Monday, January 5, 2015

America's Corporate Perversion of Work

Artist Claire Falkenstein courtesy Wikimedia CC
I am not very sympathetic to people who like to bloviate about the value of hard work and pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps.

Usually such people either 1) don't work at all, or 2) are the laziest assholes on your job site.

They are often destined for a supervisory position, where they can then tell other people to work harder and point to statistics that prove their underlings are unproductive mulch.

You also hear this kind of thing from Congressmen.

Don't even get me started on that.

But work does have intrinsic value, and the kind of work you do matters.

One of the happiest jobs I ever had was at a garden center where I worked physically hard but always felt I was knowledgable and needed. Plus, I got to work outside around beautiful plants and shrubs and trees. I held the hands of fluttering rich ladies and sold them perennial flowering things that they could fret over instead of their obsessing about their tiny hard spandex-covered asses.

I loaded the shiny pickup trucks of self-designed landscape dudes and sold them reams of hostas and daylilies while they stood around acting macho, brandishing Corona pruners, and running their fingers through their sun-bleached hair before adjusting their ballcaps.

It was hard work, but I had fun there.

I saw brilliant orange slugs, jeweled hummingbirds, and yellow and black garden spiders the size of a child's hand. My boss did throw a pot at me once in a fit of rage over a cranky customer, but he apologized later when I confronted him.

Things tended to work out in the end.

My second favorite job was probably the one I got after finishing my BA, as a writer and volunteer recruiter for the local PBS affiliate. My volunteer recruitment technique mostly came down to a Huck Finn "not everyone gets to paint this fence" routine, and when that failed, begging. I also was responsible for some on-air copy and writing and designing a monthly membership magazine.

That job was the only job I ever had where I got my own office, on the top floor of a 100-year-old converted brick brewery, with six foot tall windows that looked out onto a tree-lined shopping plaza.

I got to be on TV a couple of times for that job. I learned that even locally for PBS, people will kill each other to be on TV. I did not wish to die. So a couple of times was plenty.

I also spent seven years as a mobile service rep for a print distribution warehouse, going from store to store and slapping up tabloids, magazines, and paperback books. I liked that job too, and since I was paid by the account and not hourly, I had a lot of flexibility and almost zero supervision.

The pay at these jobs was not good, and the benefits were nonexistent, but liking what you do and knowing you do it well is worth the world to me. Plus, I knew I was needed and competent.

Little did I know that these low paid years would later become, in memory, my halcyon days.

The Rise of Corporations and the Almighty Dollar 

The Great Beyond courtesy Flickr CC
Karl Marx is not a favorite writer in America (as if Americans read Karl Marx anyway), but in spite of all the bad local press, Marx was not responsible for the travesty that became the Soviet Bloc.

Seriously, he was not. If you don't believe me, read. His books are in the library, accessible to anyone. It's true, I'm not making this up. One of my own daughters is a librarian, so I know about these things, trust me.

Marx was mostly a philosopher, and his philosophy 'thing' was the nature of work.

Marx argued that people need work, that work imparts dignity and pleasure to the people who engage in it. He also argued that Capitalism (especially as it applies to mass production), if left to run rampant with no checks or balances, would eventually strip all the dignity and pleasure from work.

Marx predicted that as workers were gradually transformed into suffering drones, all the money and wealth would drift upwards, until end stage Capitalism collapsed under its own top-heavy ruthlessness.

You don't have to be a scholar to see that, starting back in to 1970s and speeding up as it went along, Capitalism has become more and more top-heavy and work has become increasingly corporate and meaningless. Think "Dilbert". Think "Office Space".

The mass production system of Marx's factory era has been broadly applied to almost every form of work today, despite the fact that it does not produce more productive workers or a better product. In fact, in many cases, the product has dropped out of the equation almost entirely, in favor of manipulating stock prices to benefit stockholders.

Workers have become a kind of buffer between the irrelevant product or service and the teeming masses that consume it, and obscenely rich people playing with stock prices at the top.

The main job of today's worker too often is to protect and defend the rich from every one else.

Your customer service rep may provide service accidentally, but often won't because his job is to make you go away. The product you just bought may be crap because, well, who cares about you, really? You should have bought the thing at Tiffany's or had it custom made.

A complementary development is that today the U.S. has successfully (sic) conflated the word 'freedom' to mean 'freedom to be a laissez faire Capitalist', stripping the word "freedom" of all of its original moral and ethical meanings. Freedom to make money is the long and short of it.

This does not mean you. YOU will not be making gobs of money.

Freedom IS Capitalism in the U.S. today. Yet most of the wealth is held by the top .01%.

So paradoxically (though maybe not if you've read Orwell), jobs today are more demeaning and and punitive than they have been in over 100 years.

Servitude is Freedom. Poverty is opportunity. The truth is a lie and lies are the truth.

Face it, (says Corporate America and uber-rich) if you were worth anything at all, you'd already be a billionaire, so shut up and comply while you still have the chance.


Not exactly the American dream as I originally understood it.

Although Orwell was concerned with totalitarian communism, the current state of Capitalism and its language shows that totalitarianism can take hold of any economic or political system when power becomes concentrated in the hands of an elite few.

Corporate Perversion of the Workplace

Courtesy Larry Wentzel Flickr CC
In spite of this dystopian state of affairs, corporations are not really evil.

To ascribe evil to an inhuman structure is to imbue it with humanity, and corporations have none. They are not persons.

A corporation is a legal structure designed to systematically maximize profit while minimizing liability (read: responsibility).

Think of a great grinding wheel that, if you come in at the bottom (where most will come in), you get ground to hamburger and spit out the other side.

Persons have to take responsibility for their actions and most persons have other goals and values besides simply increasing profit for someone else.

Corporations do not.

Corporation don't abuse people because they hate humanity. Corporations are set up to generate profit, period. People don't even enter into the corporate equation.

The ideal corporation would generate huge profits without offering any product or service and without paying any employees at all. If things continue on the present course, some of us may see that happen in our own lifetimes.

Because employees are essentially a liability within a corporate structure, (a necessary evil, if you will), a new corporate management style has grown up over the past thirty years in order to keep new employees moving in under the wheel and out the other side without complaint.

Maybe you recognize some of these principles:
  • Always appear happy, even if you perceive a workplace problem. 'Negativity' (also known as 'common sense') will not be tolerated.
  • Constantly prove that you are increasing profit at the micro level. Simply doing your job well is not enough. You must quantify exactly how much you are aiding the corporation in increasing profit, and you must continue to generate more profit than you did after your last review, unto infinity, or you're out. 
  • Expect frequent humiliating reviews by a lackey who makes not much more than you, filled with numbers and assessments and an accounting of your weaknesses. While you may perceive these reviews as personal and take the criticism hard at first, it is, in reality, a simple formula: You will be complemented on a strength ("Your shoes are always clean"), a weakness ("but your work sucks and you move too slow"), and given an 'action plan' (by next review I want you to fill-in-the-blank 100 times per hour instead of 25). Even if you are the fastest smartest motherfucker in the building you will still get some version of this.
  • Be afraid, be very afraid. Never forget that the corporation is doing you a favor by letting you work. You can be terminated at any time. You will receive constant subtle reminders of this and periodic not so subtle reminders. I know one woman who received a "Service Rep of the Year" plaque at Verizon and was terminated the following week when the operation was moved overseas.
  • Your job has an expiration date, whether you know it or not. My first corporate job had a "two years up or out" policy, so if you didn't move up in the organization in two years, they would start to push you out. Except, there was almost no 'up' to move to, so basically it was "two years and out." I stayed five years. The next corporate job had a one year up or out policy. I stayed two. My last job (and I do mean my LAST job) had a "hope you make it a month policy" and many did not. I made it two years.
  • Humiliation creates compliance. Expect to be required to observe small humiliating rules and rituals and expect to be punished if you don't. One corporate job I had allowed no more than three minutes per day of restroom time, which I managed by mostly going on my break. Another required "Silly Hat Day" as a "morale booster" and gave out smiley faced balloons as a reward. Points were taken off your annual review for not participating in Silly Hat Day.
  • Learn to decipher corporate-speak. People are not being fired, the organization is being "right-sized." The daily memo reminding you to say the organization is in great shape means it is about to go bankrupt. Smile. We don't tolerate negativity here.
  • Be on task every minute. You are entitled to two breaks and a lunch. Do not take them. Do not speak to your coworkers. Do not work off the clock, but understand that you will be unable to finish your work on the clock and will be fired if you don't finish it. So, do not work off the clock, but work off the clock. This is technically illegal, but corporations don't go to jail and most practice some coercion for wage earners to work off the clock.
Research has shown that this atmosphere increases stress, leads to high employee turnover, and does not result in increased productivity or job satisfaction.  You might wonder then, why is the corporate management style so prevalent? Why is it spreading to every corner of the working world?

The answer is pretty simple actually. 

Corporations do not increase profit by increasing productivity or satisfaction at the entry level (which is fast becoming the only level). This is because profit is no longer generated by the sale of products or services, but rather by financial games and fiscal illusions created from the top down. 

Perception is the product, and the product is not for you or your customers, it's for the stockholders. 

In short, profit is created by enhancing perception of success among stockholders, and keeping a steady stream of low-paid drones moving through the grinder at the bottom, tasked with blocking the ignorant masses from gaining access to those at the top 

The Perversion of Work

It's no surprise that many of the people who lost their jobs in the crash of 2008 have not returned to the workplace and never will. 

It's also no surprise that an 'underground' economy based on barter and resale is thriving and likely to continue to thrive unless (until?) corporations find a way to muscle in on it. Despite the fact that freelance work comes with no safety net and is unpredictable and competitive, the number of freelancers is also growing quickly. 

Basically people who can make money any other way, and people who can make do on less money, are doing it, because working has become, for many, a nonsensical, oppressive, low-paid charade that wrecks your health in exchange for very little. 

I think it is important to mourn the passing of real work and the loss of respect for the artisans, entrepreneurs, laborers, and tradespeople who do it. We have all lost something important, and the effects are corrosive and ongoing. 

I think it is also important to speak the truth about this sorry state of affairs, and to push back to the degree that each of us can. Some of us cannot afford to push back very hard, but all of us could push back a little, and some of us could push back a lot.

I push back by patronizing individuals or local businesses as much as I can, and trying to limit the infrequent corporate contact with corporations that I do have to businesses that treat people well. That's not always possible, but it is often easier than you might think.

Also I speak out even if it pisses people off.

I'm not a revolutionary.

Revolutions tend to make things worse for those at the bottom for years, sometimes much worse, before they get better. But I do believe in resistance and plain speech.

Some people are waiting for a grand collapse, figuring that Marx was right about Capitalism and a collapse is inevitable, but many alternate possibilities exist: We could see a long, slow erosion of the United States at the end of which most of the superrich go live somewhere else, or we could see increasing violence and protest that turns into a two-tiered society with an apartheid on the poor, who would basically be all of us.

Or, in my most positive moments, I think that perhaps we could see something better slowly grow up alongside of this corporate train wreck, and that when that something better become obvious and visible, corporations will see that we're mad as hell and not only are we not going to take it anymore, we're going about our much happier lives without them.