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The Radical Derelict: Giving Up the Work Ethic for Peace

The same relentless energy driving a toddler in its Terrible Twos still drives that voice in my head. However, when I see a toddler, I know I’m in the presence of a genius, albeit a naïve one. It’s not the size of the intellect, but the velocity of learning that describes its intelligence. I, on the other hand, tend to move in well-worn circles, constrained by prejudice and vested interest. I’ve learned to “circle the wagons”, so to speak, around particular conclusions.

Essentially, I’m what happens when a toddler’s unstoppable urge to learn gets diverted into supporting a predatory status quo. Open-ended learning gets replaced by a narrowing framework of instruction as the driving force; and a dawning sense of some innate order or intelligence in the world gets short-circuited by dependence on authority and by conformity to the culture’s creeds and isms.

I don’t feel like a conformist or very obedient. But the creeds and conformities that constrain my perceptions are difficult to notice from inside the ism itself, such as white or male privilege. But even these patterns are easier to notice than the more subtle ruts that limit my sense of reality itself, and which prevent a more ecstatic realization of my shape-shifting place in this miracle of a living earth.

These subtle creeds constrict the flow of meaning, making me weaker and dumber than I might otherwise be. The main culprit is “the creed of error avoidance”. A toddler is certainly no role model, but there’s a quality in that beginner’s mind that was thrown out with the bathwater: A toddler doesn’t know error as something to avoid, something “bad.” To a toddler, error is a friend. Everything is unknown, and every mistake is a clue to wider and more inclusive worlds.

Some training is necessary, of course. But if training becomes a pathway to approval, a proscribed path forms, which separates an autocratic right from wrong. Then a prejudice against error becomes internalized, turning error into a boogeyman. This cripples an exploratory spirit (a playful, Trickster’s spirit). And the child begins to fear its own errant probing of the world, and no longer trusts its own intelligence. And this develops into an oppositional or warlike relationship to its own now “unruly” thoughts, which leads to that voice in the head, which is constantly working to maintain an impression of correctness.

In other words, as an adult I’ve been taught to resist error by breaking awareness into fragments, and escaping into the delusion of being the better angel, who can look back at its dim-witted past from an improved distance. As if I were superior to my own immediate past. And these internal revolutions occur in quick succession, like a dog chasing its tail.

And this means that when I encounter my own white-privileged thinking, for instance, I don’t learn; I retreat from this fault by way of clever, dissociative feelings of guilt, or by denial and self-condemnation (as if “I” were the victim of these bad thoughts).

In other words, I lose that essential ingredient of learning: The ability to be edified and bemused by my own stupidity.

Questioning the Work Ethic

I’m claiming that this little quarrelsome dynamo of error avoidance is the engine propelling awareness down ever-narrower and more practical paths, which makes a person susceptible to darker indoctrinations.

Cut off from that rapscallion love of error and mystery (cut off from learning), faith is placed in authorities, ideals and dogmatic certitudes, (in training). Attention shifts from a mysterious reality that is constantly erring from expectations, to the smaller fictions of an idealized Self — whether rebellious or conformist — which needs to be constantly preserved from failure and doubt.

And this anxiety-driven Self inevitably seeks refuge in the larger and more confident ego of an organization, whether it’s the nation or the corporation (or some reactionary group crushed by this pyramidal caste system). And it’s this dynamic that lends a vicious spin to the macro-level hurricanes destroying the world. In the upper reaches of this economic pyramid system, among CEOs and presidents, that dynamo is magnified. Their private desperation for status becomes the desperation of empire. But on all levels of the pyramid it trains dutiful soldiers for what Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism”. And the work ethic is one of the main pillars of that totalitarian system.

In other words, most people like to complain about their jobs, but I’m trying to complain about this whole workaday world (this blinkered trek down some career path towards a diabolically mundane vision of the earth as a grab-bag of minerals, and life as a frantic search for status and distraction). It’s hard to complain about something that all-encompassing.

But that’s probably because something this overwhelming begins to look “only natural”. And adults like to pretend they’re serious enough to face reality and not drift off into Utopian fantasies. However, the workaday world is also a fantasy: not a fact of nature, but an artefact of indoctrination. And an inability to question (and bitch at) this dumbed-down way of life is collusion.

The Work Ethic as a Pillar of Inverted Totalitarianism

Joining the workforce requires being subjugated to a regimental authority. Here a bear-sized human potential gets stuffed into the parakeet’s cage of a job. What I get in exchange for this reduction in human potential is money, yes, but also something equally fictitious: status, a cripplingly small façade of identity.

This façade inevitably generates a repressed frustration, which some metabolize as an urge to push the work ethic on everyone else, transforming the ethic into a moralizing judgment against “derelicts” who refuse to sing communal hymns to the harness. And I think this betrays a fear and resentment of the cage-free human being, and a refusal to face my own caged spirit.

Mind you, I’m not criticizing work itself. I work hard if someone needs my help or if there are finite tasks that need doing. But the timeclock represents an obligation to the pyramid itself. It claims that my life belongs to an organization from at least 9 to 5. And if I allow my life to be metered in this way I’m essentially agreeing that my time and energy can be owned and directed at the system’s discretion, which is a form of slavery.

After all, these work contracts aren’t presented in good faith. It’s either sign or starve. And I have more pressing responsibilities to the real economy of earth than the responsibilities imposed on me by a company or nation.

Nevertheless, I know it’s hard to distinguish an honest desire to do well at any given task, or a need to work three jobs to provide for a family, from a true believer’s devotion to duty, which goes beyond those necessities, becoming a duty to the lifeless momentum of work itself.

And I know it’s also difficult to distinguish doing something I love from the passion of a workaholic who loves a particular task with devotional blinders. For instance, scientists working on weaponry obviously enjoy analyzing the problems they encounter. But this “love” emerges from a blinkered vision that can only produce what the system itself can monetize. That is, these creative endeavors emerge from an infantilized mind that goes where it’s directed and enjoys the entitled status of not having to think too widely about the consequences of what it loves to do.

To Hell with Morality

Frankly, I often do feel a “moral duty” to support this economic way of life. It’s the Stockholm Syndrome. It restricts my freedom to think or act outside the interests of the status quo. I become reflexively hostile to the idea that I (or especially Others) could ever be trusted to live unrestrained by economic necessities (as if this mad culture’s coercions and controls do anything more than agitate a human spirit already starved of love and learning).

Sometimes I assume it’s beyond my pay gradeto question the shape of a system that runs my life. Stay practical, nose to the grindstone. In this way, the work ethic masks a deeper laziness, or reluctance to face the ambiguity, uncertainty, and “error” of myself; a reluctance to do the “real work” of giving up the façade of identity and status that represents my collusion with this way of life.

What Activates Maturation?

I collude in this destructive pyramid system the moment my unruly energy gets tricked into the circular pursuit of status; or as long as it turns constantly towards distraction and escape. Then I become the system’s battery pack, a dynamo in pursuit of an ever more idealized and fetishized commodity of Self.

This dynamo is the desire to avoid error. It embodies a predatory system’s perfect ideal, which rejects what it means to be human. Life, after all, is inseparable from error, mutation. Without it, the maturation process stalls, and the human becomes a monstrous child. Learning requires the freedom to go wrong and not compound the error with circular systems of control. Intelligence (greater maturity) can only be activated by encountering the uncontrolled and the unknown.

And I feel this directly, because in the absence of that subtle enslavement to an economic authority (after my own internalized slave-drivers of guilt and status-seeking have been laughed off), I rediscover a freedom from circular thinking; and relearn how to drift and stumble into a world that resembles a kaleidoscope of cascading visions of order.

And this exploration of order inevitably leads to a clarity about what really needs to be done (as opposed to what I need to do in order to succeed in this pyramid system). And this real need requires no ethic. The self-organizing intelligence of the world is primarily a widening and deepening realization of responsibility to life itself. And this realization trumps duty and morality.

But this responsibility isn’t heavy with moral seriousness. There’s joy in discovering this responsibility and connection. The whole workaday world was built on a false conflation of adulthood with seriousness and striving for perfection. But a “perfect conclusion” would mean the ending of learning. That is, when playing stops, so does learning. Maturation doesn’t mean outgrowing being playful, errant and mischievous. It simply means learning to play in ever more subtle fields.

And by denigrating profound play, society suffers the consequences of leisure, which is little more than a gaudy parole from the everlasting chain of workdays. But if I’m not trained to oppose my errors, then perception is freed from a Literal or dogmatic tendency to pin the world down, becoming entirely metaphoric. And then the uncertainty I was trained to fear and resist becomes something beautiful and inviting.[i]

A Dereliction of Duty

There’s a spot of dialogue in the movie version of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row that I love. The natural leader of the bums, Mack, is baffled by the earnest efforts of Doc, the proprietor of the Western Biological Laboratory:

Dock: I got a problem, Mack. How am I going to light them?

Mack: Light what?

Dock: The octopi. Octopi are afraid of light. How can I light them without scaring them?

Mack (with bewildered exasperation): Why don’t you just give up?

Mack is no role model. And despite Doc’s genuine love of learning, thwarted ambition burns a sad hole in him too. But Steinbeck wasn’t writing a moral fable about becoming better angels. He was writing a love story about real people, who will always be diamonds in the rough.

Look, if I can’t love the Mack in me (or the Doc), then I’ll keep striving to “overcome” myself, and denigrating the derelict and the failure in me, and never moving into wider fields of play.

This is contrary to every subtle creed I’ve been taught, but I need to trust my own intelligence here: Learning (maturing) isn’t a path to perfection, but a surrender to an ever more daring honesty. This is only possible when I stop throwing out the bum with the bathwater.

And that means giving up the whole destructive dynamo of self-condemnation and self-promotion that has corralled human energy and attention; giving up that morality of the competitive pyramid; and rediscovering the same broad view Steinbeck had, or that most people have in the presence of a toddler. Only then is it possible to see how deeply you and I have been made sick by work and war.

And then it’s possible to recognize diamonds of wisdom in what is childish, and the spirit of rebellion in a derelict. Because for all his faults, Mack knows something: the battle with ourselves, and even for ourselves, for status and admiration, is worth giving up. Mack is on to something here. Something big.

Jeffrey Shampnois has two web sites: Negative Geography and Subtle Mud.

[i]See the essay “What Is Real?”

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