Obedience Rule Number One in the Hidden Workplace Abode: Care Only About Yourself

I once worked in a largely glass building with an ancient, outworn heating and cooling system. In some of this building’s offices, temperatures were regularly in the high 70s and 80s. On some afternoons, my office hit 90 degrees….

I had the hottest office of all because I was on the top floor, on the southwest corner. It was nothing but glass on both the south and the west. There was very little air circulation in my office. You couldn’t open any of the windows. I often felt sick during the work day, due to the excessive heat.

I had previously been in the second floor’s slightly less stifling southeast corner. When I complained about the excessive heat (80s) there, my immediate authority figure (AF) told me I had a “cultural issue with heat.”

A researcher three offices to my west had the same “cultural issue.” This “cultural issue” led him to put up some pieces of cardboard to block the sun. He was told to take the cardboard down because it looked bad from the outside. His window looked out on an empty lot.

Then I was transferred to the hotter office, the steamiest one in the building, where my “cultural issue” became worse. I complained and was told that “nobody else has complained of this problem.” I produced photocopies of thermometer readings and told my AF that the office to my immediate east was empty.

I had been tracking temperatures in this vacant office, where windows lined only the southern side. It was about 10 degrees cooler. I requested the right to move into the empty office. After a string of warm days that made building heat and related air stagnation a problem for everyone, I was granted the privilege of moving into the unused office.

After two weeks of attempting to finalize the the move, I made a critical mistake. I penned a memorandum noting that a number of other people in the building were complaining of heat exhaustion. I noted that this might constitute a broad health and safety issue and that it was working against employee morale and productivity.

My previously approved move one office east and ten degrees down the thermometer was abruptly cancelled. An authoritarian authority figure told me that my note “sounded like you are getting ready to file a class-action law suit.” The empty office, I was told, had been “reserved for other uses.”

I asked what those “other uses” might be. “Unknown,” was the answer. Someone further down the hierarchy told me, “this is to show you who’s boss.”

I already knew.

One of the fundamental rules of America’s authoritarian, hierarchical workplaces, fellow wage- and salary (and health-insurance-)-slaves, is that YOU ARE ONLY SUPPOSED TO CARE ABOUT YOURSELF. American bosses would prefer that you not even do that. If you have an issue with your job and you just have to bring it up, however, you are generally expected to do so alone and without reference to the needs and experiences of your fellow workers.

You are to seek an individual audience with your occupational master(s), respectfully stating your problem and leaving its resolution up to his/her/their despotic (benevolent or otherwise) determination.

As far as the boss is concerned, merely individual grievances are one thing; collective grievances are another. The former can be resolved much more quickly, safely, and cheaply as far as the authorities are concerned. They do not generally raise any dangerous questions about the overall distribution of wealth, control, income, and power in the workplace. They are morely likely to keep troubling issues of authoritarian socieconomic management properly contained within what Karl Marx famously called “the hidden abode of production.”

For our job superiors, the capitalist workplace and the broader system of private economic management must remain exempt from collective and public scrutiny. Modern capitalists work to limit what passes for “democracy” (whose risks they are always working to dilute) to the political sphere, setting the “hidden [workplace] abode” apart as a special totalitarian space. That space is granted by the related holy laws of commodity exchange (your labor power for its supposed equivalent their wage or salary payment or ransom) and shareholder interest.

I worked in a nonprofit, but in capitalist societies the authoritarian rules and values transfer into many spheres outside specifically capitalist production or circulation. The tussle between waged and underpaid workers and managerial power and income is no less real in such settings.

From the bosses’ perspective, it is much less problematic to improve the conditions of one worker than to enhance the situation of all the workers. It’s much easier to control negotiations with one worker than negotiations with many workers.

And workers can be bought off and sent back to their work stations at a lower price when they fight as individuals than when they fight as a group. When they act collectively, it’s harder for the boss to play his traditional trump card: the threat to fire worker A and replace him with worker B. Collective employee action sends the message: “give worker A what he deserves or we will withhold our labor power, without which can’t keep the revenues flowing into your overstuffed pockets.”

It gets worse, from the bosses’ perspective: “And by the way, workers B to Z have been talking and meeting and trading notes and its turns out that a lot of us are experiencing exactly what worker A is going through. This isn’t fair and it isn’t just worker A. We’ve appointed a committee to look into these conditions that A and others are talking about.”

And worse: “we’re getting sick of going through all this, especially while you rich bastards who ‘run’ this place seem to spend most of your time riding around in your limousines and going to fancy restaurants. Meanwhile, we’re busting our asses in your shitty workplace just to survive. Why should you enjoy an opulent lifestyle on the basis of our work? We are going to expose these conditions and the falsity of your claim to treat your workers decently and with respect. We have a helluva lot more in common with each other than we do with you and we are going to rip the smily-face facade off your dysfunctional and abusive workplace ‘family.’ We are going to de-cloak your hidden abode.”

The bosses know very well that they are few and we (their subordinates) are many. They are threatened by the conflict between basic democratic and communitarian values and the remarkable concentration of wealth and power they enjoy within and beyond the workplace. They are displeased by the notion of us talking to each other about non-trivial matters within and beyond the workplace. They know that their power rests on their subordinates’ remaining ignorant and/or indifferent about the experience and conditions of their fellow workers. They want us to look no further than our own limited, individual cubicles, shopping carts, highway lanes, home pages, offices, truck cabs, computer screens, dwellings, automobiles, and telescreens. They want us atomized, fragmented, and alienated. They want us to wear class blinders that keep us focused vertically on our self-appointed job lords when we need to talk about our workplace issues. But that conversation is so much better and effective when it takes place horizontally, with our fellow subordinates, and when we remember that as far as the workers are concerned “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

This is true off and on the job.

I have many stories like the one above from my long service as an employee in the United States. But the story is only anecdotally about my experience.

I fully expect at least one and very possible two (you know who you are) regular pro-capitalist commenters to write and say “what a complainer….all you needed to do you stinking commie anarch was quit your whining and go get another position” (or words to that effect).

In writing this they will display their utter inability to perceive this post as being about anything other than purely individualistic concerns. And this will be a projection of their own narcissistic world view and (perhaps) character.

Well, sure, I watched and I still always watch the job market carefully, looking for greener pastures. Who doesn’t? Anarcho-marxian though I may basically be, I knew quite well that I would be in a better/cooler situation soon enough.

Good for me, but I am in fact talking about something bigger here, conscious that not everyone has the same degree of individual marketplace bargaining power that I (a relatively priveleged white male with a doctorate) possess by virtue of the sheer lottery chance of birth and socialization.

I’ve long been relatively free to take the standard individualist route of escape, but many other people lack that freedom of movement. And of course mobility out is what the employers want from those who dare to speak up for improved conditions both for themselves and their fellow workers: better for the malcontents to move on to greener pastures than to stay and fight for a better conditions and a different balance of power in the hidden abode.

“Love your workplace or leave it.” Right: submit to abusive and unjust authority or get the Hell out and rotate over to somewhere else where much the same rules probably apply. Just KEEP MOVING (to “new cheese” in that wonderful piece of bestselling corporate-anthropomorphic propaganda I’ve mentioned before on this blog: corporate “Thought Leader” Spencer Johnson’s loatheseome Who Moved My Cheese?) and don’t stay long enough to form a union.

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