On Commerce

Alan Watts explores the nature of commerce and money. He argues that we’ve lost sight of the purpose of technology—to reduce labor and increase leisure. Instead, we’re trapped in rituals and mindsets that no longer serve us. He advocates for rethinking our relationship with work, trusting employees, and embracing a more relaxed, purposeful attitude towards money and business.


So since we’re under the auspices of the School of Business, I’m going to talk about commerce. And basically, the word “commerce” is very friendly, because it means “communion interchange;” originally the “bartering of goods.” But now it has a rather bad flavor because we speak of something being commercial. And I wonder why that does have what we call a pejorative flavor, something a little bit beneath a gentleman or lady, to indulge in commerce.


I remember this in England. In one’s home, gentlemen and ladies came in by the front door, but commercial people—that is to say, tradesmen—always came in at the back. And there was a notice, “tradesmens’ entrance” to all respectable houses. Why is it that there is something that is not quite respectable about commerce, and especially when anybody in the field of higher things—the arts, literature, the university, and above all religion—is accused of having somehow become untrue to himself by going commercial? For example, if I were to conduct a television series under a sponsor such as Coca-Cola, a lot of my interested students would think that I’ve gone commercial and was somehow corrupted. And we need to inquire as to why this is so.


The root of the matter is, I think, that in the worst sense of the word, the commercial is an enterprise into which one goes for the sole purpose of making money. You, in a way, almost by definition, don’t enjoy doing what you’re doing. I always marveled at this, when I was a small boy, that my father had to dress in peculiar clothes and don a derby hat and catch a train at 8:30 to go into the center of London, where he bored himself for long hours selling automobile tires for the Michelin company. I couldn’t make out why he was doing this. It seemed to me to be the most ridiculous thing to do, because I knew he didn’t enjoy it. And then later on he did something else of a rather similar kind. It was all bookwork, accounting, and adding up figures, which are arid abstractions—unless, of course, you happen to love figuring, as some people love playing poker or chess. And then I feel it’s a legitimate game—if you really love playing the stock market for its own sake, just because it’s a marvelous intellectual exercise.


But the idea of doing work simply to make money shows an extraordinary lack of realism. There are lots of people playing the stock market to make money, and they don’t give a damn what the businesses they’re investing in are actually doing. They may be destroying rivers, raping the countryside, getting rid of whole tribes of whales. But they’re in it for the money. And what is characteristic of people who are simply in it for the money is that, when they get the money, they don’t know what to do with it. That’s what really bothers me.


Some years ago I married a lady who was chief of public relations for Mobil, the oil company, and after she met me she left it. But she had good friends in the offices there, and one day she took me to meet some of them, and we all had lunch together in the director’s dining room. Well, I had expected that the director’s dining room of Mobil Oil would be a very superior affair. I expected to be served with the finest French wines, to have pâté de foie gras for hors d’oeuvre, I expected to have truite au bleu as a first course and steak en côte for the second, and at least zabaglione or some fantastic dessert to end up with, and then followed by benedictine. On the contrary! It was the most miserable kind of lunch. It was merely a kind of dolled-up version of what you get in the university. The waitresses were wearing black skirts and pretty white lace with little bonnets on, and it was all cutey-pie.


And these gentlemen came to their offices in hearses—in other words, enormous black Cadillac limousines—and they dressed like funeral directors with not a touch of color. And likewise, their wives on formal occasions appeared in modest black with a string of pearls. Real pearls, which you wouldn’t know the difference. And, somehow or other, they seemed not to have any imagination about enjoying themselves, to perhaps expiate their sense of guilt about making so much money, so as not somehow to present the impression that they were enjoying life. They come on as if they were doing their duty to society. And therefore, in a cultural context which is basically Puritan, they must be very careful not to show that they’re living it up.


Now, something is to be said for certain millionaires in Texas who make enormous sums of money out of oil who live it up in a very vulgar way, but without taste. They at least have the courage of their convictions. But if you are a businessman in a northernmost part of the United States—outside Texas—you must be very careful indeed not to give the impression that you’re enjoying what you’re doing, but that you are, on the other hand, an extremely responsible citizen who is suffering a great deal, and therefore naturally dresses in a funereal way, and wouldn’t until the days of color television wear such a loud tie as this.


Now, I consider that I myself am 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 is an interesting smell to the ink on a checkbook. But, by and large, all this figuring is a completely colorless occupation and I don’t like it. So I have to hand it over to accountants and lawyers and 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!” And as to all this paperwork—well, to 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 one third of his working hours practicing 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 a 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’re 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. Now, who’s going to listen to all of 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’ve 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 twenty 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? And 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 there’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’ve 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 yetzer hara, 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. 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 can let our hair down. Then we can say, “Look, let’s work this out. 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. 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?—60:40, maybe a little more, maybe 75:25, 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 drop-outs 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 José 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 have 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’ll 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 can always sell it to somebody else.


Now then, this is a fundamental principle. 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 be commerce without mutual trust. I mean, there are 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 laborer is worthy of his hire. And I, as a mere philosopher dealing in higher things, always insist 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, in having a swimming pool, a Ferrari, a certain kind of clothes, and certain kind of house with an enormous ranch-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’s 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 where they all think they’ve got to have this, they’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’re 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.


Now, true, we all need money—simply because we’ve all agreed that we all need money. There’s no other reason. It’s important to understand this about money; a lot of people don’t know it. Money is a measure of wealth. Money is not wealth. Money is like inches—dollars, let’s say, are like inches: they are a way of measuring real wealth, which consists of material resources plus energy plus intelligence. That’s wealth. Money represents it. We used to have the idea, you see, that gold was money. Gold is wealth. Well, that’s perfectly absurd. Because does the prosperity of the world constantly depend on discovering new gold mines? When a banker buys gold, what does he pay for it with? Book entries. And so (with this myth of gold in the background) we think money is real. Money is the most unreal thing in the world. It’s a form of statistics.


And so, therefore, we don’t realize that, as our wealth increases as a result of an expanded technology, we have to provide enough money to circulate it. In other words, we have to pay people for the work done on their behalf by machinery, because otherwise the manufacturer won’t be able to move the goods off the shelf. Now, that seems an outrageous idea, frankly in disaccord with the Protestant ethic. “You mean give people money? Where’s the money going to come from?” Well, money never did come from anywhere. It’s like asking: where do inches come from? It’s simply a question of realizing that technology was invented to save labor. That doesn’t mean in order to dismiss your employees, it means to let them have a vacation—in other words, a shorter workweek—and for you yourself, as the owner, less to do, so that you can go and gaze at the Moon or make love to your lady friend. Why not do it? Well, everybody feels guilty about it. Because they think having archaic minds, when we didn’t have this technology, that they’ve got to go on behaving the same way as when machines didn’t exist.


But now we have them, but we won’t use them except in silly ways—like, for example, rushing around everywhere in automobiles polluting the air. You know, you don’t really have to commute in most businesses if you have a telephone. Ever thought about that? You don’t need an office. You don’t need to go around rushing around, exhausting yourself, and getting absolutely furious in the traffic jams on the freeway. And we’re all getting furious about things we can do nothing about. You know, we read the newspapers and look at TV and see the disasters occurring all over the world, and feel upset and mad, and there’s nothing we can do. Well, why waste your time? Pick up the telephone. It saves you the cost of a secretary. The fag of mailing stuff, sticking stamps on it, and going down to the post office. And if you count up all the hours, you’ll realize that the electronic method of communication—that is, the technology—is much less expensive than the ordinary way one goes about things. It’s like an automobile is a mechanical imitation of a horse and carriage. Completely irrational. Long ago, people have invented automobiles that were far more serviceable, but they somehow never get into use. So it is a matter of keeping your mind closely on what you really want to happen, and what can be done instead of going through meaningless rituals.


Now, I was referring to the fact that everybody needs money. And while this is the system, while this is the social consensus—everybody doesn’t need money—but while it is the social consensus that that’s what we all need, let’s be frank about it and not say, therefore, of the person whose interest is in higher things—whether it be academic, religious, or artistic—“Oh, you don’t need money because your satisfaction is surely in doing your work! The only people who need money are the people who are miserable at their work, because they’re there to make money.” Let’s drop the hypocrisy. The scholar, the artist, in this context where everybody has to have money to live, needs money just as much as everybody else, and should be paid accordingly. This applies particularly to the teacher in the schools, or whatever. You know, people who are put down, and saying, “Oh, you’re a teacher,” or, “You’re a clergyman. You don’t need money because you live on the spirit.” That’s rubbish in—I repeat—in this context where everybody has to have it. So, you know, you think you can be a drop-out and be a hippy? You have to go out on the street, “Got any spare change?” “You don’t need money, you’re a hippy!” Don’t fool yourselves. We all do.


But we are living under conditions where money—as I have tried to explain—is not understood, where it is not seen for the fiction (and the useful fiction) which it is. And so what do we do? We have income tax, which is the most absurd system of accounting ever conceived. Have you ever figured out what it costs to pay income tax? Not just the tax itself, but the cost of paying it—to yourself and to the government? It’s colossal! When I raise the question, then: why do it at all? Why doesn’t the government simply take off the top as much money as it needs and issue the rest? It’d be much simpler. All this silly business that torments everybody would be canceled, and the department of internal revenue and all its offices, they needn’t be frightened of losing their jobs, because they could simply be the officials who work at the other direction. In other words, they could be the dispensers of the money to everybody, to pay them for the amount of work done by machinery on their behalf. I mean, doesn’t that make sense? What we’ve got against this is not, as it were, an intellectual or mathematical block, but a psychological block, and don’t see that that is the inner meaning of technology: to save labor.


In other words, you could say that the labor party in all the various countries has never really understand that it has to be saved, and it works against its own salvation with ridiculous socialistic schemes of making everybody equally poor—which is what invariably happens—instead of making everybody equally rich. But, of course—mind you—when we’re all equally rich, there will always be people who want to outdo other people, and so feel psychologically that they’re poor even when they’re in perfectly good health, very well fed, housed, and clothed. They want to go a little bit beyond so as to show, “I’m more outstanding than you.” And there, of course, we get into great metaphysical depths. But so far as the business of the matter is concerned, I think what I’ve said thus far should commit itself to your careful consideration.

Alan Watts


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