Recently, something came to my mind regarding the hobbies of affluent Americans. In their teenage years, they play video games that require more executive function (many “massively multiplayer” games feature challenges that require tens or hundreds of coordinated players to solve) than a lot of their schoolwork. If they are technologically oriented, they’re likely to engage in hobby programming and contribute to open-source projects that are more challenging than most professional software development. As they age, they take cooking classes, go on vacations where they pick their own fruit, and they read challenging books. Or they invest considerable time and energy into improving their houses. Some people, in a variety of charity programs, even build houses. What do all of these hobbies have in common? All of this is work, and people do it for free.
What do most of these people do in their paid lives? Very little, actually, other than shuffling around half-asleep and doing what they are told to do by others. Most white-collar office work is not intellectually stimulating or challenging, and most people’s job stresses are caused by forced socialization and hierarchy, rather than the intrinsic demands of the job, which are minimal. The truth of office culture is that it’s one of mediocrity, superficiality, and servility. An office worker’s job isn’t to be a creative director, a software engineer, or graphic designer, even if that’s his or her title. Rather, it is: (1) to sell oneself and remain “marketable”, and (2) to keep one’s bosses happy. Functional societies have engineers and scientists and builders. We don’t. We have a work force of 150 million salespeople and servants, with a small class of bumbling, visionless narcissists, entitled “executives”, running the show.
Ask an average office worker why he goes to work, spending 8 to 12 hours per day in an environment that is artificially stressful, while performing menial, fragmented work in a psychological equivalent of monoculture farming, and receiving pay at a level that does not remotely compensate the loss of his happiness and integrity. His answer: he wants to “move up” in the company. Why on earth would he want to “move up” in a company that he can barely tolerate, and that he wouldn’t care about if it weren’t tied to his livelihood? There’s only one answer: to get very rich. Why does he want to get rich? To buy himself out of the “common curse” of needing to work. (The slave whips himself harder than the master, in the hope of destroying the whip.) What will he do then, assuming he ever gets wealthy enough to own, rather than rent, his own life? (Most likely, he never will; but let’s assume that he does.) He might travel for a year or two, catch up on some reading, and rebuild the social life that has been let to rot since he left college. But eventually, he’ll want to do something with his life. This means that he’ll get back to work– but real work, that adds actual value to society, instead of the subordinate shit he was paid to do. If he has energy and some years left, he may write a novel, start gardening, or launch a small software company.
We have perversion here, and this very perversion is one of the strongest cases for scrapping corporate capitalism outright and building something new– something fairer and saner, with a stronger safety net, more allowance for risk-taking, and economic motivations founded in reward rather than fear and need. Many people, if relieved of the need to work, would add more value, by orders of magnitude, to society than they do now. Others, of course, would use this freedom as an excuse to do nothing, becoming parasites– this is unavoidable, and the strongest argument against a “socialist” welfare state. (The strongest argument for socialism over corporate capitalism is that it’s better to have parasites at the bottom than at the top of society, but I digress.) But in the aggregate, the net change would be positive, since society’s most talented and productive individuals would likely be in the former category, using this new freedom to do work that is more rewarding because it is more useful to society. Corporate capitalism’s artificial scarcity and unnecessary meddling, requiring people to dedicate their lives to aggressively selling themselves and pleasing others in a phony environment, makes people far less productive than they would be without its restraints.
The most common objection to my argument is that few people are willing to accept that the bulk of corporate office workers “do nothing”. Let me elaborate on that. First, to claim that large corporations are an engine of innovation or creation is false. At best, they are the calcified shells that innovation creates, then leaves behind on the shore. True visionaries would rather run small companies with high autonomy than serve as middling, supernumerary VPs with no real power. In actuality, corporations produce 30 brands, different in name only, of the same well-studied products, operating smooth-running machines to sell commodities that could just as competently be made and sold by the government. (I am not saying these necessarily should be government enterprises, but only that there’s no material difference between the bureaucracies of socialist governments and those of large corporations. As much as Amtrak is decried, the service provided by private airlines is worse.)
In this regard, corporations use accumulated knowledge and concentrated resources to deliver products and services that are, in fact, highly valuable. Then it is not correct to say that corporations, in their entirety, add no value to society. The factories and engineers themselves do add value, and in substantial amounts. As for the executives, brand teams, and middle managers? Not so much. They use their formidable power and visibility to capture value, but rarely create it. The factories would run well enough without them.
At the upper levels, corporations are not engines of production but a theater for social climbing. What was once done in Versailles is now done in corporate boardrooms. This activity has nothing whatsoever to do with making a better society or economy, even for and within the corporation. A corporate executive’s goal is not to make a better company, because it’s hard to do this without taking considerable risk. His goal is to make himself look better and gain entry into our society’s parasitic upper class. One particularly onerous way of doing so is to cut jobs, popping the stock price in the short term, and then to use this temporarily elevated stock price to justify “performance pay” to the tune of millions of dollars. When the adverse effects of this ill-advised layoff begin to set in, the executive has already collected and probably moved on to an executive role at a larger, more prestigious company.
Some executives and managers add value to their companies, but those are incredibly rare because, for the most part, the line workers know what they’re doing far better than their bosses do. It’s also difficult, without an intimate knowledge of who they are and what they are doing, to separate the 5% who are actually adding value from the remaining 95%, who are just talented salespeople, social climbers, and “up-or-out” champion coin-flippers. So most of these executives, like stock traders playing on hunches, actually add no value to society. The consequences of this realization are far-reaching, in the context of our economy’s tightly-connected graph of service providers. The numerous assisting professionals– middle-managers, executive assistants, and attorneys– who serve these executives often deliver excellent work, but if they do so in the pursuit of useless goals that serve the executive’s social-climbing ambitions, not society as a whole, then the quality of their work becomes meaningless because its value is still zero. Since most white-collar workers’ job description is, de facto, “serve the boss”, the result of this is that enormous numbers of white-collar workers are paid for work that actually has no redeeming value, serving only the empty ambitions of their bosses and their bosses’ bosses. These people, oddly, provide far more value to society when they give their garden produce to their neighbors, for free, than they do at their paid jobs.
This, from a bird’s-eye perspective, is bizarre. People want to do real work, and they want to be paid for work, but often they are forced to choose between one or the other. If they do real work, they do so without the resources and leverage that would allow them, in most cases, to earn a living by doing so. They don’t have the marketing resources and the scale of a rich corporation. A vegetable garden or a novel per year cannot support a family. On the other hand, if they want to get paid, they’re forced to throw professional integrity to the wind, joining the hungry masses of over 100 million salespeople and servants.
This realization is shocking, striking at the heart of the moral failure and paradoxical inefficiency at the heart of corporate capitalism, but it’s also uplifting. In the United States, we have a society that, while culturally bankrupt and characterized by mediocrity and ugliness, effortlessly provides a reasonably comfortable life for a sizeable proportion (about half) of its members. This is accomplished while most of the society’s most productive people work, at best, at quarter speed. If this can be done by an arrangement that is so hilariously inefficient and provides so little value compared to what it can, one must imagine the excellence it could achieve if that inefficient, shitty arrangement– corporate capitalism– were replaced with one that actually works– socialist libertarianism.