Whether it’s just a contributing factor or the main reason, much of the time our jobs can convince us that life is meaningless or that we don’t contribute much. I had a co-worker yesterday who told me that they felt useless even though they hate the job. Our jobs can convince us that we’re useless and we can’t accomplish that and it can do so through tacit regulation, observation and supervision by managers and even other co-workers. Sometimes in small ways.
The cameras, the recordings, the forms we sign, the electronic devices we punch into, the machines we sign into to do our jobs, the computer we use for training, the offices we pass through and have meetings in, all ways of exerting some form of implied or explicit control. Control isn’t always a bad thing, it’s sometimes healthy and normal to have situations be controlled and sensible in some way. But the corporate way of making sense of the world often leaves employees feeling powerless within their own lives because they have little to no say in it.
And when we do have a “say” it’s just the choice between wearing jeans or not wearing jeans.
But this powerlessness isn’t just left to employees, managers (surprisingly enough to some) can also feel it. They feel helpless by the outside world so they take their frustrations out on the employees, the people who are under them. Why? Probably so they can feel more in control of their lives. If they’re dealing with a divorce for example, it’s easier to just get angry at everyone around you then understand and appreciate that maybe you need to take a break.
“Good” managers, if such a thing exists, are just people who recognize these problems, continue to treat their “subordinates” as if they’re just co-workers. I’ve had a few managers like this. Managers who clearly hate the place they are in, have a chip on their shoulder or just flat out say they don’t want to be there. In this way too, managers can have their own existential crises about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
It’s hard to be sympathetic to managers sometimes, even when they’re your friends. It’s easy to say things like, “well that sucks, but you signed up for it!” and dismiss their feelings. I understand this inclination (and “no war but class war”, etc.) but ultimately it’s unhelpful if you want tactical advantages in the workplace. All too often the people who we think are monsters are people just like us and we’re only too afraid to admit it to ourselves. Because that means admitting that there’s a little bit of a camera monitor in everyone. That there’s a little bit of a manager, a busybody, a brown-nosing employee in all of us and it isn’t just some odd anomaly that is always (somehow) inexplicable.
Thus, frustration and hopelessness can seep through institutions and go from the bottom up, top down, horizontally and diagonally from one institution out into another. Sometimes this has to do with work conditions, or it has to do with the management, or it has to do with their personal situations and usually it’s a mix of various things.
Maybe you hate your body, maybe you feel out of place in the world, maybe you’re an anarchist feeling like you’re letting your philosophical ideals down just so you can get by in a capitalist world.
The bottom line is that hopelessness can happen to many of us.
What do we do about it?
Personally, I vent to my therapist, I vent to my friends and loved ones and I vent to myself. I spend a lot of time processing the frustrations, the fears and the hopes I have. I work on my own personal projects so I can revel in the little bit of control and happiness I can feel. I try to watch shows that can make me think more critically and deeper about the world around me, in the hopes I can be some sort of better person than I currently am (or are viewed as).
So a lot of venting, a lot of trying to make time for personal and fun activities. Sometimes I just want to kill my brain and I’ll watch something really silly, or I’ll laugh at some standup, or maybe I’ll play Assassin’s Creed IV for a few hours. Whatever it takes so I can get my mind off of the fact that I hate my job and that it’ll probably take a while to change.
Sometimes I look for new jobs and apply to a handful over the course of a night. I don’t expect any of these to work out (I don’t have a car) and I often don’t have the qualifications, but at least I can feel like I’m trying. And these attempts, these feelings of earnestly trying to get something different in my life is enough, at least in the short run.
In the long run I know I’ll need more. Maybe I’ll need to go back to school and study philosophy so I can become a professor. Maybe I need to just keep with retail until I can afford an artist for my comic book. Maybe I can keep going with these gigs I don’t like until pet-sitting becomes more streamlined for me. Maybe I could try standup comedy again and get somewhere with that. Lots of people think I’m funny, why not?
And besides, looks aren’t everything.
In any case, I struggle with hopelessness from time to time and I’m sure some of y’all do too. It sucks. There’s no way around the fact that life under capitalism isn’t a thrill ride. I’ve figured out that the people who say they are “living the dream” under capitalism are either lying or bad people. And that makes me wonder if I ever get to “succeed” in this capitalist economy, what kind of person will that make me? Will I have sacrificed all of my values just to get ahead?
And, perhaps scarier, what values have I already sacrificed?
So the future becomes this blurry distant object that I feel reductive towards. Either you die as a hero or live long enough to become a villain, right? Something like that. And that’s what I worry about myself, and for everyone else.
Obviously, this is a reductive view.
Some folks under capitalism are doing well and they’re doing it while doing more good than harm.
But it’s also important to recognize the ever-present phenomenon of harm and how it impacts others. One of my best friends is a workaholic and the other is a manager. I love them both dearly but they destroy themselves for the sake of their work and it in turn destroys me and makes me wonder how long they can keep at it.
How long can any of us keep at it under these conditions?
That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?
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