Modern Sisyphus

Sisyphus, Antonio Zanchi (1631–1722)

How COVID-19 and remote working, demonstrated the inherent emptiness of corporate life and the unfairness of who gets paid.

So much of the meaning we get from work, comes from our interactions with each other in the office. The Coronavirus, whilst a boon for some, has brought into stark relief the meaninglessness of modern work for many. Triumphant forecasts of the demise of the office, may turn out to be true, which may only exacerbate the nihilism of white-collar professional life. Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway, recently wrote a nostalgic paean to the office, noting, “The most important thing — which should make the office less an employer’s white elephant than its biggest bargain — is that it gives work meaning.” What this period has really driven home, is how once the comforts of office life are removed, what many of us are left with is the maddeningly dull and Sisyphean nature of our work.

Part of this is due to the narrow and restricted nature of so much of the professional services economy, what sociologist Max Weber referred to as the “iron cage” of bureaucratisation. The sticky web of rules and administrative procedures that are required to manage the sheer complexity of the modern economy. A complexity that has spawned what David Graeber calls the bullshit jobs of ‘make-work’. Graeber defines this make-work as well-paying jobs that create a veneer of success, but if stopped tomorrow wouldn’t make a difference to the world.

We cloak ourselves in these peripheral pleasures of office life to drown out the tinnitus of existential dread that greets so many of us when we logon each morning.

This make-work is a result of the huge increase of professional services over the last century. With a significant amount of this increase being devoted to the administration of increasingly byzantine bureaucratic functions of corporations and governments. The inherent complexity of our global corporations and government functions, requires masses of people, with narrow skill sets to become well-paid cogs in the wheel, with little connection to the final output of their work. Often this lack of connection is due to there being no final output to be connected to, as strategies continually change, and projects are cancelled. This Hyperspecialisation of both industry, service and job, has become so narrow that many of us have lost any conception of how we actually make a difference in our work.

What made this dislocation bearable for much of the last century was the meaning that we got from one another when we were in the office. The ability to make friends (or lovers), share ideas, perform in front of our peers, develop the political rivalries and alliances that simultaneously infuriate and sustain us. We cloak ourselves in these peripheral pleasures of office life to drown out the tinnitus of existential dread that greets so many of us when we logon each morning. A dread that is likely to only increase as the professional emptiness of remote work becomes clearer.


The point of all this is that there is a greater evil underlying the banality of this professional nihilism. This is embodied by the cynicism of paying someone almost triple what a nurse gets paid, to stand around holding a traffic sign on government infrastructure projects, whilst these nurses risk their lives to fight the Covid-19 outbreak. A similar example in Australia of underfunded volunteer firefighting crews fighting apocalyptic bushfire conditions last summer is another testament to government fixation on the wrong things. This trend of rewarding bit players, in billion-dollar-white-elephant-projects, whilst undervaluing and ignoring, what is referred to now as “essential workers”, is generally appallingly. It is a function of the preference of governments to be seen to be ‘making progress’, ‘chasing growth’ or ‘balancing the budget’ at the expense of all else. Anything that is not within this framework of quantifiable progress, anything that involves community care or supporting actual people in the community, is equivalently priced as being worthless.

Post-Covid predictions like this one, have already become tiresome and will most likely be wrong. But what might stick is how many people may realise, after peering behind the curtain of their day-to-day professional existence, that there might be more to professional life. If this leads to a collective realisation, it might change our attitude toward how we reward our essential workers, softening the debate about deficit and surplus and move it forward to one of value and fairness. Perhaps we will wake up and realise that the nurse, school teacher and fireman deserve not just our applause and appreciation, but more of the spoils.

Moving away from the fatal shore

Artist: Kurun Warun

To deprive the Aborigines of their territory, therefore, was to condemn them to spiritual death – a destruction of their past, their future and their opportunities of transcendence.

Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding

We cling anxiously to the edge of this continent, terrified of what lurks within. A land of incomprehensible vastness and mystery, of lethal creatures, wilting heat and awe-inspiring weather. The ocean that we have collectively grasped toward since 1788, presents a symbol of potential salvation, promise of connection to the outside world, a respite from scorching sun and desolate dry, however even the ocean brings with it the threat of inundation along with apprehension of the other.

We are precariously placed on this rock, an experimental utopia with no anchor point either to the original people’s of this land, or to the people’s from which we are descended. It has been up to us to determine the values, dreams and myths that can unify us together and provide a guiding light, however these are still fledgling. By destroying the culture of the people that first called this place home, we have not only committed a spiritual murder of the indigenous population, we have also cut ourselves off from any sort of spiritual connection and knowledge of this place. By cutting ourselves off from the original people of this land we will never be free. We will always feel apprehensive, adrift and fearful, trembling in the face of imagined threats, of a foreign land that we do not really comprehend and often seems to us hostile and foreboding.

This anxious grip permeates our lives, driving us to seek control over whatever we can in order to reduce these existential feelings of isolation, loss and alienation. Without integrating the wisdom of the people who understand this land, without finally unifying around an inclusive, collective vision of Australia, we will always be a prisoner of our ignorance and resulting fear. To be a truly great nation we need to reconcile with our original sin, rehabilitating the spiritual essence and wisdom of one of the world’s oldest cultures into a collective and unifying vision of Australia, building a bridge to the past so that we can confidently navigate the future.

The shadow of luck

Image: Brett Whiteley, Bondi 1978
But their minds were always closed,
And their hearts were held in fast suburban chains.
- Cold Chisel, Khe Sahn

There is a complacency of mind in Australia. A complacent sense that what has worked in the past will continue working indefinitely into the future. There is a sort of trembling fear that pervades much of the national psyche, an anxiousness that all the time spent and sacrifices made in the pursuit of wealth, status and comfort maybe won’t be reflected in a sense of contentment, calm and delayed joy. So many people have been led to believe that the ‘Australian Dream’ is the paradise to which people should aspire, as though it were a final destination, a foretold promised land, where in truth it is more like a trap. Be mindful of politicians extolling the virtues of certain lifestyles!

In truth the Australian Dream is a way of tying people down and making them good little taxpayers. In the pursuit of security and comfort we sacrifice autonomy. When we sacrifice autonomy we stop manifesting potential, with time creaking into psychological stasis as our vision becomes blinkered by an arbitrary goal defined by others.

We are told to enjoy life when we are old, once we have retired from ‘doing our bit’, when the generative power of new ideas, people and places has lost its generative force, when they have become the pleasant distractions from the monotony of retirement. As Australians we cling in anxious fear to our possessions and houses, desperately reminding ourselves and others that we ‘have made it’ whilst being terrified to step off the treadmill and think for ourselves. 

Buy a house, sure. But do it with your eyes open and do it after experiencing the world and analysing all the possibilities, don’t do it just because everyone else is doing it. Make sure that in trying to attain security you don’t smother your potential by becoming chained by debt and societal expectation. Politicians do not want a mobile workforce, mobility means a lower tax base, so beware of their endlessly repeated prognostications of ‘The Australian Dream’. Keep your eyes open and think for yourself.

Don’t be fooled by groupthink that buying a house is the only asset to bother considering or that assets of monetary value are the only ones worth pursuing. Invest in yourself through the education of life; make mistakes, read, write, paint, try and understand why you think and act the way you do, understand what motivates you so that your values and goals are the product of your truth and not someone else’s.

Goodbye to Hong Kong

Photo taken of a shrine in Wan Chai dedicated to a protester who committed suicide during the protests

My view of Hong Kong is that it is a spectacular place on the surface, full of fun and excitement, but when you look at the city more closely all you see is an edifice, a facade constructed on a shifting sand of money, corruption and exploitation. Increasingly I look around me when I am out at night in the ‘expat part’ of Hong Kong and am repulsed by the unthinking swilling, gorging and cackling of the people around me and of course by my own participation in this. It feels to me like we are in the middle of this decadent party, inside this enormous mansion whilst the city outside is burning to the ground.” 

I wrote these words at the end of May of this year, just as the first mass protests had begun and a month before I left the city. The decision for my wife and I leaving was made weeks before the outbreak of the protests, however the synchronistic nature of our leaving and the protests commencing is still something that I think about each day. Whilst our decision to leave Hong Kong was independent of the protests that began to take place, they were related to some of the issues that the protesters are citing, although related from a completely different perspective.

The increasing “Mainlandisation” of Hong Kong was narrowing the options available to my wife and I, making it fairly clear that our professional future in Hong Kong, if we had stayed, would have been a fairly constrained one. One of the other difficulties was the social tension within the office and in the city as a whole which we could clearly feel soon after we had arrived. This tension and the deterioration of social harmony in the office I was a part of steadily became worse as time went on and was almost unbearable by the time we left in May 2019. This tension finally found it’s release when the government tried to force through it’s extradition law and the initial unrest against this has now morphed into a demand for self-determination, anger against deteriorating social conditions represented by inaccessibility to decent housing, schooling free from mainland influence and declining economic prospects for those outside of the international educated elite.  

Exploitation has been the modus operandi of Hong Kong since the British turned the barren island of fishing villages into a fortress of trade to interface with China. An exploitation that began with the British, has been perpetuated by the tycoons that now act as lords in a modern feudal enterprise. These tycoons, who have been blessed by the mainland Chinese Government to continue with their oligopolies have been conspicuously silent in their response to the protests, wary of upsetting Beijing or the Hong Kong citizens that they rely on to keep their money wheels turning. 

It is no wonder that all Hong Kong needed for this pressure to finally release was a spark, and in the end the hapless government would be the one to light it. The people of Hong Kong have seen the light of what a society based if not on western values than at least on western principles of free speech and separation of government powers can be, and they won’t be pulled into the abyss of an authoritarian system whose legitimacy is held up by the increasing wealth and material freedom of its citizens. How this ends is anyone’s guess, however the comparisons to the various suppressions of the Soviet Union and mainland China are probably inaccurate. Beijing’s hands are tied for multiple reasons; firstly, the risk of using force could actually re-ignite and fan the flames of a previously flickering pro-independence movement. Secondly, the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act, which treats Hong Kong as a separate trading entity from the mainland is an enormous stick that the US is able to wield in the event of any escalation of China’s response. Thirdly, Beijing will not be able to ‘disappear’ the relevant agitators like they did after Tiananmen Square given the nature of relative openness of Hong Kong society in comparison to the mainland in 1989 as well as the fact that the Hong Kong legal system, despite its flaws, is not an extension of the Chinese Communist Party. 

I am hoping for a peaceful end to the protests and the concession of the government to the protesters demands for more self-determination and greater access to adequate housing and economic opportunities. Hong Kong was and always will be a part of China, however as demonstrated by the protests over the last three months, once people have been given a taste of freedom, they fight tooth and nail to maintain it, something that is likely to become more and more prevalent as the year 2047 looms closer on the horizon. For the protesters, who despite the limited prospect of success are risking life, limb and future prospects by bravely demonstrating their opposition to the direction Hong Kong is going in I wish godspeed and hope they can manifest their own philosophy of this “Water Revolution” by being “strong like ice, fluid like water, to gather like dew and disperse like mist.”