There are a lot of things to hate about the institutional pogrom that the middle and working classes must suffer in the name of Work. It’s not, of course, the actual work (i.e. productive activity) that is so bad. That’s often the best part of it! At any rate, work demands at Work are pretty light. The work itself– when you’re lucky enough to actually get a real project– is the fun bit. It’s the private-sector social climbing and subordination and the pervasive and extreme narcissism of the unethical assholes who are in charge that makes it such hell. There’s a specific economic reason why it’s so horrible, and a simple enough one that I’ll be able to mention it on the way to my main topic (victim shaming). I’ll cover the economics first, and then progress to the sociological victim-shaming problems.
Why Work is starting to fail
In 2013, ignoring technological change is not an option. It affects everything. No one’s job will be the same in 20 years as it is now– and that’s a good thing. However, it is dangerous. Broadly speaking, there seem to be two schools of thought on the labor market’s predicted response to enhanced efficiency, global labor pools, and automation of work. They are labor finitism and labor progressivism.
Labor finitism is the idea that there’s a fixed pool (“lump of labor”) of work that society has decided that it is willing to pay for. If labor finitism is accurate, then technological improvements only make the situation worse for the proles: they now have to compete harder for a shrinking pool of available work. If labor finitism is true, then trade protectionism and xenophobia become necessary. Unfortunately, labor finitism means that that technological advancements will destroy the middle and working classes, as their jobs disappear forever, and they are deprived of the resources that would enable to compete for the dwindling supply of high-quality jobs.
Labor progressivism is the more utopian alternative in which the enhanced capability brought in by technology gives leverage to the workers, and rather than automating them out of jobs, enhances their capability. Rather than being pushed out of the workforce, they’re able to do more interesting stuff with their time, add more value, and therefore be better off in all ways (higher quality of work, better compensation). Labor progressivism is the favored stance of Silicon Valley technologists, but unfortunately doesn’t accurately represent the reality faced by middle-class Americans.
Which of these two opposing stances is right? Well, the actual state of society is somewhere between the two extremes, obviously. It’s a mix of the two. Labor finitism seems to be more true in the short term, while the long-term economic evolution has a progressivist feel; there seems to eventual consistency in the system, but it takes a long time for things to get to an acceptable state, and people need to eat immediately. As Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead. If we can make the convergence to labor progressivism happen faster we should.
Here’s what I’ve observed. For pre-defined, subordinate wage/salaryman work, labor finitism is correct. The jobs that built the middle classes– complacent, entrepreneurially averse, inclined to overspend rather than plan for eventual freedom– of Western societies are going away, and this is happening at a rapid pace, leaving a large number of people (who were effectively farmed by a savvier elite, but are now unneeded livestock) just screwed. However, for those who have the resources to own their lives rather than renting their existences from a boss, there’s an infinite (i.e. labor progressivism) amount of useful work to be done: building businesses and apps, freelance travel writing, building skills and trying out radically different careers. Payoffs for such work are intermittent, and discovery costs are high– your first few attempts to “break out” will typically be money-losers– but those who have the resources to stomach the income volatility have access to a much higher-quality pool of work that is not going to be automated away in the next year.
So labor finitism and progressivism are both correct to some degree, the question of which is more in force depending on one’s present resources. Those who can stomach short-term income volatility live in a labor-progressivist world. For the 99%, however, labor finitism is more accurate.
So what is corporate Work?
Corporate Work is the labor-finitist ghetto left for “the 99%”, those of us who haven’t had the luck or resources to escape into the labor-progressivist stratosphere. It’s a zero-sum world. If you get 5 times as good as you currently are at your job, then 4 people sitting near you lose their jobs. There’s only a small amount of potential work that can be performed in good graces by the company, and that work-definition function is performed by a small set of incompetent high priests called “executives” whose informational surface area is too small for them to do it well, and who tend to use their social power and credibility for corrupt and extortive purposes, rather than advancing the good of the company.
What inevitably comes out of this is that there’s very little high-quality work available in the corporation. There are plenty more things that could be done and would be useful to it, but people who invested time in those would get into trouble for blowing off their assigned projects. So, while “reality” for a theoretically profit-maximizing company might be labor-progressivist (there’s an unending stream of improvements the firm might make that would render it more profitable) the issue of executive sanction (i.e. you can only keep your job by working on the pre-defined, often uninspiring, stuff) creates a labor-finitist atmosphere in which most time is spent squabbling over the few high-quality projects that exist.
Indeed, this is the most painful thing about corporate Work. It’s a lifestyle based not on doing work, but on getting it. Excellence doesn’t matter. Only social access does. It’s all a bunch of degenerate social climbing that has nothing to do with excellence or addition of value. It’s a world run by con artists who steal the trust of powerful people; those who are busy actually trying to excel at things (i.e. actually working) never develop the social polish or credibility necessary to do that, so they end up being marginalized.
Paul Graham wrote about this, and he got some details right and some wrong, in the essay “Why Nerds Are Unpopular“. It’s worth reading in its entirety, because while Graham gets some of the finer points wrong (and I’ll discuss that) he’s extremely insightful and articulate overall.
Graham compared the stereotypically negative depiction of high school (a cruel society governed by arbitrary dominance hierarchies and all-consuming conformity, existing because there isn’t meaningful work for 17-year-olds to do) to “the adult world” as a rich man (one who truly owns his life, rather than renting it from a boss) would perceive it– a place where there’s actual work to be done, and the intermittency of real work’s rewards is tolerable because of one’s financial status.
Here are two direct quotes to show what Graham’s talking about:
In almost any group of people you’ll find hierarchy. When groups of adults form in the real world, it’s generally for some common purpose, and the leaders end up being those who are best at it. The problem with most schools is, they have no purpose. But hierarchy there must be. And so the kids make one out of nothing.
We have a phrase to describe what happens when rankings have to be created without any meaningful criteria. We say that the situation degenerates into a popularity contest. And that’s exactly what happens in most American schools. Instead of depending on some real test, one’s rank depends mostly on one’s ability to increase one’s rank. It’s like the court of Louis XIV. There is no external opponent, so the kids become one another’s opponents.
When there is some real external test of skill, it isn’t painful to be at the bottom of the hierarchy. A rookie on a football team doesn’t resent the skill of the veteran; he hopes to be like him one day and is happy to have the chance to learn from him. The veteran may in turn feel a sense of noblesse oblige. And most importantly, their status depends on how well they do against opponents, not on whether they can push the other down.
Court hierarchies are another thing entirely. This type of society debases anyone who enters it. There is neither admiration at the bottom, nor noblesse oblige at the top. It’s kill or be killed.
This is the sort of society that gets created in American secondary schools. And it happens because these schools have no real purpose beyond keeping the kids all in one place for a certain number of hours each day. What I didn’t realize at the time, and in fact didn’t realize till very recently, is that the twin horrors of school life, the cruelty and the boredom, both have the same cause.
Paul Graham depicts the American suburban high school as being a society that turns to cruelty because, with the lack of high-impact, real-world work to be done, people create a vicious status hierarchy based entirely on rank’s ability and drive to perpetuate itself. He also establishes that similar meaningless hierarchies form in prisons and among idle upper classes (“ladies-who-lunch”) and that the pattern of positional cruelty is similar. Here is, I think, where he departs a bit from reality, taking fortunate personal experience to be far more representative of “the real world” than it actually is:
Why is the real world more hospitable to nerds? It might seem that the answer is simply that it’s populated by adults, who are too mature to pick on one another. But I don’t think this is true. Adults in prison certainly pick on one another. And so, apparently, do society wives; in some parts of Manhattan, life for women sounds like a continuation of high school, with all the same petty intrigues.
I think the important thing about the real world is not that it’s populated by adults, but that it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects. That’s what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.
When the things you do have real effects, it’s no longer enough just to be pleasing. It starts to be important to get the right answers, and that’s where nerds show to advantage. Bill Gates will of course come to mind. Though notoriously lacking in social skills, he gets the right answers, at least as measured in revenue.
So, apparently, it gets better if you have the resources to pursue work that has meaning, rather than the subordinate people-pleasing nonsense associated with high school (and, as it were, most corporate jobs). That’s what it’s like if you’re rich enough to escape corporate hell for good. Getting the right answers, rather than pleasing the right people, becomes important. If you have a typical please-your-boss subordinate position, though… guess what? Paul Graham’s depiction of high school is exactly what you’ll face in the supposedly “adult” world. The boredom and cruelty don’t end. You just get older and sicker and less able to handle it, until you’re discarded by that world and it’s called “retirement”.
The hellish social arrangement that Graham describes is the result of labor finitism; imposed artificially by the testability needs (i.e. have everyone doing the same work) of school and also the degraded economy of a prison (people intentionally separated from society, often because of psychological or moral defects) or idle ladies-who-lunch (who live in comfort, but have no power). People group together, but the lack of real work means that there’s a lot of squabbling for status. In a labor-finitist world, you have zero-sum internal competition and a social-status hierarchy that subverts any meritocracy that one might try to impose. High school students are “supposed” to care about grades and learning and doing good work; but most of them actually care more about in-group social status. That turns out to be great preparation for the corporate world, in which “performance” reviews reflect (and perpetuate) social status rather than having anything to do with the quality of a person’s work. (People who do actual work don’t get “reviewed” or, if they do, it’s a rubber-stamp formality; everyone is too busy actually doing things.) Work is a world in which grades are assigned not by teachers but by whatever group of kids happens to be popular at the time.
What Paul Graham describes as “the adult world” is what life looks like from his fortunate position. I won’t use “privileged” here– Graham’s brilliant and clearly earned every bit of his success– but it’s not typical for most people. If you have the money to own your life instead of renting from a corporate master, then labor progressivism (i.e., what “adulthood” is supposed to be, a lifestyle based on providing value to others rather than subordinating to a parochial protection-offerer called a corporate manager) is what the world actually looks like. The big question for us in technology is: how do we make a progressivist/high-autonomy world available to more people?
The biggest problem for technologists is trust. Free-floating, high-return-seeking capital is abundant in the world, but the gatekeepers (venture capitalists who’ve used internal social protocols to form an almost certainly illegal collusive phalanx, despite nominally being in competition with each other) have made it scarce. Talent finds capital to be inaccessible. Yet (somewhat insultingly) the corporate managers consistently complain about a “talent shortage”. So capital complains, with equal fervor, about a struggle to find and retain talent. Everyone’s wrong. Capital isn’t scarce, nor is talent. Both are abundant, and there’s something else keeping the two from meeting. The problem is that there’s a bilateral lack of trust.
Why do companies “acq-hire” such depressingly mediocre talent at a panic price of $3-6 million per software engineer? It’s because the value of a trusted employee is worth 10-100 times that of a typical one. So why don’t these companies, instead of shelling out billions to acq-hire mediocrity, simply trust their own people more? Well, that’s a deep sociological question that I won’t be able to explore fully. The short answer is that the modern corporation’s labor finitism (driven by closed allocation, or the right of workers only to work on projects with pre-existing executive sanction and middle-management protection) creates a society exactly like Graham’s vision of high school, which means that nasty political intrigues form and petty hatreds build in the organization, to the point that outsiders are deemed a better bet for allocation to real work than internal people, the latter having been tainted by years of inmate life. Corporate society is so dismal and mediocre and so removed from getting actual work done that people who participate in it (as opposed to the fresh-faced rich kids whose parental connections bought them VC and tech press and favorable terms of “talent acquisition”) are, even if reality is not such, perceived as being too filthy to be trusted with real assignments.
It’s not a pretty picture. Corporations hire people on the false pretense of mentorship and career development. “Yes, we’ll pay you a pittance now, and you’ll spend your first two years on the garbage work that no one wants to do; but we’ll advance your career and make you eligible for much better jobs in the future.” What they do is the opposite. They don’t reward people who “suck it up” and do years of shit-work with better projects in the future, because a person who spent two years not learning anything is less eligible for quality work than when he came in the door; they hire people with better work experience for that. Also, it’s not that they deliberately lie to hire people. It’s that they just don’t have much high-quality work to allocate, and few companies are courageous enough to try Valve-style open allocation. So what actually emerges is a society in which high-quality work either goes to political strongmen (i.e. extortionist thugs who intimidate others into supporting their own campaigns for high social status) or to outsiders that are usually either acq-hired in or started in privilged positions by investor mandate (i.e. a venture capitalist uses your company to mint executive sinecures for his underachieving friends).
How does all of this evolve into an elaborate system of victim-shaming? Well, it works like this. People are evaluated, in the world of Work, based on their previous experiences. However, because of the corruption in project allocation, a person’s “work experience” is actually a time series of his political favor, not his level of accomplishment. What that means is that people who fall out of favor are judged to be underperformers and flushed away. There is no more brazen culture of victim-shaming than the private-sector social-climbing hell we call Work.
The rules are clear: if you get robbed, it’s your fault. If your boss steals from you by abusing process, giving you undesirable work ill-matched to your talents, and ruining your career, it’s because you (not he) are a subhuman piece of shit. You deserve whatever he does to you, and he has the right to do it (that’s the perk of being a manager). He proved he was stronger, by robbing you and you letting him (as if you had a choice) and he therefore deserves everything he stole from you. You deserve nothing other than more humiliation. That’s what resumes are for: to create a distributed, global social-status hierarchy based on a person’s political-favor trajectory. That’s why job titles and dates matter but accomplishments don’t. It’s not about what you achieved; it’s about whether people saw you as threatening and strong (and gave you impressive titles) or as weak (and robbed you).
I hope the causes of ethical bankruptcy in Corporate America are visible, by now. A world in which thieves win (they stole it, thus they earned it) while the victims are treated like subhuman garbage is one in which almost no one can afford to be ethical (although the most successful people invest considerable energy in appearing ethical). For example, some people lie on their resumes. I don’t, but that’s for cosmetic reasons. While my work experience isn’t at the quality level that I deserved, it’s high enough that I prefer the complexity-reduction (a cosmetic concern) of sticking to the truth rather than the gains associated with a status-inflating lie that might fail and lower my status more than telling the truth would. I, personally, don’t lie; but I fully support those who do. They are being more ethical than the system they are deceiving. They express their honesty– in the form of contempt for an evil system–through deceiving that system’s officers.
The corporate culture we call “Work” is one where people are kicked when they’re down. It has no morals or ethics and there’s no point in pretending otherwise– not at this point, at least. When people lie on their resumes in harmless ways (quack doctors are criminals and should be jailed; but there’s no good reason to feel anything negative toward someone who self-assigns the title “VP” when he was a mere Director) I support them. Defective structures must be burned down, and I support the barbarians at the gate. If those who’ve been robbed for generations respond by stealing back what was taken from them, I think that it’s the best thing that can happen from here.