The UBI and our Quest for Meaning

We must think radically about our relationship to labour. We must define productive work in terms that incorporate what we know about the needs and desires of the human spirit.

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There has been a lot of talk so far this election about a Universal (or Unconditional) Basic Income or UBI. Many of the arguments for it are based on the fact that something just has to give – with the changing nature of employment we are entering a new future where the old concepts of labour and welfare will need revision. These arguments are all very sound and are really the specialty of my economist friends – I don’t want to rehash them here. As a doctor specialising in psychiatry my natural inclination is to try and understand the effects of such a policy upon the mental health of individuals and the well-being of the population at large. A cursory review of some of the statistics seems to indicate positive benefits, but comprehending the underlying reasons for such results is what really interests me the most. It is the why questions that are always the most fascinating…

The Way Things Was

To really see our relation to labour in its totality we need to go back to the Industrial Revolution. The concept of a wage economy is a relatively new one but is often difficult to extricate from our understanding of the ‘way the world is’.

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It should be remembered that the idea that one is forced to sell themselves in order to survive was vehemently rejected by a number of groups at the time and by large parts of the working class press. In the mid 19th century prominent among them were working class women from the farms, known as ‘Factory Girls’. They rejected what Adam Smith referred to as the ‘vile maxim’, “gain wealth, forgetting all but self” and saw wage labour as not very different from slavery – indeed referring to the industrial labour system as ‘wage slavery’. Like slavery they considered it inherently dehumanising and incompatible with the ideas of human dignity, independence and creativity.

The fact that one must submit their time and energies to the eventual, disproportionate enrichment of the managerial class was viewed with deep suspicion. If one works for an industry or company, then shouldn’t they have a say in decisions relating to it? Should they not have a ‘stake’ or partial ownership? And what of our impulses to self-determination?

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Again, this idea seems quite foreign to our modern sensibilities. We seem to have accepted the tenets of this capitalist ideology as if it were the natural state of things. It is not dissimilar to the terrible inertia and inevitability of our perception of the ‘economy’ and of certain systems and policies. We forget that these systems arise from decisions made by certain groups of people (most often the very privileged) at certain points in history in response to certain situations and interests – they are not natural laws of the universe or of human nature. They can be challenged, they can be changed and there are alternatives.

The general ideology that I believe sits above all specific ones is that whatever system is operational is just ‘the way things are’. Communism, Socialism and Capitalism may have all had their genesis in a revolutionary spirit of change, but once they have established their dominance they all seek to shore it up by infusing this idea into the cultural narrative. It is a concretising and deadening injunction, and it ensures we don’t creatively challenge the status quo.

A Philosophical Shortcut to Acorns

Nietzsche’s famous concept of the ‘will to power’ is instructive here. I always struggled to fully understand what he meant – he seemed to be saying that the basic human drive, the one we all seek to express or actualise is a desire for power – and that didn’t seem quite right. It took me a while to understand that his understanding of ‘power’ was much less about strength and much closer to the idea of ‘potential.’

For Nietzsche, what every human being really wants, what really drives all of their actions and behaviours, is a deep will and need to meet their potential, to unfold as they feel they ought to be able. It is not a desire for power, it is not a basic gratification of sexual or aggressive drives (as Freud believed) and it is not an inherent need to dominate or control. It is the understanding, on some level of awareness, that we are like the acorn. If given the right nutrition, sunlight, care and the protection from insult and injury, we develop into the oak that we know we can become.

This idea of potential, or ‘entelechy’, is an important one in existential thought and many of the peculiarities of our mental lives can be understood in its light. For instance the concept of guilt in existentialism is much broader than simply an unpleasant emotional state related to a perceived wrongdoing. We can be guilty towards ourselves and to life itself. Guilt in this sense is the distance between our current circumstances, and our awareness, be it conscious or not, of our potentialities. It is therefore not an exclusively negative state, indeed it can be the catalyst for change and a more authentic existence.

The vagaries of life and the challenges that we face work upon this will to potential, buffeting the sapling of our potential oak, sometimes stunting its growth, sometimes accelerating it, sometimes closing off certain paths to realising our potential forever, sometimes opening up new ones. Crucially, although we may be forced into “hiding our light behind bushels” by external factors, it is always an outcome that we in some sense impose upon ourselves in order to survive. Our own role in our unhappiness is often the most difficult thing to fully grasp.

Personally, understanding my patients and their struggles in the light of unrealised or suppressed potential is the only way to fully make sense of their thoughts, behaviours, dreams and aspirations. It is a consistent, organising principle that helps me understand people and to try and help them accordingly. And I believe, as the Factory Girls did, that every person seeks to realise their potential and has a creative impulse that they long to satisfy. In contrast to a market economy or other economic or political theories, I believe that to make, shape or imbue some thing or some relationship with our special talents is actually a natural law, and is human nature.

Two other crucial concepts in existential thought are meaning and freedom. They are intimately linked with the other and most psychologically pressing concept, death. To an existential thinker, the fundamental difference between humans and other animals is our awareness of our mortality.  We are both “angels and beasts of the field.” We can conceive of a Universe brimming with billions of suns, we can create the most beautiful images and harmonies and we can love deeply and strongly across time and space – but we ache inside for eternity. Despite our miraculous propensity for all of this, we know that in the end we are food for worms – that we return to the earth and to dust. This is an unedifying insult, and the terrible paradox of our situation.

I believe, as many humanist existential writers do, that the awareness of this paradox, of our finitude, is the font of all psychopathology. It is the primal, undifferentiated anxiety, from which all other anxiety flows. One of the rules of the dynamic model of psychology is that an entity seeks to reduce tension, to quell anxiety. As such, we devote a great deal of our energies to warding off and sanitising this primal dread. This is an unconscious, automatic and necessary repression in order to function in this world with some equanimity.

Pulling it all together it stands to reason that our quest for meaning flows directly from this painful awareness – we are meaning-creating creatures and we must have a purpose to feel at home in the world.  This is no surprise to those who work in mental health and probably not to the lay person either  – without meaning and purpose our oak sapling withers. And meaning can be gained from many different sources – the most obvious being religion. In fact religion is the solution par excellence to the existential question – it gives one’s life a preordained meaning and purpose. As I age I’ve become much more understanding of this need, and I confess to an unattractive atheist militancy in my younger days. Religion is a deeply important and vital practice and I believe, if not distorted or violently hijacked, the most elegant solution to living life with a sense of contentment.

However, for good or ill, the authority of these systems began to weaken with the dawn of the Enlightenment. We entered a brave new world of scientific and empirical thinking. Reason became the great protector, the essentially human function that could answer all of our questions. The spiritual element, the preordaining of meaning was no longer assured. The field of human possibility and achievement seemed to open up. God was “dead” and “everything was permitted.” What potential! What freedom! What could possibly go wrong?

Existentialism

Unfortunately, the existential understanding of freedom is not so straightforward. Whereas existentialism shone a light on the positive side of guilt, it must reveal the shadow of freedom. Because freedom really means ‘no structure’, it means no rules, no guidance. It is like the ground underneath us giving way – it is often referred to as ‘groundlessness’ in existential texts. The full realisation of what freedom really means forces us to see that we are the architects of our world, of what we find meaningful, of what we can do or become. Freedom implies very strongly responsibility for creating the world.

This is an enormous burden when you really think about it, and predictably it creates a lot of anxiety. This is why anxiety is so prominent when we are forced to make a decision – we are faced with the terrorising aspect of freedom and we recoil from it. A choice for one thing also excludes all others. Kierkegaard summed it up very poetically back in the 19th century  – anxiety, he said, is “the dizziness of freedom.”

Faced with a loss of a religious meaning and the responsibility of freedom what did we do? Us meaning-craving creatures? Of course we replaced it – “nature abhors a vacuum”, so they say. Religion and its spiritual and existential promise were replaced by whatever system was at hand, by something, anything, so long as it could take us away from that primal dread which is our birthright. A succession of surrogate systems and ideas tried to patch up this rent in our sense of being-at-home in the world. Today, the crowning champion of our quest for meaning is that spiritual waste-bin we call Consumerism and its demented cousin – the zealous belief in that rampant and supposedly ‘free’ market economy.

The UBI and our Quest for Meaning

I’ve taken a pretty big philosophical detour for a post that is supposed to be about a specific policy, the Universal Basic Income, and I must be getting back to the point. But I make no apologies – I believe that the UBI has potential benefits that speak to exactly what it is that makes us vital, healthy and happy human beings. If we are to move forward as a society, we must realise the stifling and inhumane effect of wage slavery.

The first task is to broaden our frame of reference and shake off the concerted attempts to make us think that this is just ‘the way things are.’ That involves appreciating that our current system is a cruel and unforgiving one for those at the bottom, for whom the evidence reveals have little chance of ever moving up the ladder. They are trapped. It is an insult to think that the people who clean our toilets or vacuum our offices at night are simply playing their fitting role in this glorious, necessary system. The economic ideology has increasingly contracted to a single, critical rule – either sell yourself on the so-called free market, or resign yourself to a precarious oblivion. There is no choice.

This cannot continue. We must think radically about our relationship to labour. We must define productive work in terms that incorporate what we know about the needs and desires of the human spirit. Do we really believe that those who play with numbers at big financial firms, who ‘earn’ obscene salaries by making money off money, are working harder than a solo Mum raising her child? Do we really think there is more societal value in these predatory capitalists than in the nurturing of the new generation?

It is a devastating indictment of our current economic system that caring for a child, a sick grandparent, or giving time to a charity or those in need is considered something less deserving of financial reward then the voodoo number-manipulating of those who crashed the economy. None of this is beyond the appreciation of the average person and yet we are slow to have this argument on a policy level. This is the tyranny of ‘the way it is’ mentality.

The effect of the UBI, particularly in adolescence and early adulthood, will have a profound impact. This is a time when our understanding of who we are begins to coalesce – our understanding of our potential, of our creative powers and the ways to their fulfillment. This is also the time where those natural, creative and vital processes come up against the unkind and inhumane realities of our capitalist system. To reflect back on the thrust of this post, it is a crucial time for our sense of purpose and meaning.

Working in mental health I hear many stories. I am in the very privileged position of having people open themselves up to me, relating their most painful or frightening thoughts, their dreams and fantasies, those things about themselves that they cannot accept. Psychiatry can often be considered pretty arcane, and sometimes rightly so. Because the reality is that many people that I see in a crisis, suicidal and despairing of life, don’t really need specialist psychiatric support. They need a house. They need a job. They’re worried that their benefit is going to be cut off next week, if they can feed themselves or their kids, if they can afford the GP, or whether they should go without their medication to pay the rent. Economic despair has an enormous role in destabilising a person to the extent where suicide seems like the only option. That is a national disgrace.

Poverty can kill, but the way it deadens is often forgotten. Think of all of the potential artists, theorists, creators, educators or artisans who are forced often only by the contingencies of their birth, into menial and meaningless jobs which crush their creative impulses, perhaps forever. These people will not be happy and this will not make for a happy society. We have robbed them of the opportunity to create their own sense of purpose and meaning through the use of their natural talents and the will of their creative impulses. They have become wage slaves. Unable to find meaning this way, they will likely turn to the relative security of our sick society’s only real offer – Consumerism, the endless accumulation of things, the feverish and unrelenting need to ‘keep up with the Jones’s.’ Of course, they are not alone in seeking this security.

All of what I’ve proposed is not in conflict with the belief that some people, once in a job that they were initially compelled into, find a meaning in it or use it as a stepping stone to something else. In fact all this does is validate how strong and imperative the impulse to find meaning is. The fact this happens isn’t an argument for capitalism – it shows how for some people, their innate human spirit succeeds in spite of capitalism.

Also, when I talk about creative work, I don’t mean purely aesthetics. I feel fulfilled in psychiatry because I am able to imbue my relationships with my patients with something that is both general and personal. In those moments, I am calling upon a creative impulse. That is the essence of creative work. Someone forced into being an automaton on the production line at Foxconn is robbed of this opportunity. Perhaps those with a very strong will may be able to find meaning and contentment in this kind of occupation – but the disgrace of 18 employee suicide attempts in a year suggests otherwise.

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The current proposals for the UBI are not sufficient – this is an unfortunate consequence of it being a new concept, and of us being a country that hasn’t completely found a way to pay for it. It cannot come out of thin air, and can only be established in concert with a revision of our taxation system that captures accumulated wealth. The Opportunities Party has rightly advocated for it, as a nod to the future, and has chosen to offer it first to vulnerable populations.

The provision to families with children under three is a bold acknowledgement of the logical benefits of targeted, primary intervention. The provision to 18-23 years-olds is also a bold acknowledgement of our appalling rates of youth suicide, and as I have just discussed, will help people who fundamentally know inside who they wish to be, but lack the financial support to consider it a realistic prospect. Granted, the current level on offer would not be sufficient alone for a lot of endeavours – but we must start somewhere. I encourage you to read the details of the policy on the TOP website.

We live in an age of anxiety, so everyone keeps saying. And I think they’re right. But it is not hard to find out why. We have forgotten what it is that makes us human and which we need more than anything else in order to live happy and healthy lives – the sheer joy and pleasure of exercising our powers, our unique and special talents, in the service of our own potential. I believe that what is also necessary is a sense of spiritual fulfillment, of purpose and meaning. In the absence of preordained religious faith, that can only be found in two other ways. One is an identification with some ruling ideology in which one can bury themselves in the “world of things” – in our time the most ubiquitous of these is called Consumerism. The other is via true creative work. Something that allows us the ability to develop and unfold as we feel we should be able. The UBI is a pragmatic step towards creating the conditions for this development. It is an attempt to till more fertile soil, in which our oak sapling may grow and soar, proudly and assuredly, into the canopy above.

Now all we have to do is vote for it.

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Author: Todd

Hello, thanks for reading. My name is Todd and I'm a 30 year old NZ Maori trainee doctor in Psychiatry. I have a passion for Mental Health, particularly in low-resource settings, and the existential and humanist schools are what provide me with the organising principles to help understand my patients - their hopes, their fears, their dreams and the inner tyrannies under which they often suffer. I have a background in advocating for evidence-based policy solutions and have always maintained an active interest in NZ and international politics - in particular the dynamics between psychology, politics and dominant power systems. Central to my belief is the sanctity and inherent mana of all people and the need be eternally wary of ideologies that reduce them to simple nodes within enormous and fundamentally dehumanising systems. I feel that the history of modern politics and individual and social psychology is the constant tension of this dialectic. We are "human, all too human" and the affirmation of our essential humanness is the common thread in my work. When I was once overwhelmed by the terrible things people can do to one another, someone important to me said, "don't scream at the darkness, light a candle." I hope these pieces are each a candle - all part of the many I hope to light on this wonderful journey. Many thanks and happy reading Todd

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