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The Maker or the Tool


Review of The Patriots: An Inside Look at Life in a Defense Plant by Jean Alonso. Leap Year Press, 2011. Available at Amazon here.

Did you ever demand any answers?
The who, the what or the reason why?
Did you ever question the setup?
Did you stand aside and let them choose while you took second best?
Did you let them skim the cream off and then give to you the rest?
Did you settle for the shoddy?
Did you think it right
To let them rob you right and left and never make a fight,
never make a fight, never make a fight?

[From Ballad of Accounting, words and music by Ewan MacColl]

Suddenly jobs are on the political agenda. Politicians from the President on down state that creating jobs for American workers is their top priority. Often any jobs, as with the low-wage jobs that Texas Governor Rick Perry brags he "created." Sometimes they want to create "good paying" jobs. But in this discourse having a job is everything, because it allows one to pay the bills and avoid poverty.

Those who worked with Jean Alonso making missiles in a Massachusetts defense plant — referred to as American Missile and Communications Corporation but sounding suspiciously like Massachusetts-based Raytheon — knew how important it was to have a job in this society. But they also recognized that "good jobs" should mean far more than good-paying ones. And they knew, from their own bitter experience, that many jobs can be toxic, destroying the mind and soul, and sometimes the body as well of those who work them.

Alonso's book The Patriots: An Inside Look at Life in a Defense Plant  begins as the missiles fly at the start of the first Gulf War. The fragile community in the plant is strained by tensions between the patriotic workers and Alonso with her antiwar views and activities. Alonso copes with her own anguish by conducting an informal survey of how her coworkers feel about their work. She learns that these coworkers are filled with a profound sense of hopelessness and despair:

"I feel like a zero."
"Inferior."
"Empty."
"Helpless."
"I'm very depressed and anxious."
"I'm so unhappy here I get aches and pains from it."
"Apathetic. I can't do anything at home anymore but watch TV."
"I was a musician, you know, so I still need to write everyday — if you don't you have no soul. But I go home and I'm too tired."
"I feel like there's something crushed inside — I feel really defeated. It's like giving up on your whole self in order to make a living — you can't figure a way out." (pp. 10-11).

These responses, expressing feelings that had never been spoken among these workers, start Alonso and a small group of coworkers on a journey to make sense of what was happening to them at work and why. Through monthly meetings buttressed by Alonso's library research, they explore the deadening effects of repetitive work accompanied by social powerlessness in the workplace. They try to understand Alonso's realization that "something in this work is changing us, as if we were living by Love Canal" (p. 37).

Over the next couple of years this group of defense plant workers examine their dashed hopes and dreams as well as an extensive body of social science literature, in an attempt to figure out just how the work was changing them. They confessed to each other that their ability to reason had diminished after years in the plant. The lack of mental stimulation was reducing their very intelligence. And, indeed, as Alonso learned from her reading, a German researcher had found that IQ declines following years of unskilled labor. This cognitive decline didn't seem so surprising to the workers when one of them recalled being told by a supervisor, "You don't get paid to think." These workers discovered through their own experience that mindless work induces mindlessness.

Alonso later realized that the experience of the American Missile workers wouldn't have seemed strange to Adam Smith, who in 1776 wrote of the mind-destroying effects of unskilled work as an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the then new industrial system:

"The understanding of the greater part of men is necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man's whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations and he naturally loses, therefore, the habit [of solving problems] and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become… But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the laboring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall" (p. 180).

In addition to cognitive problems, the plant workers confronted elevated depression, anxiety, and apathy. Alonso's research convinced her that these symptoms were similar to those experienced by victims of what psychologist Judith Herman called "complex chronic post-traumatic stress syndrome" or CCPTSD. She quotes Herman as saying that those suffering from CCPTSD "have a history of subjection to totalitarian control over a prolonged period of time" (p. 125).

The shop floor environment that Alonso and her fellow workers experienced daily was, indeed, totalitarian. Every motion was monitored. Bathroom breaks were strictly regulated.  Supervisors yelled at workers as if they were disobedient children. Conversations were monitored and often forbidden. Escape, while not impossible, became ever more difficult as years in the plant went by and economic chains bound the workers.

In her efforts to better understand the totalitarian aspects of her work environment, Alonso studied military culture and found many similarities to the culture at American Missile. The similarities were not accidental. She realized that the company deliberately sought out supervisors with military backgrounds. The fact that the company was part of the military-industrial complex, producing missiles for US wars, probably made military culture especially desirable to management. 

At the time that Alonso writes about, relations between workers in the plant were especially stressed as many of the workers sought a sense of meaning and community through patriotic identification with the company's missile-producing mission and with the war in progress and became less tolerant of those questioning the war. Pressure to not rock the boat increased as demand for the missiles rose.

Like many manufacturing companies, American Missile had a union. Unfortunately, this was as much a part of the problem as part of the solution. Union officials refused to pursue cases of sexual abuse, wouldn't recognize the women's committee founded by Alonso and others, and systematically harassed militants. Thus, much of the energy to improve the workplace was channeled into often futile attempts at union reform.

Throughout The Patriots: An Inside Look at Life in a Defense Plant Alonso weaves her personal account of nearly two decades in the factory with an account of the research into the effects of the work environment on workers. The result is one of the most thought provoking books you will find to read this year. As the politicians talk endlessly about "jobs" while providing few, Alonso reminds us that a good society will provide not just jobs, or even well-paying jobs, but jobs that enhance the spirit and development of those who work them.

Surely today, 235 years after Adam Smith described the mind-destroying nature of unskilled work, an "improved and civilized society," — as Smith described the new industrial capitalism — should be one that proves him wrong. Such a society would be one in which all who work find that their jobs enhance their thinking, spirit, and sense of humanity. Such a society would be one in which workers are not merely the tools of the already wealthy and powerful, but makers of a more decent world for themselves, their fellow workers, and the rest of society. While the politicians beholden to the powerful are not likely to be concerned with this goal, surely the vast majority of us ought to be.

What did you learn in the morning?
How much did you know in the afternoon?
Were you content in the evening?
Did they teach you how to question when you were at the school?
Did the factory help you grow, were you the maker or the tool?
Did the place where you were living
Enrich your life and then
Did you reach some understanding of all your fellow men,
all your fellow men, all your fellow men?

[From Ballad of Accounting, words and music by Ewan MacColl]

 

Stephen Soldz is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He edits the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. Soldz is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations working to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations; he served as a psychological consultant on several Guantánamo trials. Currently Soldz is Past President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility [PsySR].



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