Like a lot of people, I was very impressed by Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement speech to the graduates of Stanford university when I listened to it for the first time a few days ago on YouTube. However, on reflection, I realised that it was inspiration only for an elite, rather than for society as a whole, and thus key to understanding what’s fundamentally wrong with our society.
After been pushed out of his own company, Jobs says, “. . . the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. . . Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. . . like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it . . . Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. . . . have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
These are wise words indeed, which I strongly relate to and agree with (as with much else in the speech), but context is everything, which in this case is the people he is addressing: an elite group of Stanford graduates, people who would go on to have elevated positions in society and the economy, and with whom I, without thinking, identified.
But what about the 10s of thousands of low-paid workers having to work long hours at stultifying tasks in the factories that produce Apple products? How do Steve Jobs’ wise and inspirational words apply to them . . . ?
They don’t, of course. They only apply to a privileged, well educated elite.
Like the rest of us, Steve Jobs sees (or saw) the world from his own highly subjective perspective, from where his advice to Stanford’s graduates made good and admirable sense, but he was oblivious to the injustice and inhumanity contained within it for those not fortunate enough to belong to one of society’s elites.
Just as classical Greek society was based on the injustice and inhumanity of slavery, so too is our own society based on other forms of injustice and inhumanity, which self-interest in and dependency on the status quo blind us to, just as it did the ancient Greeks.
Not that we are completely blind to the injustice and inhumanity which underlie our socio-economic order, of course, but rationalise them with the argument that ours is a FREE society, where “social mobility” allows anyone and everyone to join the elites. Added to which, it is also a compassionate society, we tell ourselves (realised through the welfare state), which takes care of those unable to join the elites.
However, taking care of people materially can hardly justify their systemic denial of satisfaction and self-realisation through work, which Jobs rightly valued so highly for himself and the elite he was.
There are many – especially amongst Telegraph readers – who believe that the system we have, notwithstanding its obvious faults, is the best that is humanly possible, but I disagree. It is far worse than we rationalise and deceive ourselves into believing, which, when you belong to a privileged elite, as most of us do, is all too easy – in fact, extremely difficult not – to do.
The SYSTEM we have is not just inherently unjust and inhumane, but also unsustainable, on our finite, vulnerable and overpopulated planet, which means that it is bound to collapse, with the devastating consequences that will have, including for many members of today’s privileged elites.
There is a very simply reason why the existing socio-economic order is inherently unjust, inhumane and unsustainable. It’s because it is a product, not of reason and rational intentions, as we like to assume, but of man’s blind Darwinian nature, seeking to continue the primordial struggle for survival and reproductive success in the artificial environment of human civilisation, where it has been perverted and largely reduced to the pursuit and exercise of POWER – which brings us back to Steve Jobs and most other heroes of civilisation.
It is very difficult to conceive of a solution to our dilemma (our complete dependency, materially and emotionally, on a system that is inherently unjust, inhumane and unsustainable), but the only hope we have of arriving at one, is first to develop an understanding it.