Your reason for being here? Your parents met and you were born. That explains the ultimate cause for your existence up to this point in time, and any questions asking why you’re here teleologically speaking? That would be an endless maelstrom of contention, which goes beyond today’s subject.
And that subject for today is modern society in relation to the individuals making it up. I’m not arguing for a grand meaning of life type of narrative, but I offer an observation answering this question: what is the objective purpose of everybody in society? What is society’s expectation of you? Your purpose given by modern society?
First let’s warm up by starting with a story involving education. Have you ever driven past a primary school at lunchtime seeing large masses of little children playing? Have you seen them scuttling about the playground paying no mind to future worries, only living in the present without a care in the world? Well I’ve seen that many times, but there was this one occasion I found interesting. During a road trip, some friends and I drove through a town and when we drove through one street, we emerged to eventually find ourselves cruising slowly past a public school. The playground was awash with children playing and one of my friends pointed and said ‘look you lot, our future pension payers!’ A quasi-humorous quip!
Looking back in hindsight, my friend’s little joke did get me thinking. So yes, those children would grow up to be working age adults and they’ll be working to pay into the tax system to support the economy which will contribute to the state pension fund. But of course there’s more to it than just that, because to say they were only good for paying our pensions and close the book on that would be a statement too superficial and just plain wrong.
Based on inspirations from after reading The Postmodern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard, I’ve come to believe that collectively and individually our purpose by modernity is to increase the productivity of the economy and on the more specific individual level, the individual worker must ensure a good level of productivity at the firm he or she is employed at. In other words your purpose in modernity – from cradle to grave – is to be a productive member of said modern society. Think about it, starting from birth we naturally go through our development stages towards maturity while paralleled by our involvement through the conveyor belt of the educational system – the purpose of which is to prepare us for working life.
This may be a purely materialistic, technocratic, anti-transcendental mode of living; but for the vast majority of people growing up within a society where the capitalist mode of production dominates – this is the reality. I’m not saying this is desirable or undesirable and admittedly it’s not really a glorious purpose for one’s existence, but it’s just the way it seems to be from my observation.
Efficiency, the endless goal of (post)modernity
The optimal relation between a firm’s expenditure and production is imposed as the general rule for all activities in the capitalist economy. Through people’s participation as workers in the economy, they’re contributing towards the firm’s performance. The overall wish for a capitalist firm is to generate the greatest revenue of profit possible and for that to happen greater productivity or efficiency is essential towards realising this.
Work needs to be done, but ideally done at excellent levels of performance. That is the worker’s purpose, to make the running of a firm more efficient in whatever tasks are prioritised. From the teen who first dons the McDonalds uniform ready to flip those patties worthy of the name fast food, to the civil foreman charged with improving infrastructure leading a team of workers by motivating them to complete projects on schedule. From the perspective of the employer, he ideally wishes his workers to be productive and most skillful at their role. After all, being a hard worker translates as meaning working at high levels of productivity/efficiency.
And if the leveling of a forest to make way for a new road going through it increases infrastructural efficiency by opening a new shortcut to an adjacent town, the benefit of which is shortened travel times and less congestion on the other roads, then so be it despite widespread condemnation from let’s say green protestors.
Contradiction between one’s values and the objective will
Monsieur Lyotard spoke about efficiency and it was among the main themes of his book, which was overall focused on the state of knowledge in postmodernity. But look at this excerpt:
‘The performativity criterion has its “advantages”. It excludes in principle adherence to a metaphysical discourse: it requires the renunciation of fables; it demands clear minds and cold wills; it replaces the definition of essences with the calculation of interactions’…’it brings the pragmatic functions of knowledge clearly to light, to the extent that they seem to relate to the criterion of efficiency.’
Not the pursuit of metaphysical truths or spirituality, but only efficiency and the performance of work are the lofty values of such a society. When you enter into capitalistic relations based on optimising performance and the pursuit of profit then any idealistic opinions adhering to a ‘metaphysical discourse’, or political ideals are put away in the cupboard during working hours.
Like Schopenhauer said about the will: “The action of the body is nothing but the act of the will objectified.” And “Every true, genuine, immediate act of will is also, at once and immediately, a visible act of the body,”. And by this I’m seeing everybody’s will dedicated to completing capitalist tasks despite what they’re thinking in their heads.
Everyone in this opinionated society has an opinion! But no matter how opinionated they still need to set that alarm to get up ready for work the next morning. You could be a customer service assistant working in a phone shop and while your standing around on the shop floor in your corporate uniform you may very well have many opinions about the economy or social issues, may either stand on the political left or right, may be the proud owner of university degrees or even have a personal philosophy; but at the end of the day you’re still an employee working in that phone shop serving customers by bringing them smartphones.
We can believe whatever we wish, we can go about our lives socialising, writing articles or arguing over the internet, but operating in the background of it all is the wider society based on a continuous requirement for ongoing efficient production.
Science and efficiency
Lyotard here says:
“Research sectors that are unable to argue that they contribute even indirectly to the optimisation of the system’s performance are abandoned by the flow of capital and doomed to senescence. The criterion of performance is explicitly invoked by the authorities to justify their refusal to subsidise certain research centres.”
So if the sponsors see that a particular research is under performing, then those scientists risk being defunded. Because if you’re not productive at your job, not fulfilling the criterion of performance and don’t make changes to correct your inefficiency; then you’ll risk yourself having to find another job. By sales targets or research deadlines, no company wants their employees slacking off on the job or investments in research below par; not when the sacred cow of profit is at risk!
The advancement of science and technology plays a cardinal role in the expansion of capital by pushing the margins of efficiency to new levels. Scientific knowledge is subordinate to economic efficiency and is critical for modernity. For example, if larger volumes of food are needed to be made available in meeting the demands for an ever growing population. So is the requirement for greater efficiency realised by new technology or improved production techniques in agriculture. For consumer goods to become more affordable in the market greater expansion and efficiency of production is also required.
AI and robots applied to economic production – think automation – do not need breaks because they do not tire, do not take maternity leave and do not ask for promotions or bonuses.
Lyotard said that postmodernity is characterised by the downfall of the grand narratives or metanarratives. To clarify, metanarratives served as the binding power over society and made claims about its knowledge of history as the absolute truth. The claim to knowledge and truth over the past and future legitimised its authority about the world. Its continued legitimacy for the masses was ensured if it remained the ruling ideology of a society.
To illustrate the totalising power of metanarrative, imagine the crusader knight on the march for the Holy land holding his wooden cross. He’s a man who has an unquestioning, absolute conviction in his mind that he’s on a mission from God to conquer the Holy Land along with his likeminded fellow crusaders.
Now fast forward to postmodernity this does not exist anymore, civilisation is not organised along the lines of a metanarrative because in postmodernity, there is no single dominant story. Ever since the downfall of Christianity, there is no longer a dominant, single story in the west now. The Pantheists have theirs, Christians have theirs, Muslims have theirs, progressive liberals have theirs and the Marxists have theirs and so on.
Since nobody is part of a single grand story anymore, there is only production, making the economy more efficient and consumerism. Individually we work to increase the efficiency of the firm and collectively we work to make sure GDP growth charts show positive growth.