He who is not better

A Reading Note

In Cubed, Nikil Saval traces the beginning of the professional class of workers back to the clerks memorialized in Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. Among the things he identifies: the earliest clerks saw themselves apart from other kinds of workers, and fashioned a distinctly different ideology about the nature of their work—one that is depressingly familiar:

Manual workers earned hourly or piece-rate wages, while nonmanual workers earned annual salaries. What this meant for white-collar workers, in an American economy beset by intense fluctuation in prices and frequent financial panics, was a measure of stability that manual workers never enjoyed. A small shift in power had begun to take place. If people who “worked with their hands” still assumed their possession of the world of things, clerical workers, those “working with their heads,” were now at the heart of capitalism’s growing world of administration and direction—close to power, if not exactly in control of it.

And so unlike “solidarity,” the key word of the European industrial labor movement that had made its way to England and America, the ethic that had begin to take hold among clerks was that of “self-improvement.” Clerical workers were uprooted from the close-knit world of families and farms, where knowledge was passed down from father to son. Other clerks were merely competition; they had no one to rely on but themselves. “The man who does not at least propose to himself to be better this year than he was last must be very good or bad indeed,” wrote the merchant’s clerk Edward Tailer in his diary entry on New Year’s Day 1850. There is, he continued, “no such thing as a stationary point in human endeavors; he who is not worse today than yesterday is better; and he who is not better is worse.”

Saval, Cubed, page 21

There is a certain kind of awareness that comes from realizing the tradition of using New Year’s to consider how you will improve your (working) self goes back at least one hundred and seventy one years. But what’s really telling about Saval’s analysis here is the way in which self-improvement is seen as antithetical to solidarity: focusing your energies on yourself, and beating out your peers, takes up the kind of space that collective action might have. And still often does, alas.

Related books


Nikil Saval

An insightful history of professional work, Nikil Saval’s Cubed interrogates how we work by digging into where we work, and the way those workplaces have changed and evolved.