Workers vs. Players

A great article by Miya Tokumitsu (‘In the name of loveJacobin January 2014 and republished in Slate 16 January 2014) is doing the rounds of social media, and it’s timely that Crikey has just done a short feature on the brilliant Sarah Kendzior who has a similar schtick.

All this puts me in mind of one of the best articles I’ve ever read in Harper’s. As far as I know, it’s only available in the print edition but long ago somebody lovingly typed it up and republished it online at which point I copied it to a document and stored it on my hard drive. I’m now releasing it back into the web. Enjoy!

Crap shoot: Everyone loses when politics is a game

by Garret Keizer (Harper’s, February 2006)

I’m sure I was only supposed to be motivated, but I fear that I may accidentally have been enlightened, that day some years ago when my fellow teachers and I were treated to a videotaped lecture by the then reigning “National Teacher of the Year”. None crane6of us thought to ask how such a distinction had been or could be determined. It was enough to know that he was in a different league from ours. He had recently shaken hands with the President of the United States.

Squeezed into our student’s grubby desks, the underpaid servants of a grossly underpaid working-class community, we listened to his depiction of the future with our eyes uplifted to the screen. Eventually there were going to be only two kinds of people: those who deal in information and those who serve their needs. In such a society, many of the facts and crafts we taught would be obsolete. Teaching students to write essays was irrelevant, we were told, when what they needed to know was how to write good memos. As befitting an oracle, the alpha teacher delivered his news in a tone of gleeful authority. There were but two choices open to us: pointless defiance of the inevitable and creative acceptance of the brave new world (the one that Thomas Friedman has since announced is flat). Teachers who chose the latter would endeavor to make their better students into players, with the possible reward of becoming players themselves. Like the man on the screen.

I forget if “players” was the word he used, but it was implicit in all he had to say. It has become increasingly explicit in the American vernacular. The internet was still a novelty then, so the chosen few already “dealing in information” would not have been able to tally the more than five million hits that presently appear for a phrase like “key players,” among which you can learn who really counts, counted, or will count in such diverse domains as “the left’s war against conservative judges,” the global economy, the Kuomintang, World War III (as predicted in the bible), and the cheese industry.

But my colleagues and I had no trouble getting the point. It wasn’t necessary to hear the word; we knew the game. In one form or another, we had been teaching it for years. The touted “promise of education” always comes down to a veiled threat: those who fail to be players in the classroom will never amount to players later on. Yes, they also serve who only stand and wait, but mostly they serve burgers.

Or listen to motivational speeches while squeezed into grubby desks, as the case may be. There was the rub, and the National Teacher of the Year and the patrons for whom he spoke knew just how to rub it in. What message could have moved us more, with our HoHum State diplomas and our Payless shoes, that the promise that we could be players too?

In his 1938 classic, Homo Ludens, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga explored the primal need to play, an impetus “older than culture” and the human species itself, as the basis of the civilized arts: of poetry, jurisprudence, and chivalric war. But the denotation of player as someone with a piece of the action or a larger-than-average piece of the pie appears not to have existed for Huizinga, Holland, or in 1938. Except for noting the traditional distinction between the amateur athlete and the professional (a gentleman and a player, respectively), Huizinga hardly uses the word at all. But he provides a parallel point of reference when he says that play is characterized by “the consciousness that it is ‘different’ from ‘ordinary life.’” A player, as we speak of him now, is characterized by the consciousness that he is different from ordinary people. That difference is key to his self-understanding.

And from whence does it derive? Not so much from his being richer or more powerful than his neighbors, though often he is and always he would prefer to be, but rather from the sense that he moves at a faster pace, on a different plane, and according to a different set of rules than those that govern an ordinary human being. In popular American folklore, the player par excellence is the gangster, the wise guy. Speculations as to origin always border on the mythological, but if pressed to speculate, I would portray the first true player as the first person to successfully ride a horse. He or she entered a zone of being almost instantly faster, higher, and stronger than anyone on foot. The Roman plutocratic class was known as “the equestrian order.” A player is not ever, if he can help it, a pedestrian.

That is because a player’s defining relationship is as much to the earth as to any fellow human being. The relationship he aspires to is one of transcendence. People who misunderstand the player or wish to malign him will sometimes call him a “materialist”—the player himself may imagine that he is a materialist—but this amounts to a gross confusion of means and ends. For the true player, possessions are a means of reducing the claims of the material: the weight, the drag, the inertia of mortal life. The ties that bind. The player says he wants a sports car or a Greek island or a much younger wife, but his highest aspiration is for an out-of-body experience.

This need to be transcendent and exceptional can take many forms, including divergent forms. Exhibitionism and voyeurism both place their practitioners at an advantage to the passive party. An age of players is typically an age of preeners and peekers. The hacker, for example, is a curious but not atypical subspecies of player. He has your password. He has your number. He is in your computer, pointing and clicking at your private parts. He is out of his body. He is out of your league.

Of course, you could argue that the stereotypical hacker is not a player at all. He is only a virtual player, a player in his own head. His actions are compensatory. It is precisely because he doesn’t figure “in the game” that his attempt at advantage takes such a bizarre and pathetic turn. You would be making a valid point. There are players and the people who wish to be players; gangsters and the ghettos and economic depressions in which they have their greatest appeal. The exploitation of that appeal is a dominant feature of the political moment in which we live.


Around the same time as the Republican National Committee cashes the donation check it gets from an older relative I’ll call “Uncle Teddy,” he receives a signed eight-by-ten glossy photograph of George W. Bush. He thereby enters the mystical communion of CEOs and billionaires—he and any number of poor saps like himself, people who did their military service and worked full time from their teens to their retirement, who saved their money and fixed their own cars and occasionally took their families out to dinner after church. I don’t see Uncle Teddy as a sap; I see him as the salt of the earth. I also don’t think he sees himself as a sap when he writes his check. I think he sees himself, or at least is invited to see himself, as a player. He belongs to the party of the haves—“and the have mores,” as Bush so memorably put it.

Never mind that the people he is helping to keep in power would find him laughable. If they didn’t laugh at the white shirt he puts on to go to the diner or the little vial of touchup paint he keeps in the glove compartment to address any stray nicks and scratches on his preternaturally well-preserved Buick sedan, what would really get them going, I mean down on their gym-toned abs and punching the floor, would be hearing him say what he’s said to me more than once:

“I never skimp on my income taxes. I make sure the government gets every penny it has coming. It’s a privilege to pay taxes in this country.”

But I’m not interested in milking the irony here; I’m interested in knowing the solution to the riddle that explains the irony, namely: What is it that people like him can’t see? As the country is bankrupted by an insane war, every one of whose stated objectives could be refuted by a junior high debate team; as “outsource” becomes the latest euphemism for outrage, be it of jobs or torture; as the ability of our children to read, write, and breathe is eroded almost as rapidly as the ozone layer and the topsoil—what is it they can’t see? And the answer, at least one of the answers, is this: they can’t see that they’re not players. They can’t see because the game is all about making them believe that they are players, and because the real players have gotten very good at the game. Finally, they can’t see because it would be almost too sad to bear if they could.

Here is where we might note a critical distinction in the ways that the Democratic and Republican parties recommend themselves to their supporters. A typical Democrat offers to validate your identity. That is to say, a typical Democrat offers to foster the most precious notion (and I mean “precious” in every sense of the word) of the typical Democrat. I was recently a guest on a radio program devoted to the discussion of liberal politics and was fascinated by the number of callers who found it necessary to identify their specific “persuasion” before making their point. “I’m a Christian progressive,” I recall one saying, “but I don’t support homosexuality.” “I used to call myself an atheist,” said another, “but it’s more accurate to say that I’m a syncretist.” This was in the context of a discussion that I was trying, admittedly without much success, to focus on that nebulous identity group consisting of people lacking a pot to piss in. The discussion reminded me somewhat of a St. Francis Day blessing of the animals, with one after another of the faithful carrying a pet notion of him- or herself up the church steps. Give us your tired, your poor, your vegan, and your harebrained, and we will try to say something nice about them all.

With the arguable exception of large ideological voting blocks, like evangelicals for instance, the Republican Party doesn’t offer to validate your identity. It offers to give you an identity—even if you’re an evangelical Christian. Especially if you’re an evangelical Christian. The identity it offers to give you is that of a player. If that’s what you are or want to be, then this is the party for you. The basic idea amounts to the mass production of the same blithe chumminess one finds at a meeting of the Rotary Club. We are the “business community,” you see. Not the chumps of the business community—of the corporate leviathans that could eat up our penny-ante establishments like so much krill. No, no. We’re the players. We play the same game that the big boys do.


The best definition of a player derives from its antonym, though the antonym proves elusive. Several candidates come to mind. It is imprecise, I think, to say that the opposite of a player is a loser. Not all players win. “Spectator” is a better antonym, but not the best. To use it for the purpose of definition implies that the player feels incomplete without an audience. Perhaps some players do, but only those lacking in imagination. Howard Hughes was both a player and a recluse. Bill Gates is a player, and a great hero among players, but I don’t think he needs people to point him out and say, “Hey, that’s Bill Gates.” It is probably enough to be Bill Gates: to have all those billions, by which I mostly mean those billions who are not Bill Gates and never will be.

We will get our best defining antonym by reducing the word to its root: “play. Ask any kid, “What’s the opposite of play?” and you will have the word you seek: “work.” (For Huizinga, the better antonym is “earnestness.”) The opposite of the player is the worker. so said John Ruskin, who saw humanity divided into “two races, one of workers, and the other of players: one tilling the ground, manufacturing, building and otherwise providing for the necessities of life; the other part proudly idle, and continually therefore needing recreation, in which they use the productive and laborious orders partly as their cattle, and partly as their puppets or pieces in the game of death.”

But where Ruskin says “recreation” (and presupposes an aristocracy with time on its hands), I would prefer to say “transcendence” (and presuppose a democracy with its head in the clouds). As already noted, the player’s relationship to the material world is primarily escapist. He would like to get out of it. Basically, that means getting out of work. “Through work,” says Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace , a human being “produces his own natural existence”—that is to say, the very thing the player chafes against. His heroes chafe as he does. The Olympic athlete, though not necessarily a player in his attitude to the world and especially in his laborious training, has always been an attractive symbol to the player because he breaks records and the semblance of physical laws. The alchemist is another. The alchemist tries to turn base metal into gold. The worker turns base metal into a shovel (and sometimes digs for gold, true, but the distinction between worker and player is never absolute). Cicero observed with famous disparagement that a workshop was no place to find a gentleman.

That said, the word “worker” is not intended here in an exclusively Marxist sense. I am talking less about a person’s station in life (though I am surely talking about that too) than about his approach to it. For the true worker, the pleasure is in the work. The pleasure of the player, on the other hand, is in “having it made”—both in the self-congratulatory sense of the winner and in the passive sense of the consumer. Having it made means having it handed over by the person who made it, preferably at a bargain to the recipient. The player may profess admiration for good “workmanship,” but he tends to despise and abhor the work itself.

Once, at a gathering of authors at a booksellers’ convention, a woman asked which I liked more, writing or having written. Initially, the question struck me as absurd. It was as though she had asked, “Which do you like more, eating your dinner or digesting it?” She said that she liked having written much better than writing. She meant the convention we were attending; she meant “being an author.” And while it might be unfair to thereby categorize her attitude as that of a player, it seems reasonable to suppose that she was not all that thrilled about the work. For my part, I wasn’t all that thrilled about having to sit there and talk about it. I was restless to be back at my desk.

We should be cautious of aligning the player with playfulness and placing the worker on the opposite side. Sports and gambling have always been highly esteemed among the working classes and among working people in general. What distinguishes the worker from the player is the former’s understanding that the game is just that. The worker possesses the consciousness, as noted by Huizinga, that play is “different from ordinary life.” That’s a large part of what makes it fun.

In contrast, the player conceives of ordinary life as “the game.” The casino world of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or the racetrack or the numbers racket, is the norm. work is the diversion. Work is something you do at the gym. You work at your golf stroke. You work at your “relationships.” You work during your “off” hours. But business is all about the game.

None of this is to suggest that the player is lazy. At a certain echelon, the player is as busy at his chosen occupation as an electron or an angel. In other words, he doesn’t “go to work” like a worker; he goes to work like a player. He labors with the frenzy, the competitiveness, the relentless drive to score the point and beat the clock that characterizes high-action contact sports. Who would dispute that this is grueling? One can only dispute that it is work.

In his own way, and for all his touted or apparent hedonism, the player emerges as the more puritanical of the two. He wants pure profit, pure performance, unsullied by the freckled exigencies of the flesh. This he calls “excellence.” If work is how we make love to the world, the player’s consuming desire is to be existentially celibate. Here the figurative sometimes touches on the literal. You always know you’ve met a player when someone tells you about an activity that’s “better than sex.” What the person generally means is less work.

Perhaps the greatest contrast between the player and the worker consists of their differing attitudes toward “the others.” Exclusion is contained in the very definition of the player. If everyone is a player, then no one is a player. When everybody comes onto “the field,” it’s no longer the field. It’s a park.

The worker, on the other hand, invites participation. Many hands make light work. At his most militant, the worker insists on participation. That is because the worker senses that justice is only possible, and work bearable, when everybody works. As long as there are both workers and players, the worker is going to get screwed. It’s worse than sex. This is why social experiments launched in the name of the “workers” have tended to be totalitarian. The question remains as to whether that outcome is better avoided by emancipating the worker or by letting the player run amok.

Without constraint and vigilance, the player always does. He would not be a true player if he did anything else. With our residual Anglo-Saxon niceties, we think of cheating and playing (“good sportsmanship,” as we like to say) as opposites. But cheating is simply an unauthorized form of playing. They differ in degree, but not in kind. What is the natural aim of the player if not to steal the ball, knock down the opponent, invade his goal? “Cheating is simply playing out of bounds, and the bounds are meant to be tested. Like the tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear, the foul that the ref doesn’t see doesn’t count. Which is, of course, likelier to occur when the ref—the journalist, judge, or senator—is on your team.


The archetype of the player is the mythological trickster: the Greek god Hermes and the Norse god Loki. Krishna stealing the clothes of the bathing milkmaids. Apollo collecting his bet by skinning a satyr alive. All gods are players to some extent because they get away with things we can’t. The joys of the flesh are theirs without the conditions. Matter is no object.

The most unplayerly of the Olympians is Hephaistos, god of the forge, worker and cripple, whose wife, Aphrodite, cavorts with the god of war. The combined weight of all the political treatises ever written does not outweigh the symbolism of this triad. “The Greeks knew about art and sport, but not about work,” Simone Weil writes, but a people can still intuit what they do not know. Hephaistos is the intuition of what it means to work in a society where players reign.

The player’s relationship to religion is necessarily complex. The opiate of the people is the player’s gin and tonic: it loosens and enlivens him; it can also make him terribly depressed. He is attracted to the religious promise of transcendence, exemption from death, consequence, chaos, whatever stands as an obstacle to his whims. But the player balks at religion too, for its suggestion that there is such a thing as hubris. He hates the very idea. Greek tragedies, first performed as part of religious festivals, depict players reaching—often as the result of overreaching—the unthinkable juncture where the game is up. In respect to the god of tragedy, all players are atheists.

The contemporary way of professing this unbelief is the popular dinner-party disclaimer: “I’m very spiritual, but I’m not religious at all.” I’m a player, in other words. Religion is too much work. Religion is pot-luck suppers for Christ’s sake—disciplines and dogmas and, most trying of all, pews full of other people. “Spirituality” is lighter on its feet. Spirituality delights in esoterica, the secrets hidden from the others, the workers, the non-players. This was part of the appeal of Gnosticism, those quasi-Christian sects that flourished in the early centuries of the Common Era. Gnostics were the techno-geeks of theism. They claimed to have gnosis, knowledge of the sacred passwords, access to the hidden places. When the times grew dangerous, they hid out in the hidden places. Martyrdom was for the suckers. History, the same thing. The ultimate goal of the Gnostic was emancipation from the vile world of matter. Thus, the perfected Gnostic fulfills the player’s dearest fantasy—excuse me, deepest spiritual need—to be delivered from the body, including the body politic.

The most interesting kinds of religion, for my money, challenge the Gnostic pretensions of the player. The Buddhist bodhisattva, for example, is a player who thinks like a worker. Elite in his attainment, he refuses to enter Nirvana “until the grass itself is enlightened.” Blessedness for the bodhisattva means joining the union. When American socialist Eugene Debs said that as long as there was a criminal class he was in it, that “While there is a soul in prison I am not free,” he was talking like a bodhisattva. He was talking like one of the worker saints. Not for nothing is Jesus remembered as a carpenter, like the stonecutter Socrates. Both were markedly blue collar in their approach to wisdom. Introduce them to a player, and their natural inclination was to take him down a peg. Put him to work, in other words. “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor…then come, follow me.”

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” St. Paul (a tentmaker) writes to the church at Corinth. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” Not many of you were players, in other words. The rise of evangelicals in American politics is the latest attempt to rectify that deficiency. It is an attempt with theological parallels in the frequently intoned evangelical credo—derived, interestingly enough, from St. Paul himself and distorted by any number of stadium preachers since—that it is “faith in Jesus Christ” and not good works that saves the believer. In the extreme version, the “saved” become players, with Jesus consigned to the role of their Uncle Guido. He made a deal for us on the Cross. We don’t have to work. We’re made men. The ethical agnostics, the observant Jews, the wetback Mexicans mumbling over their beads in the backs of cattle trucks (the same people we hire at slave wages to watch our kids and diaper our parents), let them believe in the necessity of good works. It’s rather convenient that they do.

As for us, our Godfather is in heaven. Or maybe in the White House. I am not being glib. A woman I know recently returned from a CBA convention (formerly an acronym for Christian Bookseller’s Association but now just CBA because its members sell as many faith-based geegaws as they sell books) where she saw posters of George W. Bush in the robes of a prophet, perhaps those of Jesus himself, healing the wounds of the nation. Thus the President merges with his Favorite Philosopher; the electors with the Elect. It’s what a player, or someone who fancies himself a player, would call “sweet.”


For all his apparent panache, the player is not so versatile as his name suggests. He only knows how to be a player. He can exchange one game for another, but he rarely knows how to change himself. Were he ever permitted to fall that far, the corporate cheat would become a welfare cheat. Admittedly, he would not have much to learn.

Willy Loman’s son Happy in Death of a Salesman depicts the player’s fundamental inflexibility—as his father depicts the tragedy of a worker who tries to be a player. (“There’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made.”) Happy is the player his father wanted to be—what his brother, Biff, cannot manage to be—and the point here is that Happy cannot be anything else. Happy takes bribes, Happy beds his bosses’ fiancées, Happy goes to their weddings afterward—it’s all part of his game, and he will play some version of it no matter how his fortunes rise or fall. The has-been boxer or movie star who opens a casino or night club, hoping his name can do most of the work, hoping he can still rub elbows with players and thereby remain one, is a cliché that typifies the player’s basic inability to imagine himself in different terms.

The worker, on the other hand, has a second incarnation, and this is what makes him more interesting. When the opportunity of work is denied to him, or too many of the fruits of his labor are withheld from him, the worker becomes a fighter. He and she have done this many times, in 1381 and 1848 and 1917, at Matewan and the Mesabi iron mines, as followers of Spartacus, Nat Turner, Emma Goldman. You may say that players fight, too, but that is a comparatively shallow statement. What players do is use weapons for toys—and workers. Jousting, counting coup, reciting one’s deeds and lineage in an epic poem—that is all player stuff, and the worker hasn’t got time for it. The worker’s approach to fighting is, like his approach to everything else, decidedly workmanlike. The worker’s way of war is to bust heads and get back to work.

Watch a plumber undo a drain trap, muckle onto that son of a bitch ad break it down, and you have the image of the worker at war. The plumber is not interested in leaving his name on the pipes or in changing the gravitational direction of water. The plumber is interested in taking a shit in peace. In the case of his particular vocation, that greatly depends on helping his neighbor do the same thing. He accepts the contract. He depresses the flush handle and watches the whirlpool with a face like God’s on the seventh day of creation. He sees that it is good. He says so with the most exalted verb in his vocabulary: “It works.”

Meaningful change in America will not come from “progressive” conferences and op-ed hand-wringing and better target-marketing to the coyer identity groups. It will not come from reinstating the same players who posed with such smugly affected arrogance for Annie Leibowitz in the pages of Vanity Fair after the first Clinton victory. (Those photos, if you can find them, will tell you more about “what happened to our country” than anything I’m writing here.) Not to put too fine a point on it, change will not come from deciding which former member of Skull and Bones will get to drape the coffin of American labor with the Stars and Stripes. Change will come only when people who work, who love work, whose conception of the world is of a work in progress, come to realize that they have no choice but to fight. Fight, or accept a world in which a shrinking pool of players lords it over a multiplying pool of slaves.

No one is hastening us to that conclusion faster than the players themselves. This is as “sweet” as it gets. The player, the wise guy, prides himself on his cleverness, but he always perishes from being less clever than he thinks. He perishes because he only knows the relentless, mindless momentum of the game; he knows nothing of the sanctifying rhythms of work and rest. Playing is about compulsion, the need to remain at the table no matter what. If you’re winning, you try to win more; if you’re losing, you wait until you begin winning again. The player knows how to advance; he does not know how to survive. The trajectory of his so-called evolution is the airborne arc of a lemming.

Seen in this light, portraying George W. Bush as the messiah is blasphemous only from a religious point of view. In political terms, it may be prophetic. The Republican Party as it now exists is the most progressive of all American political parties in the sense that it is hastening the inevitable showdown that was predestined the moment workers and players first glimpsed the shores of this country and conceived their separate versions of its promise. You can see that division running like a fault line through four centuries of our politics and poetry. People who say, “America is now a deeply divided country” are either facetious or naïve. It has always been a deeply divided country. Plantations and factories and every town and city that ever boasted a railroad track have always been deeply divided places. People who ask, “How can we defeat the Republicans in 2008?” are asking a secondary question. The primary question is whether we ought to try. That is the question that must be answered first, and the answer that seems the more hopeless may in fact be the answer based on the higher hope. To be honest, I probably lack the courage to embrace that higher hope. But not the ability to remember what it is.

Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. It means people like you, Teddy. It means all those men and women who were never Teachers of the Year but teachers every day for forty years. It means most of us, whether we like it or not and however much the quotation makes us wince. It can stand some reinterpretation, granted, but at the end of the day it still stands. You have nothing to lose but the one thing you’d be better off losing: the idea that you are not a worker. You have nothing to lose but the notion that you are a player—or that being a player is an aspiration worthy of a grown woman or man. You have nothing to lose but the idea that some people are born to be losers. You have nothing to lose but the illusion that the material world is something you could ever be happy without.

You have nothing to lose but your chains.


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