“Until your heart breaks, you are useless” — Unknown
The taxi turned off the freeway onto a lonely exit ramp.
“Don’t worry,” said the driver “he speaks Arabic”
“Give me your bag” said the man in the passenger seat, as he turned, gun in hand.
I looked into his cold, hard eyes and was flooded with relief. There was only one thing to do.
I had been unsure of myself a second before, was I being paranoid, or was the taxi really going the wrong way? Should I make a fuss? Should I argue? Should I open the door as they slowed to take a corner and try to make my escape?
All those options were now closed off. There was no doubt about what I should do. I should give him the fucking bag. So I did. And it was over, and I was left with empty pockets, somewhere in the south of Beirut.
If you’re going to be robbed, it’s best to have it done by professionals. And these guys were. Lebanon has shared taxis, where one car would take multiple passengers heading in similar directions. There had been an old lady in the car along with the two crooks when I got in. They had dropped her home first, then taken me to a quiet spot without streetlights, and turned off the car lights, too, making it impossible for me to read the license plate as they pulled away with my satchel, including some cash, a laptop and a blackberry. It was 2009.
When I think of that night, I often also think of my dad, a year earlier, furiously cleaning out the carport at the back of our house. It had been full of junk for years. My mother had grown up very poor, and, having not had things, could not bring herself to throw things out which might one day prove useful. And so item after item had piled up. They had been there for years, but now, in the week or so immediately after Mum’s death, the need to deal with them became immediate.
They wouldn’t let him back to work yet, his business partner and staff wouldn’t allow it, so he had found something else to do to keep himself busy. This, he insisted, just had to be done. Right now.
What do these two memories have in common? It’s a question I struggled with for a long time. But I think I know the answer now. Both of us were seeking the liberation of unfreedom. In both cases an apparent powerlessness provided as an excuse not to do something we didn’t really have the courage for.
In my case it was confronting the driver and his accomplice, with whom I had been happily chatting until a minute before. The gun raised the stakes to the point where any confrontation was unreasonable, I could justify to myself that I needn’t make a fuss, I should just quietly go along.
In Dad’s case, committing to some time consuming task relieved him of the need to grieve, or comfort me through my grief. The imagined urgency of the task shielded him from autonomy and the pain it would bring.
Freedom is slavery, as Orwell wrote. And slavery is freedom.
The phenomenon I am attempting to describe here is vast, and varied, and as far as I am aware, explored only in the most superficial and uncritical of ways. We all know people, especially men, especially from the working class, who must “keep themselves busy” in retirement, rather than go mad.
Often this is observed with a smile, as if someone being so conditioned by a lifetime of work that they are incapable of leisure were a heartwarming quirk.
But it starts long before then too. By early adulthood, most have already internalised the social compulsion to visibly “earn their keep” through constant industry.
Obviously, it’s not like people really have a choice.
But what if they did?
By asking this question we can begin to give shape to the incoherent terror and rage that the idea of a basic income arouses in some quarters. The “dignity” of work is often invoked, especially by those advocating a job guarantee over a basic income. Including many of the unemployed themselves, who actively want society to provide them, not just with an income, but with the purpose and structure of a job.
I’ve previously discussed how this thinking fits with an instrumental view of human nature. Such a view is usually seen as harsh and unforgiving, and those of us who argue against it seen as the softhearted, kindly ones. But what if the opposite is true?
What if the idea that mere hard work, the ability to suck it up and suffer in silence, can make you a valuable member of society is actually the more generous view, and that those like us, who see mere economic output as insufficient to demonstrate moral virtue, are the truly ruthless ones?
What is it to be a good person? Showing up and doing as you’re told has long been, in practical terms, good enough.
One need not have imagination, empathy, social skills beyond the ability to conform and submit to authority, so long as you aren’t “lazy”.
The ability to tolerate this, and raise your children to be next, is not just treated as a survival mechanism, but as a virtue — and a virtue which can compensate for the absence of other virtues, like kindness, thoughtfulness, and so on.
Men especially, use the need for work, and the accompanying exhaustion, as an excuse to be shit, boring people. Afterall, they have to work. Then once they get home, having worked, how can they be expected to have time for ideas? Politics? Working on relationships?
Well what if they didn’t need to work? What if we, as a society, said, actually, it’s all good. We have hydraulics for the heavy lifting, and clever systems designed by clever people with skinny arms, soft hands, and PHDs, who have made all your “manpower” irrelevant, worthless, unnecessary?
Your willingness to show up and work is worth nothing, nowadays, if you don’t have the capacity to really contribute something original.
By what means would these emotional retards then justify their existence?
Those who can lift heavy things, or busy themselves with the numbers on a spreadsheet, or spend all day stacking shelves, but lack the skills required to do creative, cognitively complex, communicative labour (of the kind which can’t be automated) are exactly the same who struggle to invest in and find meaning in relationships and care work outside the labour market, will have a harder and harder time finding a place in our societies.
There is something, after all, to the largely unarticulated but ubiquitous suspicion that a UBI poses as an egalitarian idea, but is actually elitist, especially as compared to a job guarantee.
Go over there, a UBI it tells these relics of Fordism, keep out of the way, while those of us with the relevant skills make everything actually happen. Here, have a Joe Rogan podcast, chosen for you by the algorithm, and a six pack. Watch some MMA. Fuck off.
If they want to actually contribute, they will have to become much more like the softer, intellectual, gentle creatures they despise. Many will rather kill themselves, either all at once or slowly with alcohol, opioids, and so on.
Of course this is already happening.
Andrew Yang and others like to talk about the epidemic of despair, worst amongst non-college-educated white men, especially those who don’t end up in long term relationships, which is an increasing proportion.
Women, it seems, are sick of them. Previously (as the incels lament) a woman might be dependent on a man as a breadwinner (and as a social validator of her value) and thus compelled to provide him not just with sex, but with the comfort and sense of belonging that comes from being in a (very one sided) relationship. Now they are more likely than working class men to be able to navigate the job market, are not shamed as heavily for their independence, and do not need to accept a lacklustre partner.
We must do better, for these men, Yang says. And there is something to that. But fundamentally they must do better for themselves. The transition will be painful. A basic income can cushion some of that pain, but not all of it.
But the future cannot be held hostage by the insecurities and inadequacies of the past.
Of course it will not really be like this, the availability of jobs will probably increase, for those who want them. Plenty of us, raised with a less instrumental view of our own worth, with the skills to fill out leisure time with conversation, art, music, child care, bushwalking, surfing, coaching kids sports teams, and so on, would be happy to opt-out, or take fewer hours, or work for fewer years, and so on.
Those who still wanted to find work would probably have an easier time of it, and would be able to attract higher wages for it. There will definitely be some change in the skills required, but most people, even most men, will adapt.
Some would find work that is inherently fulfilling, fully utilising their (average or otherwise) capacities. Others would be working only for the economic rewards — a bigger house, a second car, a boat, a holiday to fiji, or whatever.
But they would not be able to pretend they did not have a choice, that doing so is the only way to guarantee their children’s future, or whatever. That’s already all taken care of.
If you’re more interested in stuff than ideas, in things than people, then that’s all on you. And of course that’s fine. But so is the other choice.
The gun of poverty would no longer be pointed at anyone’s head. And like I said at the start, sometimes having a gun at your head makes things easier. Sometimes, therefore, not having a gun at your head makes it harder.
Zizek says the unfairness of capitalism, the arbitrariness of it’s supposed meritocracy, is a feature not a bug. Because it allows people to say well I am only a real estate agent because that’s the way the cookie happened to crumble.
Were it the case that the system were fair, and the roles people ended up in were unambiguously, accurately, the roles they were fit for, it would be intolerable and the system “would explode”. I want this explosion. The increased levels of existential despair a UBI would invoke are, I contend, exactly why it must be done.
To the fantasist who tells himself he has a novel in him, one he will write when he retires, or once the mortgage is paid off, or once the kids are out of school, it says: Go ahead. Face your mediocrity, your irrelevance. Stare into the void, feel it stare back into you. If you do this and survive, then the real work can begin.
Most will flee the field, and realise they are not exceptional. Those who continue to pursue creative or intellectual excellence, not mere careerism, will perhaps begin to get some of the respect and admiration they deserve, instead of the disdain, isolation and sneering, veiled envy which is their current lot.