Observations on Work
With the election cycle over, President Obama has promised to create one million manufacturing jobs. Obama has also promised to cut taxes for small businesses in order to spur job creation. Considering the depths of the recession, the call for the creation of jobs is on the minds of millions. And for those out of work or barely getting by, getting a job seems like a godsend.
Many on the left are pressing for “jobs for the 99%.” Yet the call for full employment tends to ignore and obscure the nature of work under capitalism, which at its very roots is fundamentally exploitative and alienating.
Nowadays, there’s a whole ritual for entering the job market. You go to school and learn the three Rs. You learn some other essentials too, such as following orders, saluting the flag, and deciding what to be when you grow up. In the USA at least, a good portion of students go to some sort of college. That means spending two to four years majoring in a subject that will land you employment. Even for those “lucky” enough to go to college, doing what you love is considered “unrealistic.” Making a living (read: money) is considered the normal motivation for getting an education.
Nowadays, there is a ritual for entering the job market. You learn the type of suits to wear; how to comb your hair. A resume has to follow accepted formats, and having an inconsistency of font or format can ruin you … no matter how impressive your credentials are! There is a whole set of habits and rules to being interviewed: do you look the employer in the eye or not and for how long? Is your handshake too strong?
There is an irony to the whole process: you have to answer the employer’s questions in the expected way, but in a way that makes you stand out. There are always new gimmicks and edges to the whole job search process as well. Turn on CNN and you’ll hear about “the latest way that experts say you can gain a job at an interview.”
Once you’re sold, and in this economy you may as well count your lucky stars, then what? You are now an employee! You are living the American Dream! You can buy a home, car and all the good things in life—or at least maybe pay your rent this month. Scratch the surface and you will see something a little more.
You work in conditions that resemble cages. Produce. Tow the company line. Don’t slack. Come in early and stay late. Produce more and faster. Once you’re working, you learn to ingrain yourself into the whole matrix of written and unwritten rules. The downside of your “success” story soon becomes clear: you are not a free being for the majority of your waking hours.
As a worker, you can’t get rich. You enrich someone else. It is only by the labor of workers that anything gets made. You bust your ass and sweat yourself dry, but the end profit doesn’t belong to you. You see none of the benefits whether you are building a car, running a cash register or picking grapes.
The profits go to the bosses with the plush offices and offshore accounts. Whatever you produce, in whatever manner, you’ll get enough (maybe!) to pay for your bare needs. Workers sow. The bosses reap. Yet the immediate boss, is not making much more than the average worker, they enforce the rules of the owner to keep profits flowing. The low level manger is often hated by the workers for making them labor, and berated by the owner to increase productivity.
Our imaginations and potential mean nothing on the job. When you’re on the clock, you belong to the boss. Workers cynically turn their brains off, without ever using the talents or the passions that they have inside of them. Your powers of body and mind produce for someone else’s benefit, not your own.
Our ability to create, which makes us human, is not only denied us on the job, it is used against us to enrich the boss. The collective fruit of our bodies and brains builds new and innovative machines that work us even more to the bone. Workers are bonded to those machines in some sort of unholy matrimony.
While our creative powers are drained by an alien class, we are unable to create for our collective social benefit. And we work for 8, 10, 12 hours or more. When we punch out and head home (should we be lucky enough to have one), we end up being so exhausted that it is unlikely we can create much once we have the time to do so.
Instead we indulge in our animal side by consuming food or drink to make us forget the drudgery of our lives for a few hours. While the animal comes out, the human side our ability to creatively produce is associated with the toil of work.
We live in a society where we have to compete for jobs. A few years ago, at least in the US, it was easier to find employment. The ‘new normal’ is long-term unemployment. Workers applying for a job may find themselves next to twenty competitors. Those competitors are foes who can take away our daily bread. Indeed, Robert Reich recently wrote that half of the last graduating college class still hadn’t found a full-time job one year later.
Everything in society from the production relations and ideology produces and reproduces competition, so we have to combat those who are in our way. If you’re on the job and can get ahead by screwing your fellow worker, why not? After all, it’s a dog eat dog world.
Systems of domination and racism are thrown into this already acidic mix. A person with darker skin on the bottom can be seen as one who is not only less than human but threatens meager privileges, or may hate and fear the “other “ who wants let you have a living but would crush you beneath the iron heel.
Undocumented workers, incorrectly referred to as “illegal” workers may be seen as the cause of a multitude of social ills from taking jobs to not paying taxes. So they need to be driven out. The remedy is often for the “true citizens” of all classes to band together and drive the intruders out.
Perhaps our struggle can take more conscious forms. We can see our individual condition as something that is not individual, but as the collective lot of a class comprised of those alienated and exploited. We can understand and see a perfect pattern. We can name our enemy: capitalism.
We can explain how the system’s mechanisms try to grind us down. We can decide to not see the worker of a different skin or gender as the enemy. Resistance can become more than just singular acts that just make the work day easier to endure, but rather can challenge nature of work and the ruling class it enriches.
Work is a necessary evil under capitalism. We need work to provide for our needs. At the same time our labor is used to enrich the master class. A comprehensive job program promised by the politicians does not even address the systemic problem. Exploitation and alienation of workers is essential to work under capitalism. This situation cannot be reformed.
Now is the time to actualize that the chains of work under capitalism shackle us from our potential and to shatter the monstrosity of capitalism once and for all.
Doug Enaa Greene is the editor of the Boston Occupier.