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What You Sacrifice to Hold a Job in the New Economy

The Absurdity of Hi-Tech Servitude

by BILL MANSON

If we often define "freedom" in entirely political terms, we will understandably focus on the recent assault on civil liberties, notably in the United States. Yet in today’s all-encompassing, profit-driven Marketplace (erroneously termed a "society"), most people are "indefinitely detained" in economic servitude. Abjectly dependent upon imperious corporations for survival itself, an employed person readily sacrifices his first and fourth amendment rights in order to earn a paycheck in the privately-owned workplace.

The question deserves to be re-stated: what (if any) is the distinction between outright economic slavery?in which human beings are reduced to items of exploitable property, labor-machines to be used-up and then sold or discarded?and the so-called "employment contract"? In the latter, individuals "agree" to the terms and conditions of their employment?at least according to free-market ideologues who always contrast such "freedom" with nightmarish visions of Soviet labor camps. The claim is that the potential "employee," unlike the purchased and overworked slave, voluntarily enters into a dissolvable contract, in which she agrees to perform certain work-tasks in exchange for an agreed-upon wage. What is always (and obviously) overlooked is that, in the classic Marxist terms (which deserve re-examination), the party which controls the "means of production" is in the dominant position of coercing those often-urgently in need of a wage to accept whatever terms are dictated: paltry wages, dangerous work environments?or, increasingly today, part-time and/or temporary work with no pension or other "benefits." Nonetheless?to paraphrase Malcolm X?today’s underpaid (white-collar) "house slaves," often entirely indoctrinated to identify with the interests of their corporate masters, will often vote Republican and strive to distance themselves from the downwardly mobile "field slaves" more directly confronted with the degrading conditions of employment.

Even before Marx and Engels wrote "The Communist Manifesto" (1848), globalizing capitalist enterprises were obliterating traditional, local economies and creating a dispossessed class of soon-to-be-employed sweatshop workers, cotton pickers, miners, and so forth. But whereas in the 19th century, a potential worker could still offer his "labor-power" in a market in which basic human skills such as strength and agility had some (albeit constantly diminishing) value, 21st century corporations not only command and (temporarily) conscript their employees, but demand highly specific, often techno-scientific, skills.

In order to be "employable"?i.e., to offer "marketable skills" in a constantly automating and downsizing ("labor-saving") economy?the potential corporate-serf must obviously submit to all the demanded requirements. And unlike the 19th century miner or factory worker, today’s would-be employee must first carefully predict ahead of time what "skills," if any, corporations will demand several years’ hence?taking into consideration, as well, the possible ratio of applicants to "demand," possible recessions, possible near-term obsolescence of skills acquired, ad infinitum. And it goes without saying that today’s specialized, hi-tech jobs are rarely any more "fulfilling" in human terms than the specialized labor-tasks of the factory floor, which Adam Smith himself deplored as alienating and mind-destroying.

Of course, mandatory school attendance in childhood already inculcates basic skills and attitudes preparatory to eventual induction into a disciplined, hierarchical workforce: obedience, docility, punctuality, calculation, accuracy, orderliness, and "cooperative" teamwork-skills. However, should the eager potential employee offer only these basic skills, she will mostly likely be rejected?unless she can find a job scanning product codes and repeating the mantra "Have a great day" 300 times a day. (Some progress in work conditions: in the 1980s, such workers in retail sales were required to say "Have a nice day," with all the suitably ingratiating demeanor implicit in the job description. This form of self-alienation, more damaging than the stunting of the worker’s creativity as described by Marx, requires a counterfeit display of human feeling.)

No, full "marketability" today obviously requires the college degree–and not a degree in such preposterously esoteric fields of study as "history" or "philosophy"!–but a degree in "real-world" subjects such as petroleum engineering, hotel management, marketing and finance, biotechnology and so on. Young people are told to enthusiastically prepare themselves, devoting several more years to their foremost goal of life: Longterm Employability.

Of course, even upon completing such a course of "training"?with the massive acquisition of debt involved?the young person must still compete for those dwindling job openings through relentless "self-marketing" (and, if indicated, additional degrees and/or training). But finally, after years of costly preparation and personality "adjustments," there is still no guarantee of employment–let alone, secure, longterm employment. If the fledgling wage-earner presents a suitable appearance and manages a favorable "impression," she may indeed eventually be hired: to perform a specified set of tasks, during a specified 40-60 hours per week (plus unpaid hours at home with the laptop and cellphone)–for as long as her "performance" is favorably reviewed (and his services are "needed" for the bottom-line).

Yet, with the relentlessly profit-driven trends of automation, downsizing and outsourcing, this "highly-trained" worker may still suddenly find herself "de-skilled" and/or "disposable": dumped into the surplus-labor pool. Karl Marx famously referred to the "reserve army" of the unemployed: millions desperately in need of a paycheck, especially during recessions but remaining idle until the next upturn ("last hired, first fired"). Today, as unemployed young people are in effect forced into military deployment (the "poverty draft"), this concept has become all-too-literal. In terms of "jobs," war is evidently a burgeoning growth-industry. Back in the "Homeland," the demands of "internal-security" offer new openings for countless other "surplus-persons" in need of some "employment"?as law-enforcement and anti-terrorism personnel, prison guards?or prison inmates.

BILL MANSON previously taught social science at Columbia and Rutgers universities.