He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity
Our word freedom plays an important role in society. We live in a free and democratic society, the Charter tells us. The United States of America promises liberty and freedom for all. Their declaration of independence guarantees the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Freedom in North America defines our vision of the good life.
We are free people. The USA broke free from England. Canada became a nation with a Charter of rights and freedoms. We can vote. We can choose what we want—we select what pleases us. At one level then, we enjoy political freedom.
At a different level, today’s freedom enslaves us. It exploits our free choices so that we become servants to our own desires. Byung-Chul Han’s writings have made this argument persuasively, I believe. We live in a society that runs on achievement. We must achieve results. But the product, more often than not, is us. We exploit ourselves freely and so become a slave to the drive to perform, get results, and show value.
It might be easy to illustrate the point by thinking about social media influencers. Instagram sells a certain kind of life—of exercise, of health, of family, of beauty. The product on Instagram is us. Yes, someone might be selling makeup or a health product. But we sell the product by selling ourselves.
In order to succeed, we must continue to exploit ourselves. To grow, we must continually produce content; continually take in new data; continually surveil our audience to maximize our gains.
But even traditional work, in many ways, has turned to what Han calls immaterial work—in the literal sense of not farming by planting seeds (material) or constructing a home, to cite two examples. Our work involves selling and marketing and number crunching. Business managers find ways to sync up employees, to make them more efficient and productive.
I recently observed an HR person give advice on how to ask for a raise. He argued that an employee needs to show concretely how he has produced for a company, gained it wealth, and so prove the employee’s worth. Even here, we are selling ourself to for the sake of financial gain.
We live by achievement. We are worth what we can sell or produce.
Ezekiel Emanuel wrote an infamous article in the Atlantic, where he argued he wanted to die at 75. A longer life, he avered, “robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world.” At the age of 75, Emanuel believes he “will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make.”
In the economy of production, when someone cannot contribute, they should simply die. Small wonder that we abort fetuses if they are not going to improve our life. I wonder how Emanuel and those who have embraced our achievement society would understand those with physical or mental disabilities?
What if a life can contribute nothing to society directly by means of production, or wealth creation? What if a life in a real sense relies upon society’s goodwill?
We live to work, and big data and technocrats want us to continue to use their digital systems. We gain more data. We crunch more numbers. We produce. All the while, we lose sense of what’s really real. We don’t feel rooted in the world, but we exhaust ourselves by exploiting ourselves for mere wealth.
There is nothing more important than gaining, producing, and making money. Employees in many businesses are viewed as measurable qualities. Does this employee meet the statistical criteria of production? The performance review verifies just how employers view employees.
Even the entrepreneur seeks to build wealth—which by the way is often a good since we need money to live. My point is not to break down the need to work hard or to make money. But to show how we became slaves of the need rather than masters of it.
We find leisure as a waste of time because it gains no wealth, no production. Why not do something more productive? But then if we do, we never rest. As Han notes, as sleep rests the body, so boredom rests the mind. But if there is no boredom or leisure—no break from the constant stimuli of phone and email, then we become exhausted, depressed, and a slave to our own feelings of guilt—I should produce more, I should just check that one more social media post!
Social Media Likes give us endorphins. Endorphins feel good. So we continue to look, never resting the brain with the medicine of boredom. Always going and never resting, always producing since that is what we are producers!
Freedom is a funny concept. We all need it, want it. But now we have freely chosen to exploit ourselves for the sake of money or likes or even through our freely given information to big data, who will surveil and control our desires for the ends of even greater wealth.
But what if freedom and what if life were more than simply producing and gaining money?
“He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (Ecc 5:10).