First, here’s a link to the lazy Googlers among you who don’t know what I’m referring to.
At a historical/philosophical level, the entirety of that Basecamp post is antithetical to the prevailing values of American workplace culture today, at least among white-collar workers who demand that their employers make deliberate, overt efforts to effect social and political change. Whether or not blue-collar workers wish to make those same demands of their employers is a moot point. The gutting of unions have left them without any bargaining power. White-collar workers — “skilled” labor, a perniciously false term — enjoy the privilege to bargain by virtue of being competed-for by multiple prospective employers.
All this is received wisdom by now, received gravely and with simmering, powerless anger. What is new and fascinating to me is not that Basecamp is experiencing such a backlash from the Twitteratti. From a superficial (and true) perspective the backlash is almost entirely deserved. Rather, the interesting thing is to understand why there is such a backlash. To understand that requires acknowledging the unusual role that the American workplace has taken in our lives, unusual relative to previous centuries of Western culture.
Neoliberalism, the prevailing ideology of our times, continues to eat the world. Under neoliberalism, “the market” and an illusory “freedom of choice” are the organizing principles governing human bodies. Employment/employer have seized the scepter that was once held by religion/church. “What do you do?” is the de rigeur ice-breaker question of our times. Whether we like it or not, the tides of Western culture, at least in the US, have plunged us into a worldview (usually unspoken and unexamined) that makes work the center of one’s life. It’s not a surprise that most workplaces are flowing along with that tide. It is in the nature of tides that few can resist them. At a large enough company, you can practically live your entire life on the company campus: eat, exercise, shower, get child care, sleep, play, relax, do yoga, get medical attention. There was a time when this kind of lifestyle was viewed as dystopic. It’s a relatively recent invention (the last century or so) that we expect the average person not only to work, but to have a vocation. For most of the previous millenia, it was viewed as a kind of doom or failure to be employed by an employer (serfdom). Attitudes have shifted over the past century, coinciding with the loss of influence from historically powerful religious and secular institutions. That power vacuum was filled by work. Work as the center of one’s life. Work as an identity. Work as the only place that people gather with folks outside their immediate circle of family and friends.
As I reread that Basecamp post, it strikes me as extremely at odds with the status quo of the culture and values of the American workplace. Each bulleted decision and change moves the company away from being central to employee’s lives and instead “back” to a more restrained, vintage view of the role of the workplace. I’m not arguing for or against their views here, I’m pointing out that if you can’t put a finger on why the post is bothersome to you, it is in large part due to the fact that the entire thing is countercultural.
In Graham Greene’s short story The Destructors, a group of idle teenage boys systematically dismantle a working man’s house that had barely survived the German bombings of London. They boys moved meticulously through the house, prying up every plank and tile, sawing down every interior wall and joist, until the only thing left standing was a wythe of brick along the perimeter of the house. A single wood pole remained outside propping up the house, a remnant from the war, which the boys tied to the bumper of a neighbors car.
At seven next morning the driver came to fetch his lorry. He climbed into the seat and tried to start the engine. He was vageuly aware of a voice shouting, but it didn’t concern him. At last the engine responded and he backed the lorry until it touched the great wooden shore that supported Mr Thomas’s house. That way he could drive right out and down the street without reversing. The lorry moved forward, was momentarily checked as though something were pulling it from behind, and then went on to the sound of a long rumbling crash. The driver was astonished to see bricks bouncing ahead of him, while stones hit the roof of his cab. He put on his brakes. When he climbed out the whole landscape had suddenly altered. There was no house beside the car-park, only a hill of rubble.
That house is Western social order, and those boys destroying it are the forces of neoliberalism and capital eroding every form of social belonging and power except for one’s employer. Your employer, if you’re a white-collar worker, is that lone wooden strut propping up the house. When a company like Basecamp announces that they’re trying to retreat to a yesteryear posture of detachment, I feel complex emotions. On the one hand, I bitterly despise living in a world that has been so thoroughly gutted that we have to go groveling to our employer to effect social change. Isn’t this supposed to be a goddamn democracy? Why should Basecamp employees be reliant on motherfucking Basecamp to exert sociopolitical influence? On the other hand, I recognize that this shitty world, in all it’s blistering shittiness, is the only world we have, the only world that actually exists. If all we have is that one rickety strut propping up the whole edifice, we had better guard it with our lives.