Is there life after snowflake?

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.

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