America’s Hamster Wheel of “Career Advancement”

Casey Chalk at The American Conservative (TAC) posted an interesting editorial on the rat race. I wound up writing a long comment in response. TAC was normally good about posting all sorts of reader comments. There was no word limit: their comments page simply inserted a “Read More” link for longer comments.

For some reason, this comment joined a handful of other comments, by me, that TAC refused to publish. I have listed several of those rejected comments in another blog post. Here, I just wanted to post the text of my response to Chalk. His article included several religious remarks. My reply went like this:

* * * * *

America’s Hamster Wheel of ‘Career Advancement’

You don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that companies exploit people — employees, customers, and the public — to produce profit. You just need a few years of work experience. There are people who do find rewarding careers. But that isn’t, and never has been, the nature of work for most people in industrial or post-industrial America.

It is true that much research has established the value of employment for purposes of self-respect and mental peace and harmony. This is because anything, including ritual suicide, will promote self-respect and mental peace and harmony, if you convince people they must achieve it, and then help them to do so.

There is a certain strain of evangelical thinking in which God is forever testing us. If you can’t understand why some terrible thing happened, that’s the default explanation. I have mostly shed that belief. But sometimes I still find myself wondering whether the purpose of careers in America has just been to test us, to see how badly we will abuse each other for purposes of our own advancement.

I don’t really believe God would test Americans that way, though. He’d have to be a moron. Run the test once; it’s over in five minutes; you get the same results you’ll get in the next 50,000 retries.

Truly, not every worker or workplace is like that. They do vary. But there are undeniable adverse tendencies in the stories told by those who have been rejected, used, and/or discarded. Of course, those who can thrive within that world have generally learned to be less than entirely frank about the facts of their situations.

To address another claim in [Chalk’s] article, leisure in the “evenings and weekends” sense is fake leisure. It’s barely more than catching one’s breath. It takes weeks, months, sometimes even years to recover from the scars of American working life. Our hearts may be restless for God. If so, they will remain so. God’s away on business. The more likely explanation is that, in the career sphere, our hearts are restless for our children, for our friends and, lost somewhere in the vacuum of space formerly known as the community, our hearts are restless for a meaningful experience of home.

The job is an arrangement wherein we are allowed to continue to live, in exchange for ignoring the things we know to be really important in life. The reason nobody on their deathbed says, “I should have spent more hours at the office,” is that ultimately the office is not where we belong.

Where we belong is with the kid who’s having a hard time at school — not just our own kid, but the kids of the neighborhood, who in the towns of olden times were more exposed to, and free to confide in, adults other than the parents who are now terrified to let them out of sight. We belong with the people who love us. And if we were with those people, we would find there were more of them, because we wouldn’t be spending so much of our lives learning to be jerks, so as to grow and prosper and protect ourselves, as we are constantly told (as we have constructed our country to demonstrate) we must do.

Where we belong is fixing the house, and the fence, and after that the plant that has been polluting the river, and then the corruption in City Hall. It starts from there. Few surviving governments have ever said, “What we need is more citizens with more education and more free time, to question and become active participants in what we’re trying to do here.”

We know this. Postpartum depression is not a female (or parental) weakness. It is one of those rare instances when life slaps us and says, What the hell are you doing, spending your best years in that pit? Wake up!

Sorry — I probably should have stopped earlier. You got me going, Casey Chalk. As the links suggest, I’ve been around the block on work and leisure. But, yes, “much of the labor Americans perform isn’t actually good.” I wouldn’t have given readers an easy out, though, by blaming the more convenient vice shops. What’s evil about American labor is not primarily the “cigarettes” (really?) and the “‘gentlemen’s clubs’ and so on.” It is the lawyers, and the bankers, and the real estate agents, the marketers who figure out new ways to squeeze us, and the advertisers; it is the politicians, and the pundits who twist the truth at the expense of a great many people, not to mention the ministers who promote “lying for the Lord“; and it is also the spouses and the children who thrive on what these workers do, and expect them to keep doing it. It is the customer service agent who defeats legitimate customer complaints in order to maintain her employer’s profitability and, not incidentally, her own job — “and so on,” as you say.

The country’s employers are not a core of good, tainted by a bit of evil around the edges. They are the builders of an America that persuaded us to send trillions to China, so that we could fill an ever-growing number of storage facilities with plasticware. Not a bad deal, in exchange for world dominance. Right? That was our work-earn-spend cycle in operation.

The main thing is, somebody got rich. It wasn’t us, but them’s the breaks. At least we did earn the right to consider ourselves hard-working and honest. Oh, and stressed, and in debt.

You’re not wrong, in your preaching about “the moral quality of our economic output.” You’re just toothless. You seem to be advocating an abstract link between personal righteousness and economic goodness. It’s a nice thing to believe. But we didn’t get where we are because the Calvinists had it all figured out. To the contrary, their righteous hard work seems to have sped us on our way.

Once you meet a few people with real money and real power, you learn they don’t care, they don’t change their goals, and they don’t quit. They aren’t just like the rest of us. There are variations. But show me a man who will subject countless workers to really nasty work conditions so that he can buy a $42 million clock, and I will show you someone ruthless, dangerous, and all too typical. Nothing against “prayer, meditation, and worship,” but the evidence suggests our plight will require a bit more than that.

Again, sorry for the length. I see Disqus inserts a “read more” option, so at least I don’t have to feel too guilty about consuming valuable column inches. Thanks for provoking me to respond.

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