Friday, September 25, 2015
Peter Fleming's "The Mythology of Work": Book Review
This is the first academic title I have reviewed where four-letter words and slangy invective jostle for space alongside dutiful repetition of theory. The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself sustains Peter Fleming's critique of corporate culture. In his third book on this subject, he shifts from the institution to the employee. Or, perhaps associate, colleague or team member.
Many of us carry such titles now, after all. These terms convey collegiality and shared engagement. Yet, as Fleming confirms via a 2013 Gallup Poll, 70% of millions of workers surveyed worldwide report being "actively disengaged" within the neo-liberal version of employee exploitation. Workers subsidize the rich as well as the poor; the job over the past generation has become the epicenter of life. Fleming seeks "how to successfully refuse it and the webs of capture it closely spins."
When we value ourselves only as human capital, "mobile and always potentially valorizable," our self-worth plummets. As we run by our "biopower," our energy depleted during the day and renewed in our sleep, Fleming adds, we report to management. They treat us as if a "deranged girlfriend" who not only has no interest in whether she is liked or is loved, but lacks any liking or love for herself.
Such a startling metaphor captures the spirit of Fleming's book. While far too much of it follows a scholarly pattern of citations from professors and recitals of their findings, the vocabulary now and then wakes the reader up. For instance, a worker equals a "tagged prisoner." Today's results-driven work environment breaks up many tasks. They may be completed any time, day or night. This means no more "normal working day" where we can clock in and out, assured our boss will not call us in the middle of the night, e-mail us on Sunday morning, or text us on vacation. The electronic format that allows more of us to telecommute and submit our workload remotely also means that we are watched. The "injunction to perform" needs no punch clock. It depends on the time-stamp of what we upload.
While such a dispersed workplace may suggest democracy, Fleming reminds us of the contrary. Workers feel as if "behind enemy lines" when a supervisor asks us to speak frankly. With electronic data stored, keystrokes logged, and cubicles leaving us exposed to a Panopticon boss, a worker's autonomy ends. Mandated retreats and meetings enable managers to ferret out introverts or stragglers. Performance reviews often supplant the judgement of supervisors as to the worth of his or her workers. Delineated in numbing detail, job duties are tallied piecemeal, requiring employees to juggle multiple projects with sometimes no start or end. Facing this open-ended situation wearies workers.
"How can one speak to power and still retain anonymity?" Fleming asks such tough questions. Some workplaces have shifted superficially into more welcoming places, but this comfort level is pitched by the bosses, not the workers. The managers claim a rhetoric of frankness, but employees know that the conversation more often than not is likely to remain one-sided, tilted towards those issuing orders.
Workers feel trapped. Managers co-opt a neo-liberal acknowledgment of discontent apparent from their subordinates. A grip of capitalist "disruption" chokes everyone. Fleming avers how a "capitalist employment relationship begins to resemble a weird version of the battered-wife syndrome: the more we are beaten, and emotionally haunted by rejection, the more we desire to stay."
In our precarious and unstable economy, worker options to flee are few. In earlier decades, anarchists preached slowdowns, absenteeism, and sick-ins to factory workers. Unions were growing, and strikes were a potent threat. Now, as IT consultant Rob Lucas is quoted by Fleming, radical advice proves unwise. For "when your work resembles that of an artisan, sabotage would only make life harder." This resonates with many readers. Our tasks depend on us alone, or as part of a team of co-workers. With few places to hide from oversight, in person or online, workers grasp at a restoration of "biopower" by snatched days off. Lucas concurs, "It is a strange thing to rejoice in the onset of a flu."
Rationalization and efficiency reduce many workforces while increasing demand upon those left. Fleming attempts to alleviate the impacts felt by both employees and managers at the end of this short study. A surplus living wage. "post-state democratic organizations," ending oligarchies and monopolies, a three-day work week, "demassifying society as a positive global movement," and finally "demonetarizing incentive structures" comprise his six-point plan. Today's tumult in stock markets, the EU debt debates, the anger by many at too much or too little work all speak to such pressures. While these prescriptions seem utopian under our present circumstances, Fleming's disgust at "a factory that never sleeps" reminds us of the cynicism and paranoia that corrode many lives daily.
(Spectrum Culture 8-27-15; Amazon US 9-20-15)