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A Stiff Upper Lip Doesn’t Make Politics Go Away

Iain Levison’s A Working Stiff Manifesto (2002) reads like a less political and more sardonic version of Barbara Ehrenreich’s tale of the working poor in America, Nickel and Dimed. The subtitle, A Memoir of Thirty Jobs I Quit, Nine that Fired me, and Three I Can’t Remember means that Levison gives a more detailed account of the working poor than Ehrenreich’s book just in terms of pure numbers. Levison’s experiences range from being a bartender in the freezing cold, being an (unintentional) agorist by providing illegal free cable, and to an assortment of blue collar jobs in Alaska — which he discusses at length.

Throughout the book Levison maintains a bit of distance from things. He’s engaging in what’s going on and makes copious bitter, and often simultaneously chuckle-worthy, observations about the work world that are worth paying attention to. Readers who are already familiar with the absurdity of modern corporate culture will not find much in Levison’s account surprising or astonishing. Most of the intrigue for me came from how Levison dealt with the obstacles that bosses and the corporate structure would put in his way and not the obstacles themselves.

In that sense, Levison’s tale really is a story and thus feels most at home when it is not attempting to diagnose the world’s problems or prescribe possible solutions to them. These attempts usually fall short and reinforce the notion that if Levison is going to play the fool for us throughout his narrative then he’s at his best when not breaking character. The most foolish thing he could do would be to make some sort of policy proposal or grandiose political statement at the end of the book. Fortunately, Levison does not attempt either and in keeping with the tone and themes of this book it is likely for the best.

Levison presents himself as a lower class working guy who wants to see if he can make it on his own through both freelance, minimum wage and other jobs in the general service area. His start often comes from the classified sections of newspapers. Early in the book Levison shows off his cynical understanding of corporate newspeak:

The problem is the guaranteed overtime. They are obviously understaffed and are trying to make it look like keeping me at work for fourteen hours a day will be doing me a favor. They’ll think because I answered this ad that I’m going to be enthusiastic about showing up on Sundays and holidays. “You wanted overtime,” they’ll crow, “isn’t that why you answered the ad?” I move down the page. (pp. 2-3)

And even when he has the job this only deepens Levison’s mental distance from the corporate world. Levison seems to know most of the tricks of the trade. For example, Levison discovers that a fish cutting store he works for is not willing to fire him despite his lack of relevant skills. He suspects this employer is not being honest about their reasons for keeping him on the job and argues that it is due to their need of people more than they actually need experienced people. He reasons that by the time the managers realize he doesn’t really know what he’s doing they’ll have to admit they made a mistake and they definitely can’t do that.

In the interview for the job itself no questions about fish cutting are even asked, and he is told he just needs to “present” himself well to customers. Which really means that you should bend your individual style to the management’s preferences and what they think customers respect or want. Other interviews consisted of a simple call up to a friend and making sure Levison can be in one place at a certain time. And in an interview for being a lobster catcher someone just asks him if he wants the job — it’s as simple as that.

But the interviews almost never determine how qualified levison is or how likely he is to actually enjoy the job. No matter how easy the interview, whether it’s for a friend, a small shop or a corporate chain Levison usually has pretty big problems with given job.

A particularly interesting example is when Levison decides to help a friend who is trying to set up a movie. Despite being a small-scale, independent project, done by people who seem to know each other to some extent, most people involved treat each other with hostility.

Levison’s summary of the situation is frank and stunning in its verbal potency:

Corey, the lighting guy, the actors, they’ve all given up. This crap film is to them what applying for a job a a fish counter is to me. But here, there is some unwritten rule that you can’t admit that you’ve given up. A very strict rule. Rule One: Whatever you do, never stop bullshitting yourself that you’re important. Rule One keeps a lot of people sane. (9)

What does Levison do to get away from this job? He walks away in the middle of performing a task for some people who he thinks are being incredibly rude to him and decides he’ll be at a nearby coffee shop and just watches the carnage from the steps.

This illustrates two frequent occurrences in Levison’s book: emotional distance and knowing when to walk away.

Unlike Ehrenreich who seems to really feel for her fellow workers, Levison often seems to understand but either does not really care, will write it off or just adds a cynical note to the suffering going on around him. Not that he does this to obnoxious extents. He’ll make friends where he can and he’s not out to get any one or kick them while they are down. But there are certainly times when Levison decides it’s best if he doesn’t risk his own hide or get too involved.

For example, when he works an outside oyster bar in the cold with a younger guy named Patrice. Patrice asks for some coke mixed bourbon (Levison remarks he’s unsure if this is legal but also wonders how legal the working conditions are) and before you know it Patrice is yelling about winning their boss’s daughter’s affections. Levison, at first, tries to calm him down and get him to help break down the cart that they have outside. But after he gets paid and comes back outside to see that Patrice is up near the daughter’s window he decides to get out of there.

Knowing when to walk away also comes in handy when you’ve got money schemes every where you look. Levison comes across multiple listings or recalls tales of other listings that turn out to be fakes. Examples include ads that promise money for bartending, but which turn out to be from a bartending school.

There’s also a job listed with the credentials of an English degree being preferred and ex-military being a plus only to have it turn out to be one of the most cult-like sales pitch for selling water filters ever seen:

Mike walks over to a tap and pours some tap water into a beaker, then screws on a water filter and pours some more into a different beaker. He takes a full syringe full of clear liquid and squeezes two drops of whatever is in the syringe into each beaker. The tap water turns purple. The filter water stays clear.

“THIS IS WHAT YOUR CHILDREN ARE DRINKING!” he thunders.

You can’t get much more scientific than that. (36)

Levison has a great response to what he sees going on around him and it sums up a lot of his attitudes towards the jobs he constantly keeps walking off:

People after my money always have an interesting way of describing it, as if my money was just a pain in my ass. Nobody who wants you to buy something from them reminds you how many days you had to get up early an drag your ass into work, how much humiliation you had to endure from abusive bosses and the eternally irritated public, just so you could earn that money. (38)

This distrust of authority colors Levison’s general experience and makes the reader much more interested in his journey as he goes from one job to the next. He knows the rules of the corporations, he knows how jobs works, but damn if he won’t try to make them work for himself too. And when they don’t? He walks.

Situations in which the job in question does not result in Levison walking or being let go are few and far between, but one of the more promising jobs that he held was hooking people up with illegal cable television. Often theses are people who simply wanted free cable or were previously harassed by the cable companies.

Here, Levison offers a perfectly good service, for a low rate (he charges one guy only $50 for a job that takes him only a few minutes to do and will give the client many hours of entertainment) and doing so rather casually and informally.

First, he does it for a friend and then a friend of that friend and then their cousins and well, you get the idea. Eventually Levison is providing free cable to the community and with no regard for government regulations, paying taxes on his income or following any legal codes that may be involved.

Levison’s rationale for this enterprise fits very comfortably within the tradition of agorism:

Contrary to what the ads would have you believe, stealing cable is an act of civil disobedience which would make Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi proud. The word “pirates” is often ascribed to cable thieves, a word used by the media, most of which are owned by the same people who own the cable networks. They try to convince us that the cable thieves are eroding American morality. Closing profitable factories, laying off hundreds of workers and reopening the factories in Mexico with cheaper labor is not indicative of an erosion of morality. Paying mushroom pickers four dollars an hour is not illegal. Watching Pop-up Video for free, now that’s a crime. (47)

Here, Levison shows an interesting mix of criticizing the illegality and morality conflation that many people often make but also implies that things like workers wages should be authorized by law instead of community organizing. Regardless, Levison’s point about illegal cable is definitely on point and helped him justify his agorist activities. Unfortunately this job does not last long for him, due to having a limited reach, audience and transportation ability.

As the book goes on though Levison tries to play the game more and more to see just how well off he can be.

At first he tries to just get by and see if he can get away with stealing, being generally disinterested in moving up or ascending to any certain role. But as we get to chapter three we see Levison acquiescing (albeit unenthusiastically) to a chance at moving up the corporate ladder in a restaurant. And before Levison knows it, one of the managers hears he is “interested” in a management position. When asked how much money he would like to make as a manager he list an outrageous amount far above and beyond what any of the other managers are making. Somehow they not only take it under consideration (even though Levison meant it as a signal that he was not serious), but give him the job.

Ironically, within two days of this promotion, Levison is let go/quits. This is partly due to all of the blame being put on him for anything that goes wrong — even if he had nothing to do with it. He is given way too many duties and not enough time to do them. Consequently the higher-ups blame him for not being able to keep up even though they probably would not be able to do it themselves.

Levison tries to keep up but he just can’t compete with, what Kevin Carson has called, “authority’s tendency to engage in magical thinking“:

“We’re not paying you this kind of money to just wander around,” he tells me. “Call another restaurant and get them to lend us some grease.”

This makes sense, and while I am doing it, he comes in and screams about the lettuce.

“We’ve got lettuce rotting in the back of the freezer! Why aren’t you rotating it?”

“I’ve been making onion rings, I tell him. You’re not supposed to be making onion rings. You’re supposed to be managing. Get someone else to make the onion rings I want you watching the lettuce and fry oil quality!”
He’s living in a dreamworld. We’re fresh out of employees. He thinks we have prep cooks lined up drying to work. In reality, if we’ve got three prep shifts a week covered, I’m happy. (59)

The bottom line for Levison is that he’d rather scratch by and have more time to himself, than be a manager, over-worked, have too many duties and responsibilities, and then blamed when he can’t keep up. I’ve heard other people who, when promoted, only get marginally more pay and just end up being saddled with disproportionately more things to do than otherwise. You may be higher up the hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean you’re still not being shit on.

It turns out though that even Levison’s attempts to be distant from hierarchy, but still gaming it, eventually subsumes him while in Alaska.

Working in Alaska is probably the biggest part of the book, it covers Levison working multiple jobs. Working at Rayford Seafoods doing fishery work, loading boxes on a ship, putting fish onto a conveyor belt and trying to net crabs on the rough oceans.

A shift in Levison happens during his time of working on a ship called the Royal Garden while he is working the freezer room with a kid named William. William has a bad home life and seems to be there because he wants the money to get away from his bad home life. He has a reputation already for being a slow worker and fairly apathetic about most things.

Instead of wanting to show some slacker solidarity with William, Levison in his role as a supervisor of the freezer room takes it as a challenge:

I’m gonna turn this kid around. By the time I’m through with him, he’s going to love these boxes, he’s going to protest when they tell him to take a break. This is my freeze and down here we work or we freeze. (p. 120)

This is a total 180 from where Levison was coming from before. He would slack, lie, cheat, steal and do just about whatever it took to get into a job, stay at a job or get away from a job. Levison was not concerned with dirty hands but he sure didn’t seem to want to dirty other people’s hands unless they wanted to get involved. In this case though he seems to have accepted his institutional role as supervisor (of a freezer) and use that role to its fullest advantage.

That full advantage consists of Levison first trying to reason, then yelling and finally being loud and obnoxious towards William.

Eventually, Levison breaks down:

I stack my box and another of his falls. “Dickhead, pick up your boxes! This isn’t break time!” I’ve never worked with anyone before who has achieved his level of apathy. I’m not giving up. He’s my personal experiment, and I’m going to turn him into a finely tuned, box-stacking machine. “Get your box!”

He sits and stares. I walk over to him and put my face in his face. “Get your box! Get your box! Get your box! GET YOUR GODDAMNED MOTHERFUCKING PIECE OF SHIT BOX!

He gets up and wordlessly gets back to his work. (pp. 120-1)

Here, Levison has completed his transition.

He has gone from a slacker, a short-lived agorist and a general embodiment of skepticism and rebellion towards work to the person who is only begrudgingly going along with going up the ladder and, now, to someone who has embraced his role as a supervisor. Those of us who are rebelling against this system can only shake our heads in disappointment.

Levison then proceeds to enthusiastically embrace it by going on and on about what work can do for William and what it will do for Levison himself. He admits that he is too wrapped up in his own enthusiasm, but makes no other self-aware commentary in retrospect.

This situation highlights the biggest flaw with Levison and his book: He doesn’t seem to recognize the inherent flaws that come with hierarchy, corporations and the modern economy. He treats work as an annoyance. Something that is systematically wrong, but, in the end, not something that should be subverted but placated or weaseled around in minor ways. Levison, towards the end of the book does not give us any answers or try to, unlike Ehrenreich does in Nickel and Dimed. He does not give any insight on policy reforms, any bottom up labor movements that could spring, how to revitalize some sort of unionization of workers or how to turn the world around from the way it seems to be going.

In the end Levison stops short of offering much in the way of solutions. He gives us much to think about, to complain about and things to grapple with that he notices on his travels. But offers us little solace, besides the chuckles, we can have for ourselves. All the while we try to convince ourselves that we’re not just laughing at our own lives that seem so dominated by work.

To be sure, it is not an entirely bad thing that Levison doesn’t engage in trying to advocate solutions. It seems probable that his failure to call people to action is part of his own sardonic sense and his lack of interest or hope in a future. There are no long-term investments in the world for Levison. And with that in mind it makes no sense for Levison to give out breadcrumbs to the rest of us insincerely. Levison is anything but insincere about his opinions throughout the book when he addresses us, so why stop there?

It’s hard not to come away from the book rather dazed and confused about what exactly there is to be done or what Levison wanted us to get out of it. We may now recognize work as a systematic problem, that contracts in the current market are largely constructed by and for the benefit of employers, that state regulations only do so much to protect workers from exploitation (read: not much) and so on. But what’s to be done about this? Again, Levison offers us little in the way of solutions or solace and perhaps that’s for the best.

Because Levison’s book isn’t about solutions, raising political movements or trying to get out of being a “working stiff”. It’s instead recognizing the absurdity of it all and diving headlong into it with few regrets and just seeing how “stiff” you can be while still reclaiming your soul. Levison isn’t trying to start a revolution or even start local movements, he’s just chronicling the awful effects that work has had on people that he’s noticed. Giving us solutions would ruin the jester persona that Levison seems to have adopted.

Instead of taking his respectable place as another useful anti-authoritarian jester, Levison seems to prefer a two-piece suit.

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