A Soul-Sucking Job, the Tyranny of the Office, and Oppression

We hear this phrase “the soul-sucking job” all the time, but what does it really mean? And why does nearly everyone have one?

If you work for a corporation, your top concern is to carry out the duties of your office. Maybe it is not as big as a vice president’s office or the CIO. Maybe it’s more amorphous, like working in the legal department, or human resources, or more of a euphemism like environmental services. No matter what the position, you seek to carry out your duties effectively. That sense of duty is where the experience of the “soul-sucking job” begins.

Capitalist Duty

From our earliest days in a capitalist society, we are taught that we have a duty to our employers. The word “duty” comes from an old Latin word which is the root of “due” and connotes “owe.” We perform the duties of an office because we owe something. Our “debt” derives from the money we are paid, so it is our duty to effectively do what the office requires. That job is defined by a boss who is also filling an office role, whose office is also defined by another one higher up still, thereby reflecting the corporate hierarchy.

Our sense of duty to the job raises significant questions:

  • What happens when that duty collides with morality?
  • What happens when a job requires us to do things we don’t believe in, we think are wrong, or which disgust us?
  • What happens when we are spending eight, ten, or even twelve hours a day working to support a system we don’t believe in?
  • What are the dangers when the greater self goes unheeded, our dreams and passions are left untended, or the earth is left to rot as a result of our dutiful actions?

The truth is that most people are living in this internal conflict most of their working lives. Their office requires them to behave in ways they would not otherwise choose.

Structural Deception

Corporate HR offices are intimately aware of this problem. They produce mission statements and purpose retreats to assert a level of meaning where there is none. The only real purpose of a corporate entity is to make money in its own peculiar way. The activities of the HR department are largely an attempt to persuade people to perceive meaning beyond that profit-focused reality. Generally speaking, they are quite successful.

Hierarchical Tyranny

Here’s a simple fact: The corporation has what the employees need—money. If you don’t do the work, you won’t keep the job; if you don’t keep the job, you don’t earn money. And if you don’t earn money, you don’t eat. Hence, money becomes the first coercive element of corporate life. It is a tool of domination because it puts everyone on the edge of existential survival. This arrangement is not as immediately persuasive as a gun at your head, but it is darned close.

Many critics decry this problem by criticizing the individuals in the offices, and no doubt, in some cases that criticism is just. The more important point, however, is that most people live in this state of conflict most of the time because they don’t see any real choice. So most people bury the pain and the internal conflict. They go about doing the job as effectively as possible.

Three Outcomes of Hierarchical Offices

Let’s examine a few outcomes:

  • People are alienated from themselves. They spend most of their waking hours at work, and most of their best energy goes into their jobs. People do this even though their jobs are not aligned with their greatest self, their genius, or the contribution known as their life purpose. As a result, they often try to fool themselves, with the help of HR and leadership techniques, into believing in a bigger picture than what is actually there.
  • The paradigm of hierarchy quickly becomes habit. We learn at work to subsume and bury the greater part of our selves, thereby creating an inner tyranny in which job and duty trump heart and authenticity. Then, when faced with fear, is it any wonder that people turn to some abstract hierarchical notion—sometimes benign and other times enabling bigotry and hatred—and then live in accordance with the duty of that abstraction rather than the reality of the living human being?
  • We adopt the unconscious habit of oppression. The abstraction of the office and its habits of thought quickly become the unconscious habit of oppression, which all too often turns into a conscious practice of oppression at the personal level. At the organizational and societal level, the oppression is simply baked in to the hierarchy.

Ending Oppression

If we are going to end oppression, we must solve this split in the human experience. This hierarchical notion of bosses, duties, and offices is created by the offices and responsibilities of capitalism, and it must change. Otherwise, all the protests in the world may raise awareness, but change nothing. It’s not about “rights” anymore—it is about who human beings are and how they are shaped by a system bent on hierarchical exploitation.

Moving Forward

I am very weary of the criticisms and attacks on individual employees, including my many friends who work in the heart of capitalism. These criticisms are misplaced. Our challenge is not to change the people or individual action, but rather to change a system that inherently creates this paradigm of thought and perception.

I am curious to know: How have you experienced this tyranny of the office in your life, work, and community?

Posted in Capitalism, Postcapitalism and tagged , .

Anthony Signorelli is the author of Speculations on Postcapitalism, and other books. They are available as Ebooks on Amazon:

The Postcapitalist Manifesto
Speculations on Postcapitalism Ebook
How to Find Your Purpose, Passion, and Bliss: A Mythological Guide for Young Men