Saturday, August 27, 2011

Work Sucks

There's this backhanded compliment in art school: "That looks like an illustration." Or, "Wow, you would be a great illustrator" (i.e. not a great artist). I went to art school, so maybe that's why I didn't figure out that I really want to be an illustrator until I was about 30 years old.

More likely, it's because I was too busy being a professional activist. I'd previously been into the punk scene and toyed with revolutionary ideas, but I really got radicalized in my early twenties when I discovered anarchism. By definition, anarchism is very simple: it means no government.

In practice, there's a lot more to it. You spend a lot of time fighting the powers that be, but you do other things, too. The heart of it is the same stuff that revolutions have been fought for since time began - the idea that we all deserve the good things in life, and now. Friends, lovers, bonfires and summer stars, parties, adventure, creativity and the freedom to be who we are. These things are free, for the bold, and the rest is nothing.

So, you cut your expenses. Squat, or pool a few thousand dollars to buy a house and fill it with housemates, or rent the cheapest apartment you can find. Dumpster dive, garden, and DIY. There's not too much you really need to buy, and of course you don't need car payments or gas. Luckily, it's hip to wear the same old clothes day after day, especially in the winter when you may be wearing most of them anyway to stay warm. Health insurance? What's that? There are plenty of ways to get a little bit of money if you really need it, and when all else fails you can lie, cheat and steal, because surplus wealth should belong to everyone.

It's very hard for me to write about this. I think it's because I loved it so much, and even now there's so much there that I love. I felt honest, and accepted, and very, very free. It was intoxicating, and right, and wonderful.  The old world, where you had to worry about things like social status and grades and not ever saying the wrong true thing to the wrong powerful person felt so very false and irrelevant. And there's one more important thing about being a professional anarchist: You Do Not Work.

After I had graduated from college, I tried to get a job. I didn't have the least idea about how to get a "good" job, and I had a general liberal arts degree. Museum work? Sure, but about three percent of us can get those jobs, and I hadn't exactly excelled in school. So I walked up and down the streets filling out applications. At Eat and Park I had to fill out a standardized test, in which I admitted that there might be such a thing as a valid reason to be late for work. I never heard back. I did eventually get an interview at Panera, where I dressed appropriately and told them that I wanted to work there forever. They told me that I was overqualified. After a couple of months of this, I moved in with J. Also, I sold a painting, and discovered anarchism. We bought a cheap house and filled it with housemates, and started volunteering a lot and going to meetings. And Did Not Work.

The thing about work and the anarchist community is that, although creativity and passion are encouraged, so is equality. It's not fair and equal to think you should be able to make a living doing something that you love, because most people can't. It's also not fair to value your time more highly, and suggest that you'd like to maybe be paid $20 an hour just because you're privileged enough to have specialized skills. Of course, It's fine to be a working artist - actually, it's great, as long as you sell your work at a price poor people can afford, which is pretty much impossible. Professional careers? Well, working for a nonprofit might be ok, or becoming a doctor or lawyer, as long as you intend to focus solely on social justice.

I'm struggling again to express myself, and I think this is important. This strange sadness comes from realizing, just now, that it's right for me to write this stuff as an outsider. I still feel the truth and power of it. Why should I get paid to make beautiful things and turn the heat on in the winter when children in China are forced to work for pennies, processing toxic garbage? That's so wrong that it hurts. (Ha ha, because yes, it does hurt them, but it doesn't actually hurt me, and that's wrong. Or is it?) I guess the truth that I'm coming to is that my suffering doesn't help anyone. And while my art might not help anyone much, I like to think that it helps a little more than eating bagels out of the trash does.

I'm still an anarchist, but deep within that community (as it is just now, and here) is really not a place to be raising kids, and the feeling is mutual - there's a fair amount of resentment toward parents, too. Now when I think about the powers that be, they strike me sort of like modern wolves. If you're smart, you keep an eye on the wolves and try to stay away from them. When they come for your friends, you fight them. If you have any honor at all, you fight them when they come for that guy from the next village who is always talking bad about you, too. But you don't waste your life railing against the existence of wolves, because that is just sad. Couldn't you be making something beautiful?


  1. I started working at 15. I did food service until I was old enough to get hired at Ross (my mom worked there) and then I stayed there until I started junior college and I quit. At the JC I worked in the library as a tech, taught supplement English classes, and worked in the theatre as a general grunt. When I started the bdsm scene I "nannied" for a while (I lived there rent free and helped a friend with her son while she detoxed from epilepsy medication), I would also periodically clean houses for extra cash. Then I started substitute teaching before being a real teacher. That's my whole work life and I'm about to be 30. It sounds like a lot of work when I say it this way. It doesn't feel like a lot because I know how pitifully much money I made. I filed taxes when I was 15, 16, and 17, and then not again till I was 22. Even though I was working I made so little money in most years I didn't have to file.

    I lived off an accident settlement I got from being attacked as a little kid when I was 5. That was my real money from 18 on. $15/year is enough. It stops as of my birthday in 11 days. I'm terrified of the fact that I am no longer going to have "my money" coming in. I am going to be completely dependent on Noah. I can feel my heart pounding. Ugh.

    So to respond more directly to your post, I have serious disagreements with anarchy. Anarchists aren't really moving the common good forward in my overly judgmental opinion. :) I think that your point about it not being a good place for kids is kind of the point. Anarchism as I understand it would only be able to survive for one generation if it actually won. To me it's kind of silly to pull this down when it will result in millions of people dying... and we have no plan. Because telling everyone to stop working and party? Uhhh... yeah... no. That doesn't work. All those people in hospitals? They would just die. System-wide, it just can't work.

    And yet... I'm sitting in a place where I'm awfully glad I don't matter. I am working harder and harder and harder in a neurotic way in my non-paying life so that I can prove that I Do So Work! But I get to collapse every so often into an emotional mess and it's no big deal that I can't get anything done for a while. I actually appreciate that. Very convenient.

  2. One thing that's hard about writing my stories is that there are so many contradictions, it's hard to construct a narrative that actually makes sense and isn't very misleading. I actually had a reasonable work history before all this started: babysitting, fast food, waitressing, a couple of receptionist-type jobs, and most recently night-shift data entry. That was fun. Stuff started getting weird for me after college, when I was totally unmotivated by any serious "career" type options I saw, and started to suddenly be a lot less employable for basic stuff due to 1) suddenly being overqualified and 2) starting to have significant gaps in my work history, because yeah, it was boring and of course I was trying to do as little of it as possible.

    As far as anarchism goes, I'm not an advocate of violent revolution. Some anarchists are, and some aren't. I just don't believe the government is particularly necessary or effective (though preferable to some options) so I don't consent to be governed by it, personally, and I try to be in solidarity with people who come into conflict with it.

    Anarchists aren't actually opposed to work/effort itself, and maybe I was unclear about that. It's more the being driven by money thing that people object to. In my community, anarchists run a bike shop, a radical bookstore, a couple of farms, a print studio, a free school (mostly various classes for adults), a mental health support group, a meal program for the homeless, have fixed up lots of falling apart houses, etc...I'm sure there are lots of things I'm forgetting. It's actually very altruistic, at times. Part of the thing about work is that we're distracted by doing stupid stuff for money, when we could be doing many more valuable and important things. At the time I really felt this, because most of the jobs I had done seemed completely pointless in terms of a meaningful contribution to society. When I stopped working, I actually felt like my meaningful activity went way up. However, that was partly due to me career ennui. I think that if one can actually get paid to do whatever they consider to be their important work, that's probably the best. There, of course, you get back to the inequality thing, because some people have a lot more access to get all the training and resources you need for meaningful and/or well paying work rather than something stupid. I'm still sort of confused about the whole thing. But I do think anarchists do a lot of things that are constructive for the world.