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The Life of a Bum: Against the Work Ethic
The Life of a Bum
by ANIS SHIVANI

At Henry Chinaski’s job at a magazine publishers’ distributing house, he notices that “the work was easy and dull but the clerks were in a constant state of turmoil.”

“Look,” I said, “these books aren’t worth reading let alone arguing about.”

“All right,” one of the women said, “we know you think you’re too good for this job.”

“Too good?”

“Yes, your attitude. You think we didn’t notice it?”

That’s when I first learned that it wasn’t enough to just do your job, you had to have an interest in it, even a passion for it.

This is from Charles Bukowski’s best novel, Factotum (Black Sparrow Press, 1975).

You won’t find Bukowski on most English professors’ reading lists, because Bukowski writes too clearly. It isn’t possible to fudge his message to make bourgeois life look all right, after all.

Chinaski shows utter disrespect for the work ethic. During and after WWII, he moves from job to job around the country but mainly in Los Angeles–some twenty odd jobs, not one lasting for long. He doesn’t worry about taking his jobs seriously, or getting fired. He has understood the sham that is modern work, and responds in the only way that makes sense to him: refusal to work. Even when he gets a “good” job, he refuses to work.

This book is a radical statement about modern work, far outstripping the merely liberal concern about making work better–pleading for fewer hours, better wages, more benefits, greater respect. These all turn out to be delusions in the end.

Are improvements in working conditions supposed to strengthen capitalism, so that in the end it may come up with more efficient ways to suck the life out of the worker? Is it possible to bridge the inherent alienation between the worker and his work in the capitalist system?

The only answer that makes sense is Chinaski’s unbending disrespect for the whole system of production: refusal to work, under any conditions, even when organizations appear to be catering to workers’ desire to belong.

Not long ago, Barbara Ehrenreich went famously slumming, and wrote about it in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books, 2001). She wanted to prove that at the lower end of the wage scale, it is barely possible to survive. These jobs try hard to make you feel you belong: Wal-Mart inculcates the work ethic by calling you an “associate.” You’re supposed to work overtime without being paid; your life belongs to your employer. Ehrenreich took jobs as waitress, maid, Wal-Mart clerk, and other situations where the overwhelming number of those who didn’t participate in the “new economy” actually held jobs. Of course, now the new economy has been shown to be a mirage, but Ehrenreich wanted to reveal how the other half lived even during the so-called boom years. At all her jobs, she had a hard time meeting basic expenses like food and shelter.

Ehrenreich’s critique is fine as far as it goes, and she writes movingly of the impossibility of surviving under the current wage bargain for the non-elite, but the denunciation of work itself isn’t there. She would want what? A living wage? An end to degrading rituals like mandatory training (propaganda) sessions, and ubiquitous aptitude (and attitude) testing?

Ben Cheever, a more resigned type, went slumming too during the boom years. He writes about his jobs as computer huckster, auto salesman, sandwich artist, and security guard in Selling Ben Cheever: Back to Square One in a Service Economy (Bloomsbury, 2001). As the title suggests, the way to get and keep a job in America today is by constantly selling yourself; as Chinaski was told, keeping a good attitude. Cheever too notes how annihilation of any sense of self apart from work has become standard practice in even the least challenging of jobs: the illusion that you’re being weeded out from the real morons by rigorous testing and questioning; the constant surveillance to make sure that you don’t have thoughts unrelated to organizational dominance at any moment of your (voluntarily donated) slave time. Cheever does his sincere best to speed things up, to work as well as his more committed co-workers. Cheever has no real complaints; he accepts his fate sweetly, and does what he can to please his employers.

Back to Chinaski for some real insight into the humiliating rituals of work:

Even during World War II when there was supposed to be a manpower shortage there were four or five applicants for each job. (At least for the menial jobs.) We waited with our application forms filled out. Born? Single? Married? Draft status? Last job? Last jobs? Why did you leave? I had filled out so many job forms that long ago I had memorized the right answers.

When this employer asks him what he does, Chinaski reveals that he is a “writer” but then appeases the interrogator by saying that the title of his novel is “The Leaky Faucet of My Doom.” This soothes the interrogator. Chinaski says that he wants to work in a ladies’ dress shop because he’s “always liked ladies in ladies’ dresses.”

The interrogation rituals, which are not limited to hiring but extend indefinitely until you’re fired, are a not inconsequential part of the degradation.

Chinaski knows that capitalism is a vast machinery to keep us busy, never let us have time to think about why the rulers should have the right to rule us:

The problem, as it was in those days during the war, was overtime . . .You gave the boss eight hours, and he always asked for more. He never sent you home after six hours, for example. You might have time to think.

Juliet Schor, in The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Basic Books, 1991), has made much of how Americans have been working more and more hours (more than any others in Western democracies) since the gains of the labor movement in the early twentieth century. Despite popular misconception, we now work harder than we did in the ruthless nineteenth century. Employees are so fatigued after (over)work that they have no time to think for themselves; mindless entertainment is about all they can muster energy for.

Schor notes that incentive structures in capitalism ensure longer working hours. The eighty-hour work week in the nineteenth century was terrible (although we’re now returning to something like it) but this is the worst standard against which to measure current working conditions. The worker in the middle ages spent considerably less time working: “Steady employment, for fifty-two weeks a year is a modern invention. Before the nineteenth–and, in many cases, the twentieth–century, labor patterns were seasonal, intermittent, and irregular.”

But here is the flaw in Schor’s thinking: “Work, too, can be pleasurable; and leisure may or may not be.” No, work under capitalism (when you sell your labor to an employer) is by definition degrading; it can’t be joyful. And the very term “leisure” implies, to the Puritan mind, a negative quality of slacking off, not pulling one’s weight.

One reason why Schor thinks we feel overworked is the plethora of consumer choices; we try hard to keep up with others, never getting off the treadmill. Schor talks about capitalism’s “squirrel cage,” the work-and-spend middle-class affliction instilled by capitalism, but in the end she doubts whether this cycle can be radically disrupted. That’s because of the “social nature” of work-and-spend: individuals alone, if they make the choice not to participate in the upscale consumer market, can’t do it. Schor mentions in passing the “‘Zen’ path to happiness,” keeping desire low to limit work hours.

The problem with liberal critics of capitalism (if that’s what they are criticizing) is that they don’t want to mess with the foundations of the system. Maybe a bit of tinkering at the edges, but that’s all. So having established that present work conditions are worse than in the middle ages and getting close to those in the abysmal nineteenth-century, Schor offers only the following changes: “altering employers’ incentives; improving wages for the lowest-paid; creating gender equality; pre-empting the automatic spiraling of consumption; and throughout, establishing time’s value independent of its price, so that it can no longer be readily substituted for money.”

It is a given in liberal circles that the more dire the diagnosis, the more pallid the prescription. In Schor’s framework, there is no need to give up ambition to get ahead in the capitalist world. You need only “balance” your work and private needs. In Schor’s analysis, if you work a little less, would this be to maintain the psychological balance necessary to be a more efficient machine? Chinaski drinks and fucks without any sense of balance; it is his implicit answer to those “reformers” who would want more space for the worker to express his unique self–in measured quantities, of course. “Overwork” suggests that it’s the “over” that’s the problem, not work itself.

Like Schor, Robert Reich also sees no real way out of the bind. In The Future of Success (Knopf, 2001), he glorifies the new economy, calling it “The Age of the Terrific Deal,” and handles the ever-expanding encroachment into workers’ leisure time as only a matter of striking the right balance. Reich says that we “are benefiting mightily from the new economy, “reaping the gains of its new inventions, its lower prices, its fierce competition.” None of this is worth giving up, regardless of what “neo-Luddites . . . isolationsits and xenophobes” might say. The price of the terrific deal, the new bounty of choices, is that we feel overworked and insecure. The age of permanent employment has ended, and loyalty doesn’t matter. If we’re smart, we’ll know how to conduct the “sale of the self” to the highest bidder at any given time. There are only two tracks, the fast and the slow. Since we can’t be expected to give up our appetite for goods, the best we can hope for is some cushioning against the worst economic shocks, and mitigating the worst effects of capitalism’s efficient “sorting out” of those on the fast and slow tracks. Reich makes no suggestion that work itself might be the problem.

It is no accident that Factotum was published in 1975. In the early seventies, Americans openly expressed dissatisfaction with work. Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello’s Common Sense for Hard Times (South End Press, 1976) has as its thesis the unjustified control of capitalists over “the time of our lives.” Nineteenth century workers were more rebellious; they clearly saw “working for a daily wage” as “equivalent to slavery.” Only in the twentieth century have Americans become habituated to the concept that they should spend the major part of their lives working for someone else. But the “work stoppages, sitdowns, and wildcat strikes” proposed by Brecher and Costello can only return a little control for a time to workers. Besides, even this type of resistance has mostly disappeared after the seventies.

Lloyd Zimpel’s Man Against Work (Eerdmans, 1974) presents practical strategies to increase worker “satisfaction,” anticipating Schor and Reich’s approach. The essays collected in Zimpel’s work suggest that different forms of alienation can be overcome by methods of job enrichment. The work ethic itself is not under attack; more participation can effectively challenge authoritarian means of management. But Brecher and Costello have shown how worker participation is yet another divide and rule tactic to enhance employer control.

Harry Braverman, in Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (Monthly Review Press, 1974), comprehends more clearly how capitalism works. Scientific management controls workers by withholding from them knowledge of different steps in the labor process–deskilling them, in other words. The worker deludes himself if he thinks that he can sharply separate work and free time. The marketplace extends into all areas of life, including leisure time, and institutions like schools and hospitals that we think function in a spirit of community exist only to clear out all but the most productive from the marketplace.

Freedom won’t come from marginal changes. Chinaski is wise to this:

Bums and indolents, all of us working there [at a bicycle warehouse] realized our days were numbered. So we relaxed and waited for them to find out how inept we were. Meanwhile, we lived with the system, gave them a few honest hours, and drank together at night.

Is it really that Chinaski and his fellow workers are inept? Or is that you can never measure up to capitalism’s standards? So why not one-up the system in the only way possible, by actually acting ineptly, by being irresponsible? Moreover, if you’re really “dumb” in the capitalist system, that means you’re not in on the take. You’re only making as much as the “rules” of the “free-market economy” say you should. Why not radically distance yourself from the crooks, present in every capitalist enterprise, by being dumb? At least that way you can’t be charged with being a thief in addition to being a slave. Hired as a janitor at the Times Building, Chinaski sleeps most of the time on the “sofas and chairs” in the “ladies crapper.”

Unlike Ehrenreich, Cheever, Schor, and Reich, Chinaski offers the radical alternative of being against capitalist ambition itself. Here’s how he calmly accepts being fired from the bicycle warehouse (just as he refuses to protest after every sacking):

“Chinaski,” he [Mr. Hansen, the manager] barked. I knew the sound: it was over for me.

. . .”Yes?” I asked.

“I’m going to have to let you go.”

“O.K.”

“You’re a damned good clerk but I’m going to have to let you go.”

I was embarrassed for him.

“You’ve been showing up for work at 10:30 for 5 or 6 days now. How do you think the other workers feel about this? They work an eight hour day.”

“Its all right. Relax.”

“Listen, when I was a kid I was a tough guy too. I used to show up for work with a black eye three or four times a month. But I made it into the job every day. On time. I worked my way up.”

I didn’t answer.

Chinaski makes us feel sorry for the capitalist class and its minions, even though he’s the one being put out of work. In the above episode, Chinaski is the dignified one, trying to lend humanity to the employer. And yet, wasn’t he the one showing up late to work every day? This stubbornness lets others equally enslaved feel superior. This is Chinaski’s act of mercy.

When Chinaski gets a job at an auto parts warehouse, he gets into the habit of playing the horses, rushing off from work a little before 5 p.m. to make it to Hollywood Park in time to place the bets. At work, he starts doing “less and less.” This is what happens at the inevitable firing scene:

“You knew we were going to let you go?”

“Bosses are never hard to fathom.”

“Chinaski, you haven’t been pulling your weight for a month and you know it.”

“A guy busts his damned ass and you don’t appreciate it.”

“You haven’t been busting your ass, Chinaski.”

I stared down at my shoes for some time. I didn’t know what to say. Then I looked at him. “I’ve given you my time. It’s all I’ve got to give–it’s all any man has. And for a pitiful buck and a quarter an hour.”

“Remember you begged for this job. You said your job was your second home.”

” . . .my time so that you can live in your big house on the hill and have all the things that go with it. If anybody has lost anything on this deal, on this arrangement . . .I’ve been the loser. Do you understand?”

He’s right. Your time is the only thing worth having. Why should any system that demands a worthless bargain, where you give up most of your time, your most precious (your only) possession, for the right to be able to eat and sleep under a roof, be worth defending? It’s slow death, and we accept it. After getting fired from this job, Chinaski demands unemployment: we need to be paid not to work, now that the link between labor and value has been broken in the post-scarcity era.

Does serious protest lend any kind of dignity to the worker? If all work under capitalism is demeaning, why not perform poorly, even though you’re smart enough to do the job well? Is any other response rational, dignified?

In capitalism, we’re all “extra ball-bearings.” We’re all “faceless, sexless, sacrificial,” despite the fancy propaganda. How long can you make the next job last? And if you can make it last a long time, is that the ultimate defeat?

Refusal of work means that you have given up the deceptive fight to ameliorate its conditions. The Fordist model–mechanization of work–is no longer limited to the industrial proletariat. The work ethic itself is the problem. In Marcuse’s terms, Chinaski is overturning the “performance principle” through which the current system of domination works. Nothing less will do.

ANIS SHIVANI studied economics at Harvard, and is the author of two novels, The Age of Critics and Memoirs of a Terrorist. He welcomes comments at: Anis_Shivani_ab92@post.harvard.edu