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.

 

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Thanks for reading!

 

From Hope to Hopeless: Reflections on Obama’s Legacy of Corporatism and Militarism

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Barack Obama’s farewell address last Tuesday highlighted, one last time, the conflicting disparity between the president’s rhetoric and the actual policies he has pursued throughout the last eight years.

It was, as always, a rousing speech–even if it was completely detached from the material reality working-class Americans endure. (Say what you will about the president, but the man remains an impressive orator. George W. Bush, on the other hand, struggled just to correctly pronounce the word “nuclear.”)

Obama assumed office just as the 2008 Great Recession, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, was unfolding. He handily defeated Republican John McCain, on a marketing-savvy (if, ultimately, vacuous) platform of “hope” and “change.” And congressional Democrats rode Obama’s campaign coattails to victory, enlarging their already solid majority in the House and Senate.

The message from voters was clear: Americans were fed up with eight years of Bush’s unpopular wars, shredding of constitutional liberties, torture and spying programs, and the ever widening gap between the wealthy one percent and the working class. President Obama and the Democrats had a clear mandate to enact sweeping progressive changes on the level of FDR’s New Deal.

Eight years later, those unpopular wars have not only continued but been expanded. The NSA’s surveillance program is far more widespread than we originally imagined. The U.S. no longer tortures its enemies–it murders them, without charge, warrant or trial, via unmanned predator drones. The once discredited Republican Party has retaken control of Congress and the White House along with 67 state legislatures.

And the economy remains stagnant–the much lauded “economic recovery,” a cruel joke. Wall Street not only weathered the recession, but emerged richer and more influential than when taxpayers were forced to bail out the floundering Lehman Brothers and AIG at the height of the recession.

What the hell happened…?

For starters, Obama’s roughly $800 billion stimulus fell far short of the type of robust stimulus package many economists–including New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman–believed was necessary. (Krugman would later reveal the true limits to his supposed Keynesian economic populism in his intense opposition to democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.)

In fact, the stimulus contained limited money for job-creation and, according to the Socialist Worker‘s Lance Selfa, “explicitly ruled out direct government jobs programs modeled on the 1930s-era Works Progress Administration. It dedicated upwards of 40 percent of the stimulus bill to tax cuts and credits to individuals and business that were useless in creating jobs.”

But then, it seems that Obama–who described himself on the campaign trail as a “free-market guy,” and cited Ronald Reagan as a political inspiration–was always more committed to serving Wall Street than Main Street.

Investigative journalist, Ron Suskind, in his book, The Confidence Men, reported on a March 27, 2009 meeting between the president and a group of the most influential Wall Street CEOs. Despite Obama’s warning the billionaires that, “My administration is the only thing standing between you and the pitchforks,” he and then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner nonetheless assured them they would not interfere with business-as-usual in Wall Street.

Suskind quotes one of the attending CEOs:

The sense of everyone after the big meeting was relief… The president had as us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything, and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t. He mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.

The list of botched opportunities and unfulfilled promises goes on.

The health insurance giveaway known as the Affordable Care Act is based on a right-wing proposal and is a far cry from the single-payer, universal health care program left activists have long called for. The former community organizer who frequently invokes the language and rhetoric of nonviolent civil disobedience used the brute force of the NYPD to violently crush Occupy Wall Street.

Obama has deported more immigrants than any other president in history. (And you thought Trump’s xenophobia was bad!) He has, likewise, created a repressive, chilling atmosphere toward journalists, prosecuting more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all other previous administrations combined.

And, while the historic significance of a nation founded and built on slavery electing its first African American president should not be undermined, Obama did precious little to address the deeply-embedded, institutional racism that remains a pernicious presence in our supposedly “post-racial” country. Indeed, black Americans have lost ground in every economic category during the last eight years.

By the 2010 midterm elections, liberal voters were understandably underwhelmed and unimpressed. They stayed home on Election Day, allowing the conservative Tea Party “movement” to sweep Republicans back into the House of Representatives. The Democrats barely hung on to their majority in the Senate–a situation which would eventually by reversed after the GOP won big gains in the 2014 and 2016 elections.

As Selfa writes of Obama’s first two years in office, “This was a time when Obama and the Democrats held almost all the levers of political power in Washington. And they squandered it.”

He later adds,

“Obama’s penchant to reach for compromise and ‘bipartisanship’ was exactly the opposite of what the dire situation he inherited required–and what the American populace was ready for.”

But I think the biggest gap between President Obama’s rhetoric and his actions is demonstrated in the area of foreign policy, where the Nobel Peace Prize winner has proved himself to be a greater warmonger than Bush.

Obama ramped-up the nebulous war in Afghanistan, making it the longest war in U.S. history. He has dropped bombs on Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Somalia. In fact, according to anti-war activist and Code Pink co-founder, Medea Benjamin, the U.S. dropped 26,171 bombs in 2016 alone. And the U.S. maintains a military presence in Iraq, a nation both Bush and Obama have all but ravaged, paving the way for the massive refugee crisis and the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“What does the administration have to show for eight years of fighting on so many fronts?” writes Benjamin. “Terrorism has spread, no wars have been ‘won’ and the Middle East is consumed by more chaos and divisions than when candidate Barack Obama declared his opposition to the invasion of Iraq.”

Additionally, Obama has codified and normalized the use of unmanned predator drones. Contrary to his insistence, these robotic death machines do not allow for more selective, precisely targeted killings. Obama is also the first sitting president to claim for himself the right to assassinate, at will, any person based on the slightest suspicion of connections to terrorism. Targets are selected for assassination based on Obama’s secret “kill list”—a list which includes American citizens.

And on Jan. 20—five days from this writing—Donald Trump will inherit all of this awesome, unprecedented military power and extrajudicial authority. Yeah, I’m fucking scared, too.

To that end, perhaps Obama’s greatest achievement has been his ability to get progressives to passively go along with policies they never would have supported under a Republican president.

Glenn Greenwald observed this phenomenon during Congress’s debate in 2011 on raising the federal debt-ceiling in order to avoid a government shutdown. As part of Obama’s “Grand Bargain” with the Republicans he offered up deep cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the crown jewels of New Deal liberalism.

As Greenwald wrote in The Guardian at the time:

Therein lies one of the most enduring attributes of Obama’s legacy: in many crucial areas, he has done more to subvert and weaken the left’s political agenda than a GOP president could have dreamed of achieving. So potent, so overarching, are tribal loyalties in American politics that partisans will support, or at least tolerate, any and all policies their party’s leader endorses–even if those policies are ones they long claimed to loathe.

In the end, Obama’s true legacy may be that he was not the “lesser evil,” but in the words of Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford, the more “effective evil.”

Going forward, as Obama exits the White House and we look down the barrel of Trump’s administration of swamp monsters, it is worth remembering a quote from left-wing historian, Howard Zinn.

“What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House,” Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States, “but who is ‘sitting in’–and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.”

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