Monday, December 7, 2009

“Lucky” You? Lucky Them?

Recently, a Thanksgiving-dinner conversation turned to the multiple sins of multinational corporations. Our well-to-do host sprang forcefully to the defense of corporations, discounting their sins, because they create jobs—MILLIONS of jobs, filled by lucky employees! The discussion aborted and we turned to more banal matters.

But the image of “Lucky,” from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot,[1] began to percolate. Pozzo, Lucky’s master, sought to explain Lucky’s servility:
Pozzo: … Why he doesn’t make himself comfortable? Let’s try and get this clear. Has he not the right to? Certainly he has. It follows that he doesn’t want to. There’s reasoning for you. And why doesn’t he want to? … He wants to impress me, —so I’ll keep him. … Perhaps I haven’t got it quite right. He wants to mollify me, so that I’ll give up the idea of parting with him. No, that’s not exactly it either. … He wants to cod me, but he won’t. … He imagines that when I see how well he carries I’ll be tempted to keep him on in that capacity. … He imagines that when I see him indefatigable I’ll regret my decision [to get rid of him]. Such is his miserable scheme. As though I were short of slaves!
Vladimer—one of those waiting for Godot—eventually observes:
After having sucked all the good out of him you chuck him away like a … like a banana skin. Really …
Now, this Déjà Vu post is not meant to present the other extreme—that all corporations are evil. Or that all employees are “Luckys.” It is rather to wonder whether the aggregation of power and wealth in a profit-driven, competitive culture binds employers, whether corporations or not, into Pozzo-prone perspectives vis-à-vis their “lucky” employees.

But just how lucky are many of these employees? From a Pozzo-perspective, they are lucky to have paychecks. Lucky to have necessities and amenities sustained by those paychecks. Lucky to be able to devote their gifts, talents, energies, and time to the employers' great causes, agendas, ideas, and dreams. Lucky to have daily purpose and place to go. Plain lucky to have a job.

Maybe so. But on the other hand, how much do those Luckys surrender by becoming employees, specialized to the needs of their Pozzo?
Pozzo: … He even used to think very prettily once. … He even used to dance the farandole, the fling, the brawl, the jig, the fandango, and even the hornpipe. He capered. For joy. Now that’s the best he can do. Do you know what he calls it? … The Net. He thinks he’s entangled in a net.
Or from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations:
In the progress of the division of labour [specialization], the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, [2] that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, … The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, …. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred.[3] His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilised society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it [through mandatory educational requirements] (Bk.5, Ch. 1, Pt III, pp. 839-840).
Perhaps it is time for a revolution of thought and practice vis-à-vis employers and employees; between competition and cooperation. Maybe it is time to review what lucky really means. How necessity and fear can tie a “Lucky” to abuse, injustice, stagnation, and exhaustion. How competitive and profit-driven obsessions can bind a Pozzo to perpetuation of the same. Maybe it is time to rethink what the pursuit of happiness really means. And perhaps to consider whether Pozzo is also “the burden of Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see” (Isaiah 13).
[1] Waiting for Godot was written in 1948/49 and first performed in 1953.
[2] Includes the oft-scripted service industry of our day, where employees, even high-level ones, are given scripts to handle situations as if every situation can be indexed into a tidy number of satisfactory solutions to which no additional creative thought need be given.
[3] And s/he goes home too exhausted for much of anything but beer and the blather of too much TV (the Roman equivalent of “bread and circuses”?).
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