I’m going to start with a brief quote from Cory Doctorow’s novel Walkaway. The character has left “default” society to go live in an anarchic post-scarcity outpost. Think year-round Burning Man but not the endless party aspect, the autonomous zone aspect.
“I feel like I’m going to explode. I’ve been fed, drugged, boozed, and had a nap by the fire. I just can’t sit there anymore. Please put me to work?” “You know that’s something you’re not supposed to ask?”
“I got that impression. There’s something weird about you—I mean, us?—and work. You’re not supposed to covet a job, and you’re not supposed to look down your nose at slackers, and you’re not supposed to lionize someone who’s slaving. It’s supposed to be emergent, natural homeostasis, right?”
“I thought you might be clever. That’s it. Asking someone if you can pitch in is telling them that they’re in charge and deferring to their authority. Both are verboten. If you want to work, do something. If it’s not helpful, maybe I’ll undo it later, or talk it over with you, or let it slide. It’s passive aggressive, but that’s walkaways. It’s not like there’s any hurry.”
One of the implications that Doctorow highlights is that people who work can form a sense of superiority, feel that they are indispensable, and therefore deserve to get more — more privileges, more authority, more something. They call people with this belief «special snowflakes».
In a post-scarcity economy, there’s no point in limiting who gets what; the only way for some people to have more is to enforce scarcity on everyone else; in other words, make a zero-sum game out of a non-zero-sum game.
As I’ve considered what this would mean, I’ve begun to realize that I am frightened of it. All my life I’ve been taught that being a special snowflake (someone who has skills that are in demand) makes the difference between prosperity and starvation. The more special my snowflakiness the better; being one of the crowd is an existential threat.
I think I could learn not to look down on the slackers. I’m not so sure I can learn how not to look down on myself as a slacker.
I am for the moment closer to post-scarcity than I have ever been. It ought to feel like a beautiful opportunity, the chance to do whatever I like. It won’t last forever, but for the first time in decades I don’t live under the everpresent threat of eviction, starvation, utility shutoff, or failure to take care of my cats.
Here’s another line from Walkaway: A job creator is someone who figures out how to threaten you with starvation unless you do something you don’t want to do.
That line will piss a lot of people off. Deal with it.
This constant fear I’ve been living under didn’t become obvious until those threats were removed. That anxiety may have been necessary and appropriate when the threat loomed over my head. Unfortunately, it hasn’t gone away since I’ve gotten my reprieve from scarcity. In fact, my response is not to ask what would I do if I didn’t have these threats and then do those things. My response is to ask how can I get back to living in fear? Specifically, how can I find a way to get back to the rat race and somehow just do it better.
I’ve been half-jokingly calling this Capitalism PTSD. The closest thing I have to compare it to is the years I spent not walking alone at night after I was held up at gunpoint, and the extent to which I inventoried every shadow and every sound when I did start walking at night again — which I did not do until I lived in a place with exceptionally low crime. My hypervigilance may have served a purpose when I still lived in the City, but not after I moved away.
This comes back to ableism. Or rather, ableism is sort of a subset of snowflakeism. We (our society, or what walkaway calls «default») don’t just look down our noses at those who won’t work, we look down our noses at those who can’t work, or who don’t have the skills to do meaningful work or at least work that keeps the threats at a comfortable distance. Attitudes range from contempt to condescension.
What I’m beginning to see now is that those attitudes — that disgust at the idea that some people aren’t «pulling their weight» — are not just inhumane. They are destructive. Keeping people stuck in fight-or-flight mentality (or outright desperation) of economic insecurity perpetuates the problem. Economists talk about prices and wages being «sticky» or slow to change in the face of forces that the market should eventually adapt to. Well, the human psyche takes time to equilibrate too. It’s taken me a year and a half to begin to see the box I’ve put myself in.
More importantly, I still don’t know how to be something other than a snowflake. My identity — or at least a large portion of it — is constructed around the things that I know how to do, and my ability to (sometimes) put my nose to the grindstone to make something happen. Those attributes certainly have practical advantages, but they don’t make me better than anyone else. They don’t make me special.
I’m an adult. I shouldn’t need to feel special in order to get something done. All I should need is the desire and willingness to do it. Wanting it to be done ought be sufficient; wanting the recognition (including internal recognition) ought be unnecessary. But letting go of being a snowflake is difficult, and I don’t know how to do it.