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.

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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!