Art for From Punk House to Penthouse.
link, and you're a software engineer. / Thomas Hawk, Alex Barth
Amber A’Lee Frost,  September 7, 2016

From Punk House to Penthouse

Your officemates are awful—but even the revolution will have assholes

link, and you're a software engineer. / Thomas Hawk, Alex Barth


Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: [email protected]

Dear Your Sorry Ass,

Like many radicals, I assume, I burnt myself out in my early to mid-twenties trying to work on activist campaigns full time, and sold out a few years ago for an entry-level job at a software company. There are some legitimately great things about this job compared to being a full-time activist: the pay is great (by my standards), so I’m not living in a punk house with eight other people anymore. The work is meaningless, so I don’t think about it at all once I leave the office. The work is easy, so I have the time and energy to do art. And I don’t care about the success or failure of my work as long as I keep my job, so I get a perverse satisfaction out of feeling like every day of my life is a slow-down strike.

So while this job has been a huge plus for my physical and mental health, artistic expression, and financial solvency, I’ve got a serious case of poor-kid survivor’s guilt. Why should I be able to slack off and make a relatively comfortable wage when my mom worked ten times as hard while raising me and got paid half as much?

I’m also beleaguered by tech bros.

To be fair, only a couple of my coworkers neatly fit the description, and they’re usually easily avoided. But right now my desk sits right next to one, and he’s the worst: a twenty-eight-year-old with the personality of cardboard who requires his LinkedIn blog as training readings for his supervisees. He’s the sort of offensive shithead we’re supposed to accept as normal in this world: a guy who really, really likes money and wants more. The other day I overheard him on a call with someone whom I assume was a business partner discussing buying an apartment building in a poor neighborhood of town that’s a target for gentrification, kicking out all the tenants, and raising the rent. The open disdain for those tenants in his voice got my blood boiling.

When I was growing up, my mom and I rented from a long string of similar slumlords who pulled the exact same shit on us, and we had to move almost once a year until I was fifteen. It fucking sucked. Now I know that this guy I’ve worked with for years is one of them, and I can’t pretend to be pleasant, or even decent, to him anymore. But things can go badly for me if I’m “disrupting team morale.” Is this job even worth it? What do I do?

Your friend,

Barely Resisting Office Gentrifier’s Real Asshole Maneuver


Dear Barely Resisting,

Unfortunately, your workplace anxieties stem from the daily injustices of capitalism, and so while they are irrational, they can be difficult to assuage absolutely. This is at least partly due to a labor regime that compels us to spend far more time at work than is socially or psychologically beneficial—which means, in turn, that the neuroses born of our wage labor occupy a larger space in our psyche than they ever should. That said, it appears you have two problems here—both far more common than you’d think.

First of all, you don’t need to feel guilty about your job or your relatively easy and enjoyable life. Period. There is nothing noble about suffering for its own sake, and your own mother worked as hard as she did so that you might enjoy your life and have it easier.

I mean, what does the company you work for do? It’s true that there are no clean hands in a dirty world and that all workers are but mere cogs in a cruel and inescapable machine. And while it’s also true that some hands are dirtier than others, I cannot imagine the software you’re making is so unethical that it achieves a Blackwater level of perfidy. Is it scheduling software for Pinkertons? Some kind of payroll program for oil lobbyists? Security systems for Saudi Arabian dictators? Kim Kardashian’s app? No? Then you’re fine, and you should sleep soundly at night.

Activism is almost always a crushing and miserable career path, and should be undertaken long-term only by those who are truly invigorated by it—and yes, such aliens exist, God bless them. You can still be an activist in your spare time, which it sounds like you have now, and all the better—well-rested and happy activists get the goods.

As for your terrible coworker, well, them’s the breaks, kid. You work with a terrible person, and that is sadly not an experience confined to the tech sector. I know the industry has a reputation for brutes, boors, and bros, but you say most of your coworkers are alright? That ain’t nothin’. Even the most ideal or politically righteous workplace cannot control for assholes entirely.

Yes, even under full communism, we will still have assholes, and the two hours you spend a week leisurely building carbon-neutral robots may still have you working next to an asshole on the Glorious People’s Assembly Line. I’m sorry, but “asshole” is not a problem that can be cured by enlightened economic planning. It can help, but it’s ultimately a treatment for superficial symptoms, not a deep-seated cure.

Your best bet is to distance yourself from the guy whenever possible—and to work on tuning him out during the time that you find yourself in close quarters. There are some calming breathing exercises you can do right at your desk that can—if performed with diligence and care—prevent you from stabbing him in the neck with a pencil. I suggest you check them out.

You may never truly be free of your survivor’s guilt or your resentment of your coworker, but honestly, it sounds like your job is ideal—easy, comfortable, and unobtrusive. It doesn’t eat your life, and you don’t take it home with you. You’ve got a decent set-up, so enjoy your life—you deserve it, and your mother would approve.

Amber A'Lee Frost is a writer and musician in Brooklyn. She is a contributor to Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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