‘Nice guy? I don’t give a s***. Good father? F*** you! Go home and play with your kids. You wanna work here – close!’
This is what Alec Baldwin’s character screams during the opening monologue of 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross, as he threatens to fire a room of struggling salesmen if they don’t quickly improve their performance. It’s probably one of the best-delivered speeches in movie history, and is riddled with both profanity and one-line life lessons (‘Coffee is for closers’ being my personal favourite).
I first watched the scene after reading a great article in Cracked magazine a couple years ago, where the scene is credited not only as a stellar piece of acting, but as a perfect representation of how the world is going to treat you. It’s not enough to be a ‘good’ person; you’re only as good as you can provide.
The article is absolutely right. Our value to other people is often determined simply by what we can provide, and can transcend other, more personal features.
Sometimes, this is a wonderful phenomenon of trade. An injured racist has to put his prejudices behind him when the doctor is a person of colour. A hardline Corbynista, who might despise everything the Conservatives stand for, is hardly likely to care if her waiter or barista votes Tory, so long as she gets her coffee.
Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman describes this effect wonderfully in his book Capitalism and Freedom:
‘An impersonal market separates economic activities from political views and protects men from being discriminated against in their economic activities for reasons that are irrelevant to their productivity – whether these reasons are associated with their views or their color.’
In placing value in our ability to produce and provide, we are often able to bypass whatever prejudices have held us back in the past.
To some, this might sound incredibly depressing. It’s not particularly romantic to imagine a world where personal worth is based on productivity, and where bigotry is combated not through revolution or dialogue, but through trade. And yet, this rather boring form of cooperation is an exceptionally effective method of harmonising society.
This is because this method doesn’t actually have any aspirations of creating any harmonious utopias. Where other ideologies might consider certain aspects of society to be undesirable or inappropriate, here they are simply given no value. Your views on politics mean nothing in the real world; feel free to talk about it with your friends, but all that really counts is what you can produce both for yourself, and for your customers.
While this might seem dehumanising and shallow, it’s through this form of self-interested anti-politics that brings about real, organic cooperation. We needn’t coerce Tom to make nice with Dick or Harry – he’ll do it anyway because he likes what they have to offer.
Rather than judging our peers by how they vote, how they look, how they dress, or other ultimately meaningless personal factors, we can choose to do so based anything from how good a cup of coffee they can make for us, or how well they can make us laugh, or how quickly they can drive us from point A to point B. In return, they’ll judge us on exactly the same merit: how well we can do whatever it is we’ve chosen to do.
In a strange way, through behaving entirely based on our own self-interest, be it for good food or good company, we are in a far better position to cooperate with our fellow humans based on things that matter. We make friends not because they fall into the right categories, but because we like what they do enough to keep them around.
To quote David Wong’s aforementioned Cracked article: ‘society is full of people who need things. They need houses built, they need food to eat, they need entertainment, they need fulfilling sexual relationships… the moment you came into the world, you became part of a system designed purely to see to people’s needs.’
While we may be valued based on what we can provide for others, that doesn’t mean we can’t still provide for ourselves. We retain the freedom to do something because others need it, but because we enjoy doing it. You’re a barista because you love making coffee. Other’s love you because you’re damn good at it.
In allowing individuals to choose their own path, and by valuing them on how well they walk it, we lay the foundations for a functioning society of cooperation, trade, and personal liberty. If we can truly learn and understand exactly why coffee is for closers, we’ll be one step closer to a better world.
It might not be exciting or romantic, but it works like a charm.