The Poverty of Affluence(1)

Self Evaluation for the
Something More: The Emergence of Spirit in
Our Work, Organizations and Lives!

Held On-Line on UnioNet 11/1/95 - 12/14/95

1998 John E. Perkins, III

Often, how something is titled turns out to have unintentioned aptness, as though the Spirit has deliberately planted the name in order to play a joke on us. "Something More" has that quality. The estimate of two hours per day to do the work of the seminar did not anticipate the volumes of material and the challenge of downloading, editing, printing, reading, reflecting upon and responding to so much text. Since I had participated in an on-line peer day in January I did not feel too surprised at that.

I had anticipated roughly thirty pages of text each day for the thirty days, or 900 pages total. My edited printouts of this seminar, including three longer articles uploaded by Learners, totals 991 pages or almost ten percent more that I had guessed. When I say edited I mean I removed before printing many "quoted" or repeated lines of messages, simple courtesy responses, seasonal greetings and well-wishings, and extra lines added by the Union BBS software. By the end, even with file compression, I filled three diskettes with material.

We had more troubles with the BBS than I had previously experienced. This created a certain bonding among learners as we coped with a common problem, but it impeded communicating about it!

We had a profuse stream of assignments, and each assignment had multiple parts. To the conveners, these assignments were important and when they said credit would not be given until all assignments were submitted the messages seemed to bend time as learners belatedly realized they had missed early assignments.

That being said, I found the seminar to be very exciting, and the give and take with conveners and other learners a great spur to my thinking. I would suggest, as modifications to consider for future seminars, that on-line conveners either outline a clean process for the use of the time, or list assignments and due dates in the pre-seminar packet sent to learners.
What is the relationship between work, business and community?

I played a role in the "emergence" of this topic during the seminar. Eva Harkness made a comment in our small group conference about reconnecting to her family as a step to finding the meaning of community in her life. My response and her clarification started an interesting "thread," and, with her approval, I moved what we had written over to the general discussion conference so the other learners could participate.

In the waning days of the seminar, a Learner said he had taken this seminar to find out about spirit in the workplace, and felt disappointment with the time devoted to discussing community. I disagree. I believe work, community and spirit have great relevance to one another, and the success of capitalism in pushing morality (or spirit) out of the marketplace has created many problems both within organizations and our society.

Kenneth Lux in his book, Adam Smith's Mistake: How a Moral Philosopher Invented Economics and Ended Morality, identified Smith's mistake and where it has left us. Lux argues, as do many economists, that Smith's book,The Wealth of Nations, provided a powerful argument for capitalism as a method and as a system of morality. In his famous pin factory example, Smith demonstrates that with a division of labor, ten men could make 48,000 pins a day, while the ten of them working alone might make 200, total.2

The system of morality before Smith had been dominated by the Church and believed that benevolence was good and self-interest was bad. When Smith says that the butcher and baker, by looking after their self-interest, provide goods (interesting the double meaning of the word "good") of benefit to society which benevolence would not have motivated them to do, he neatly reverses what previous moral philosophers had held to be good and bad. Lux calls this flip-flop transvaluation. 3

Smith's ideas provided the philosophical and moral foundation for the ideology of the emerging merchant-trader class forming at the time of the publication of his book. If self-interest is the highest moral value, then the merchant does not have to care about his workers and his or her family, or even age. Taken to its extremes, which England did in 1832, this means that even government should not "interfere" with the natural market value of wages, or offer its poorest citizens any social supports or protections.

Charles Dickens devoted his career to writing about the cruel effects of this denial of caring and social support. Dickens clearly shows how twisted the morality had become in A Christmas Carol. In an exchange between the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge's former partner, and Scrooge, Marley explains what his business should have been:

Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.4

In a cascading tumble of logic, capitalism reduces a living, breathing person into a commodity whose labor can be traded like wheat or pork bellies. Watch carefully how this trick works:
1. Person, We start with a whole, living breathing person. Because of the theft of the commons by the aristocracy, this person is displaced and forced off the land and becomes a

2. Laborer. A laborer exchanges his or her time and skills in exchange for wages. These wages are considered a liability of the company, and logged in the ledger books as

3. Labor. Labor now becomes another cost of doing business like machinery and raw materials. It is subject to the "invisible hand" fluctuations of supply and demand like any other

4. Commodity.

Such a belief clearly could form part of the comforting justifications for the slave-trade which was raging out of control as Smith wrote. Jonathan Swift parodied this logic in A Modest Proposal when he suggests that the poor Irish could save themselves from starvation by raising babies for the wealthy to eat. In a chilling modern version of this, Judge Richard Posner, once considered a potential Supreme Court nominee, suggested limiting "excessive" government regulation on child adoptions because:
The baby shortage and black market are the result of legal restrictions that prevent the market from operating as freely in the sale of babies as of other goods. This suggests as a possible reform simply eliminating the restrictions. 6

This nested synecdoche, which reduces a person to a traded commodity, has a powerful grip on the context of how we view work and the proper relationship of employer to employee. One of the learners quoted Henry Ford as complaining that he only wanted to hire hands but always ended up with a whole person.

In a related thread to the community conversation, I debated with some learners the value of guaranteed employment. If we sincerely seek something more I cannot see it emerging without some basic platform of common decency and sharing among all of us. If we need wages to live, then let's marshal our creativity so that everyone has a job to do at a fair wage. I had read about guaranteed employment at Lincoln Electric in an article in Harvard Business Review (7) and Learner Curtis Daw offered the example of Motorola during one of his comments.

Communities, through their conscious and assiduous efforts to promote mutual caring and democratic processes of governance, have much to teach business people wanting to bring more caring and spirit to their workplaces. By community I mean intentional communities, places like Twin Oaks in Virginia, The Farm in Tennessee, and Mondragon in Spain. Being a collection of humans they have their problems, but they begin with a philosophy which places their members' well-being first.

Communities are also characterized by a lot of discussion, dialogue, debate and just plain talk. From all of this interaction about matters of vital interest, community members learn more about themselves and each other than people in any other context. To be knowned well and to know others well—to help set the rules and plans and work to see them materialized&shyp;&shyp;must bring a satisfaction unknown in our more common working arrangements.

Low-spirit places like many businesses have an eerie quiet about them—many whispered conversations but little spoken aloud. They keep the rules of participation limited to boss-worker roles and trying to introduce other topics confuses them. Many quality consultants tell stories of early efforts at creating teams. The team members sat silently watching their watches, while their bosses poked their heads in occasionally to wonder when it would all be over and "their people" could back to work.

The value of a seminar like this sometimes can be missed in the assignments, comments, quotes and dialogue. The value is that we bothered to hold the conversation in the first place.


1. Paul Watchtel's phrase, quoted in Kenneth Lux, Adam Smith's Mistake: How a Moral Philosopher Invented Economics and Ended Morality, Boston: Shambala, 1990, p. 7. Note: I did not cite this book during seminar as I have just read it in preparation for writing this self-evaluation.

2. Ibid. p. 22.

3. bid. p. 22.

4. Quoted in Adam Smith's Mistake, p. 49.

5. One of Adam Smith's famous phrases. If the hand is invisible, then the body must be as well, and the greatest concept we have of a being with an invisible body is God. Poverty and wealth now become,this implies, Acts of God. This neatly stifles debate because to propose that we can change that arrangement vaguely seems like we are second-guessing the Order of Things God wants.

6. Richard Posner and Elizabeth Landes, The Economics of the Baby Shortage, Journal of Legal Studies 7 (1978): 339, quoted in Lux, Adam Smith's Mistake, p. 202.

7. Robert Zager, Managing Guaranteed Employment, Harvard Business Review , May-June 1978: 103-115.