Monday, January 03, 2011

Homely Work in A Deep Society

Alain de Botton writes light, thoughtful books about living a meaningful life. In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, he follows various kinds of work and workers. He explores how the work may or may not lead to a fulfilling life for the worker, and for the society in which they work. One of his chapters is devoted to the creation and marketing of a new British biscuit ("cookie" in American). De Botton uses this homely case to see both how narrow this work seems in itself, but also how it is part of a larger economy of wealth and deeper human value.

From the beginning, observers of these [commercial] societies have been transfixed by two of their most prominent features: their wealth and their spiritual decadence. ... Their self-indulgence has consistently appalled a share of their most high-minded and morally ambitious members, who have railed against consumerism and instead honoured beauty and nature, art and fellowship. But the premises of a biscuit company are a fruitful place to recall that there has always been an insurmountable problem facing those countries that ignore the efficient production of chocolate biscuits and sternly dissuade their ablest citizens from spending their lives on the development of innovative marketing promotions: they have been poor, so poor as to be unable to guarantee political stability or take care of their most vulnerable citizens, whom they have lost to famines and epidemics. It is the high-minded countries that have let their members starve, whereas the self-centered and childish ones have, off the backs of their doughnuts and six thousand varieties of ice cream, had the resources to invest in maternity wards and cranial scanning machines.


Whit said...

Great insight! It's not intending, or even trying, to help the poor that matters. What matters, from a societal point of view, is what really helps the poor, and everyone else.

The other point is that human beings are all fallen and act, most of the time, from percieved self-interest regardless of the type of society in which they find themselves. Men in socialist societies are still men. They just redirect their self-interest (greed) into getting ahead in the society in which they live.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Does the author give any examples of such countries that have let their citizens starve due to high-mindedness?

Whit said...

Oh, how about Mao's PRC, Stalin's Soviet Union and Castro's Cuba? Marx and his high-minded followers were trying to create a paradise on Earth. See where it got them.