Walking Away… Part III

This is the third in a series of articles that began in July 2020. I encourage readers to also read Part I and Part II. The series can also be found on Medium.com.

In 1979 I took a leap of faith and walked away. What did I walk away from? I had for a long time said that if I had to have a job, I could think of no better job than the one I had. With the rank of assistant professor, I held tenure at an institution of higher learning. The pay at that time was not that great, but the job carried high status and I had plenty of freedom to do the job as I saw fit. That is what I walked away from just a few months prior to completing my 14th year in academia.

What seemed like an insane move to my friends and family was to me a “life” choice; a choice over what- stagnation, security, death, perhaps? I had seen others who had chosen to “hang on” just a few more years so they could enjoy a retirement of comfort and freedom, only to die a short time afterward. I once saw a T-shirt that advised: “Don’t Postpone Joy!”

A few years earlier I had gone through some experiences that had caused me to begin listening to the beat of a different drum. It was that drum-beat that I continued to follow as life seemed to have new adventures for me to experience, new lessons for me to learn, and new work for me to do. I was motivated by both the attractive force of adventure, freedom and excitement, and my growing repulsion against the “paper chase” in which I saw that my primary role in academia was to “certify” students as qualified to join the consumerist rat-race. As the late Professor Russell Ackoff once said, “one could mistakenly believe that the principal objective of universities is to educate students. What a myth! The principal objective of a university is to provide job security and increase the standard of living and quality of life of those members of the faculty and administration who make the critical decisions. Teaching is a price faculty members must pay to share in the benefits provided. Like any price, they try to minimize it. Note that the more senior and politically powerful teaching members of the faculty are, the less teaching they do” ( Transforming the Systems Movement. 2004).

But Ackoff’s point was not about the educational system alone, but about systems generally, arguing that the proclaimed objectives typically are not the real objectives of those who make the crucial decisions, a situation that requires us to look deeply at the way our systems and structures operate, and concluding, as I did decades ago, that virtually all of our institutions urgently need to be transformed. To me that means restructuring based on different sentiments and different sets of incentives.

Now, decades later, reflecting on my own choice to leave my academic career behind, I can say I have no regrets about it. I’ve traveled the world, experienced different cultures, seen some wonderful things, met many beautiful people, and found satisfaction in the work I’ve been called to do-all of this while living a life of “voluntary simplicity.” And in the midst of this deepening global mega-crisis I observe what seems to be a rising flood of others who are choosing to walk away, like these below.
MSNBC producer resigns from network with scathing letter: They block ‘diversity of thought’ and ‘amplify fringe voices.’
Ariana Pekary said important facts and studies about the coronavirus would ‘get buried.’

That was the headline for the Fox News report on her resignation, but as Pekary commented later, “The headline skewed the intention of my piece and they removed almost all of the context in which I explain the systemic nature of the problem… I regret if my piece was presented as an attack on a single network, but that only gives me motivation to continue on this new path.”

In her own telling of the story of her resignation, Pekary emphasizes the point that “All the commercial networks function the same — and no doubt that content seeps into your social media feed, one way or the other.”

Pecary’s own website, describes her as “an award-winning journalist with two decades in public radio and TV. Working to rethink financial incentives in broadcast news, always dedicated to stories with civic consequence.”
Editor of the New York Times resigns

Bari Weiss, who has served as editor of The New York Times for the past three years, has publicly announced her resignation citing the paper’s betrayal of the ideal stated by former Times owner, Adolph Ochs, “to make of the columns of The New York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.”

Here is a Brief excerpt from her letter:
“…a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else… Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.”
You can read the entire letter on her website.

Numerous commentaries on Weiss’s resignation are to be found on various media channels, including Fox News and the New York Times itself. Each of these puts their own slant on the story which tends to color ones impressions about the matter. I make no judgments about that ­ but report this simply as another example of someone walking away because of principles or to follow a higher calling.
The Economic Consequences of the Covid Pandemic

A few days ago I discovered a recent post from Charles Hugh Smith which expresses his thoughts on the “walking away” phenomenon and describes what specifically is driving it. The article,The Silent Exodus Nobody Sees: Leaving Work Forever, published on September 23, 2020, points out that “The exodus out of cities is getting a lot of attention, but the exodus that will unravel our economic and social orders is getting zero attention: the exodus from work. Like the exodus from troubled urban cores, the exodus from work has long-term, complex causes that the pandemic has accelerated.”

Smith doesn’t put it quite this way, but this withdrawal from the workforce has been driven by the continual decline in labor’s share of the economic pie and the increasingly exploitative behavior of the financial, corporate and political oligarchy that have rigged the game to be entirely at the service of their own narrow interests of increasing their power and wealth. He argues that this situation will lead both top wage-earners and the bottom wage earners to leave the workforce in increasing numbers which will leave important economic functions understaffed and many jobs undone.

The “Great Pause” has made it increasingly clear just how dependent we are upon so many functions we take for granted. We expect someone to plant, harvest, cook and serve our food; someone to care for our children, our sick and our elderly; someone to pick up our trash and dispose of our sewage; someone to keep the water and electricity flowing to our homes; someone to take us to where we want to go; etc., etc. The overwhelming importance of cooperation in keeping things running has become patently clear.

At the same time, the forced limitation of face-to-face contact has caused tens of millions to become involuntarily unemployed, along with the closure of many markets and devastation of many industries, especially in the independent small business sector. Retail merchandising, travel, hospitality, entertainment, restaurants, bars, gyms, and personal services (hair salons, massage) have been especially hard hit. A huge proportion of small enterprises is closing and will never be able to reopen. Markets are increasingly going online and it is huge corporate platform businesses and networks that are thriving-companies like Google, Amazon, E-bay, PayPal, Facebook, Apple, and Uber.

But the people who have been adversely affected by all of this still need to find ways of making a livelihood. Some will be forced to vie for the diminishing number of jobs that are available in big corporations while others will choose to seek ways of becoming more self-reliant, both individually and in close-knit communities, getting free of their addictions and learning practical skills like maintenance and repair, gardening, and cooking, and cultivating healthy, low impact lifestyles.

As ever more people walk away from the formal economy and join the informal economy, conventional money and payment systems will become less dominant, sharing and cooperation and new moneyless means of exchange will become the norm, society will be restructured from the bottom upward, neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community, region by region, until the Butterfly Society spreads throughout the world.

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This article has also been published on Medium