Divesting from the System: Spotlight on Jobs

I recently got an awesome email. In part, it read:

Your recent post, Rolequeerness Is Not About Sex, finally spurred me to ask you about living without a job. I’m aware that subjecting myself to paid employment perpetuates a system that’s holding a gun to our collective head. If you’ve found an alternative, I want to know how to implement that instead.

I don’t know what I have to offer other non-corporate people that would be valuable enough for them to want to keep me alive. […]

You’re the closest I’ve found to someone who isn’t screwing other people over and is following what they consider their purpose. If you point out books I will read them, if you show me how to educate myself I will do that. I want the options you’ve carved out for yourself unless giving away how it’s done would deprive you of them. […]

I was (secularly) homeschooled for part of my life, and there’s a backhandedly toxic, individualist culture in that which makes announcing that I’m not a genius who can solve every problem I have via self-teaching and observation an admission of personal failure. That’s kept me from feeling like I deserved help when it would make a huge difference to me whether or not I had it. Asking you to help me figure out howto make economic options for myself is difficult; not least because I’m asking two interrelated things – how you’ve made yourself into someone who can get money easily when you really can’t work around it, and how you’re minimizing your need for it – that are both seriously empowering. I can’t assure you that I’ll only do what you would want with the information you give me. But since you seem more concerned with making people ungovernable than you do with whether anyone, anywhere might abuse your methods … maybe that’s not necessary. I want to be ungovernable and tear this whole unjust, soul-eating capitalist system down. You’re giving me hope that this can be done, but hope doesn’t give me a course of action and, much as I hate to admit it, I haven’t been able to fill in all the spaces in what you say for myself.

I responded privately and figured I’d leave it at that. But I’ve been having some discussions about topics related to this on Facebook today and, well, in the spirit of appealing for safer spaces to have intellectual explorations, I figured I’d put my half-baked thoughts into a more public realm, after all. See also: my policy on republishing/reprudcing/copying my words and my works. (TL;DR: Please do it.)

So, here’s my answer to the question, “How do you live without a job?”

Oooh, this is a really great question. Unfortunately, I don’t immediately know how to answer because what I’m doing isn’t something I followed some kind of guidebook for. I just kind of…um…started doing it. In the same way that someone who’s been walking all their life would probably have a hard time explaining the mechanics of walking, I’m finding that I have a hard time explaining how I go about living without a job.

That said, this is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a really long time. I just don’t know how to go about doing it yet. I thought that maybe I’d make a new “travel” blog, copy from some of what I see other people writing about in terms of travel adventures. I did some googling for terms like “technomad” to try and get out of the filter bubble of tourist info blogs, or advice sites like WikiTravel.com. But sadly these terms are almost entirely co-opted by “location-independent entrepreneurs” who are doing everything wrong. Sure, they don’t have a location, but they have a job. I’m the opposite. I have many locations, but no job.

So maybe my answer to you should begin by saying that contrary to appearances, I’m actually hyper-local, not location-independent. See, a “job” is a cog in the machinery of globalization. Jobs are designed to make you do something specific, specialized, and rigid. But nothing of significance can be accomplished if you only do one thing over and over again. Significant things require many interlocking parts working together to achieve something greater than the sum of their parts. That’s what humans are really good at, and that’s why systems of oppression such as “jobs” (and, by the way, academia) is all designed to break you up (figuratively, if not literally) into only a few narrow slivers of who you are.

“Janitor,” for instance, is a word that means “person who cleans things.” But what is the difference between “a janitor” and “a person who cleans things?” Well, one could start by asking “what is being cleaned?” Janitors rarely consider themselves janitors when what they are cleaning is their own bathroom. And yet they do still have to clean their own bathrooms (if they have a bathroom of their own, that is). Do they hire janitors for that? No, that would be silly (or impractical, since janitors rarely make enough money to hire cleaning professionals themselves).

Perhaps more pointedly, what is the difference between “a photographer” and “a person who takes photographs?” Do you suddenly become “a photographer” if you have a camera phone and you take a picture of a beautiful sunny day? The answer depends on what you perceive the function of “the class of people who take photographs” to be.

I’m not going to answer any of these questions for you because you seem like the kind of person who’s willing to do some of your own work figuring it out. But what I will do is recommend some “reading material.” A scholar like you might even appreciate the pointers. :) And by “reading material” I just mean links to click and content to consume and more pointers that will lead to ever more links to click and content to consume.

Start at Clay Shirky’s “Institutions vs. collaborations.”

This short talk is the meat from his fantastic book, “Here Comes Everybody,” (also worth a read if that’s your thing) and while it’s not specifically anti-capitalist, it has a lot of information that you can use to better understand why jobs are terrible things. Better than that, though, it also accessibly explains how the tools we have available today (like the Internet) actually work, rather than how people think they work, and this is very much part of my own answer.

I should stop here to remind you that I’m not magical; personally, my ability to “live without a job” is very much tied to the (techno-)privileges I have as a person who others think has a magical ability to talk to computers. The bulk of my monetary income these days are donations for the many freeware software programs I’ve written. You are probably aware of some of them (like the Predator Alert Tools), since I blog pretty regularly about them. Maybe you’re even tangentially aware of some of the other more activist-focused stuff I’ve written, like the WP-Seedbank plugin. Again, I signal boost that stuff a lot because it’s directly related to my larger goal of shooting capitalism and all its enforcers in the head, and then skinning them for food.

But a lot of donations that I get are also for software that has nothing to do, directly, with activist goals. For instance, one of my most popular tools is a WordPress plugin called the “Inline Google Spreadsheet Viewer,” and it does what it says on the tin. It takes a public, published Google Spreadsheet, parses its content, and displays it as an HTML table on a page powered by a WordPress blog. But I didn’t sit down one day and go, “Hmm, I wonder what I should make.” Rather, someone came to me and was like, “I need an easy way to make a table appear on my WordPress blog. How do I do that?” And I looked around and was like, “Well, you seem to like Google Spreadsheets. Why don’t you just keep using that and I’ll make whatever you put in this specific Google Spreadsheet automatically appear on your blog where you want it?”

They said great, then I wrote a tool specifically for them to do this thing, then they paid me $400, and then I spent another couple of hours generalizing the code I wrote for them and wrapping it up in a distributable plugin for everyone else to use. That was 3 years ago. Since then, I’ve made a couple hundred more dollars in donations for that tool alone. Several hundred dollars over 3 years might not sound like very much, and in isolation maybe it’s not. But I didn’t *do* anything to get that other money, it just sort of appeared in front of me because I made it easy for people to donate to me.

So that’s another part of my answer: you don’t “live without a job,” you just LIVE, and in the living, you MAKE and DO stuff that is valuable for you and your friends. But you do the extra work to make the thing that was useful for you accessible to other people who you don’t already know. You already know how to do this, because you were taught to do that in school. It’s called “writing a bibliography” in that context, and in my context it’s called “writing good code comments and making an easily-installable software program.” But the concept is the same.

Take a look at my Cyberbusking.org page. It’s not designed to sell anything. It’s just designed to make it super easy for someone who wants to help me out actually successfully help me out. The question I asked myself when I made that page was not “How do I get people to believe I’m worth keeping alive?” It was “How do I help the people who want to keep me alive help me stay alive?”

You’re never going to ask that question if you don’t think you’re worth much alive. And capitalism is ALL ABOUT making people believe that in order to have any value in BEING alive, they have to DO something to earn it, first.

Fuck. That. Shit.

The school system also teaches this idea. That’s what grades are for. And here I’ll pause to point you at the writings of school abolitionists like John Taylor Gatto and Ivan Illich. There’s plenty of anti-schooling material on my blog, and you should perhaps start there. As usual, follow the links.

Both John Taylor Gatto’s book and Ivan Illich’s book are freely available online:

  1. The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto. (Very US-centric history here, I know, but relevant to mandatory schooling more generally, so if you’re not in the US take this first link with a bit of an open mind.)
  2. Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich.

Contemporary mandatory education is one of the prerequisites for a classist society. And they’re not even subtle about it. Why do you think children are divided, according to characteristics like age, into “classes”?

The relationship between school and jobs should be obvious, and any intimate relationship between one oppressive institution is definitionally supported by the institutions people are expected to engage with before that one. In other words, if you want to destroy jobs, then you also have to destroy mandatory schooling at the same time.

I should also mention that I’m atypical in this regard, too, because I dropped out of middle school. And I guess there’s a lesson in that, too: sheer willpower. I made a conscious decision about my life in second grade that I would work towards escaping schooling, and although it took almost 10 years, I finally did actually succeed. In the same way that I “make myself ungovernable” to social norms, I made myself ungovernable to school administrators. I was a “good kid” who just wouldn’t play ball. And most importantly, I stopped being afraid of the threats like “you’ll never get a job.” Also, notice, again, the relationship between schooling and its coercive threats. No one cares about bad grades except insofar as they think it will mean they can’t get a good job. Turns out that’s a lie.

Money is the same kind of lie. Nobody cares about money. They care about the things money gives to them, like food, and clothes, and social status. If you can get food and clothes and social status without money, then why spend any brainpower worrying about money at all?

That’s the other thing I’ve done, also visible on my Cyberbusking.org donations page: I ask for money, but I also ask *directly* for food, and shelter. Here’s a fun fact: when I added food-donation options, my monetary donations increased. Why? Because NOBODY GIVES A FUCK ABOUT MONEY, except that they all THINK they do, and so they’re much more willing to give money to someone who asks for it when it’s clear that this money is being asked for to get food. It’s a social hack: if you’re more willing to give someone food than money (Because Capitalism Brainwashing) then I don’t ask you for money, I ask you for food. Then you’re not thinking of the money you’re giving me as money, you’re thinking of it as food-tokens. This, by the way, is how Las Vegas works: why do you think people gamble with $1 chips instead of $1 bills? What’s the difference between a $1 chip and a $1 bill? In theory: nothing. In practice: everything.

But I also just practiced a BUNCH of other things to make myself not need to ask for help. And I lean on my strengths to make that possible. I find dumpsters to go dumpster-diving in by asking locals, looking them up on FallingFruit.org (which also has a bunch of good urban food foraging sites), by keeping detailed records of my own, and then contributing those records back to places that accept it. I use FreeCampsites.net to avoid the need for hotels, and when I find a place I can sleep in my car that would be useful to add to that database, I add it to the database. I participate in a way most people are trained not to.

Let’s stop here again for a moment to consider what it means to “participate” in a world like ours. If you’re not already familiar with it, go look up the 90-9-1 principle, also called the 1% rule.

There are some good critiques of it but the basic premise is simply that there are fewer people who create content than those who consume content. This is partly just Because Physics, but also partly because Mass Consumerism was the intended goal of mass mandatory schooling. So whereas someone else might find FreeCampsites.net and use it to look up information, I do that *AND* I’ve got a thought in the back of my mind that I can add to it, too. And I do that with everything, not just websites.

I do that with my own stuff. I don’t buy bandaids, I buy gauze pads and medical paper tape, because a bandaid is just a gauze pad and some adhesive. But I can do a lot more with medical tape and gauze pads than I can with Bandaids®. Plus, just like you spend less money when you buy ingredients and cook them yourself instead of going out to eat, the ingredients of medical supplies are cheaper to get than the one-use item capitalism trains you to want. I call this the “coffee filter problem,” or more generally the “the er-suffix fallacy.” That is, capitalism (and schools, and marketers, and so on) trains you to think that “in order to filter coffee, you need a coffee filter.” But it turns out you can filter coffee using anything that you can strain small bits in: cheesecloths work, plus those are reusable.

I didn’t know all this when I started “living without a job.” I learned about it over time. And I didn’t just learn about it because Magic. I learned about it because I put myself in relatively high risk situations in which if I didn’t learn it, I’d be at best uncomfortable and at worst dead. I learned that having a bed is not about having a mattress, it’s about finding a place to sleep and then MAKING my bed. Which doesn’t, to me, mean “folding the sheets.” It means “putting the pieces of a bed together in a place where I can sleep.” When I’m “making my bed,” I’m literally CREATING a bed for myself, wherever I happen to be. Turns out this is a skill, and it’s a learnable one, and it doesn’t cost any money. Yes, I “invested” in a sleeping bag, but my first sleeping bag was a $30 one from Sears. It was good for some things and bad for others, and it was heavy, and it was hard to fold, but it was CHEAP and that let me “fail early, fail often.” The next year (before Winter), I got another, better sleeping bag. It cost more money (almost $80?), but now I use it ALL the time and I’m SO glad I got it. My pillow? The day’s clothes in the sleeping bag’s bag. Is it as comfortable as a queen-sized bed with a down comforter? Well, not usually, but sometimes yes. :) Plus, it’s versatile.

And so I guess my point in all this is, it’s just as much a lie of capitalism that you can be self-sufficient as it is a lie of capitalism that you can’t be self-sufficient. The truth is you’re not going to survive on your own, so stop believing that. But you also don’t need to rely on other people (and especially the products they try selling you) for most of the things you think you need, both because it turns out you don’t need that much and also because those things aren’t actually things you want in the first place.

You don’t want money. You want the experience of eating delicious food with your friends in an atmosphere where you feel comfortable chatting and having a good time. I have a lot of “friends” (some of whom I legitimately consider close friends, and some of whom I’m just friendly acquaintances with) and when I go eat out with them, they often pay for me. It’s not because I *can’t* pay my own way (although depending on the meal, I actually really can’t afford it), it’s because the thing we’re “exchanging” is not about money and food. It’s about the relationship in which we get to explore what it’s like breaking bread together.

CouchSurfing.org (another life-saver for me) is like this: I don’t pay to stay at people’s houses with money, but I do “pay” with my emotional energy, and my time. Sometimes it’s still a transaction, and that can be tiring. But it’s also really good practice for seeing the cracks of capitalism. Why would someone put me up in their home for two nights if I wasn’t going to give them any money?

Humans don’t do things for money. We use money to do other things. It’s just that most of us still wrongly believe we need the money to do those other things. That’s the lie.

Money only has power because you believe it does. Gender is only a thing because people think it is. It’s the SAME concept. Being genderqueer is not fundamentally different than living without a job. If you can do the one, you can do the other.

But don’t TRY. You have to DO. As a wise old creature once said, “There is no try.” ;)

Hope this helps,

P.S. Thanks for the email. :) And for letting me work out my own thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness way. Feels pretty good, actually, to not feel like thousands of people are gonna jump down my throat if I get the words wrong.

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