I’ve put out another edition of the Yenta Newsletter. Take a look here. For posterity, I’m going to extract one piece of the newsletter — an advice column — and flesh it out a bit here.
For a few years now, I’ve been joking that my hobby is “marxist career advice”. I’ve spent many hours-long conversations with people asking for help with figuring out their life, and my basic orientation involves ideas like “yes, all labor is exploitation, but you still need a job” and “alienated labor is a true crime of capitalism. I shake my fist at it. Now let’s talk about your resume”.
I’ve thought about turning it into some sort of cultural artifact. A set of essays, a book, a podcast, etc. For now, I’ll try something more juicy — an advice column.
(It would be remiss of me not to point out that the incomparable Existential Comics did a fun take or two on this subject. That’s where the header image comes from, and the comic below as well. I love EC and encourage you to read everything they’ve ever written. Their twitter feed is dank as well.)
Recently, I ran into someone who a question squarely in my wheelhouse. It’s a sign. So, now please enjoy the inaugural issue of “Marxist Career Advice”.
I’m thinking of quitting my very cool progressive political job. It is an important job, but the working conditions aren’t great. People are overworked, underpaid, and everything is chaotic.
I come from poverty. I’ve continued to struggle with poverty and housing-insecurity through my adult life. My current employer makes a big deal out out of below-nonprofit-range salaries as a sign that we are deeply committed to the movement. I feel guilty about wanting to spend a few years making a higher salary – which I want to do so I can build up a savings net and allow myself more opportunities to join progressive fights in the future.
I want to do the right thing. I don’t want to feel guilty. How should I think about this?
Conflicted in Carolina
First off, conflicted — I’m sorry that’s happening to you. There is indeed a frustrating pattern where people who consider themselves on the left, pro-worker, pro-equality, etc end up becoming the worst bosses. That’s wrong. You deserve respect, fair treatment, and psychological safety at work, just as much as anyone else does. My buddy Ned Resnikoff wrote a seminal piece on this in Jacobin in 2013: When The Union Is The Boss. You might enjoy it.
You’ve expressed guilt about the idea of leaving the movement, let’s say. Let’s interrogate that! There’s a term for a thing where membership is tied to your employment: an industry. If you take the logic that “you can’t be in the movement unless you’re hired to do so” to its logical conclusion, you’ll end up with a political strategy of hiring 51% of the country in a progressive nonprofit. That’s obviously not going to work.
When I was considering the same question a while ago, I came to a few realizations:
- If I stay in the professional left, and give up the training, socialization, resume, and money I’d get from going into industry, I don’t think I’d be thanked. Instead, people might implicitly think of me as not good enough to get a “real” tech job.
- If I stay in the professional left, it’d be very hard for me to get a tech job where there’d be more than 3 people in the department. Little opportunity for growth, or focus.
- If I go work in industry, and then come back, I’d be seen as having magic startup/SF pixie dust. People would trip over themselves to hire me.
- If I work in industry, I would not be seen as speaking for my employer. I could be as radical or frank as I want. Whereas when I work for the professional left, I have to be careful of not pissing off potential future partners, clients, bosses, etc. In other words, I need to be insulated enough from professional blowback to frankly call out some vendors or groups are actively harming the cause.
- If I leave for industry, I’ll be replaced in my current professional left job by someone who is roughly as talented as I am. They will do the work. And even, to be generous to myself, let’s say they are $30,000/year less productive than I am — depriving this one organization of 30k/year of productivity is a small price to pay for my happiness. (And who knows, this job might be an actual step up / dream for the person replacing me, as opposed to the noble sacrifice it is for me right now)
All those predictions turned out to be true, to some extent.
I don’t know your full situation, of course. And so I can’t tell you what to do. But I hope you take these points in mind. (And, while it’s important context, your current and past poverty and housing insecurity aren’t the determining factor here. You don’t need that as a “get out of guilt jail free” card. Because you should be out of guilt jail even if you had a comfortable middle class background. Does that make sense?)
Lastly, this: when we try to unionize workers at McDonalds, we don’t attack them for how terrible their employer is. We see them, accurately, as partially victims — victims that deserve a higher minimum wage, dignity and respect at work, and a union. So, too, when you work for BigCorp, you are not your boss. You are not deciding to use Congolese slave labor, etc. You’re a worker, who needs a job somewhere. A worker who deserves respect, dignity, solidarity — and a union.
Hope that helps.
(Do you have a career advice question? Ask us at firstname.lastname@example.org)