I enjoy rooting out the lies my culture has told me, transmitted through the medium of well-meaning parents, friends, and professional helpers of one description or another. One of them is that if you make the right kind of effort, you will find happiness and fulfillment in your intimate relationship with another person. Not true or, at best, only rarely true. Another is that if you hard and make sensible choices in life, you will find fulfillment and happiness through work. Also not true, and it’s worthwhile exploring the dynamics of why not.
There’s nothing inherently degrading or awful about work per se, if by work we simply mean the focused exenditure of effort and attention in a manner that produces a visible product or renders some useful service of one kind or another. Work in that sense can be quite engrossing and fulfilling, indeed, a positive relief from the suffering that otherwise so fills up human life. Even a sourpuss like myself finds, in activities like this blog (and other less high-minded Internet enterprises), an agreeable way to pass the time. A few hours a week of time at most, as it happens. The rest of my counscious hours on earth are spent in enterprises far less agreeable. — in alienated as opposed to unalienated labor, as a certain poète maudit of capitalism would have put matters. And why is that?
We might begin with the observation that whatever you are, there are probably a lot of people like you with respect to what it is that you find engrossing or fulfilling. And what is more, there are also a lot of people like you with respect to what they find soul-killingly dull terribly anxiety-inducing. As a result there’s a lot of labor supplied in occupations that people might enjoy — there are a lot of would-be poets and musicians and artists out there — and relatively less so in ghastly combination-of-stress-and-boredom occupations, like being investment bankers or lawyers. (And of course, there are many people who through no fault of their own have no shot at becoming either of these things — they get the worst of both worlds in the analysis that follows.) These facts explain the compensation structure of the occupations. Poets aren’t paid much (or, at best, becoming a poet means something like buying a lottery ticket which might pay off big for infinitesimal odds of winning). Investment bankers are paid rather too much. I have lived in both the high-fulfillment and high-compensation worlds over the course of my questionable life, and so I know this structuring of the world by experience; I can tell you (even if I take no joy in the fact) that that’s how it is. Other things being equal, the more shit you’re willing to eat in the workplace, the more you get paid.
Okay, so life has tradeoffs. Can’t you at least hope to make them wisely, like the nice guidance counselor in high school said you should? Carefully inventory your talents and preferences and select something that will at least give you the optimal point between starvation and soul-death? Unfortunately, you are unlikely to make even this choice well. Why?
Begin with the fact that we are status-seeking animals. Statuses and roles appear to be human universals, extant in all known human cultures. And believe me, you (and I) really would like to have our status be as high as it can be. Status is everywhere and it influences pretty much every interaction we social creatures can have with each other, generally for the better the higher our status is. It is the difference between prison and rehab when our vices get exposed. It is the difference between that attractive person’s cool disdain (or worse) their accepting our invitation to have coffee sometime. The exact same sentence which will be ignored when uttered by a person of low status will be listened to with great seriousness when uttered by someone with high status. Who doesn’t want to be the high status person.
A contingent feature of life in a capitalist* society is that status is pretty closely linked to money. The association isn’t perfect, but to a very large extent how high you stand is a matter of how much money you have, how much you have the potential to make, or how much of it you’re somehow associated with (compare, for instance, Ivy League with state university faculty, even controlling for salaries). The bigger house, the nicer car, the better-tailored clothes, the tonier private school — all these things cost money, and all are status-enhancers. (All of these statements are other-things-being-equal, but not less true or less important for all that.) But when this is true, you’re in a pretty deep bind. Because now status is subject to the same ugly logic that romance is subject to: a collective-action problem related to climbing and falling on various ladders. You would like to go up the ladder as high as you can reasonably climb — going up feels good, as does being on the higher rungs. And you definitely do not want to slip down; not getting as much respect as you’re used to is something that really hurts. Eating shit in the workplace, however, is something you don’t like either, so once you’re climbed to the point where that isn’t worth it any more on some relevant margin, you stop. Unfortnately, there’s always someone around who might be willing to eat just a little more shit and take your place on the ladder, slipping you down a rung. You don’t want that, so you eat more shit that you’d like.
The same logic applies to everyone else, and so they all eat more shit than they’d like. Everyone runs faster to stay in place. Work does not save you or them; it ends up ruining us all.
*In societies that aren’t capitalist, this is not necessarily true, but I don’t mean this claim (necessarily) as advocacy of socialism or feudalism or anything else. Each society finds its own way to suck. Back to main text.