Today finds me, dear readers, in a particularly good mood! Having spent a good number of happy years on the dealing floor of a big bank, I’m heading to another one, and relishing the prospect of several months gardening leave. This is one of the more pleasant side effects of working for gigantic, bureaucratic, paranoid institutions staffed by the risk averse. Despite my general goodwill towards all, my former employer’s paranoia that I would steal clients/knowledge/whatever else forces them to effectively pay me to sit here blogging about my ongoing battle with capitalism rather than working out my notice period. Naturally, they are doing their best to withhold any salary they can , but I’ve no ill will towards them on that score – after all they are responsible to their shareholders. As I leave the firm, I wanted to offer some reflections. People often ask me what it’s like for someone “like me” working for a bank, and it has been interesting! But more than that, I have some recommendations for those who struggle with working under capitalism on how to manage it from a personal perspective. I hope you find them useful!
For starters, I’ve always cast my working life not as a “career” but as a constant negotiation with capital. My starting point is that any employer, being an agent of capitals interests, will be out to get as much possible value from my effort as they can, and share as little of the monetary value of that effort as they can with me. This is not a matter of them being evil and me being righteous, it’s simply a fact of the kinds of institutions that dominate our economic world. As such, I resolved very early on, that I would only make such efforts as I knew would either satisfy me personally, or get me paid better. In my thinking, there is no place for sucking up to ones boss, spending late nights at the office, or other such display activities. I expect to be paid my replacement cost, discounted by the likelihood of my finding alternative employment. At the start of my career, there were few vacancies and many unemployed market makers – so being paid a steep discount to my replacement cost was expected, and I took that wage with no hard feelings whilst my colleagues groused endlessly. One thing that’s amazed me throughout my career is the extent to which capitalist ideology makes my colleagues shocked, SHOCKED!, to discover that they are exploited by the firms they work for. The amount of times I was told “I worked so hard, I DESERVED to get paid this year!” – as though that should have anything to do with it – was bizarre. Perhaps there is a premium to be gained by signalling unhappiness to ones management, though I’ve not seen much evidence for this. What I have seen is the toxic effects on individuals mindset and life satisfaction from really being unhappy. It is a tragic waste. Recognising the reality of the relationship one has with an employer, that they are engaged in exploiting your labour, is very freeing on a personal level.
This is not to say that one should not negotiate aggressively with ones employer, or be satisfied with less. I would always counsel people to stick up for themselves. One of the favorite methods that managers, acting out their role as enforcers for the interests of capitalists, like to use is to appeal to employees decency. The sad reality of such an approach is that the manager and the employee are ALSO having a real relationship, alongside the role that the manager is playing. In my experience, good managers understand this and are open and honest about the role they play in order to be able to also have a real relationship. That takes emotional intelligence, empathy and integrity – attributes sadly lacking in the investment banking world, but luckily so valuable that those who exhibit them can and do succeed wildly. Managers who don’t separate the two, which is most, end up poisoning their relationships with employees by mixing roles and including the demands of capital in their social discourse with employees. That sucks both for the employees and the manager, unnecessarily making both miserable. The method that I’ve found that consistently works is to force an understanding of the separation of roles as quickly as possible. It may sound hard, but telling your manager “I expect to be paid my replacement cost and will act accordingly, I am not relying on your goodwill” is an honest and useful thing. This was a conversation I had early on with the boss that I am quitting on, and straightened our relationship out very well. Of our team, I was the only one they did not undermine or bully – because they understood that my self esteem and expected compensation was not tied to their approval. This was a very valuable experience for me, as it’s the first time for a few years I’ve had a ‘bad’ manager and so needed to implement my theory about how to deal with it and it worked well.
I put bad in inverted commas, because the skills that are required to manage well are in short supply. I do not begrudge any individual with a lack of emotional intelligence or empathy, such a person could and should be valuable and useful if working with sympathetic people in a framework of honesty and trust. Unfortunately, creating such conditions under capitalism is not easy! Still, we must try. I don’t mind sharing that the initial shock of the conditions at my previous employer caused me serious problems. For a while, I felt quite confused – believing that I was merely struggling to adjust to a new city and situation and it would right itself. Depression, anger and self destructive behaviour followed. Mercifully not for long. Upon realising that something was deeply wrong in my work environment, I resolved to try and do something constructive about it. My efforts were mostly unsuccessful. I like to think that there are some deep cultural problems that there was no chance I could make a dent in, perhaps I am just not that good at creating a positive environment for my colleagues. Either way, my situation improved enormously simply through making the attempt. I felt purposeful and empowered. Being generous and attempting to manage the shortcomings of the environment put me in a position of power. When I saw my efforts making little impact, I was lucky enough to have other sources of self worth to say “ok, no hard feelings, time to go”.
The one key advantage I feel I’ve enjoyed through all of the trials and tribulations that a job on the dealing floor of a big bank brings is that I don’t accept the legitimacy of capitalist relations. I accept that in my own interest, it is often sensible to do what I’m asked by my managers. It’s even sensible to make strenuous efforts whilst working in a capitalist system – so long as those efforts are compensated. Making these efforts can even be pleasant! Being part of an institution with vast amounts of intellectual and human capital allows one to develop ones own capabilities. If others benefit from the value I create, that is fine by me. The world is very much not a zero sum game. What is not good is selling oneself short to satisfy the illegitimate demands of capitalism. It is not your duty to create value for others. It should be a happy side effect of cooperation. None of this is easy. Capitalism creates and perpetuates exploitation on a very personal level. Bullying often gets results, as does manipulation and dishonesty. As soon as one sees this for what it is, it loses its sting. As I enjoy some months to sit and reflect, I intend to write more on how resistance to capitalism on a personal level can be a route to personal and professional fulfillment – and I hope for at least some, it will be uplifting and useful!