Vinay Gupta and moving beyond un/employment

This was supposed to be about a “Share the Ryde” pission report, but Vinay Gupta’s report on The Quest for Paid Work appealed much more to me. Here’s my take on it. I have followed Vinay’s work from afar and found it bold and provocative. Reading this brief about how he currently lives and what got him to this point was particularly instructive for me: Currently a PhD student in anthropology, whether I will one day be employable and what for is an important issue I have to deal with. At the same time, I am currently trying with a few friends to get a contract from the local territorial planning agency to influence future public policy and how it impacts the Shuar, a native Amazonian people who has been dealing with heavy colonization for a century. Right now, teaching and free-lance consulting are the two main possibilities for employment that I see for me in the near future. What can Vinay’s experience teach me, then?

1- Self-employment is not the answer

Vinay says that he came to realize employment was a problem, but that self-employment did not solve it. Having a boss telling you what to do is bad enough, but having to be that boss yourself is even worse: You work more without necessarily getting more stuff done, and you end up exhausted. That’s also the big discovery of pretty much any PhD student: You have freedom to do what you want, sure, but you also never stop working and end up internalizing all sorts of criticism: You become an obsessional paranoid. The paid acadmic life doesn’t seem a whole lot better: A big chunk of your time is spent doing admin work, and are continuously frustrated by how you are made to teach and how little use your students will ever make of it. You get paid enough to pretend you don’t care about wordly stuff, but end up fetishizing books, betting on the stock-market, and wanting the latest iPad, just like everyone else. But man can you quote Marx and Zizek! Clearly, that’s not the best of plans for me, I might as well get an office job and really be like everyone else. But the free-lance stuff is not better, it leads you to participate in the very things you’d like to fight (helping oil companies get an ethical image, helping UNESCO transform people’s lives into museums).

2- Chosen poverty, the tough path

Vinay then chose to refuse to get paid for something he would not do for free. That’s a pretty paradoxical statement, especially if you believe, like most economists, that people get paid to compensate for the waste of time their job is. It also does mean  that you don’t get paid a lot. On the one hand, it looks like a radical version of self-employment: I’m my own boss, and on top of that I’m a picky boss. But it is also a radical reversal of that: Work is not anymore evaluated in relation to freedom/leisure time, and payment does not compensate for the loss of time. Instead, work is a gift, and payment is a counter-gift. I find it important to note that this choice comes and i sustained not only by political ideals, but also by a series of spiritual practice, from meditation to psychotherapy. I know too many friends who’ve slipped i nto depression once university was over because their political ideals forbid them to accept most forms of employment whilst they still wanted a decent place to live in, a tv to watch, and all sorts of luxuries. The guilt created by their inability to live up to their dreams made their life even more difficult. In my experience, meditation and psychotherapy don’t make you feel good so that you can bypass the need for material stuff, they make you see the traps you get yourself into and help you not fall into them, one of these traps being desire. So that encourages me in my current practices. Let’s see his 4 more specific tricks:

a- Minimizing needs helps maximising freedom: The sort of freedom he talks about here is very different from the classical economics understanding of freedom. Minimizing needs is what allows you to not need a job and focus on what you think is right. And, for me at least, meditation and psychotherapy look like some of the best ways to get to that point.

b- Speculate: I’m less sure about that one, especially the betting on technology part, but I imagine it comes from Vinay’s brand of work, the construction of cheap and easy infrastructures to deal with catastrophes. I do know that I enjoy science fiction a lot because it helps reveal latent tendencies in the present world and trains the imagination into seeing other possible presents and futures. Continuing to focus on that, on keeping open many options for the future and looking at big trends rather than focusing on daily news, that’s my take on Vinay’s second trick.

c- Deliver: Working without a boss means you’re more vulnerable, and doing that with principles means you need every job you can get in what you’ll accept to do. Because you cannot rely on institutions, you need to rely on networks, and that doesn’t mean “networking” and twittering like crazy, it means being yourself a reliable part of the network. Getting the job done and being realistic about what job you can do, how well and in what amount of time are crucial here. That’s the hard stuff, because that means being very realistic about one’s capacities and failings. I imagine that’s also the reason why the “productivity” and “networking” industries work so well, because insecurity leads a lot of people to try to fake it. Again, meditation and psychotherapy should help with getting real, not with the becoming perfect part that a lot of people aim for. And I know this is a difficult part for me, I tend to deliver just on time, or a little late, but products of a far lower quality than I could because of anxiety-fueled procrastination. So that’s where I need to work.

d- Give: Because, once again, a radical free-lancer like Vinay cannot rely on the stability of institutions, he must rely on his friends. The capitalist model would ask you to save money, or even invest it, so that you can even out the accidents of life. Vinay’s experience points, once again, towards Potlatch: Give to your friends when you have money, and hope that they’ll help you out when you are in need. This is not careless generosity though: Give to the friends who you know value friendship. SOme don’t and value family more, and that’s fine with them, but that means they won’t be as likely to help you out. Like the previous one, that sounds like a very good, and a very difficult advice. I imagine that that’s because I’ve lived all my life in one institution or another, and my friendships have mainly been very abstract ones that do not involve money or working for one another.  But I’ll keep my eyes open for that in the future.

All in all, Vinay’s statement is both inspirational and tough on the ego. It tells me that I could actually live the good life, but that I should get a grip, and that it won’t be easy on “me”. Unlike the monks who retreat from the world on top of a mountain, Vinay chose to live in the midst of it all and at the same time to offer himself as an example of how one can livedifferently in this world. The alternative he gives is not utopian, and the criticism he offers to capitalism are not those of a “good soul”: they come from the practical experience of another way of life folded inside this. That’s as inspirational as it gets for me!

Chosen poverty!

Wow, cmonnom, this is some mission! I really, really like it. Need some time to soak it in.

Meanwhile: I guess you wanted to file it as a “Shine some light”, right? Or is it rather a “The Quest for Paid Work”, like Vinay’s?

It’s a Shine Some Light

Yep, wrongly filed. I confess to finding the website not that easy to handle…

I’ll take care of it

It was actually rightly filed, only added to an extra group on top of the right one. Now it’s ok. Yes, the platform needs tweaking. It will get it.

Hey, how are you doing?

Sorry, I didn’t get in touch before because I was run off my little feet!

It’s been an absolutely insane ride in the last couple of weeks, tons of serious writing and thinking through the issues, trying to get my days oriented to point at the problems I’m working on, rather than the running around trying to take care of the day-to-day nonsense.

Your post really, really moved me. It’s very rare that people really engage with my work, actually thinking about whether the models are useful, and documenting any insight that results. It’s really nice to see you finding it useful.

Where are you based? How are you doing?

Hey Vinay,

Right now in

Hey Vinay,

Right now in Macas, Ecuador. I’m going to work with a few indigenous communities here to help them evaluate the social impact of the future road they’re going to build, to see if they really want that, and how they should organize stuff so that they deal better with the changes. In exchange for the road, the government wants to force them to accept mining companies, perhaps even petrol extraction companies, which would be a disaster, so I’m looking into that as well to inform people. And right now I’m tired after walking for 2 hours on a muddy road in the rain to catch a bus, after having done the same yesterday. And my feet really hurt… haha!

So much for the ivory tower

Hardly your run-of-the-mill detached academic project, huh?