The legitimacy of governance, Antiwork, and death of the American Dream
Two doomer political posts back-to-back. I promise there’s nothing wrong and that I’m still a corporate shill.
A well-worn neoliberal bromide is that the legitimacy of a government rests upon the consent of the ruled. This is the basis of how America justifies armed intervention in sovereign states, as well as its subtler cousin, the coup-and-switch. Though I think the United States has a broad interpretation of this principle, I agree with its fundamentals. In fact, I would go so far as to say that virtually all governments today operate with the consent of a large majority of the ruled.
This includes anyone from the West’s rogues’ gallery: Cuba, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Iran, as well as Russia and China. The South American countries are ruled by evil communists! The Middle Eastern nations are oppressed by scary Sharia law! And other countries with nuclear arms are terrifying countries with malicious leaders who seek America’s destruction! Granted, even these broad generalizations have a certain truth to them: State-planned economies are more readily susceptible to corruption and famine. Certain interpretations of religious law can be a limiter on personal freedoms, which I believe is an intrinsic good. Nations outside of the Western sphere of influence compete directly with America in the great geopolitical game. The last generalization is what motivates American interests for all of them, but that’s a topic for another day.
What I do believe, is that these governments continue to operate with the consent of the governed, despite how it may seem. Moral relativism plays a role here: forcing a Western value system on other cultures and countries is presumptuous and paternalistic. There is also a certain amount of propaganda that I’m willing to account for, in what the United States calls ‘regimes’, that ‘brainwash’ its citizens. But aside from North Korea, which might truly be a black box, societies lie somewhere along the spectrum of Huxleian (if you will) to Orwellian. I’m confident that there are countries where the majority of people are discontented, dislike the government, but see no alternative and no course of action that could improve their lives without significant cost. As such, they continue with their dreary existences. They aren’t chained to factory machinery, working against their will, they just see it as better than not. Forcing a whole population to work entirely against their will is virtually impossible; there has to be both a carrot and a stick.
Though Western political pundits have been predicting China’s downfall for decades, it continues to defy the odds. As I understand it, China falls towards the Huxleian side of the aforementioned spectrum. After a tumultuous twentieth century, the Chinese Communist Party managed to steer the country towards unprecedented prosperity in the eighties, where the improvement in quality of life wasn’t just perceptible, it was accelerating. The talking heads cite currency advantages, intellectual property theft, rampant disregard for pollution, and a skewed population pyramid, but the Chinese only see their lives getting better and better. As a consequence, they gave the CCP their consent to do everything the West accuses China of.
As China transitions further into a knowledge-based economy, and the time to collect on some of its political engineering debts comes close, I’ve also started to question its longevity. When it comes time for the descendants of the One-Child policy to be productive enough to support their parents, or when economic growth stops accelerating, will China’s people be content being governed in the same way that it is now? Or will gross inequality combined with lack of perceived opportunity cause mass discontent? Will they work? Or will they lie flat? While I was thinking about this, what I didn’t realize was that there was such a movement happening under my nose already.
I’ve heard countless times over the last few months that “no one wants to work anymore”. Common explanations given are millennial laziness, pandemic handouts, video games, and underpayment. I’ve heard it from colleagues, from friends, and from family. In reality, it’s a combination of all of these factors. Overwhelmingly, the jobs that are unfilled are the lower paying and lower progression ones that have a lower barrier to entry. It’s gotten so bad that the employment rate for minors in Quebec exceeds 50%, with children as young as twelve working. Ah, what it is to be young and optimistic about the future.
The movement is codified in r/antiwork, an internet forum of sorts where workers share employment horror stories, seek advice for job issues, and encourage each other to quit. Its politics lean left, with discussions of union drives and corporate profits. The page has been featured in many news segments, both left and right leaning, and its name is often used metonymically to refer to the organization as a whole. However, it did not start the movement, nor is it the voice of the movement, even though the message board has nearly two million members and consistently makes it to the front page of Reddit.
Rather, the growing tendency to avoid working arrives as an independent conclusion for most people. Like the young men who are sucked into virtual worlds, people are doing this because they don’t see a future in these jobs, or anything at all available to them. Not only these jobs, but anything. For them, the American Dream is dead. A job at McDonald’s isn’t enough to cover rent, much less sustain a dream of buying property in much of the West. Government subsidized training opens no doors, and student loans are usury for the working class.
Like my previously mentioned fears about China’s population, antiworkers are beginning to question the legitimacy of the system. They’ve quit their jobs because they no longer believe that hard work will bring them stability and fulfillment; they see Boxer worked to death, and they know that there is no farm for old horses. If the trend continues, it serves as a quasi general strike, workers retiring from their jobs until society sees them as the lynchpins they truly are. More people still hang in delicate balance, discontented with their jobs and disillusioned about a better life, but not enough to quit and forgo what they have.
If opportunity becomes further reduced, then perhaps what’s remaining of the middle-class will join the antiworkers in droves. The difference between Antiwork and The Great Resignation is strictly one of class. When more of the working class quit, and perhaps some underpaid young professionals decide that they no longer want to work, then things will truly fall apart. The ruling class needs to hand out more than cake if they want to enjoy the things they’ve always enjoyed up until now. Stock options and monopoly money will no longer be satisfactory, people must believe in the system and the value of hard work again.
Populist propaganda from both sides of the spectrum infallibly likens American laws and policies to that of countries that they consider themselves better then. “These anti-hate speech laws and mask mandates are worse than what they have in China!” “The industrial-prison complex and migrant worker industry are de facto slavery worse than in the Gulf kingdoms!” But in these countries, the majority of the populace continues to work. There certainly are oppressed minorities, and harsh penal systems, which make living in the West much more attractive. But how many of them have an increasing number of dissatisfied constituents resulting in a labour shortage? Does the United States of America, and by extension, the West as a whole, still have the legitimacy to govern? How about in five years? In twenty?