Another Angle on Alienation

In an earlier post about alienation I said that

the life of the hunter-gatherer, however fraught, is less rationalized than the kind of life that’s represented by intensive agriculture, let alone modern manufacturing and office work.

The hunter-gatherer isn’t “a cog in a machine”, he is the machine. He is the shareholder, the manager, the worker, and the consumer, all in one. His work with others is truly cooperative. It is like the execution of a game-winning touchdown by a football team, and unlike the passing of a product from stage to stage in an assembly line, or the passing of a virtual piece of paper from computer to computer.

What really matters in life — perhaps as much as love and friendship — is the sense of accomplishment that derives from producing something of value to others, something that they willingly pay for.

In decades of post-collegiate work, nothing gave me more satisfaction than the weekly publication of the Pennysaver that — in the late 1970s — I owned, operated, and poured my labor (and a large share of my savings) into for three years. “Publish or perish” was far truer of me than it is of the academics who exclaim it.

I bought the Pennysaver to escape the “rat race” of the D.C.-area government-contractor milieu: big-city anonymity, commuting, high taxes, and — most of all — disconnect between work and accomplishment. In fact, I doubted that the work that I and thousands of others like me accomplished anything but the appropriation of taxpayers’ money.

During the Pennysaver years I concentrated intensly on making a living. But more than that, I was producing something of real value — a publication supported by willing advertisers and eagerly awaited by local residents, who found it in their mailboxes every Wednesday.

I gave up the Pennysaver to return to the “rat race” of the D.C. area, so that I could earn enough to retire comfortably. (Life is full of choices; that was mine.) I often took pride in some of what I accomplished in the ensuing 18 years. But it wasn’t the same sense of accomplishment that I experienced as a business owner. It was just the satisfaction of doing a job well, even if the job wasn’t worth doing.

I worked hard in those final 18 years — from 60 to 70 hours a week until the end was nigh. But I was no longer the captain of my own ship, though I usually worked directly for the CEO. There were three of them in those years. The first one was deposed (deservedly) in a coup, brought about in part by internal opposition to his Queegish management. The second one was a careerist of high professional and ethical standards who steered the organization back to its roots as an empirical, objective, and apolitical operations research outfit.

Then along came the third one, and a new kind of alienation descended on me: I couldn’t even derive a sense of satisfaction from doing a useless job well because he corrupted the organization. Not in a criminal way, but — almost as bad — in a political way. He was prone to magical thinking (e.g., there should be a greater percentage of black Ph.D.s on the staff but standards shouldn’t be lowered), and he pushed the organization away from empirical research into “policy analysis” (a.k.a., advocacy bullshit) with a partisan edge. It was all in keeping with his proud self-identification as a “Carter Democrat”.

The stress of working for such a man became almost debilitating. So I arranged for early retirement on favorable terms before the stress became absolutely unbearable. My foreboding was borne out when, in the years after my retirement, the organization took an overtly political turn (e.g., backing for some of Obama’s domestic programs, “global warming” as a national-security issue).

Alienation comes in many forms. And it isn’t restricted to workers who are just “cogs in a machine”. Alienation is a sense of uselessness that can descend on anyone in any job at any income level.


  1. I actually tried for a lower-paying job just to get away from the idiot. But I didn’t get it, and stuck it out until I could quit on my own terms.


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