Late last week, amid a Slack-driven furor over his confessional memoir Chaos Monkeys, Apple fired ads engineer Antonio Garcia-Martinez. I wrote Friday about the specific hypocrisy of Apple’s move — the company has the author of Bitches Ain’t Shit on its board but claimed it fired Garcia-Martinez as a statement of its devotion to “inclusivity” — but over the weekend spoke to Antonio about the larger issue of his case, which extends past his own predicament.
“This business of Slack at work,” he said.
After George Floyd’s death last summer, corporate leaders found themselves in an unusual position. With water-cooler conversations turbo-charged by chat programs like Slack, many firms saw outpourings of anger. Employees demanded their employers do something, or at least be seen doing something, to “confront racism.”
In some shops, employers were asked to recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday. In others, there was a demand for more diverse hiring procedures. Significant donations to political organizations, scholarship funds, or product lines targeted to African-Americans were expected.
Responses became more idiosyncratic. Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens pledged to stop putting “multicultural cosmetic products” behind locked cases in retail outlets. YouTube deleted 100,000 videos and 100 million comments as part of an expanded hate speech policy. HBO Max took down Gone With the Wind, then restored it with a disclaimer that it showed “ethnic and racial prejudices” that “were wrong then and are wrong today.” Disney later did something similar with The Muppet Show, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Dumbo, Peter Pan, and Swiss Family Robinson.
In some places, the connections between the companies’ core businesses and structural racism were apparent. For instance, many of the banks that made the most ostentatious pledges of support for Black Lives Matter were the same firms that targeted black communities with exotic subprime mortgage products, Wells Fargo’s “ghetto loans” episode being among the more infamous.
In other places, the connection was less clear. What should FitBit be doing to fix police brutality? How could Pinterest contribute? (They ended up removing ads on Black Lives Matter search results, so readers could “focus on learning about the movement”). Was it axiomatic that every company had a political role to play?
Soon, a new type of controversy arose, ironically at some of the companies with the reputations for most progressive management. The questions were less about race than workflow. At cryptocurrency firm Coinbase, employees demanded that CEO Brian Armstrong make a statement in support of Black Lives Matter. Armstrong, for a while, demurred. Then some employees and executives began what Wired called a “virtual walkout,” in which “senior engineers encouraged junior staff to close their laptops in solidarity.”
Armstrong quickly got religion, or so it seemed. He went on Twitter to announce, “I want to unequivocally say that Black Lives Matter.” Then, within weeks, Armstrong and Coinbase leadership flipped completely, announcing that the firm would no longer engage in “social activism,” and any employee who didn’t like the new policy could get the fuck out.
Coinbase offered 4-6 months of severance (depending on service time) and six months of COBRA, in a statement saying — in the thickest corporate sarcasm — that the arrangement could be a “win-win” for the politically minded, as “life is too short to work at a company you’re not excited about.” Only about 60 of the company’s 1,200 employees took the buyout.
At another tech firm, Basecamp, CEO Jason Fried — long the owner of a rep as a progressive corporate leader, as his company has published five books on workplace culture — put the kibosh on controversial talk at work, banning “societal and political discussions.” Shopify, an e-commerce firm that broke ground after the January 6th riots by closing online stores tied to Trump or MAGA merchandise, has now become a symbol of corporate pushback. CEO Tobi Lütke just sent an email to employees explaining that work is not life and life is not work, and employee demands should be adjusted accordingly:
Shopify, like any other for-profit company, is not a family. The very idea is preposterous. You are born into a family. You never choose it, and they can't un-family you. It should be massively obvious that Shopify is not a family but I see people, even leaders, casually use terms like “Shopifam” which will cause the members of our teams (especially junior ones that have never worked anywhere else) to get the wrong impression. The dangers of “family thinking” are that it becomes incredibly hard to let poor performers go. Shopify is a team, not a family…
Shopify is also not the government. We cannot solve every societal problem here.
There’s a Frankensteinian irony to all this. Our biggest corporations spent decades steeping the public in weird Me Generation propaganda stressing the primacy of personal fulfillment, which fast became our real national faith as traditional religion lost influence. The result was a work-centric culture most of the rest of the world looked on as a kind of insanity. Alone among peoples who have a choice in such matters, Americans have long bragged about working themselves to death, feeling real pride in putting off distractions like marriage, kids, or “meaning” as they ran hamster wheels in pursuit of status and rock-hard abs, alone and at full speed toward the great beyond.
Americans in my age group, Gen-Xers, were poorly prepared for corporate jobs in that a lot of us were somehow surprised to learn our ethnomusicology or (in my case) creative writing degrees were fairly useless for finding paying work. In conjunction with the huge sums many people borrowed to get those educations, the whole thing was a bit of a scam, though of course we should have known better.
Millennials had it worse. They attended the same academic resort spas, and were handed the same oft-preposterous degrees, but were additionally indoctrinated in affirming ideological oat-baths stressing the righteousness of their lived experiences. If the big surprise my generation faced was that our educations were worth bupkes to employers, the next generation had to deal with the shock of corporate bosses being indifferent to their emotional needs.
Meaning, we’ve come full circle. After training generations of Americans to forego personal lives and work their brains to mush in service of bigger profits, corporate leaders are waking up to find their companies staffed by people so psychologically dependent upon validation from work that they’re a net minus from a production standpoint, forcing bosses to beg them to shut up, go home, and get lives. Not many modern Americans know how to do any of those things, however, as can be seen in cases like that of Garcia-Martinez, where 2,000 employees claimed to be literally incapable of sharing a vast corporate structure with someone who once wrote a book containing passages they might have disagreed with, if they’d actually read it.
“The thought of conflating your entire political, moral, social, family, and religious being with your professional persona,” Garcia-Martinez says, “I think is extraordinarily fraught and difficult.”
Another irony: despite the progressive sheen of these campaigns, Slack agitation doesn’t represent a resurgence of labor. Unions used the strength of the whole workforce to protect the rights of the individual employee, among other things insisting that management not act without due process, evidence, etc. Slack, as has been seen in cases like Antonio’s, or the oustings at the New York Times of editor James Bennet and reporter Donald McNeil, often urges companies to bypass process and act in the heat of the moment. In any case, it’s a weird kind of liberalism that tries to override management to get employees fired, but that’s where we are in the modern American workplace.
I asked Antonio about these and other issues, from his perspective:
TK: You’ve had multiple careers, and clearly took writing seriously. How will episodes like this affect people who might try to write or take creative detours in their careers?
Antonio Garcia-Martinez: Kat Rosenfield was tweeting about this and I love her and it’s great that she’s defending me. Do you want art? People are saying, “Well, you should have realized the consequences… I feel like saying: “Do you realize if an artist went into producing their art, whatever it is, literary or nonfiction or whatever, and thought about the consequences, the art would be total shit?”
Looking at it bigger, there’s a lot of political ideologies like Nazism and communism that thought that art should be subservient to politics, and that art can only serve a political end. Those movements did not end well. I don’t think we want that in our liberal democratic society. I think that’s a bizarre ideological way of looking at the world, from the wokesters who treat this as a quasi-religion.
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