Quit Your Evil Job
Don't waste your life making the world worse. Hit the bricks!
As a general matter, it is not a good idea to give people sanctimonious lectures about their jobs. The vast majority of people work in jobs that they do because they have to, to pay the bills and survive. All of us are born in a place and time and circumstance that we do not control. We awake in a system that requires us to earn a certain income in order to live. We poke around our immediate geographic area, which may or may not be well stocked with a wide variety of jobs that we may or may not care for, and find the best thing we can get at the time. For most people, their job is a necessity far more than a passion project. That job may be soul-sucking, unsatisfying, monotonous, or degrading. We do it to live. For at least the bottom two-thirds or so of the income distribution, quitting a job is something that is not impossible, but must be undertaken with great care in order to avoid financial ruin. For all of the people who fall into this broad category of work, the only worthwhile thing you can offer them from the outside is the advice to unionize, and the resources to do so. Unless you have a better job to give them, that should be the limit of your moralizing.
There is, however, another slice of people—generally more well-off, with more valuable credentials and degrees, with more options in the working world, with more ability to pursue their specific interests, with more influence in the economy and society—who do, in fact, have more agency when it comes to their own careers. That is the slice of America that I want to address with this brief post. Even for those of us lucky enough to be able to pursue work that we care about, it is easy to find yourself twisted up and deposited in a place that you never really reckoned on. Most of us absorb lessons growing up about what is important, what our goals should be, what constitutes success. Those internalized lessons may lead us somewhere strange. It is quite possible to wake up one day and realize that your life, outwardly respectable though it may be, is something different than you imagined it would be. Something darker. Without walking in one another’s shoes, we cannot judge one another for where life has taken us. What we can do is to spread this helpful message: If you find yourself doing an evil job, you can quit. And you should.
How Things Work is a reader-supported publication. If you like it, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
No one, especially no one with options, should spend their one wild and free life doing something that unambiguously makes the world worse. While we should not judge people for ending up in bad places doing bad things, we can and should judge people for remaining in bad places doing bad things after they themselves have had the realization that what they are engaged in is bad. “Bad,” of course, is subjective, and there are many people whose beliefs are so opposite from mine that we would never agree on which one of us is doing the bad stuff; if your job is, for example, chief of staff to Senator Ted Cruz, we probably have such different philosophies about the world that continuing this conversation is a waste of time. It’s more direct to just consider ourselves enemies, and carry on.
Still, there are many thousands of Americans who have the same basic set of values as me and the same basic set of political beliefs and think of themselves as good and caring people and yet are doing evil jobs. I began thinking about this when I was thinking about the staff of Sen. John Fetterman. I imagine that many people in his office worked for him because they have progressive beliefs and thought that he did too and now they have found themselves employed by a man who zealously declares his support for Israel’s ongoing massacre in Gaza, and who goadingly declares that he is not “progressive.” (I know that Fetterman discussed some of these beliefs during the campaign, but let us be honest and admit that most of us are surprised he is this fucked up.) Many of his staff, then, find themselves doing a job that pursues goals that are not what they thought they would be. In fact they thought they would be doing something righteous, and now find that they are doing something not righteous. It is, I’m afraid, the moral responsibility of those people to quit their jobs. They can find new jobs. The people killed in Gaza will not find new lives. The imbalance between your career goals and the horribleness of the outcome of the work you are doing requires you to stop doing that work, or accept that you will carry the responsibility for what your boss is doing.
Perhaps you were raised in a high-achieving family and taught to work hard in school and pursue the markers of elite achievement and because of that you went to an Ivy League school and went to Harvard Business School and accepted a job at an elite private equity firm. And then over time you come to realize that the job you are so well-compensated for is, you know, making the quality of care at hospitals worse, immiserating large numbers of sick people, in order to enrich a tiny number of already rich people. You should quit your job. Maybe you went to an elite law school and took a job with a well respected firm and find yourself spending your days as a management-side labor lawyer whose purpose is to smash the power of the working class in order to increase the power of major corporations. You should quit your job. Maybe you went to work for a Big Four firm and find yourself spending your days using creative schemes to minimize the taxes that wealthy companies pay, starving the public sector of resources. You should quit your job. Maybe you loved the idea of journalism and you went to journalism school and you took the best job you could find and that job ended up being at Fox News, where you are engaged in turning out propaganda that is harmful to our society. You should quit your job. Maybe you finally became Secretary of State and now you find yourself tasked with justifying a brutal ethnic cleansing. You should quit your job.
It is easy to imagine how any of us, if we were born in a specific set of circumstances, and taught a specific set of values, and incentivized by our peers and our family to view success in a certain way, could end up doing any of those jobs that I mentioned, purely by walking what we were taught was the proper path. Furthermore, it is easy to see how people can continue to justify their jobs to themselves. Self-justification is one of the strongest forces in the world. But also—you are smart. If you are smart enough to get these jobs, and if you come to them without some rabid set of right wing values, you are smart enough to understand how they are actively harming the world. You can, with some effort, look in the mirror and admit that even though your job is beneficial to you personally, it is making the world worse, in aggregate. And when you admit that to yourself privately, it is time to quit your job. Not only should you quit your job; you must quit your job, for the sake of your own soul.
You can get a different job.
All oppressive systems, from the most brutal dictatorship to the most sophisticated system of global capitalism, rely on certain groups to keep them in place. They rely on the politicians to create the rules of oppression, and they rely on the business interests who profit from oppression, and they rely on the intellectual institutions like think tanks and media outlets and PR firms to create the justifications for the oppression, and they rely on the agencies of violence that enforce the oppression. All of these groups benefit from the oppressive system, even if the majority of people are hurt by it. A good rule of thumb is, if you take a look at your job and see that you are employed in any of the fields above, you should quit your job. This is not some utopian demand that everyone who works at, you know, Walmart must run off and grow their own food because their employer is a part of capitalism. This is saying: be honest with yourself about what your role in this system is. The more power and influence and resources that you have, the greater your responsibility to not do an evil job. Prison guards may be participating in a brutal system of oppression, but most of them are also victims of that system, at least economically. I would like every union-busting attorney with a six figure income to quit his job before I start making demands of the prison guards in rural counties with no other jobs. Richest motherfuckers first.
You may have worked hard and got yourself a job at Alden Global Capital and you are on lots of charitable boards and are seen as a prestigious figure in the community, but you make your money by sucking dry local newspapers and selling off local bus stations and generally being a financial vampire. You are deserving of infinitely less respect than the janitor who cleans your office, who is doing something with straightforward utility. If you find that life has, to your surprise, deposited you in a career that is in fact a tool of oppression, and that has, perhaps unwittingly, made you yourself a tool of oppression as well, you should quit your job. Don’t spend your life trying to rationalize it. Just go do something else.
Work on a Christmas tree farm! I bet that would be fun. Merry Christmas, my friends. Santa is always watching.
My essay about the pressing need for large-scale labor organizing in the latest issue of The Progressive magazine is now online, and you can read it here. I also published my beloved annual feature, Ten Predictions for Labor in 2024, at In These Times, and you can read that here. Finally, I have a piece in The Guardian today in which I mock Mark Zuckerberg for his futile attempts to use his vast wealth to insulate himself from the realities of fate. There is a lot of exciting stuff to say about labor and class war right now!!!
Speaking of that, I have written a deeply reported book about the labor movement and how it can save America. It is called “The Hammer,” and you can preorder it here, or wherever books are sold. It will be published on February 13. Buy it for Christmas, and receive it in time for Valentine’s Day! It can be a valuable answer to all of your gifting needs. I will be going on book tour in February, and I will share more info with you all about that soon.
Let me say, in these last days before Christmas, that I truly appreciate each and every one of you who has subscribed to How Things Work. This independent site is one of the most worthwhile things I did this year. As you can tell by the number of links that I posted above, I am hustling my ass off these days. One of my goals for 2024 is to finish building this site into a sustainable full time job. If you would like to support that goal, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. The journalism industry is a mess today, but we can have a flourishing independent media if enough readers pay for it. Thank you all, and happy holidays to all of you. You are an admirable and good-looking group.