There’s a new book out by David Graeber, and I haven’t read it yet, but I’m dying to write about a review of it, whose sole criticism is stuck in my craw. I’m talking about Miranda Purves’ Bloomberg review.
I imagine a lot of people identifying with her view, yet I find it deeply flawed and misguided.
First, an aside:
She complains that Graeber’s argument “gets into a ‘Why Capitalism? Because Capitalism!’ tautology.” But she’s oversimplifying.
Capitalism isn’t one thing. It’s a web of beliefs, as all ideologies are, and it has many effects and many activities. It’s fully possible to take something complex and explore aspects of it as arising in relation to other aspects. In other words, some complex human phenomena do seem tautological if you reduce them to extremely simple single-word labels.
Take addiction, for example. Some addicts may use partly due to feelings of disconnect — loneliness, social anxiety, etc. Yet, using will exacerbate those problems in the long run, not solve them. One could be overly simplistic and say “Oh you’re just saying ‘Why addiction? Because addiction!’ That’s a tautology, you must be completely wrong!” Oh, so smart…
But let’s get to her real complaint about the book, which, aside from her hand-wringing anecdote about a housecleaner she was dissatisfied with once, amounts to this paragraph:
But when I read Graeber’s account of how a boss taught him and his fellow dishwashers to be less efficient at a restaurant job he held in his youth by yelling at them for washing the dishes as fast as possible and then loafing around, smoking, I sympathized with the boss. When you’re the one who owns or feels ownership over the endeavor, you think there’s always something more that needs doing. To you, it’s important. It’s hard to get other people to see what you see needs to get done; it’s human nature to want to have things done your own way. Sometimes Graeber reminds me of a 12-year-old who insists there’s no reason to clean up his or her room, while the parent knows that bugs, vermin, mental chaos, or depression could otherwise ensue.
Look, I get it. I do. Other humans can be frustrating or disappointing sometimes.
First, adult employees / workers / laborers — are not children. It’s utterly disrespectful to imagine them so. It’s paternalistic. It’s ugly. Don’t do it. I shouldn’t have to say more about that.
Second … ok, in her anecdote about the disappointing housecleaner, she identifies herself as as “wrong and an entitled a–hole,” but only in the context of the cleaner’s difficult life experience.
My argument would be this:
As a human relating with another human, if you do not clearly agree with the other human on your expectaions, and become angry and resentful when your unspoken assumptions are not met, you’re being “wrong and an entitled a**hole” regardless of the other person’s life experience to date.
Purves wants to imagine that employees will jump on board with the world projects & endeavors of their employers.
Why would they?
Her words suggest that if they don’t, there’s something childish about them.
Her words suggest that, if you don’t see the importance of what your employer wants done, you’re not worthy of respect.
Honestly, isn’t the opposite true?
If you get angry and resentful when people don’t read your minds, aren’t you the jerk? If you expect to be able to change the terms of your agreements and relationships on a dime, without renegotiating, aren’t you the jerk?
Here’s my radical response:
If people are unwilling to do some work that you imagine as important, that work doesn’t need to be done.
Even more precisely:
If people are unwilling to do some work that you imagine as important, by the terms that you imagine they should accept, that work doesn’t need to be done, or you need to negotiate different terms — or you need to find new ways of persuading people.
The unspoken criticism she’s not really bringing herself to say is: “Just because you think it’s bullshit doesn’t mean it is! It might be really important!”
And this is where it’s extra ridiculous to equate workers with children: it’s really the boss’s attitude that is the most childish. Who but a toddler imagines that other people should honor their every whim? Who but King Baby thinks their ideas are obviously correct and that the world ought to revolve around them?
She said, “it’s human nature to want to have things done your own way.”
Or is that the nature of a toddler? Wouldn’t we rather prefer that an adult human would want things done in a way that all involved find acceptable?
But I guess if this sort of thing is the best critique someone can muster, Graeber’s new book must be pretty good.
I’m sorry, Miranda, but you and your boss friends are going to have to, ultimately, one day, learn to respect and treat other humans as equals, as I imagine (well, hope) you would expect in other relationships you conduct.
It’s going to require more skills than appealing to authority and wishing people would read your minds.