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BW Businessworld

Time to Normalise Normal Again

We need to begin designing systems that elegantly integrate the needs of the society with the integrity of nature. Systems where each entity has the ability to survive on its own and keenness to come together to thrive. Both independence and dependence are enemies of interdependence.

Photo Credit : PTI

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For a world that has normalised the supernormal, normal is subnormal. 

When we celebrate supernormal pace, abilities and scale, we make the normal feel inadequate and undesirable. 

It’s been fashionable for those who consider themselves ahead of the curve to jump on to the next oddity, and in a superior-than-thou manner welcome others to the ‘new normal’. Thanks to the enforced stay-at-home slowdown, the world is realising how far we have strayed from the normal that truly matters. 

We have been stockpiling stuff that now seems more desirable than essential, and have an acute dearth of the real essentials.

Modern urban homes are no less equipped than intensive care units. We live in sanitised cocoons with piped ‘essentials’ and become dysfunctional the moment the supplies are disrupted (exaggerating slightly to highlight).

These homes house people with amazing supernormal abilities in narrow, often abstract fields and are amazingly subnormal when it comes to surviving in nature as normal human beings. 

How did we get here? The current unexpected pause in our usually planned frenetic lives is helping us take a systemic view of things.

Division of labour worked well, but have we allowed it to go too deep?

Adam Smith described division of labour as a dynamic engine of economic progress that leads to substantial enhancement in the productivity of the individual and the collective. Émile Durkheim insisted that this is how the nature functions anyway – interdependent living beings that are part of the web of life. 

No doubt, division of labour led to a step-change in general affluence and access to conveniences, there have also been voices that have pointed to the negative impact of this key governing principle of capitalism if it gets too deep.

Karl Marx highlighted social and economic alienation of people who feel estranged from their own Gattungswesen - ‘species-being’. Henry David Thoreau felt it ‘removes people from a sense of connectedness with society and with the world at large, including nature. He claimed that the average man in a civilized society is less wealthy, in practice than one in "savage" society. According to him self-sufficiency was enough to cover one's basic needs.

The essence of division of labour is interdependence, which definitely is better than isolated independence. The whole as they say, is other (greater, in healthy systems) than the sum of the parts. But what happens when unbeknownst to us, healthy interdependence gets insidiously replaced by debilitating dependence? 

The Covid 19 episode might be transient, but it is starkly showing us how miserably dependent we have become on our socioeconomic systems. Very few urban people in the world today have the natural human ability to engage with nature directly in order to access essentials required to survive, the way it was supposed to be. 

We built these systems to enhance access to natural and manmade resources. Over time the system became a world in itself. Supposedly ‘superior’ and more ‘evolved’ compared to the ‘raw’ nature outside of it. Sophisticates that the system produced became a new cultural class, and sophistry, their newfangled worldly talent.

In comparison just look at the primitive tribes around the world. In spite of evolving far apart from each other, their behaviour and lives aren’t very different. This is because their ‘operating system’ is the same – the Earth’s biosystem. This stood out glaringly during the earthquakes and the tsunami that followed, in 2005. Ancient indigenous tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands were the only communities in their region that could save themselves, using their native knowledge of wind, sea and birds. They were more surefooted as compared to the arrogant developed world around them which was clueless during the tsunami, and deservedly chastened post the act-of-God.

"They can smell the wind. They can gauge the depth of the sea with the sound of their oars. They have a sixth sense which we don't possess," says Ashish Roy, an environmentalist and lawyer working to protect the rights of the tribes from the world outside.

An operating system fuelled by insecurity

The developed world is the way it is thanks to the operating system it has built for itself. Economy, not ecology runs us. Consumers and producers live here, not citizens. 

Each one of us plays two roles – factor-of-production and unit-of-consumption. The system rewards us when we follow good behaviour and penalises us when we don’t. An ideal factor-of-production is a person who offers maximum labour and demands minimum price for it. And an ideal unit-of-consumption, the one who consumes more than the rest and also pays generously for the goods and services that the system produces. Materialism is the guiding philosophy here and productivity the currency which dictates all choice making at macro and micro levels.

Now let’s zoom in on this ideal being and you will notice something surprising, but not so much in hindsight, insecurity.

Professor Laura Empson, of London’s Cass Business School, who has been researching leaders in elite professional firms and financial institutions, says this about successful, driven professionals:

“Many of the professionals in this world are ‘insecure overachievers’: exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious, but driven by a profound belief in their own inadequacy. Their ability and relentless drive to excel make them likely to succeed in the competitive environment of elite professional and financial firms, but the work culture is also taking advantage of their vulnerabilities.”

As consumers, the system loves the selfworth deficient. After all, isn’t all that you have on you a reflection of all that you don’t have in you? The system constantly works at finding ingenious ways to keep the consumer that way and monetize the deficiency.  

The production-consumption system must grow for its survival. And in order to continuously grow, which is unnatural, it pushes the factors-of-production to up their productivity, often at the cost of their own wellbeing. It introduces competition among them to make them push their limits. 

It’s an autopoietic system, it rewards its insecure factors-of-production with its own produce; and helps itself further by making the factors-of-production spend their earnings to feed their insecurity by becoming its consumers. This insatiable insecurity is the bottomless well that fuels the system. 

It would be catastrophic for the production-consumption system if people were to become secure in their minds and begin consuming only as much as is essential. 

The sense of insecurity flows through generations. Anxious parents curate customised lives for their children. The factory model education system produces just the kind of compliant, insecure humans that the production-consumption system needs. It becomes a training centre for the producers-consumers of tomorrow, and the curriculum, nothing more than an operations manual of the tiny part of the giant system we ‘choose’ to super specialise in. 

As a super specialist, we are not expected to understand the workings of the larger system. In fact as per the grand design, we aren’t supposed to have the time, ability or motivation to do so. We are kept occupied on the constantly running treadmill and lulled into a comforting trance. It’s our couch, difficult to move off from. 

"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society."
 J Krishnamurti

Have we normalised the abnormal?

Eckhart Tolle says, “stress is being here when you want to be there.”

No wonder most of the world hates Mondays. After all we are where we don’t want to be. We wish to be somewhere else, or even, often, someone else in life. 

Instead of living with the stress of perpetually striving to catch up with the grotesque ‘desirable normal’ that the world has defined for us, wouldn’t it be saner for each one of us to find our own normal, and just be? Not the felt normal or the wished normal, but our true normal

Let’s primalise to find our own normal

To primalise is not to go back, but to go deeper. It is about reconnecting with, to use Marx’s term, our Gattungswesen - ‘species-being’ or ‘species-essence’. It is about living a congruent life. About living our being.

The human race has come a long way. Our ingenuity has produced some truly meaningful innovations over centuries. We are in an interesting position to reset our world. To reimagine it by picking the most elegant combination of mental, social and physical artefacts that took ages to build.

We need to begin designing systems that elegantly integrate the needs of the society with the integrity of nature. Systems where each entity has the ability to survive on its own and keenness to come together to thrive. Both independence and dependence are enemies of interdependence.

If we don’t want to waste the good crisis we have on our hands, we need to do it now, otherwise we will find ourselves on the treadmill again.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Reva Malik

Reva’s area of work and interest is in developing methodologies and processes that are inspired by natural systems. She has been involved in initiatives on rethinking and re-envisioning learning spaces; research and revival of natural/ indigenous processes of knowing and learning and looking at learning beyond educational institutions and curriculums. She draws her learnings from having worked in the education sector, in urban and rural spaces as well as her ongoing study and practice in process work.

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Ranjan Malik .

Ranjan has spent significant time studying and working on how systems work; especially sociocultural systems. First a decade in the communication industry and then a decade and a half as an innovation speaker, writer and facilitator. He has created methodologies that help not just decode and map the hidden structures and patterns in a system but also design and reimagine them. Besides innovation, he has a keen interest in the area of design and sits on Design Award juries. He has been expressing his point of view through talks and keynotes; and also articles in various publications. He can be reached at [email protected]

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