Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Does everyone hate drudgery?

H.E. writes on the badness of work:
I looked at the women in the background, while Howser was interviewing the manager, sorting avocados and it wasn't that hard to imagine their lives. 8 am you go to work, get out onto the floor and start sorting the avocados--the ones and twos. And that's what you do for the next 8 hours--ones in this bin, twos in that one. Nothing to learn, no way to achieve, nothing of interest, no future, no way to excel, no chance of advancement, no scope for originality, no long-term goals, and nothing to show at the end of the day. Then you go home and cook, do some cleaning, go to bed, wake up and the cycle starts again. That's life, that's all there is. How can anyone watch this and not be moved--this is the life most people live and only a few of us, by plain dumb luck, have managed to escape it.

This is work--and I'm agin' it. I'd pay 10 times as much in taxes to see to it that no one is forced to do that work day after day, year after year with no hope and no possibility of escape--largely I suppose because it could so easily have been me: sorting avocados, scanning groceries, inputting data, working fast food. People look at pictures of starving kids and are moved. They read sob stories in women's magazines about dying children, feel compassion, and give until it hurts. Somehow they can imagine poverty and sickness, and empathize, but they can't seem to imagine the sheer misery of being locked into a life of endless drudgery, which is most people's lot. How can anything make up for being trapped in a restricted space for 8 hours a day, doing a job like this, buried alive?

It sure sounds intolerable to me. But then, so does small talk, partying, etc. Fortunately enough, my incomprehension doesn't seem to stop others from enjoying those activities. Perhaps mundane work likewise isn't the tragedy it initially seems, so long as it allows for social interaction. I've heard rumours, for instance, of people who enjoy their jobs more for their co-workers than the work itself. And I suppose those who lack Peter's "will to excellence" may even prefer to gossip than to excel. What if the avocado-sorters are among them?

The pursuit of excellence is so central to my vision of the good life, I'm not sure what to think. It's certainly depressing to think of human potential being squandered by circumstance. Indeed, a major reason why I like the idea of a basic income is that it would enable more people to actively pursue their interests and develop their talents. But would they? (Or would they just get drunk and watch TV, like your average college student?) The only thing more depressing than thwarted ambition is no ambition at all. But it seems common enough, don't you think?


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