In the past ten days, I have unloaded five shipping containers (not single-handedly, of course, though rumors have begun to spread). Close to 100 tons of merchandise. I wish it to be known that I disavow any and all attempts to paint me as a modern-day Alexey Stakhanov. I hate to even dignify such careless talk with a response, but unfortunately, some have said that this sort of heroic labor, combined with my prodigious intellectual output, suggests that I may be an übermensch, a stud, or even a “chad,” as the youth say these days. I give no credence to such idle chatter. In no way do I deserve to be seen as the natural successor to Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher, let alone mentioned in the same breath as him. I would remind you that it is no blot on Hercules’s accomplishments that even he didn’t unload five shipping containers, nor is there any significance to the fact that, unlike John Henry, I live to work another day. My only desire is to return to my humble day-to-day life with no thought of recognition, not to live on in legend like Cincinnatus as some would have me do.
I had a friend, an intelligent and very learned man, who gave no hint of having been in the least troubled by time. He was a university teacher, who taught well but scarcely bothered to publish. After his retirement from teaching, the one mild pressure in his life, meeting with his classes, was removed. He rose, read the daily press with a mordant eye, watched one of the morning television talk shows with his second cup of coffee, drew a bit, read some, taught himself (slowly) the rudiments of Chinese, wrote comic letters, looked up French words, considered etymologies of English ones, gave delight to his friends, took pleasure in his food and drink, and thus lived out his days until a benevolent (or so it seems in retrospect) heart attack took him out of what seemed a not very taxing game. It seems rather pointless to say of him “May he rest in peace,” since, as near as I can determine, he pretty much lived in peace. I’m not sure he owned a watch. Not a man, clearly, on a schedule.
Did he, I have often wondered, have any doubts? Had he got the most out of himself? In suppressing ambition, did he not also kill a certain kind of joy—that very genuine joy connected with achievement? He left no children. His friends, those who have not already died, grow old. His memory will fairly soon be extinguished. He was too clever a man not to have thought about all this. He lived, if not all that intensely, still almost entirely in the now. He met all his obligations, not least among them giving pleasure to his friends, though apparently he never felt that he owed any obligations to the future. Was he more or less intelligent than I in eschewing the notion of a schedule?
— Joseph Epstein, “Time on My Hands, Me in My Arms,” With My Trousers Rolled: Familiar Essays
My gym is looking to hire a new overnight cleaning service. They already have a few interviews set up, but they posted a notice at the front just in case any of the clientele might know a guy, etc. I’ve been pestering the Lady of the House ever since. This is my dream! Working a night shift by myself? Cleaning? In the gym, where I assume my membership might even be comped? Come on, I said, let’s sell the business and get back to the simple life!
I’m kidding, but on the square. If I were financially set for life, that is precisely the sort of work I’d do. The Lady is fascinated with business qua business; I’m not. I’m just a draft horse. (Thankfully, she keeps her Napoleonesque urges under control, so I don’t fear becoming another Boxer.) I can work as hard as anyone, but I have absolutely no interest in CEO-level stuff. Just give me my menial task and let me get to work, preferably while listening to music, ideally without any personal interaction at all.
Me and my friends sell ourselves
Short but feel very well
We feel fine, ah, we feel fine
Small stakes ensure you the minimum blues
But you don’t feel taken and you don’t feel abused
Small stakes tell you that there’s nothing can do
Can’t think big, can’t think past one or two
— Spoon, “Small Stakes”
Sounds to me like Epstein’s Epicurean friend had it all figured out.
Until I was forty I lived as a true bohemian, considered financial matters beneath me, and never really understood why I was always in debt. As with everything in my life, the shift from that phase was abrupt and total, and a sort of law of conservation of vice that governs my existence ensured that the overcoming of spendthriftness could only be bought by quick transition to an obsessive, all-consuming preoccupation with my ledger-books. I rush to add that I hate capitalism much more than I ever did in my bohemian phase. I hate it because it forced me, finally, to submit to it, though I always believed it never could. Capitalism broke me like a mustang cornered in a pen.
Capitalism’s greatest predicament is that several paradoxes of the human condition combine to turn capitalist successes into failures… Take mass education: it was the capitalists and not the intellectuals who initiated and promoted mass education. In capitalist America every mother’s son can go to college. Most capitalist societies are being swamped with educated people who disdain the triviality and hustle of the marketplace and pray for a new social order that will enable them to live meaningful, weighty lives. The education explosion is now a more immediate threat to capitalist societies than a population explosion.
— Eric Hoffer, Before the Sabbath
Marx, a Victorian intellectual, predicted that capitalism would be undone by its immiseration of the proletariat. Actually, capitalism has done more to jeopardize itself by annoying intellectuals. Many of them look down their upturned noses at the marketplace, and therefore at those who thrive in it. The intellectuals’ disdain is a manifestation of resentment about the fact that markets generally function nicely without the supervision of intellectuals. Their disdain is, among other unattractive things, ingratitude. The vulgar (as the intellectuals see them) men and women of commerce who make markets productive also make the intellectual class possible. As George Stigler (University of Chicago; winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Economics) said, “Since intellectuals are not inexpensive, until the rise of the modern enterprise system, no society could afford many intellectuals.” So “we professors are much more beholden to Henry Ford than to the foundation which bears his name and spreads his assets.”
— George Will, The Conservative Sensibility
“Capitalism” isn’t a “system,” it’s a word made up by an 1860’s hipster dipshit to whine about people voluntarily buying & selling stuff.
— David Burge (@iowahawkblog) April 15, 2016
This is not worship of employment, but a simpler observation: It seems that the more you ask of people, and the more you have them do, the more they are able to later do on their own. It is important to note that while we shouldn’t allow children to be bobbin boys, no one would describe Steve Job’s summer job at 13 as his exploitation. We should be thinking much harder about making sure children can make meaningful contributions to the world.
Seizing opportunity requires opportunity to exist at all. And I suspect the downplaying of agency in childhood not only creates fewer opportunities for great people, it must also create more marginal people. Ushering everyone into an endless default script is disastrous when underlying conditions or assumptions change. Even when they don’t, some people exit academia almost terrified to leave (to interact with the “real world”), a kind of Stockholm syndrome. How could we celebrate a higher learning that creates something so pathetic, the opposite of a readiness for life?
A couple who work for us brought their eleven-year-old niece along during her spring break this past April. It was her idea, something she was excited to do, and she seemed to really enjoy it. We gave her simple tasks like opening incoming parcels, but whenever she finished, she would repeatedly ask if there was anything else that she could do. At the end of each day, on her own initiative, she’d sweep the floor with the big push broom. By the end of the week, she was proud to have become competent, if not quite a master, at operating the pallet jack, although she was a little too small to maneuver it with a full load on it. It was interesting to see how eager she was to be given responsibilities. She saw it as getting to participate in something with her aunt and uncle, which just happened to be “work.” I have to admit, I don’t think I would have been nearly as motivated at that age; I would have preferred to wander off by myself to play or daydream. The Lady of the House often talks of wishing she had an army of teenage girls to carry out tasks for her. I remind her that when confessing to being the reincarnation of a robber baron, it’s best to use one’s inside voice.
I started work on my fifteenth birthday in my father’s newspaper distributorship. He had been talking about it for several weeks prior, telling me to be ready to wake up early one of these Sunday mornings and go in to the warehouse. A few weeks went by without anything coming of it. I went to bed the night before my birthday thinking, “Well, surely he won’t pick tomorrow to follow through on that…” Naturally, I found myself in a cold concrete room with hazy fluorescent lighting at three a.m. helping to assemble the Sunday edition of the New York Times. Back then, the Sunday paper came in about four or five different sections — the main, or front page section (“heads”), sports, and a couple others whose names escape me now. One person would insert these sections together and pass them down to a partner, who added the “combos,” the ads and such which gave the Sunday paper its heft, and passed them on to be tied in bundles of ten. I played the combo guy to Jesse’s inserter. That man was a machine. Frederick Winslow Taylor would have whimpered ecstatically in his sleep to dream of such a man on his assembly line. He assembled four sections together faster than I could add one. It was quite the unwelcome lesson in humility, especially with my dad barking at me to pick up the pace.
Nowadays, I’m grateful to my dad for instilling a strong work ethic in me. I still have no desire to manage a warehouse crew composed of teenage girls, though. They’ll have to find some other way to the joys of self-fulfillment through hard work.
Question: can a philosopher really undertake with a good conscience to have something to teach every day? And to teach it to anyone who cares to listen? Will he not be obliged to give the impression of knowing more than he does know? Will he not be obliged to speak before an audience of strangers of things which he can safely speak of only among his nearest friends? And speaking generally: is he not robbing himself of his freedom to follow his genius whenever and wherever it calls him? — through being obligated to think in public about predetermined subjects at predetermined hours? And to do so before youths! Is such thinking not as it were emasculated from the first! Supposing one day he said to himself: I can’t think of anything today, at least not of anything worthwhile — he would still have to present himself and pretend to think!
— Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” Untimely Meditations
We recently got accepted into a mentorship program, where small, plucky businesses like ours get paired with similar, more established, businesses to reap the benefits of their experience. In addition, we’re moving to a bigger space later this summer. That doesn’t sound artsy enough, though, so if you check in here and see that I haven’t posted anything new in several days, do me a courtesy and just say to yourselves, “Ah, I see Damian is once again following his genius wherever it calls him.”
Perhaps that’s something to differentiate human beings from other animals: the need for a calling. Have you noticed that almost no one – especially no one with any pretensions to being educated or enlightened – is satisfied with a simple “job” anymore? It’s not enough to have a job, a career, or even a profession; everyone wants a vocation. Even in business and industry, where metaphysical considerations used to nap from 9 to 5, people want a sense of calling, the conviction that the work they’re doing serves a higher purpose, a transcendent goal. The preacher-teachers of today are really no different from others in this respect.
It’s the “educated and enlightened” part that’s the key. I’ve walked widdershins around the idea of work as a calling for my entire adult life, and it seems to me that a pococurante attitude here puts one on the wrong side of a class divide, even more than income. “Jobs” are for people who, well, can’t do any better, poor things. For the educated and enlightened, work is both personal expression and public service. My goal regarding work has always been to find something at which I’m reasonably competent and that pays me well enough to get by. Self-expression? That’s for my free time; that’s why I have a blog.
Oh, you have a blog? Why don’t you join the exodus to Substack like all the cool kids and maybe get paid for your efforts, or pitch some essays to some digital journals? Because I don’t want to feel indebted to subscribers, or pressured to produce “content.” I want to have a hobby that’s about nothing but enjoyment. Turning my hobby into a job would bring with it all the things everyone hates about their job. When work is done, I get to read books and think and sometimes write down my thoughts about those books. Why would I need to see how far that could be pushed? Why mess with perfection?
Every so often, real-world people discover that I like to read a lot. Some of them suggest I should write a book. I don’t think they really mean it; it’s just a knee-jerk thing to say. Some of them ask if I’m reading for a class. Some of them even ask why I live where I do, in a small, unexciting town, rather than in, I don’t know, some literary hotspot, I guess. The guiding assumption is that any sort of interest or talent should be maximized, monetized, and merchandised, or else it’s just going to waste. Why would you read and write just for the fun of it?
I’m an ordinary guy with no great ambition who likes to read and write. Why should that be an oddity? Whatever happened to the golden age of middlebrow culture, which Susan Jacoby paid tribute to so affectionately? I remember being at a book sale a few years ago and being surprised at the weighty subjects that comprised some of the mid-century Book of the Month Club offerings. When did it stop being widely enjoyable to read biographies and works of history for fun? Off the top of my head, I’d name two potential causes. One, the explosion of entertainment options. There are countless ways to stupefy and titillate oneself, all of them easier and cheaper than a reading habit. And two, perhaps the idea of familiarizing oneself with “the great works” as a means of self-improvement came to seem naïve. Maybe that kind of striving only appealed to a mid-century belief in progress, before disillusionment and cynicism set in. Society isn’t getting any better. You’re not going to have a higher standard of living than your parents did. Everything is crass and insincere, and all that matters is finding an angle to get paid. Why are you giving away your writing for free, like an idiot?
It’s very fashionable to reclaim slurs these days. A while back, I announced my intention to reclaim the term “idiot” as an identity. Today, let me rededicate myself to that effort. Like my idiot forefathers, I will continue to hide my light under a bushel basket, too insignificant to even earn contempt, while sophisticated people go about their important business.
Most of the time, I was just moving “stock” about, taking maddening credit card orders over the phone, or walking people literally to alphabetised mass-market fiction. All of which required no interest in, let alone knowledge of, literature. To a middle-class nerd such as myself, discovering that working in a bookshop [cue poetic images of James Frain, or similar] was fundamentally no different from working in a Sports Direct or Tesco was about the most depressing thing imaginable. That, and waiting for the Sunday trains in winter.
It’s like the man warned us many centuries ago — render unto Commerce the things that are Commerce’s, and unto Hobby the things that are Hobby’s. No alchemist has discovered a means of combining the two. People who work in bookstores in order to live a literary life 24/7 come away traumatized after gazing long into the rictus grin of the bestseller list. People who keep blogs with visions of becoming Serious Writers, faced with loneliness and dwindling site-stat provisions, typically leave the Blogspot tent like Lawrence Oates, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time.” Lower your expectations to the ground, and suddenly the sky is within reach.
The Idler — as in, the British website devoted to loafing as a spiritual calling, not the series of essays by Samuel Johnson — is, as I’ve said before, in the business of publishing bodice-ripping fantasies of self-sufficiency for bored cubicle dwellers who fancy themselves born free but shackled by chains. Like one of Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehogs, editor Tom Hodgkinson knows one big thing and he says it again and again: much of what we do to earn a paycheck is senseless drudgery. From the seed of this commonplace observation, he produces a hothouse flower of a philosophy. To wit:
If mankind were hard-wired to work, then we would not be enjoying the autonomy of lockdown. Most people don’t gain satisfaction from work, they gain money from it. That’s why they do it.
In fact mankind is hard-wired to write poetry, play music and nurture plants — which is exactly what we have been doing in lockdown. The other day I found myself writing a short poem about the folk singer Sam Lee and his love for nightingales. And I sowed some seeds in a pot. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you have a bit more time.
By “plants,” of course, he means the pretty houseplants you look at while swooning and composing poems, not the sort that form the foundation of the food chain, which require a lot of intensive labor, performed by, uh, other people. Hold that thought; we’ll come back to it. Point is, it’s no surprise that we find him pointing to the coronavirus pandemic as proof that he was right all along. Still, despite the familiar argument, I nearly cracked a tooth on this logical gobstopper:
It is instructive as to the mutable nature of morality, that a few weeks ago, being very busy was considered morally good, and now we are being told to indulge in its precise opposite. Do nothing, save lives. This shows you that Nietzsche was right: morality, so-called, is merely a tool of control.
I feel like I’ve stepped onto an Escherian staircase, where no matter how many steps I take, I never get anywhere. The deceptively simple formulation here, like the tip of an iceberg, hides a mass of idiotic and incoherent assumptions below the surface. So…the fact that different rules apply in different contexts…means that rules are always an arbitrary imposition by The Man? If there’s no moral rule that holds true at all times for all people, all moral rules are equally random?
For many, many people, lockdown will beat working. My neighbour is using his furloughed time and the lovely weather to paint the outside of his house and spend some time in the garden. He says he is not particularly relishing the prospect of going back to work.
And on my daily bicycle rides around west London, an alien observer would be forgiven for thinking he’d landed in some sort of William Morrisesque utopia. There are no cars, the air is clean, birds sing, and smiling family groups cycle along the river.
This theme runs through the entire piece. Why can’t every day be Christmas? Why can’t vacation be fifty weeks of the year? The kind of people who can afford to live in west London look around and notice that the world temporarily continues to turn without their labor, and from this, they deduce the perennial validity of Bertrand Russell’s looniest ideas about humanity en masse freed from toil to pursue philosophical speculation and domestic garden cultivation. I know the word “privilege” has been contaminated beyond all safe handling, but it does require a certain type of comfortable obliviousness to think that all professions are equally capable of going on strike without dire consequences. Hey, the Idler’s online courses have quintupled in recent weeks! Why can’t all those manual laborers also just use Zoom and Slack to do their jobs, or offer an online equivalent of their services?
And maybe we won’t want to go back to work. Maybe the leisure society dreamed of by people like William Morris and later Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes will start to materialise. Morris believed in what he called “useful work” versus “useless toil”. Russell said that a civilised society would gradually reduce the hours of work, leaving time for poetry, nurturing plants and studying philosophy. And Keynes of course reckoned that technology would usher in a 15-hour working week.
Oh, you thought I was kidding about Russell? Well, let’s just be glad he didn’t quote Marx’s hunter/fisher/cattleman/critic ideal, or Trotsky’s delirious fantasy of the average man in the glorious future rising to the heights of an Aristotle or a Goethe. Come to think of it, even that seems like it might be a lot of work, and Hodgkinson, like Peter Gibbons, seems to aspire to little more than lying in bed all day. Or, at least, that’s the image he projects to the people who buy his online courses and products. Merchandising the eschaton, you might say. What, you think flats in west London grow on trees?
He was so cheerful and jolly, so happy in his work, that he lifted our spirits. Intellectuals are apt to suppose that people who do relatively simple or routine work must be wretched and full of resentment at their lowly status, and when they express this view in public, by writing or in the media, they provoke and then stoke the very resentment that they suppose, falsely, must already exist. They project their own feelings onto others, and then tutor them to be more like themselves.
The archetypical routine work that intellectuals cite as the horrible fate awaiting those who do not succeed at school either because of their own or the school’s deficiencies is the checkout till in a supermarket. This is to the school failure—particularly female—what the prison cell is to the murderer. It is the sword of Damocles that hangs over those who have no skills. And yet I think that the work, which is surely destined to disappear in the near future because of new technology, is far from without its interest.
— Theodore Dalrymple, “Hotel Rooms in the Time of Corona”
I am beginning to think that the activation of the masses—their readiness to work and strive—is a function of individual freedom. When the masses are more or less left to themselves, they turn to work as the most accessible means of providing their worth and usefulness. On the other hand, the ideal condition for the creativeness of the intellectual is apparently an aristocratic social order which appreciates his work and accords him rank and dignity. The intellectual does not want to be left alone, and this is perhaps the reason why he cannot leave others alone.
— Eric Hoffer, Working and Thinking on the Waterfront
In a marvellous short portrait of Conrad, Bertrand Russell said of him, “I felt… that he thought of civilized and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.” Because he saw life in such terms, Conrad emphasized the place and importance of work in life. There was, he believed, a particular kind of dignity in the sober exercise of one’s duty in the service of one’s work, precisely because life is such a perilous affair. Conrad had spent the first part of his life as a merchant seaman, and the kind of work he had in mind was largely active, physical work. In some respects he resembled Wittgenstein, who felt that there was something profoundly unhealthy about life as an academic philosopher and who himself gave up philosophy at various points in his life to work as a gardener. There was for Wittgenstein something honest about the kind of labour characteristic of work in a garden. This honesty derived from the sense that the external rhythm of nature, to which the gardener has to be responsive, helps to provide a kind of order to the inner world of the mind. It was also a matter of the fact that gardening provides a focus for the mind’s energy, helping it to avoid consuming itself in its own anxious self-questionings.
— Christopher Hamilton, Middle Age
I don’t like being pressed for time, but I have to admit I do love being absorbed in work, whether paid labor, routine chores, or even exercise. I remember a busy day recently that extended well into the evening, and rather than feeling exhausted or grumpy afterward from the amount of work that had to be done, I felt a rather meditative calm, in addition to the pride of accomplishment. By contrast, I often feel restless on days with no pressing duties. It’s like being spoiled for choice. I can only read for a couple hours before I want to get up and do something else, which is why I prefer to save it for the time before bed. I suppose Aristotle would shake his head and dismiss me as a born beast of burden unsuited for the philosophical life. Well, at least Wittgenstein would have my back.
Interestingly, Nietzsche had also wanted to be a professional gardener after resigning his professorship, telling his mother in a letter, “There is no other cure for my health. I need real work, which takes time and induces tiredness without mental strain.” His physical limitations forced him to abandon the fantasy after three weeks, but he retained a fondness for horticultural metaphors in his writing. I recall that Phil Oliver was working on a book about philosophers and writers who loved walking; I wonder if anyone has ever done the same for those who favored gardening?