Go to the store and buy a new you
The end of times are here, they’re just
not evenly distributed, but look
The trash blown ragged at roadside edge
The people walking, there, how unjust
To them, all dreams lost, can’t unlook
at them but say how close is this edge
We glide like ice cubes over life, it’s just
That we don’t notice how we melt. Look:
The crumbling houses, where the edge
of cities yawn into the kudzu vines, just-
ice thumbs upon the poor, builds more, look:
The empty mine shafts and the lake’s edge
Where dead bird bones, a bit dissolved appear
The smog that chokes us out, we disappear
Fireflies and certain birds, to me,
A retired family member recently heard from a bunch of her friends at her former employer. There was a huge, sudden culling. Twenty-year employees who had risen through the ranks the right way, from the frontlines of the company’s business with customers, all promoted up to high level positions, were laid off suddenly, in one huge group. It was an unexpected cost-cutting measure indifferent to the needs of the people and families, and indifferent to the years of dedicated work and service these folks had given to the company. All those late nights, all those early mornings, all that creativity and sweat and relationships and institutional knowledge were wiped away to save money on a spreadsheet. Perhaps it was important for the company’s survival and the delivery of services, I don’t know. I know it hurt people. I know it will hurt them a long time. Those who asked for a different position were told they could apply for positions back at the lowest end of the scale, back where their whole careers began, with the kind of dismissiveness that can only be interpreted as a fuck you.
It’s an old and common story. This isn’t even a for-profit company, but I know it’s worse in that world, firsthand. We are asked to work hard and dedicate our waking hours to organizations that eventually only see us as a number on a spreadsheet.
Fast Company recently spoke with Kickstarter’s founders about their decision to change their corporate structure, and the thing that resonated with me was not Kickstarter’s reorganization. The thing was the objections to it. Furious investors see the most social good coming from pure profit motive. If people want to save the world, money will be made doing it, the saying goes. If people want social justice, they’ll vote with their pocketbooks to achieve it, and people will make money providing it, the saying goes. United lost a lot of shareholder value, and probably people are going to think twice about buying tickets, but at the end of the day, discount tickets are enticing, and deeper and deeper discounts will work to bring customers back after the blood has dried where Dr. Dao’s face impacted the ground, after the blood has dried in the memory of the general public, who must somehow navigate a world for the most good to their families and selves against the social conscience they feel towards Dr. Dao’s violent assault by corporate representatives.
We are in an abusive relationship with these paper entities. They ask us to accept their good above our own, and they do not offer the same commitment to us that we are expected to give to them. We work as we are told, grateful for a paycheck, and when the dark times comes, the pain of loss and the ache of slow injuries, we are expected to suck it up and smile and soldier on. Being part of the machinery of industry is more important than being happy. If it was a marriage, and we heard someone say that being in the marriage was more important than being happy, more important than a life without back pain, wrist pain, knee pain, the old wounds that build up as repetition stressed our wearying joints, we would shout and jump and urge the poor wastrel to escape the situation. That the wounds are slow does not change how they are wounds.
These allegiances to paper kings come at great cost to society. The full-throated capitalism tribe will tell you that economics will solve all our problems, even as it creates problems that future balance sheets will have to measure and contain. Corporate structures only see things in a quarter, a fiscal, a five-year plan. If life is to continue for five-hundred years, and mining and construction and agriculture have the potential to deplete all the things that sustain life in a century, who is making that plan? Consumers cannot be expected to make smart decisions that they don’t even understand. Who knows the intricacies of the impact of rare earth metals on the waterways of Siberia, and how that toxicity feeds into the ocean, and how that will swim up into the Mississippi and bleed and bleed for generations? Who can balance the calculus of that against the impact of fossil fuels, the inconvenience of life without batteries? No one is tracking the balance. No one has the power to think so deeply at every purchase. Capitalism demands a consumer be a genius in every moment, with amazing willpower, and a perfect, clean conscience. It blames us for accepting the messes that are made by corporate boards and managers and maximizing value to shareholders. We are responsible because we vote with our dollars to accept their bad behavior. We stay in that abuse. We let them do it.
There is also the full-throated tribe of anti-capitalists, and I am not among them. We have seen what alternative systems of governance and organization do to humans. Liberation from the economic model also means liberation from services that can be better provided by experienced specialists. Economics, after all, is just a way of trading time and skill for money in a community where everyone has the ability to reap the rewards of the value of their work and time and skill. It has a dark side. Wherever people are involved, there is an edge of darkness. But, it used to be that worker unions pushed back against management to prevent the sort of large-scale destruction of lives that has become as commonplace as shareholder quarterly reports. Churn and burn is the standard mode, where employees of large corporations are tasked with maximizing value to shareholders at the expense of fair value for their own time and energy. The shareholders will always get the best deal. That used to be what unions worked to build: A world where the workers had a say against the shareholders and could speak up for their own value. Unions have been destroyed, in this generation, and all the world’s worst impulses of worker treatment creep back in. Companies that would never do evil things to American workers, like child labor and toxic pollution and all sorts of other abuses, are lackadaisical about preventing such things in countries where such activities are not explicitly illegal. The way the law is moving, now, with a right-leaning fascist autocrat businessman in power, and his cronies among the upper echelons of the proverbial vampire squid, itself, Goldman-Sachs, it’s only a matter of time before it comes to us, here. To extend the relationship metaphor: If he abused children before, if he beat his wives and thought nothing of it, enjoyed it, felt a thrill at the power he had, he will eventually do it again. If, in his deep core, he sees this as proper and good thing to do, and only doesn’t because society is watching, the doors to the house will close, and the darkness will come to the home. He will say he is sorry that this happened, but you left him no choice. You voted with your dollar. Your laws said he had to maximize value to shareholders at any cost. Really, it’s all your fault. When, after twenty years of toil, the lay-offs come, for reasons that may have nothing to do with you, it’s just business. It’s nothing personal. The decision was out of their hands. There’s nothing you could have done.
If it isn’t a relationship, why do the exit interviews sound like the half-truth, innocuous conversations we’d have while breaking up with our spouses? It’s not you, it’s me. This isn’t working out for me. I need to go in a different direction.
The thing I think about when I think about corporations is how we let ourselves become company men in all walks of life. We don’t just vote; we vote with party loyalty. We don’t just have hobbies; we identify with our hobby as a marker of who we really are. We don’t just live in a town or come from a town; we are a “placer” who shapes our sense of self around a network of civic relationships that are rooted in an experience we may or may not currently continue as we move around to chase the next job. These paper kings that rule our hearts and minds never give back to us all that they ask of us. We are in unhealthy relationships with these pieces of paper. They abuse us, and we take it and smile, and we blame ourselves for the abuse we experience, for the poor opportunities, for the lost hopes and dreams, for the sense at the end of the night that our lives were lived for nothing but this work, this meaningless work that would be fine without us.
It’s even worse in the meaningful work, where there is more psychological power to abuse the worker.
The new piece of paper, a new contract with communities and workers and shareholders that Kickstarter is trying, looks like a step in the right direction, even if we are still walking towards the cliff where success must be measured in numbers and monies and stats, and we have yet to quantify happiness, and yet to quantify the way to not explode our own world with our own activities as consumer culture expands and expands.
After death, or perhaps ascension,
but likely death, who will rise to fill
the gap we leave? I have some candidates
That seem to carry enough good intention
and good adaptability, and perhaps the will
The raccoon has thumbs, a genius adequate
But such loners, like the octopi, they live
in solitude, mostly, and science demands
collaboration, so I turn to dolphins
Next and think perhaps they’ll thrive
From tidal flats as the sea expands
But will they build and think and often
Enough to merit interstellar advancement?
The ants, perhaps, there are so many ants
Or perhaps machines, their factories vent
to recreate this ghost of us, their discernment.
I know how to live, but not how to stop,
I wake, I breathe, I fill my mouth with water
The aches and creaks I cultivate and fodder
Keep me grounded, while I close crop
The weeds upon my skin, and scrape
The chaos off that always stinks like empty
Houses filled with rainwater, plenty
of time spent smelling good, all us great apes
Must dress ourselves, and leave the room
We know how to live, it’s moving through
The tasks at hand, keeping up the zoom
of everything, maintaining houses (make room
Make room for more life) struggle on to
the next room, the next room, (make room)
It’s spring, high spring, where all the green is true
And all the blossoms break even in deep woods
A walk upon a shaded path, a scent so good
It made me stop and trace the breeze through
To mysteries of vacant copses, shielding trees
What thing, what flower, what bloom is this?
Somewhere in that dense shade a scream of bliss
Exploding in some tiny bloom I cannot see
The passing breeze blows all away and I,
no more certain of any scent but damp
for it rained last night, none left but try
to search the petrichor, the paths of tramps
the sweet rot of vegetation as it dies
Oh, secret flower, oh sacred memory’s stamp
Poetry hides in poverty, but it isn’t our fault
We’re doing everything we can to whisper
What we need into the holy vespers
It’s just that spirit pays as much as ought
By the community that holds up churches
We live in the age of beggar kings and cabbages
Made gourmet, where all the ravages
Of age creep in without medicine to purchase
Because you say that we chose this
We all felt the spirit move inside our hearts
And I refused to drown it in brute work, bliss
But to be the ascetic of stutters and fits and starts
Poetry hides in poverty, and it isn’t our fault
It’s yours for pretending we ought to halt
To capture all the butterflies of thought
And etherize them gently, that their wings
Will last forever, delicately precious things
That tatter just a little, just from being caught
And fray at edges while time marches
Until a thousand years from now an excavation
of a catalog reveals a puff of dust, a nation
distilled into piles of colored starches
all in piles below the pins, where a librarian
once placed a name, a title, a date
Never betray these words, whereon
the butterflies all lie in glorious state
Or if you forget your self, misuse their clarion,
Deny the breath was here, thyself abate
Every spring, when blooms return, I think