Two Cons: “Institutional Education” and “Meaningful Work”

You fell into the trap: you got an institutional education.  You funded that education with loans. Those loans, you still believe, will have to be repaid. Also, there’s all the consumer debt you slowly accumulated while looking for “a career,” that silly, stupid beast. Ah, now all the loans will be repaid by working them off. That’s why you work now, that’s why you have that bullshit job you have.

The hook went deep and it’s still got you. Can you feel it jerk its way into your gut?

Had you known, many years ago when you were young and stupid, that the goal of institutional education was to coerce you to work each day for the rest of your life on the grounds that you now had to pay off that debt you got, then you would have avoided the trap. Where were all the grown-ups, then? Huh? But you didn’t know and there weren’t any grown-ups (or they were out to exploit you) and you didn’t say no to that moron Common Sense: that education is “obviously” funded by taking out loans and that the point of education is to make you into a total worker.

Man is this shitty. But it gets worse.

Because since then you’ve deceived yourself into believing that old song and dance, which is really a new song and not much of a dance, about doing “meaningful work.” Bleck! You’re gonna work–you bought this lie too–most of your waking hours; you’re gonna work largely to pay off the debts you wouldn’t have had had you not be so “educated” (can it even be called education, or shall we better call it by its name: a nasty, ugly, rotten con?); and you trick yourself daily into believing that you’re doing meaningful work when in truth it’s a bullshit job. But all this is what the early Marx sniffed it out as: it’s ideology, that is, false consciousness, false beliefs, continually reinforced, about what is actually the case.

Oh but you know you’re not alone. Because everyone around you is working and working each day, all day because they too believe they have to pay off debts and because they too believe (i.e., make themselves believe) that they’re doing “something meaningful” with their lives. Stick first, carrot second. Indistinguishable actually because the carrot was always attached to the stick. That was the magic trick.

The world of total work, meanwhile, casts its ever longer, ever larger shadow over the totality of life. Is there anything else? Huh,

Now, maybe, maybe, you get the joke. The world of total work is a world of actual enslavement. Only this time each person has enslaved himself. Damn if that dead asshole Foucault wasn’t right about that. How about that for an absurdly new turn of events? Self-enslavement: perhaps, at such scale, a novel form of folly.

What other great inventions can we humans come up with? Come on now: something to outdo the Anthropocene.

On being in debt up to your ears (but in a good way)

On Philosophy as the Love of Giving

“In gratitude,” the note said. Inside the box was a book by Seneca, Epistles 1-65 of the Loeb Harvard Edition. The old man Seneca is writing to his younger philosophical friend and pupil Lucius, a Roman knight and civil servant. The letters were meant both to educate Lucius in the ways of Stoic philosophy, “the stern nurse of heroes during the first century of the Empire” (ix), writes Richard Gummere, and to be essays addressed to the general reader about the art of living. (Oh but how, in each line you write, to catch the personal and impersonal both?)

My note, which said “In gratitude,” was signed by one of my conversation partners. It damn near made me cry. “A small token,” he said later. Let me share a little with you.

Letter 34. On a Promising Pupil

“I grow in spirit and leap for joy,” writes Seneca to Lucius, “and shake off my years and my blood runs warm again, whenever I understand, from your actions and your letters, how far you have outdone yourself; for as to the ordinary man, you left him in the rear long ago. [Damn straight, I add.–AT] If the farmer is pleased when his tree develops so that it bears fruit, if the shepherd takes pleasure in the increase of his flocks, if every man regards his pupil as though he discerned in him his own early manhood,–what, then, do you think are the feelings of those who have trained a mind and moulded a young idea, when they see it suddenly grown to maturity?


“You know what I mean by a good man?” Seneca continues. “One who is complete, finished,–whom no constraint or need can render bad. I see such a person in you, if only you go steadily on and bend to your task, and see to it that all your actions and words harmonize and correspond with each other and are stamped in the same mould. If a man’s acts are out of harmony, his soul is crooked. Farewell.” (241-3)

On the Joys of Always Being in Debt

The worst part of my philosophy practice is that if I’m not indebted to one conversation partner, then I’m invariably indebted to another. In revenge tragedy, payback is assumed, demanded, for an instant it’s bloody sweet, but then cosmic justice (dike) can never be restored. Where revenge tears at the fabric of being, law seeks amends. Law–pale-eyed Athena–was invented so that dues, in principle, could be repaid. Only for the one who’s wounded there’s always a hang-up: something further always remains. The law, all too human, fails to make whole, and that is its flaw. But in Christian forgiveness, the beautiful dream is that the slates shall be wiped clean. Someday, it is said.

I own a business, this philosophy practice, this one down here, but it’s clearly not a good one.  Because a good business bootstraps it from day 1, thereafter operating in the black. Well, I do and I don’t. So, mine has to be abysmal, “ass backwards,” says one conversation partner. My first thought–this, I think, being one of Zeno’s lost paradoxes–is that I’m always behind and can never catch up. Oh well.

Farewell, my friends. I’ll be leaving New York later today. Not for good. By plane.