In which I use the philosophy of anarchism to remind myself that I am a human being who has intrinsic value outside of work, a concept which violates the core principles of the past 20 years of my life.
(The title is theoretical–the point is that of course I deserve to live. Don’t get all freaked.)
I’ve been deep into anarchism since high school, when I was involved in a weird, messy (they all are) animal rights group. Everyone in the group was an anarchist, an Ayn Rand-style objectivist (there are no other kind of objectivists), or heavily into animal rights for Jewish reasons, which was strange because it was Phoenix, Arizona in the 1990s and even though my mother was the editor of the local Jewish paper, Jews were hard to come by. We all met for dinners of eggplant in garlic sauce followed by tofu cheesecake with canned cherry topping at the local Supreme Master Ching Hai restaurant. Now SMCH restaurants (138 and counting) are all called Loving Hut. They make a mysteriously and supremely blue French toast. I used to meditate with the restaurant workers on Saturday mornings. They said that if we felt a light shining on us while meditating it was Supreme Master Ching Hai giving us a special blessing and calling on us to become true disciples of hers. Supreme Master Ching Hai was and is a young, flawlessly complexioned woman of beautifically-smiling variety. Sometimes if I’m traveling and see a Loving Hut I duck in to see her face in London or Chicago, and it makes me feel warm in a way nothing else from my childhood ever has.
(Wikipedia tells me that in Biscayne National Park, Supreme Master Ching Hai is currently “known locally as a wealthy property owner under the pseudonym Celestia De Lamour.”)
Like every activist group, infighting was mostly what we did. The standard fights over “animal welfare” (people who believe caged hens should have bigger cages) and “animal rights,” (people who believe all effort should go toward dismantling meat-eating and animal use completely). But we managed some successful campaigns, and a lot of “tabling.” Endless fucking tabling. When I dropped out of activism in college I thought I’d never table again. I didn’t realize that owning a small food business meant endless tabling. As I write this I just got home from an 18-hour day of tabling that began at 4 am. Tabling never ends. I’m almost 40 and I’ve been putting together tabling kits (Sharpies! Rocks as paperweights!) since I was fifteen. My shins are never not bruised from popping open cheap folding tables. I keep hiring people and keep trying to push tabling onto them but there’s always more tabling than there are people, or there’s some event I “should” do because the food will be really good or it’ll be “good for the brand.” The food is never really good. The food is always awful.
In Phoenix in the late 1990s, the anarchists and the objectivists didn’t get along, but I was small and impressionable and became a weird mix of all of them—a little Jewish, obsessed with the idea of true right and wrong and the need to always do right according to my own internal conscience (I am the fountainhead, dude), not whatever lies religion or society or “the man” tells me are important, equally obsessed with the idea that religion and society and the man are concepts invented to brainwash me. All that, and 23 years later I’m still vegan. Concerned Arizonans for Animal Rights and Ethics did a number on me.
In college I studied the formal philosophy of anarchism (dead white dudes plus ever-tokenized Emma Goldman) for one insufferable semester. After that I relied on zine culture to teach me everything I needed to know about the guiding organizing philosophy of my existence, and, as they always do whether you need to know how to give yourself an abortion or make a good vegan biscuit, zines filled in the gaps.
I started working for myself because what anarchist has a boss? That was in 2001. It’s 2017 and over the past 16 years I’ve been a boss to 67 people (fired only one, softly fired two in ways in which they didn’t realize they were being fired, currently employing 25). I never wanted to be a boss and for a long time I hated it. It was scratchy to me for reasons personal—I was awful at it, I resented having to learn how to be better—and philosophical —I didn’t believe in it). In 2013 I decided to get good at it, and I did.
The whole thing still makes me slightly itchy—when will I know how big to let the business get before capping its growth so I don’t become a real capitalist? I used to think when we made enough money to pay everyone better and pay off business debt we’d reach a comfy plateau and live there, snottily turning away sales, focusing on quality. I’d spend my days fucking around with breathtakingly unpopular recipes that pleased only me and ensuring my staff enjoyed their jobs. I pictured days off, hours spent traipsing in the forest foraging for herbal tea ingredients for the café and wild berries for new chocolates, working at a human pace, money for all the packaging and graphic design projects the business constantly demands.
But I don’t see us ever getting there. I want too many things. I want to buy super high quality, ethically-sourced ingredients. I want to give my employees paid vacations, benefits, better wages by many dollars an hour (salaries!). I want to use only totally eco-friendly packaging materials, safe cleaning chemicals, renewable energy and put a new roof on the chocolate shop building made of good materials. And I’m still struggling to pay payroll every two weeks. Lots of money comes in, and a just barely marginally smaller amount flows out. This wouldn’t bother me—my personal bills are small, I think it’s cool to have a business that doesn’t make much money, but running the business according to my principles means we need to make a lot of money. So we work to get more efficient without sacrificing our principles, and slowly we’re all teaching each other how to run a profitable business, a little against our will.
We’re trying to game the system so we can beat capitalism at its own game—make enough money to not have to worry so much about making money—and it’s disgustingly obvious that’s the oldest scam around. I’m in the hamster wheel. It’s where I live.
So I try to teach myself how to do it with some shred of a heart, at least.
I haven’t yet come across a zine about being an anarchist boss (and even though I identify as one I feel squirrely about such a thing ever existing), but there are, weirdly, a pretty huge amount of books about it, considering the two concepts by definition live in exact opposition.
Real anarchists (ones whose lives aren’t spent in breathless pursuit of making money) viciously hate the culture of “conscious capitalism” that’s sprung up recently: capitalists with hearts trying to find a way to co-exist having a strong sense of ethics with endgame oligarchic neoliberal capitalism and/or business people who see “ethics” as a good selling point. B-corps, certified green restaurants, organic and fair-trade logos—a humungous subculture of certification systems have sprung up to prove to customers that the shit they’re buying was produced with at least minimal thought about how it got to you. Most of it is junk, and anarchists point out that by definition, in a capitalist system the owners of the means of production cannot (most often, legally, if you’re a corporation) care about anything except shareholder value, and gripe that if all these caring people cared so much, they’d be tearing down capitalism instead of half-heartedly remaking it in a slightly softer image. It’s animal rights versus animal welfare all over again, and now I’m on the wrong side. I’m at work every day building us a bigger cage.
They’re right and I could care less. I don’t have twenty years to devote to the revolution. I need a better life for me and my customers and workers right now. So I read these embarrassing books. I devoted myself to “lapsed anarchist” Ari Weinzweig’s series of books Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading (four books that are surprisingly fascinating, full of heart, with true anarchist principles at their core), and a lot of other books by people with some sort of heart who also run successful businesses (see bibliography below), and I fucking went for it. I learned to be a good boss. Flexible but with high standards. Caring but not a pushover. Every day is a struggle, but I’m so much better than I was, and my extraordinarily employee retention proves it.
From the outside, the system is working well. I’ve become a good boss, I’m OK with being a boss, the businesses are running smoothly. I run a small chocolate company I founded in 2003, co-own a café, and co-own a retail confectionery shop in Manhattan. I just got a book contract for a chocolate cookbook, due next June.
(I feel the need to say that I don’t do much work for any of these businesses, even though that’s ludicrous. I feel like I barely work, but am so tired at the end of the day. I want to tell you that the chocolate company is truthfully run by the three managers & eight chocolatiers and I show up sporadically and am generally a pain / nag-in-chief / dad-joke maker, and that the café is run by an amazing manager and seven perfect barista-chefs, and that the retail shop in Manhattan is mostly run by my first ever-employee, who we somehow roped back into the fold after she escaped for a few years. This is all true. But I still work hard every day. Food businesses demand so much. Small businesses demand so much.)
Also and mostly:
My mom died almost two years ago after me taking care of her while she died of cancer in front of me for a year (three months later I threw myself into opening the café and Manhattan shop, giving myself no time to grieve), I live with three slowly dying cats, support a brother in LA who is homeless and on the autism spectrum, and have no other family. In the past five years I’ve committed myself to getting a handle on perfectionistic and other generally unhealthy / variously bonkers personality traits borne of a childhood with a physically and mentally abusive drug dealer father who threatened to kill my mother, brother, and I routinely, the trauma of which remained resolutely unreconstructed and unprocessed until I started therapy five years ago.
Most of all, my romantic life (there has to be a better phrase for it than that)—which had been a stable star for the past twenty years, giving me peace and calm when my work and family sky was dark and littered with uncertainty and change—has been in a breathtakingly complicated and depressing shambles for months.
Some days it’s manageable, and I think I’m the toughest goddamn vegan anarcho-feminist on the planet, winning at everything but not in a gross Trump way, living my lefty politics on glorious levels. I walk the two blocks between the chocolate shop and the café, valiantly attempting to split myself in half, four or seven or nine times a day, and the beauty of each astonishes me. I send my brother just enough money to stay borderline safe, wishing I could afford to rent an apartment for him, wishing he’d take my advice and talk to the social workers I set up for him. I have a deeply loving and loyal close knit friend network who keep me propped up with texts to see how I’m managing, demands that I go on walks with them to pour out my woes, who always pick up the phone when I call them in tears, who mail me CBD vape pens with just enough THC in them to be questionably legal (which gently turn down the volume on the stress-distress enough to get through the day but only make my mind fuzzy if I over-puff, which I did last week and kept asking, while the chocolate shop managers and I were interviewing a potential seasonal packaging assistant, “Um, what’s your ideal working style? Wait, did anyone ask this question yet?” and Adrienne had to keep saying, “No one has asked any questions yet.”)
And also. In the past two months people close to me have called 911 on me twice because of breakdowns brought on by extreme stress, and I’ve had to spend the day in crisis psych wards, convincing the mental health overlords that I’m sane enough to go home.
Apparently I need new responses to stress.
Apparently the thing with me, I’m realizing, is that I truly don’t think I deserve to live unless I cross out everything on my to-do list every day. Which not only is objectively impossible, but means I’m not giving myself psychic or actual time and space to manage the personal crises.
So let’s go. The last two months have scared the shit out of me (read back on this blog and you’ll see that the previous 20 or so weren’t so hot neither). I’m done being a wreck. I’m totally committed to the project of making me a human being again.
I’m doing a lot of things. A lot of new lists. Topping up Omega 3s, turmeric for when the brain gets inflamed, saffron for calming, ashwaganda for depression, the DBT Workbook for remapping brain patterns, the Headspace app for meditation, therapy every week instead of every other week, texting my witchy support network-coven even more than I already do. Aerobic exercise! 8 hour work days, 5 days a week (ha!)! Limiting social media (haha)! XTREME MINDFULNESS!
It’s all helping. Since the last stay in the walk-in loony bin (well, OK, I was brought there in an ambulance and screamed at the very kind and gentle state troopers who arranged said chariot for me HOW MANY BLACK PEOPLE HAVE YOU KILLED TODAY when they told me that for my own safety and according to their protocols they had to force me to go to the hospital and no, I couldn’t just go back to work [my best friend, who was driving me to therapy in an attempt to convince the cops I was OK, widened her eyes and put her hand on my shoulder in a gesture of petrified terror. We worked all our cute-girl white privilege angles, and they continued being soft with us, even when the ambulance driver was loading me onto the stretcher and I yelled BLACK LIVES MATTER.])
I know I have to make so many changes. I’ve been paralyzingly depressed since this spring, and probably months before that, and it’s time. I’m exhausted by feeling awful every day.
So my next thing on the list is anarchy. Omegas and turmeric and mindfulness and meditation and masturbation and anarchy. OK.
* * *
I’ve been real good about shoving anarchist principles into my business life. So I’ll start there.
Basically, anarchism reminds me to give up power as often as I can.
Anarchism reminds me that we can decide how we want to run the business, we don’t have to hew to traditional capitalist ideas of what a business can look like. When I train new employees at the café and chocolate shop I blab on about how I try to run the business with some anarchist principles (I’m aware I’m insufferable, yep), I tell them, “anarchism is about a positive perception of humanity: that if left alone without authoritarian structures and hierarchies pressing on them, people want to do the right thing and typically will. My job as your boss is to help you learn how to make the right choices here and to support your work and our mutual success.”
It’s good, it’s a nice thing to say. So now I’m trying to say it to myself. Every morning I get RuPaul on my sad ass: If you don’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love anyone else? I do love myself, lots. But, ah, the love I have for myself seems to be completely contingent on crushingly hard work and impossibly perfectionistic standards. Or something? How well do you know yourself?
I love systems. But maybe the systems I’m addicted to are the ones the corporatist capitalist oligarchy wants me to be addicted to? Maybe it’s weird that this Jew secretly thinks that the mantra above Auschwitz, (which might as well be the official American slogan) “Work Sets You Free,” is kind of a great life motto? Maybe I can use anarchy to get me out of this junk head.
(Here’s what five years of therapy will get you: I’ll tell you in two sentences why I’m like this: as a kid my escape route was to be perfect, and it worked: my dad screamed at me less and beat me up less because I was perfect, I got a good scholarship to a faraway college because of perfect grades—perfection and nonstop work saved my life, so why would I turn away from these best friends when no one’s threatening my life every day? Lacking my dad for the past twenty years, I of course became him, threatening myself with hatred of various sorts if the perfection isn’t always turned up to max. Those two sentences cost me many thousands of dollars in therapy money! Reread em! Therapist O’ Mine, why don’t u take Obamacare?)
I believe that everyone in the world deserves to live because life is intrinsically valuable. I’m vegan for the same reason. I want tight gun control for the same reason. I want men to be socialized radically differently for the same reason (because men are the primary killers on this planet).
Life is valuable. Except for mine. I deserve to live, apparently, only when I’m perfect.
Is it really so simple. I sorta think it is so simple. Women and other Othered beings in an christo-fascist capitalist state are mean to themselves in quiet and deep and horrific ways, we know this. Socialization in a patriarchy, blah blah. But I have a degree in feminism, and aren’t supposed to fall prey to this garbage (I perf!). Oh fuckkkkkk it’s just a snake eating its own tail forever, isn’t it?
I move through the world measuring everyone else’s value to the planet as intrinsic, basic, obvious just because they lucked into being alive, but I don’t give myself the same courtesy. I know it’s bullshit, yet it is actually also my religion. Productivity is godliness.
So I’ve been reading a lot of anarchist garbage, trying to get back to my roots. I read one essay saying that work is the source of all misery in the world and we need to re-order our society around play. It kept referring to “the ludic life.” I felt twitchy and instantly superior. I hate play. Have fun, lazy punks! I’ll be over here WRITING BOOKS.
Without a doubt, capitalism has normalized the structure of work to enforce, consolidate, and grow its power. Without work, the system would collapse.
(A lot of the books on the second list below have some good ideas on what happens then—when we demolish work and the capitalist trap, ways to restructure society around voluntary labor for the common good [some of these are, naturally insane—one essay I read suggests kids who like to play in dirt volunteer to clean toilets in public spaces—but some of them are useful], a guaranteed salary for everyone, wage capping for the highest earners, turning over control of transportation and banking and health care and other industries directly to people—but let’s not get that far yet, because, uh, there’s no point. We’re not going to abolish work.)
Capitalism is made of work.
So am I, a bonkers workaholic, made of capitalism?
Capitalism traps us into thinking that our consumer choices—the fonts and cars and shoes and the clean lines of midcentury modern chairs we like—constitute difference that proclaim uniqueness and specialness as humans. “In other words, because individuals can pick and choose in the marketplace they are able to express their true wishes.” (Peter Fleming, The Mythology of Work, p. 198) But we are unique as humans and intrinsically special no matter what the chairs in our houses look like.
Fuck. I’m so guilty of this one. My shops, my house, my clothes—all are curated to signify a very certain very specific taste up the goddamn wazoo. I like my things. I identify with them. I grew up in dirty and sad houses, and a nice environment makes me feel safe, calm, in control, nourished and nursed by beauty.
Is just becoming aware of all this garbage enough? Can I constantly remind myself that I am something without work? What is that something?
Many of the things I do for work I do because I like, so I’ve made them my work. Little calligraphy projects, making candy, making food, arranging words. I like these things outside of a transactional context. But in order to be able to do them I’ve had to do them in exchange for money, because death-capitalism demands that everything we do be exchanged for capital. Small business life demands the same.
Is there a way to preserve the joy I take in my job while not deriving all of my-self worth from crossing things off a list every day? Is there a way to get the same joy I get from work from life, to give the civilian parts of my day as much weight as the parts that are discipline and results-oriented?
When I was a kid I walked around my house—full of junkies and scary people lying on the living room floor, a Grateful Dead skull and roses mirror with lines of cocaine balanced on stacks of The New Yorker, crumbly joints and splintering drum sticks and shotgun shells and guitar picks and paperback novels and cockroaches and roach clips on every surface, minimally litterbox-trained cats roaming around—with a little bag, carefully putting things into it that I felt were out of place, to be moved to a tidier home. My mom reminded me of this often when she saw me puttering at work, pushing the plates of chocolates to the front of the display case in sharp rows, slicing scallions into pin-neat diagonals. Everything just so. Control out of chaos. Control is all.
After September 11th everyone wanted comfort food. Sometimes things are just too hard not to want the softness. Mac & cheese life while you get your head on straight. Self-soothing is the therapy term for putting things in the bag. It’s not bad to do. When I feel sad or scared, I know that reorganizing a closet or bookshelf is a metonymic way to set the world back on its axis.
But you can’t live in metaphor forever. At some point you have to start actually living.
Books About Running A Business With Some Shred of Ethics
Good Morning, Beautiful Business by Judy Wicks
Growing A Business by Paul Hawken
Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business by Ari Weinzweig
Ben & Jerry’s Double Dip by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield
Books About How Work Is A Crock
Abolish Work: “Abolish Restaurants” plus “Work, Community, Politics, War” (two short essays in one book) – anonymous
Work by Crimethinc Collective
The Problem with Work by Kathi Weeks
The Mythology of Work by Peter Fleming
The Abolition of Work by Bob Black
Let’s Destroy Work, Let’s Destroy the Economy by Alfredo M. Bonanno