Work Is The Least Alienating

Image of communal workspace.

Image by Alex Kotliarskyi.

“She’s on the go, way too fast and way too slow”—Dr. Dog

Is work the least alienating part of modern adult life? I will try to make the case that while work is surely alienating, it is the easiest part of life to navigate on a purely social level. Modern social norms are so determined by capitalism that it leaks into life in ways that are far from straightforward. Work is alienating but in a direct way. The task at hand must be done and we are judged on the completion of said task. The task is likely not fair, nor will it be judged fairly. It will likely be destructive to our mind, body and soul, but it also has the benefit of lower expectations.

When we hear stories about people dividing up their families based on the Trump question, we are left to wonder if people could make a similar divide over a work question. It seems to be more difficult. Such an environment is more authoritarian. Any difference of opinion could be decided based on chain of command.

On the other hand such a difference of opinion wouldn’t be considered to be personal, although it surely should be, given that, unlike the political difference, the decision at work likely has real world implications and real consequences. Steven Pinker’s explanation on Robinson’s podcast was actually quite instructive, even though Pinker is a political reactionary. Pinker argues that we have these disagreements on big questions like politics or the moon landing because getting these questions right hasn’t been important for our survival in evolutionary terms.

Pinker’s point here is that finding out where the COVID vaccine came from isn’t necessarily something we have needed to know, but knowing where berries come from would be. On a more current level we should ask why we are losing friends over political questions we can’t solve on our own. Or, more pointedly, why are we losing connections with people over problems that we can only truly impact collectively?

It is here where we must confront how deep our alienation is. Upon practical questions that we must solve to hold our local communities, we learn how to get along, often coming to consensus or accepting a chain of command. There doesn’t even really seem to be that much to fight about. But upon the bigger questions, we are divided, and not just down the middle.

It seems that the more we think we know about such questions the more foolish we become in resolving them. We become more and more sure of our answers, and increasingly close-minded to others. Whatever insight we gain about the idea itself is more than offset by our increased intolerance towards others. We have the right answer but that really doesn’t matter. If our tactics don’t match up we have no chance.

This is the trick of education. For the most part all education does is to get us more invested in a certain interpretation of the truth and brings us further from whatever truth actually is. Many people turn up their nose at those who believe in conspiracy theories, ignoring that these people often have a greater truth, namely that they want to move past the complexities of theory, and prioritize relationships with people.

Conspiracy theorists who say Bush did 9/11 are giving a more true answer than a long analysis of facts about world history which only waste time and risk division. If we all were to accept, broadly speaking, the greater truth that the United States, through its institutional terror, created individual terrorism, then we could form coherent politics. But if we are so focused on being the smartest person in the room, taking the bait on what the towers were constructed of and what have you, we lose people, and I would argue, at the risk of conspiracy, that this too is intentional.

This also applies to the start of the pandemic, the moon landing, the history of socialism etc. We have to ask, and this is for believers even more so than skeptics, what is the point? These endless ruptures that mirror religion, what are these things avoiding? Why are we able, when we have to, to simply discard these differences and follow orders? Why do we find that when it comes to practical everyday things there are clear right and wrong ways to do things?

What is so tiring about modern adult relationships? Why is work, in many ways, the last place we can be close to free? If others disagree I won’t be upset. I certainly have no defense for work. But I am finding that work is the place that is structured enough to express real freedom. It is the only vehicle in which we can have a shared purpose and cause. It is the only place where clarity triumphs.

Everywhere else there is on the one hand too much debate; every person has their own private silo where they get their information from. I agree with the mainstream on that much. On the other hand there is also far too much of a sense of social obligation and guilt that comes along with it. The issue is not that all of us have alternative facts. The issue is that we are all so righteously convicted about them.

None of us really believe each other, nor have we ever really believed each other. Each of us live in our own realities. But the question becomes how much do we have invested in this reality versus how open are we to others? What are we willing to give up?

I am trying to get focused on this idea of playing the bad guy. We have to accept it now and be prepared for the label later. The left has always been the bad guy and we only lose sight of what matters when we try to run from that.

Our society is weak and fragile because we are too focused on meeting social obligations rather than radically changing society. Those who meet social obligations reaffirm hierarchy and violence in capitalist production and get rewarded for it. Those who do not meet such social obligations radically change society and are eliminated from it in the process. We must be the latter but we must do so strategically without feeling sorry for ourselves.

Adulthood is a miserable hellhole because social obligations are thrust upon us. We are supposed to be responsible. Childhood is a relatively free time in comparison to adulthood. Children are policed, and policed with less rights than adults many times, but not always. But the freedom for the children does not come from a relative lack of policing upon them, in which they too receive too much, but rather from the lack of policing expected from them.

Children are not asked to make or enforce rules. Children either follow or break rules. Children are divided too, between those who follow rules and are rewarded, and between those who don’t follow rules who are punished. But children generally understand that those who break the rules are better, and those who follow the rules are worse. Children can be too mean to rule-followers, but this is a natural part of play and a natural response to adult’s unjust favoritism of the well-behaved.

The alienation of adulthood is where adults are asked to enforce rules on each other that are entirely arbitrary. Any critical thinker will find both sides of the process painful. But even worse, adults who accept the rules lack the open minds of children. They too must deal with their alienation of being a rule-enforcer, a task far more daunting than diligently following rules.

It is this dual nature in which a classless society does not immediately resolve our contradiction. Children bond by creating their own rules and coming up against barriers. Even when children follow rules their creativity isn’t being used for ill, it is only being stopped in its tracks, perhaps giving it time to rest, and perhaps giving it a new avenue for expression.

However when an adult enforces a rule there is nothing genuine about it. When we enforce rules upon each other we act upon each other with the interest of a third party, a higher class, who is interfering in our private relationships in ways we don’t understand.

If we do understand how the ruling class impacts relationships between people outside of formal work then we often, quite naturally, forget it, and we have to do a lot of work to unpack each other’s actions each time.

We are often forgiving of each other but that is more so because we tend to be kind. It is not as if we are necessarily constantly reaffirming class alienation. We may forgive each other for actions, but we will not forget, and some damage is done, in spite of our generous reading of each other.

Without a firm stance that all alienation comes from a class-based capitalist society we risk forgiving and not forgetting. Surely some of our alienation from each other is real but until classes are abolished we won’t know in what way, and there is no point in thinking of any of it as real until classes are abolished.

We build up a sense of arbitrary right and wrong and judge each other based on how well we live up to it. When the pressure inevitably becomes too great, we crack and we feel victimized by said society. Too often those claiming to heal us are merely assimilating us.

But in a sense we should be blamed, and accepting this blame, in a very particular way, should free us. We shouldn’t be blamed for breaking these customs, but rather for accepting them as real or worthy in the first place, and feeling some sense of failure when we don’t live up to them.

We condemn the rule breaker because we envy them and because we resent having to enforce the rules. We rightfully feel why me? Why do I have to enforce this rule and why can’t this other person just follow it?

When I think about it, often work, if everyone accepts that it is a miserable time, is the most free place to be. I recall feeling a great confusion at social events. Unlike my time in childhood navigating what it means to be an adult at a social gathering is utterly bewildering.

Many times entire subjects are off-limits, which has been covered before, but I certainly agree this is a shame. Even worse seems to be the expectation of fulfillment of tasks which mirror our expectations at work far more than our time at play. Everything must have thought, time and effort put into it. Everything must involve talent. Everything has a right and wrong. Such things become a chore, a custom, a social pressure, rather than free-flowing play where fulfillment of tasks are fun and dynamic.

Creativity is possible, even worse, it is mandatory. We are trapped in a prison of expectations. I find myself resenting animals, children, even those with severe “disabilities”, who often have superior talents elsewhere. These beings seem to avoid society’s expectations. Would a sickness, some kind of broken limb, some kind of death in the family, exempt me, at least temporarily, from what I have to wear, what I have to do?

Does all of this feel so hard to me because it is actually unnatural or because I am not up to the task? I have the sense that what at one point in time challenges weren’t burdensome. They were a gift. At one point, when this was all a game, I wanted to learn new skills and try them out. I found praise or scorn exciting and I didn’t take it personally. I long for these times.

These days all of it feels heavy. I know that I am not a rebel as I once thought, but rather just like everyone else; a person who wants to log out of the simulation. At work, I find that social expectation ambiguities tend to become clearer. Kissing ass doesn’t get you as far.

At work suffering isn’t as cool. Making fun of suffering is. At work the lazy people are well-liked, often even by those in charge. But as soon as we clock out, as soon as we face the obligation to enjoy, we are competing in a race to the bottom of social obligation.

It is not that I want to live in filth and be on drugs all day. Well, I do, and so do you most likely, but that’s not what I imagine as my natural state of desire. What I imagine is that this temptation to escape reality through various forms of mind altercation and distraction comes as a response to an unnatural world in some way.

I wouldn’t mind, as Jordan Peterson says, to “clean my room”. But if someone tells me I have to clean my room, it becomes hard to do. Household tasks, the planning of socializing with people, tend to just not get done. I tell myself I will cook something with imagination. I end up not caring or losing confidence.

I begin to turn on those who are trying at all. I want to shake them and tell them give up already! I want to put up a sign that says I am closed for business. I can’t say I don’t care. If I didn’t care, I would be closer to the state of the revolutionary. I still must be caring too much. I still must feel as if there is something right about present social norms. At the very least I can’t imagine better ones.

But all of this is therapeutic, an intervention into the mind of the individual and her social fabric rather than the collective material society. But how should an individual intervene in society? At the individual level. How should a neighborhood intervene? At the level of the neighborhood. The town at the town level. And on it goes.

So what is the task? Can it be made clear? What structural advantage does work, determined by capitalism, have over private social relations, determined by capitalism? The advantage comes from organization, hierarchy, cooperation, purpose, and muted expectations. People fall into depression and anxiety when they try to create meaning from modern life.

There is no meaning in modern life because there is no freedom. The more agency we appear to have the less free we become because we can’t really do what we want, we appear to have more options. More options within a class-based society only guarantees that not only we are unfree, but we choose how to be unfree, or how to make others unfree.

Hence we are no longer children, who at least have the gift of having rules thrust upon them. We now are adults, who have to make rules for each other. We become outraged at these false rules, we overthrow the ruler, and when the new ruler comes in, they are the same, pretty much, but perhaps with a different kind of contradiction.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at