Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Keenan: On Motivation to Work

Here is another post written by Keenan (see Post 1 directly below), this time on motivation to work in an egalitarian communal society.
The members of Twin Oaks have intentionally designed a community that is equal: equal resources, equal political empowerment and equal access to spiritual options. Consequently, the community has been an unintentional 45 year-old experiment on motivation because we have removed all extrinsic motivation — no pay raises, no bigger house, no better job title, no bigger office, no prestige positions, and no wealth to pass on to the next generation. So, with no motivators, is there, then, no motivation?  The answer to this question is an obvious ‘No’ to any Twin Oaker. But the question of motivation is fundamental to the design of western society. In fact, it seems that the central divide between right and left political theory is over the issue of what motivates people so you’d think they’d have sorted it out by now.

Conservative (right) thought is based on the premise that humans are motivated by societal stratification. The news headlines today are all about the tragic loss in productivity if millionaires are taxed at a slightly higher rate. Conservatives claim that any constraints on stratification hinder society’s organizing itself efficiently, i.e. the best don’t rise to the top. Once they are at the top their effectiveness must not be constrained by lesser people and their nasty laws or motivation-sapping taxes. Conservative rhetoric maintains society would be destroyed by any experiment in equality. The most compelling theoretical support for societal stratification is from Ayn Rand. In Atlas Shrugged she describes the outcome when the cream of humanity decide to desert productive endeavour: society collapses because no one is motivated to be productive. Liberal (left) thought supports a flatter, more equal society, i.e. where everyone has equal opportunity to advance.

The structure of Twin Oaks is actually off the edge of the left-right scale. An extremist on the liberal end of the spectrum would design a society where there is absolute equality of opportunity but would still allow for some societal stratification. Twin Oaks takes a long leap farther, maintaining that any stratification of any sort leads to some groups becoming elites. The development of elites inevitably leads to additional stratification. And societal stratification leads to many bad outcomes: a permanent underclass, crime, unemployment, an overly empowered and disengaged overclass, and things like that.

After 45 years of existence, what’s the result at Twin Oaks? It is this: a grace wholly gratuitous. Members of Twin Oaks have not fallen into the state of desuetude and apathy feared by the right. Members create beautiful crafts and display amazing musical talent, which come from a great deal of discipline and practice. Members of Twin Oaks have written books, plays and songs without payment. Furthermore, Twin Oaks has started several businesses and operates them successfully in the competitive marketplace.

Rather than motivation evaporating, it seems that some people remain motivated despite the disincentives of other members not believing in, or likely to be overcritical of, certain projects. Some people work beyond the quota asked of them continuously. On any given day there are members taking on tasks beyond the minimum required, performing feats of creativity, effort, and grace. ‘In the absence of any extrinsic motivator, does human motivation disappear?’ — ‘No!’

It’s a wonder that conservative and liberal theorists manage to continue to debate this. A stratified society is not a good environment. It creates an environment of fear, distrust, outrage, disempowerment and victimization. The way out is upward — a few people given enough liberty will hit the jackpot. There’s your motivation in a conservative world. The resulting myth is that humanity cannot afford to experiment with a kinder, gentler, more cooperative and supportive way or humanity will fail due to a lack of motivation. But the ongoing success of Twin Oaks and the continuing examples of individual motivation disproves it.

It’s not necessary to understand exactly what motivates people. Sociological studies of human behaviour show that good environments result in good people. Why do we do what we do here at Twin Oaks? The desire is to make a difference, to do work that is meaningful, to receive praise from one’s peers, the desire for self-improvement, to challenge oneself. Essentially, we are motivated by the profound and fundamental desire for simple personal agency.
The photo shows the Twin Oaks dairy; their cows provide milk, yogurt, cheese and meat for the community.

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