On work and meaning : reflections from the bottom of the career ladder
Curious things began to happen to me when I inched closer to the world of work. When my best friends and I approached our graduation, we began to shed some of the self-righteousness that we wore to our moral philosophy lectures, where we’d speak vehemently against capitalism and insist instead on love as a framework for life and work. One has to step ever so slightly away from a deontological view of the good with its universalist prescriptions if one is to justify one’s presence at a consulting recruitment event when just last week the very same person proclaimed quite boldly that consulting firms haven’t changed the lives of the poor in Africa despite the high advisory fees they charge. An older mentor saw my retreat from radical politics (or what she perceived as my retreat from radical politics) as a necessary sloughing off of a childlike idealism ill-fit for the harsh realities of the world outside classrooms and college walls. I saw in my retreat a shameful equivocation — a succumbing to the lures of power and influence that pursuing lucrative jobs affords one.
But perhaps it doesn’t have to be a strict choice between a life devoted to corporate agendas and self aggrandisement at one end, and a beggarly life devoted to social justice and community organising at the other. This absence of a life somewhere between these two choices ensures that the poor who get opportunities, if they are to act rationally, should always choose to work for corporates while the rich, because of their wealth, can afford to dedicate themselves social justice work. In trying to find a good middling spot for myself, I sought the council of those around me captured in the three reflections that follow.
No one benefits when marginalised people exclude themselves from capitalism
My favourite English teacher delivered that piece of advice over chocolate croissants and chelsea buns on a sweltering spring day in Fulham. ‘You know that when you decide to live off the land, off the grid, and write blogs about industrial complexes and capitalism, the world just continues, and the poor people you speak of remain poor?” Her words seemed the most obvious truth in the world. She was not providing an endorsement for me to jump into the throes of capitalism, but rather a caution against feeling sanctimonious about doing what I considered the humble work of many hands. Grassroots social justice movements are yet to devise ways to circumvent capitalism (they need to fundraise), or to upend power structures as we know them. Until someone finds ways to do good on a large scale outside of existing structures, perhaps there is still a role for social justice types to play by embedding themselves into ‘the system’, and by so doing, to bring the status quo closer to what they want. This work is hard because one cannot embed oneself into a system without buying into it in some way. I look at the story of Barack Obama to see this evinced. We cannot dispute that by being the leader of the freeworld, Barack had to sanction acts that run counter to what those protesting war and American imperialism abroad (Obama was himself at some point part of this tribe) believe. He couldn’t lead a socialist America — any expectation that he would was doomed to end in disappointment — but he could advocate for, and support policies that are aimed at collective well-being. Obamacare, improving public schools, and so on, were all pushed in that spirit. Obama was criticised for his presidency, and often he found himself unable to please everyone — too much of socialist for the right and too obedient to the tenants of capitalism for the far left. This criticism is an inescapable artefact of choosing to embed oneself into a system in order to bring about change. But having an ear for the criticism seems to me the best antidote to letting oneself be completely subsumed into structures we so desperately want to change.
Money is not the elixir to global suffering ; the how of making money matters
During my masters, I had a conversation with two friends who planned to pursue lucrative careers so that they could generously donate their wealth to good causes. They presented this as the best way to achieve impact following their disillusionment advocacy and volunteering, which were, in their opinions, not scalable or effective. Anyone who has looked at Forbes rankings of the wealthy knows that global poverty, oppression, and marginalisation persist for a myriad reasons. A dearth of money is, however, not one of them. The Clinton Foundation and similar initiatives are seen by many as models of achieving global impact. While these organisations have achieved enormous good, they have not been committed to the redistribution of wealth that is necessary to curb poverty. It is not enough that people make money, but that they make that money in a way that is in line with their commitment to causing no harm and making the lives of other people better. In an undergraduate course on ethics and politics of public service my professor suggested that we think of a career as moral fieldwork. This struck a chord with me. It emphasised that doing good was a practise, which like all things that required practice, could go rusty due to lack of exercise. Bryan Stevenson indicts those interested in social justice to be proximate to the issues that animate them. From this proximity hopefully springs interventions and initiatives borne from great empathy and genuine communion with others. When we are busy making the money to distribute generously later, we risk forgetting the reasons why poor people remain poor, and our philanthropy may end up failing to achieve the impact we wish it to.
It is ok to want to make money
I have a friend who would not be offended to be called a champagne communist. “Yes Dom Perignon,” he often proclaims, “Dom Perignon for everyone!”. He hates the insistence that in order for one to be committed to social justice, he has to shop at a charity shop or hate avocado toast. He believes instead in abundance, and he wants that for everyone. “It’s a failure of the imagination to accept that one cannot believe in shared prosperity, or indeed fight for shared prosperity while clutching a Givenchy purse!” I find his analysis convincing, not merely because I will always want Givenchy, but also because the future he insists on is one of collective prosperity. When power and money seem to be the sources of so many of the world’s ills, it can seem counter-revolutionary to hold on to material things — the wise thing would seem instead to focus on enduring intangibles, like love, and connectedness, and generosity. But I am trapped in this version of reality where mortgages exist, and where I have friends scattered all over the globe, whom I’d like to see on occasion, a process that involves purchasing plane tickets and booking hotel rooms. I will need money. I will probably need more than a meagre sum, and that is ok. I disagree with my friend on the Dom Perignon though. Why have the ridiculously priced when any beverage should do? Once I am ok with being paid decently for doing work I consider good (look at the example of Singapore’s compensation to its civil servants to see why this might be beneficial), I also have to insist on the same dignity for others — that Dom Perignon be served generously around. This is the harder part, I find. I spend generous portions of my day thinking about poverty and by extension the poor, but I have yet to find a way to deal with the many homeless people I hop over to and from work on Oxford’s High Street. It is easy to think abstractly of deprivation while my everyday inaction sanctions its proliferation. It is ok to make money, but it is better to know how to share it, and yourself with others, both in the abstract and the real. That is something I am pushing myself toward every day.