This is a chapter from the book:
Psychology of the Private Individual

Chapter 7: Job — Competition and performance

For the righteous individual, the world of work is not simply the tough business of earning money in which he is faced with all kinds of conditions that make his pay an extremely doubtful matter. In his job he proves himself with all the supposed and real abilities by which he distinguishes himself. He accepts his duty, as well as the fact that he is measured and compared while doing it. For the bourgeois individual, the pressure to achieve put on him in this way is transformed into an opportunity to test his willingness, and his ability, to achieve.

However, the ambition that spurs him on to work, the will to make calculated efforts, does not prevent the mediocre results that, for the great majority of job holders, prolong this hardship their whole life long and make them look old pretty soon. These results provide an even less lucrative sideline for a mind that, in the ideology of fair pay, comports itself as a master of competition. Depending on where a person has landed in the hierarchy of the capitalist division of labor — and even governing and giving bad lectures count as labor; whatever a job involves — he can construe his position as being a matter of chance, as the result of either tremendous or lackluster efforts in the comparison of performance at school, as the consequence of the differences between people, or, from the point of view of idealized competition, as an injustice he suffers due to poorly realized equal opportunity and ill will. So he soon starts demonstrating his abilities alongside his day’s work, often also pretending to have them — until modesty sets in among those souls who know they have missed the boat.

One’s position in, and attitude toward, competition are thus considerably modified in accordance with one’s stage of life, which has precious little to do with biological age. In the criticism with which rebellious youth, aided by achievement tests, reform ideologies and energy, express their right to get ahead, the end is already in sight — the disparaging and aloof know-it-all attitude of the old, who have “sowed their wild oats” and advise the young to do the same.

However, when a thwarted materialist is convinced of the impossibility of earning a passable living from work, he can also take a different path — provided he is really convinced that he is entitled to a thing or two. The transition to crime is the scornful verdict on the fairness of the relationship between pay and performance — among ordinary people it results from privation and humiliation, while among the higher ranks of society it so engagingly embodies the finesse of the fast path to success in the form of corruption and “white-collar crime” that the scales of justice are well balanced in the weighing of these offenses.

7.1. From the pressure to compete to the willingness to achieve

When someone measures himself from the point of view of his capability, compares himself with others according to the criterion of hard-earned success, and considers the result to be important information, then he has made competition entirely his own concern. By asking whether he and others always deserve what they get, he affirms the comparison that is made with him, that his existence is made dependent on in practice. The necessity to make himself useful for a type of wealth whose accumulation involves the perpetuation of poverty for its useful human resources, and even endangers their continued utilization, is regarded by him as an offer — and he refuses to see the alternative that exists: if everything depends on him and his peers letting themselves be used, then he and his peers actually have the means in their hands to abolish the necessity to perpetuate their poverty. But as long as workers value the demands placed on them as an offer and test for their willingness to achieve, they are bent only on acquiring through their special usefulness an unchallengeable right to their pay. They do not weigh the toilsomeness of their work and its benefit by their need for a good life; they instead consider it proof of what they are “worth.” Work, which many quite often curse, is at the same time a matter of honor one doesn’t stint on, one’s “merit.” As if out of an inherent need they had discovered competition to be the most human “behavior,” they turn the hierarchy of jobs into an arena for their ambition, and their failures into a reason to be ashamed and to look for excuses.

The claim to a right to success goes on the offensive when critical fans of a retributive state justice propagate the ideology of an unrealized equal opportunity, but this only garners limited support. What stands in the way of its popularity is the circumstance that it is to apply to everybody else at the same time, by which means a person’s own relative value is measured. The whole to-do has, and quite rightly, remained a mere position within education policy, which also puffs itself up in progressive environmental pedagogy on the talent and gene front. Meanwhile, demands for solidarity (among the weak of course!) are more popular, and theories about the inevitability of certain personal reversals have never lost their charm, as proven by the art of astrology flourishing in all mass-circulation papers.

Satisfied ambition causes far less ideological trouble. Particularly in academic life, where it is proper to show contempt for titles and the “significance of exams” — every guy with tenure has a joke to contribute about his own exams — particularly there, it holds without exception that success equals individual ability. Every last idiot derives an exceptionally high opinion of himself from the exams he has passed and been rewarded for; even if he has noticed somehow that he doesn’t know anything.

7.2. Materialism in competition: the hard worker’s claim to a fair wage

As virtuosos in the art of wanting exactly what they are entitled to, bourgeois individual competitors zero in on themselves, on their ability, as the only permissible standard of their success. They stand up for justice as a principle that has to apply to them, thus insisting that their income be determined by how they perform. And what do they stumble upon but the hierarchy of jobs, which involves many things but not the proportionality of effort and effect in one’s working life. However, this does not shake mistaken notions regarding the comparison of pay and performance, a comparison people wish to face up to. On the one hand, the ideal of fair pay can be used for complaining about injustices of every kind, while on the other hand, it challenges people to come up with ideas that are good for explaining their position within the hierarchy of the social division of labor. Anyone who has learned to regard himself as a means to success is also familiar with the “insight” that he — due to a lack of skills that have already manifested themselves during his march through the education system — simply doesn’t have what it takes for some of the loftier activities, just as others simply don’t have the requirements for his trade: envy and superior airs, modesty and pride take care of answering the question of why one ranks just where one does. People’s various “abilities” legitimize the hierarchy, and it is a matter of making the best of whatever qualities one happens to possess. After all, what one gains still also depends on one’s willingness to demonstrate one’s abilities — a decision of the self-confident “associate” and one that those who actually make the comparison in the working world greatly appreciate. For every individual tries hard to have justice for himself; after all, he does not dispute the extent of his performance, but performs in the conviction that he will be rewarded for his effort.

So capitalist factories and offices are full of people who regard the pay structure only as one big sequence of occasions to demonstrate their ability and usefulness — and to make this demonstration known when key authorities fail to notice it.

The fact that the will to succeed in competition with others is equivalent to submission becomes obvious in the way people deliberately jockey for position to be compared:

  • some do their best to demonstrate their prowess as skilled workers to the foreman, and point out the carelessness of others to beg for consideration at the next awarding of opportunities;
  • others recommend themselves to the same foreman with voluntary extra performance, supplementing their work with purposeful attestations of personal sympathy and confidence-building leisure activities;
  • still others pride themselves on how much they can take; in piecework departments there are “good” and “bad” workplaces, so that one can wear oneself out to prove one’s qualification as the most useful pieceworker;
  • and most workers inevitably tell leftist agitators who hand out leaflets at factory gates that they should come inside and do some hard work instead — a feat of submission for which proles are praised by all politicians.

7.3. How people cope with the results of competition

Anyone out to prove himself on the job in the lower and numerous categories of “working people” won’t get around some bad experiences of the toughest kind. So it is understandable that there is the silly custom of distinguishing between “ordinary” times in a worker’s life, when wages and health permit the regular fulfillment of a job contract, and “hard times.” At all events, the calculation of effort and earnings turns out positive relative to the old days, and if certain negative trends over recent years cannot be glossed over, then the comparison must be arranged differently: compared to others the appeasement of one’s own discontent works out then, too. With sayings like “We’re doing fine!” many a prole assures himself that he hasn’t done anything wrong, i.e., that he intends to remain righteous.

Whenever a worker with an attitude like this is saddled with an additional burden, he brings himself to utter critical slogans of the caliber, “They think they can do anything with us!”, which may well be continued into contemptuous remarks about “the bosses’ profits” — such utterances having nothing whatsoever to do with the class consciousness or fighting spirit that Leftists are all too eager to make out. When management orders extra shifts and overtime, and then short time and dismissals again, no class struggle crops up in this country, but rather a public and very law-oriented debate about whether it is truly unavoidable. Labor unions and works committees confirm that such measures are within reason, or they might dispute it, which comes down to the same thing in either case — and their “having a say” provides the discontent with its well-deserved and official recognition. That’s why they get round of applause at works meetings!

This way of dealing with the boundless demands faced in earning a living is not abandoned when the consequences of being ready to make oneself as useful as possible appear as components of accident and illness statistics. The doubt that this is a matter of “bad luck” is not dispelled by the official language; this only follows from a way of looking at things according to which it is not immediate necessity that is held responsible for what becomes of the working individual, but rather his careful managing of the “constraints” of functioning for work. In any event, the most common notion is that it is people’s own mistakes that cost them their health, a notion that can also be nicely enlisted for settling the question of guilt. Of course, the laid-off also have their moral problems, and if they do not see any fault of their own, and do not immediately make themselves available for the next job offered, they will get straightened out right away by their fellow compulsory unemployment insurance contributors. The question quickly becomes one of whether they are really willing to work — and it is clear to everyone, contrary to all experience, that unemployment is a political problem, but by no means the unavoidable result of economizing on wage costs.

In this way, the victims of capitalist accumulation, in various interpretations of their journey through life, accept the fact of being the “variable parameter” of business with all its ups and downs: they consider it their duty to fulfill this destiny of theirs by adapting to the “labor market,” to the nation’s “economic situation,” and to “technological progress.” The social sciences, with a positive nod from the unions, have raised this attitude to an ideal in their theories: by the second term, every college student today favors flexibility, mobility and lifelong learning.

7.4. The ideal of usefulness and the stages of life

Individuals comply with the pressures of competition by chasing after the ideal of their own usefulness. They act as if they were actually the architects of their own fortune, which gives the successful minority plenty of opportunity to derive a snappy self-image from their office and wealth. They have a positive attitude toward all forms of competition because they’ve made it; they offer themselves as proof that anyone who wants to can make it, too. They rely, not without general approval, on their success proving them right, and they launch the stupidest remarks on the market economy, the elite, the pernicious Zeitgeist, talent and environment, the masses and justice. The unsuccessful majority — as long as they don’t reflect on the truth of competition — get to pick out their role models from the ranks of deserving figures in business, politics and culture, and to critically or resignedly interpret their own position in the world. At the same time, the ideal of hard work paying off is always the inspiration behind people using their experience as an argument: for experience is only an argument when people with a common outlook seek and find material to support it in what they have been through. Conversely, what people “explain” by experience is never any knowledge of the purposes and principles of the society they subserviently submit to. What experience “teaches” everyone is some moral of the story, and armed with this he presents himself as somebody who can’t be fooled (any more), even when uttering the most idiotic things. However, confidence can also be gained, and not even only from those who have had good experiences. From them one can learn how to get ahead, and pass on these experiences to the younger generation. As a matter of principle, parents cull from the adversity of their careers very firm instructions for their children, who should have an easier time of it one day.

The standard applied to every experience from childhood on, the perspective of striving to get what one is entitled to as a special person, conversely turns into attitudes toward the world modified according to one’s experience, which distinguish the generations from each other and which they use to go at each other.

Young people, who are constantly maltreated with the advice of how much it’s up to the individual to make something of himself, take these lessons to heart under the pressure of the parental home and the state’s educational institutions. For many youth, idealism about one’s own future, about the occupation that one “chooses” to fulfill one’s calling, the illusion that one’s career has to make the world a better place somehow — all this turns the process of being groomed to become useful adults into a full-blown search for meaning. And the unavoidable disappointments, far from bringing this search to a halt, give it a real push. Alongside the conforming majority, there is a minority of young people who conform but “get involved in social issues.” Their own ideals inspire them to discover numerous injustices, which they enumerate to the world and take so much to heart that they vow never to become like adults. They even go so far as to hold older people in contempt, not because they make a mess of asserting their interests all their lives, but because they, firstly, don’t approve of ideals (anymore) and, secondly, are dead against young people being treated as special cases. Respect is shown for the exceptionally successful people who offer themselves as living confirmation of one’s own dreams. Young people choose stars from football, show business, and the political scene as their role models because they and their stupid pronouncements so unmistakably convey what special personalities they are. Imitative self-confidence is a small contradiction, but a very widespread one, because young people have yet to become deserving little individuals, they imagine their integrity being rewarded in the future, and enlist the help of real paragons of virtue and success to do so; the cultivation of one’s own specialness, the attempt to have one’s ideals and lofty plans acknowledged by the world, rightfully draws the suspicion of representing a phase of development toward adulthood. After all, either the notions of a better world are illusionary, which one learns from “experience” in one’s career, or the image of one’s future career is chosen so realistically that the righteous person who does his duty in “his” place is already apparent. Usually it is a bit of both, so that idealism does its job as false consciousness of the world and for coping in it. This is not contradicted by the fact that today, when competition in education and training quite obviously keeps young people’s opportunities scarce, a good part of each age group drop out before they drop in, wishing with all their dramatic fashions to be respected as exceptions and special “problem cases” of society.

Adults have settled into the routine of their working, i.e., gainfully employed, lives, and only those in the higher ranks of the job hierarchy indulge in the conceit that they in particular are making an important contribution to social progress. Otherwise they confine themselves to demanding recognition at least from younger people, who aren’t good for anything yet. Their usefulness is the achievement they are familiar with, which they want to take credit for whenever they are confronted with criticism. When they occasionally make themselves out to be “the twits” that other people profit from, this is not in the least intended as revolt; it’s more like a hint that they consider the fact that their virtue comes from the necessity imposed on them by others to be an argument for the “reasonableness” of being obedient. And the longer adults work at their jobs, the more firmly they settle into the narrow-mindedness that is imposed on them. They accept the wear on their bodies as the result of their age; the comparison with others that they were so eager to take on at twenty loses its zing, as does the striving for satisfaction and honor. The assessment of their own competitive position exhausts itself in the stereotyped expression of discontent and disappointment, which is interrupted only by equally stereotyped exercises, at home and at the pub, in which they confirm that they don’t need to be shown anything or have anything said against them. Those taken out of service prematurely through accidents or illnesses ordinarily accelerate the ruination of their intelligence by taking “comfort” in alcohol, which already proves its worth as a constant companion of a monotonous working life.

Old age is characterized accordingly by a wealth of experience and a poverty of thought. Old people act like connoisseurs of human nature who give themselves a lot of credit for having been through everything imaginable, advise youth not to think too much of themselves, absolutely do not understand succeeding generations, and prove with their gestures of refusal to be fully worthy of the contempt, and the gratuitous respect, with which they are pushed around. The better preserved among them deliver up memoirs with the dreariest philosophy of life about their successes, while in humbler circles grandpa tells all his grandchildren about his war experiences. Otherwise, he doesn’t know what the world is coming to, harks back to the days when a dollar was worth a dollar, and with his pension proves to be a nuisance because he’s so useless. And if older people have not yet completely lost their calculating tricks, they try to reduce the contempt shown for them by demonstrating a whole lot of appreciation for changing times and younger people.

7.5. Crime II: The prohibited way to legitimate success

Since the mode of production guarantees an antagonism between poverty and wealth that is codified in the protection of private property, it’s not surprising that theft, robbery, embezzlement, etc., enjoy a certain popularity, which in turn requires constant, forceful regulation by the state with its laws and law enforcement agencies. If not for deprivation that cannot be remedied in permissible ways, if not for wealth on the other side that can be gotten hold of in impermissible ways all the same — if not for the separation the state enforces between individual needs and socially available means, nobody would at any rate need to stress that “crime doesn’t pay.”

However, following one of the numerous paths to illegal acquisitions does not by a long stretch make anyone a critic of those conditions that ensure the flourishing coexistence of privation and abundance. Rather, the numerous lawbreakers, permanently reckoned with in the judicial system, constitute a minority of righteous people who differ from the majority in merely one way: they turn their consciousness of having unfairly come up short into an occasion, not merely for sad and offended commentaries, but for making some practical corrections to the way things work out — their excuses let them go on the offensive, which the law calls an “extenuating circumstance” and the public uses as an argument whenever no such circumstance can be substantiated for the crimes committed. So it is usually said that people steal without “having gotten into difficulties through no fault of their own,” and you don’t bash in a granny’s head for twenty bucks. For fanatics of a good conscience must not show any deep sympathy for certain people who actually get serious about their belief in a right to greater material success and flout the actual law. At a minimum, one must follow up the clandestine confession that the villain really only does what one doesn’t dare oneself with indignation over the criminal’s taking the liberty to disavow one’s own abiding by the law as stupidity. And while the “little guy” may put certain large-scale “white-collar crimes” under the heading of general injustice on earth, and admire the cunning of some pros (at the movies and in magazines), he regards any breach of law by an equal all the more decidedly as an atrocity that he would never be “capable” of himself and that thus reveals the inner badness of the perpetrator. As long as their pleasurable indignation does not suffer, the public is very receptive to the discovery of a natural and/or “environmentally” stimulated criminal energy in humans — to psychological reflections on crime in which the law is not once mentioned. But even without any elaborate bits of interpretation, righteous people still figure out the explanation of widespread shoplifting: “People are too well off!”