“I wear the black for the poor and beaten down, living in the hopeless, hungry side of town” —Johnny Cash
Within all of the chaos of an all-out, two party war between Republicans and Democrats that lasted for what felt like an eternity, we were granted a peek into the great American tragedy of our generation: our eroding, and unstable, middle class. During the shutdown, some federal workers were forced to ration their insulin, while others were unable to afford to pay their bills, which included rent. These events illuminated a political and economic system which consistently fails working-class people by refusing to provide for their needs in times of unexpected, and often self-made, crises, such as petty squabbles between political elites.
Recently, I watched two excellent documentaries for the first time, both from the esteemed Michael Moore. The first was the infamous Roger and Me, about General Motors’ decision to close their auto-plants in Flint, Michigan and outsource their factory jobs to a third-world country; and the second was The Big One, made during Moore’s 1998 book tour, in which he promoted his book, Downsize This!
The thing that struck me about him was his courage in the face of authority. I was anxious just watching him face the upper-management of several corporations that decided to “downsize” and move low-paying jobs over to countries like Mexico and Indonesia so that they could pay their employees even less. What disturbed me the most was how little our circumstances have changed since he released those films, which premiered in 1989 and 1998, respectively. It seems that as we go through our daily routines, we hardly have the time to ask ourselves how this system serves us, and whom it really benefits. And rarely, are we smacked so hard in the face with an answer! But the recent government shutdown did just that.
With an unmistakable clarity, it presented us with the fact that most of us, poor and middle class alike, are not financially secure. We don’t have much in savings, our bills (including health costs) are unmanageable in chaotic times, and we don’t live under a political system that can put aside its own ambitions to serve those who sustain its power. Michael Moore highlighted the injustices of corporatocracy, where corporations have virtually unlimited power to control our lives; in essence, he showed us what it looked like when workers held limited to no bargaining power. And, the shutdown showed us what it looks like when the system that we purportedly control is given the opportunity to choose between itself and the needs of its constituents.
Recently, in a NY Times article titled, Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?, Erin Griffith explored the so-called “Hustle Culture” (the idea that it’s good for you to perpetually push yourself to work more, despite how tired you are) prevalent among millennial employees. She lifted the veil behind the propounded (propagandized?) virtues of our “Work to the Bone” culture, noting that its main promoters were those who stood to benefit from it the most: the managers, financiers, and owners. She stated, “It’s not difficult to view hustle culture as a swindle. After all, convincing a generation of workers to beaver away is convenient for those at the top.” Thus, despite the significant emotional and physical effects of burnout, they’ve perpetuated a culture that’s convinced an entire generation that not only is work good, but you’re a good person if you work: the more you work, the better you are. And, conversely, “spending time on anything that’s nonwork related has become a reason to feel guilty.”
So, when are we going to acknowledge that we’re getting conned? When do we begin to accept that the rules of the game and, more importantly, our perceptions of it, are created by unseen forces outside of our control? These same forces have convinced us that complaining indicates weakness, sharing information about one’s salary indicates vanity, and that employers aren’t responsible to their employees, only to their shareholders.
In one documentary after another, Michael Moore has shown us what it meant to breakaway from a system that’s been indoctrinating us since childhood, one that’s caused countless clients to pour into my office because their sense of self-value was eroded by their inability to be productive workers. Even as I write this article, I do so because of my own obsession with being useful. Ultimately, working, in itself, is a wonderful thing, but fusing it with one’s identity and obsessing over output is a sign of pathology. The more we talk about it, and yes, complain, the greater the likelihood that any sort of significant change will occur. For those of you who struggle to pay your bills and provide yourself, and your family, with healthcare, it’s okay, and I would say absolutely necessary, for you to express your sadness, and more importantly, your anger. Go ahead; we need you to complain.