Escapism at the bar
On precarity and obedience
It has been twelve hours since your last meal. Taking breaks is a luxury you cannot afford. Such are the demands of your job. You do what must be done, powering through without uttering a word. You can complain at the risk of losing everything. The cost is simply too high. What is the freedom of choice in the absence of viable options?
The ethos of hard work is prevalent here. Check in earlier than mandated and be the last to leave. Only then are your contributions recognised. Praise is an ephemeral token. The next day you must earn it again, else you have to toil extra hard to revert to what you had. You feel validation when you are trusted with another big project. So what if you were supposed to leave in thirty minutes? You cannot jeopardise your achievements.
It is twenty one hours now. Those thirty minutes turned into four painful hours. You showed grit and earned another “thank you”. Find solace in it: it will save you from crying yourself to sleep.
A meal would be nice, but all the places are packed with people. Do not repeat the same mistake. Colleagues may be dinning in one of them. Avoid coworkers as they will inevitably bring the discussion back to the same topics. It is important to disconnect, empty the mind, and allow yourself the chance to aspire to higher affairs.
Your pub of choice is around the corner. The high society avoids this place. They are too good for the rest of us. Here you are at home. You and the other stray souls. Perhaps they are all drunks, exchanging their late years for another round. Or maybe—just maybe—they are finding refuge in this putrid neighbourhood.
You know how it is to seek an escape. Nightmares involve evictions and dogged pursuits. The wheels are falling off of that suitcase, yet it is always with you. There is no one giving chase. What your fear personifies is a set of arrangements of power that disempower you. The “who” remains elusive. It is institutionalised, woven into the fabric of this world and thus removed from the foreground. It is always there, framing your actions and conditioning your behaviour.
Bars are excellent hideouts. Low light, loud music, and dejected strangers aplenty. Those who engage in conversation with you are barely making sense of their surroundings. Such is the effect of alcohol. The rest are ignoring you. Their own pain is too burdensome already. There are no Cinderellas in sight, no handsome princes. The little cuties are aiming high: they have no interest in you. You are among fugitives; people who try to escape from their odious quotidian normality.
You did well to offer fifty euro to that lad earlier this morning. He asked for ten, just so he could afford the train ticket. The rest was to buy a sandwich and perhaps afford the jump to the next stop. Undocumented migration is illegal, though the lines feel arbitrary. Documentation is a privilege. The migrant can, in fact, be a refugee whenever migration is not a matter of choice. Let the conventions stipulate what they want. The administrivia are for bureaucrats.
That man’s predicament is akin to those nightmares. It has parallels with what you witness here. Flee to live another day. No place is safe. No community is available to make you feel secure.
We accept terms of employment under duress. No, the immediate boss is not holding anyone at gunpoint. It is the institutionalised violence that puts us in that spot. They will tell each of us that we always have options. To start a business, for example, as if we can do that without initial funding. “You should charge double” or “just get the needed certificates.” Were it so easy!
There is a distinction to be made between options and the realm of possibility. What you can do under the prevailing conditions is governed by the interplay of specific factors. It delineates the scope of the realisable within the confines of that case. Whereas what might happen is removed from the particularities. It exists at a more abstract level. Our life is not theoretical though. We cannot feed off of possibilities. Unlike characters in a thought experiment, we need immediate solutions.
You will think again about your options. Maybe it will be while the power is off or the landlord comes back knocking at your door. Ten years go by in an instant. You may be more refined, but your rigorous training cannot affect the instituted reality that envelops you.
Your time here relaxes you, despite the noise and your hunger. Deep thoughts are interrupted by a tap on your shoulder. Who is this black hooded fellow? To your surprise, it is another authority figure from your milieu.
She asks for a seat. You do the pleasantries while trying to suppress your stress. Why here? Why now? What sort of disgusting place will you have to go to next time when you seek peace?
Authority does not belong to the person. It is found in the role as such. It is reified by the value assigned to that office. Those who wield power operate with a sword over their heads. Their wellness is forfeit the moment they make a mistake. Swords only hover over those we can name. Not institutions though, not ideas that are embedded in conventions, shared values, and patterns of behaviour. Those are taken for granted. They provide substance to the dominant narrative of the culture. Such as that you have lots of options and are choosing everything freely. She is not the real problem. Another will eventually take her stead. It is the hierarchy that will persist.
When the actor wears the mask, they have to behave in accordance with what they show. It is no different for all of us in our day-to-day affairs. Those in power must conform with the expectations associated with their role. You too are skipping your meals to meet the lofty standards of the hard worker. Shapeshifters all around. We adapt and hope for the best.
It is hard to trust those with power over you even when they seem to care about you. Whatever information you disclose can be used against you. It has happened in the past when you naively opened up to your boss and considered them a friend. The sense of duty towards your ostensible comrade made you labour for even longer hours and accept to be paid the regular rate for a full shift of overtime and for no breaks during holidays. You had the option, of course. Do a favour for a friend and help them get through this tough situation or lose your job amid the economic crisis. Well, you lost it anyway because loyalty is not mutual in business.
She followed you here. She demands answers. Why are you avoiding those restaurants? Why take a turn for the shady parts of town? She asks you to join her group at the place nearby. They were having dinner and saw you walk by, jaded and broken. You find the words to awkwardly turn down the offer. It is difficult to say “no” when you are an agreeable person. Though you muster the courage to do it. You have to. You cannot revolt. It is why anger turns into sorrow and tears give way to desperation. Options are for those who pay extra for tiny portions. To be bossed around all day, to be told that you are doing it freely when you know what the reality is, and then to be belittled by their pity. No.
You can tell she is not here for you. We all have a keen eye for deviations from the norm. Authorities are no different. Those who do not do the expected at all times raise the alarms, no matter how hard working and obedient they otherwise are. Irregularity introduces an element of uncertainty. If you appear different, they will ultimately cast you to the side. You are inconvenient, despite your skills and work ethic. You will become unemployable as every employer will figure out you are a loose cannon, provided the right triggers.
Those who seek an escape show a capacity to fight back or, at least, to not fully submit to the status quo. What the powers that be want in this instituted reality is for everyone to persist in a state of uncertainty while feeling no need to pursue alternatives. Else one is a potential revolutionary even while they are fully complying with the etiquette of their position.
She is not happy. Your negative answer disturbs her. It is one of those deviations from the norm. Who knows what else you are capable of if you repeatedly do not fall in line for trivial things. Those who have served in the army know that obedience for petty issues is highly significant. The soldier must show unconditional respect to the immediate authority figure. There is no nuance there. No reasonable discussion to be had. Sincere debates are between equals. In such a robust power structure, one enforces the rules and another follows them to the letter.
Soldiers tolerate the ordeals out of duty towards their homeland. Duty—a key concept. Children are told from an early age how great their country is and how glorious all those historical victories were. When the time comes, a new generation will bask in that glory, throwing its youth to the fire. The soldier is not getting a fair deal out of this. Homeland is the place where you are treated fairly. Everything else is one large sweatshop, the fiefdom of a ruling elite that has no interest in your wellness.
The ethos of the hard worker is the parallel of that patriotic spirit. We are loyal to our bosses and do not complain about the increasingly invidious working conditions. They will tell us to fall in line and stop feeling entitled. “Life is tough” they will add. Except that life is not difficult for everyone. Those at the fancy restaurants you skipped earlier are not living life in hard mode. You do the difficult work and they get to present it as their own. Then they have the temerity to tell you how much they like you and care about you.
Duty also manifests as commitment to one’s social standing. One’s reputation as a hard worker gives them the creditworthiness they need to keep going. We are thus conditioned to obey and to persevere the apparent injustice. It does not even register as injustice because we are indoctrinated in the narrative of unfettered free will: we have plenty of choices and are doing everything to ourselves with no structure ever informing the particularities of our agency.
She leaves you with a passive aggressive remark: “it’s okay if you do not like us”. It’s you and the fugitives again. What most people with authority fail to understand is that they are insignificant in their capacity as a person. Take away the role and what is left behind is just another human. Their power comes ex officio. It is the office that matters, the institution as such.
You say nothing. Let her live her delusion. You harbour no hatred towards them. Their power fantasies will not last for long. They fail to realise it, identifying with the role in the process. One day they will learn that the office is not theirs. Escaping into this pub is your way of recognising that the problem is systemic.
When we subject the conventional wisdom to scrutiny, we notice that it is not as innocuous as it seems. Behind the romantic heroism of individuals who achieve what they want against the forces of nature, there exists a brutal yet sophisticated apparatus that exerts supreme authority over every aspect of life. We have the tokenistic freedom of expression, though complete control over the media of expression rests in the hands of a tiny minority. We have the freedom of commerce and can assume the concomitant risk of bankruptcy, while some businesses are too big to fail. We have the freedom to resort to the justice system, but few can afford the exorbitant fees involved for anything non-trivial. To think that the platformarchs and the rest of us enjoy equal rights is to fool ourselves. The narrative is all about working hard and making the right choices. The individual without reference to their environment—such a convenient abstraction!
You leave the place. The drunks have treated you well. They too are dead inside. They know what precarity means. Perhaps they are still hiding something out of fear, though you can tell that they are honest about their status. It is what you also saw in the eyes of that fellow this morning. The same visceral helplessness. Maybe he is in a relatively better place by now. One can only hope. Though for every success story there are thousands who perish crossing the desert or drowning at sea. Others persist as empty shells in multinational corporations, knowing that they are disposable.
Your room is far from here and you are still hungry. Perhaps an apple will do for the time being. You will have to find something else tomorrow. A full meal to take you through another difficult day. “Life is hard”, after all, and you will continue tolerating the intolerable out of necessity.