Politics and Work

Winning at the Expense of Good


Nobody values hard work anymore. This, according to my grandfather, a 78 year-old former trucker who spent most of the first 20 years of his life tending crops and livestock on his father's modest farm, is one of the most notable changes to have occurred in western society during the span of his life. Despite the generalisation, truth rings in his words. Like education, leisure and many other aspects of life, work is now about winning.

Quite possibly Joe genuinely desires to do a good job when he goes to work. But in the 21st century any pursuit of work as personal satisfaction or contribution to community is regularly trumped by the pursuit of winning. Joe wants a promotion. He wants more money. He wants more status. Most importantly, he wants more of all of these things than those around him.

As in other games, those who dominate the workplace are those with the requisite playing skills. The spoils go to employees who successfully manipulate workplace relationships to their advantage. As much time and effort are invested in mastering the gaming rules related to a job, as in mastering the job itself. What minimum preparation is acceptable? How many files must be processed in one day? When does the boss usually drop in? To win at work requires answering such questions, and so that is what Joe does; doing a good job for its own sake becomes secondary.

Not coincidently, the game of work has come to be known as office politics. It is, after all, a shadow of the ultimate contemporary game forum: electoral politics. Therein winning has become absolutely everything. It is now the accepted and expected norm. Participants' very actions and words are calculated to that end. The candidates in the current Democratic leadership race note that they expect to win during each and every speech and interview. Failure to do so almost guarantees the "loser" label. Donations pour into the favorite's "war chest". Those who do not win early and frequently are drawn inexorably past the event horizon of rapidly diminishing support, both financial and otherwise. Soon the stigma of losing is overwhelming. Consider current frontrunner John Kerry: card-carrying Democrats are certainly not voting for him on the basis of perceived or genuine moral integrity. Granted, his values are not irrelevant. There are moral boundaries within which Kerry must remain in order to be successful. However, knowing those boundaries is just another part of the game. To discern the most important factor in Kerry's success so far, look to his chief mantra: "I can beat George Bush" he drones, time and again. He is winning simply because voters have faith in his ability to continue winning!

The pandemic obsession with winning has had devastating consequences. People have lost sight of what is good, both in their work and in their political institutions. Just as most people are no longer happy with their work, most governments no longer lead. No amount of winning can fill the void.