Sunday, October 2, 2011

What is Productivity? Why Do So Many of Us "Need" to Be Productive?

A political post I made yesterday on Facebook suddenly, and kind of surprisingly to me, exploded into a debate between several friends that continues a day later. The specifics of the debate aren't terribly interesting, however a short exchange between my friend John and I seemed quite worthy of posting.

John: Our society seems to place a fundamental value on "productive" citizens. I think thorough internalization of that value is nearly universal.

Nathan: That's a totally interesting point. And one that people really ought to reflect on. What's productive mean? Is it our main mission in life?

The conversation rolled on from there into other issues, but I remain fascinated by this issue of productivity. Probably because it ties in with a lot of the other questions I've been having as repeat visitors over the past few years.

When I hear people speak about a strong need to be productive, I often wonder what's motivating it. Sometimes, I get the sense that they're trying to produce or achieve something in the world to make up for a poor sense of self esteem. If only I get that promotion or finish that project, then maybe I won't feel like such a loser. In other words, they basically think "I am only valuable in the world if I am doing X, Y, or Z."

Other times, it's fairly clear that productivity is tied to survival. The person is always running around, getting things done, because if they don't, they think the boss will fire them, or their children won't get fed and clothed, or a whole host of other things. Some of the fear driving this behavior is very real and accurate. However, odds are, some of the things they're "getting done to survive" aren't really needed.

I often wonder this: How much of our "need" to be productive is driven by external pressures that are more about making someone else rich and/or powerful, than about fulfilling some internal human desire?

If we structured our society differently, so that basic needs weren't an issue the way they are now, how might productivity look different? Would we even be talking about such a thing?

Are you driven by a need to be "productive"? If so, what is behind that drive?


Blondeau said...

Hui Tzu said to Chuang, "I have a big tree, the kind they call a "stinktree." The trunk is so distorted, so full of knots, no one can get a straight plank out of it. The branches are so crooked you cannot cut them up in any way that makes sense."

"There it stands beside the road. No carpenter will even look at it. Such is your teaching - big and useless."

Chuang Tzu replied, "Have you ever watched the wildcat crouching, watching his prey. The prey leaps this way, and that way, high and low, and at last lands in the trap. And have you seen the Yak? Great as a thundercloud, he stands in his might. Big? Sure, but he can't catch mice!"

"So for your big tree, no use? Then plant it in the wasteland, in emptiness. Walk idly around it, rest under its shadow. No axe or bill prepares its end. No one will ever cut it down."

"Useless? You should worry!"

NellaLou said...

I read the exchange you are referring to and felt like jumping in at several points but since they seemed to be close friends of yours felt it might be intrusive to do so. Glad you have posted about it here.

Assorted thoughts.

We are judged by what we produce. In a capitalist society value judgements are rooted in materialism. Those who produce a lot in terms of material goods or especially their symbols (cash, etc) are deemed good or at least better than those who do not have "something to show for themselves". The latter, regardless of circumstance or reason, come off to many as inferior.

The first question asked amongst new acquaintances "What do you do?" Doing=production.

Oddly the actual production of material goods is devalued while symbolic production is enhanced. Hence a cook or factory worker (or especially a member of the supply chain such as truck driver) is devalued while those who manipulate them (managers) and the symbols of what they produce (sales orders, contracts, accounts payable, stock holdings, bank balances)have enhanced value. And those who manipulate the manipulators (bankers, brokers, analysts,etc) sit on top of the pile. Their production is nil but since they ultimately control both production and means of production (and distribution) they are deemed the most highly productive and compensated accordingly (CEO salary).

The higher up the ladder the more the lifestyle is equated with happiness. And happiness is good right?


It's very skewed because it rests on a collective illusion of value of the symbols of material goods and a worship of material collections of all sorts (commodity fetishism).

The only exception that I can come up with to this regards doctors, who are highly compensated. They produce health (allegedly) which is one of the few commodities that cannot be bought, though many are working very hard to change that too.

Marx's description of the elements of capitalism is not so far off the mark.

Mumon said...

Capital values increasing productivity.

Yeah, that's inherently unstable, but I didn't make up the economic system...