Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved. – Max Weber
You’re in an iron cage, stuck – both as commodity and consumer, a student-customer, a human “resource” locked in a Highlander-ish, “there can be only one,” economic “survival of the fittest,” death spiral leading to a post-industrial, Geidi Prime-like oil spill planet where the remnants of humanity seek dry land. Or, what the DoD refers to as “best case.”
Weber puts it this way: “In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.” True enough: you live in a culture where “self-interest,” despite lip-service to the contrary, is the summum bonum. Do you remember the Foundations assignment, should you lie to the DC to cover up your friend’s cheating? The correct answer was: “Do whatever gets you what you want. Just don’t get caught.” That seems to be the Zeitgeist. But, perhaps, you share my view that the so-called correct answer is a scandal. What then?
1. Aufheben Your Cage: The system is broken and cannot be fixed. Hegel would say this is not something unique to our hyper-capitalistic culture, but true of all partial attempts to categorize ultimate reality. “It is in this dialectic and in the comprehension of the unity of opposites, or of the positive in the negative, that speculative knowledge consists.” That is, there are inherent contradictions in our ontology (or the way we conceptualize reality); such contradictions or defects can be resolved only by formulating a new system that retains the truths of the previous one while going beyond it. (This is bascially what Hegel means by “aufheben.”) Therefore, we need to transcend and preserve the present system in order to escape Weber’s cage.
Yeah. Yeah. Let’s face it: neither you nor I are going to aufheben anything. After all, who really accepts Hegelian idealism? Not to mention that I have a long Netflix queue. Those videos aren’t going to watch themselves. And, lest you forget, you are paying top dollar for an education designed to secure a life of privilege. You’re here to run the system, not overthrow it. Dummkopf!
2. Decorate Your Cage: Instead of fighting the system, play the game. Embrace your inner consumer. Regard yourself as an object, a thing, a commodity. Liberally use objectifying language to reconcile yourself to your fate. Going forward, drop in conversation, in classes, or at the GSU such terms as “proactive,” “best practices,” or “synergy.” Talking this way will “incentivize” your “buy-in,” as it properly “messages” a “sustainable business model” so that you can “employ” your “human resources” for the “maximization” of your “profit.”
Get good enough at using this “language of the cage” and you will achieve capitalistic Nirvana, but only if you don’t interrogate such words for their underlying meaning. Max Horkheimer hints at this: “As soon as a thought or word becomes a tool, one can dispense with actually ‘thinking’ it….Such mechanization is indeed essential to expansion of industry; but if it becomes characteristic of minds, if reason itself is instrumentalized, it takes on a kind of materiality and blindness” [emphasis mine]. But, isn’t this just the typical humorless rantings and paranoia of a balding neo-Marxist? Yup.
So, get yourself an iPhone to increase your productivity and your chances of a car wreck. Sure, life’s an Iron Cage, but not after you decorate it! Get some expensive curtains that you can flaunt in front of your fellow prisoners. “Exploitation” and “consumption” are the values du jour, and having lots of stuff displays your worth and value to others. As Marx said: “[The bourgeoisie] has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.” To paraphrase my old professor, “I’m better than you because I have more than you.” Letting the parasitic poor starve until they learn to find a better than minimum wage job is actually compassionate. How else will they become free? And if it gets too disturbing, draw your curtain and stream a movie. But, never forget, my padawan hyper-capitalists, “The world needs ditch-diggers too.” Better them than you. Dummkopf!
3. Sit in Your Cage: Horrified? Perhaps you should instead seek ways of coping with life in the Iron Cage. What if you simply let the cage be, let the system be, and instead work to develop the four limitless qualities of loving-kindness, joy, compassion, and equanimity? How? Through meditation, of course. You should sit. And sit. And sit some more. You should sit with monks from Thailand. Twice. You should sit at the doctor’s office. You should sit before school starts. You should sit during class. You should sit after school’s over. You should sit in the car, on the subway, on cushions, on couches, on Saturdays. Along the way, you might even pick up a little Buddhist wisdom. “When the question is common / The answer is also common. / When the question is sand in a bowl of boiled rice / The answer is a stick in the soft mud.” I’m sure we’ve all said this many times ourselves. Then, there’s the great contemplative, Thich Naht Hahn, affectionately known as Thay (teacher): “To fully experience this life as a human being, we all need to connect with our desire to realize something larger than our individual selves.” Like what, Thay, a group rate? No, seriously, how much will this cost me?
Fine. I get it, Davis. Buddhism is counter-cultural. It rejects greed, sees virtue as necessary for living well, and teaches compassion for all living beings. What hippie crap! But, it gets worse, padawan. You might lose interest in television or developing your golf game or in ideological Facebook fights. You might actually enjoy being alone with yourself, and I mean really alone – unplugged and still. But, don’t worry. Who has time to sit every day and be unproductive? Sitting is no way to get a Lamborghini or a better hair piece. And then, what if you should start succeeding at cultivating compassion? Wouldn’t that make it harder to use others as resources? And then what? A rejection of conspicuous consumption all together? That’s crazy talk! And anyway, we’ve already abandoned the idea of abandoning the system. Dummkopf!
4. Cage Bliss: Famed scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell advised us to follow our bliss. I guess he means doing what you enjoy or some equally quixotic notion. In today’s world, we call these hobbies, and they exist to make us appear “well-rounded” and to provide relief from the rigors of cage life. You could even say that hobbies individuate you. But do any of us need any more time scheduled? I value my unscheduled time. I call this sleep. Perhaps you’re clever enough to squeeze in your bliss between homework, sports, the arts, community service, family, friends, dating, and clubs. Maybe you can even market your bliss; maybe in your “personal” college essay.
But, Davis, what if my bliss has no exchange value, or what we call…value? Look, padawan, I love playing with Dirty Solace and the Swamp Cats. I want to busk with them at the corner of Royal and St. Peters in NOLA. We’ll never manage to squeeze that in, though. Still, I love those “perfect moments” when we are in sync, playing Dixieland. I love that the student-teacher barrier disappears, and we are all equals in the music we make together. We even relax, they let their hair down, and we relate to each other apart from self-interest. We joke; we experiment; we create. Yet, let’s be frank, at least in my case: I’ll never be a great musician, nor will I make any money at it. And it takes time away from teaching. So, it must not really be in my self-interest. And your hobby probably isn’t in yours either. Dummkopf!
I could go on, but you get the point. All playfulness aside, to escape the cage, we need to change our attitudes about what and, more importantly, who really matters. But, this will require considerable creativity, sacrifice, and commitment. And you might have to give up that Lamborghini. What if this is your actual self-interest? Sorry, padawan, you’ll have to decide that for yourself.