Don’t Sell Yourself

I cannot write a cover letter to save my life. God help me, I try, but there’s just something inside me that makes me constitutionally incapable of putting out even the most anodyne of cover letters without significant outside help, and even then only with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. I’m a chronic procrastinator, to be sure. I couldn’t begin to imagine how many half-baked sketches of stories, worlds, and articles that have been abandoned over the years. Cover letter writing, though, fills me with a unique and profound dread. If I don’t make progress on a short story, I’m disappointed. If I can’t finish a cover letter, I’m shattered by my own impotence. In my experience, that’s not unusual, especially for people in my position: early twenties, college educated, cast adrift.

When I explain my frustrations to friends, I usually get a sympathetic nod and a defeated shrug. What’s there to do? It’s just a perversity of capitalism that not only is our labor a commodity to be bought as dearly as possible but on top of it all we are expected to sell it ourselves. It’s an exercise in insincerity as we try to embellish and fluff our way into the favor of a bored HR rep just so we can keep the lights on at home. That’s our lot.

There’s something of the court jester to the routine — dancing for the amusement of aloof and capricious kings. A differential in power suffuses every syllable. We have to differentiate ourselves from a crowd of the equally desperate, paupers clutching at the cloaks of nobles as they pass us by.

After all, the things that we are expected to sell about ourselves are strictly ways in which we can be of service to our employer. The range of human experience is flattened into a cold utilitarianism — capitalism in miniature. At the end of the day, it won’t matter to the capitalist that you are a good friend or a tender partner. How’s your passion for supply chain management? Are you an independent worker, results-oriented, practical, a real go-getter?

And that’s assuming that the jobs we apply for are even worth doing! Read David Graeber’s “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” if you haven’t already. Our society is building an entire class of people who are overworked yet unproductive. At the risk of running the imagery into the ground, there’s no other way to describe this stage of capitalism but to call it feudal.

I’ve never met a necessary manager, for instance. They are placeholders of power, intermediaries who are elevated and granted fiefs of workers. At some point the workers might have needed supervision, the way an English peasant might once have needed defense against a Viking raid. But those days are long since past, and yet the offices shuffle on and even multiply through sheer inertia.

For us, the serfs, the outlook is bleak. When mergers and contractions come, we are the first onto the chopping block. Capitalism undermines itself — exhausting its productive capacities even as the rentier class grows and grows and grows. Ultimately, that presents an opportunity to emerge from the ashes of the old.

That’s not much comfort when you’re left on the street, though. Less still when you are forced to go through the whole charade again, for a new employer, maybe in a new line of work or a new city. We sell ourselves to survive, purchased by people who would just as soon replace us with machines.

What would a world look like in which we stopped selling ourselves? What would a world look like in which work is a dirty necessity, best left to machines? We’ll achieve that technological point within the lifetimes of people alive today. Can we reach it socially? The future of our species may well depend on it.