“A Working Stiff’s Manifesto”, by Iain Levison (Chapter 6)

Cog in the Machine (Chaplin)

Can we be happy like this?

Here we are, the last chapter, it’s all been building(?) up to this, let’s see where Levison is left after so many failed attempts at being a working stiff.

Um, apparently pretty damn depressed is where Levison is left, not that I can blame him, of course. But take a look at this:

There’s no dream job out there. It’s the same for everyone. You’ve got to do something or you starve, and what it is really doesn’t matter. At least there are jobs available, jobs that will keep your head above water, keep you one step ahead of the bill collector.

If I’ve got a job can take for even a week, I consider myself blessed and I keep my mouth shut.

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams, Thoreau said. Later, he added that most men lead lives of quit desperation, indicating that few, if any of us, were taking his advice. Fuck him, he had a trust fund. Who the hell else but a rich man could afford to spend a summer sitting by a lake and thinking about life? I’ll take the next thing that comes along and stick with it, because the looking, the hope that something is better out there, drains you of more energy than the drudgery itself. (pp. 156-7)

Okay, first off, someone who was living a minimalist lifestyle (say a tiny home and minimal costs for electricity, grew their own foods, etc. etc.) could probably afford to spend a summer sitting by a lake and thinking about life. Hell, they could probably do a lot more.

To be fair to Levison though this was before tiny homes were such a thing and the internet was as highly integrated for lots of people to know this stuff much easier (which isn’t to say no one knew). Regardless though, I thought that was one of the easiest pieces to pick apart here.

Aside from there, it’s certainly true that, within the current economy there’s probably no “dream job” although that depends on entirely what you dream about to begin with. Is the jobs’ main purpose to give you happiness? Lots of money? Lots of productivity? Something else? All of the above? It depends on what you want, right?

I understand that just having a job can be a “blessing” in some way. After all I’m not going to blame people who are poor (not that I’d know what that’s like…) and need the job to survive. Up to a certain point there’s nothing wrong with doing what you have to do to survive. I mean, try to pick your options carefully. If you need to “survive” and do so by working as a cop, soldier, prison guard, working for a company like Haliburton or other war-companies then I’d lightly suggest you, A) probably aren’t that desperate if you can get those jobs to begin with and B) the jobs you’ve taken may cause way more damage to others than benefit you.

In any case I can see where Levison is coming from here. I want to resist his absolutist pessimism though. I’m perfectly capable of being pessimistic myself but I try being realistic about it. What sense does it make to just throw our hands up in the air and just slog through our life under the current model if it’s shit? If we don’t think anything’s going to change and our current situation sucks then…why are we alive? To be perfectly blunt, why don’t we all just kill ourselves?

Note, I’m not actually saying we should. I’m in fact suggesting the opposite: That we should live as best and as virtuously as we can as consistently as possible in tandem with what’s realistic, what benefits us the most and what leads the most people to the most happiness. Nice and vague, right?

Living more fully isn’t going to consist of Levison’s massive concession to the job culture though. It isn’t going to end (ideally) in resignation to our surroundings but a rallying cry for everyone else to join us in a struggle for more freedom and pleasure in our lives. Live that, once divorced of work will hopefully be able to be lived much more pleasantly and leisurely.

So, yeah.

I’m not a big fan of this passage even if I can sympathize with Levison’s feelings here.

It’s easy to give up but it’s harder (much harder) to keep going.

There’s a guy who Levison knows named “Eddie” who spends a few hundred bucks weekly betting on teams that usually end up losing. He’s probably downing thousands upon thousands of dollars he could use for some other purpose. Maybe a purpose that’d help enrich his life.

And when his friends, laughing, says that he does it every week, Eddie just stares into his better and says that he doesn’t care.

That’s not what our goal should be and if Levison wants this to be where we all end up then I think it’s very much worth resisting his conclusion.

Levison going into a bug spraying company doesn’t improve his mood much. Apparently his English degree useless but it’s actually a liabillity to the company in question since, they find that “English graduates don’t do well in this field”. Now, I’m not sure why that’d be and neither does Levison but it doesn’t matter, he’s pretty much toast.

The interviewer let’s the interview drag on a bit more and Levison doesn’t even use his signature, “walk away and don’t give a shit” or his patented, “bullshit them until they believe me”.

Levison just doesn’t care.

And eventually the interview (and I agree with Levison that this can only be out of mercy) dismisses Levison and says that he’ll call him.

Levison says he’ll be waiting by the phone.

Levison tries to apply to a company that installs ATMs but it requires a lot of experience, personal information and everyone around Levison seems way too clean cut for him to belong there.

Levison tries to reason that the thoroughness of the application is just to scare people and isn’t actually followed up on. That no one actually does background checks and at first doesn’t even both to notice the people who he’s around. But he thinks to himself that handling so much money may actually mean that this company may give a shit.

Unlike Levison who walks away and crumples up his paper, throwing it in the trash.

There’s a guy named Big John at a moving company who seems to like Levison (and who I swear we may have seen before but can’t find any me. ntion of him in particular) and I mean really like Levison…job wise, that is.

He wants Levison to think about management possibilities, he talks about the fact that he has some workers out there now who could use some help and stresses how many hours those workers are going to be working.

Meanwhile Levison is still in his slacks and a decent shirt (he gave up on suits a while ago, apparently) and isn’t exactly prepared to do the job right then and there. But the guy pleads with Levison, as Levison says, the tables have turned and now the boss seems to need him more than Levison needs the boss.

Levison at first tries to make excuses about “errands” he has to run but eventually “compromises” and says he’ll do them quickly and then go back and change.

Is Levison back in the game?

But those “management” possibilities aren’t exactly in the near-future once Levison starts working.

Levison describes it pretty well himself, so I think I’ll let him take center-stage:

At the interview, it sounded like I was being promoted tomorrow because of the magical power of my English degree. Besides there are a half a dozen guys who work for this service, and there’s no reason I should be the first in line for a supervisor’s job. He’s got his warm body. I’ve been here a few weeks, and I get less valuable every day. Moving is a summer sport; half the people who move do so between June and September, and September is creeping up on us. Soon Big John will be able to let half of us go. So the question isn’t who is getting the supervision, position which doesn’t really exist, it’s who’s going to be collecting unemployment. (pp. 161-2)

Of course, I’d expect Levison to have seen this coming by now but maybe learning from history is tougher than we’d all like it to be.

On the other hand it does seem like Levison isn’t acting very surprised so maybe he knew or suspected it anyways.

While Big John dreams ans stares into the sun and talks about the other guys getting licenses he has to quickly add, “some time next year”…

The last section of this book isn’t any prettier.

Levison gives up on the trucking job and simply keeps looking.

He reminisces about how he wishes college would have been more honest about how half the jobs he’d want he’d be unqualified for and the other half he’d have no interest in. That he’d be better off or at least would have a better chance of being a peasant in another country rather than a successful person in the US.

The problem isn’t money for Levison though. It’s not that the pay sucks or that he can’t make much at most jobs or any of that, it’s the way the corporations treat us: like cogs in a machine. That we’re all interchangeable. That the promises that the higher ups make to us are so detached from reality that the most logical think to do is snicker and ignore them while we hope we can get something better.

But getting something better isn’t going to come around in this economy, on that me and Levison agree. The stocks that the company says you can buy up in five years doesn’t sound that promising when you’re not sure you’re going to even last three months at this job you hate, with people you don’t like, for a company you don’t care about, doing things you’re disinterested in for a pay that makes you only even more bitter. What are the chances that you’ll stay around let alone they’ll need you for the next five years?

Levison criticizes the commercials he sees on TV. The retirement programs, who are they for anymore? Not for the working class that he is a part of from his experience.

And hey, Levison points out in the end, that anyone could write a book about this, not just him.

And that’s the most depressing things of all.


So what’s the final word? Well we’ll save the final word for a little later in the book when I review it as a whole.

But until then this last chapter was…abruptly depressing. I mean, it’s not like the rest of the book was exactly sunshine and rainbows and I’m not trying to claim it was. But I was wondering and hoping Levison had something for us here. What should we do? What works and what doesn’t? How can we improve our lives?

It just doesn’t seem like Levison cares about that in the end. This is the system we have and we may as well make the best of it like anybody else.

Again, what sort of conclusion is this to reach?

After all of this maneuvering around the corporate structure Levison doesn’t give any hints, tips, tricks or anything else in the end? I know he’s basically giving a running commentary on how he gets around the corporate world: leaving whenever he stops giving a shit, bullshitting the people higher up, putting up with as much as you can if you can and…that’s about it? It’s really not. What about the cable job that Levison had that made him decent money for a bit? Why doesn’t he take some lessons from that? Why doesn’t he refer to his other jobs and what he did and what he had actually learned from any of it?

Instead Levison seems to just want us to sulk in our collective corners and just throw our hands up and say, “Ah well, what are you going to do?”.

I want to repeat that I don’t have anything wrong with being sardonic or having the passing full-on cynicism but this conclusion is just too much for me. And it has too many negative connotations for me to be able to accept it much less celebrate it.

I leave the last chapter of this book feeling mostly dissatisfied with how it ended up playing out. The journey was at some points interesting and at most times entertaining but where did Levison end up?

Telling us to go back to work.

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