The Tyranny of Nine to Five

Homer at Work
The sign at Homer Simpson’s work-station at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, is meant to remind him that his job is a prison.

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.

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.

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The Myth of Democracy

vote1

Maine lawmakers’ open contempt for the will of the people is further evidence that true democracy in America is severely lacking.

Democracy in America has always been something of a joke.

As Vladimir Lenin wrote in his 1917 classic, State and Revolution, “Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in ancient Greek republics: Freedom for the slave-owners.”

But the Maine Legislature’s blatant rejection of four citizen-initiated referendum questions passed in November brings the abject hollowness of America’s vaunted “democracy” painfully to light. Measures passed through Maine’s century-old referendum process—designed to give voters a voice on issues or legislation ignored by lawmakers—are supposed to be state laws.

Yet, both Republican and Democratic legislators have effectively decided these laws are merely suggestions to be enacted at their discretion. They have arrogantly dismissed the referendum process as a glorified opinion poll. And both parties have openly defied the will of the voters.

No wonder large portions of voters in Maine and the rest of the country do not even bother to vote. When politicians are free to flagrantly disregard the results, what is the point?

For background, Maine voters approved four out of five referendum questions on last November’s ballot. The referendums ranged on issues from legalizing recreational marijuana for adults (Question 1); taxing residents with incomes of $200,000 or more to fund public education (Question 2); gradually raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour and eliminating the “tip credit” for restaurant workers, which effectively allows employers to pay them an insulting sub-minimum wage as low as $2.13 an hour (Question 4); and establishing a ranked-choice or instant run-off voting system for all Maine elections (Question 5).

(Question 3, which called for strengthening the state’s background-checks for gun purchases, was overwhelmingly defeated.)

But, rather than honoring the will of the voters and implementing the new laws as the Maine Constitution requires, the Legislature has instead undermined the measures, re-written them, or repealed them entirely.

Here is where the referendums stand as of mid-July:

Question 1 (Marijuana legalization): Implementation has been delayed for “further review.”

Question 2 (Tax the rich to pay for schools): Perhaps the most contentious of the lot, Question 2 was at the heart of a protracted battle over the state budget, which led to Republicans and wing-nut Gov. Paul LePage shutting down the state government for three days during the Independence Day weekend. Maine Senate Republicans refused to accept any budget that included the three percent surcharge tax on wealthy Mainers intended to fund the state’s constantly underfunded public education system. And Democrats, naturally, caved with barely a fight.

Question 4 (Minimum wage): Re-written and watered-down. While the state’s minimum wage will still increase to $12 by 2020 (still not a living wage, but it’s something, I guess…), legislators voted to restore the tip credit under intense pressure from the restaurant industry.

Question 5 (Ranked-choice voting): Declared “unconstitutional” by the Maine Supreme Court. Its future remains uncertain, though repeal seems likely. As the Portland Press Herald editors opine in a recent editorial, “It’s safe to say that the least likely option will be for the Legislature to follow the will of the majority of voters, and make sure the new system is in place before next year’s election.”

Maine is the first state in the nation to pass a ranked-choice voting law—a bittersweet accomplishment, given that it is apparently meaningless.

Legislators have justified their attempts to undermine the will of the people by claiming voters were simply “confused” about what, exactly, they were voting for—particularly with regard to Question 4.

“Mainers did not understand the specifics of the referendum,” Gov. LePage wrote in a Nov. 29, 2016 press release announcing his intent to block and delay the new minimum wage law.

This claim—that voters are essentially too stupid to even understand the ballot questions they are voting on—has been echoed by Maine Senate President Mike Thibodeau. It is in keeping with longstanding elite views–which date back to the United States’ founding–of the public as an “unruly herd,” that is incapable of managing its own affairs.

World renowned public intellectual and dissident, Noam Chomsky, in summing up the views of Walter Lippmann, an early pioneer in manipulating public opinion (or “manufacturing consent,” as Chomsky terms the practice), writes:

The public must “be put in its place”: its “function” in a democracy is to be “spectators of action,” not participants, acting “only by aligning itself as the partisan of someone in a position to act executively,” in periodic electoral exercises.

Other legislators, meanwhile, have justified their blatant disregard for the voters by quibbling that the constituents of their specific legislative district did not, in fact, vote for a particular referendum—and that their sole obligation is to those voters.

But this is nitpicky nonsense.

By this rubric, the people of southern Maine’s 1st Congressional District should not have to accept Donald Trump as their president, since his support came largely from the northern, 2nd District. First District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree should just say, “Sorry, but my constituents did not vote for Trump, so we’re just going to ignore the election results. Voters clearly did not understand what they were getting when they voted for this xenophobic, Twitter-addicted, sexual predator.”

In fact, while we are at it, there are a lot of other recent elections I would like to revisit…

The fact is both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature have long expressed disdain for the referendum process. Republicans decry the outsized spending by out-of-state advocacy groups on various ballot questions.

But unlimited campaign spending by Political Action Committees (PACs), unions or advocacy groups is hardly a new phenomenon–nor is it limited to the referendum process. (Citizens United, anyone…?)

Indeed, the Koch Brothers do not live in Maine, yet they have been influencing LePage—who is a member of the Koch’s free-market-legislation-pushing, American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC—since he rode the 2010 “Tea Party” wave to victory. Where is the outrage over the Koch’s undue influence over our elections?

Maine Democrats, likewise, gripe that the referendum process is “too divisive,” and make it difficult to “compromise” and find “common ground.”

But there is, by definition, no “compromising” in elections. They are (ostensibly) based on majority rule. The losing candidate or side in our “winner-take-all” system does not get to negotiate some sort of power-sharing deal or compromise after the vote. They are expected to honor the “integrity” of America’s enviable “democracy,” thank voters for their time, get the hell off of the stage and shut-up about the whole thing, already.

As bourgeois Trump supporters are so quick to snidely chastise liberals, “You lost. Get over it!”

Yet, when it comes to these referendums, it seems Maine legislators cannot “get over it.” Indeed, they preferred to shut down the government for three days, leaving hundreds of “nonessential” state workers without pay, to avoid implementing a measly three percent tax on Mainers who can most easily afford it to better fund education.

And there is more than a hint of elitism in both parties’ opposition to the referendum process. That is because, unlike traditional elections in which the candidates and issues are largely pre-selected by the capitalist parties, referendums allow citizens to bypass the state and place issues on the ballot that could actually improve their daily lives.

Furthermore, citizens typically go to referendum after becoming fed up with their state government’s inaction on issues like drug reform, raising the minimum wage, taxing the wealthy, school funding, etc. The increased use of ballot referendums speaks to Maine voters’ frustration with the lack of representation in government at both the state and federal level.

As such, the citizens’ referendum is the closest thing Maine voters have to an actual democratic process. And this is precisely why elite lawmakers on both sides of the aisle resent it. It is also why the Legislature is actively working to make the referendum process more difficult—increasing the number of voter signatures groups must collect before an issue can be placed on the ballot.

All of this should underscore the fact that we do not live in an actual democracy. We live under capitalism. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the two systems are not the same. Indeed, democracy is incompatible with a system based on wage slavery in which a tiny minority enjoys incredible wealth while the majority of working-class citizens live paycheck to paycheck. Not only is such an economic system inherently unequal and unjust. It is unfree.

The recent events in Maine merely highlight this sad reality.

George Carlin–still America’s greatest comedian, in my humble opinion–said it best: “The owners of this country know the truth. It’s called the American Dream ’cause you’ve got to be asleep to believe in it.”

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!