Economies of Freedom and Necessity

I overheard two depressing conversations recently.  One was on the streetcar, where a man was introducing his companion to another friend.  The companion asked the friend, “what do you do?” and she replied, “I’m in development.  I work for a company marketing solar panels.”  The other conversation was in a coffee-shop, and one fellow was telling his companion about another friend: “She’s the CFO of the company.”  Both of these exchanges struck me as quite alien to my social world–sentences like these really never come up when I talk with my friends about their careers–and thinking about that led to some sad reflections.

The woman selling solar panels seemed reasonably enthusiastic about her job, and I imagine the Chief Financial Officer feels fairly successful.  To me, though, these job descriptions sounded much more unhappy than happy.  One’s job is how one “makes a living”–it is not a small thing, but is, on the contrary, one of the largest components in shaping the form one’s adult life takes.  Over the years and years of adult life, how many things will actually occupy more of one’s time than that job?  Devoting that much of one’s life to matters of sales and financing seems to me a sad lot.

MusicianThe people around me make their livings in ways very different from this.  I am surrounded mostly by teachers and musicians, with a few others thrown in: a visual artist, a musical instrument repairman, a couple of editors, a couple of recording engineers, a couple of owners of small clubs.  These people have all devoted their lives to activities they find inherently fulfilling.  It is true that these activities involve them in getting and spending money, (which is simply the common representation we have for the exchangeable worth of our efforts), but none of these people is in the business of “making money.”  Some are in the business of making music; some are in the business of helping others to digest our vast cultural inheritance; some are in the business of running a neighbourhood institution–a coffee-shop or bar–that provides a site for social-gathering, and for perhaps for the display of the musical or educational activities of some of the others.

Basement Recording StudioThere is a fundamental difference between making a living by doing something you care about, and doing something for the sake of making money.  What I found depressing in the conversations I heard was they way they reflected the fact that our society has developed in such a way that, for most people, making a living has to mean doing something for the sake of making money: for most people, making a living means working for someone else’s enterprise in exchange for a wage–and, likely, that other person’s enterprise is itself an enterprise designed for the sake of making money.

It’s possible, of course, that the solar panel company is a product of some person’s real interest in working to advance projects that improve our relationship to the natural environment, but it is also very possible that that company is a product of someone saying “I think that’s a product we could sell”; and, indeed, if it becomes a company that sells shares that are publicly traded on the stock-market, than, regardless of the original intention of the company’s founders, it will function exclusively as a money-making device.

The word “economics” is based on two Greek words: “nomos,” which means something like “law” or “custom” and “oikos,” which means the household, or the familiar place we make our home.  Economics, then, basically means something like “the way we have established for making our home.”  Holy Oak CafeThe “money making” economics that defines our contemporary culture is very much at odds with what we might call the economics of “productive homemaking” that defines the life-practices of the circles of teachers, musicians and coffee-shop owners who are my neighbours.

It is a sad fact that I live quite a privileged and atypical existence–it’s not sad that I live that life, but that it is a lifestyle not open to many.  In order to make a living, most people have to find a place for themselves in the money-making economy.  That means that most people are destined to spend possibly the largest part of their lives devoted to a practice that is not inherently fulfilling and undertaken as something freely chosen for its own sake, but is undertaken out of necessity.

Of course I have no criticism of the woman’s enthusiasm for her job at the solar panel company: this is not a moral criticism of individuals who are content with–or stuck with–jobs of this sort.  Indeed, many people may find great satisfaction in such work, for myriad reasons.  My point, rather, is that it is sad that, by and large, these are all the options we have to choose from.  Our culture has proudly advertised itself as a society of choice, and this is the notion that is typically rolled out to justify our economic system.  It looks to me, though, like this is an economy in which most people have had realistic choices about ways of freely making a living eliminated, and they are instead forced to subordinate the bulk of their lives to the necessity of money-making.

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  1. Réal
    Posted December 22, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    I found it interesting that you noted the sadness these conversations provoked. I share in that sadness, as I think we all do, when we realize how tenuous the relation between money and our lives actually is (as anyone knows who is looking for, or has lost a job, or is faced with unexpected expenses). I have often wondered about the sadness, about why the lives we are made to live (even in the enthusiasms we can express, as you point out), despite the fact, or rather, because of the fact that they engage our “choices,” can seem so desperately sad. The sadness it seems to me speaks to the powerlessness that accompanies this transformation of our lives into “livings,” these things that we “make” and that we represent to ourselves through the amount of money we have at our disposal. It speaks to the difference between being forced to “make a living” and the joy of “living (one’s) life.” Like you, I feel privileged to have been able to find in the world a job that I find meaningful, to be paid to do something I think is important, and not merely as a means to make money. But, as I consider this, I am unsure about your appeal to this older sense of “economics” as ways for making our home. To be sure, ultimately, all of these activities that occupy us do make for such a home, understood as a livable world. But we have also developed a sense of home that distinguishes itself from the world “out there,” a home we leave and return to, distinct from the world of work, negotiation, and exchange. Though that world can be hostile, it can also be a place of self-realization distinct from the comfort and security we find (hopefully!) at home. Indeed, home is in many ways a space of consumption, and in that sense, it can feed into the cycle of transforming “making a living” into merely “making money,” money that is then spent on the comforts and pleasures of home. This, after all, is how most of us relate to money, as a means to purchase those things we need and want. And yet, as you rightly point out, increasingly the possibilities open to us to “make a living” and thus to make money are tied the imperatives of “making money” as an end in itself. It is those reduced possibilities that are sad. Challenging those imperatives needs to be part of what it means to “make a living,” that is, to engage the world as a space of creative self-realization not reducible to money and the things money can buy.

    • JohnR
      Posted January 1, 2013 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      Yes: The world needs to be a home for all of us–this is the sense in which I think of economics as “homemaking.” But it’s true, as you say, that our experience of that world will surely always be divided between the proximate and the distant, the familiar and the alien. That aspect of the world that is defined by distance and alienation is essential to us, and it does seem that money, as an indifferent means of exchange, has a proper place there. That said, money should not be mistaken to be the ultimate value in itself, but rather an appropriate structure of one essential dimension of our life–a dimension and structure that should be subordinated politically to responsible governance and that should be subordinated personally to more existentially rich aspects of living.

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I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).