The American Working Class Has Stockholm Syndrome

In psychologyStockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.

– Wikipedia entry on Stockholm syndrome

There’s a certain topic of conversation that always grabs my interest on large international message boards like Reddit.  When you get people from different walks of life, different social classes, and different parts of the world talking about their individual societies, the differences between cultures can become stark.  Specifically, when the conversation turns to topics such as vacation time, healthcare, and social safety nets, I typically find American workers insulting other systems for being too generous to the workers.  It doesn’t seem rational on its face yet it happens time and time again.

This post was inspired by a thread in which Reddit user fassaction wrote:

My best friend works for a college as a risk analyst for financials. This poor schmuck works about 70 hours a week. Spends about 20 hours a week in traffic. Goes in in Sundays to “catch up”…….and they wonder why people are fat, miserable, and ready to kill each other.

I’ve heard plenty of Americans speak of the “hard work and dedication” of our workforce.  Our last president, George W. Bush, famously congratulated a single mother of three: “You work three jobsUniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.”  The crowd cheered for this.  They truly felt that it was an honor to live in a country where working three jobs was considered a valid way of life.  Did any of them know, I wondered, that the workers risked their lives going on strike for such things as a forty hour workweek a century and a half earlier?

Even vacation time itself is considered toxic.  A recent study showed that 70% of Americans did not use all their vacation time and surveys of American workers place the blame on fear of retaliation.  Retaliation… for using a guaranteed company benefit.  What has happened to us?  Why aren’t we taking to the streets like they do in France for something as simple as banning alcoholic beverages while on the clock?

The answer was summed up pretty neatly (and without bias) in the aforementioned Reddit post by user catmoon:

The reason that Americans do not uprise or protest is partly because of financial uncertainty and partly due to complacency.


In the protest capitals of the world (France, Canada, UK, etc.) there are far more safeguards and social services that allow people to believe they have financial security even if they make drastic efforts at change. They have more guaranteed time off, they aren’t typically committed to large loans at an early age, and they have socialized healthcare. Becoming unemployed in the US can have serious consequences on basic needs. People here do not tend to upset the apple cart until they are completely desperate.


The complacency stems from the fact that Americans enjoy one of the highest standard of living at relatively low costs. Although we work ridiculous hours I’d say that many people here are happy with their 10 annual vacation days. We’re comfortable. Many of us work cushy jobs and sit at desks all day every day.


So basically, a huge upheaval would require considerable risk and return little reward.

Paraphrased, the complacency stems from the fact that the capital class could be worse.  As long as we’re not being abused, in our minds, we should defend our captors.  Ten days off is plenty… as a matter of fact, we don’t even need that.  We should just be lucky to have a job.  Or three.  They don’t have three jobs over in socialist Europe… what a bunch of lazy bums!  We’re dedicated workers!

And there’s the rub:  We identify ourselves as workers first and people second.  If someone asked the average American to describe his or herself, that person would likely detail their job right after their name and age.  It’s what we use to identify ourselves because we value that work above our personal time.  It’s the difference between living to work and working to live.  Most of the world does the latter and they’re happier for it.

But we can’t do that here…

How would our masters afford that fifth vacation home in the Hamptons if we were sitting around on vacation like a bunch of European slackers?  After all, they deserve it because they were kind enough to give us just enough to get by and all they asked for in return was complete loyalty around the clock.  If anything, we owe them.

“I know they keep calling on my days off, but if you really got to know them, I promise you’d understand how great they are.  They value me.  They respect me.”

  • Brad

    Loved this, Alan! I’m afraid to agree with you, however. I need my job.

  • Megan

    What’s interesting about this is you identify with your work, your URL is Agent 5959, a title that a corporation gave you. I find your POV intriguing, however, it’s hard for me to take it seriously when it seems hipocritical. You work for the same “great” executives with the 5 Hamptons homes.

    • agent5959

      I apologize for not responding to this sooner, Megan.

      I understand that you view my site URL as “hypocrisy.” Setting aside the fact that I couldn’t come up with anything more clever at the time (the Rage and Love thing is something that came about later), I think it’s worth discussing your view, as I’ve found a lot of folks have made similar statements on the topic. I’ll separate it into three facets that are equally important:

      1) Quite simply, American working class revolution isn’t happening. There’s a large resistance to it, which is sort of the point of my article. If I was to stand up and say “let’s do this,” nothing would come of it. There needs to be a huge shift in awareness and understanding of the issues before we attempt the broad, sweeping changes I allude to in this and other posts.

      2) So why, then, do I use my corporate-given (former) title to identify myself while pushing for this shift in awareness? Doesn’t it seem counterproductive to the cause? Perhaps it is. I chose because, at the time, I tried several variations on my name and similar identifiers and, without much deep thought or concern about the message it sent, this one was available. Many of my friends knew me by my badge number because many of my friends also happen to be coworkers. It also mirrored what several peers had done in the past. In short, I did it because I wanted a URL and didn’t want to put much effort into it.

      3) But still, I’m not targeting my own employer enough, right? Struggle begins as a personal battle and others only take up the struggle when they see that you’re fighting for a good collective cause, right? You’re right… and yet I get paid pretty well and get plenty of vacation time (23 days a year, to be exact). I’m in a pretty good spot, personally… but again, I’m no fan of Ayn Rand. I don’t live my life through the lens of “rational self-interest.” I always consider the collective. I consider the people who are making $16,000 a year and trying to keep a roof over their heads and food in their mouths. It’s not just about me, and that Objectivist mentality is the biggest hurdle to the awareness of our collective struggle.

      Hope this helps you understand my thought process! If you have any other questions or comments, I’d be happy to continue the dialog.