The Regeneration of Meaning

Post was originally authored by Dougald Hine on 2013-10-30 08:39:00 +0100

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?)

Image credit: Listening to the Walls - Photo by Bembo Davies, Institute of non-toxic propaganda

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It goes back to communities

Great post :slight_smile:

It seems to me that the experiences you describe are all community-based. It’s always people, it’s always peer-to-peer. People give each other acceptance, encouragement, sense of direction. This a lot more resilient than being socially validated by how much money you make – if only because the people in these experiences have two ways to get acceptance and validation, one through material achievement and one through the community.

So, probably, this is the best path to making all this become “somethings serious”: invest on developing as many ways as possible for people to regenerate meaning and validation for each other.

Timeless piece of writing

This is informing so many directions in which Edgeryders have been looking and approaches that we’ve supported over the past years.

Paging @Thom_Stewart: what I mentioned to you and David Boland the other day about deep thinking behind the idea of moving and working in a secluded place. With your own Pilgrim project in Galway perhaps you will be able to get to a deep narrative that makes it URGENT for it to happen… because it would solve problems for whole collectivities.

We are about to celebrate …

We are about to celebrate (in February) a year anniversary of FreeLab – a project that is a grassroot equivalent of those Edgeryder’s born initiatives. Two mid-aged people, whose life was suddenly ruined by massive debt and the collaps of the family-run small business. We are off the system – no support received from the state, relying solely on the economy of gifts (again my thanks to Edgeryders for your contribution). We do not recommend our approach, which in 80% was driven by the necessity (we had no savings, no supporting family, no established social network). However, we have had the strong opinion that it is better to perish doing important things, than just trying to survive. And now, after a year, we have developed some social network, some reputation, some support – all far way beyond the comfort zone of a typical European unemployed person. BTW, if anyone wants to try – you are invited :smiley:

So, we are a (modestly) living proof of the main thesis of the Dougald post – if you find a meaning in your life, it is crucial. It is not just because of ‘power of positive thinking’ which is the same BS as the society promise of rewards ‘if you fit the labor market’. It is the fact that you can find allies based on the shared meaning of life. That you can gather all your wits and powers around it – and you need nobody else to tell you to get up and act.

People who survived unbelievably harsh conditions in Gulag, Nazi concentration camps, Chinese cultural revolution and perhaps Guantanamo , share the same testimony: if you are focused on something “bigger” it’s not only making you stronger; it is also bringing you allies – sometimes ‘out of nowhere’.

So, crisis victim of the world, refocus!

a friendly anarchic reply

Petros, this is really a friendly anarchic reply! I commend you, sir. :slight_smile: And yet, I disagree. If you spent three years getting FreeLab off the ground, you are NOT going to be happy if you come under pressure to move it somewhere else. Not everything is costlessly mobile…

question 4

I’d like to have a go at your question 4. The immediate danger seems to me that of an ever-deepening disconnect between insiders and outsiders, people that live according to the job paradigm and people that do not. It is easy to imagine public budget officials with an “austerity or die” mandate do the math: let people like Petros at Freelab do their thing! This way, they won’t come to us asking for welfare services, and it’s not like they are ever going to pay much taxes anyway. But then, of course, there is no reason for any of the two groups to be loyal versus the other one. Given that two mutually unloyal tribes occupy the same physical space, things could get ugly.

Am I being too paranoid?

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no such thing as “too paranoid”

Alberto, there is no such thing, like “being too paranoid” these days. :smiley: However, please note that here, down at the grassroot level, occupying the same physical space is much more important than belonging to two social groups. As long as the local bureaucrat is not forced somehow to do anything regarding FreeLab, he will most probably do nothing. And we, as anarcho-POSITIVISTS are way more busy planning to set up local ‘technology club’ for children (including the bureaucrat’s daughter) than to plot against the state.

And if somehow something wrong would start happening, we simply move on.

So do not despair, we shall manage (with a little help of our friends) [here goes the fundraising link :wink: ].

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Great to see you’re here :slight_smile:

Hi Dougald,

Great to see you’re here :slight_smile:

First of all I feel compelled to start with your last sentence and the reference to ‘the Workhouse of the 21st century’. My home town has one of the few and the best preserved workhouse of the country. Recently there has been a bid the renovate and repurpose the space as a diaspora and geneological centre. I freely consult with the consultant on this project, a tipperary councillor named Brian Rafferty. I approached the team originally from the perspective that the heritage and true history of the situation would have to be honored if the project was to be a success and that in certain ways it must become the antidote to the perception of hardship that most people percieve it as being (and which, in all honesty, is an accurate perception of the elusive reality of that history).

The point that was important for me to make was that the workhouses were publically announced as the first form of organized social welfare in the country. That they served a community purpose and that in the remaking of this space there should be a strong element of that social aspect. I will not get nto the injustices in Irish history here, thats not my aim at all, and yet that is not to say that I am not fully aware of the situation as it was in reality.

I suggested to the team a number of plausable possibilities. One was that, given the proximity of the workhouse to one of the poorest housing estates in the town, that there could be a Montessori school that operates according to the social enterprise of a specified successful Dublin company who are part of the SETF (Social Enterprise Task Force) in Ireland. I also suggested, having picked spuds for local organic farmers back in the day, and having heard how they interact with the bigwigs of Tescos and SuperValue, that a local Community supported market could operate in the courtyard; that the Irish should follow the Greek Potatoe Revolution. As chance would have it

I read yesterday on my friend Lisa’s facebook that she bought a bag of organic potatoes at my formeer employers organic shop for €2 less than the supervalue equivalent. My comment in reply was “Community supported markets, local produce, undercut Tesco, nuff said!”

In addition to this the idea has been raised to me that a forest would be good to balance the atmosphere in the surrounding area. Some 3000 bodies (probably more) are buried in the fields aling the rear and side of the building. A ceremony, a tree planting, and a forest made in the fields available to the rear is an event that can give a whole community, indeed a nation, a sense of meaning, and can serve an honorary and calming purpose and service to its site and situation.

I have spoken with Slow Food Youth Ireland and to other members of the Cloughjordan Ecovillage (where Vinay lives quite a bit – hi Vinay) aswell as to members of a volunteer/selfemployment company called Local-Switch about their possible interaction with any potential project that could come of this also. Naturally, Edgeryders came up, and Brian was vaguely interested but

I’m not sure that he understands the potential of the situation. He agreed that the vision is there, but claimed that there was a lack of focus…that I could not “be all things to all men”.

The old generation of project manager are still in linear process and thinking hierarchically in too sharp a focus. Given your examples above concerning participation versus payed work I can see how the reallocation of resources in a distributed manner can fuel a distributed process whereby each of the participating entities can work together to achieve the best result. In the local setting you have to work with whats actually there. And so figuring that out is paramount (thats my answer to question 1 *ushaiddi/netention).

Once we know whats there we need some kind of intermediary, like an Unmonastery who can go in and actually apply the medium for that primary issue and bring the people concerned to the same table with some notion of a potential reality, or a series of potential realities for them to work toward. It appears that the beuraucrats cannot think like this, they need to, at the very least, see its potential and deregulate and/or reregulate as necessary.

When you ask how far along this is already I would say that it is very far along, and that through digital loops such as Edgeryders and the various thinker and tinkerer networks emerging online there will soon be an emergent software to cater to the needs of these communities to map assets and resources in ways that will far accelerate certain modes of production, namely socio-cultural production within circular economies where products become services and work becomes life (again)

Given Alberto’s concern I would like to offer that yes, there are two distinguishable interest groups emerging…and yet it is in the interest of both to actually survive. Once thats assured, at least, there is still the concern of surviving without persisting in some crisis nightmare where even the highest amongst the ‘have’s’ are worriedly watching. For the neccesary balance to occur the system has to be let find its own level, a level currently beyond the balancing power of the present socio-productive organization. Ideally, it can be recognized that different is not adverse, and that new is not to be feared, that just because its different doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it or that you may not actually come to learn and grow of the experience. People forget the passion that got them to their ‘comfort’. We still need infrastructure, power, sustenance, education, culture, health services etc… Same-same… But different.

You ask what are the dangers? I won’t direct my attention there. Whats the use when there’s so much potential to work with in the space of life between? People get aggressive over contradictive ideology, but when it comes to social situations and the proof of the collective pudding the lesson that history teaches us is that, so far at least, things have been getting steadily better for people. If we can move with the times and with the ‘decisive technology’, then we can shed our preoccupation with the abstract personal and with the symbolic and move into a deeperly lived, and more fully conscious, Life.

Personally I believe that the route leads through culture and is a move, with the help of the head, to and through the heart and hands. I’m working on a little something north of Berlin in May that will hopefully help me understand (and show a whole bunch of others at the same time) how different cultural groups can come together in a mutually supportive space to exchange values, and value, and crosspolinate to create a new space that is equally educational, packed with arts and culture, and productive of socially changent ripples. More about that later…I think its a very good example of what you ask for in your third question.

Thanks for this Dougald, its a fine contribution. See you on the round.


Here is my storify of comments leading up to, and devolving from this link being sent to me.

your scepticism is my pleasure

Alberto, your scepticism is my pleasure – it keeps me slim, fit and alerted. :slight_smile: As we are only a year deep into FreeLab history, I will get back to this thread in next two years.

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I was speaking to a Spanish friend about this article. He was saying that even if “economic growth” returns to Spain, it will only work for those people who were encouraged during the boom to climb as far as they can on the higher education ladder to get “graduate jobs”. In fact, those who could afford to do so have kept climbing during the crisis – using Master/Phds as “waiting rooms” while they were unemployed, and using their parent’s homes & support as “waiting rooms” to avoid paying a premium on the crisis (i.e. high interest loans, flat evictions, etc). They’ve accumulated social & financial capital that provides a cushion. Those, however who were encouraged to leave school and go straight into the boom industries like construction, now have no industry or education to fall back onto and for the most part, given their parents were also employed in boom industries, they have no financial / support cushion either.

What struck both of us was the irony of the situation, that people talk about the need to re-focus on the real economy (“making stuff”) to avoid a future boom & bust. Yet those with the skills to “make & build stuff” are not only at a disadvantage because their industries have crashed, but because they haven’t accumulated enough educational capital to compete even for jobs that haven’t required this (most barman in Barcelona are graduates).

The Center for New Work, West Norwood Feast & Access Space are all examples of mobilising skills which involve “making stuff” so perhaps for this to coalesce into something serious is to create these spaces in communities which have been dependent on manual industries which have since died and find a way of supporting not just young people to develop & resource these spaces, but their families too? (Some areas like in ex-mining villages have kept a community self-resourcing approach as a result of young people & families working together, but many areas don’t have this)

Making & building stuff is not enough.


Making & building stuff is not enough. It’s not another ‘waiting room’. It has to be totally new home. Even mainstream politics started mentioning that the growth is no longer the universal idol. So it is not the question how to manoeuvre through the crisis until, somehow, the old life style and level recovers. It will not. We are – exactly now – crossing a bridge that we have to lay below our own feet. We have only fuzzy picture of what awaits us on the other side of the transition river.

There are others, who are couple steps ahead of us – that is why I am so happy that “Expedition Freedom” project is advancing successfully. In Europe, we can learn from Greeks – many of them are taking the self-governance path and my May/June research trip and autumn study tour will hopefully bring a lot of how-tos which may help us to quit dream about getting back to the sweet comfort zones which exist no more. The civilisation bubble made a nice farewell “POP!” and now we are free to regenerate meaning not just on the personal, but also on the transnational level. Welcome to the edge.

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where to search for meaning?

I embrace the idea that we are talking about a search for meaning. However it seems to me that the search, as described in this post, in the comments and in other related posts/conversations at EdgeRyders, is mostly external: how I act in and interact with the world around me. There seems to be an underlying assumption that if  we find the right thing to do in or to the world … then we will experience/find meaning.

  • What to do when that effort fails (as it seems to be)?
  • What if "The feeling of having done everything right and still got nowhere leads to a particular desperation." is not just a feeling, but a valuable result - telling us that we actually haven't done everything right?
  • What if we are looking for the keys under the light rather than where we lost them?

Could it be valuable to extend/redirect our search to include our internal worlds: how do I act and interact with myself?