Professionalism as tyranny: a liberationist fantasy

‘People of the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public’ - Adam Smith

Adam Smith put it memorably above. I’ll be forever grateful for my time at the Australian Centre for Social Innovation because it has shown me the generality of that statement. Whether Smith intended it or not, it applies not just to businesspeople of the same trade, but to professions. And it applies not just to the professions whose anti-competitive practices are familiar to us all – lawyers and medical specialists for instance. The behaviour of these high status professions is consistent with the entire sentence from Smith which ends “or some contrivance to drive up prices”.

Some of the lower status professions also try to use their political power to drive up their own wages and, leaving aside the vexed question of the political and economic means by which their campaigns might be waged, I have a lot of sympathy for their desire to be paid and treated better than they are.  I’m talking of teachers and nurses most particularly, but I could be tempted to add academics and various others. However, often in an almost thoroughly well-intentioned way these professions exercise a kind of tyranny in the way they work. They see things in a particular way and, because they are either in charge of or an integral part of the functioning of some important social institution, it gets built around their world view. This is the meaning of the marvellous French expression déformation professionnelle

As I recounted in my speech launching the Centre’s family mentoring programme in Mt Druitt:

These are the words of Mystic (pronounced Mystique). She’s 21 now but was in out of home care since she was 3.

It happened so quickly. Once I turned 18, they sort of kicked me on my arse. They said ‘here’s $750, see you later, thank you’. And I’m just like ‘what the hell?’. A book and $750. That’s for being in care all your life.

Actually it makes you feel like an outsider. It makes you feel non existent on this earth. Like you are an alien. It does. It affects when you go to school too. You’re so used to being called ‘client’ and stuff that you start looking at yourself different to everyone else.

That ladies and gentlemen of the Tropposphere is, to purloin and marvellous expression of William Easterly’s the “cartel of good intentions”, or do-good professionalism as tyranny. Why is this tendency so strong and what could be done about it. Both good questions, but this post is dedicated to a fantasy of how it could be – to a bit of rhetoric. The sentiment might be said to be utopian I guess, but it’s not devoid of seriousness, or even practical import of some kind. Recall that, not only are the professions full of people who have taken them up for real love of the texture of the work, the intrinsic reward for doing it well and for the good they do, but professions are all built implicitly and often explicitly on noble ethical commitments – like the doctor’s to do no harm, the lawyers to uphold the rule of law ahead of the rule of men and the generalised duties of care of the many caring professions.

In any event, when I read Albert Camus’ magnificent lecture accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature for the first time, inside my brain the speech morphed into one in which Camus used the word ‘professional’ wherever he had used the word ‘artist’ and mutatis mutandis for all the associated derivatives of both words. This is what I read:

In receiving the distinction with which your free Academy has so generously honoured me, my gratitude has been profound, particularly when I consider the extent to which this recompense has surpassed my personal merits. Every man, and for stronger reasons, every professional, wants to be recognized. So do I. But I have not been able to learn of your decision without comparing its repercussions to what I really am. A man almost young, rich only in his doubts and with his work still in progress, accustomed to living in the solitude of work or in the retreats of friendship: how would he not feel a kind of panic at hearing the decree that transports him all of a sudden, alone and reduced to himself, to the centre of a glaring light? And with what feelings could he accept this honour at a time when other professionals in Europe, among them the very greatest, are condemned to silence, and even at a time when the country of his birth is going through unending misery?

I felt that shock and inner turmoil. In order to regain peace I have had, in short, to come to terms with a too generous fortune. And since I cannot live up to it by merely resting on my achievement, I have found nothing to support me but what has supported me through all my life, even in the most contrary circumstances: the idea that I have of my profession and of the role of the writer. Let me only tell you, in a spirit of gratitude and friendship, as simply as I can, what this idea is.

For myself, I cannot live without my profession. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, on one level with them. It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings. It obliges the professional not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the professional because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his profession nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others. The professional forges himself to the others, midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from. That is why true professionals scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge. And if they have to take sides in this world, they can perhaps side only with that society in which, according to Nietzsche’s great words, not the judge but the creator will rule, whether he be a worker or an intellectual.

By the same token, the professional’s role is not free from difficult duties. By definition he cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it. Otherwise, he will be alone and deprived of his art. Not all the armies of tyranny with their millions of men will free him from his isolation, even and particularly if he falls into step with them. But the silence of an unknown prisoner, abandoned to humiliations at the other end of the world, is enough to draw the professional out of his exile, at least whenever, in the midst of the privileges of freedom, he manages not to forget that silence, and to transmit it in order to make it resound by means of his profession.

None of us is great enough for such a task. But in all circumstances of life, in obscurity or temporary fame, cast in the irons of tyranny or for a time free to express himself, the professional can win the heart of a living community that will justify him, on the one condition that he will accept to the limit of his abilities the two tasks that constitute the greatness of his craft: the service of truth and the service of liberty. Because his task is to unite the greatest possible number of people, his art must not compromise with lies and servitude which, wherever they rule, breed solitude. Whatever our personal weaknesses may be, the nobility of our craft will always be rooted in two commitments, difficult to maintain: the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression. . . .

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4 Responses to Professionalism as tyranny: a liberationist fantasy

  1. Vern Hughes says:

    Excellent piece. The “cartel of good intentions” is not only alive in Australian public policy and political discourse, it rules the place. It is not possible to overstate the extent to which provider and professional interests dictate and drive the workings of government and public services at the expense of consumers, citizens, amateurs, and ordinary folk. Even those who think they are innovators and challengers of the status quo in Australia will often turn out to be, on closer inspection, entangled with institutional and professional interests which are hopelessly enmeshed in a “conspiracy against the public”. Disability, mental health and ageing come to mind immediately. Family well-being is another.

    What I don’t understand is how the author of these fine words can have been associated with The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, an entity entangled with professional and provider interests in social fields which sees its mission as working with them to do things better, smarter, using the latest set of management school cliches to obfuscate its well-motivated, but inescapably paternalistic, imposition of good intentions.

    Vern Hughes

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Vern,

    I guess the simplest explanation for the paradox you have proposed is that one of us is wrong.

  3. Vern Hughes says:

    It’s a puzzle, Nick. I love the ideas in this piece, but I can’t match them with what I know of TACSI. Doesn’t fit, to me.

  4. Phil Clark says:

    Would this be a good post to share the start of one of my favourite works by Oscar Wild;

    “The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes.”

    The proliferation of the manipulation of resources for individual and or collective charity or benevolence is as much a measure of our willingness to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others in the pointless persuit of wealth and power and the illusionary self determination and control we all crave which is one of many failures of the dominant morally devoid global socio economic systems that promotes individual achievement over collective welfare.

    Maybe we should do what Cuba did and have free University degrees to break the professional monopolies while providing public housing an institutionalising a compassionate safety net for the underprivileged but Insuppose a bit to too 1970’s.

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