Nice Work (If You Can Get It)

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I recently completed a temporary job stint filing medical charts at Maine Behavioral Healthcare, in Portland. I worked there for a little over a month.

When the temp agency presented me with the job, they indicated it had the “potential” to become a full-time, permanent position. But, after a month, the employers decided I was not the “right fit” for the company.

According to my point person at the temp agency, the employers were “extremely satisfied” with my actual work at the job—which they called “excellent.”

But, in the 21st century capitalist workplace, it is no longer enough to merely be a capable—or even an “excellent”—worker. One must also fit in with the so-called “workplace culture.” You must, in other words, be just like the people you are working with. Likewise, they must like you as a person. Failure to assimilate, Borg-style, to the hive-mind collective has become more important than one’s ability to competently do the job.

Given that my immediate co-worker was an ignorant, gun-rights-spouting conservative, who insisted on calling Black Lives Matter an “anti-police” group, my chances of ever “fitting in” were pretty much shot from the get-go.

The job itself was, admittedly, boring and well below my education level. It was essentially eight hours of busy work. But, contrary to the claims of the bourgeois ruling ideology, capitalism does not offer members of the working class a choice when it comes to the type of work they perform. Those of us with nothing to sell but our labor power (i.e. our ability to work), must offer ourselves up to the exploitative capitalist workplace—an institution devoid of democracy of any kind.

Meager as the paycheck at MBHC was, I have grown rather fond of eating. And I am not about to go live in the woods, and hunt my own wildlife for food, Ted Nugent-style, thank you very much. (I imagine having a rock star’s salary behind him, certainly helps Nugent maintain his “authentic,” “self-reliant” lifestyle.)

In the world of temping, nobody really gets “fired” in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, the temp agency merely informs you that the “job assignment has ended.” I have worked some “job assignments” with this particular company that lasted six months, and others that lasted six days.

Employers love using temps because it allows them to “try out” workers—not unlike the act of test driving a new car at a dealership. Best of all, they do not need to offer temps any benefits, sick time, vacations or holiday pay. And if the company does not like the temp it was sent, they can just call up the temp agency and order a different one, avoiding all the messy hassle of actually having to fire somebody. From the capitalist’s viewpoint, temps are a wet-dream come true.

While both the temp agency and the company often hold out the potential of the temp job developing into a permanent, full-time position—assuming, that is, they like you enough—studies confirm that very few temp job actually turn into permanent gigs. This is largely due to employers’ unwillingness to pay the “finder’s fee” in order to “purchase” the worker. And given that the temp agency is also making money off of your surplus-labor, it begs the question how truly invested it is in auctioning off any of its temps.

Either way, the temp agency makes a profit, and the worker is once again unemployed.

Welcome to work in the 21st century: Temporary, part-time or contractual, with no benefits, job security, or union representation. And virtually none of these jobs pays a living wage. While economists and pundits whip up fear about a not-too-distant future where widespread automation replaces human workers, these prognosticators overlook the dystopian nightmare the process of securing and maintaining a job has already become.

Morrissey had it right: “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job/And heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

So much, it seems, for the much lauded “economic recovery.”

Indeed, nearly a decade after Wall Street laid waste to the global economy, ushering in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, working-class Americans are still struggling to get by. Businesses remain highly selective in their hiring practices—largely because they can be. This “reserve army of labor,” as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels termed it, is what allows employers to justify paying such meager wages, or exploiting immigrant labor for even less.

As Marx writes in Volume One of his three-part economic treatise, Das Kapital (Capital):

[C]apitalistic accumulation itself … constantly produces and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent a relatively redundant population of workers, i.e. a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the valorization of capital, and therefore a surplus population… It is the absolute interest of every capitalist to press a given quantity of labour out of a smaller rather than a greater number of labourers, if the cost is about the same… The more extended the scale of production, the stronger this motive. Its force increases with the accumulation of capital.

Even the process of applying for a job—to get one’s “foot in the door,” as they say–has itself become a Herculean effort. Job-seekers are made to jump through an increasingly absurd barrage of hoops just to be considered for a position.

Job-seekers are expected to craft precisely tailored resumes and cover letters, endure multiple job interviews, pass invasive drug tests and background checks, as well as snobbish scrutiny of their credit card histories, and spend hours filling out lengthy job applications–most of which prompt candidates to regurgitate the same information contained in their resumes and cover letters. These redundant applications are then sent to a computer software program which scans them for certain “keywords,” and determines which applicants warrant an invitation for an interview.

In other words, while robots have not yet taken over our workplaces, they are already in charge of the hiring process.

Contrary to the rosy economic picture the Labor Department routinely paints with its monthly jobs report, these measures fail to take into account the hundreds of working-age Americans—mostly men—who have simply given up looking for work, entirely. And I can’t honestly say that I blame them.

None of my friends in my age group are doing much better, economically. They are all working retail jobs with erratic, unpredictable schedules, or as Ed Techs in special education classrooms at woefully underfunded schools.

My generation—the “millennials”—is the most educated in history, yet is less well-off economically than our parents. We are also the most debt-saddled generation in history, due to the ever increasing cost of college. Little wonder then, that a majority of Americans under the age of 30 view socialism more favorably than capitalism.

All of this is to point out what is obvious to anyone who has not had the luxury of being gainfully employed at the same job for the last 30 years: The system no longer works for the majority of working class Americans. Indeed, as Marx and Engels so astutely observed a century and a half ago, it never really did work for them, in the first place.

The writers at the anarchist collective, CrimethInc. are right: We don’t have to live this way.

Work under capitalism is exploitative, degrading, sexist, and entirely devoid of any semblance of democracy. Workers have no say over the conditions under which they labor, how much they are paid, their schedules, or often even the type of work itself.

Under socialism, workers would own the factories, offices, and restaurants they toil in day after day. They would control their own economic, social, and political destinies–not just at the workplace, but in all avenues of life. Rather than spending most our waking hours toiling away at jobs we hate, workers’ lives would be governed by the old labor motto: “Eight hours for work. Eight hours for rest. Eight hours for whatever you please.”

Again, Marx’s understanding of the capitalist workplace as a prison, remains unrivaled.

“Modern industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist,” he and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto in 1848.

Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is.

 

Editor’s note: Red Flag does not support or endorse any WordPress-sponsored advertisements that may appear on readers’ screens. This is another reason why workers, including writers, need to own the means of production–or in this case, the Internet.

If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Adam Marletta can be reached at adamd.marletta@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!

 

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Author: Adam Marletta

Adam Marletta is a writer, activist, and coffee fiend. He has been involved in political activism since his sophomore year of college, when George W. Bush used lies and fabrications to launch the illegal war in Iraq. Over a decade later, he has only grown more radical. Adam is the former chairman of the Portland Green Independent Party in Portland, Maine, and is currently a dues-paying member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). He holds a Master's degree in Communication and Journalism from the University of Maine, and a B.A. in Communication Studies from Colby-Sawyer College. He has written for the Socialist Worker and the Portland, Maine monthly, the West End News, among other publications. He lives in Kennebunk, Maine.

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