Letter to the Editor: a major flaw in your argument

To send a letter to the editor, simply write in. You’ll get a reply and we’ll anonymise any blogged version.

Dear Robert,

I like your writing. I came across your column about “the Hot New Thing” in the Idler which prompted me to get your books Escape Everything! and A Loose Egg, while also subscribing to your newsletter.

I’m only 10% in to your Escape book, which is hilarious and I literally laugh out loud when reading it on the tube (a good reason to have a long commute), however I have come across a major flaw in your argument, which if you forgive me I would like to relay to you.

If we all became idlers and escapees, who would do the absolutely essential jobs that no one wants to do, like street cleaning, rubbish collecting, sewage clearing, etc.?

Surely the economic system we live under has facilitated wage slavery for this very reason – someone has to do the dirty work. The only way to reserve some people for pawn-like functions while others enjoy their kingly status is to set up an unequal, hierarchical system that keeps the poor out of pocket so that their only choice is to collect your black bin liner once a week.

I get that your writing is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, silly, and quite often ridiculous, but unfortunately it doesn’t come across as economically viable. I hope one of your later chapters will rectify this though.

Have a good day and I look forward to reading more of your witty passages.

D., a fan

Hi D. Thanks so much for buying my books. I can just about live on the strength of my book sales but I’m still in a position where every book counts, so I hugely appreciate it. Thank you. I’m glad you like the Idler column too – more of those to come!

I think I come some way to answering your question later in the book (the epilogue is literally and directly about “what if everyone was an escapologist?” – I think that might even be the title), though I appreciate that I may not have handled it fully and that the shortcoming you have detected probably remains a valid criticism of the book. Hold tight though and finish the book to see what you think. In brief:

– The sort of jobs I really take aim at are “bullshit jobs,” i.e. white collar, boring jobs that either make no difference to world or actively harm it. Toilet cleaning and the likes can be said to be “shit jobs” but hardly useless, so they don’t really attract my ire. David Graeber makes this important distinction in his brand new Bullshit Jobs book, which actually serves as a nice (if belated) preface to Escape Everything! and the sort of thing Tom writes about in the Idler.

– The “who would sweep the streets and do other sorts of dirty work” question is, I’m afraid, very common. There are ideas about automating it in various ways (not necessarily in high-tech ways but in upstreaming the problem, etc.), but you’re right that the work has to be done for now. It should also be better paid than it is, which is something social activists are working on (here in Scotland they’re doing quite well too – the living wage campaign is quite a success and should continue this way). If my writing enterprise should fail, incidentally, my plan is to become a street sweeper. I’m serious! I refuse go back to shovelling bullshit in an office. My wife has already quit her own bullshit job to become a funeral arranger.

– The idea of things being “economically viable” (i.e. making sure the economy stays strong) is a problem. I hold that the economy is a tool to make life better and more effective for us humans. It serves us, we do not serve it. So it doesn’t matter if growth decelerates a little. It might even be a good thing when overwork and environmental problems are taken into account. Might even be the moment all those anticapitalists have been agitating for. I think I probably do a better job of handling this sort of discussion in my NEXT book. It’s tentatively titled The Good Life for Wage Slaves: How to live beautifully as a white-collar drudge.

Sincere thanks again for buying my nonsense and also for writing to me. Lovely, lovely. All the best.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at www.wringham.co.uk/about.

6 Responses to “Letter to the Editor: a major flaw in your argument”

  1. chris says:

    Bullshit jobs are created by capitalists to maximise their revenues from creating the most efficient cost minimal process, hence why people generally hate capitalism as it results in Specialisation and same tasks everyday, the office is just an extension of agriculture and manufacturing and in future servicing/programming various robots. As grown individuals, we are required to make money to live an adult life and support it via whatever means necessary to the individual, which involves entering/staying in work. Although i myself have lost out to this as i have no specialist area despite being generally skilled and academic so in my case would have to take a step down to self emp/administrative/street cleaner level.

    Anyhow, Marx discussed all this over 130ish? yrs ago, that people would specialise in boring pointless work because the natural progression of the world was becoming more efficient due to innovations and wealthy business owners seeking to maximise capital….

  2. What do you mean by “take a step down?” In terms of pay? Not necessarily. In terms of social status? Possibly, but possibly not. In terms of hours? I see such a move a trade off, not a step down. What you might lose in social standing (e.g. street sweeping) you gain in a feeling of usefulness and an avoidance of bullshit. What you might lose in money (e.g. starting over as self-employed) you win back in autonomy and self-direction and a chance to actually make a lot of money through talent and expertise instead of just dragging your deskilled carcass to an office each day and touching the truck.

  3. Richard says:

    Tom Hodgkinson partly addresses this in the ‘Readers’ Responses’ section of the paperback edition of his seminal tome How to be Idle, in response to someone who, having read the original edition of the book, writes in to say, ‘If everyone was idle, then surely everything would grind to a halt.’ Personally, I think that anyone who spends their time posing this sort of question instead of railing against wage slavery is part of the problem. Tom’s response is multi-faceted, but his first point is that, ‘…there will always be a large contingent of Protestant-work-ethic fans, so we can let them do the work, if they really want to.’ Based on my own (sadly comprehensive) knowledge of working schmucks, I have no doubt whatsoever that even if, for example, we were to adopt the Citizen’s Basic Income, there would always be plenty of people wanting to earn extra money wage-slaving (even in less desirable jobs).

  4. Such a good point! And nice work, Richard, for studying the scripture.

  5. D says:

    So I finally got to the end of the book (I did say I was a slow reader), and I have to say that as long as you’re middle class with a bit of money on the side, you can pull off the great escape, which I’ve just done. I don’t think the proles could afford to enjoy such liberty though.

    In my newfound freedom I feel strangely idle and teetering on the brink of insanity, but I’m adamant that I’ll never ever fall into the trap of applying for a bullshit job ever again.

    Thank you for initiating us into the secret school of spend less, work less. I just need to find something to fill the empty void now…

  6. Congrats on your escape!

    People do say that to me about savings but any escape (and financial reserves) can start from nothing. And financial reserves only mean safety: there are ways I allude to in the book that don’t require money at all. As to filling the void, it will come with patience and imagination. Don’t force it would be my advice, especially if you have some financial runway. And if you never successfully fill the void, just go back to work only with some adventures and/or hours of pleasant idling under your belt.

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