Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Alternatives: the Question of Motivation

Mikaela says:
Sorry for the double posting today and for the length (and vague inarticulateness) of what follows. I’m heading to a planning conference and will be gone the rest of the week. I’m trying to bank my m-pyre time here before I go!

We m-pyrors have heard some grumbling lately about all this criticism of what we’ve got without offering alternative models or possible solutions. It’s the classic leftist failing.

Personally, my stumbling block in envisioning a different world that’s possible is this: the question of motivation. I’m down with the socialist basis of community and its embrace of the role of government to help those least fortunate and commitment to improving everyone’s lot at roughly the same time. On a macro level, that sounds great. In my own life, I’m often motivated by helping others – not for myself but because … it’s needed. That’s often enough for me. What about all the other people surrounding me that don’t feel this motivation?

As a species, we’re profoundly selfish and myopic, which is one reason why capitalism works so well for so many of us, I think. When both the process and the end-game are about your immediate needs and amassing as much of everything as you can in the name of success, and these things are tied to identity and morality (for some of us – race and religion), it gets all the sweeter for those who we see are in power at the moment (re: white religious guys).

In a socialist system, there’s a vacuum of immediate gratification. Instead of money, in my view of history, people in socialist countries try to amass power, and in the worst cases (and more often than not), you end up with brutal, bloody dictatorships with the populace’s hands tied with the binds of “community” and military-enforced optimism in government protecting and embodying the will of the people.

But for all its strengths, the capitalist system, as one that glorifies and breeds greed and selfishness as both the means and the ends, cannot be the basis of the kind of community I want to be a part of. Capitalism can achieve good things, but doing good things is not the main focus, and at what cost does it achieve them? I’m thinking here of foundations like Ford or Rockefeller, which have supported thousands of worthwhile community activities, with the sweat from workers’ brows and a flick of some magnate’s check-writing wrist. As the BASIS for community, not such an admirable model or an advised one.

My senior year history teacher gave us a demonstration of the failings of communism that I’ve never been able to shake. She asked how many of us wanted an A on the next paper. Everyone did. How many of us would like to pool our grades and get the average? All the students expecting B-Fs raised their hands. Then she asked those of us expecting As how hard we would study for the test knowing that we would only get the average grade, almost assuredly NOT an A. Not hard. Then she did the math. If the A students didn’t study and only got Bs or worse, and the other students didn’t study because they were assured higher grades than they normally get, the average slipped dramatically to about a C. How long would any of us continue to study to get Cs?

Okay, I admit that grades shouldn’t be the most important motivating factor, either. But what’s the alternative? The things that come to mind – serenity, happiness, community, peace – just don’t seem as … well … riveting motivating pressing engrossing … I can’t think of the word I want here, but you should get the sense of continual itching. Is that need for itchiness just a product of being raised in a capitalist world? I’m conditioned to need that stimulation to the point where I can’t even imagine peace and serenity being as big or important motivators?

So what’s the solution then for providing motivation in non-capitalist societies? Because “enough” just doesn’t seem to motivate people. Sustainability is admirable in and of itself, but does it motivate? Time and again we see that when the choice comes down between what’s enough and what’s a little more, we humans go for more every time.

And doing it for someone else? Maybe occasionally this works, but it cannot be the basis for motivation -- psychologically, physically, or ethically. I firmly believe that. Science tells us that everything exists in balance between itself and all else – the needs of the thing in itself and the thing-in-relation to all other things, to tweak Nietzche a little.

I freely admit my ignorance of the intricacies of socialist and communist thought. Anyone able to help me out, here?

And in the end, it’s a false duality, I think. It’s not peace/meditation OR capitalist greed. Look at Europe. Major flaws, yes, but they do a helluva lot better job balancing societal commitment to community, personal enjoyment of life, and the need for a good economy. Their governments provide housing, laws to protect workers and quality of life (6 WEEKS of vacation, people!), and controls on companies for the good of the country. That seems, at least, like a good start.

It wasn’t that long ago that America had similar leanings. The Progressive Era may seem foreign to us today, but it was reality here for quite a while. I for one, would love to work toward it coming back, until we figure out this socialist ideal motivation thing, of course. Then we should do that. We’ve gotta hit massive environmental degradation before I see THAT happening. Won’t it be wild when the dominant paradigm is sustainability (but only because so many of us either have or will die if it’s not??? Sigh.)?

Enough rambling, I want answers! Anyone?