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People in San Francisco Work Too Much. It Wasn’t Always This Way.

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In 2010, when I moved into my current home and at least ten years after San Francisco had sold its soul to the devil, there were two old-time commercial tenants on my block. One was an awesome gallery in an old stable building, the other was a metal-working shop of some kind. I can’t imagine either business made much money, but that didn’t seem to matter to them. The owners lived in their businesses and mostly spent their time ripping hits from the bong and riding dirt bikes around the block. As it always seems to happen in San Francisco, their landlord raised their rent astronomically and now they’re gone.

When I think of them, they always remind me that San Francisco wasn’t always the way it is today. These guys had that characteristic joie-de-vivre of San Francisco life that was reflected in a desire to work as little as humanly possible, before we suddenly transformed into a Randian hellscape of late-stage capitalistic striving. San Franciscans don’t even seem to be working so hard because they’ll strike it rich, as simply working-to-work, as if they are some sort of sick Calvinists who want to display their merit through the amount of meaningless spreadsheets they can churn out.

Recently, a very good friend of mine was offered a job at a publicly traded SF company. While the initial description of the job emphasized the good work/life balance, the interviewer did a Jekyll/Hyde on my friend once an offer of employment was extended. “I work all the time. I’m on zoom calls all day and I work nights and weekends. I don’t have any time to myself,” she said, as if it were a point of pride. Why would anyone subject themselves to this for the salary of middle-management? Why would anyone in San Francisco, a city that should be a bastion of free-thinking, buy into such a psychopathic culture of work?

Asking the boss for Friday off.

I asked another friend who does computer things why he worked so much, and he responded, “I don’t know any developer who doesn’t work more than 40 hours a week.” When pressed, he listed the usual tricks that employers use to exploit their workers: the threat of a bad review, purposefully managing projects poorly and the perceived need to pitch in to help one’s coworkers. Through him I found out that it is customary to conduct a Stalinesque purge of “low performing” workers at some FAANG companies every year. Why do people accept these conditions for a good, but not life-changing, salary? Where is the San Francisco tradition of resistance to work?

This is the city where Bob Black formed the thesis for “The Abolition of Work” while speaking at The Gorilla Grotto. This is the city where the Diggers drove a truck full of belly dancers through the Financial District, inviting workers to climb on board and forget their work. This is the city of the 1934 General strike. This is the city where the anti-work magazine Processed World (if you haven’t read Processed World, stop now and read it all) was wildly popular during its 20-year run from 1981-2001.

“To demonize state authoritarianism while ignoring identical albeit contract-consecrated subservient arrangements in the large-scale corporations which control the world economy is fetishism at its worst … Your foreman or supervisor gives you more or-else orders in a week than the police do in a decade.

–Bob Black, The Libertarian As Conservative, 1984

Now, we’re at a place in history where we’ve been gaslighted for so long that we have completely accepted the crazed world view of a few sociopathic libertarians as objective reality. Take the term “work/life” balance. Chances are you’ve heard and used it. The only reason for a term like this to exist is to suggest that this might be a point to negotiate, when it used to be universally accepted that work should be as small a part of your life as possible, and any renegotiation of that paradigm should come with hefty overtime pay.

True twenty years ago, true today

I recently watched a documentary on NXIVM, and it struck me how similar the tools of cults are to the things I hear from white collar workers in San Francisco. Both use similar repetitive, nonsense lingo. Did you know tech people call the lowest on the totem pole an “IC” for individual contributor? Does that not sound like a rank within Scientology? Also, the work-cultists deploy a purported appreciation of intelligence: “That person is a smart person, they must be doing something right. I am also a smart person, I will fit right in here in this organization” There is the constant granting and revoking of approval: “You did a great job on this spreadsheet, but people are asking why you are still doing so much remote work. Many of the others have returned to the office.”

Just like a cult victim, San Francisco has become unrecognizable to some of us who love it. It’s a place where work seems to envelop every aspect of peoples’ personalities. Everyone seems to work long hours, grinding out apps, doing deals, hyperlinking spreadsheets or whatever thing it is that they’ve traded the entirety of their life for. For what? A six-figure salary that still makes them feel poor in the land of the billionaire?

If you, too, have fallen prey to this hyper-focused scam, don’t blame yourself. Even the best people can get mixed up with cults. Even the sweetest person can be preyed upon by an abuser. Just remind yourself that San Francisco is not the place for work. San Francisco is about putting it to the man and squatting in 10,000 feet of unused office space with your punk band. San Francisco is for getting baked and riding your bike around McClaren Park aimlessly for hours. San Francisco is about re-writing billboards to align with your reality, not theirs. How are you going to accomplish anything if you’re working all the time?

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Ernst Schoen-Rene

Ernst Schoen-Rene

Ernst Schoen-Rene is a surly troll who lives under the freeway in San Francisco. He enjoys playing punk rock music, writing, the lively arts and chasing people around his street with a stick.

2 Comments

  1. Bobby Glushko
    June 7, 2021 at 8:36 am — Reply

    God this is so true. I lived in SF in the 90s and it was such a soulful city; we said it was the best place in the world for a young person to retire. I think so much of that has been lost.

  2. Iddo
    June 11, 2021 at 12:17 pm — Reply

    While it’s true that it’s important to do other things with your life other than working, this text suffers from some faults.

    “it used to be universally accepted that work should be as small a part of your life as possible” – universally accepted? By whom? When? Many people have been aiming, for at least a few decades if not more, to find work that feels meaningful and enjoyable to them, not just some unpleasant duty they have to perform and that should take as little time as possible. Of course, they also don’t aim at the opposite extreme of doing only work and nothing else.

    Also, the statement “we have completely accepted the crazed world view of a few sociopathic libertarians as objective reality”. What??? Which sociopathic people does he refer to? What world view? This has nothing to do with the libertarian world view.

    Or a statement like “before we suddenly transformed into a Randian hellscape of late-stage capitalistic striving”. Working a lot has nothing to do with Ayn Rand’s philosophy. And what is “capitalistic striving”?

    (I don’t necessarily agree with all the ideas of Ayn Rand and of libertarians, but it seems like the author is driven by hatred towards them which is based on ignorance and false propaganda).

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