Most people who are reading this article are university students. Many of you have the intention of graduating in economics and commerce, and then planning to go on to secure a fulfilling career. I dare say that the students associated with ESSA are perhaps the more diligent amongst students; ambitious and destined for big things!
We’ve got our eyes set on the RBA, Treasury, investment banks and government. Working for these sorts of institutions is a dream come true for wannabe economists. And wouldn’t we all love to be interviewed on Lateline, Inside Business, or Bloomberg, and have our own words rattle world financial markets?
Pretty idealistic, huh. Not that I think we aren’t capable of reaching such heights. But what beyond all this? What’s more to life?
It would be unscrupulous for me to profess to be able to answer this. But more and more is being said about how people, in very respectable professions with not inconsiderable salaries, are unhappy with what they’re doing. From what I’ve read about this sort of stuff, it seems to me that many individuals are undergoing some sort of existential crisis that ought to have passed in one’s teens. Others propose that it is because people have unrealistic expectations and ambitions and become victims of their own unrealised idealism.
But perhaps this sort of dissatisfaction with one’s life is deeper than just simply being unhappy with one’s job. There’s a lot of complaining and many attempts to try and explain why this is the case. It has been fashionable to suggest that the fault lies with the way our capitalist society works.
A relatively recent article by David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, suggests that people are getting gloomy about their lives because they secretly know that their jobs are in fact pointless. Despite incredible advances in technology, people (especially professionals) are doing things which don’t need to be done by people; hence Graeber’s notion of ‘bullshit’ jobs. For the ruling class, it is important to keep people doing silly jobs so as to stop people from threatening the social hierarchy with the social and cultural revolutionary atmosphere that arises when people have too much leisure time to think and ponder the world.
At a much deeper level, the great German philosopher, Hegel, labelled this feeling of deep-seated unhappiness with one’s life, ‘alienation’. One is alienated when they’re unable to actualise their true and inner nature as a social being. This ‘unhappy consciousness’, in Hegel’s words, arises when people have accepted that their true nature and essence cannot be grasped, and thus have submitted themselves to an ascetic life, deeming themselves as powerless.
Karl Marx developed this idea of alienation even further. While Hegel was an idealist, Marx was a materialist and thought that this idea of alienation arose not just from the religious or spiritual realms, but from the material world and market economy.
Marx thought of four types of alienation in terms of labour. First, the worker produces things that aren’t for him to use. Secondly, he produces such things in a way that alienates him from himself (his Gattungswesen; ‘species-essence’) in that the division of labour suppresses his innate plurality of interests and potentiality as a human. Thirdly, in the exchange economy, with its commoditisation of labour, workers don’t determine the value of their labour, resulting in some psychological estrangement (entfremdung). Fourthly, workers are placed in competition with each other in a competitive market, thus alienating workers from other workers.
Like Hegel, Marx thought that we are wholly detached from what we produce. We spend most of our lives making things for someone else and receive in exchange something that we never seem satisfied as accurately reflecting what we’ve put in.
As the sand trickles through the hourglass of our lives, we will sit at our desk in an office high up in the sky, devoting our lives to doing stuff for other people, suppressing our inner character, creativity and Being, leading unsatisfactory lives. It’s what Tolstoy, in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, would have considered a morally worthless life; a living death.
Sure, the power heels and the Zegna suits are glamorous and alluring. This attitude is best encapsulated in those all too famous words, ‘Everybody wants to be us’.
Questionable wisdom, Miranda Priestly.