It’s one of those classic creative tensions, as an artist. When the work you’re making goes wrong, do you keep trying to fix it or should you start afresh? It can be a matter of degree. When the fault is hardly detectable, or can be corrected or camouflaged effectively, then there is no shame in a small amount of judicious tweaking and remediation. In that case, maybe you’re being too much of a perfectionist. You need to get your act together, not rip up and retry.
On the other hand, we’ve all experienced fundamental flaws in the work, perhaps in the very composition itself, where no amount of tweaking can redeem it. It takes courage and honesty to see that the work can’t be rescued and that, despite the work you have already put into it, perhaps over a long period of time, you have to put version one in the bin and start with a fresh white sheet. Some things you can edit to perfection, but other things are the proverbial turd-polishing exercise. Knowing the difference is crucial.
I first confronted this hard lesson in guitar building. My mentor told me how guitars frequently outlive their makers and how trying to get away with a flawed component will be a testament to your lack of craft skill for a very long time. He encouraged me to abandon components I’d made mistakes on, rather than have them ruin an otherwise creditable instrument. It’s really hard to consign something expensive and hard to make into the dustbin, for having slipped the tool inconveniently against the grain or getting the dimensions slightly wrong. It’s why woodworkers say, “measure twice, cut once.” The instrument turns out much better if you are more honest bout your mistakes and if you make the choice to only include parts of the highest quality you can produce. Amazingly, your second try is almost always better than you thought you were capable of achieving. Throwing the flawed piece away teaches you an extraordinarily powerful lesson. Of course, if version two is also flawed, it takes tremendous courage and fortitude to throw it away, too, and start on version three.
In the software industry, we accept iteration. We assert that version one will be less than perfect, but that we will iterate and correct the design, over time, using feedback from the users of the software. That might seem like deliberately releasing mistakes, but it’s more positive than that. It, instead, involves the end user in the design process, so that the final iteration (if there ever is one) will be very close to perfection indeed. That approach doesn’t work so well with paintings and recorded music, but it could do, if we allowed ourselves to accommodate it, culturally. Many painters do a series of sketches and studies, before committing to the final work, after all. Musicians do the same with early demos. Film scripts are so frequently revised, during production, that they employ a script supervisor to coordinate all the insertions and deletions. In every case, they do these revisions and iterative actions before the work debuts. I wonder how the art would change if real audiences were exposed to early drafts, on the way to completing and polishing the finished work.
The key to when to start again is when intention and actuality diverge beyond the authority of reasonable corrective actions. For the sake of illustration and example, let’s try this thought experiment. Suppose we view globalisation and capitalism as contrivances; imagined, envisaged and invented by human beings. That’s not so far fetched, is it? They’re not immutable laws of physics, after all. Think of them as elaborate games we, as humanity, devised and voluntarily play. Let’s further imagine that, as a somewhat arbitrary game with made-up rules and conventions, that other quite different games are possible and that we could choose to play any one of the multitude of alternative games, simply by choosing to do so, en masse. As such, we can regard capitalism and globalism as works of human artifice, still in progress, which we are struggling to tweak, correct and perfect. Those propositions are not entirely unreasonable, are they?
Let’s now consider the stated and implied intentions of the games we currently play. As participants in the game of capitalism, we dream of security. It is our implicit intention to create a world for one and all that provides security. We want our game to provide security from humiliation, penury, dependence, indignity, arbitrary ruination, dismissal and uncertainty. The trouble is, none of those intentions have been affixed in the rules of capitalism. Writing much simpler rules (I.e. to maximise profits for shareholders), we hope (and our dogmatic theory posits) that these securities will be inevitable by-products of perfecting an economic machine which purposefully maximises profits for investors. Nice idea in theory, but does it happen in practice?
When capitalism (and its bigger brother, globalism) are obeying the explicitly stated rules of the game optimally, our own well-being is entirely irrelevant to the economic machine we have built. This is not an unintended aberration. It is a manifestation of a game applying the explicit rules deliberately, faithfully and by design. To perfection. Therefore, the only options we have are to tweak the artifice until it works less perfectly, according to the limited rules we baked into it, or we can scrap this game and devise another that has explicitly stated rules regarding human security. Why should we not start afresh?
Foolishly, we generally do not scrap the machine. Instead, we’re far more inclined to blame ourselves. Maybe we’re just not playing the game correctly. After all, the game provides enough evidence of people who thrive and succeed (albeit in tiny quantities, compared to the number of participants in the game), to suggest that the fault must lie with something those people denied security, by the game, must have done wrongly. We are prepared to entertain the theory that the system is not working “as it should”, according to our belief system and its inferences.
We’re wrong, of course. It’s probably working very well indeed, according to the stated rules of the game. The apparent discrepancy is because it was never intended to work in the way we would like, safeguarding our own well-being. The game of capitalism, which we collectively devised, places no special value on the longings and aspirations of the labour force. It’s essential concern is the accumulation and protection of capital, as clearly indicated in the name of the game: capitalism. It has no explicit intention to ensure our security, provide us with good lives, with plenty of quality time-off and loving relationships within our families. Capitalism is indifferent to all of those concerns, being designed only to maximise shareholder return. It doesn’t even care that shareholders live in abject immiseration, as a direct consequence of its adherence to the explicit rules of the game. All it needs to do is throw money at shareholders. If it has to ruin the lives of even its own shareholders, in order to return profits to them, then it will do so, as programmed.
With capitalism’s goals prescribed the way they are, people are just an input to production, with no special status above other costs of production (e.g. rent, energy costs, plant, technology, taxes and so on). Labour is just another cost, according to capitalism’s explicit rules. The strange happenstance that this particular cost has feelings, relationships, dependents, a hierarchy of human needs, complex psychology, requires regular rest, gets ill or, if pushed too far, commits suicide is little more than a puzzling inconvenience, in the focused pursuit of shareholder returns.
We shouldn’t conclude there is anything faulty about the capitalist machine, requiring tweaks and correction, simply because we have no financial security or security of tenure. Just because we have little time to see our families, are exhausted when we do so, we suffer from extreme levels of negative stress and have an uncertain future, doesn’t mean it’s broken. In fact, these are the very preconditions for the effective working of our economic mechanism. If we wanted different outcomes, or to factor in and respect these human characteristics, we’d have to write very different rules and change the game substantially. Our ambitions for happiness should not be confused with the stated goals of capitalism. They are, in fact, very different projects and we fool ourselves to imagine they are the same.
Our relationships with corporations, the very instruments of capitalism, often last as long as a marriage. Indeed, those corporate relationships may strain our marriages to the extent that they end prematurely. This is because our corporate relationships are fundamentally abusive, in order for capitalism to flourish and function at maximum efficiency. Our corporate “spouse” requires and indeed exercises the right to, at any point, leave us suddenly bereft and alone, in order to save themselves a few percentage points of profit, by taking up with an offshore replacement for us that is much more compliant, pliable, obedient and flexible. When dyed in the wool apologists for capitalism call for deregulation and the slashing of red tape, what they mean is that they wish corporations to treat us even more abusively, contemptuous of our well-being, in order to squeeze a little more profit out of the arrangement, for shareholders.
Institutions, in society, that once acted as a brake on some of the more egregious excesses of capitalism have, through judicious tweaking and correction of the artifice, been effectively neutralised and rendered impotent.
Religion, which once insisted that Sundays be a day of sacred observance and rest, has been overwhelmed by the commercial imperatives of consumer demand. It has been totally supplanted and replaced by the more stimulating and worker-motivating narratives of social Darwinism (where only the dogs who succeed in eating all the other dogs survive).
Unions have been divided and thus ruled, by the simple expedient of convincing ambitious workers that they could be millionaires, if only they would ditch their solidarity with their plodding, quotidian brethren. Union organisers have been effectively labelled as the enemies of progress and the sole impediments to improved standards of living, even though the opposite may, in fact, be true.
Technology gives us tireless machines that work all hours, allowing the crisp distinction between work and leisure time to be blurred and ultimately dissolved. Workers happily sport devices that track them and make them contactable at all the times, seeing them as beneficial and even essential, whereas in reality they are little different, in ultimate function, to prisoner electronic tagging ankle bracelets.
Travel has never been faster or cheaper, so that it is now possible to squeeze in several meetings, on a few continents, in just a single day, interspersed with telepresence sessions, conducted via unified digital communications, on your mobile device.
We search, in vain, for the tantalisingly elusive work-life balance. Anyone who sincerely believes that such an equilibrium is attainable has not begun to understand the compelling logic of the capitalist system we have devised and perfected.
Our best ideas, to date, about how to run an economy are squarely at odds with how we wish to raise families and maintain loving adult relationships. Work consumes us, even at home, numbing our heads with work-related worries and duties. We’re not closed, never around, inattentive, emotionally unavailable, uncommunicative and unappreciative of our partners and children; just tired, stressed and pre-occupied with work-related worries and duties. We are required to be obsessive about the office, at the expense of our other significant relationships, just to keep our jobs. Indeed, work directly and decisively played a significant role in the destruction of the marriages and families of many of my friends.
It isn’t our own incompetence or indolence that causes this collision between our work and home lives. We live in a period of time where both demand to monopolise our lives. Ideas about work, efficiency, profit, competition and providing appealing goods at lower prices clash inevitably with the needs of families and relationships. In essence, we’ve constructed a hellish existence for ourselves, simply by stating an incomplete set of fundamentally irreconcilable goals, for our capitalism game. The more productive our economy, the less secure and serene and the more agitated our lives become. Is that what we want?
Why do we keep at this flawed human creation. It’s way beyond redemption through moderate, sober tweaks. Our artifice is fundamentally flawed in intention, evidenced by how effective it has become at accomplishing its stated aims, which regrettably didn’t explicitly include human well-being and happiness.
Clearly, it’s time to completely abandon capitalism and start afresh. It can’t be corrected. In fact, it has been so refined and corrected, that it is doing precisely what it was envisaged to do. In leaving out the explicit goals of human security, this game now utterly crushes those securities under foot, in the name of efficiency. Consequently, this whole edifice efficiently makes everybody stressed, insecure and miserable, save those lucky few inhabitants of yachts in Monaco. There are, by necessity of the rules of the game, fewer of those each year, too, as growing inequality, baked into the fundamental workings of capitalism, concentrates wealth into fewer and fewer hands. It really is time to start again.
There are other human-contrived artifices that now also exhibit incorrigible divergences between intention and evident outcomes. A militarised police force, for example, which murders unarmed adults and children, for the “crime” of insufficiently immediate or non-compliance with their arbitrary commands, with seeming impunity, no longer serves and protects the community or polices with consent. How can it be fixed without starting again, but this time with revised, explicit goals?
Politicians that lie to you, steal from you with threats and menaces, backed by the full weight and extent of the law and then spend that stolen money in ways you would never condone, would seem to be beyond correction by a few tweaks to the situation. Hence, this hierarchy should be dismantled wholesale and replaced with something exhibiting far fewer of the obvious corrupting temptations.
Even traditional, hierarchical, corporate management, for decades the mainstay of capitalism, is being replaced entirely by more efficient, self-organising teams, working in agile, iterative sprints, to deliver continuous innovation. It is being resisted in most corporations, but it is also now obvious that a fresh start is long overdue.
Today, many of our traditional elites are being rejected by the electorate, which is, instead, empowering candidates and projects that promise change. Unfortunately, when a population decides the time has come to start again, not every change proposed will result in desirable outcomes. Indeed, some politicians may promise desirable, explicit goals in a new game, but may, in truth, have no intention whatsoever of delivering those goals. If they come to power, many pundits will counsel patience, claiming that we’ll survive the current iteration, however flawed and that we will have time to correct this new game, on subsequent iterations. Sadly, the assertion is not true.
One of the dangers of starting again, with something new, is that no matter how incorrigible and corrupt the thing it replaces, if the new, explicit rules are imperfect, or not executed with sincerity and fidelity, we immediately incur a situation where the intentions of the people diverge markedly from evident outcomes, far beyond the authority of tweaks to correct. This sounds high-falluting and theoretical, but what it means is that some people will, as a direct consequence of imperfect revolutionary ideas, not survive long enough to influence subsequent iterations. They’ll die or be killed, long before any revision can take place.
A very real danger looms, during any revolution that presumes to start again and redesign our humanly-contrived systems. Mere survival isn’t enough and assurances that “we” will survive refers to a privileged and limited “we”. In America, “we” excludes half a million or more LGBTQ men and poor people of colour who didn’t survive Reagan’s ideological indifference to AIDS. 200,000 Iraqis and Afghan civilians and thousands of allied troops did not survive Bush, Blair and Obama’s adventitious wars, premised on faulty assertions about weapons of mass destruction and a knowing deception about their alleged role in the destruction of New York’s twin towers. Obama deported 2.4 million immigrants, breaking countless families and leaving them without the means of survival. Nixon’s war on drugs, expanded exponentially by Clinton, has wasted a trillion dollars, incarcerated masses of black and coloured people and thus devastated countless communities and families. It also exacerbated police violence and abuse among communities assaulted, for long periods of time, by state-sanctioned terror.
The poor and vulnerable do not survive. They don’t live to see the new changes revised and perfected. Even the white, middle-class has been cleansed by policies promising change, but which did nothing to protect the security of this constituency, as if it was not a stated goal. Blaming the victims had lead to an unconscionable suicide rate and myriad premature deaths,directly attributable to compassion-free reforms.
Trump’s predecessors all made start-again changes that have led to death and devastation. The current president elect has made his most dangerous, divisive and destructive goals explicit, in an unprecedented fashion. His evident lack of competence to govern, his disregard for the protections afforded by the Constitution and international law and his clear inclination toward violence and bigotry, are disturbing, to say the least. With such a change agenda, it is obvious that not everybody is going to survive. Is that the kind of revolutionary, start-again change we want? Aren’t there other far from satisfactory human games we should be starting-again instead?
Artists have, in general, found clever ways of knowing when and how to start again. Perhaps we need to start teaching investors, corporations, politicians, law makers, economists and the electorate at large these crucial lessons.