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The Perpetual Sales Pitch

Hi, hello, how are you, hi, hello. / Photo by thetaxhaven
Hi, hello, how are you, hi, hello. / Photo by thetaxhaven

A farmer grows fruit, a carpenter builds a chair. The fruit is fresh or foul, the chair sturdy or flimsy. Either way, the marketplace decides. Relative quality is apparent: the slickest of salesmen will have trouble selling rotten apples if there is decent fruit to be had nearby. And what of those who sell themselves? A banker goes to an interview, a consultant writes a resume: the shinier packaging gets hired.

The history of economic instruments follows a pattern of abstraction. Our understanding of value and production has become steadily less concrete: from price defined by barter (five apples for one of your chairs) to common currency; from the farmer’s stockhouse to the broker’s Stock Exchange; from marketplace to office space. For a large segment of the modern job economy, where teamwork conceals most individual contributions and success or failure are spun in press releases, successful job applicants are rarely hired for concrete, objective reasons. Since the inception of the modern business, successful job applicants have demonstrated the ability to maintain a robust network of friends and charmed their interviewers by marshaling abstract events to tell their story.

Indeed these skills will be essential to the job. Consultants are not expected to stop networking and selling themselves once they’re on the company dime. After all, there will be clients to win over. Rich clients who will pat themselves on the back for hiring such bright-eyed young men and women to protect their fortunes so they can afford to keep buying their fruit organic. And the young believers realize the truth—that they can never stop selling themselves.

Theodor Adorno diagnosed this more than fifty years ago when he argued that “the private lives of countless people are becoming those of agents and go-betweens; indeed the entire private domain is being engulfed by a mysterious activity that bears all the features of commercial life without there being actually any business to transact.” Business becomes a mode of living rather than a periodic activity. Each of us is a perpetual salesman—that sterling American archetype—selling our business, selling ourselves. Adorno’s assessment may have been overreaching when he wrote it over sixty years ago in the Minima Moralia when private lives were not self-documented online, but today, when our private lives have become public, explicit sources of economic advancement—everything from the personality we express to the friends we keep—Adorno seems spot on.

If we’re expected to treat our subjective selves as commodities, it’s not much of a leap to do the same for one’s friends. The online networking site LinkedIn harnesses the energy that Adorno describes, while ensuring that its radiation penetrates every aspect of our lives. When you first create a LinkedIn account, you are prompted to connect with everyone in your email address book. Friends become levers, and friendship leverage. We’re not trading apples anymore; we’re advertising our economic worth to each other.

Surely friends have always helped each other find jobs, and they have always measured each other by the returns received. Since Glaucus and Diomedes traded gifts of armor on the plains of Troy, we have known that the thought is not all that counts (Glaucus gave gold for Diomedes’s bronze). Friendship has never been innocent of economics. But if the possibility of a sincere, uncompensated friendship is a myth, it is a necessary one. We could do with fewer cynical reminders to the contrary.

Despite all its potential to liberate the masses from the suffocation of silence and connect them to each other, the Internet is an obligation and a liability as much as it’s an opportunity. As Adorno wrote, we are stalked by the desire to “ingratiate [ourselves] with the executive [we] imagine omnipresent, and soon there is no relationship that is not seen as a ‘connection,’ no impulse not first censored as to whether it deviates from the acceptable.”

What Adorno feared in his own time—that omnipresent executive hovering in everyone’s mind—LinkedIn and Google reify in ours. We learn to control what is broadcast about us, and we are encouraged to leverage our personal relationships in service of a more efficient economy. Expression and connection have been anesthetized and professionalized. God is dead, but the search bar hovers over all. And there is such a thing as bad press—ranging from religious or political beliefs to odd hobbies that you might prefer not to mention in an interview. The executive sees everything. Keep Googling your name and pray that it’s still clean.

Whether employed or not, all the young technocrats—scrubbing their profiles and leveraging their networks, setting up a table in the marketplace of selves and putting out advertisements—constitute a new economic class. If the Internet requires you to present the same data to the entire world—a mosaic of images patterned into one face beneath the search bar—you will aim for the story that keeps you employed.

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