Bootstraps are things that everyone has, but the only people who have ever used them are rich people. If poor people had used them, they wouldn’t be poor. Their bootstraps remain, unlaced, disheveled upon the floor. This is how we justify our system: it is merit-based. Those who attain power within it must have that power legitimately, and legitimacy is seen as being earned through hard work. The powerful, those who noticeably do not generally wear boots, obtained their power through the literally impossible task of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

bootstraps

He must have been poor

To deny the bootstrap theory is not to proselytize a Calvinist social doctrine where some are preordained with salvation through inherited grace while the rest are condemned to poverty and damnation. Social forces, however unjust, will never be immutable. If things can change, then it must be the people who change them. The capacity to change must then exist, and if not through bootstraps, then how?

Imagine two people in two separate hallways at the end of which lies a mysterious door. The first person opens their door, and a litter of adorable puppies is revealed! Behind the second person’s door is a literal crack den with someone offering them a pipe. Both doors offer a choice, it’s just that that choice depends entirely on which hallway the person happens to be in. The person being offered crack could say no, sure, but the person playing with the puppies didn’t even get the opportunity to smoke that delicious crack.

puppies

I know what I’D choose

There will certainly be things that influence that choice. Did the second person receive an accurate education regarding the nature of drugs? Did they witness drug use during their formative years? Did they suffer a previous trauma that they never learned to cope with? Is the first person allergic to dogs? There are always correlative factors that influence choice which explain statistical trends, but choice does exist to explain anomalies.

The thing is, we don’t choose our doors. A door may open, and behind it may lay overt racism. Behind another door may be an abusive partner. Behind another door may be a downsizing layoff. We can only choose our reactions to these doors, but our reactions will always open more doors towards which we must again react. A woman might open a door to sexual harassment at work, and how she reacts might open another door that reveals a misogynist work environment, and her following reaction might open a door to reveal hostility at having rocked the boat.

Privilege is living in a hallway with mostly benign doorways. Merit doesn’t enter into it at all. Don’t have to react to racism? Congratulations! Don’t have to react to sexism? Congratulations! Don’t have to react to growing up in poverty, undergoing abuse or neglect, being followed home by a cat-caller, learning your times tables in an underfunded educational system, walking down the street with an authoritarian police force, or making a shitty wage under precarious employment? Congratulations! Resilience is a thing, certainly, but if doorway after doorway is consistently negative, a negative anti-social status is far more likely to develop.

shining hallway

I’m sure it’s fine

Like I said earlier, we’re not Calvinists. Choice is an option, and our hallways are not preordained. They are evolved, shaped, and constructed through social history, economic factors, cultural attitudes, and policy decisions. Someone on the LGBT spectrum would not have to react to homophobia if homophobia in all its social, cultural, economic, and political incarnations wasn’t a thing! On an individual level, encouraging resilience is not the worst thing in the world because often in that precise moment there is nothing else really that an individual can do. Even if that is the case, being aware of the context of that person’s situation is going to massively improve your compassion and understanding, vastly improving their likelihood of listening. However, encouraging bootstraps in any other capacity completely ignores that we all live in different hallways, and that we, collectively, can actually improve what’s behind those doors through our evolving culture, our economic system, and our political decisions.

So let’s do that instead.

Would you ever sell yourself into slavery? If you think this is a paradox, remember that slavery is not simply unpaid labour, but giving up our control to the whims of another. Slaves were property, not unpaid labourers. The conditions of the slavery aren’t even that important; I don’t think anyone would go back in time and choose to be a slave, even if they got to be a house slave. Slavery isn’t abominable because of the conditions, though they certainly didn’t help, nor was it anything to do with the type of labour involved since all of that labour still exists today with little controversy. Slavery was abolished because it took away our liberty as human beings.

Maybe you’re a bit more cynical. I was a quite vague in my offer, but perhaps a huge cash sum might change your mind? The thing is, though, if any amount of money tempts us to give up a fundamental condition of our human nature, then that desire can only be driven by desperation. If the thought arises that this amount of money might make life more livable, it is only blinding us to the fact that a life of slavery is less than a life. We cannot abandon liberty and still be fully human.

Now, if we wouldn’t accept a single cash buyout to enter into slavery, then why do we accept smaller, biweekly payments in the form of a wage? The conditions of our labour today remove from us our autonomy just as much as any plantation, even if the conditions might be better. If you disagree, ask yourself how able you are to say no to your boss, and how able your boss is to say no to you. There is a disparity in freedom there, and it very likely isn’t favouring you. Any ability to say “no” to your boss that you possess today was fought and bled for by unionists before you. The pittance of liberty we possess at work was not given but taken, and, under many employers, is slowly being clawed back.

You might be skeptical. If you aren’t happy with your job, you can just pick up and leave for another, right? But consider this: how many employers are there out there right now that allow you to say no to your boss? How many employers are there that don’t follow this fundamental relationship of capital ownership? Trading one plantation for another is not liberty.

plantation1a_360

“Let’s work next door. I hear they only give out ten lashes for insubordination instead of twenty!” Businesses might offer perks to compete for your labour, but never liberty; all you receive are allowances from your master.

Maybe you dream of one day becoming the boss, then you’ll have freedom! Climb that corporate ladder! Regardless of how unfeasible this might be in reality due to the disparity of opportunities, the number of aspirants, the nepotism and politics of advancement, this is still the dream of the hooker wishing to become the pimp. Regardless of where you might fall along the spectrum of middle management, it is still an immoral system. Self-interest and greedy delusion are not sufficient justification.

The movie Office Space exists and is so relatable because we all inherently recognize that the disparate hierarchy we possess in our workplace is ultimately degrading. We agree to it because if we don’t work, we starve. We agree out of desperation.

working outside

And yet if Peter’s new boss asks him to come in on Saturday, he is still in the same predicament as in the beginning of the film. His relationship to work has not changed.

In our work today, we live less than a life. What we need is autonomy in our labour. What we need is a voice in the conditions of our labour. We demand democracy in our politics, but remain blind to it for the eight hours or more we slog through in our employment. We’ve been convinced we’re free because we have a few tired hours after work to spend the money we’ve been allowed on streaming television, forgetting that those hours required workers to die because the bosses of the past couldn’t be bothered to allow us even that.

Is that what we want? A life where our few pleasures are those “allowed” to us by our employer? Or do we want a say in our lives? Do we want real choice? If we do, what then are we willing to do for our liberty?

Freedom isn’t free. Notoriously it costs $1.05, but generally the metaphor is assumed to mean that freedom is incessantly under attack, and therefore must be defended. There are terrorists and rogue nations who hate our way of life, and if they are unchecked, the freedom to live our lives the way we choose is imperiled. We must therefore adhere to a universal responsibility to fight wars, or at the very least, support those who fight them for us, against these existential threats. However, implicit responsibility suggests that those who adhere to this belief are not actually free: they are slaves to conflict. If we must fight, then we are no longer free to engage in peace.

There is also the freedom implied in the Free Market. No interference, no subjugation, allow the whims of the Market to dictate social direction. The ebb and flow of supply and demand will nurture and care for us. Yet, if our ability to participate in the market is determined by our wealth (either in the ownership of the supply side or the purchasing power of the demand side), then indeed social direction will be commanded by the wealthy. Voting with your dollar naturally leads to those with more dollars owning more votes. Even in the free market we are not free: we are slaves to wealth. Even the wealthy are encumbered by their duties to wealth perpetuation. If we seek responsibility toward externalities and an equality of opportunity, we will not find it in an ideology with implicit responsibility toward the profit motive.

Is it controversial to say that freedom requires submission? Bob Dylan waxed poetic that it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but we’re gonna have to serve somebody. Human beings have needs; we will always be beholden to bread. What are we willing to submit to in order to enjoy other freedoms? Who then benefits from that submission? What if we want to live in a world with freedom from conflict? What if we want to be responsible toward other human beings rather than to an abstraction? Maybe it would be nice to be responsible to your neighbours instead of responsible to a conflict with them.

Anyone who preaches freedom is preaching slavery on some other level. This is not always a terrible thing; responsibility is a necessity for social cohesion. The despots who hide its presence in their proselytizing are seeking only to deceive their listeners into accepting their shackles without critical thought. Be open about where the restraints will lie, and allow them to be justified. We were never free. We will never be free. We will always need to submit. The question is: where do we wish to place our submission?