A while back, I read a critique of David Cameron’s Big Society idea by the New Economics Foundation. It got me thinking about the really basic conundrum that people face these days: the things we do for money.
What prompted my reflection was the NEF’s answer to the question “Do people have enough time?”
“Building this big society crucially depends on people having enough time to engage in local action. Everybody has the same amount of time, of course, but some have a lot more control over their time than others. People with low-paid jobs and big family responsibilities – especially lone parents – tend to be poor in discretionary time as well as in money. Unemployed people who are not caring for children or elderly relatives may have plenty of free time, but of course unemployment traps people in poverty, and one of the government’s main aims is to get them into paid work. Committing time to unpaid local activity would put many at risk of losing benefits that depend on actively seeking full-time employment. Part-time workers may have more time for civic engagement, but seldom earn enough to feed a family. Some people have to work all hours to make ends meet, or have no choice about when they start and finish each day. In short, long hours and low wages undermine a key premise of the ‘Big Society’, which is that social and financial gains will come from replacing paid labour with unpaid labour”.
Now me, I am in comfortably well-paid employment. But in the light of our uncomfortable civilisational situation – with so many systems moving into breakdown simultaneously – I am uncomfortably aware that I am spending my working hours in pursuits which are of no real relevance to planetary well-being – and that in order to be able to do this job, I am living in conditions which are contributing to planetary malaise.
So why do I do this? For money, of course! Can I eat money? No. If the financial system breaks down, am I in a position to feed myself and my family? No. If the transport/energy system breaks down, am I in a position to adequately shelter my family or provide for its needs? No.
I go to work in order to pay the rent on a house which is in an expensive part of town – because it is close to my children’s school, which they attend because of where I work. I also need to work to pay for the car I need because where I live isn’t so handy for public transport, and because I need a car to transport the food for the family from supermarkets that aren’t within walking distance for carrying goods which are so bulked up/weighed down with packaging that I’d need several trips there and back to carry it all home if I didn’t use the car…
You get the picture.
In short, when I look around me at our outrageously wasteful, inefficient and unsustainable way of living, and try to think of ways around this, I find myself as if in a maze, and every dead end I meet has something to do with… money.
People do the most ridiculous, meaningless and downright destructive jobs, for the money. Those jobs exist in the first place because somebody dreamed them up as a way to make money. We have backed ourselves into a corner where money is needed for everything. So, for example, we find ourselves at a loss to know what to do when we realise that we have emptied our oceans of fish, but we can’t tell the fishermen to stop fishing because otherwise we’ll be doing them out of a job… And there are whole communities that are dependent on fisheries – not they way they were in the old days, because that was where they lived and so they carved a livelihood and fed themselves from the local resources of the place – but because this is a way to make money!
And so, here we are, wild, natural beings in our deepest DNA, who were never really designed to breed so recklessly and live in such crowded conditions, forced to live meaningless lives, working for money to buy goods we don’t need, and eat food that’s not good for us, and engage in entertainment that corrupts and distorts us, because that’s what we’ve been told will give our lives meaning by a patriarchal system that still harps on about looking after people and doing what’s best for the world. It really is the Age of Stupid.
Money is also, interestingly, at the root of many of our relational difficulties. Have you ever noticed how many painful taboos we have around money? That make it impossible for us to have the conversations we need to have around getting our needs met, around our relative contributions in collective projects, around our sense of our relative worth in relation to others in so many fields and contexts?
I am rapidly reaching the conclusion that I would rather have time than money any day. But I’m aware that the time I want is time spent in my nice home, or working on the Dorpsstraat project – thanks to which I am now for the first time in my life under a burden of debt, and (believe I am) unable to give up work, even if I wanted to – cuz how else will I pay off the mortgage on my dream?!
So. What choices do I have? The first thing that springs to mind – it’s what I’ve been exploring all year – is finding other ways to think about and relate to the whole issue. How can I relate to my paid employment in a way that doesn’t leave me frustrated and depressed by its futility and harmfulness? How might another perspective change how I actually show up at work, and what activities I undertake – or how I interpret what I’m doing already, so I can see some benefit in it?
I have to admit to feeling considerable ethical pain each time I pause to think about this matter. How is it that as a species we have managed to get ourselves so stuck thanks to an abstraction which started off as a simple means of exchange? How are we going to make it through? My guts are telling me more strongly by the day that continuing down this road is death. Why can’t we wake up?