As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes... Oh God, he thought, what an exhausting job I've picked on!... The devil take it all!
- kafka, metamorphosis, tr. willa and edwin mur
Modern work is painful. It is but natural to feel like an insect once in a while, especially on Monday mornings, when you stare at your brown belly and your back stiffens.
Existential modernist writers reflected the times they lived in, a time so contemporary we can't call history yet. Kafka was an accountant himself, and there are theories that suggest Metamorphosis was his autobiographical work, ‘Samsa’ being similar to ‘Kafka’ in its play of vowels and consonants. Existentialism is nothing but a literary response to industrialization of labour, which led to two great wars and let the world get polarised along ideologies. May it be Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Woolf, Hemingway, Beckett, Joyce, Eliot, Fitzgerald, or Salinger; the protagonist in most of 20th century literature is a lonely person, exploring his inner self. While in Sartre' Wall, he is a revolutionary; in Fitzgerald's Gatsby, he is a rich business tycoon. If there is one idea that binds modern literature and their guiding philosophies together, it is an accepted decline of civilization due to human alienation.
The alien invasion
We might argue that modern philosophy is based on the ideas laid by the three great thinkers of the late 19th century - Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx - give or take one. Although none of them were philosophers, it is because of the three thinkers that philosophy graduated from being feudal, to a more critical and scientific subject.
While we might argue that modern liberals, and advocates of individual freedom might loose meaning if Darwin is pulled out from our consciousness; we can also probably not imagine a world without Freud, which would make abstract art, post-modern deconstruction, Calvin and Hobbes, Christopher Nolan and Pink Floyd disappear. However, what hits harder is the reality and relevance in Karl Marx's theory of alienation, an extremely powerful idea which he was able to detect and articulate when he was just 25. The high degree relevance in Marx' ideas is also the reason he is among the few thinkers, even talking about whom is considered sacrilege.
According to Marx' alienation theory, in the modern workplace people are estranged from their work because it is distasteful. They are estranged from nature, as workplace and nature are separated. People are estranged from each other because everyone is set against everyone else, scrambling for survival. Most importantly, modern workers are estranged from their own selves, living lives that are not their own, so that a good life is possible only in dreams, in fantasy.
Work can be the source of greatest human joys, but due to specialization, modern workers do not see their work as a manifest of their ideas and skills, and get detached with work and themselves. They start to feel like the replaceable parts of one giant machine of production. Modern work is driven towards maximization of efficiency, and not happiness. In a modern workplace, both the CEO and the unskilled labourer are discontent, detached, disinterested. It is due to this distaste towards ones work and his fear of failure, that the dignity of labour is lost.
In more statistical terms, it is due to the disconnect between the stressed worker and his work, suicide rate continues to grow among modern workers even today. It is the same problem of suicide, against which Camus wrote his celebrated essay 'The Myth of Sisyphus', taking the example of the Greek mythological character, who would have to push a rock up a mountain; upon reaching the top, the rock would roll down again, leaving him to start over. Camus was more interested in Sisyphus' thoughts when marching down the mountain, to start anew. Imagining Sisyphus happy, Camus asked us to identify and acknowledge alienation, in order start the liberation process of our minds, and lives.
The pursuit of unhappiness
Alienation might be a modern problem, but what it leads to is unhappiness, an emotion older than man himself. Arguably, the antidote philosopher to unhappiness is Epicurus, the ancient Greek. No wonder Karl Marx did his PHd on Epicurus and dreamt of a utopian society.
Unlike most philosophers of his time who were busy moral policing even back then, Epicurus asked, "What is it that makes people happy?" He even set up a school to study happiness, which became extremely popular. At the height of the movement, there were 400,000 people living in Epicurean communes. His path to attain happiness was simple - stay with friends; work, not for money, but as a manifest of yourself; and think, meditate, introspect as much as possible.
It is quite obvious that most entrepreneurs live in an Epicurean utopia. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” as Shakespeare would put it; most startups are formed when a group of friends de-addict themselves from their monthly pay cheques and band together to do something they find more meaningful.
In fact, one of the earliest entrepreneurs William Morris dedicated his life in understanding the pleasure theory of work. An architect by training, he along with a friend went on to build an entire house from scratch. Not a single furniture or plumbing equipment was sub-contracted. In the process he understood that building an entire house by oneself is difficult, but is a joyful experience.
He soon formed a guild, inspired from the medieval system of craftsmanship, where workers were well organized into small groups doing a single task like running a bakery, or making pots. Such a business model gave workers both job security and a sense of pride in their work. It also ensured that the finished products were of great quality. Efficiency and costs were however, compromised with. Products were priced highly. To counter this, Morris stressed on consumer education. Tell them the difference between an artisan's handmade cheese and something that looks like and tastes like cheese but is nothing more than a final product in the end of an assembly line, as the Lebanese statistician Nassim Taleb would put it.
What if Gregor Samsa was an entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurs are the best hope in modern day work to bring back the dignity of labour. Unlike a company's CEO or a coolie, an entrepreneur works to provide an outlet to his creativity, to realise his intellectual capability and to give shape to his own ideas and dreams. Money becomes unimportant in the act of doing so. A sense of pride and an emotional connect with work such as that of an artisan develops. You will often find corporate directors complain about their workplace, but show me an entrepreneur who hates his work.
The entrepreneurs' act does not end here. He also manifests his beliefs, not only in his work, but his workers, too. An entrepreneur respects the creative and innovative urge in his employees. Remember the famous Apple story - where a salesman returned a single mother's PC, gave her full refund in the absence of a company policy, and was rewarded? I experienced similar liberation when I left a corporate job and joined a startup.
May it be YourStory, or other startups, it is quite obvious that entrepreneurs are setting new standards of labour rights, and establishing a deep bond between a worker and his work, which till date existed only among artists and the scientific community. This is a counter-alienating experience. Great thinkers all along have envisioned this, but it the entrepreneurs who are bringing this to life. As Karl Marx would put it, philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however, is to change it.
Given the current set-up on which economies are based, entrepreneurs are the strongest forces of counter-alienation.
It is no coincidence that new food joints tend to pay more to its workers than corporate chain outlets. A sense of ownership is common among entrepreneurs and his workforce. YourStory's research on Fabulous Startup Workplace is well known. Entrepreneurs possess greater respect for skill, dignity of labour, and a sense of equality. It is an uplifting experience, both for the CEO and the unskilled labourer. With the rising entrepreneurial spirit in a society, there is great hope for the condition of labour to improve. After all, entrepreneurs dream of making the world a better place.
If Gregor Samsa was an entrepreneur, well, one must imagine Gregor happy.
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
YourStory, Fabulous Startup Workplace
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2012, Antifragile, Random House
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- Karl Marx
- Gregor Samsa
- William Morris
- Dignity of Labour