but a certain freedom of the mind from the conscription of societal expectations. It also requires certain idealism.
In the same way in which, even if we fear what the consequences might be one must attribute all people with the right and capacity to freedom, we could act as if such a utopia of choice could exist. Working towards your passions is an exercise in freedom. Working for the benefit of others is also an act of hope. Whilst in debate with a friend about the original question, we forced ourselves to choose between the two prescribed options. Breaking the bounds of the debate to a certain degree, I believe that both choices have merit. To the extent to which both are possible; all for the better.
There is a virtue in working for your passions rather than for perceived necessity ( as opposed to true want). It shows a capacity to work for reasons other than greed, even if those reasons are in some way selfish. It also shows the capacity to choose, rather than feel pushed and pulled by outside forces into what is expected, what are practical, acceptable choices. If work is simply a daily burden on our happiness there is little hope that we can create anything new; little hope that we will have a say at all. On the other hand if work was play, it would show our ability to create a space in which we want to live. Trying to force ourselves to choose better through circumstance is the lazy option and ultimately doomed to failure.
Read, 2005, To Hell with Culture, Routledge, London
Morris, 1946, How we live and How we might live, Selected Writings, G.D. H Cole for the Nonsuch Press, NY Random House, London
Morris, 1998, News from Nowhere, Penguin Books Ltd, London
Technological Utopianism , Media in Transition Project
A section from “The Technological Utopians” by Howard P Segal, originally sourced from Joseph J. Corn (Ed.), Imagining Tomorrow: History, Technology and The American Future (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986)