In Franz Kafka’s classic novella, The Metamorphosis, protagonist Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, awakes one “dreary” morning to find himself transformed into “a monstrous vermin.” Yet, in keeping with Kafka’s dark, absurdist style, Gregor is more concerned with the fact that he is going to be late for work.
“Oh God,” he thought, “what a grueling job I’ve picked!”
Kafka’s deliberately ambiguous story, published in 1915, taps into the profoundly dehumanizing effects of modern industrial capitalism. Gregor “was a tool of the boss,” Kafka writes, “without brains or backbone.”
Gregor’s transformation ultimately costs him his job, his relationship with his family, and leaves him a stranger in his own home. He becomes a quintessentially alienated person.
Kafka’s novella highlights perhaps the most glaring contradiction of America. We pride ourselves on our “freedom,” and “democracy,” yet we are forced to spend most of our waking lives in an institution utterly devoid of any such things: The workplace.
The capitalist workplace is essentially a benevolent dictatorship—at best. Employers prize obedience, conformity, and a perennially positive, outgoing personality in workers, above all else. One’s education and ability to competently do the job are almost an afterthought.
The workplace is best described by Bring It On!’s Torrance Shipman to her quarreling cheerleading squad: “This isn’t a democracy. It’s a cheer-ocracy.”
No wonder your job sucks.
None of the constitutional freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights apply to your job—a seemingly irreconcilable contradiction in the “world’s greatest democracy,” your high school Government teacher neglected to point out. The Constitution only delineates public law, whereas the workplace is governed as private property. As such the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and the press do not exist so long as you are clocked in at work.
This means workers have no say over the duration of their work, the conditions under which they labor, their schedules, or their pay. Certain “unskilled” jobs in retail and restaurants place restrictions on how workers may dress, their personal appearance, when they can take a break, and even when they can use the bathroom.
(A report by Oxfam America last year found that many poultry workers throughout the U.S. are forced to wear diapers during their shifts because they are “routinely denied breaks to use the bathroom.” And while it seems like extreme conditions like this should be patently illegal, the unfortunate truth is worker protection laws in this country are weak and rarely enforced.)
Additionally, workers can be monitored at work, surveilled on videotape, forbidden from discussing certain topics (politics, especially), and, when they are not being denied the opportunity to use the bathroom, they can be forced to urinate for drug tests.
Speaking of drug-tests, workers here in Maine can still be fired for using recreational marijuana outside of work, despite the fact that pot is now legal here. (Seven other states and the District of Columbia, have similar laws legalizing recreational marijuana.)
And such terminable offenses are not limited to smoking weed. Workers can be terminated for a host of activities they engage in when they are not at work–in their own personal time. These activities can include such seemingly innocuous “offenses” as cross-dressing, refusing to reveal computer passwords, and calling the boss a “cheapskate” in a letter to an acquaintance.
Certain employers prohibit workers from engaging in activism or political activity of any kind outside of work. Some bosses outright threaten their employees with termination if they do not vote a certain way or for a particular candidate.
And at least one in 17 workers is (illegally) fired or suspended for joining a union—even though it is completely legal to do so. (Again, the worker protection laws in the U.S. are a joke.)
In fact, under “at-will” work laws, employers have broad discretion to fire employees at any time, for any reason–or no reason at all–and with little notice. This is true whether they work in the public or private sector, for the government or at a “non-profit.”
And those who work independently, work from home, or operate their own business have not escaped the dictatorship of the capitalist workplace, as is commonly believed. They have merely reproduced the rigid, anti-democratic structures of the workplace in their own home or business.
“The capitalist workplace is one of the most profoundly undemocratic institutions on the face of the Earth,” writes Marxist economist, Richard Wolff in his book, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism.
“Workers have no say over decisions affecting them,” Wolff writes. “If workers sat on the board of directors of democratically operated, self-managed enterprises, they wouldn’t vote for the wildly unequal distribution of profits to benefit a few and for cutbacks for the many.”
Working-class people, who have nothing to sell but their labor-power, have no choice but to submit themselves to the tyranny of the workplace. Contrary to the dictates of libertarianism, work-or-starve is not a choice. It is coercion.
Libertarians and right-wing Market worshippers argue that workers are “free” to quit their job and simply get another one, if they do not “like their boss.” But swapping one capitalist job for another does nothing to alter the inherent power-imbalance between the employer and the worker.
Karl Marx understood this artificial power-imbalance was unique to the development of capitalism. Noting that workers, because they do not own the means of production, must sell their labor-power (or their ability to work) to those who do, Marx wrote in Volume 1 of his three-part economic treatise, Capital:
Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one that is common to all historical periods. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older forms of social production.
This is why union representation is so critical. Unions can help ameliorate (though, of course, never truly abolish) the power-imbalance between bosses and workers and give workers a voice where they would otherwise have none.
But the ruling class has successfully waged a 40-year campaign to crush unions. Union membership is at its lowest point in decades–down to a measly 10.7 percent in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many corporate employers even subject new hires to anti-union propaganda videos as part of their “training.” The goal of these videos–most of which are poorly acted and produced–is basically to intimidate new employees from even considering trying to unionize.
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.”
Marx, addressing the struggle over the limits of the work-day in 19th century England, wrote of the “antimony” between labor and capital:
The capitalist maintains his right as a purchaser when he tries to make the working day as long as possible, and, where possible, to make two working days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold [the worker’s labor-power] implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the worker maintains his right as a seller when he wishes to reduce the working day to a particular normal length. There is here therefore an antimony, of right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides. Hence, in the history of capitalist production, the establishment of a norm for the working day presents itself as a struggle over the limits of that day, a struggle between … the class of capitalists, and … the working class.
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