Monday, September 05, 2011

Happy Alienation Day!

I was reading Facebook and browsing the internet this morning when I noticed something. Many people were saying great things about today's holiday, Labor Day (what I like to call "fake" Labor Day since everybody knows real labor day is May 1). People were telling stories about their factory-worker parents or grandparents, or talking about the labor battles of the past that gave us this day off along with the forty-hour work week and minimum wage. But you could tell that to most of these people "labor" and "laborers" was something quite outside their vision of themselves. Certainly most of the wonderful and decent people I know are office workers and not factory workers: and it's true most of us do not go home dirtier and sweatier than the subway has made us.

Through some diabolical masterstroke, today's corporate bosses have a huge percentage of this country's workers persuaded that they're not workers, but upwardly mobile career professionals. It's kind of like how sales clerks are today called "sales associates." Associates of what, exactly? While for some working in an office can be a trip up a corporate ladder to reward and responsibility, most people will find themselves eventually reminded that their humanity just doesn't qualify them for continued employment as some mysterious corporate id somewhere reorganizes or reprioritizes them out of a job. Sorry!

It's absolutely alienation in the service of an illusion: if you sit there long enough acting enthusiastic enough and never saying "no," maybe you'll get plucked out of your cubicle, pushed into a corner office, and sent on your road to fortune and retirement. You've made it, baby! Well, as long as you do what you're told and make more money for somebody else than you get to keep for yourself.

Your company might call you an "associate," or even a "manager," or any number of clever titles chosen to provide you with imitation dignity as a substitute for anything you can take to the bank. Oh by the way, we need you to work overtime, the finite hours of your life aren't as important as getting this project done, are they? Thanks! But the company knows who you are: you're just an expendable body.

The company I freelance for is currently eliminating one department — a unionized one, no less. It's being split up and outsourced, half to a non-union shop in the south, and half overseas. The union who is so badly representing these soon to be ex-workers seems to have been caught in a deadly partnership web with management. Appeasement strikes again. Sorry, it's the economy!

I understand that a person has to make the most of working for a living. Being pissed off all the time is no way to spend your days. I don't blame today's "employees" for being optimistic about their chances. Surely the chickens in a coop dare not dwell on the hens that occasionally disappear without driving themselves mad with anxiety. A couple winters ago I visited a wonderful small farm upstate. We stood in a low barn, smelling the rich smells of hay and manure. There was a wonderful, affectionate steer. The farmers introduced us to this magnificent bulky creature. Our hosts laughed warmly, standing around this creature as they discussed how he'd be slaughtered for steaks the next year. The steer mooed, happy in its stall, occasionally searching with its great warm tongue for a taste of people passing by. The steer had a better life than many, I'm sure, outside a factory farm, cared for by people and not machines. And I'm sure he was very delicious. Cause he was, in the end, a steer, raised for his many pounds of meat.

Here's a truly horrifying quote from Matthew Vadum, some kind of wingnut teabagger policy hack: "Why are left-wing activist groups so keen on registering the poor to vote? Because they know the poor can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians. Welfare recipients are particularly open to demagoguery and bribery. Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals. It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country -- which is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering welfare recipients to vote. Encouraging those who burden society to participate in elections isn't about helping the poor. It's about helping the poor to help themselves to others' money. It's about raw so-called social justice. It's about moving America ever farther away from the small-government ideals of the Founding Fathers." Setting aside, for the moment, the unspoken racist dogwhistling in this comment, it's clear that the corporate bosses and their friends on the right wing are more than ever self-aware of their class destiny and privilege. If there is a problem with the class war in this country is that it is so one-sided: the vast majority of working people are standing on the sidelines thinking that this is all happening to somebody else. Caution: rude awakenings ahead.

But that old saying, "Workers of the World Unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains," you know that's talking about you, right? Take a day off. You earned it!


  1. I think we saw major changes in the making when 'personnel' became 'human resources'. I don't know about you, but to me HR has a negative connotation, like 'assets' when used in the military world.

    Ian, we can put labor unions on the list of things to be discussed over a long weekend of wine and chat. There is much knowledge you can impart to me on this subject.

    I am both pro and anti unions - or maybe more aptly 'right to work' states. I have never felt people should be forced to join a union but on the other hand I don't feel non-union members should reap the benefits of union endeavors. How does one resolve this dilemma?

    I would really enjoy being able to discuss this and other topics with you my friend.

    Hope you had a Happy Alienation

  2. I think you're right about "HR." It's perfect for the euphemism world of "job creation." They couldn't call it "Dehumanizing Department" now could they? Here in NYC there's all this propaganda all over the subways form the corporate publicity department of the MTA, the government agency that runs them. They stopped calling passengers "passengers" and now call us "customers." The mind boggles at the marketing behind that one.

    As for unions, I've never actually belonged to one. I know there is a disconnect between what they're supposed to be and what they are. I kind of chalk that up to things that get fucked up in a fucked-up world. Pardon my french.

    I like the idea of people sticking together to protect themselves. I recognize it gets messy after that.

    Wouldn't it be nice if we could meet up with Casey and have some tea over all this?