Uncommon Sense

March 28, 2021

What People Really Want

Filed under: Culture,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 10:13 am
Tags: , ,

I have read recently more than a few articles about how one can transform themselves from being a “wage slave” into a free person who doesn’t have to “go to work” or “attend a meeting” or “do this or that task.” In such articles there seem to be these extremes and little in between. Wage slaves work in a cubicle and have no control over their tasks or schedules. Their “bosses” seem to be either assholes or tyrants or both. At the other end of this spectrum are those with “eff you money” who do what they want when they want. While I do not doubt these extremes exist, I tend to think that there are many other states between them that are desirable.

In my case, I followed Joseph Campbell’s advice and “followed my bliss.” Without a lot of calculation involved, I became a college teacher. In this job, I did have a schedule I had to follow; I was assigned classrooms and times and courses and students to teach, but I had some say into what those were. Inside my classroom, I had objectives to meet, but how I went about my business was largely up to me. Yes, I was evaluated by managers and peers fairly regularly but the processes involved were mostly reasonable, and I had some input on those processes, too. In short, I had a fair amount of autonomy in my work. As it turns out this is very high on the list of desirable attributes for people’s work situations.

People want to feel as if they have some control over their lives, even while being willing to surrender some of that autonomy to the others in a work group. The middle ground between those who are wage slaves, who have no autonomy, and those who have “eff you money,” are all of us who have a little bit of both.

This is what I see is the major axis of our culture: deciding what we have individual responsibility to do and what we have collective responsibility to do. Any sentient social species would have the same axes of decisions.

In our past, people wanting total autonomy could leave any group and live a solitary life as a hermit or backwoodsman or what have you. Those who needed to have a structure to anchor their existence could join a military cadre or religious order that proscribed all of their actions. I suspect that most people want something in between: some structural support, so that some responsibilities could be offloaded to the group and some autonomy, so we could have “our way” from time to time.

It is interesting that American politics has this constant tension between these two states. We still are frequently debating whether, for example, healthcare is a collective or individual responsibility. We have decided that national defense is a collective responsibility and our religious practices are an individual responsibility. But, curiously, the debates over the unresolved issues are not framed as “individual responsibility vs. collective responsibility.” They are framed with hidden stereotypes instead. Those who favor collective responsibility for healthcare are characterized as “big government advocates” or “socialists.” Those who favor individual responsibility for healthcare are characterized as “rugged individualists” or “small government zealots.” Our course, embedded in such issues are party politics, racism, classism, and many other things, but I argue that we should be arguing from questions such as “are we all better off with healthcare, for example, as a collective responsibility or an individual responsibility?” This gets us to cost benefit-analyses and a cleaner decision, which is why the politicians avoid it, as they are representatives of their rich constituents first and foremost (and rich non-constituents, too—Why do we allow people from out of state to donate money to US senatorial elections? What has that election to do with those people? I have written about this at length, so back to our regularly scheduled programming . . .)

I just saw a quote that said “If you think you are too small to have an effect, try sleeping with a mosquito.” So, as “little people” we can use the language of “collective vs. individual responsibility” and ask questions addressing the costs and benefits of either and inject that into our discourse. Maybe it will irritate our current debaters enough to scratch our itch.

All we want is a little autonomy and we are willing in sacrifice some of ours to the good of us all. Now go throw open your window and shout “I am mad as hell and won’t take it anymore!”

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