Monday, September 7, 2015

Surplus Labor + me

Judy Cox, explaining Marx's theory in International Socialism (Summer 1998), a SWP magazine, concludes "As alienation is rooted in capitalist society, only the collective struggle against that society carries the potential to eradicate alienation, to bring our vast, developing powers under our conscious control and reinstitute work as the central aspect of life." I write this on Labor Day.

I don't want waged work to be my life's core. Anarchists encourage us to rethink this learned dependence. Mutual aid, voluntary organization, no demands to serve supervisors for corporate gain certainly appeal to my instinct. I want to produce creative work that I could exchange for others' goods and services, rather than a capitalist regime. But few of us "mature" folks have the stomach for dumpster diving or the gumption for petty theft. As I spend so much time and effort at my monitored posts, online and onsite, I reflect on how my occupation incorporates surveillance and management techniques that, in Marx's era, were the domain of the factory (or the prison as Foucault reminded us) rather than higher education. I am not idealizing the dispiriting system that started with Gradgrind, the dissertation and the professoriate. Still, earlier decades last century afforded some space for liberal arts, not all STEM. With digital data, a lurch has accelerated since Cox wrote this. The union where I work was "made redundant" before I was hired. This was a topic nobody confided in to me; I sensed, sub rosa, PTSD.

Lukacs proved as prescient about this loss of limited liberty as higher levels of the workplace became more standardized. In History and Class Consciousness, he pinned down the metamorphosis: "In consequence of the rationalisation of the work-process the human qualities and idiosyncrasies of the worker appear increasingly as mere sources of error when contrasted with these abstract special laws functioning according to rational predictions. Neither objectively nor in his relation to his work does man appear as the authentic master of this process; on the contrary, he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already pre-existing and self-sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not.34"

Cox cites Harry Braverman's 1974 Labor and Monopoly Capital to document this deskilling of white collar jobs and to a situation where managers have a monopoly of control over the production process: 'The unity of thought and action, conception and execution, hand and mind, which capitalism threatened from it beginnings, is now attacked by a systematic dissolution employing all the resources of science and the various engineering disciplines based upon it'.32 Conditions of work, from the length of the working day to the space we occupy, are predetermined: 'The entire work operation, down to its smallest motion, is conceptualised by the management and engineering staff, laid out, measured, fitted with training and performance standards - all entirely in advance'.33"

This control increases, as Edward Snowden warns. “I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded.” — “Edward Snowden: ‘The US government will say I aided our enemies,’” July 8, 2013

“A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that’s a problem because privacy matters; privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.” “Snowden Sends Christmas Message To USA,” Dec. 25, 2013. (More quotes here.)

Certainly this (de-)evolution has long been charted. Reading Marxist analyses of how my workplace has altered over the past generation, their reports dovetail with Peter Fleming's 2015 study. This London-based professor of business and society plots in The Mythology of Work, in his apt subtitle, "How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself." But where Fleming seems to depart from the Marxian critique may be in his updated critique of neo-liberal economics and management. Diverging from such as Cox who wishes to restore work as the ground for our purpose, only under our control, Fleming cautions us against embracing those who make work's "impudent needlessness" rather our "basilar necessity" out of "moral rectitude." (22) He also reminds us that "anti-work" arguments based on how the work day is stretched out to eight hours when we can do our task, earn enough for our needs, and go home in a fraction of that day will not satisfy today's capitalists. They don't present us with "finite tasks" to be checked off at our own pace. They offer jobs with "forever multiplying demands." (8) Not for only productivity and profit but one's "display" of "protracted submission" to work's ritual results. Surplus toil increases when the phone and P.C. may call us in at any moment. We are human capital, so managerial emphasis weighs accordingly on not the adjective but the noun. Fleming accounts for why meetings proliferate and bosses summon us to be seen, power plus profit.

Unfortunately, as my review elaborates, Fleming offers solutions as distant as those of some in my current reading of left-libertarians. That is, I agree with and I aspire to many of them, but as my duty is to pay bills, to keep my family fed, sheltered, and schooled, escaping tonight to fulfill my bliss is not an exit option. I also agree, that we start towards our dreams by re-constructing daily reality.

Bryce Colvert writes in The Nation, after revelations of the driven culture of Amazon staff, how we are trapped in this rapid pace of production. "It speaks to an inability to say no. And in the face of that disempowerment, we may be telling ourselves extreme demands are in fact voluntary choices. After all, it feels better to think of time spent in front of a computer well into the night as something done in the service of passion than in the service of someone else’s bottom line." More stress, longer hours, no increase in pay, stagnant wages for decades, work-life broken boundaries: we are the 99%.

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