Work, productivity, status, affinity

Last month’s flap over Amazon putting even its white collar workers through the mill struck me as mostly a non-event. Anyone truly shocked to discover that Amazon is exploitative, or that corporations squeeze the Eloi as well as the Morlocks, hasn’t been paying attention.

The week of pearl-clutching by Guardian columnists, et al., has however suggested to me one or two possible new connections in my evolving theory of 21st century work. At the moment, I write mainly to trace these out for myself, so fair warning that this post will be a bit elliptical.

As brief background, I’ve grown quite cynical about the modern economy and particularly the white-collar office. Years of close association with sales and marketing activities are probably an influence, but I have reached the conclusion that a lot of what happens in the typical office is largely pointless theater producing minimal if any social value. I have written before that many of the affluent, in particular, seem to work mostly as a display of status. (See Quantum Whatever, currently print-only but free copies remain available.) I don’t think this behavior is exclusive to the affluent, however, particularly as they tend to exercise much influence on the patterns of the typical workplace.

Seeing yet another bit of puffing about brutal conditions at Amazon has suggested a further insight into this concept. It occurs to me that a culture of status based on competitive displays of exhausting toil could have a deep biological foundation.

Several years ago I read The Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond, and it’s one of those books that left me a trunk full of ideas to unpack. Diamond is better known for Guns, Germs and Steel, which I also found thought-provoking, but I think this earlier work may well be its equal in insight if not in sales.

In The Third Chimpanzee, Diamond makes the case that humans are not fundamentally a significant anomaly among the animal kingdom. (Suggesting that an objective taxonomist might class the entire hominid lineage as a third type of chimp.) One by one, Diamond examines characteristics and behaviors that may seem unique to humans, and then provides parallels elsewhere in the animal kingdom.

One example was particularly provocative, yet impossible for me to dismiss. Diamond argues that purposeful ingestion of intoxicants, which is by no means unique to humans, is also part of a deeper behavioral pattern which has parallels in other species, too. According to Diamond’s theory, whatever other pleasures we may receive from our cornucopia of poisonous plants and plant extracts, part of the reason so much of humanity pursues these behaviors so consistently is because it’s a means of demonstrating fitness. Basically, drinking and smoking say “look, I’m so fit, my genes are so good, that I can put poison into myself and come back for more.”

I recall that stotting was Diamond’s primary evidence for this as a behavior found elsewhere in nature. There were probably others, which I don’t recall. In any event the theory, which seemed like over-thinking something at first, has felt more believable the longer I have considered it. I believe that I drink alcohol mainly because I enjoy it… but do college students really binge-drink to unwind? What about smoking, for that matter. Beer or whiskey may be “acquired tastes” but there are plenty of sweet, smooth alcoholic beverages; by contrast, so far as I know no one takes his or her first drag on a cigarette without coughing and other clear bodily protests. In both cases, it seems quite plausible that an instinct to demonstrate physical fitness encourages using abusive types and/or amounts of narcotics.

It also seems plausible, once the mental juxtaposition is made, that a similar instinct encourages individual and social patterns of preferring more toil to less.

We seem to cling to a habit of conflating intensity and amount of labor with productive accomplishment, despite abundant evidence that these are overlapping but by no means equivalent phenomena. Again and again, throughout Greece’s ongoing trials, sober observers have pointed out that the “lazy, feckless” Greeks actually work far more hours than the “responsible, industrious” Germans. Despite which, the myths remain popular. Many’s the time I have read some new report confirming the rather obvious, meanwhile, in noting a similar divergence for the individual. People putting in 60, 80 hours or more at work in a week quickly reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. Eventually perhaps even a point of diminishing absolute returns. Certainly it seems plausible that if you’re constantly awash with fatigue poisons and stress hormones (to say nothing of any other substances you’re tempted to blend in, to cope with this situation) you’re increasingly likely to make big mistakes. Particularly if people around you are following the same habits. Such a mistake could quite credibly wipe out all the gains from working flat-out, and then some.

Japan provides an extreme example of this phenomenon. While my usual disclaimer applies, I don’t believe the number of reports I have read, over many years, leaves much room to doubt that karoshi is a real thing: dropping dead from fanatical overwork is enough of a pattern in Japan that there is a word for it. Can anyone regard this as a remotely rational practice, even by an emotionless standard of “productivity?”

It happens, anyway, along with countless instances of people who don’t literally kill themselves, but still sink so much time and energy into their job that it’s absurd to regard it as driven by productivity or efficiency.

As the product of a genetic instinct to demonstrate fitness by self-harm, however…? I find the possibility persuasive, certainly.

I have, as noted, become cynical about the information age workplace some time ago. It has been years already since I formed the theory that much of what takes place in the modern office is less like a textbook division-of-labor system in which everyone contributes some particular function to a larger process, and more like an opulent, corrupt court. Real labor still takes place but mostly outside the office; thanks to capitalism, a great deal of its value is nonetheless funneled up to a few owners and directors, who spend much of it in surrounding themselves with contemporary analogues of courtiers, astrologers, fools, etc. Why not, after all, when you control far more money than you can conceivably spend on your material wants, and the desire for status quickly takes precedent?

In this model, “work” has relatively little to do with activity that is “productive” even in a narrow sense. (To say nothing of a societal sense, in which e.g. persuading people to desire gaudy tat they can’t afford seems inherently to lack utility.) Working in an office is, instead, largely about constantly reassuring one another that we are worthy team members. No one is really all that useful, including the boss, so everyone is quite naturally at least a little anxious about his or her status. Every day, one must signal to boss and to other members of the group that one is committed to the group. Typically, though dressed up in the clothing of productive labor, this really occurs via demonstrations of flattery, self-abasement and self-sacrifice.

I realize that this is probably a leap too far for most people. It’s difficult to think that the system which shapes and even defines so much of modern life is not only a game but one that is decidedly not a meritocracy reliably rewarding virtue with wealth. There’s little that I can offer in the way of peer-reviewed evidence, either; this is just my perception based on 15+ years of observation. For what it’s worth, though, articles about how “value” in work is increasingly tied to social skills seem very compatible with my model. (Also, I note this as someone with no obvious horse in the race. While I’m not really a “people person” either by sex or personal inclination, a great deal of my work these days does nonetheless consist of interpreting ambiguity and other “soft skills,” and is not and never really has been part of the “hard,” STEM skill set.)

The very nature of the “job-scarcity” economy suggests some validity to my perspective, though. I might also add that “the affinity economy” model could also claim a bit of credibility from a society in which forms of solidarity outside work are increasingly crumbly. Religion is pick-and-mix, when not eschewed entirely. Connection to geography is weak. “Popular culture” is fragmented, as to a great extent is the “informational universe” generally. At the same time, though, no matter how much people try to self-segregate it’s impossible to escape awareness that we live in a multiethnic multicultural world, and a globalized economy.

In this context it seems entirely plausible that the workplace emerges, to some extent by default, as the modern big tribe. Short of becoming a mountain hermit, no one comes close to self-sufficiency these days, and one must have some kind of connection to the product of industry. Even as fewer and fewer of us are necessary to generate that product, we cling to the rituals of “work” because, 1) pretending is presumably the next best thing to reality, and 2) what else is there?

Obviously, though, even if competitive market pressure for efficiency is the patchy, inconsistent phenomenon that I suspect it of being, it is not entirely nonexistent. Corporate capitalism, I think, keeps far more people on the payroll than could be accounted for by the official model of “market discipline,” but there are still lots of surplus people stuck outside, despite being willing to work, “work” and/or just kiss ass.

For those inside, then, none of these things can ever provide certainty. Some already have certainty in the form of a huge bank balance, but even if they aren’t simply paranoid they probably still want status. In both cases, sacrificing your time, health and (in some sense, even if usually not literally) life itself is probably seems like a valid solution.

“Look at how hard I’m working, I’m everywhere at once all day long, I’m so valuable, the group needs me, don’t take away my paycheck and/or ego-support.”

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