The supposed value of unhappiness and the alleged need for a disciplinarian external order mutually support each other in the hegemonic narratives about work ethics. They are perverse narratives, and if they survive, it’s because in reality, they worship irresponsibility.
It’s still surprising how our culture is marked by myths, by narratives that serve to recreate, over and over, a values system… even independent of their functionality. The foundational narrative of Christianity, the religion that has given shape to a good part of our cultural substrate, is the passion and death of Jesus. All we know it. The suffering of the torture on the cross is the measure of the commitment and dedication the Son of God had to humans. It’s incredible how much this narrative creates values in daily life, especially in the relationship to work.
But, can suffering, commitment, dedication, and even the value of labor be measured? Evidently not. This is the drama lived out by Carrie, the CIA analyst in the first season of “Homeland.” Work experienced as a permanent anguish, as martyrdom, can only leave one sterilized, crazed, and isolated. So, the narrative of labor/suffering is superimposed with two other narratives, also of religious origin: Catholic effort and Calvinist success.
As Juan Urrutia talked about in a post this year, this effort — so strongly linked to the classical and Marxist idea of labor-value — is linked to the idea of routinization, the reduction to the execution of a procedure, which is so typical of the industrial world industrial of an earlier age, and of its excesses of scale today. It doesn’t just drive out talent, it also limits responsibility to the fulfillment of a ritual and obscures merit.
The other religious narrative, the Calvinist one about success and predetermination, tries to break this uncomfortable knot. According to it, you don’t need to worry about the how or why, which, in the end, depend on a greater and incomprehensible will. You don’t have to take anything into account except the result, and the result — like prices in economic theory — is an objective and reliable result of something whose details are lost on us. This is the famous pragmatism of Protestant culture. It appears liberating, but above all, it takes away responsibility. The why, and judgment about the how, do not appear anywhere. Work makes no sense in this narrative unless it’s returning, as Pekka Himanen reminds us, to the idea of penitence, of work as a time separate from time for living, for enjoying. The ethics of success, the recurrent theme in management literature, needs reconciliation, because it divides the person, what they do, and their community (starting with their family), in two.
But, is there an alternative?
What unites the different narratives of the value of labor is that, for the sake of removing some dimension of personal responsibility, they are willing to crush the life out of those who accept them: Valuing work for suffering would drive us mad, valuing it for effort would impoverish us to mediocrity, and valuing it for success would alienate us.
Only that which we call the hacker ethic, the idea that work is worth as much as the knowledge it provides to the one who does it and to others, breaks with the moral perversion of all these ideas. We would also be in sharp contrast to the artisan ethic, according to Richard Sennet: pleasure and self-esteem are not born of repetition, but of making it unnecessary. As Erick S. Raymond says, one of the characteristics of a hacker is thinking that “no problem should ever have to be solved twice“… which is why, among other things, he releases his knowledge to the commons even before he has it polished.
What does it mean to us to be responsible?
In our work ethic, to be responsible is not take on pain as an inevitable command, to overcome the natural resistance to a mediocre job, and even less so to be willing to do anything without looking at the consequences for others. To be responsible is to accept talent and subject it to an ever-changing effort.
Why ever-changing? Because knowledge exists only in community. To value work for the knowledge it generates means that there first exists a community for which it’s developed, and that this community (or others) has had a problem posed to it. There’s no knowledge without a who and a for whom, and at least the first of the two should be able to answer with a “we.”
In reality, in the hacker ethic, in our work ethic, individual work doesn’t exist; work is personal, and can only make sense in relation to the contexts and values of a community. A job is a personal talent on the move in the framework of common contexts, which makes them grow by responding to needs with answers. A job is better, and is done better, the more it allows us to know effectively, which is to say, if it broadens not only our knowledge but also the common context of the community, so that even as it expands our horizons, it also serves our surroundings.
That’s why it will always be different, because every time, the questions will be different, and the procedures to answer them will be different. If there’s any kind of effort that makes sense at work, it’s inventing a procedure for each new question, a path that allows our talent to work to resolve it.
That’s why all responsible, ethical work is creative work. And that’s also why it’s so distant from the suffering, from the routinized effort of a stable procedure, and from the individualist madness of success that represents the project as a mere superimposition of jobs with concrete objectives which, ably directed through an organizing heirarchy, will obtain a common result.
But then, our habits will say that we already knew that, the idea that demands the imposition of an external order, the idea that measures work by the unhappiness that it generates, is not only alienating and destructive to each of us, it is, above all, irresponsible… and yet, many still cling to it. But, today, we haven’t just gotten a bird’s eye view of the myths that sustain the narratives, we’ve taken a step towards understanding how the supposed value of unhappiness and the alleged need for a disciplinarian external order mutually support each other.
And, a bit of personal advice: if you feel like your job is like this, if you feel like your job is worth as much as the suffering it causes you, and the only way to relieve it would be to have more routine procedures and a clearer vertical order, if you’re disturbed by the self-organized chaos Koldo talks about… Stop!! Think!! Unhappiness is not the way… and irresponsibility, even less… at least to work in the ner, in Las Indias, and, I think, in more and more communities.