Alan Watts: Business

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A lecture (audio) by Alan Watts: “If you can’t trust other people you cannot have a community, not even a corporation.”

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Now I consider that I myself I’m a successful man in business. I hate business. I hate everything to do with it; accounting, figuring, adding up numbers, because they’re all arid. They don’t smell of anything – sometimes there’s an interesting smell to the ink on a checkbook – but by and large all this figuring is a completely colourless occupation. I don’t like it, so I have to hand it over to accountants and lawyers and the people who seem to like it. But I don’t know whether they really do?

The essential principle of business of occupation in the world is this: figure out some way in which you get paid for playing.

When I was quite young – I forget the exact age – I made a solemn vow which was that I would never accept a job, I would always be my own employer. And curiously, there are very few roles in life which provide this possibility: the successful artist, writer and sometimes musician, sometimes the independent consultant, can occupy this role – I mean he may be a scientific consultant. But by and large almost everybody seems to be compelled to take a job with a corporation.

It’s very difficult indeed these days to run a small business where you’re your own boss, because you have to employ an enormous staff of people to keep track of the paperwork. I know a person for example who has a farm where he raises avocados. And the Department of Commerce visited him with a stack of forms this thick which he had to fill in. Well, he got tough and said, “I haven’t the faintest idea what to fill into these forms.” He said to the agent of the Department of Commerce, “You fill them in,” and he made that man sit down and go through the whole procedure of filling in these forms, because he said, “I don’t have the time I’m raising avocados; that’s my business.”

The society
at the moment
is mutual mistrust
and therefore
it becomes
increasingly difficult
to do anything.

And as to all of this paperwork – what the hell with it. And the same situation prevails not only in business but also in the university, and in the hospital… One of my favorite doctors told me the other day that he spends only 1/3 of his working hours practising medicine, the rest is in recording, accounting, filling in reports. And it’s the same in every hospital; paperwork endlessly, because the record of what you do is more important than what you do. Write it down and then it’s real and so for the same reason a lot of people don’t believe they exist until they see their activities reported in the newspaper.

A lot of juvenile delinquents commit crimes just to get attention; they’ll get recorded. It’s like you go to a party, you know, it’s the picnic on the beach and it’s great fun and somebody says,” What a shame it is that nobody has a camera.” Well now I should talk, because at this moment we are recording what’s going on both on tape recorder and on TV – and remember that it takes as long to view it or to listen to it as it does to do it and who’s going to listen to all this over and over again? So, there’s something fundamentally wrong here and which the businessman of all people needs to understand, what the businessman needs to know, equally what the army officer needs to know is the same, What do you really want?

I have proposed that there be an entirely new kind of college entrance examination in which, instead of answering a lot of silly questions, you write for about 20 pages on your idea of paradise. It can be any kind of paradise you want. It can be very spiritual, it can be very sensuous, but spell it out, What do you want to happen in life? Then you will hand this thesis in to an assigned tutor on the faculty and he’ll read it over and examine you closely as to whether this is what you really want.

Do you realize for example what goes with the things you say you desire? I mean for example, you want to marry a certain kind of beautiful woman and you specify in your paper the characteristics she should have. But says the tutor, “You said absolutely nothing about her mother, because every girl goes with a mother – I mean unless she’s an orphan – and you must also specify what kind of mother-in-law you want. Well, then you have to stop and think about that. And that’s just an illustration of going into detail and being very careful about what you desire because it’s a good saying, ‘Be careful of what you desire – you may get it’. So this is the problem of thinking out carefully where it is that you want to go.

Now let’s take the war in Vietnam which is supposed to be concluded. What on earth was it all about? If we had gone with military pomp and might into Vietnam for the express purpose of conquering the country and possessing it and carrying off the women into captivity, it would have been understandable. But as it was, it was waged for some absolutely abstract end, namely the stoppage of an ideology called communism. Nobody knows what communism is nor do we know what capitalism is, but we can fight endlessly on the supposition that there are good guys and bad guys. And when we fight on that supposition there is no possibility of compromise or of gentlemen’s agreement.

As there is honor among thieves – we’re all thieves, let’s face it – there is a doctrine in the Jewish religion that when God created Adam he put into him a spirit which is called the Yet Zahara [spelling?] and that means ‘the wayward spirit’ or what I call ‘the element of irreducible rascality’ – and that is in us all, a little bit. It’s not the whole of us; it’s like just a pinch of salt in the stew – and you don’t want the whole stew to be salt but you have to have just a touch of rascality to be human.

And I find it difficult to get along with people who don’t know that they have it, people who come on that they’re all sincere, all good, all pure, bore me to death and scare me, as they’re unconscious of themselves and therefore they suddenly do terrible things without warning, either to themselves or to others. They make promises that they’re never going to fulfill because they want to talk right and so if I do business with someone who is not really aware that he’s a rascal – I know he is impossible to do business with – he’ll suddenly cheat me completely. But if I’m aware that he’s a bit of a shyster I feel comfortable and I let him know that I am too.

Then we’re human, then we are letting our hair down, then we can say, “Look, let’s work this out, and this is what I want and I know what you want.” And if we can get that clear we can work out a reasonable agreement, we can compromise, we have a little play of give-and-take. But if you don’t have that, you’re absolutely snarled. Now look at it this way: you can’t operate business nowadays without a whole team of lawyers and, What is the function of lawyers? They’re to write down the rules of the game so that we have what is called ‘the rule of law’. A lot of people talk today about law and order and how it’s got to be upheld. Now what does that actually mean? It means that all organizations, business corporations; bureaucratic, government corporations, even churches, are going by the book. They are operating according to a manual, and in many corporations individuals have constantly to consult some sort of manual to know what they should do instead of using their own good sense.

This doesn’t work!

It means that an organization is entirely different from an organism. You, each one of you, are an organism, a very very complicated organism which your nervous system facilitates – let’s use that nasty word – and you don’t know how you do it. You couldn’t begin to describe how your nervous system works, and even neurologists don’t know how it works – and yet it works reasonably well. Because your brain can handle an unknown number of variables – a variable is any identifiable process such as breathing, such as the circulation of the blood, such as the secretions of the glands, such as the digestive system, and so on and so on. Now you operate those all day without knowing how you do it. There’s no book of rules according to which you do this. So, in the same way, if a corporation is to be a true organism, as distinct from an organization, it must be based on the principle of mutual trust and not on law, because if you can’t trust other people you cannot have a community, not even a corporation.

You’ve got to trust
creative research people
to fool around
to sit about,
drink coffee
or maybe whiskey.

It’s risky, very risky, to trust other people because they may let you down, but on the whole, if you do trust them the chances are perhaps, what? 60 to 40? maybe a little more? maybe 75 to 25? that the system will work, simply because they are trusted. And as soon as you’ve got a system where for example in a supermarket there are mirrors all over the place, TV cameras watching everything, all kinds of checks on the cashiers that they won’t sneak off with something, you’ve got a system that increasingly won’t work, because nobody will want to work there.

One of the major reasons for Hippies and dropouts is that human beings don’t want to work under conditions like that, because they are mechanical conditions and the mechanism is quite distinct from the organism, because the mechanism is arranged on linear plans, the book whereas the organism transcends that. We don’t know how, that means we can’t write down how, because it’s more complicated than any form of writing can express.

Now, the computer speeds up linear calculation to a terrific extent but it still comes nowhere near the capacity of the human brain, and so this is something that has to be recognized as a principle. Now let me give another illustration of it: every corporation employs a number of people in research – let’s take IBM. They have a huge Center down near San Jose where they have a research staff, and one of the first things they had to recognize is that you can’t put creative research people under the clock. You’ve got to trust creative research people to fool around, to sit about, drink coffee or maybe whiskey, and scratch their heads and look at blackboards, and play, and then suddenly “Zingo!” some interesting result will occur. But if you make them punch clocks and if you say, “These are the things that you’ve got to discover,” it won’t work. So the corporation has to make an act of faith in its research personnel. It has to say, “We recognize you having an amazing gift called brains, we don’t know what these are, but it seems that in the past you’ve been fruitful, and so we’re going to employ you to do your thing, whatever that happens to be, and we’ll make an act of faith in you.” And invariably if they make that act of faith it will work; some fantastic idea will come out – not perhaps the idea you expected – in fact, it may not even apply to your particular business, but you could always sell it to somebody else…

Business is inhibited
by the lack of
free enterprise.

Now then let me go… this is a fundamental principle: if there cannot be community there cannot be corporation, and therefore there cannot be commerce, which really broken down means’ being merciful to each other’. There cannot become us without mutual trust – I mean they’re even insurance companies called Mutual Trust. But it just can’t happen. The society at the moment is mutual mistrust and therefore it becomes increasingly difficult to do anything. Business is inhibited by the lack of free enterprise – that sounds very right-wing but actually fascist states, corporate states, totalitarian states are utterly against free enterprise.

So let’s push this a little further; St. Paul said that the labourer is worthy of his hire and I as a philosopher – mere philosopher, dealing in higher things – always insists that I be paid for my work. And I get the highest fee I can get; and people say, “Well, you’re just out for money.” I say, “That’s none of your business.” Because I give most of it away, my own needs being extremely simple, although I enjoy good food, I don’t even own a television set and, you know, it’s a very simple life. But I’ve got enough and enough is as good as a feast.

You see, a lot of people don’t feel happy unless they have another thing beyond money which is called status, and status to a very large extent in our economy consists in conspicuous consumption in having this thing and that thing, and the other thing, and having a swimming pool, a Ferrari, certain kind of clothes, a certain kind of house with an enormous round-style picture window, and so on and so on and so on. And we think we need all that, because we’ve been persuaded by a certain kind of propaganda that that’s how we ought to live, because we haven’t asked ourselves whether that was what we really wanted. In other words we’ve been propagandized into thinking what we wanted.

I remember my daughter when she was in high school – number one daughter, who has now become very sensible – insisted that she had to have a certain number of cashmere sweaters. In those days I couldn’t afford them. I said, “My dear, do you really want these or… is it just that you’ve been reading ads in the magazine or listening to the other children?” Because, you see, schools are places where you send your child to be brought up by other children; therefore, they get a kind of lowest common denominator of culture. They all think they got to have this, you’ve got to have that, and they don’t really want it. If they sat back and considered: Do I need all that, is this trip really necessary? They would come to the conclusion that it wasn’t and that would be very important because they would save energy. You all know, of course, that we are nearing an energy crisis, that there is not enough physical energy going to be available for all the things we think we’re supposed to do to, go rushing around, and so on…

So, we need to take towards commerce a more relaxed attitude.

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