On Personal Responsibility and Careerism

For decades, we've been hearing how everyone should 'take responsibility for their actions,' and that we are each responsible for our 'success' (or lack thereof). And because this is obviously pretty glib, it's fostered a kind of reflexive denial in others. As such, we seem to me stuck in a false dichotomy, which leads us us to ignore a very important point. Namely, that we are actively socialized not to take responsibility for our actions, and not to apply our values, for a large part of our lives. Namely, when we perform institutional roles, especially but not limited to when we do 'our jobs.' And that seems to me a pretty important omission, given the amount of time we spend acting out such roles (aside from 'worker', 'boss' or 'manager', also 'student', 'teacher', 'parent' and so on), because of how influential those institutions are, and because what we do while working for institutions tends to affect how we think and act 'privately'.*

To illustrate how normal it is not to talk about this, I'd like to discuss Noam Chomsky's public statements, whose criticisms of contemporary society have otherwise been fairly incisive. Throughout his career, he has tried to get people to think about the influence and actions of the US empire and corporations (put differently: public as well as private bureaucracies). That is, about how their rules, regulations and incentive structures affect the public, the environment, people living in other countries, and so on. And with respect to the question how to bring about institutional change, Chomsky's (rightly) emphasized that if e.g. an individual CEO were to 'grow a conscience', and try to change how their company is run, they would likely be replaced, because the structures in which they function demand a near-exclusive focus on (revenue) growth, pretty much irrespective of the cost to others, or to the environment. For the same reason, he's argued that criticizing or trying to replace executives (or 'crooked politicians') would be largely pointless, because it's the system that selects for and allows such people to climb to the top that's the root problem, and so it's the system that we need to change. At the same time, he does call on people (especially the educated and affluent), to start applying themselves to the task of criticizing and trying to change those rules and structures. (As he's done himself.)

As I've said, though, one thing I've almost never** heard Chomsky speak about, is the issue of taking responsibility for the actions we take as employees, or salaried workers. During his talks, he has in fact consistently drawn attention away from that question (for a representative example, see the first 10 minutes of this talk). This even though he's frequently criticized the institutional arrangement that, as he's explained, used to be known as 'wage slavery,' so that he should be well aware that such financial dependency negatively affects people's autonomy. So while I agree with Chomsky that the educated should start using their educations, networks and influence for purposes other than promoting and defending the status quo and their (peers', friends' and family's) prosperity and social standing and success personally, I think that the question how we act in exchange for direct (im)material rewards (pay, job security, status, etc.) is one we all need to pay much more attention to than we currently do. Not least because we tend to be at our most influential precisely when we are working for and as part of those institutions; whereas as private persons, we tend to have much less of it. And the higher your social status, and the better-off you are, the more you should take responsibility seriously.)

Even though most people will likely find it uncomfortable to think about, and even though many will only be doing the things they do because they are (understandably) worried about the costs involved with refusing, I would say that we need to be clear that we are nevertheless responsible for making those choices and trade-offs. This because those actions communicate our belief that our own desires for financial security, promotions, and so on, outweigh the needs of those whose lives are affected by the actions we take in pursuit of those goals. And it worries me greatly that we tend to tell ourselves the opposite: that when we act 'under orders' -- and more generally, when we 'are on the job' -- we have 'no choice' but to do the things others ask us to do.

To illustrate this, consider the following extreme, but highly illustrative example, provided by Corey Robin, in Fear: The Intellectual History of a Dangerous Idea. First, consider what he says about the mentality of a bureaucrat or member of the professional-managerial class who's happy to play by the societal 'rules':

The careerist may not be the most attractive figure ... but his preferred walking path is the marketplace ... He cares for himself, not grand ideas. He is realistic and pragmatic, not utopian or fanatic. That careerism itself may be an ideology, that realism may be just as lethal as abstraction, that ambition may induce collusion with evil, that some of the worst cases of fear are the product of ordinary vices rather than extraordinary ideas -- these were the suggestive implications of Eichmann in Jerusalem. But running afoul of the self-image of the age, they are ignored. (p.129)

Note that the choice presented here -- between caring for 'oneself' rather than 'grand ideas' --, while true to life, is false as well as misleading. There of course is no moral rule that says we should 'care' (whatever that means) about 'grand ideas'. Yet if we value fairness, we do need to consider other human beings' needs in addition to our own, given that every human being has equal inherent value. As such, distracting ourselves from the latter by associating it with the former can have disturbing consequences.

With this in mind, consider the following passage, which I'm bringing to your attention precisely because while an extreme case, the underlying logic and way of reasoning is quite familiar, as it has been part and parcel of how we have raised for untold generations.*** Robin:

Whether the payment is status, power, or money, collaboration promises to elevate men and women, if only slightly, above the fray. Nazi Germany’s Reserve Police Battalion 101, for example, was a unit of five hundred “ordinary men,” drawn from the lower middle and working classes of Hamburg, who joined the battalion because it got them out of military service on the front. All told, they were responsible for executing 38,000 Polish Jews and deporting some 45,000 others to Treblinka. Why did they do it? Not because of any fear of punishment. No one in the 101 faced penalties -- certainly not death -- for not carrying out their mission. The unit’s commander even informed his men that they could opt out of the killing, which 10 to 15 of them did. Why did the remaining 490 or so stay? According to Christopher Browning, there were different reasons, including anti-Semitism and peer pressure, but a critical one was their desire for advance. Of those who refused to kill Jews, in fact, the most forthright emphasized their lack of career ambitions. One explained that “it was not particularly important to me to be promoted or otherwise to advance. . . . The company chiefs . . . on the other hand were young men and career policemen who wanted to become something.” Another said, “Because I was not a career policeman and also did not want to become one . . . it was of no consequence that my police career would not prosper.”

Though ambitious collaborators like to believe that they are adepts of realpolitik, walking the hard path of power because it is the wisest course to take, their realism is freighted with ideology. Careerism has its own moralism, serving as an anesthetic against competing moral claims. Particularly in the United States, where ambition is a civic duty and worldly success a prerequisite of citizenship, enlightened anglers of their own interest can easily be convinced that they are doing not only the smart thing, but also the right thing. They happily admit to their careerism because they presume an audience of shared moral sympathy. (Fear: The Intellectual History of a Dangerous Idea, p. 194.)

While I realize the moral bankruptcy of this attitude just is pretty obvious, I cite it because we have yet to get away from this notion that it is legitimate to trade personal goals (in this case for social status, material comfort, and the like) against harm to others. Now of course, most people have no viable alternative to doing what an employer (or the state) asks of them, as we live in a system that is organized in such a way that survival is contingent on our having money, for which most people need to find employment, or do contract work. And as such, many are asked either to accept risks to their own health (think e.g. of coal mining, or road construction) for a job, or to harm others for money. Which may make it seem like a sliding scale, in which harming others seems preferable to harming yourself. And that's precisely what makes this system and line of thought so pernicious, as living and being raised in such structures teaches us, at a very fundamental level, to think of life and survival and harm as zero-sum games. Which obscures the dual facts that a., it needn't be, and b., even if it were, whenever we harm others, this matters, and we should always aim to minimize said harm. (And on top of that, there's the fact that while harming others for basic survival may be understandable, harming others simply because it'll allow you to be more comfortable is never defensible.) And our lack of awareness of those facts seems to me the fundamental, and as yet unaddressed problem.

To further illustrate how pervasive-yet-normal the more obviously objectionable version of this morally bankrupt behavior is, let me offer a few contemporary examples. To start, there's Heineken choosing to sell the Rwandans the beer they requested because the regime wanted to make it easier for their soldiers to engage in genocide (Dutch book excerpt here); there's Shell destroying the Niger Delta (and funding death squads) for profit, and there is Bill Clinton's choice to execute a cognitively impaired black man for the purpose of signaling to racist voters that he was 'tough on crime'.

That said, do note that you don't need to be a so-called 'sociopath' to be willing to do stuff like this, and that there is no clean break between engaging in such behavior and more benign -- and extremely everyday -- cases. For instance, selling people goods or services that they don't particularly want; fleecing people for fun, status and profit; going along with production and other targets in nursing, policing or customer care; or denying insurance or benefits claims for bureaucratic reasons, such as that the rule says that some percentage of claims must be denied (for example, this British DWP case); or, alternatively, doing so because the boss has promised "bonuses" to those who manage to meet those targets.

What these cases illustrate, is how easily we can convince ourselves it's okay to treat others as means when we're sufficiently (financially, which of course has indirect ties with our own survival) 'motivated'. And they illustrate how much easier it is to engage in violence and exploitation when we can distract ourselves from our own and the other's shared humanity, by hiding behind our assigned roles (whether 'soldier', 'bureaucrat' or 'salesman', 'robber'), and by encouraging others to stick to theirs ('protester', 'rebel', 'Muslim', 'applicant', 'gang member', 'mark'). And how used we are to this. Because remember how few have criticized Clinton's behavior, either at the time or since. As i see it, this is a huge issue, because it reflects how we (still) routinely treat both our own values and other people's needs as having no inherent value.

So how do we justify this to ourselves and others?

The first, pervasive response we tend to both offer and get when we talk about this is to assert that so-called "market interactions" are non-moral, and to reduce ourselves and/or the others affected to roles or titles, such as by telling ourselves 'it's okay to do this, because I'm a salesperson and I want to earn Most Valuable Employee status'. As the above quotations, and my own remarks hopefully make clear, this position is morally untenable. We are always human, and while treating people as "human resources" (or "bosses", "hands", "pigs", "cockroaches" or "slaves") may be pervasive, such reductionist thinking can never justify our treating others as means. Similarly, while we may say that actions have "no moral component", any action that impacts others necessarily has a (subtle) moral dimension, which we must take seriously.

So let's move on to the second response, which partly overlaps with the former. I've gone into this in more detail elsewhere, but what it comes down is discounting others' needs either by telling ourselves that the other differs from us in a 'relevant' way, so that we may treat their equal needs as unequal to our own; or because we desire or fear the 'punishments' or 'rewards' others will mete out to us by (not) doing so (e.g., we may need the money a job provides, or the stability of having a job, yet the only job we can find is one that involves harming others as one of the terms of employment -- e.g. being a slaughterhouse worker). And then, on the basis of that meritocratic/bureaucratic determination that the other is 'inferior', or after telling ourselves that we 'don't have a choice', we allow ourselves to do something because the other is 'old,' 'black,' 'stupid,' 'Moroccan', that we'd never wish on our loved ones (such as signing them up for a service or insurance we know they don't need), because the sale will help us earn money, promotions, or income stability, or to avoid penury, a lay-off, and so on. (Note that I'm not saying that it's never legitimate to try to sell anyone anything. Just that we should act with integrity, and with equal care for the needs of the person whose life you are hoping to enrich by selling them something as for your own and your employer's needs.)

Why are we so blind (and hostile) to these questions? A second layer.

Before we can talk about how we can we get away from this way of thinking about and treating others, we first have to talk about one further indirect contributor. Because most of that unequal weighting that we engage in professionally isn't something we do because we truly don't recognize that others are also human, or because we really see such behavior as just. It's just that we never look at it this way, as we've been taught to look at these questions in a very different way.

As I see it, a large part of the issue is that we (incorrectly) think of need satisfaction as a zero-sum game, and that needs may be met at a cost to others. In addition, all of us (but esp. women) have been taught to be highly sensitive to other people's valuations of us, and to care much more about others' needs than our own (which gets reinforced through messages such as that we're 'selfish' or 'narcissistic' when we try to take everyone's needs into account). And we are especially sensitive to the needs and opinions of those with institutional power over us, who tend to have little to no interest in the question whether our needs are being met, even as they ask us to help them meet theirs.

This sensitivity is fostered and sustained in part by the patriarchal family structure, but especially by the school system, where we are taught subjects, of course, but also learn time discipline, obedience and hierarchy, by being forced to spend up to two decades in a system in which the actions, preferences and judgments of people with institutional power have enormous impact on us, given that they can promote or demote, pass and fail, admit and expel us, inside a larger society in which we can only thrive if we have a stable source of income and that functions along highly similar lines.

This creates a great deal of moral confusion, because if we don't even allow ourselves to take our own needs seriously, why would we do so with those of others? Conversely, it also creates great personal insecurity, and worry over not being heard, respected, cared for, because of how we're taught that it's not okay to take care of our own needs. The pathological version of this is called 'extreme' narcissism -- basically, the (near) inability to worry about anyone but one's own needs, while running roughshod over others, even as they're highly sensitive to being judged, praised, and earning rewards (that prove their value -- an impossibility). But less extreme forms of this mentality, tendency and fears are pervasive. And the more focused people are on extrinsic rewards like money and status, the less they tend to think about whether their actions are in line with their other values, and the more likely they are to have interests that closely align with those that help you to thrive in contemporary society.

So what can we do?

If what I've talked about here seems on point, and you want to become aware of, and start to own and combat the more subtle habits of mind I've discussed, I'd highly recommend familiarizing yourself with NVC. If you want to learn to look at workplace dynamics through a different lens, I can highly recommend reading David Graeber's Bullshit Jobs. (Though note that the author mostly ignores the questions whether/how to organize to change the organizations from within, and whether we're okay with the actions and values of the organizations we work for, and the things we are asked to do.) And if you want to change things about your workplace, join or form a union. Aside from attending to your own needs and values, this would also help others who have to deal with constant (unpaid) overtime takes, internships, and so on. In brief, no matter how insane it might sound given the context in which we find ourselves, work should once again become play, as Rosenberg and others have argued. 

That said, there is only so much we can change inside our places of work. For instance, if you work for a fossil fuel or weapon manufacturing company, or the state unemployment office or central bank, there's only so much you can do to change that for the better before you run into the constraints imposed by our capitalist state and society. To change these things, we need to form political parties that work towards true democracy, which means the abolition of the taboo on private property claims as (largely) exempt from democratic control, and of the monopoly control over places of work by "owners", etc. To that end, see Mike Macnair's Revolutionary Strategy as an okay starting point.

A few remarks on nonviolent resistance within this context: not hiding behind rules, roles and status.

As I have tried to illustrate, we've learned to constantly deny responsibility for the things we do, and the violence to which we contribute, while outsourcing it to others. Either by hiding behind titles (forgetting that nobody can or should be reduced to such), or by pointing to rules (without acknowledging our choice to follow them), to authorities (without acknowledging that it is us choosing to listen), and to punishments and rewards (again without acknowledging our responsibility for making those trade-offs).

If we want to have any hope to get away from this behavior as a society, we will not only need to unlearn thinking this way ourselves, but we'll also need to help those around us to do the same, and to point them to, or create, materials that aid this process. Because just as we didn't realize that and how we were doing this, they don't either. Frustrating though it may be, the only way we can get out of this quicksand if by helping each other out, and helping each other to see when and where we go wrong.

In cases in which the people we're trying to help have institutional power over us, this can be risky (or scary), and we should of course use our judgment to determine whether we feel up to it, and can afford take the risk. But do keep in mind that we all want to do good; it's just that most of us are really stuck, caught up in the game of telling everyone including ourselves that they are responsible for our actions -- of which "don't make me do it" is just a very crude example. Note, however, that I'm in no way suggesting we need to be "understanding" to our own detriment, and that we should coddle those "who don't understand". My point is the opposite: treat everyone as equals, starting with ourselves and our needs, and don't write anyone off as irredeemable or hopeless. (While keeping in mind that we can only do so much, and only have one lifetime to live.) And this applies especially to those of us who have it better, as we are most able to avoid conflict, while those at the bottom have no choice but to try, and to be solidaric.

And a large part of how we can do this, is by reminding others of their and our humanity, and to get them away from reducing humans to titles (like boss, employee, cop, or man). So when we're worried that someone will do something that doesn't align with their or our values, and that they will harm others, we protect everyone, and remind them that they are not robots executing orders, but human beings, who just happen to be hired to perform certain tasks in exchange for money and financial security, and a "chance" to climb the ladder. To make this more concrete: when we fear that police officers or soldiers will harm or kill someone because they see that as their job, or because they see the other as something other than fellow human beings (such as "cockroaches", "gangsters" or "the enemy"), remind ourselves, and them, that we both the officers and their targets are equals, who all want to live our lives, Yes, this will be hard, especially at first, and especially because we so strongly believe in the myth of redemptive violence. But luckily, there are lots of institutions and movements that can provide conflict mediation and deescalation training already, and lots of materials available (though be mindful that they may have their own ideas of the kinds of action are "appropriate", and the same blinders that I've discussed in other posts).


* E.g., if someone is a cop or slaughterhouse worker, and they are thus paid to inflict harm on or boss others around, they are also much more likely to be violent and authoritarian towards their partners and children.

** this answer during a Q&A session is the only time I've heard him touch on it, and there too he mostly talks about the personal cost of doing so.

*** It speaks volumes about our upbringing that many millions of Europeans  were able to convince themselves to participate in this program within a decade of the 3rd Reich's founding, which itself borrowed a lot from the colonial experience plus imperialism (which is where expansionism -- the 'search' for 'Lebensraum' at the cost of the indigenous Slavs -- and the genocide of 'inferior peoples' -- as Hitler put it in Mein Kampf, 'Judeo-Bolsheviks' (etc.) -- were practiced) can be found among conquistadors, slavers, colonial administrators and their muscle that made possible European colonialism. The main difference with the other colonial efforts was that the logic was applied 'at home' and to white folks, this time around. As such, even though 'Fascism' seems very alien and exceptional to most Europeans, it's really far less exceptional than one might hope.

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