I often feel like a slave in the modern world. A machine repeatedly doing slightly different tasks. When visualizing how life makes me feel, I often visualize a large number of soft velvet ties pulling me down with increasing pressure. Each thread is so soft it can barely be discerned, and alone could be removed with little effort. But over many years the number of small threads has built up to be an almost unbreakable series of tangled rope holding me firmly down.
I am, thankfully, not the only one who feels this way, and some people have been able to articulate it better than I. See on elevating humanity and are most americans debt slaves. The term slavery appears repeatedly, and it approximates how I feel, but isn’t quite the right word for it. To find a better way to describe myself, I tested the idea of modern slavery by contrasting traditional slavery and modern ideas of corporate slavery:
|Could buy right to be paid to work||Automatically paid to work|
|Entered into by force or birth||Heavily incentivized to participate|
|Desire to change owner out of slaves control||Can change owner any time, or opt to have no owner|
|Owner cared for well being||only individual cares for well being|
|Government / law supported||Government / law incentivized|
I also considered the idea of debt-slavery, which I also think falls a bit short. Although a person can rent themselves for a number of hours (at a given rate of dollars per hour) to make up for a debt, I don’t see it as the default paradigm in the modern world. Instead, I see the rise of salaried company-persons and independent contractors. Both are expected to complete a body of work by a given deadline rather than a rate of work at $x/hour independent of work produced.
With that in mind, I considered how the current system differs from economies of work in the past, such as slavery economies or serfdom economies, with the more modern industrial and information economies.
Some traits of modern work-life:
- Work is governed by government laws, social norms, and company policy
- Work performed is determined externally by the organization (rather than internally by the worker)
- Time is generally used as the primary measurement of value. Payment is given in return for hours or weeks of labor performed.
- As a general rule, finding a method of completing work in half the time results in double work being assigned, not in half as much work for the same reward.
- Time for non-work is strictly allocated (To weekends and holidays). Variances to the schedule must be justified within company policy.
- Appearance and other non-work related factors are dictated by the organization. This includes time spent within the organization working, and outside the organization, though to a lesser extent.
Altogether, this is still not a very satisfying state of affairs, but definitely better than previous economic systems such as slavery or serfdom. Instead of trying to figure out how my life relates to an antiquated system, I decided to take a look at the current system instead and see what a more apt description might be. I started with what we currently call ourselves in the everyday: employees and employers. Employees are everyone who works for an organization, which is the employer.
One key thing I want to point out – generally an employer is not a human. It is almost always an organization – common examples include corporations, government, and non-profits. Every employee, including CEO’s and presidents, can be ejected by the organization and replaced, generally without material harm. The topic of organizations is too large to cover right now, so for today, I want to focus on the humans and the proper way to think of them – the Employees.
Employee, a word which derives from Employ, came about for the first time in the 1850’s, coinciding with the industrial revolution. Employ has been around since the 1500’s and consists of the following definitions: “make use of, apply; increase; entangle; devote”. It also derives from the word imply – indeed employ and imply started as the same word – which has remained largely unchanged as “to involve something unstated as a logical consequence”.
I would take this one step further with the observation that the word employee also has a common synonym – resource. The company I currently work for often refers to employees as “Resources”. Though not often mentioned consciously, this term is codified in all companies due to organizational departments known as “Human Resources” which manage aspects of adding and reducing human resources (employees).
From these background definitions, a better understanding of our current situation and why we call ourselves, universally, employees, emerges. The synonyms making up the word are good descriptors of the modern workplace and the humans participating in it. One stood out to me however as a superior word to use to describe ourselves, with a larger meaning embedded within it: Entangled.
As our productivity grows, we must increase our work output to compete. As our debt load or lifestyle spending increase, we become further entangled in the industrial complex and less able to extricate ourselves from the system: we must work more to buy more, and work harder to compete. The more we buy into consumerism as a lifestyle, the less we are able to see clearly and become independent, as our social stature begins to depend on our consumerist successes. We are not bound by chains as in slavery, or by law as in serfdom, to a particular master or landowner. Rather, we are bound by the system in an ever increasing complex web of entanglement, from which the further we delve the less likely we are to escape. This explains why even CEO’s and entrepreneurs find themselves devoid of balance in their lives, unable to find satisfaction without the office, striving for ever increasing monetary value and property. They are as deeply entangled as the lower classes, albeit with more ability to escape if they so choose.
Consumer products at all levels are designed to reflect this phenomenon, striving to bring new consumers under their grip in a self sustaining spiral, simultaneously increasing entanglement of workers.
Consider products such as iPhones, which come out with a new model every year, encouraging pricey upgrades. The social pressure to have the latest one, coupled with the high cost of the device, ensures that a person must sustain income levels to match this pattern of behavior, or be threatened with social ostracism. The same product practice can be seen across the spectrum, from car re-models every three years, to fashion seasons or home decoration fads.
The traits I mentioned describing modern work fit nicely into this definition as well. They are either a direct result of entanglement, such as being able to choose a master but not go masterless, or a direct consequence, such as any behavior which benefits an organization and thus reduces the chances for someone to become dis-entangled.
The Rise of Entangled Persons
As laws supporting slavery in all its forms were being abolished worldwide, the industrial revolution was in full swing. The loss of traditional slave labor, coupled with a new way to mass produce consumer items, led to a system of entanglement emerging naturally. Organizations fight for their own survival, and because they are larger than a single person, they generate rules and systems to maximize survivability. By design, those who run the organizations are brought to believe that they are the organization, since the most powerful members have the greatest ability to harm an organization. In reality, they are not anymore able to escape entanglement than the common employee, and perhaps even less so since they must generally be highly entangled to reach such a position of power in the first place. Consider the kinds of perks CEO’s get, in general. Why are these needed in place of increased pay? Simply put: they greatly increase entanglement of someone into a certain lifestyle when increased monetary compensation is no longer enough to fuel increased entanglement at the same rate as other benefits.
Thus we have entered a system where even the perceived most powerful members of society are as deeply entangled as the average worker is, albeit using different mechanisms. Entrepreneurs, CEO’s, politicians. Each are entangled using intricate webs to decrease their likelihood of escape. Law, debt, equity, contracts, and property are the tools which can be used to tie someone to an organization and thus into the system. Only a few people have found ways to check out of the system and dis-entangle themselves.
Which brings us to possibilities of living which decrease entanglement instead of increasing it. I have recently begun to strive to dis-entangle myself as much as possible, and I have seen a number of people who have found ways for themselves to escape the system. The myriad ways to accomplish this, and how they work for individuals, are a post for another day.