On Not Being Lonely About Labor

Over at n+1, a reader writes into Kristin Dombek at the Help Desk, asking for help to cope with her feeling of being exploited by work, and the “white-hot festering rage that runs at all times in the background of my day to day.”

Is there something wrong with me that I find regular employment to be the most soul-oppressing thing I can imagine? How can someone undergo the spectrum of emotion and concentration necessary to create something beautiful — a real and full life, even — while holding down work enough to survive?

Dombek’s reply is long and measured and fist-pumpy and beautiful, like a Marxist Dear Sugar. She calls for empathy and solidarity among workers of shit jobs and bullshit jobs alike, for looking at for each other and wearing our indignance on our sleeves, but not so much that it eats us alive. A delicate balance, to be sure!

Where should you direct your rage, then? To what end? This is a difficult question. Too often I see people directing their rage against the wealthy, as if they are monsters. To treat the “1 percent” as some abstract malevolent conspiracy is to tread too close to the helplessness that is really what keeps the whole thing going. Sure, there are people whose greed and desire to exploit others are the very reason we have the word evil. Sure, for some reason some bosses are totally manipulative and sadistic. But I suspect that for most of the members of the upper 10 percent, and even the 1 percent, the real story is different — it is the system that is exploitative, and they have chosen to fight for a position in that system that is the only way to have a kind of personal power that should be everyone’s right. Do you think that if they weren’t so scared of falling into our position, so many people would choose to work in finance, for example, an industry built, in large part, on preying on the debt of others? Employment in that sector is currently the one of the best bets for ensuring one’s basic needs are met, and sending one’s children to college, if they want to go, and getting to live where you most want to live, and traveling to other countries, and getting good health care, without going into debt. It’s not bad to want these things, it’s just that everyone should have them. I wonder sometimes who we have lost to employment in the finance industry — how many great, world-changing climatologists and astrophysicists and doctors and molecular biologists and teachers and composers and househusbands and architects and urban planners. We’ll never know, so long as it is the most lucrative employment for people who are really good at math. How many world-changing social justice lawyers have we lost to corporate law? We’ll never know.

It’s not bad to want these things, it’s just that everyone should have them.

Just read the whole thing!