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inSANity by Lawrence San

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inSANity columns:

I Don't Get No Respect

What's Money For?

The Better You Are,
The Longer It Takes

Nothing Is Possible

When The Bastards
Criticize You

The Theory Of
The Hairy Arm

Always Ready To Walk

Ugly Brides and Other Temptations

Under Fire By The VP of X

Waiting For Aliens

Will The Real Freaks Please Raise Their Hands?

Putting Your Stamp On It

Junkyard Creativity

Two Kinds of Fear?

How To Blow An Interview

Season's Growlings

Booted from the Womb

Rules for Rule Breaking

The Fine Art of Kicking Yourself

Fresh Eyes and Feedback Loops

Little Shop of... Freedoms


Will the Real Freaks Please Raise Their Hands?

If you happen to own yourself... excuse me, I mean if you happen to work for yourself, you're probably used to a certain level of subtle abuse masquerading as good-natured ribbing. Something along the lines of "So, have you gotten a real job yet?" (smirk) or "Have you figured out yet what you're going to do with your life?" (smirk). The unspoken implication of these remarks is that you are (at best) a temporary loser and (at worst) some kind of neurotic misfit. By contrast, the regularly-employed hurlers of these "joking" barbs are smugly confident that they represent well-adjusted normality.

That's a funny word, "normal." Literally it just means adhering to a statistical norm, whatever that might happen to be. If, for example, you happen to live in a lunatic asylum populated by paranoid schizophrenics with an aversion to bathing, while you alone (by some weird mischance) are both mentally integrated and physically scrubbed, why then you're hopelessly abnormal! Ah, that's too mundane; let's take a more exotic example from some far-away culture you've probably never encountered. If you happen to live in a place where virtue is defined as the ability to hold down a 'regular job' in some mindlessly bureaucratic corporation; where maturity is defined as the ability to remain meekly subservient all day while some jerkoff boss screams nonsense at you; where 'understanding corporate culture' essentially means the ability to attend endless pointless meetings without falling asleep drooling on yourself ... if you live in that culture but you can't or won't do those things, baby, you're abnormal.

By the way, "abnormal" may technically be the opposite of normal, but the extreme opposite of normal is "anomalous." This implies being so unusual or incongruous as to be statistically disconnected from the surrounding flow of people or events. (I realize that there's not a one-to-one correlation between feeling like an anomaly and being self-employed. For example, at the moment I'm a wage slave but I still feel like an anomaly; and if you're reading this column, you're probably an independent professional but you may, possibly, still feel reasonably normal.) Nonetheless, it's useful to understand the Range of Weirdness that society, in its infinite wisdom (gag), often assigns in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to those who live outside its standard structures. How about...

Normal - Unusual - Abnormal - Weird - Bizarre - Anomaly - Shoot on Sight

They Must Be Right, They're So Numerous

People like to be in the majority; it feels so... safe. (A delusion, but never mind.) But feeling superficially safe can mask some pretty serious fears. Do you suppose that the "normal" folks' buried insecurity at the decision they made -- i.e., to cash in their freedom and dignity for a weekly dribble of coins -- might have something to do with their need to poke at you?

But all that cultural/psychological stuff isn't the strangest part. The weirdest part is the almost universal assumption that it really is normal to be "regularly employed." I can see where this idea came from: there's a natural tendency to assume that the things you're most used to must have always been like that; that they are, in fact, inherent in the nature of life itself. Fortunately, that's a misconception that can be quickly dispelled by the study of history or anthropology. Unlike me, you may not give a rap about history, but bear with me -- history is, after all, where a lot of people used to live. Besides, history is sometimes (although unpredictably) cyclical; understanding where we've been relative to where we are can sometimes give us a clue as to where we're going.

History Lesson For Your "Normal" Friends

For most of human history, "job" meant "project." If a farmer needed to clean up the barn, that was his job for the day; having "a job to do" didn't mean he worked for someone else. In fact, most people for most of history didn't work for someone else (unless it was someone in their own family). When did people start becoming employees in the modern sense?

In his book The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, Jean Gimpel [Penguin Books, 1976] traces the division between capital and labor to early water-powered mills on the rivers of fourteenth-century France. "The millers were employees who had no say in the company's decisions, and the shareholders were wealthy Toulouse citizens who had no special knowledge of or interest in milling, except to receive profit from it." Another novelty was that these mills were owned by companies that might own an interest in more than one mill. This meant that, perhaps for the first time, an investor was buying an interest not in a specific asset (like a mill) but in an abstraction -- namely, in a company that might own parts of several other assets.

Despite such innovations as the invention of the modern "company" and "employee," most people still remained farmers for centuries (either in various degrees of enforced servitude or as self-employed "smallholders"), along with a smaller group of self-employed tradespeople and craftspeople. Although Gimpel and others have shown that industrialization began in the middle ages and even before, the big growth of industrial jobs followed the "industrial revolution," which usually refers to the period in Great Britain between about 1760 - 1830, and in America and other countries from about 1830 on. Even then, there was a time lag before most people left the farms and small-town family businesses to "get a job." In the U.S., for example, most Americans were still self-employed farmers until after the Civil War (1865), and it wasn't typical for most Americans to have a "regular job" until the 1920s.

The point is that our "traditional" employment model is actually not so traditional, but quite recent, the result of industry displacing agriculture as society's economic engine and determinant of culture. Now, in turn, the industrial core is being displaced by an information core. Industrialism's child -- the stock corporation and its "employees" -- will increasingly be replaced by a more flexible model, what some people call the "virtual company." (I don't have time to defend that sweeping statement now, but I'll be talking more about that in future columns.) You can even think of the evolution of work geographically: from rural, to urban, to nowhere-in- particular (hyperspace). Ultimately, we'll come full circle, and return to autonomous work centered on skills, projects, and people, rather than on bureaucratic companies.

If this is all too much to absorb, just take away this: the impersonal corporation and its wage slaves were a flash in the pan, a short-term response to a particular stage of history that's now coasting to a close. For most of our past, most people have worked for themselves, and increasingly, they're doing so again.

Give 'Em Hell

Feeling better now? The next time some well-adjusted, societally accepted wage slave lobs hostility at you, you'll be psychically prepared. You could, of course, just trade barbs: for example, when he says "Have you found a job yet?" you could respond "No, have you lost yours yet?" But (fun as that might be) it's really not necessary. Armed with your new-found historical knowledge, you can remain calmly silent while meditating on his fundamental, un-historical error. Normality is just a statistic, and the stats are on your side. You, the self-employed "misfit," represent both the past and the future. By contrast, the wage slave represents some fleeting historical curiosity that happened to emerge in the recent past and is already on its way out. In the big picture, you are the normal one. He's the anomaly.

San was the founding editor of 1099 Magazine, serving as its first editor-in-chief and creative director. He's now back in the boss-free world as a freelance writer and illustrator. In addition to the inSANity column on 1099, San's other writings and cartoons are at www.sanstudio.com.

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