The Regeneration of Meaning

The consequences of an economic crisis can both lead to and be made worse by the crisis of meaning experienced by those whose lives it has derailed. Is it also possible for actions on the terrain of meaning to help stem and even reverse the consequences?

In one of his darkly observant essays on the fall of the Soviet Union and its lessons for present-day America, Dmitri Orlov advises against being a successful middle-aged man :

When their career is suddenly over, their savings gone and their property worthless, much of their sense of self-worth goes as well. They tend to drink themselves to death and commit suicide in disproportionate numbers. Since they tend to be the most experienced and capable people, this is a staggering loss to society.

Reinventing Collapse, p.122-3

The spike in mortality that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union has few parallels in history. Between 1987 and 1994, life expectancy dropped from 70 to 64, and the group whose likelihood of dying increased most sharply was, indeed, working age men. In other words, despite the material hardships of the period, it was not the weakest and most vulnerable who died in greater numbers, but the physically strong: what was most deadly about the collapse was not the disappearance of the means of staying alive, but the lack of ends for which to stay alive.

Europe is not going through a Soviet-style collapse. (Or not yet: a report from UBS Investment Research in September 2011 estimated the costs of a break-up of the Eurozone at 40-50% of weaker countries’ GDP in the first year and 20-25% of the GDP of countries like Germany. For comparison, the total fall in GDP during the break-up of the USSR is estimated at 45%, spread over the years from 1989 to 1998.) The point I want to draw from Orlov, however, is that there is a powerful and complex interrelation between how we make a living and how we make sense of our lives. The consequences of an economic crisis can both lead to and be made worse by the crisis of meaning experienced by those whose lives it has derailed. If this is the case, however, perhaps it is also possible that action on the level of meaning might stem and even reverse the consequences, personal and social, of failing economic systems?

The figure of the ‘graduate with no future’, identified by Paul Mason, has the advantage of youth, yet in other ways she resembles Orlov’s successful middle-aged man. People are capable of enduring great hardship, so long as they can find meaning in their situation, but it is hard to find meaning in the hundredth rejection letter. The feeling of having done everything right and still got nowhere leads to a particular desperation. Against this background, the actions of those who might identify with Mason’s description – whether as indignados in the squares of Spain, or as Edgeryders entering the corridors of Strasbourg and Brussels – are not least a search for meaning, for new frameworks in which to make sense of our lives when the promises that framed the labour market for our parents no longer ring true.

Four years ago, in ‘The Future of Unemployment’, I suggested that it might be helpful to distinguish three types of need which, broadly speaking, we have looked to employment to provide. I want to return to this model as a way of structuring a search for examples of effective action on the level of meaning. Departing slightly from the original terms, I would summarise these types of need as follows:

  1. Economic/Practical: How do I pay the rent?
  2. Social/Psychological: Who am I in the eyes of others?
  3. Directional: What do I get out of bed for in the morning? And where do I see myself in the future?

Those who find it difficult to access the labour market are also likely to find answering these questions more difficult. The stories shared on the Edgeryders platform during 2011-12 illustrate the variety of ways in which young people find their access the labour market limited: not only through unemployment, but underemployment, casualisation and the prevalence of short-term contracts, the increasing cost of education in certain countries, the role of unpaid internships as a path to accessing certain industries. Where skills and qualifications have been acquired through formal education, many find themselves unable to secure work that makes use of these; where skills are acquired informally, the challenge is to represent these effectively to potential employers. Above all, the situation is defined by the interaction between two major processes: a long-term change in the structure of European labour markets, offering new entrants a poorer deal than had been the case for their parents’ generation, has been exacerbated by the effects of the economic crisis that began in 2008.

If the situation of those struggling to access the labour market can be expressed in terms of the three types of need set out above, we might note that the last two belong primarily to the domain of meaning: our ability to answer them is closely related to our ability to make sense of our lives. Based on this, I suggest that we look for two stages in projects that might constitute effective action on the level of meaning: first, the ability to substitute for employment in providing social identity and a sense of direction; and, second, the potential for this to lead to new means of meeting practical needs.

With this structure in mind, I want to consider briefly a few examples which I think offer clues to what this may look like in practice.

Centers for New Work: During the collapse in employment in the US auto industry in the early 1980s, the philosopher Frithjof Bergmann worked with employers, unions and community organisations in Flint, Michigan to create the Center for New Work. ‘We are in the beginning of a great scarcity of jobs,’ Bergmann argued, ‘but not of work.’ Instead of making redundancies, he proposed that employers share out the remaining jobs on a rotating work schedule. Workers would alternate between extended periods in traditional industrial work and similar periods pursuing ‘New Work’. The latter included local production to meet practical needs, but also the right of everyone to spend a significant amount of their time pursuing a personally meaningful project.

Access Space: In Sheffield, England – another post-industrial city, similarly hit by unemployment in the early 1980s – the artist James Wallbank and friends set up what has become the UK’s longest-running free internet learning centre. As described by NESTA, ‘The centre brings together old computers and new open source software to create a radical, sustainable response to industrial decline and social dislocation.’ In conversation, Wallbank has emphasised to me the importance of the social and directional role of participation at Access Space: for those who have been long-term unemployed, the change in the shape of their lives on becoming a regular participant is often huge; by comparison, the change from being a regular participant to entering employment is relatively small. From my own observation, another key aspect of the Access Space model is the power of its insistence on self-referral: this means that participants are drawn from a range of social and economic backgrounds, rather than exclusively from a target group identified by its deprivation. This means that participation at the centre provides an alternative to – rather than a reinforcement of – a negative social identification.

West Norwood Feast: In 2010-11, the agency I founded led a project to co-create a community-owned and -run street market in south London. This experience reaffirmed my sense of the power of what people can do when they come together to work on something that matters to them. In particular, talking to those involved, I was struck by how positively many of them experienced using their skills as part of the Feast, when compared to their experience in regular employment. Might it be that work that takes place outside of employment is more likely to be experienced as meaningful? And, if so, why? Several possible answers exist. The psychologist Edward Deci famously demonstrated that being paid for a task tends to decrease our intrinsic motivation, a phenomenon he explains in terms of the shift of the ‘locus of motivation’. Meanwhile, as I argued in ‘The Future We Deserve’, the logic of maximising productivity has made industrial-era employment an unprecedentedly anti-social form of work. More practically, though, are there ways we can build a better relationship between meaningful work and our ability to pay the rent?

House concerts: The music industry has been through huge disruption since the 1990s, not least as a result of the rise of filesharing. The solo bass player Steve Lawson is an example of an independent musician who has spent his career developing new models for making a living and documenting the realities of this on his blog. He sells downloads of his albums on a pay-what-you-want basis and makes ‘house concert’ tours on which he plays in the front rooms of fans, many of whom have first met him online. Reading his accounts of this, two things are clear: first, that these models, drawing on the strengths of networked technologies, allow for a far more meaningful relationship with his audience than was possible in the music industry of the pre-Napster era; and, second, that house concerts also make touring economically viable for independent musicians in a way that was harder when playing traditional venues. Are there other areas in which socially-embedded grassroots economies can thrive where high-overhead conventional economies struggle? (For another take on the potential of low-overhead economic models, see Kevin Carson’s The Homebrew Industrial Revolution.)

The Unmonastery: One of the projects to emerge from the first phase of Edgeryders was a proposal for something called an Unmonastery: ‘a creative refuge bound to host problem solvers and change makers, who together work to solve (g)local problems, in exchange for board and lodging.’ At present, this proposal is being developed by a group that met through the Living on the Edge events in 2012. The initial response suggests that young people are willing to take a step down in their material expectations, if this is balanced by sufficient security and autonomy to pursue work which they believe matters. The challenge will be to develop a vehicle for this willingness which is capable of ‘interfacing’ with existing institutions and accessing resources, which can achieve a reasonable degree of stability, and which does not devolve into a mechanism for exploitation. Daunting as this sounds, it is likely that we will see more experiments along these lines in Europe in the years ahead. (Edventure: Frome, which launched in October 2012, has parallels to the Unmonastery model, although framed in educational terms.)

Five years into the current crisis, the default future for much of Europe is a world of longer hours and lower wages. Economic regeneration as we have known it could hardly keep up with the social costs of industrial decline, even during periods of sustained growth. That economic collapse can lead into and become entrenched by a collapse of meaning is not just a post-Soviet story, but one that can be traced in many of Europe’s former industrial regions, not least the areas of South Yorkshire where I once worked as a journalist.

The scale and harshness of those realities makes me hesitate: I do not want to overstate the case for the examples I have discussed here. Yet I would suggest that they may offer clues, at least, towards another kind of regeneration: what might be called a ‘regeneration of meaning’. There is no guarantee that this will happen, nor that, if it does, it will take the kind of form we would wish to see. However, for those who consider the possibility worth exploring, I have a few questions:

  1. What would it take for this to coalesce into something serious?
  2. How far along is it already? (Is it further than we/others assume, due to its illegibility?)
  3. Where are the other examples that would build the case?
  4. What are the dangers? (For example, could the Unmonastery inadvertently become the workhouse of the 21st century?)

First published in Baltic Edge (Global Utmaning).