Let’s get apocalyptic

jensen

University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen, in his thought provoking little book We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (2013), urges intellectuals to be “responsibly apocalyptic.” I’ve discussed Dr. Jensen’s book before, and I’d like to spend a little more time with it. 

A different kind of revelation

Jensen defines apocalypse not in dramatic Biblical terms, but rather in reference to “crises that concentrated wealth and power create.” He continues, saying that “(i)t is not crazy to look at the state of the world — economically, politically, culturally, and ecologically — and conclude that there are rocky times ahead.” However, rather than invoking “a reactionary theology” that predicts “the rapture to come,” the concept of “apocalyptic vision can help us understand social and ecological ruptures in the here and now” (emphasis mine).

Intellectuals in institutions

Furthermore, Jensen observes that many intellectuals associated with institutions — “universities, think tanks, government, corporations” — go along with prevailing norms because they either believe in them or don’t want to get in trouble. Instead, he urges intellectuals to be “responsibly apocalyptic” and “to challenge the pre-ordained conclusions that the powerful prefer.” If intellectuals do not confront these norms, then the powerful need not worry about being accountable for their actions.

Responsibility

I referenced Dr. Jensen’s work in a blog piece in 2013, “The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need,” written in conjunction with my participation in the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health.” In that post, I invoked “responsibly bold” as my catchphrase for how scholars and intellectual activists should conduct themselves.

I agree with Jensen that we are living in an era marked by extreme inequalities of wealth and power distribution. These inequalities surely relate to a market-based economy run amok. In addition, they implicate power grabs in many societal settings that may transcend political labels — unless, of course, “thuggishness” counts as an ideology.

I have witnessed these dynamics in the workplace issues I study, research, write, and advocate about on a regular basis.

For example, workplace bullying is directly linked to organizational leadership and abuses of power. Though perpetrated by individuals, work abuse cannot flourish without buy-in and endorsement from the top.

Also, the widespread practice of unpaid internships, especially in the private sector, exploits labor under the guise of gaining “experience” and “credentials.” It also excludes those who cannot afford to work without pay.

Topics that haven’t been focal points for my scholarship, but that have appeared regularly on this blog, include exorbitant student loan debt, long-term unemployment for older and younger workers alike, and America’s burgeoning retirement funding crisis. In the U.S. alone, these are all symptomatic of a broken economic structure and social safety net.

Those of us who engage the world of public ideas have a change-making opportunity to be responsibly bold. We should put forth sound analyses, interpretations, and recommendations for the greater good, especially during this plutocratic, New Gilded Age that has become our reality. If that’s what being “apocalyptic” is all about, then so be it.

In addition to rethinking abundance, let’s spread it around a little better

Economist Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, suggests in an op-ed piece for the New York Times that we embrace abundance without excessive attachment to material things:

In other words, if we are lucky enough to achieve abundance, we should be thankful for it and work to share the means to create it with others around the world. The real trick is the second part of the formula: avoiding attachment.

In Tibetan, the word “attachment” is translated as “do chag,” which literally means “sticky desire.” It signifies a desperate grasping at something, motivated by fear of separation from the object. One can find such attachment in many dysfunctional corners of life, from jealous relationships to paranoia about reputation and professional standing.

In the realm of material things, attachment results in envy and avarice. Getting beyond these snares is critical to life satisfaction.

I think it’s great advice for people who are blessed with sufficient disposable income to have spending options. As I wrote here back in 2012, research suggests that the correlation between happiness and income levels tends to peak at somewhere around $75,000, subject to obvious variables such as cost of living differentials. Furthermore, studies indicate that giving to others can increase our personal happiness and that money spent on creating memorable experiences rather than on accumulating more stuff tends to be more satisfying. (Brooks acknowledges the latter point in his article.)

Abundance for some

However, at least here in the U.S., we’re living in an age of a widening wealth gap, with that $75,000 mark looking like an illusion to a majority of its citizens. Millions are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and still more are doing worse than that.

Don Lee reports for the Los Angeles Times on a new Pew Research Center study showing that the “wealth gap between middle- and upper-income households has widened to the highest level on record.” He continues:

…(T)he typical wealth of the nation’s upper-income households last year was nearly seven times that of middle-class ones. By Pew’s calculations, that is the biggest gap in the 30 years that the Fed has been collecting statistics from its Survey of Consumer Finances.

“The latest data reinforces the larger story of America’s middle-class household wealth stagnation over the past three decades,” Pew said. “The Great Recession destroyed a significant amount of middle-income and lower-income families’ wealth, and the economic ‘recovery’ has yet to be felt for them.”

An economic system that provides selective abundance

Brooks engages in some rhetorical sleight-of-hand when he says that “we should be thankful for [abundance] and work to share the means to create it with others around the world.” In other words, he’s not suggesting that we share big chunks of our own abundance with others. Rather, if you read the rest of his article, you’ll pick up an implicit defense of a market-based economic system that supposedly can provide others with abundance as well.

There’s a problem with that, of course. The economic system that has produced so much inequity over the past three decades isn’t exactly creating an abundance of opportunity these days. Steady jobs with good pay and benefits are in increasingly short supply. Around the world, the same corporate entities that took millions of those jobs out of the U.S. are now putting their manufacturing plants in countries where they can pay workers a fraction of what their American predecessors once earned.

Toward something better

If you’ve read this blog for any stretch of time, you know that I’m not going to call for a socialist utopia to replace the big, bad capitalist system. I’m way past the point of pitching any rigid economic ideology as the answer to our wealth gap. But I’ll happily repeat my belief that a robust private sector must be complemented by strong public and non-profit sectors, as well as an ethic of giving that asks more of the most fortunate. On balance we need a healthier mix of economic opportunities, regulatory safeguards for the public good, and a social safety net.

In his New York Times piece, Brooks writes that his inspiration for rethinking abundance was a travel encounter in India with “a penniless Hindu swami,” a “son of Indian petroleum engineers” in America who had traded in his MBA and the fast track for a more contemplative, austere life. That certainly provides grist for a curious narrative (well-paid think tank executive takes life lesson from ex-pat living in self-imposed poverty), but the deeper truth is that austerity and detachment from material goods are much easier to opt for voluntarily than finding yourself with no other choice.

Our economic systems, psychopathy, and bullying at work

Psychology professor Paul Verhaeghe (U. Ghent, Belgium), writing for The Guardian newspaper, suggests that three decades of “neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatization” have transformed behaviors and norms in ways that reward psychopathic personality traits:

There are certain ideal characteristics needed to make a career today. The first is articulateness, the aim being to win over as many people as possible. Contact can be superficial, but since this applies to most human interaction nowadays, this won’t really be noticed.

It’s important to be able to talk up your own capacities as much as you can…. Later, people will find out that this was mostly hot air, but the fact that they were initially fooled is down to another personality trait: you can lie convincingly and feel little guilt. That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.

On top of all this, you are flexible and impulsive, always on the lookout for new stimuli and challenges. In practice, this leads to risky behaviour, but never mind, it won’t be you who has to pick up the pieces.

Verhaeghe admits that he’s taking this description to extremes, but he notes that it draws from the “psychopathy checklist by Robert Hare, the best-known specialist on psychopathy today.”

More on psychology and economics

I’m fascinated by how psychologists are linking individual behaviors and our economic systems. In another example, at the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network held in 2011, psychologist Michael Britton described our current economic condition in terms of psychological illness.

Our economic system has taken on “bipolar” qualities, said Britton. Using terms and phrases such as “excited,” “frantic,” “crash and burn,” “disregard for reality,” and “disregard for empathy,” he described an economy grounded in constant consumption and concentrations of power.

Britton said that instead of worshipping at the altar of national GDP and high unemployment, we should “reduce resource stripping” and emphasize how everyone can contribute to society and live a “materially decent life.”

Psychopathy and workplace bullying

Prof. Verhaeghe further links the psychopathic dynamics of the economic system to workplace bullying:

Bullying used to be confined to schools; now it is a common feature of the workplace. This is a typical symptom of the impotent venting their frustration on the weak – in psychology it’s known as displaced aggression. There is a buried sense of fear, ranging from performance anxiety to a broader social fear of the threatening other.

I think Verhaeghe is right about “the impotent venting their frustration on the weak” when it comes to, say, a stressed-out, mid-level manager bullying and cracking the whip on his subordinates.

In addition, we must not forget that economic systems are man-made, so at the core of the problem are individuals who likely score high on Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist. We are paying a very heavy price for senior executives, managers, and board chairs who are perfect matches for the personality profile described by Verhaeghe.

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Related posts

Is our psychologically ill economy being driven by psychologically ill business leaders? (2011)

Understanding the executive psychopath (2010)

What if our society was built around advancing human dignity and well-being?

Let’s pretend, for even a few minutes, that we could build our society around the advancement of human dignity and well-being.

What would our educational, social, economic, and governance institutions look like? How would we balance opportunity, individual responsibility, societal safety nets, and shared obligations? How would we address health care and public health issues? How would our laws and legal systems operate? How would we define our relationships with the planet and other species that inhabit it? How would we operate our workplaces?

Most importantly, how would each of us choose to conduct our own lives?

For many reasons, I think we’re at a juncture where we need to be steadfast and unapologetic about making human dignity and well-being the defining priorities for our society. The ensuing discussion may take us in many different directions, and we won’t always be in agreement about what approaches to take, but at least we’d get the framing concept right.

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Related posts

Dignity instead: The “markets and management” framework for U.S. workplace law should go (2014) — “Within such a “dignitarian” framework, there is plenty of room for market-based competition, entrepreneurship, individual responsibility, and sound management prerogative. Furthermore, the call for dignity in the workplace is not a rallying cry for state ownership, runaway taxation, or regulatory micromanagement of the workplace. Rather, it is about promoting the complementary goals of healthy, productive, and socially responsible workplaces within a mix of robust private, public, and non-profit sectors.”

Visioning law and legal systems through a psychologically healthy lens (2014) — “One of my periodic “battery rechargers” is the opportunity to reconnect in person with a network of law professors, lawyers, judges, and students associated with a school of legal thought called therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), which examines law, legal procedures, and the legal profession from the standpoint of psychological health.”

Dialogues about dignity (2013), Parts I (Meeting in Manhattan), II (Mainstreaming the message), and III (Claiming and using power to do good) — “The founding president of [the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Network] is Evelin Lindner, a physician, psychologist, and self-styled global citizen whose life mission is rooted in the displacement of her family during the ravages of the First and Second World Wars. In her remarks to the group, Evelin talked about the need to “embrace the world as our university.” She urged that in the face of powerful political and economic forces that operate to advance the interests of the most privileged, we must “build a new culture of global cohesion, global friendship.”

“Total Worker Health” vs. “Wellness” vs. “Well-Being”: Framing worker health issues (2013) —  “By the end of the conference, further informed by other discussions and panels, I had became a convert. Indeed, I realized that well-being, within the context of workplace health and safety, is a very good fit with broader questions about human dignity and employment law that I’ve been raising for several years.”

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Recycling: Five years of July

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

July 2013: Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife — “Although ‘middle aged’ is a term that few in their 40s and 50s are eager to embrace, this phase of life typically is marked by high levels of personal and occupational achievement and productivity. The specter of workplace bullying during the ongoing economic crisis, however, tells a very different story.”

July 2012: Memo to self: “I’m swamped” may be a self-imposed condition — “We continue to ratchet up expectations for occupational and professional success. We worship the mantra of ‘work hard, play hard.’ If you don’t keep doing more, you’ll fall behind and never catch up — or perhaps miss out on that ‘big opportunity,’ even if it’s something you don’t necessarily want.”

July 2011: How well does your organization respond to employee criticism and feedback? — “In reality, organizational leaders who have the confidence to solicit and listen to worker feedback generally also are likely to have the integrity to treat allegations of wrongful behavior fairly and responsively. Poor leaders, however, are more likely to fall short on both measures.”

July 2010: Graduating into a recession — “Comparisons between the current recession and that of the early 1980s are frequent, but this one is worse.  In terms of severity, the Great Recession lies somewhere between the 80s recession and the Great Depression of the 1930s. We appear to be looking at structural changes in the labor markets, with the term “jobless recovery” frequently invoked to suggest a sluggish comeback for the stock market with little or no corresponding improvement in the employment situation.”

July 2009: Workplace bullying as a public health concern — “Transnational bodies such as the World Health Organization and International Labour Organisation have recognized the costs of workplace bullying to workers and employers, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has hosted roundtable discussions of experts on workplace bullying, linking it to workplace violence.  Hopefully these are signs that we are closer to classifying the widespread and destructive effect of workplace bullying as a legitimate public health concern.”

Competing visions of the “good life”

These days I find myself thinking about a lot of “big picture” subjects, like the future of society. (Yup, that’s pretty big picture stuff.) I  am deeply concerned about how the coming decades will unfold in terms of economic and environmental sustainability, and I believe that we will have to reassess our relationships with technology, the planet, our workplaces, and each other.

Among those who anticipated this state of affairs many years ago was John Ohliger (1926-2004), an iconoclastic, pioneering adult educator, civic activist, and public intellectual whose work I have mentioned before on this blog. John also was my good friend, and his voluminous writings, many of which were self-published through his independent center, Basic Choices, Inc., have had a strong influence on my thinking.

In essays from the early 1980s, John foresaw the dilemmas over material goods that a modern, “first world” society would face. He drew from the work of other leading adult educators to articulate two competing visions of the future for society. One vision was that of a “technological, top-down, service society” that defined “the ‘good life’ as affluence and leisure with high-tech big technology solving problems which lead to mastery of the environment.” The other vision saw the “good life” as embracing “useful work, peace, self-fulfillment, and appropriate technology leading to harmony with the environment.”

John expounded upon on how that latter vision could unfold:

My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.

It’s fair to say that supporters of the “technological, top-down, service society” to which John referred have had their way of things, at least during the past three decades. Against this backdrop, advancing a healthier vision for society is a challenging task, but that shouldn’t dissuade us from pursuing it. In an unpublished autobiographical essay written later in his life, John suggested that a combination of spirituality, personal growth, and social action could be at the core of this transformation. I’d say he was right on target about that.

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For more about John Ohliger’s unique public intellectual role, see my book chapter, David Yamada, “The Adult Educator as Public Intellectual,” in Andre P. Grace, Tonette S. Rocco, and Assocs., Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009)

The prices we pay for stuff: A value system gone haywire?

Earlier this spring, the New York Times reported on an interesting and disturbing twist: Over the years, “wired” devices and electronics have plummeted in price, while the costs of education, health care, and child care have shot up. Here’s Annie Lowrey, reporting:

Since the 1980s, for instance, the real price of a midrange color television has plummeted about tenfold, and televisions today are crisper, bigger, lighter and often Internet-connected. Similarly, the effective price of clothing, bicycles, small appliances, processed foods — virtually anything produced in a factory — has followed a downward trajectory. The result is that Americans can buy much more stuff at bargain prices.

Many crucial services, though, remain out of reach for poor families. The costs of a college education and health care have soared.

…Child care also remains only a small sliver of the consumption of poor families because it is simply too expensive. In many cases, it depresses the earnings of women who have no choice but to give up hours working to stay at home.

Add to that the high costs of quality, unprocessed food and good, safe housing and you have a pretty fair idea of what’s more affordable in terms of everyday needs and wants. One could say this reflects a value system gone haywire, where basic health, education, nutrition, and housing needs are harder to pay for, while the latest digital gizmos are relatively affordable.

It’s something to think about the next time you see a person who appears to be homeless talking on a cellphone.

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