Hard Work is Only Sometimes Necessary and Never Sufficient, But What Else Can You Do?
yes, the system is rigged, but you're in it all the same
My brother once told me that he was glad that the Smiths wrote “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” because it saved everyone else who has ever lived from having to write it; we all know exactly how it feels. Which I found to be profound. I feel somewhat similarly about this excellent piece by Clare Coffey on how complaining about capitalism doesn’t absolve you of your responsibility to get through life - she wrote it so that the rest of us don’t have to.
Coffey’s piece is elegant and pitched at exactly the right register, which is to say simultaneously harsh and sympathetic. She’s critiquing a kind of complaint that’s become inescapable among savvy 21st century Americans: “capitalism is so bad, so how can you expect me to deal with Basic Adult Responsibility X? How can you judge me for being lazy, venal, or selfish, when I labor every day under the weight of our wicked system?” But as Coffey suggests, recognizing the fact that the system is rigged does not mean that all of our problems are the fault of the system, or that we wouldn’t have to face those or similar problems in another system. And recognizing that capitalism and meritocracy are fickle and arbitrary edifices that are frequently and erroneously described as fair doesn’t allow you to simply stop working within them.
What binds these pleas together is an application of “the personal is political” so expanded in scope that, for a certain kind of person, personal problems, anxieties, and dissatisfactions are illegible or illegitimate unless described as political problems…. the complete identification of human foible with structural failure excuses you from identifying and dealing with personal problems as such.
I have described this attitude in the past as “I cheated on my boyfriend again and he broke up with me! Thanks, capitalism!” Even when we’re not rationalizing our own bad behavior by saying that it’s the product of a harsh and totalizing system like our economic model, the temptation to see our issues with our people (with their fidelity, their honesty, their loyalty) as the product of the system can be overpowering, as it’s somehow more hopeful to think that betrayal and cruelty stem from money instead of from human nature. But bad marriages and fickle friends will follow us into socialist paradise.
Sometimes this attitude specifically takes the form of complaints about work, meaning the exchange of labor for wages, specifically. And indeed, if you’re a Marxist you recognize that this exchange is inherently exploitative. But work, itself, the act of laboring, is not a vestige of capitalism but of human existence. As I was recently saying, work and its inherent dignity and value are core to radical left politics, and can’t be written out of our conceptions of the better world to come because at present we still need people to do unpleasant tasks, capitalism or no. We certainly can imagine a world where people are free to do both the unpleasant tasks and the things they love, and it’s a world worth fighting for. But some people work in the cobalt mines at least part-time under socialism. Luxury cyborg space communism will have to wait.
Of course the game is rigged. Even many enthusiastic capitalists, these days, will concede that a lot of people are born on third base, that preexisting familial advantage can play a huge role in monetary success and success in any given field. Of course chance influences everything we do within our various systems of achievement. (I know someone who busted her ass for four years to be able to save and prep to open her own cafe, which she did… in February 2020.) People are smart and talented and work hard every day and never make it, while the idiot sons of privilege thrive and thrive and thrive. The question is, what’s the right thing to do in light of this information? Too many people seem to have concluded that the only thing to do is to devolve deeper and deeper into bitterness. That’s a great way to set yourself up for an unhappy life, and more importantly, it’s annoying for all the rest of us. We’re trapped in it too.
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been successful in a difficult industry. And fuck yes, I’ve gotten lucky! I got into blogging just at the very tail end of when you could just start a blog and force your way into the conversation and make your name. It doesn’t work that way anymore. I also had the great advantage of some big names championing my work early on, which is how I got my first couple thousand readers which is how I got someone offering me $75 for 2000 words which is how I eventually got in The New York Times and six figures from Simon & Schuster. Substack happened at just the right time in my life; if they start the company five years later, I genuinely don’t know what I would have done. At any point along the way something could have broken the other direction and I wouldn’t have had this career. I never forget that.
I also never forget that I have succeeded as a writer because I’m very good at writing, and I’m very good at writing because I have absolutely busted my ass to be good at it for fifteen years. I have dedicated myself to this craft, and have been unafraid to talk plainly about seeing it as a craft in an industry culture that loves to mock that sort of thing, because it’s the only thing I care about and the only thing I’ve ever been good at. I’ve written north of 25,000 words a week for over a decade and since I got fired by CUNY it’s been more like 35,000. I wrote when I had Covid and I wrote when I was recovering from shoulder surgery and I wrote the day my dog died and I write on Thanksgiving and Christmas. And I know that without that dedication I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I also know that some asshole out there works one-tenth as hard as I do and enjoys greater success because that’s our system and that’s life and if you get too hung up on the idea of just deserts you’ll drive yourself crazy. Life’s not fair. But that doesn’t mean that you get to just opt out of it. And you know what? Congrats to that guy who doesn’t work hard and enjoys more success, seriously. Te salut. Bottom line: hard work can’t ensure your success but a lack of hard work can ensure your failure.
I shudder to think of the young people who are glued to their phones every day while some shithead fake socialist YouTubers tell them that work doesn’t matter and they’re chumps if they try in life. I shudder to think. Telling people that they were born victims and should just give up isn’t left politics, it’s a business model for some of the worst people in the world. Witless empty anticapitalism is not the answer. Doomerism is not the answer. You've got to believe that we'll change the system someday, or you'll never survive.
The simple fact of the matter is this: you are embedded in a system in which you do not control your own destiny, yet you must work to achieve better outcomes rather than worse regardless. Adult life, very often, consists of recognizing that you can’t control what happens next, and then setting about to try and control it anyway. Because while you may never be able to exceed the potential that is forced on you by chance and parentage and timing and the system, you can certainly fail to meet that potential. If saying that means that I’m guilty of endorsing an unjust system then our standards have truly collapsed. I’m sorry to pull the wise old socialist routine, but I’ve been involved in this political culture my whole life, and being a socialist never entailed a belief that nothing we do matters or that we were exempt from the need to work. The fact that so many people have come to believe that the only options before us are a witless rise-and-grind work fetishism or an utterly fatalistic belief that nothing we do matters… it doesn’t say good things about our culture. Personally, I blame capitalism.
Sometimes, you know, you work hard and you get what you want. For once in your life.