Who Wins?

In a world without work, some new science suggests, being busy will be the ultimate status symbol.

The article reporting this news also suggests that the new findings are at odds with the old Thorstein Veblen theory that the ultimate status symbol is leisure, the winners being those who can afford to spend time doing nothing.

What do we, Escapologists hoping for a toil-free future, think of that?

Well. As we already know (see Escape Everything!), work and consumerism are two sides of the same coin. They’re the same economic transaction seen from opposite ends. So the new science isn’t at odds with Veblen at all: the person with the most leisure time and the person with the biggest workload will be seen as equally impressive. It is already the case and it will still be the case in a post-work future too.

The kind of leisure currently and increasingly seen as a status symbol doesn’t involve lazing around like a lotus eater or slowly walking a tortoise like a 19th century fopp. Social capital is only dished out for those who actively participate in leisure industries. The gym, tourism, shopping. Nobody admires the efficient soul who gets through the week without breaking a sweat.

Moreover, the kind of work and busyness currently rewarded with social capital isn’t the useful work of wiping elderly bottoms or raising helpless children, but non-essential busy work. The CEO, seen as a great leader and a productive member of the international society, is extremely busy despite their work being essentially useless and even harmful to their own health and the world in general.

So in the post-work future, who will be seen as the winner? Those with the most leisure or those with the most hair falling out from busyness? It’s the same guy.

The only way to break the cyclical curse of this is to be an Escapologist and learn how to idle properly.

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New Essay Series Begins

The new essay series is go! Subscribers and the generally keen-of-eye will have noticed this already.

I’ve received some nice email about the series already, so thanks to everyone who has fed back and given moral support as well as monetary.

I hope to post a new essay each month. I’ll also post an improved and updated director’s cut of an older essay from the archives, gradually building up an online Escapologist’s library.

The first new essay is called ESCAPE THE DEATHLY HUMBLEBRAG.

The first one from the vault is THE WRONG DOOR, first seen in Issue 8.

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Escape the Deathly Humblebrag

[dropcap]Wouldn’t[/dropcap] it be grand to get one back at the Protestant Work Ethic — that outdated bit of software that keeps so many noses to grindstones and so many internal policemen wagging their fingers at us during moments of repose? Wouldn’t it be super to to send one of its cannonballs of self-doubt right back up the pipe where it came from?

Well, I may have found a small way to do so. This won’t end its reign, its entire jurisdiction over our lives, but it would certainly feel good. And once we’ve had one little bash against the system, who knows what we’ll come up with next in the state of confidence that will follow? First, a story.

One of the first offices I ever worked in was the serials department of a big library. One of my colleagues was a very interesting person who loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In fact, she was apparently quite well-known in Buffy fan circles for her entertaining fan fiction.

Now, my personal feelings about fan fiction — short stories published online, set ostensibly in the universes of Buffy or Star Trek or whatever — are not wholly positive. Why write on the fringes of someone else’s idea when you could be using your literary prowess to invent your own characters and your own worlds? But I’m not here to judge the merits of fan fiction. What interested me was the level of fame this person had achieved through writing the stuff and also her attitude towards this activity.

She’d come to the office at 10am, the latest time we were allowed to begin the day, with bags under her eyes from a solid night of writing fan fiction or talking to her followers on Livejournal. It was very impressive, the way she put her fan fiction enterprise ahead of her paid work. Why worry about our library when you can escape into the fictional library run by demon expert Rupert Giles? There were no vampires in our library, only zombies, which are far less charismatic.

At lunch time, this weaver of existing worlds would come into the staff room, collapse onto one of the sofas and begin a huff-and-puff diatribe about how much work she had to do. She wasn’t talking about her work in the library though. No! She was talking about her fanfic. “I’ve got three-thousand words to write today,” she’d say on the verge of panic, “and soon it’ll be NaNoWriMo.”

“What’s NaNoWriMo?” we’d ask, already regretting it.

“National Novel-Writing Month!!” she’d say.

What the Hellmouth was going on here? Wasn’t fan fiction a leisure pursuit? Was it not a fun way to engage with something you enjoyed on television and maybe a way of demonstrating your knowledge of that programme to other fans? Why was she affecting this attitude of burnout?

Some years later, in another office, I worked next to someone whose passion was ancient languages. She’d come to work and blow off steam about the sheer number of hours she’d “had to” dedicate to Sumerian transliteration over the weekend. The tone of her claim was very similar to our old fan fiction friend — not quite a complaint and not quite a boast. Aha! So this is what people mean by a “humblebrag!”

A humblebrag (though apparently John Lloyd of Meaning of Liff fame calls it a moast — the cross between a moan and a boast) is when you come into a room, complain to everyone about how busy you are and that you’re close to breaking point, knowing full well that busyness is code for success in a world where success is a little bit taboo and busyness reigns supreme.

Anything good can be positioned as a whinge. Another erstwhile office-mate would routinely and publicly rue a weekend or hen night for how much alcohol she and her friends had chugged through and how sick it had made them. She was forever having her hair held back. Just as the fan-fic writer and the Sumerian transliterator had framed pride in their hobbies as debilitating burnout, this was her way of saying “Oh baby, I know how to have fun,” couched in the framework of a complaint.

[dropcap]None[/dropcap] of this would be the case if the primary programme being run by our societies was something other than the Protestant Work Ethic, the classic humblebrag being “Oh no, I have so much work to do” or “Oh phew, I did so much work today.” In other words, we occupy a culture in which work reigns supreme. Successful people, goes the standard line, have a lot of work to do. And by definition, to be idle or aristocratic or quiet is to be a failure.

It makes no sense, of course. CEOs might toil away around the clock, but so do peasants. Upper-echelon media types might not get a wink of sleep between them, but neither do single parents or the staff of an all-night garage. The nature of the work might be different, but it ultimately results in the same number of hours being rushed down the plughole in the name of Activity. Where is the virtue in the CEO or the aspiration in garage work? They’re just doing what they do, entirely unmoored from morality or meritocracy. That work is virtuous or something to aspire to is meaningless, but the ethic is gone in for wholesale all the same.

In Escape Everything! I suggested that maybe the people who shout important-sounding business waffle into their mobile phones while riding on public transport aren’t ignorant to the fact that they’re infringing on their fellow passengers’ peace and quiet but essentially drawing public attention to how important they are. Their crime isn’t ignorance but a boorish sort of pride. “Perhaps,” I said in the book, “this kind of behaviour is street attire for dullards.” It says “look at me, I’m suffering, isn’t that fine?”

A possible problem with my claim that the humblebrag is symptomatic of the Protestant Work Ethic is that the humblebrag was only observed in 2010 while the Protestant Work Ethic has been around since the Reformation. One struggles to imagine 16th Century serfs, 19th century coal miners, or 20th century wolves of Wall Street being so humble in their brags. Why now?

“If the 20th century was about achievement despite a previously unseen amount of destruction,” writes a thoughtful blogger, “the 21st century is about coping with achievement itself.” There does seem to be a liberal line of thought running through common discourse at the moment inviting us to “check our privilege,” but the kind of people I’ve noticed engaging in the humblebrag today don’t seem the privilege-checking, guilty liberal types. Could it be a working-class phenomenon; that to have and to hold is all a bit too fancy for “the likes of us”? This is not entirely convincing either. I’m inclined to think that that bragging, humble or otherwise, is symptomatic of insecurity or Alain de-Bottony status anxiety and that status anxiety is most likely to raise its head at times we most crave distinction. Let’s not forget that conformity, as Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter tell us in The Rebel Sell, hasn’t been a driving force of consumerism since the 1950s and that since then it’s all been about distinction. And the appetite for distinction, I’d argue, would be most ravenous (a) when what we see as our true identity is stripped away and smacked down by, say, a demeaning and deskilled office job and (b) during times of economic uncertainty like, say, when a rapidly expanding global precariat is struggling to find the beer money with which to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Global Financial Crisis. Happy Anniversary!

[dropcap]Banishing[/dropcap] the humblebrag then is a neat little way of standing up to the Protestant Work Ethic. As I see it, we can combat the humblebrag in a number of ways:

The first is to get reacquainted with the art of boasting properly. Today, boasting has been relegated to dishonest Facebook photography. Strangely, a photograph of yourself cuddling with your partner at the foot of Mount Fuji is not a humblebrag at all but a genuine brag. It says “we had the time, money and organisational skills to reach Mount Fuji! Woop! Woop!”

Non-humble bragging is probably acceptable on Facebook and not in person because the element of distance between you and your friends provides a sort of prophylactic effect — the safe sex of bragging — and allows you to practice plausible deniability: in the unlikely event that you’re called out on being boastful, you can act surprised and say you just wanted to “share.” Also, clicking “post” is a lot less sensitive a transaction than actually saying “We went to Mount Fuji and it was wonderful! Bet you wish you’d been to Mount Fuji!” to your friend’s actual face. But, I say, this is cowardly or at least unsporting when you could be sharing your pride in real life and it is, when you think about it, a rather neutered experience, a sort-of passive-aggressive arms war with your friends. That’s no way to live.

So I say we need to learn how to boast properly again. What’s wrong with reporting a wonderful time? Because nobody likes a show-off? Well, maybe, but there are ways of showing off that are more fun for boaster and audience alike. Instead of disingenuously complaining about the number of hours put into your Sumerian transliteration, tell everyone how proud you are of the breakthrough you made on this project you care about, acknowledging how lucky you are to have found the time to do something like that.

Instead of humblebragging about work, stress, disorder, calories burned on the treadmill, calories accumulated through cake, we could brag properly about leisure, luxury, skill, success, beauty. We can use phrases like “It was wonderful!” and “I’d never seen so many carnivorous plants!” and “So much delicious cake!”

A brag need not even be about yourself, but about something you’ve seen or, ideally, your shared environment with the person you’re talking to. A cheerful “Did you see the snow on the mountains yesterday? It was great!” is far better than “The streets will be blocked with snow soon. Just great.”

A second, perhaps more advanced approach, is to parody the humblebrag. One could say “Oh, man, so much sex, it’s torture!” or “Such delicious cake, what a bind!” and laugh uproariously like a shameless winner.

A third way to reject the humblebrag is to challenge the humblebraggery of others with kindness, wit and sincerity. When faced with “Oh no, I have so much work to do,” your cheerful response should be “Don’t worry, you’ll get through it bit-by-bit,” and perhaps recommend Getting Things Done by David Allen to help with their problem. Too much work, you say, is a problem, not a cause for celebration. Too much work is a failure in personal (or personnel) management, not a worthwhile status symbol. When faced with “Oh phew, I did so much work today,” I recommend the phrase, “What do you want? A medal for shovelling shit uphill?” or, the kinder “Good for you. You should take tomorrow off.”

The point of all this, remember, is to stand up to the Protestant Work Ethic. We want to challenge the idea that overwork and tasteless consumerism are status symbols, and to promote the idea that if anything is worthy of being status symbols it should be leisure, pleasure, and an abundance of time.

Escape the humblebrag! Flee to the honest boast!

★ This essay was made possible by Drew Gagne, Daniel Gutierrez, Susan Boulden, William Staszewski and 51 other intelligent and good-looking patrons. Tell others!

Hannah’s Escape

I’ve been reading some Hannah Arendt and already I’m smitten.

I recommend reading her work (especially now — she wrote about fascist totalitarianism) but all I wanted to mention today is the glorious way Arendt and some others escaped the Nazis during the war. Get this:

There was a family who had a house with a front door in Germany and a back door in Czechoslovakia. They’d invite people over for dinner and let them leave through the back door at night.

I wish I had a house like that, perhaps embedded in Hadrian’s Wall. Might apply for art council funding.

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This is nifty. It’s from Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

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