Our Less Than Optimal Labor Market

17 March 2011


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

Nietzschean Economics: A Utopian Division of Labor

One of my favorite quotes from Nietzsche is not at all well known, though it comes from that is probably Nietzsche’s best-known book, Beyond Good and Evil:

“In the end, it must be as it is and has always been: great things for the great, abysses for the profound, shudders and delicacies for the refined, and in sum, all rare things for the rare.”

“Zuletzt muss es so stehn, wie es steht und immer stand: die grossen Dinge bleiben für die Grossen übrig, die Abgründe für die Tiefen, die Zartheiten und Schauder für die Feinen, und, im Ganzen und Kurzen, alles Seltene für die Seltenen. —”

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 43

In so saying Nietzsche was echoing one of his own earlier pronouncements — something he often did in refining his own formulations. Here is the earlier version of the same idea:

My Utopia.–In a better arranged society the heavy work and trouble of life will be assigned to those who suffer least through it, to the most obtuse, therefore; and so step by step up to those who are most sensitive to the highest and must sublimated species of suffering and who therefore suffer even when life is alleviated to the greatest degree possible.”

“M e i n e U t o p i e. — In einer besseren Ordnung der Gesellschaft wird die schwere Arbeit und Noth des Lebens Dem zuzumessen sein, welcher am wenigsten durch sie leidet, also dem Stumpfesten, und so schrittweise aufwärts bis zu Dem, welcher für die höchsten sublimirtesten Gattungen des Leidens am empfindlichsten ist und desshalb selbst noch bei der grössten Erleichterung des Lebens leidet.”

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, section 462

I cited both of these passages in my Variations on the Theme of Life (in a footnote to section no. 404), where I wrote (with Nietzsche firmly in mind):

“As an educated taste discriminates finer distinctions, appreciates more subtleties, and discerns greater detail, so an educated intellect conceives more clearly, sees in sharper outline, and penetrates deeper than an uneducated intellect. Knowledge sharpens awareness; understanding focuses consciousness.”

I started thinking about Nietzsche’s utopian division of labor again when I was reading a recent column in the Financial Times. The column in question was Lucy Kellaway’s advice column, to which individuals write in questions, and Lucy Kellaway responds, also inviting responses from her readership. This is one of my favorite FT features, and in fact I wrote in to respond to one of these questions last year and my answer was published (anonymously, of course) among a selection of other comments from FT readers.

The question in question, Why can’t I get a job?, was one almost calculated to provoke a response from FT readers:

“In 2009, I graduated from a top-tier US university with a degree in European history and since then I have struggled to find work in the US. I tried civilian intelligence, then finance and venture capital — everything from sales to being a police officer. Now, in despair, I am enlisting in the swollen US military. I believe my liberal arts education has given me a good basis for joining the workforce (I also speak Russian) but it seems employers do not agree. They prefer candidates from a state university with qualifications in business or marketing. What has gone wrong?”

Lucy Kellaway (who, by the way, is an Oxford PPE) responded (in part) as follows:

“In career terms your degree has been a waste of time. It has not prepared you for the workforce at all: writing essays about Bismarck or the causes of the Crimean war is no grounding for the world of spreadsheets and marketing campaigns… The point of a history degree is not to get a job at the end of it but to broaden the mind, to learn to write a proper sentence — something that, though good in itself, is neither necessary nor sufficient to get on in corporate life.”

Many of the reader responses in the FT were more openly derisive of a liberal arts education than was Ms. Kellaway — this is, I suppose, to be expected from a business publication. But Kellaway and her readers are, ultimately, right: a humanistic education has no place in industrialized civilization. Being part of the “workforce” means being able to do the practical things demanded by an industrialized economy, and these things today are dominated by computer and technical and marketing skills. The accomplishments of a traditional humanistic education literally have no place in the world today.

Not only is a liberal education a “waste of time,” as Ms. Kellaway puts it, but it could be argued that it is an actual impediment to fulfilling one’s role in the workforce. It is entirely possible to competently undertake some technical task without any knowledge or appreciation of history, philosophy, literature, poetry, or art. And an awareness of such things may well be a distraction that could obstruct a meticulous and purely instrumental attention to a technical task. Moreover, it is well known that highly educated people are often dissatisfied with their work and are therefore a source of discontent in the lives of coworkers. This may help to explain why the very idea of “higher” civilization has become controversial today, and why industrialized modernity, in terms of its contribution to the tradition of civilization, cannot be considered a peer competitor (or even near-peer competitor) to classical antiquity or medievalism.

As pathetic as the questioner sounds, he has a point also; he, too, is ultimately right. He had probably been told to follow his passion, and he had gotten into a “good” school, but he did not realize that the world is changing at an ever-faster pace, and that sinecures that might have been available in the recent past are rapidly becoming unavailable as the contemporary economy is ruthlessly pared down to a sleek and minimalist functionalism, like the buildings we now have in our cities instead of the gorgeous architecture of ages past.

In my Variations on the Theme of Life, which I quoted above, I also wrote:

“Fire a young man with ambition, fill his mind with an edifying education, swell his heart with proper pride, urge him to dream big dreams, tell him that the world waits like a ripe fruit that comes to meet the hand that plucks it, prepare him for a life of adventure and achievement — then show him the practical impossibility of attaining his ambitions, and you may just as well have shown him the instruments of his martyrdom.” (section 41)

This is what happens to many young people who follow idealistic advice on their career choice, rather than the kind of hard-headed career advice dispensed by readers of the Financial Times. Who can fault them? The young are, by and large, by nature passionate, idealistic and innocent. It is a violation of that innocence to tell them the hard facts of life, and if they are told, they may not listen.

The irrelevance of humanistic education was not always the case. In the ancient world, a humanistic education was central to obtaining a position in political society. The kind of men for whom Aristotle wrote his Nichomachaean Ethics — other people (like slaves) didn’t matter and were therefore invisible to ancient philosophical ethics — would have obtained an education in philosophy and rhetoric as a preparation for a public career, which was essentially the only kind of career such men could have. Under such a system — the socio-economic system of the agricultural paradigm — the vast majority of people spent their time farming the land, while only a tiny minority were literate administrators making up urban, civil society.

Now the masses, who once labored on farms, labor in production facilities or in offices, and now they are literate, and they may have a say in the running of the political machinery by which they are ruled. The industrial revolution that created these changed social conditions is still quite young in historical terms. In many places in the world it has occurred within the lifetime of those now living. Traditional social institutions have struggled to keep up with the pace of change dictated by the industrial revolution, and educational institutions are no exception. The ideal of traditional humanistic scholarship is still to be found, like a vestigial trace of an earlier age, but changed conditions are rendering it progressively more marginal with the passage of time.

Whereas once masses unfit for farming but with no other option in life ended up doing agricultural work and drinking themselves into a stupor on holidays in order to forget the misery of their lives, now masses unfit (by and large) for industrial production or office work labor at these tasks because these are the tasks that are available, not because they are the best things for people to be doing (or the things that people do best), and they too drink themselves into a stupor to forget the misery of their lives.

Someone who hates their work is not likely to be a productive and effective worker. Someone who is indifferent about their work is not likely to be much more productive or efficient than someone who outright hates their work, but the conditions of labor today virtually guarantee that the greater part of a vastly swollen human population will labor at jobs to which they are indifferent, and perhaps which they openly despise.

There is an amusing and probably uncomfortably true description of unmotivated office work on the Asian Failure blog. This is from I almost got fired today!:

“I have absolutely no interest in the well being of the company, or my individual assignments, or my reputation, or even my self preservation for the most part. My general attitude has been to glide just under the radar, and skim by with just enough to keep getting paid and not get fired — but just like a dog you just bring home, I test all the boundaries of what I can get away with first… There are days where I come into work at 11 AM, surf the internet until 5PM. I have two monitors. That means youtube on one monitor, and reading comics and police blotters on the other. Then I work for about 30 minutes, and then I duck out 15 minutes before 6.”

(This is funnier in context; you should read the whole post. I have edited it for my present purposes.)

Probably everyone knows someone — maybe many people — who work at mind-numbing dead-end jobs, or who once had a passion but couldn’t earn a living from it and so went on to more “practical” pursuits. All of this lost passion and lost opportunity to do anything greater is a very real economic loss. An economy that could find a way to truly tap the ambitions and creativity of its population would find itself surging ahead of competitors.

When I think of the people that I have known in my life, and reflect as a kind of thought experiment what these individuals might have been capable of doing, I realize how much the right person in the right position could accomplish. Now, I am sure that my labor assignments in my Walter Mitty economy would probably surprise some of the people I have placed in imaginary positions of importance. Nevertheless, I quite sincerely believe that a better distribution of labor is possible under an alternative socio-economic structure, though I cannot say what form that economic system would take. But if such an economic system could, one day in the future, come into being, it would closely resemble the utopian division of labor that Nietzsche considered.

Just to reiterate: if anyone (or any society) can find a way to harness the passion, enthusiasm, and good will that people bring to work that they love, they will have an enormous competitive advantage. While the perennial dream of a better world is often a mere pipe dream, an economy able to tap the full talents of a population, rather than having intelligent and creative people stapling and date-stamping papers, would be a more productive, more profitable, and more resilient economy that would grow at a faster rate than existing economic institutions. These are practical, concrete advantages you can take to the bank, not pipe dreams.

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