Utopia For Realists Cont’d.

“Like humor and satire, utopias throw open the windows of the mind.”

Rutger Bregman

utopia for realistsContinuing  with Rutger Bregman’s analysis of utopian thinking that we began last week:

“Let’s first distinguish between two forms of utopian thought. The first is the most familiar, the utopia of the blueprint. Instead of abstract ideals, blueprints consist of immutable rules that tolerate no discussion.

“There is, however, another avenue of utopian thought, one that is all but forgotten. If the blueprint is a high-resolution photo, then this utopia is just a vague outline. It offers not solutions but guideposts. Instead of forcing us into a straitjacket, it inspires us to change. And it understands that, as Voltaire put it, the perfect is the enemy of the good. As one American philosopher has remarked, ‘any serious utopian thinker will be made uncomfortable by the very idea of the blueprint.’

“It was in this spirit that the British philosopher Thomas More literally wrote the book on utopia (and coined the term). More understood that utopia is dangerous when taken too seriously. ‘One needs to be believe passionately and also be able to see the absurdity of one’s own beliefs and laugh at them,’ observes philosopher and leading utopia expert Lyman Tower Sargent. Like humor and satire, utopias throw open the windows of the mind. And that’s vital. As people and societies get progressively older they become accustomed to the status quo, in which liberty can become a prison, and the truth can become lies. The modern creed — or worse, the belief that there’s nothing left to believe in — makes us blind to the shortsightedness and injustice that still surround us every day.”

Thus the lines are drawn between utopian blueprints grounded in dogma vs. utopian ideals arising from sympathy and compassion. Both begin with good intentions, but the pull of entropy is stronger with the former — at least, so says Rutger Bregman, and he’s got good company in Sir Thomas More and others. Blueprints require compliance, and its purveyors are zealously ready to enforce it. Ideals on the other hand inspire creativity, and creativity requires acting in the face of uncertainty, living with imperfection, responding with resourcefulness and resilience when best intentions don’t play out, and a lot of just plain showing up and grinding it out. I have a personal bias for coloring outside the lines, but I must confess that my own attempts to promote utopian workplace ideals have given me pause.

For years, I led interactive workshops designed to help people creatively engage with their big ideas about work and wellbeing — variously tailored for CLE ethics credits or for general audiences. I realized recently that, reduced to their essence, they employed the kinds of ideals advocated by beatnik-era philosopher and metaphysicist Alan Watts. (We met him several months ago — he’s the “What would you do if money were no object?” guy. )

alan watts cartoon

The workshops generated hundreds of heartwarming “this was life-changing” testimonies, but I could never quite get over this nagging feeling that the participants mostly hadn’t achieved escape velocity, and come next Monday they would be back to the despair of “But everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way.”

I especially wondered about the lawyers, for whom “I hate my job but love my paycheck” was a recurrent theme. The Post WWII neoliberal economic tide floated the legal profession’s boat, too, but prosperity has done little for lawyer happiness and well-being. True, we’re seeing substantial quality-of-life change in the profession recently (which I’ve blogged about in the past), but most have been around the edges, while overall lawyers’ workplace reality remains a bulwark of what one writer calls the “over-culture” — the overweening force of culturally-accepted norms about how things are and should be — and the legal over-culture has stepped in line with the worldwide workplace trend of favoring wealth over a sense of meaning and value.

Alan Watts’ ideals were widely adopted by the burgeoning self-help industry, which also rode the neoliberal tide to prosperous heights. Self-help tends to be long on inspiration and short on grinding, and sustainable creative change requires large doses of both. I served up both in the workshops, but still wonder if they were just too… well, um…beatnik … for the law profession. I’ll never know — the guy who promoted the workshops retired, and I quit doing them. If nothing else, writing this series has opened my eyes to how closely law practice mirrors worldwide economic and workplace dynamics.  We’ll look more at that in the coming weeks.

The Culture of Law (11): Time is Money

We’ve been talking about money, now let’s talk about time — a natural segue for a profession that logs value in 6 minute increments.

Working long hours is a law cultural norm, and never mind that it’s no secret any more that working too much is counterproductive. This Time article featured popular author, TED talker, and professor Brené Brown:

“[Ms Brown] talks about how people use the idea of being “crazy busy” as a sort of armor—a justification for not bothering to pause, evaluate what’s going on in your life, and reconsider decisions regarding lifestyle, work, family, and perhaps whether it’s really necessary to be ‘crazy busy.’

“Also, she reveals that, for the most part, highly successful people understand that perfectionism is not healthy and ultimately gets in the way of progress.”

Also never mind that overworked unhappiness abounds on both ends of the legal profession’s financial food chain. In this New Yorker op-ed piece a few weeks back, Columbia Law professor Tim Wu fingered the tyranny of technology as the culprit, citing the long hours of litigation as an example.

“Consider the litigation system, in which the hours worked by lawyers at large law firms are a common complaint. If dispute resolution is the social function of the law, what we have is far from the most efficient way to reach fair or reasonable resolutions. Instead, modern litigation can be understood as a massive, socially unnecessary arms race.

“In older times, the limits of technology and a kind of professionalism created a natural limit to such arms races, but today neither side can stand down, lest it put itself at a competitive disadvantage.

“A typical analysis blames greedy partners for crazy hours, but the irony is that the people at the top are often as unhappy and overworked as those at the bottom: it is a system that serves almost no one. Moreover, our many improvements in the technologies of productivity make the arms-race problem worse. The fact that employees are now always reachable eliminates what was once a natural barrier of sorts, the idea that work was something that happened during office hours or at the physical office. With no limits, work becomes like a football game where the whistle is never blown.”

We may not like what we’re doing — see, e.g., this Above the Law blog post re:  Prof. Wu’s article — but we do it anyway. Why?

Barry Goldman, arbitrator, mediator, and author of The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators, cites a psychological trait cognitive scientists call “sphexishness” to explain our stubbornness. You can read about it in this LA Times op-ed piece.

Sphexishness? Maybe. Or maybe unhappiness and a show me the money mentality are embedded in the larger context of American workplace culture. The following is from a Pyschology Today article called “Counterproductive Productivity,” by marketing professor Raj Raghuna:

“I don’t know about you, but it seems that the average American doesn’t really enjoy work. If the reason we work harder is because we enjoy our work, then most of us would be happy to go back to work, and we would have restaurants that are called TGIM (Thank Goodness It’s Monday) and not TGIF (Thank Goodness It’s Friday).

“No, we don’t work harder because we enjoy our work. Rather, we work harder so that we can earn more money, and so that we can feel, at some level, more important and more successful… And once we get on that gravy train, it’s difficult to get off it.”

Whatever the cause, we seem to have a problem here, Houston, and next time we’ll look at yet another reason why we avoid addressing it.