Since I seem to be grumpy these days (no doubt because of the huge pile of grading before me and the illness I recently endured) it seems like a good time to continue exploring pet peeves as a way of striving to externalize and objectify internal aggressions. With respect to American ideology, one of the claims that drives me into endless fits is the thesis that people are primarily motivated by wealth incentives. Here the thesis runs that capitalism is the most natural and effective economic system because humans, by nature, lack motivation if not given strong economic incentives to work and produce.
I am sure my good friend Jerry the Anthropologist can provide all sorts of ethnographic examples of just how this essentialist thesis is plainly false. From the documentaries I’ve watched– and here I’m sure Jerry will beat me over the head as a dolt for getting some of my anthropology from television documentaries –I’m particularly partial to a number of South American tribes that strike me as being far more motivated by finding ways to amuse themselves and form strong community than by accumulation. These tribes– the few I’ve bothered to investigate at all, at any rate –strike me as playful and imaginative, without being concerned by accumulation.
However, within the context of our own society, this thesis strikes me as being plainly false as well. On the one hand, the thesis that we are motivated primarily by economic concerns is quickly conflated, in American ideology, with the thesis that we are primarily motivated by the desire to increase our wealth and that without this possibility we would no longer work hard. Setting aside the question of why “working hard” is treated as the ultimate life value anyway, it seems to me that this thesis is deeply mistaken. While it is no doubt true that there are souls out there, like Nicholas Cage’s character in The Family Man, that are motivated by the desire to always increase their wealth, this strikes me as a motive that is absent in the vast majority of us lesser mortals. For most of us work is seen as a necessity of life that we must do in order to make ends meet. For the vast majority of Americans, incentivized pay based on performance is not even on the table. Rather, the benefits and raises we do get are annual price of living adjustments that are not directly correlated with our performance in any meaningful way.
Yet, nonetheless, many of us continue to work hard. If, however, we continue to work hard despite the fact that this performance isn’t meaningfully connected to wage increases or becoming a millionaire, perhaps this has more to do with working among a community of people that we see on a day to day basis rather than with monetary gain. That is, if I slouch on the job I very quickly earn the ire of my comrades, diminishing my own possibilities of happiness. In other words, performance here is tied to human relationships, not to incentivized pay (though we’re certainly happy when we are rewarded for that work).
The second pillar of this ideology is that incentivized pay is responsible for all innovation within our society. Never has a greater pile of horseshit been so widely articulated and believed. As an academic, my motive for writing articles, books, and innovating in the classroom has nothing to do with the financial benefits I receive from these activities. I’ll never forget the shock and surprise in my father’s voice when I told him that I don’t get paid at all for the articles I write or the conferences where I present, and that the royalties I receive for my book are a pittance. Having observed me working tirelessly doing this sort of research and writing, often driving myself to the point of exhaustion and illness, he simply couldn’t understand what motivated me. The motive here lies outside of economic incentives. On the one hand it is simply an obsession with certain problems and questions. On the other hand it is a desire to understand the lunacy of this universe we live in. Finally, to be honest, it is a desire for prestige or recognition. These motives, I think, are far more intoxicating than wealth. Indeed, it seems to me that wealth only becomes an intoxicating motive when one experiences their work as otherwise lacking satisfaction.
I do not think this sort of motivation for innovation is restricted to the domain of academia. Most research scientists are paid very little for the work they do. In this respect, they are deeply exploited by the system of capital that expropriates their intellectual labor– a labor that properly belongs to the common, not to any corporation, by virtue of only being possible based on the common –without giving them much in the way of compensation for that labor at all. Growing up I recall my horror and outrage at discovering how my father’s pharmaceutical company would get private patent rights to new drugs and procedures that were the result of publicly funded research. No, like the academic, the research scientist is by and large motivated by a burning desire to solve certain puzzles, to figure out how that DNA works, to create that new technology like a child building a fort just because he or she can, and by the desire for prestige. The case is similar with artists, musicians, novelists, etc. Observing the very young child it is difficult to escape the impression– and perhaps here I suffer from an essentialist view of human beings –that by nature we are tinkerers. Children seem to have an innate facility with buttons, levers, blocks, etc., and seem to take an endless delight in building and creating. As Bergson observed during the last century, we are no so much homo rationalis as we are homo fabricans. This delight in fabricating, discovering, making, inventing strikes me as a far greater motive for innovation than any supposed use our creations might have or any financial benefit we might gain from these inventions or discoveries.
Perhaps, in the end, this American capitalist ideology is reflective of just how pallid and dissatisfying our labor conditions are. As Freud observed in the last century, work is seen as something outside of life, exterior to life, independent of life. We think of life as something that begins where work leaves off. For many of us, our form of labor dooms us to a drudgery that, like the film Groundhog Day, will repeat endlessly with little opportunity for meaning or social recognition. This is all the more the case in our contemporary age since the industrial revolution, where our work lies either in repetitive labor in a factory or being locked in an office under glaring fluorescent lights filled with people infected with bottled up resentment at their grueling ten hour work day. Where work leaves off our leisure, our time of life, is often passive in character, sitting before a glowing television watching idiotic shows, drinking a glass of Wild Turkey and stunning ourselves into a dumb stupidity as we prepare to do it all over again on the next day or the following Monday. And for what? With what hope? We become trapped in our debt and thereby forced to live this horrific existence, our hands never touching the soil to farm or chasing prey to eat. As we’ve migrated to the suburbs we find that we have fewer and fewer meaningful social relationships, and certainly we don’t engage in those marvelous collective dances such as we witness among the South American tribes. Under such conditions, where such a way of life comes to appear natural, the ordinary way of things, it is difficult not to arrive at the conclusion that the only possible thing that might motivate someone would be wealth. Nietzsche was right. We need to create new values.