How to Kill the Work Ethic and be a Subversive Employee

Fool proof!

Introduction/Background Context

Sometimes it’s not only hard to sugarcoat something, even when you want to.

Sometimes, a thing is just so disappointing, poorly thought out and against your values, that you feel beholden to not pull any punches. And it’s made even worse when those punches (intellectually speaking) have to come down on someone you consider a friend and an otherwise pretty smart person who has said some good things.

Jeffery Tucker is one such person.

I can’t figure Jeffery out, because he’ll have talks on leftist values about the benefits of fighting against the normalization of sexist and racist stuff in libertarian circles, talk about worker empowerment and have some spots he’ll agree with me about anti-work. He goes to bat for the Center for a Stateless Society every so often and he’s very friendly with me and lots of other self-proclaimed left-libertarians. He’s even been accused of being one himself by folks on both of the aisles.

Plus he did this.

That was pretty awesome.

But then he writes stuff like, How to Develop a Work Ethic and be an Amazing Employee.

Which, just sounds like, if I’m going to be honest, as if Andrew Carnegie had this as a failed follow-up title for one of his essays on work. It isn’t that I’m super surprised Tucker would write something like this, he is a bit doe eyed about markets and the current market place we live in (going so far as to praise McDonald’s on some issues).

But the deal with Tucker (for me) is that he’ll say a handful of interesting and insightful things that are either obviously correct or at least better than what most libertarians are saying these days…and then he’ll just write articles like the one I mentioned above, which sound 1920ish. And not in the cool mobster way, but more like an outdated industrialist handbook that you might give to overly idealistic and under-educated youth about their prospects.

Enough spit-balling though, let’s take this thing apart.

Jobs to the Dear Youth – Or Not

Young people often enter the workforce following school with no previous job experience in a commercial space. There are high costs to this reality. They lack essential formation in what it means to be truly valuable to others. You can’t learn this from sitting in a desk and taking notes for 16 years. It’s a habit of mind that connects directly to habits of time and action.

Gonna agree/disagree on this one, Jeffery.

While it’s true that schools can’t (and largely won’t) teach kids how to be useful given their compulsory structure and the authoritarian way they are structured, that doesn’t mean jobs are the next best option. And jobs are one way to be valuable to others, it’s not the only one kids (or indeed, anyone) has available to themselves.

We can all be valuable to each other within society in many different ways. It doesn’t take a job for me to produce value for another human being. I don’t need a paycheck, a boss and a corporation to make a friend happy, have someone feel appreciated or to even put effort into the world around me and having it be a better place.

Most activism is unpaid, after all.

The old bourgeois sentiment said that work is as good, or better, a teacher as school. It believed that it was essential for all young people to have jobs so that they could develop a work ethic before they became full-time professionals.

See, the Carnegie thing isn’t even really a dig at Tucker because that’s actually what he’s going for. Explicitly and adamantly what Tucker wants us to get behind is some old (literally) bourgeoisie notion of work. A notion that helps us submit ourselves, our lives and our identities to the task of being “full-time professionals”.

And if it’s not clear, I don’t find that appealing. There are many ways that children can find their own sense of self, that they can develop habits and ideas about how to better contribute to themselves, their friends, their family, their communities, the planet around them and so forth, without work. In fact, children have been learning the value of contributing to the world around them without jobs for as long as things like play have been around.

Today it’s not so easy for young people to get a job. Strictly enforced laws prohibit remunerative work before the age of 16. A serious job is not viable until the age of 18, at which point college beckons and student loans make possible a work-free life.

Okay, the first two sentences are true (though the first sentence could be applied more broadly). I agree that the laws against youth being employed by others is a massive overreach into the lives of them. If kids or teenagers want to work or be entrepreneurs then why not? Of course, there are some people who would/will take advantage of them, but aren’t adults taken advantage of as well? In some important ways youths are more vulnerable to that sort of exploitation but that means we need to fight against the exploitation, not cut against youths paths to self-empowerment.

And when I’m talking about self-empowerment I mean getting away from abusive home dynamics, getting some money for themselves so they can help themselves in attaining their own values, if they want to. Or maybe they just want to save up for a rainy day or heck, they just want a huge video game system, I don’t care. It’s none of my business.

The point is, if exploitation occurs (which in capitalist markets it surely will) we should address the root causes of that (e.g. capitalism) and not punish people who are most vulnerable to them.

The work ethic is the casualty.

This is sad and ridiculous because having a work ethic is not actually difficult. It requires very little other than focus and a handful of rules. They can be summarized: punctuality, the willingness to do what is asked of you, the discipline to stay on task, the drive for excellence, the capacity to be creative, the passion for discovery of unmet needs, and the adoption of a service-oriented mindset.

Well that depends on who you are working with and what you’re working on, right?

I have a decent work ethic when it comes to things I’m passionate about, but when it comes to things I hate (my job) then I’m a certain kind of worker, but we’ll get to that later. In those cases, my punctuality is a little distorted (I usually come in a few minutes late and start 5-10 minutes late), my willingness to do what is asked of me drops. I typically only do the bare minimum plus anything explicitly asked of me and even that I may stall on or not do if I can get away with it.

And the drive for excellence?

…Maybe excellence in slacking.

There’s no capacity to be creative or have a passion of discovery in the retail world, for example. That’s because there isn’t a lot of creativity to be had or discovery to be done. The bosses tell you their vision and that vision becomes your vision and there’s usually not a ton of leeway on their vision.

I’m not sure what a “service-orientated mindset” means exactly, but it sounds more like a servile-orientate mindset to me.

.Use-Value and The Job

Tucker relates his own experience learning the work ethic:

“This new Tucker kid is pretty useless,” said my boss to another manager.

They didn’t know I was listening because I was around the corner. I was 15 years old and working for a catering company.

“He never does anything,” he went on.

I was devastated to overhear this. But I was lucky at the same time.

I had just been hired from a busboy position at another restaurant. The new company was a scrappy outfit, not some well-organized franchise. Dirty tables, old food, stained pans, stacked plates, sticky chairs, grimy sinks, stinky napkins, piles of rolls, cups, and cooking stuff were strewn everywhere.

The place was a dump. It was a like kitchen jungle of chaos and I had no clue what was what. It seemed like one big catastrophe.

If one of my managers said I was pretty useless or that I never do anything I wouldn’t recoil. I wouldn’t be “devastated” because it would be at least somewhat accurate. The only thing that would upset or bother me is that their conflating my overall utility as a human being with the amount of utility I give to them during my job. On an ideological and personal level this would probably bother me but I wouldn’t consider myself “lucky” for hearing it. I mean, knowing what they think of me is great and all, but I’m not sure I really care what they think, so long as they keep me around and don’t bother me.

Now, the rest of this quote leads to Tucker resolving to make everything his problem. He becomes a real go-getter and decides to just handle any situation he can possibly handle. Suddenly he decides that the responsibilities of what should (easily) be a handful or so of people just becomes his mission. And that’s how he ends up getting a raise a month later.

So sacrifice all of the energy into as many things as possible to (maybe?) get a (probably) minuscule raise.

But this comment — I’m so glad I overheard it! — seared into my heart and then brain. Useless! What he meant was that I was costing the company more than I was being paid. Every hour I was there I was causing them to lose money. I had negative value as a human being.

This also bothered me.

I’d be happy to cost the company per hour more than I’m being paid.

To be fairI don’t think I’d like that in the long-run ’cause it’d probably mean I would eventually be fired (that is, if they could narrow down the cost to me anyways. But regardless, having negative value as a worker and as a human being are two different things and Tucker doesn’t seem to realize that.

If I’m bad at my job (intentionally or not) It doesn’t make me a bad person. What makes me a bad person is doing unethical or otherwise immoral things and being bad at a given activity isn’t inherently unethical. If I’m bad at tennis and my job is a tennis player, then I’m not an immoral person, just not a good tennis player. In which case I’d be more likely to consider a career change instead of opening up my nearest ethical or religious text to assuage my immorality.

What you do at your job hardly says much about you in real life. People put on all sorts of fronts for their jobs just to get by and I’m no exception. I’m definitely not a totally different person from when I’m working (sassy, sarcastic, lover of puns) but I’m also a lot less philosophical, playful and political (so much alliteration!) as well, for job-security reasons.

Where I had previously seen an unfixable mess, a regrettable dump to which I had been assigned, I suddenly saw work undone. Things to do! Plates needed stacking, butter needed to be put in the fridge, the ovens needed cleaning, the floor was filthy, the hallway was a junk heap, the light bulbs needed changing.

No one else seemed to be doing these things. I went nuts and started working my tail off.

No one told me what to do. No one said I was doing the right or wrong thing.

Many things I didn’t really know how to do. Still, I figured it out. In the course of a few days, I had transformed the place. I felt a sense of pride and even ownership.

I couldn’t even imagine trying to do this in many of the jobs I have done. Doing something and then doing the wrong then, especially when you were never asked to do it to begin with, doesn’t make a lot of sense in today’s much more systematized world of work. Trying to help in this free-spirited, uncoordinated and non-team style of work seems fairly unthinkable to me in the modern work world. Especially one  that favors being part of a “team” more than anything else.

As for the pride and “ownership”, you can feel all of the ownership you want but those feelings won’t change the economic realities of capitalism. All of the hard work you put into the kitchen or the lightbulbs week after week doesn’t get you any closer to owning the means of production. The boss is still in charge, not you, even if you did way more.

See how fair capitalism is?

Killing the Work Ethic

This is probably the only half-way decent section of the article:

I didn’t know it then, but this was the cultivation in my own mind of a work ethic. This ethic is not so much about right and wrong. After all, leisure is a wonderful thing, even a goal, something fabulous and worth shooting for. Work is, to some extent, regrettable, or, as economists would say, carries with it a certain “disutility.” We do it in hopes of a higher standard of living, which is to say a better life.

Which is to really say that we don’t do work for its own sake but just for what it produces. And for some strange reason, things we only value for the abstract economic values we get out of it, should have an ethic about them. Tucker is right that the work ethic isn’t about right or wrong (though it’s almost never treated like that in practice), Tucker sees the work ethic as an amoral tool to guide best practices within the labor market.

Unfortunately for Tucker the labor market is completely stacked against being an honest worker, which I would think he knows given his own presentations on the subject. And while Tucker is right about leisure and its wonder, almost no one would say as much or apply it as much as they should. Most of society believes in the work ethic far more than any sort of “leisure ethic” (if you will).

But even with this (mostly) positive spin on leisure and negative on work, Tucker doesn’t do anything to resolve the obvious conflict: Why not talk about leisure instead of work? If leisure is (or at least has the capacity) to be praiseworthy in of itself and work doesn’t, then why not dedicate an ethic to leisure instead of work? It seems like an obvious choice.

But then comes the worst part of this article:

Mastering this ethic is the best possible thing you can do for your own life. It doesn’t matter what the job is. The lesson applies to them all.

It is not about doing what you are told, though getting that much right is a pretty wonderful thing.

Truly, we all need to be reminded of this point.

When the boss suggests something to do, it is absolutely incontrovertibly true that it must be done. Other priorities need to be moved down the list. The task must be completed. (emphasis mine)

So what I got from this is that the ethic Tucker is trying to explain to his readers is completely without context. Although, to be fair, Tucker does add at least one constraint in the form of government jobs at the end. But otherwise, within the “private” sector, all jobs should be given a work ethic. Tucker does admit bad bosses are a subject worth commenting on, but doesn’t say much more than that they deserve their own article and thus no way to help elucidate this conundrum.

The other part that makes this just (morally and aesthetically) gross is that it reeks of bossism.

That is to say, Tucker is systematically (ism) privileging bosses (boss) and their values over the values of other folks such as, workers. What workers have to say about the world in which they work (and often work much more closely with) is a mere subjectivity to the objectivity of the bosses. I can’t see how bad bosses would not come out of a society that felt so strongly about bosses and how correct their feelings about the world and how it should be operated is.

In one sense, sure, it’s true that it “must” be done, but that’s only if you respect the command. It’s only true if you like where you are working and feel like the job has some meaning to you that commits you to it. It’s only true if you put any value into the contract you’ve liked signed and the work that you’ve already done, etc.

Isn’t it amazing how quickly even some of the best libertarians will say we need to simply submit to bosses, but when you suggest the same for government all of the sudden everything is wrong in the world? One of my roommates who is a better libertarian than most shrugged my complaints off about authoritarianism in the workplace, but when I mentioned this boss was also married to a cop (hmm, I wonder why?), they immediately responded, “Gross.”

Libertarians are not exactly good at being intersectional.

In Praise of The Complainer, The Offloader and Especially the Sneak

You know those Buzzfeed quizzes where you can figure out what you are?

Today I found out I’m some mix of three “bad” employees.

Let’s talk about the first, first:

The Complainer. This person considers every task to be an dreadful imposition. Nothing is right, and everyone else is to blame if the task remains undone. He or she encourages others to complain also, spreading discontent and whininess far and wide.

There are contrasts to all of these vis a vis what it means to be a good employee, but we’ll get to that in a second.

So, there’s a degree to which some of this is just hand-wringing about the failings of people who don’t believe the bullshit they get told by their bosses or the society around them. Notice that if a libertarian was told about the “complainer” but for the government, they would be the first one to say that the only noble position for anyone is to complain!

But of course, in the workplace, it’s whining to point out that some jobs are too difficult or even when things are generally wrong and you want other co-workers to know it. And god-forbid they try to organize around that and cause some sort of union to fight against the injustices!

In contrast, the great worker joyfully embraces all opportunities to add value. It means to go beyond what needs to be done to develop that rare capacity to see the unseen work that could be done. Once you see this, you never run out of value to contribute. Then you become a source of real progress, which is defined by that which goes outside the assigned routine to discover what is new, all in service of others.

You hear that, folks? All opportunities!

And because the boss has some sort of objective authority over you that you cannot refuse, you must be looking to add value at every possible point! There will be a never-ending amount of value to contribute to your workplace, whether you want to or not and whether you even think it makes sense or not!

And “progress” here just means nodding in agreement with the bosses goals and then going out of your way to somehow improve on them and find new and interesting gaps to do all of the time. It’s not that curious that Tucker never gives us any examples except one when he was 15 (a lot has changed since then), because workplaces are not like mines.

There is not a wealth of treasure just waiting out there for you if you happen to give 5.5% more effort. There’s no guarantee of that, let alone any good chance of it occurring. More effort does not equate to more productivity and does not also equate to us having more or less meaning or utility as human beings.

Consciously or not, the complainer reaffirms these points by trying to take on as little work as possible and complaining about what they do get if it’s degrading. By pointing the blame when they feel it’s absolutely necessary and warranted. And by encouraging others to take after them inasmuch as they find reasonable within their own context.

Workers of the world, whine!

The Offloader. This person is the inverse of the hoarder, but just as much a problem. The unteachable offloader imagines that he or she has been hired for a certain skill set and can learn no more. “I don’t do” and “I won’t do” and “I don’t like to do”…fill in the blank. It’s all about using a lack of skill as an excuse for laziness and fobbing work off on everyone else.

See, anyone who wants to stick within a manageable amount of work is just someone who doesn’t want to learn or is somehow incapable of learning. It’s amazingly convenient that this enemy of work is not only just making excuses and wants to put the burden on other people (thus seemingly unnecessarily selfish, etc.) but that they can out 100% into their own job and not want to expand anymore and likely still be called selfish.

And that’s how workers die of stress.

In contrast, having a work ethic means a willingness to do that which is not fun, to learn new skills, to try new applications, to venture into unknown territory, and to add to one’s intellectual capital every day.

Work is all about drudgery, even Tucker admits it!

Okay, snark aside, Tucker is burying the unpleasantness of work by trying to convince the reader that “new” things are inherently valuable. And that somehow new things always add to our “intellectual capital” (whatever that means” in an inherent way. But he gives us no good reasons to believe this other than just that he believes it himself.

When I’m given “new” opportunities at work, I don’t skip for joy. They’re often not very different from each other and even when they are they have a lot of the same creative constraints. Working on the floor and working at the register both have their pros and cons and one isn’t drastically different than the other in substance, just aesthetic.

The Sneak. This is the person who looks for any opportunity to appear to be working but not actually working. It becomes a game: get away early for lunch, return late, or leave the office when everyone is in a meeting. He or she uses work hours to goof off online while neglecting essential tasks, and has developed many ways to hide it with quick browsing tricks to switch screens. Every word becomes a little fib, and work life becomes a vast effort in subterfuge.

First off, this is just George Constanza.

And George is certainly an anti-work hero in some respects. So it’s really hard for me to get behind the fact that George is someone I should dislike just because his bosses did. And betides that, “The Sneak” is the one identity that fits me neatly as a single identity. I read books, listen to podcasts, take my time on anything but the bare essentials, etc.

I suppose that makes some of my job subterfuge and I’ve been caught a handful of times over the past 6 months, but it’s never been a big deal and I’ve tried to learn from my mistakes. But in any case, most of my words aren’t fibs and when they are, I’m happy to do them.

After all, if I cared about this job and it was actually a good one, I wouldn’t need to fib in the first place.

Saving Individualism by Subverting Work

The final section of Tucker’s article starts with this laughably incorrect statement:

The “work ethic” isn’t just about the sweat of your brow and saving your soul. It is really about your own individual interest.

How can it be about our own individual interest when, according to Tucker, the job is all about whatever the boss wants and you are going to be a different person than them? It doesn’t seem plausible to me that the worker would be in this kind of power dynamic and still retain your individuality.

The reason you are hired is to contribute more value than you take out. If you do that, you ascend. If you do not do that, you are not long for this job…

Tucker lives in some sort of ideal world where the rubrics of folks like Carnegie and the like still soundly apply to all possible jobs and economic relations. I have a co-worker who has contributed a lot but she’s still a regular employee after 6 years, granted that’s because she has turned down any of the proposals for her to be a shift lead, etc.

But that’s just one example of the ways in which this simple narrative of effort and ascendancy falls flat in the real world.

The more valuable you can be to others in a marketplace, the better and more wonderful life you can have. And therein lies the beauty of the market. It calls us all to excellence and creativity in the service of others, and enables all of us to assist in making the world more wonderful.

That’s not only good for prosperity.

It’s also good for the human spirit itself.

I can’t imagine anything could be better for the human spirit than an economy based on subservience.

God, what a world libertarians live in.


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