On privilege and socially meaningful work

I shared a Facebook update today, that I wanted to reflect on further. I was putting forward my latest pet hate: people earnestly saying it’s a privilege to work on climate, ecosystem protection, or other social issues. We’ve heard them, at conferences or on social media, counting their blessings.

Fuck that! Working on climate and social cohesion is not a privilege, it’s a duty, and all the more so the more privilege we have otherwise. Secondary pet hate: people acknowledging their own privilege on a stage, as if that made them heroes, and exempted them from the need to do much about it. My own philosophy: privilege prompts a question, what do you do with it? And the worst thing you can do about it is squander it to calm down your own guilt.

Now, getting paid to work on those important issues, so there’s no conflict of duties? For instance, between environmental and social responsibility, and feeding a child or parent, or even one’s own personal security – sure, that’s important. It’s unfair to place excessive moral pressure on people to fulfil their duty – and preferable to reduce ethical tension, by directing social resources towards what is collectively useful. I.e. pay people who work for the common good. But what this means is, being paid to work on climate, or for holding the social fabric together, has nothing to do with privilege. It’s fair payment for socially useful work, a minimal standard we should aspire to, and fight for.

Why does this earnest naming of privilege anger me? Because it blurs concepts: as if a job focused on the common good was some title of nobility (that’s what privilege is, access to special laws attached to social status). This is a dangerous narrative, implying that whoever didn’t get one of those jobs, but simply contributes everyday, outside their job title – in short, whoever is not materially rewarded for their contribution to climate or social cohesion – is a more commoner, un roturier, hardly worthy of attention, praise, or reward. Even a sucker for doing the work. Good way to build a movement hey!

Worse: it creates an odd zero-sum game competition for a handful of ‘ethical jobs’ that come with bragging rights – distracting attention from the challenges at stake, and leaving it to whoever can give out material rewards to set the agenda and direct collective efforts.

Now, is this really how we hope to solve climate change, and hold the social fabric together?

The limits of social enterprise

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

One of the most important things I learned from my father is that our economic system does not reward work based on social utility.

I’ve been working around social innovation circles for about ten years now. Repeatedly, I have come across a fervent statement that people working on social good have an unhealthy relationship to money, that we must not demonise money, that we must reconcile profit and purpose.

That discourse has always irked me for its short-sightedness.

Even in a narrow for-profit framework, the question is not just how much return you get on your effort, but risk and time-horizon. When you focus on social good, impact is added to the list. And this is where things get confused.

In a Lunchclub conversation last year, I heard from an architect about the second and third order consequences of the Sydney Opera House. Its construction used a range of new technologies, that were trialled then, and gave birth to new industries. Once built, it served as an icon, prompting tourism, and a sense of civic pride. Such positive externalities are retrospectively visible, if not clearly measurable. They benefit the collective – but cannot be directly listed on the developer’s bottom line.

If impact is truly what matters, then economic returns are ill-suited to measure and guide it. And if impact is not what matters, then pretending is hypocrisy. 

Any discourse on balancing income and social good says: favour the venture that will yield a predictable income in the short-term, over the one that might result in large scale impact. It therefore creates a norm that discourages radical risk-taking intended to benefit the collective.

Not to mention, balancing profit and purpose creates a vested interest in the current paradigm. If you rush to monetise your social impact in the current economy, your long-term interests become tied to the present logic. Or as the Gospel says, where your treasure is, there also your heart is.

Is social enterprise, then, nothing but a desperate attempt at saving capitalism? And by promoting it, are we not distracting driven, ambitious, promising young people from more important work – tying them down to the present system, and preventing them from embracing a more radical approach – one that * could * prove much more impactful?

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #13

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

27 december

Am I leaving my life as a tourist? And am I just watching myself live? Or am I looking for impact? I am not extraordinarily busy, actually, I have lots of time to explore. It is unclear what my profession is, or how I make money – partly, I rely on various subsidies, rent from a place I bought, my partner’s income. And I live off the remains of an exam I passed years ago in what is now a foreign country.

Yet there is still new places to visit and understand better – this short trip – Guangzhou, Changsha, soon Wuhan.

It is an odd characteristic of intellectual life – or writers. We remember Stendhal, La Bruyere, Marx, and others, for just a few books they wrote, or ideas they spread. Their ‘professional’ life is irrelevant, retrospectively. Yet we have equated the worth of a person so much with their means of gaining income, that it takes a lot of effort to resist.

28 december

I’ve always enjoyed repeating, since reading that book by Kierkegaard. Today, I returned to Shamian island, and walked again in areas of central Guangzhou that I saw yesterday. The theme of these few days in Guangzhou might actually be – repeating!

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #5

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. [This text was originally written for myself only, and some of the sections therefore referred to personal interactions. I have given myself permission to leave them out – and so jump directly from December 17 to December 19] 

19 December

The need to consume is a strange thing. I spent over 100 yuan today, when I could have spent half that. 10 for a first coffee, 18 for a second, 30 for a third. 16 for a cake-treat. 11 for food. And 18 again for my evening milk tea. Yet these expenses were social. The second coffee – 18 – was to chat with Tristan – and had a positive result: he’s offered to join Marco Polo Project and do work for the Festival. The third coffee – 30 – was fruitful: I chatted to Zhang Jiajia’s assistant, and had in-principle agreement for him to join our festival. The tea was good spending: I watched a movie for cheaper than the cost of my 3G stick at home, and I actually relaxed. I had to pay for food anyway. The cake was the special treat. But hey – I did good and I deserved it

Could I have done things differently? I could have chosen better. I got coffee because I was lazy – I had too much, four cups in total, and might find it difficult to sleep. Intoxicating myself for the sake of ‘my work’, like people drinking at business dinners. Paying for my own intoxication. I remember at Hub when Jules had ‘peppermint’, not ‘coffee to be cool’. And how the café down from Hub closes at 3pm, because you shouldn’t have coffee later than that.

When I go back to Melbourne, I will have to watch my spending again. In the last month and a half – or since I came back from Beijing – I started spending more. ‘Lubrication spending’ I call it Not really counting when I have coffee. Eating out. Inviting people. Cinema. Books. Trips. I should slowly start cutting down on some of those things after the new year – to get back into the habit when I reach Melbourne. But then again – I’m in China, I’m learning, and networking, and running three projects – and I’m trying to cope.

Strange though, how ‘trying to cope’ – or finding balance – goes through spending.

values cards project – respect

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: OK, I’ll start with that. I like to think of respect as a kind of mutual distancing, a power equilibrium if you want. It’s about finding stability, and it always involves, yes, distance between individuals.

B: Well, for me, respect has to do with authority. So, I have this impression that respect implies an unequal relationship, a power relationship. And it’s not about natural authority, like when you join a movement, because there’s a charismatic leader, but authority within an existing hierarchy. That’s what respect is about for me. Also, it’s the same when you think about filial respect, my impression is, it’s got to do with authority, with a relationship that’s clearly unequal.

A: I wonder how the two relate. I can’t, every time I think about respect… you know the commandment that says ‘respect your mother and father’. I had a conversation with a friend, it was a long time ago, when I was at university, but it stayed with me. They were studying Arabic, and said, based on the etymology, the words of this commandment said something like ‘far your mother, far your father’. Keep your parents at a respectful distance. That’s what it’s about, not a kind of emotional worship, or submission, but it’s about keeping your distance with them. Don’t get caught up in their affairs. Keep them at arm’s length.

B: I don’t know, when I think of respect… There’s two words in Japanese, ‘sonjo’ and ‘sonke’. The first is universal, unconditional respect, the kind of respect you should have for any human being. Even a jerk, they deserve that minimal level respect, sonjo. The other, sonke, it’s closer to what we would call esteem. It’s conditional. You don’t have to esteem everyone, or anyone. Esteem is based on a quality that someone has, whether it’s a certain ethical trait, or a technical skill, or a craft. But that’s not for everyone, not necessarily.

A: So, that makes me think of conversations I’ve had often about work and payment. With writers and artists, or with young people. That they feel a professional lack of respect, when they’re expected to work for free, talk for free, even when it’s an unpaid internship. It’s very strong in the arts, and the community sector, because there’s so many people there who don’t get paid, or not properly, and then after a while it breeds resentment, and it’s experienced, yes, as a lack of respect.

B: Maybe we’re touching something then, something about respect, youth, and anger. You know the figure of angry young men – angry young people in general – they’re angry because they want respect, and they’re not getting it. There’s an expectation there, from them, but it’s a confused expectation. Part of it is that unconditional human respect, and maybe that has to do with adulthood, they want to receive what any other human is receiving. But another part has to do with what we’re calling esteem, conditional respect. Only the two get mingled, it’s not quite clear what they want, so they feel frustrated, and angry.

A: We’ve got this way of thinking about unconditional respect, professionally when we say that ‘tout travel mérite salaire’. Because you do have the case of interns, who don’t get paid. And here, well, true, power relationships are not in their favour, they feel maybe, that they need to work for nothing, and they’re not respected in that sense. But then, it’s not necessarily the case that they should have esteem for what they do, many, they’re starting, it’s good that they’re out there, but they’re not doing wonderful work, they’re still learning. And so yes, the two things get mingled, and everybody’s angry.

B: So, maybe yes, there is a confusion between what we feel is our right to respect, unconditionally, and then this idea that you get respect on the basis of achievement, success. And the result is what you see sometimes, people who feel they have a right to be successful, and they get angry when they’re not, but that’s just because we messed up with the categories. It’s like, everybody wants to work in the sexy industries, like working for the arts or in graphic design or start ups, or whatever. But they won’t accept not to be paid for it. And that creates a power relationship that’s not favorable to the workers. And then, the personal desire for success, as the basis for respect, it becomes a problem for the whole community.

A: We had this thing, in Australia, a big movement to ‘pay the writer’. And I always found there was confusion in what people were asking for. It was surprising even, that writers, intellectuals, were confusing categories. I mean, they were looking for ways that writers would live with more dignity, and get their bills and rent paid, and that’s very fair. But then they were also – it was like, there was a right to be paid, for whatever you wrote, and the desire to be paid for their writing, not in another way – because that would somehow validate their status. It was messy, it still is, I find.

B: Well, we all have a need for recognition I think, but the question is, how is this recognition materialized, how is it generated socially, and how is it perceived? I mean, one characteristic of a neoliberal society is that we’ve commodified everything. And so, recognition goes through money. If you can’t get money for it, it has no value. So; the writers want to be paid for their writing because otherwise – it has no value, and they won’t be respected for it.

A: You’re right. There’s a need for recognition – esteem, for craft and effort – and there’s a need for food and shelter, but people conflate both, and they turn that into the need to be paid for their art, and so they can’t think about it creatively.

B: I wonder, if it’s the same for the young people you were talking about. They’ve got a need for some esteem, and that’s about identity, finding out who they are and where they can excel. It’s even, maybe, to help with their decision making. And then there’s a different aspect, that’s material needs to be met. And we’ve got a problem when we can’t find a way to separate those two.

A: That’s what I like about the idea of a universal basic income. It actually dissociates those two. You’ve got unconditional respect, on the basis of human dignity, and you get food and shelter. But then you’ve got esteem, and that depends on your achievements – and when you’ve got a universal basic income, that might be monetized or not, it no longer matters so much. I think, that need to monetise everything, it’s a problem for society. We push people to selfishness. While with all moral codes, they’re all about pushing people to be less selfish.

B: Maybe then it is about courage, and virtue. Because – there’s a lot of mediocrity. Generally speaking, we’re all rather mediocre. And we can move away from mediocrity, just a little, when we’re in the right environment. And if you’re in a setting that allows you to be less mediocre by default, then you don’t need so much courage to do things – but then do you deserve more respect? That’s what I wonder.

A: It’s like, international development, should you think of it as a form of justice, or charity? And if you’re simply doing the right thing, should you be praised for it? I mean, there’s this image in the Gospel of the widow who gives a little coin to the temple, but Jesus says she deserves most respect, because she had so little to start with.

B: It’s the same thing in Buddhism. If you give an offering of something you don’t need, it doesn’t count. You must give from the things you need, and then you will get merit.

A: Something I wonder, are we so decadent that we praise people for doing something like giving up what they don’t need. It’s a little depressing.

B: It is a little depressing. It’s, I mean it’s hypocrisy too, and I don’t know that it’s a new thing. I mean, there are many people who just want to look good, but then the cynicism comes through. Their way to gain respect is by moralizing others and judging them, but then they don’t apply the same criteria to themselves, and those people, I mean they deserve fundamental respect, yes, but not our esteem.

A: So, do you think, social, where we direct our esteem is fundamental question, and a fundamental mechanism, to promote certain behaviors?

B: Well, yes – and so, we might wonder then, what could we do, to give conditional respect in a way that promotes more prosocial behavior? Like, maybe we need not just universal basic income, but also more recognition for the most socially useful jobs, and then that will get us somewhere?

On Greed

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

As I read through the notes I took for this post over the past two weeks, this is what I noticed. There is a lot about the current state of the world, capitalism, economic systems, theory, change. Nothing about myself. Lust evoked shame – greed, abstraction and righteousness.

I could write pages about the systemic greed of our society. Capitalism, consumer culture, negative externalities. Reagan, Thatcher, Trump. Boomers in McMansions, SUVs and cruise-ships, burning away gas, oil and coal, destroying ecosystems for their immediate enjoyment. No fair go for future generations. I could write about the people who produced and promoted single-use plastic bags and forks and cups – disposable pens, razors, printers – and the piles of waste that their fortune was built on. I could mention the start-up world, where success begins at 9 zeros. The slave merchants of past centuries. Colonists over the globe, destroying cultures and land everywhere. All this unpunished, for greed.

I could write about this conversation, last year, on a Facebook thread with a guy contending that ‘everyone’ should put aside four million dollars for retirement: that’s how much you need to secure adequate returns, and you couldn’t possibly start eating up your capital, because what if you lived up to 100? I could reflect on greed as a sin of old age, often based in fear. Then I could look for causal chains, how individualism, consumerism and the loss of intergenerational solidarity nurtures greed. If all incentives are for each of us to look after themselves, the result is irrational collective behaviour, Tragedy of the Commons, and its pending catastrophe.

I could write more about all of this, but would I understand anything about greed as a sin? What if, instead, I wrote about myself. How I live a very comfortable life in a very wealthy country, yet hardly give anything to charity, and only part with money for my own future self through super – and even then, with difficulty. How I know very well that animal farming and large-scale fishing are wrecking our environment, yet struggle to wean myself off meat, fish, eggs, or dairy. How I pass by homeless people every day, yet would rather spend my dollars on cakes and coffee for myself than share it with them.

I do try to moderate my appetite – because I know greed to be dangerous, and because I see the connection between simpler needs and more freedom. But as soon as I got a larger income, a few years back, I started upgrading. The better jam, the better yoghurt, the better peanut butter. The box of fresh vegetables and fruit delivered once a week. The regular coffee outside. The books bought online, rather than borrowed from the library. And when I needed to travel, ubers and taxis, my own airBNB, and the better airline. Because I was working hard, and therefore should be compensated with greater comfort.

Greed is about refusing death, greed is about infinite growth, greed is about placing the self above others. But greed is also that insidious voice in our head, whispering ‘you’re worth it’, and hoarding objects in our cupboards, cash in our bank accounts, consumable experiences in our memories – and piles of waste all over the place.


Market testing

In innovation and entrepreneurship circles, it is often assumed that the market provides a sure test for the validity of a new project. The logic is apparently tight: if a product or service doesn’t sell, it means that it’s not needed, either because of a core design flaw, or inadequate positioning.

However, the very same circles encourage the development of pitching and sales skills, including a great buzz around storytelling – because this is how you gain the attention of your customers.

There is a gap in this logic that nags me. When a new venture fails, is it because their offer is inadequate – plagued by a fatal flaw or badly positioned – or is it because the people in charge of promoting it have insufficient skills in sales, and all the people in their target market have exhausted their funds and attention on other offers, less suitable, but better packaged?

Or should we then understand that innovation has nothing to do with the development of new services and products, but only the never-ending improvement of packaging techniques?

On non-profits

‘So, if you run a non-profit, does it mean you can’t run activities to generate revenue,’ someone with a business background asked me. And here I was, explaining how non-profit status has nothing to do with income generation, but how you share the spoils. No return on capital, but talent can be rewarded. You cannot offer dividends. You can pay salaries, even bonuses. You can develop commercial activities.

I’ve run a non-profit for the last five years, and developed a keen interest in the philosophical underpinnings of company structures. Accounting, or the art of categorizing assets. Governance, or the art of collective decision-making. Incentive systems, or the art of eliciting and sustaining activities that benefit the group.

As I learnt more, I realised how ignorant I was – indeed most of us are – about companies, how they run, what they are. How imprecise our use of words. Income, profit, revenue, benefit, trade, hover together in a golden cloud, while charities and nonprofits merge in mysterious shade. And by effect of sheer confusion, the non-profit sector itself may begin to question: if there is no profit, how can there be value?