Our Decadent Nonsensical Work Ethic


Hello everyone,
I published an article recently with The Baffler, about the smoking wreckage of Panera Cares, Panera Bread Company’s libertarian soup kitchen. The response online was varied and interesting. Many people still want to believe that super-wealthy entrepreneurs are our best hope for solving big problems. Unfortunately entrepreneurs, like Ron Shaich, are short-sighted idiots, just like me and you! Collective action, solidarity, and governmental intervention works much better. My underlying argument is that Shaich should be shamed for thinking he could get customers to solve a problem that public institutions like our government already try to solve. Read it and let me know what you think!

This week’s issue is themed, focusing on the Protestant work ethic. As you probably know, the Protestant ethic is loosely the idea that people should work hard today, and save for tomorrow. In other words, we should deny ourselves the pleasure of today for our reward in heaven tomorrow. Sociologist Max Weber found the Protestant metaphor of denial in capitalism, as he describes in his famous text, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published way way back in 1905. And when you look for it, you still see it everywhere, which many journalists and writer types like me love to point out. I want to suggest that maybe the idea that we must toil is outdated, nonsensical, and oppressive.

At Carrier, the Factory Trump Saved, Morale Is Through the Floor (NYT)


Carrier, the air-conditioner maker, advertised during the New Hampshire primary that it would be shutting down its plant Indiana. After a promise of $7 million in tax breaks and $16 million in new equipment from Trump, they remained open. But with mandatory overtime and 60 hour weeks, one in five employees aren’t showing up for work. Employees see the writing on the wall, and believe correctly that Carrier can still move to Mexico at any time. People know when their jobs suck. They know when management doesn’t care, when there is no future. So we can cheer on job-creation, fight for higher wages, or even the possibly delusional goal of full employment, but we also must listen to our guts. Our guts might be saying that paying businesses to create jobs for people is a dead-end. Of course encouraging businesses to create jobs sometimes works. But what if the jobs so obviously suck? Also, in a pathetic twist, the money Carrier received was already “earmarked for automation.” So in one way, tax incentives actually paid Carrier to destroy jobs.

In the article, Nicole Hargrove, a worker at the plant, grapples with why people aren’t showing up to work. She says: “There are days when I’m hurting and I’m tired but when I walk through that door, I’m going to give 100 percent. The Bible says an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and I try to live by that.” My eyes narrowed to slits upon reading this. What the fuck does the Bible have to do with work? Should you work a shitty, pointless, doomed job just because the Bible says to? Is the Bible really that petty? Hargrove rightly feels that something in the social contract is breaking down, because while she knows that God has instructed them to toil, it doesn’t quite make sense. Her fundamental beliefs aren’t doing anything; her co-workers aren’t showing up.

Behind Hargrove’s sentiment is the Protestant work ethic, the ideology that democratized Western civilization by making it a universal moral obligation to work. Martin Luther and John Calvin both preached that from princes to paupers, everyone should pitch in to create a surplus. They enshrined an economic principle in moral, religious language. Their idea that to work when you’d rather play, to save when you’d rather spend, to abstain when you’d rather indulge, is still the essential economic (and moral) idea of our society. People who don’t “produce” anything are bad: from the “idle rich” to the poor lazy welfare cheats. This idea fed the great tidal wave of capitalism. But what the saga at Carrier indicates is that maybe this idea has run aground. Like a change in whale migration patterns, maybe these absentee workers are a signal that we should be heeding. Maybe work needs to be decoupled from Protestant morality.

The unexpressed story here is that the government is engaged in a perverted form of welfare. It gives corporations money to give people jobs. Consumers need to spend money to keep the economy running, and the only way to get this money, currently, is to work a job. Even if the job doesn’t need to be done. This logic presumes that corporations can always create useful jobs. This can’t possibly be true. Why doesn’t the government just skip the big fat middleman and give the money to the people? What we have here is a completely dysfunctional, segregated privatized welfare system.


Inside Nxivm, the ‘Sex Cult’ That Preached Empowerment” By Vanessa Grigoriadis (NYT Mag)

in NYT mag


Leaders of the cult called Nxivm pushed followers to jog, count calories, and become vegetarians. They were also accused of sex-trafficking, coercion, and brutality. The founder, Keith Raniere, started Nxivm because he wondered if coercion could be used for good. And in some ways, it’s a totally banal idea. Many fad dieting and exercise crazes verge on cultish adherence. The government tries to do it all the time. Those “Dad hug your kids” or “use a condom” ads are attempts to coerce people to do something. In Ingmar Bergman’s day, Swedish mothers were encouraged to not show too much affection to their children, for fear that it would make them gay. He cites his mother’s denial of affection as the foundational pain in his life. But this was promoted by doctors, and coercively speaking, it worked.


The constituency of Nxivm also raises a question: why are the wealthy, actors, and business people so especially susceptible to self-improvement regimes? Scientology targets actors, and the Rajneeshees were famous for attracting the rich and frivolous to their cause. Is there something wrong with rich people? Are they more insecure than other people? Maybe they just have money to dispose of, or too much free time. But what about Tony Robbins? He is a self-help guy, but his work often crosses over to business advice. Why is that? Why does it seem like sales people need How To Win Friends and Influence People more than other people? Shouldn’t we all want to win friends? After reading the book, I found that it was indeed applicable for all people. We all could be a little more sensitive to the intricacies of getting along with others. Sales people rely on it because they have to deal with people even when they don’t want to. Their job is terrible and unnatural. Also, in the case of Tony Robbins, this self help stuff crosses over into the realm of exercise and brain health. The people who populate these forums are most often entrepreneurs, actors, creatives, and rich people. Once again. Why are the well-to-do so fixated on exercise? A Swedish company now makes its employees do crossfit. And Jeff Bezos is looking jacked. Self-help is often a melange of other religious practices, like gratitude and meditation and fasting, is this our response to a spiritual crises? Is extreme exercise the penance we do for bullshit, meaningless jobs? In the case of Nxivm, it definitely seemed to be the overriding ideology, just an amplification of what we all do all the time already.


Nxivm is just the extreme case of our time, where the regime of Protestant self-denial’s ultimate conclusion is a skin cauterizing manipulative sex-cuit.


The American Worth Ethic” by Bryce Covert (Longreads)


What is behind the work requirement for public welfare when the wealthy receive inheritance money with little taxation, or any work requirement? As Covert says, “No one has been made to pee in a cup for tax breaks on their mortgages.”

But Covert also wonders why we have such strict work-requirements for welfare in America. Is work really the rubric by which we judge value? Covert says, “even if it were true that there was a horde of poor people refusing to work, do we want to condemn them to starvation and likely death? In one of the world’s richest countries, do we really balk at spending money on keeping our people — even lazy ones — alive?”

The question strikes close to the root of the question: why does poverty still exist? When you get deep into this discussion, it often boils down to morality: some people are lazy, or unworthy of a good life. The reality is that work is an arbitrary and now unnecessary criterion by which to judge people, an outdated ruler to measure a person’s relative contribution to the betterment of their society. We don’t need people to work more. In fact, our planet would be better off if we worked less. Reducing the working week to fifteen hours would quickly offset massive carbon expenditures needed to run massive buildings and corporate infrastructures.

The basic premise behind the Protestant work ethic is that working more now will provide a surplus that can be multiplied towards growth later. But not only does our planet not need growth, it needs a reduction in capital accumulation. The paradox is that most working people get their money from actually working, whereas the rich get their money the way that the rest of us should (welfare checks), by collecting returns on investments:

“In 2012, those earning less than $25,000 a year made nearly three quarters of that money from a job. Those making more than $10 million, on the other hand, made about half of their money from capital gains — in other words, returns on investments. The bottom half of the country has, on average, just $826 in income from capital investments each; the average for those in the top 1 percent is more than $16 million.”

Covert goes on to say. “The richest are the least likely to have their money come from hard labor — yet there’s no moral panic over whether they’re coddled or lacking in self reliance.”

Covert is wrong here: people complain about the idle rich all the time. And this is in many ways not a useful criticism, because not working shouldn’t be a reason to criticize someone. Unfortunately it often is. We all work and––I know I have experienced this––resent the people who don’t have to. But actually, we should all aspire to be like the idle rich and lazy welfare recipients.
Why Work” by James Livingston (The Baffler)

Just stapling this on to the last sentiment: “We hate the idea that anybody is getting something for nothing, especially if the recipient is a paper-pushing bureaucrat, or a class-action lawyer, or a Wall Street banker—or a “welfare queen.”


Could Performance-Based Pay Lead to Depression Among Workers?” By: Andrew R. McIlvaine (HR Executive)

Should your pay be tied to metrics about how hard you work? Maybe not. Actually work is, as I said, just a privatized welfare system. Automation has driven worker productivity through the roof, since 1920. We need fewer and fewer people to produce more and more stuff. This is why performance based “incentivized” pay systems are a crazy draconian system that would reveal what it very true: that many jobs are pointless or don’t require 40 hours a week to compete. But if we admitted this, under our current system, our economy would collapse because consumers wouldn’t have enough money to keep the system afloat. What to do?

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