I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Soho. It’s dark, abnormally dark for a coffee shop, and I’m re-reading my copy of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. On my right, two men, dressed in suits, are talking hurriedly. I take them to be investment bankers working on Wall Street, but I come to find, through the half-clipped phrases I can only barely make out, that they’re talking about food. They’re young chefs, just starting out. One says to the other: “Yeah, you’ve gotta hustle.”
Chefs also hustle?
The Scene of Hustling
In the most basic terms, P wants to get something from Q but that something is not easily gotten. So P resorts to words, not to force, or to the force of words rather than the use of force.
More specifically, P wants Q to purchase or accept something (transaction); to do or perform something, typically on P’s behalf (service); or to put him in touch with someone or with some institution (access).
Why all the roundabouts, the end-arounds, the back-door entries? We’ll come to that.
A Definition of Hustling
To hustle is to pursue your self-interest by means of cunning and without direct institutional support. The key ingredients: cunning and lack of direct institutional support.
Why is hustling the way we live now? Let’s first tease out the implications of hustling.
- that there are high obstacles or great barriers to entry;
- that a supreme, and often praised, effort is required;
- that the agent is filled with great ambition;
- that the world abounds with individuals pursuing their own self-interests;
- that institutions, which had hitherto supported individual advancement, are in the midst of collapse or have already collapsed (consider that the notion of hustling would not occur, nor could it occur, to the Organization Man);
- that the use of cunning or cleverness seems to be necessary in light of conditions 1-5.
Our world is constructed, not entirely but increasingly, according to the metaphysical premise that we are first strangers who meet in the abstract land of the marketplace. In the marketplace, we do not know each other as neighbors, stewards, or hosts; we regard each other instead as abstract agents who strive to fulfill worldly ambitions. Is there an afterlife? We do not care nor do we think to ask. All this is what is; all this is what life offers. Yet because the opportunities are few and resources scarce, because institutions no longer guide us, we must use cleverness in order to make our way where others, essaying the direct route, have failed. We have learned from them and thus plot like chess masters.
And what are hustlers doing? A paradox: They are making strangers into acquaintances, making a stranger world less strange and more friendly without becoming genuine friends. They convince, when they do, because they are likable without being lovers; because they are are agreeable without becoming friends. This is not to say that they live without a sense of conscience: they are doing what they think is necessary in a fallen world. A necessary evil.
At night, they half-smile. They are almost wretched. To them, to us is bequeathed the not-quite. A necessary evil. Nothing to be done.
Terre Haute, Indiana
On the interstate, my car idling, Terre Haute, Indiana, a few miles off. Where I grew up, Terre Haute, Indiana, a dead city. It’s the last day of 2006, and I should have realized then that hustling could not be a way of life. I didn’t. That would come later.
Part 3: Terre Haute, the end of love, and the art of the conversation.