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Sunday
Nov132011

PIIGS on the Beach

Piigs on the beach

By PRADEEP JEGANATHAN

At the end of a long and enjoyable evening on Tuesday, I asked Gehan Talwatte, an old school friend who has founded, grown and then sold several quite valuable companies in the US and Europe over the last few years, whether he enjoyed his work. Of course, was his reply, so I pressed Ajith Fernando, also an entrepreneur of the highest level, and also a classmate who was hosting us that evening, does he enjoy his work? Ajith though has lived his whole life in Sri Lanka, hesitated a moment. I could see doubt flicker over his features. When pressed by Gehan though, he seemed to agree with him, and I thought it was the time for my work and enjoyment story, which just seemed to bubble up.

It was the Dutch anthropologist Peter Van deer Veer who told me this little joke of his in Amsterdam where he had returned to take up a chair after many years in an American University.
“You know, in the US, if you ordered a meal at a diner, the waitress would always say, ‘enjoy your meal.’ But 20 mins later, when she came back to check on you, she’d say, ‘still working on that?’”
I, and the others present cracked up at that, as he went on to say, “That’s really Dutch, so I got it at once.”

People’s attitude
It was Max Weber, the great German sociologist, who pointed out in his classic book, ‘The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism,’ that the reformation, the transformation in religious practice in Europe from Catholicism to Protestantism, was simultaneous with the change in peoples’ attitudes to work and savings. Work wasn’t something you did, so you could survive, earn and enjoy later. It was God’s work on earth, and it was all you did, and so, it would be just better of you enjoyed it. What you earned wasn’t to be spent now, it was to be saved, and invested back in your enterprise, in a nice closed cycle.
Other sociologists and anthropologists have argued, following Weber in a broad sense that this peculiar combination of work and pleasure has become a form of modern secular religion. So you can be Buddhist or Hindu, Zoroastrian or Jewish, and still practice a ‘protestant ethic.’ Gehan Talwatte was surprised when I called him a Protestant Buddhist; the term is so common in the anthropology of Sri Lanka that you could fill a small shelf with books about it, and those that criticise its usage. For it’s only an idea, not a fact, of course. Sometimes specialists have beaten an idea to death, and other smart people specialised in other things have no idea that they did so. Odd, that.
So I thought to point out its parallel in relation to the debt crisis in Europe, which I also wrote about last week from the point of view Greece. If we take a step back, we find what is called in the financial press, the PIIGS. Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. They are marked in red on the map above. They are obviously Catholic countries, waiting to be bailed out by Germany, the home of the Protestants. In a way, the lines do seem rather stark there.

Great savers
I must hasten to add, however, that I don’t think it’s that clear at all. France is quite Catholic, and Protestant Britain is facing a heavy debt burden as well. It seems that the great savers of the world are the Japanese really. So no, I don’t think I would hang my hat on national stereotypes. But I do think as an identifiable idea and practice, ‘enjoying one’s work’ has a certain weight and significance modern people understand. Those who do, go on to be ‘successful,’ either individually or if it’s a value shared by their fellow citizens, as a nation.
Those who don’t, like me, might take heart in another anecdote, related to me by Professor Donald Levine, who taught me how to teach Weber long ago in Chicago.
There is a man, who after a year of hard work, makes it to Tahiti for vacation and with a great sigh, lays himself down on the beach.
‘Hello,’ says, a native ‘what brings you here?’
“Oh it’s my annual vacation,” says the man, “I’ve got two weeks of it; I’m just going to lay on the beach, and eat fresh fish, drink coconut water, and do nothing else.”
“That’s called a ‘vacation’?” asked the Tahitian, sounding surprised. “Why, that’s what we do all year around!”

(Published in print and on the web, in the Nation on Sunday, 13/11/2011)

 

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