Wasted @ Work

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Much has been written about the fact that millions of people have been wasting away while being at work. One of the rather discomforting narrative is that there is a progressive development in work. The common fairy-tale is that the bad old days of horrible jobs and of children working in mines, of cotton mills, of workplace injuries, of cruel bosses – are over. 

Indeed, the days of Blake’s Satanic Mills (1804) are over in most OECD countries at least. But, the fact remains that capitalism in the Global North has outsourced its Satanic Mills to the Global South. This does not make them vanish – except in corporate media, most of the time.

As neoliberalism relentlessly advances, a polarization of the labor market has taken place in which, middle-class workers have fallen out, with many reasonably well paid occupations lost. As the so-called free-market moves in, neoliberalism separates winners from losers. The labor market is no exception. 

Worse, many have predicted that artificial intelligence will remove lots of middle-class jobs by further segregating winners from those who are at the bottom. A hollowing out is taking place. In addition, this may – just as the concept of Workplace Despotism has outlined – hand over even more power to managers and bosses.

Yet, before legal regulations start securing the terms of employment that were, of course, fought for and defended by trade unions, the capricious power of management to hire and fire, to determine hours of work, to shape work arbitrarily was colossal. This included managerial violence, overseers’ brutality, rape, the whip, and even killing. Today, neoliberal politicians continue to work hard to return to those good old days of outright macho-management and workplace despotism.

In the UK for example, the introduction of the so-called zero-hours contract made matters worse. These are extremely asymmetrical contract between worker and employer whereby, management isn’t obliged to provide any minimum number of working hours to employees. 

This has been a significant step into the direction of workplace despotism. So far, these contracts have affected about 6% of all contracts while in administration and adjacent support services, and in accommodation, as well as the food industry, it rises to around 20%. This signifies non-standard forms of work creating a new underclass of workers in the precariat.

Meanwhile, working life globally reflects more what is called the non-standard work, i.e. not nine-to-five and not permanent. Worldwide, most work is actually done outside this. It is also done outside of the legal framework of the state. All too often, it also means not just outside of state protection but also outside of any health cover. 

At the same time, those outside of employment are exposed to the pathologization of the unemployed by right-wing politicians, tabloid-TV. They are also exposed to the structural violence of the benefits system designed to humiliate and torment the poor.

For those in work, the neoliberal polarization means that, in the event of job loss, over a third of households would be unable to pay the coming month’s rent. This is in the UK. For the USA for example, things are even worse as the US Federal Reserve Bank stated in 2019, 40% of Americans don’t have $400 in the bank for emergency expenses. The Coronavirus pandemic has made matters worse disproportionally for young workers as, 60% of those who lost their job between June and August 2020 were between 18 and 24.

Much of this contradicts Bill Gates’ hallucination of a friction-free capitalism. Worse, in Gates’ wonderland of friction-free capitalism, he and his good-doing elite has concocted that there are more people in slavery than at any other point in history – 40 million. Luckily, corporate media, schools, universities, etc. have made us to believe that slavery is a thing of the past – it came and left (almost by itself).

Treated almost like slaves, Uber workers have recently made some progress when the UK Supreme Court confirmed that drivers, contra to Uber’s argument, are workers ending the managerial fantasy of self-employment. This has also been disguised under the gig economy heading. The gig economy enhances the ever-increasing casualization of employment. In the 1980s, there were some 50,000 temps in the UK; by the mid-2010s, there were 270,000 – a trend seen in most, if not all, OECD countries and in many industries including universities. 

In higher education, two-thirds of UK universities now hire more administrative staff than they do academics. In the US, between 1975 and 2008, the number of faculty grew about 10% while the number of administrators grew 221%. The term “administrators” is another word for managerialist and corporate apparatchiks. The fact that they outnumber academics is a clear trend under Managerialism. Managerialism is also unleashing the power of business onto universities, academics and elsewhere.

It is getting worse. Managerialism’s evil twin of neoliberalism has created perverse incentives. Instead of doing the stated tasks of a job, more and more time is spent recording partially, or totally one-sided representations of that work. At universities and in many other places, it is no wonder so many of today’s workers are so depressed.

And of course, almost all jobs have significant effects on health, on our relationships with ourselves and our relationship with others. Not surprisingly, inside as well as outside of universities, workload pressure is the single greatest cause of work-related illnesses. Under Managerialism, many workers spend an average of eight hours a week replying to work-related emails outside of work – the emphasis is on “outside of work”.

Meanwhile, all powerful CEOs take off on multiple holidays, undergo digital detoxing and visit luxury spas to cope with stress. Self-evidently, this is not for those called Lowborn. Applying more to the lowborn with next to no option of social mobility than to high-flying CEOs, work can be dangerous, exploitative and boring. In the end, almost all work under capitalism harms workers because of the coercion that pushes workers into. Worse, there has always been a lack of control workers are facing while working.

And of course, the lack of control includes the relentless drive of management using performance management against workers. In this, workers are measured against standards they simply can’t ever meet because there is always – at least theoretically, and in the mind of management – more workers could be doing. 

This remains one of the most real sources of anguish, pain and frustration. In many cases, this has very easily led to what is known as “burnout”, an illness the WHO says, has three dimensions:

  1. Energy depletion or exhaustion;
  2. Mental distance, feelings of negativity and cynicism; and finally,
  3. A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

In a milder form, this creates what might be seen as pseudo-busyness, i.e. pretending to be busy all the time. That applies to many white-collar workers including academics. At universities, the main source of university income is now from tuition fees: they receive money per student. That means administering students has become more important than research – an unwarranted cost factor. As a consequence, marketing, accounting, operations management, etc. have become ever more relevant for universities.

Worse, this creates a circular logic in the twisted minds of university apparatchiks: grades are inflated to increase rankings; higher rankings mean more students apply and degrees are looked upon more fondly by employers. 

This doesn’t do anything to actual standards of teaching; it’s a bubble. In reality, the neoliberal university is not about standards of teaching nor is it about research. It is about revenue maximization and creaming-off benefits for the corporate apparatchiks running universities.

Of course, as universities move away from teaching and research and towards student recruitment, academics become ever less relevant and as a consequence, they are treated like assembly-line workers until they can be outsourced or automated away. 

Meanwhile, a student’s life is getting ghastlier moving from: university, a place where one once wanted to go – to a place to be endured. Today, students take on huge student loans, debt from personal loans and overdrafts, as well as working several part-time jobs. In the end, the neoliberal job promise of a rewarding or at least less miserable jobs very quickly – vanishes into thin air.

Perhaps even more severe is the fact that, salaries of professional jobs will decline. This has already happened in the public sector – apart from senior management, of course. The pay for teachers, ambulance drivers, university staff, nurses, and so on has seen significant real-terms cut in the past decade. Given all this, it is not surprising that individual resistance rather than collective action has increased.

It is not at all surprising to find that the average office worker spends fifty minutes of their working day avoiding work. Yet, the practice of individual resistance at work are to bypass the sheer boredom that comes from repetitive work tasks. Yet, there is also the utter annoyance that comes from the stupidity displayed by management. 

Someone once said that the answer to the question, why are school and university so boring? is that it prepares you for work. Meanwhile, the increasingly recognizable stupidity of work has been noticed by some academics – while others may never notice this at all. Those who don’t notice may even thrive in the neoliberal workplace. Some are even promoted from low-level academics to high-power university apparatchik. Yet, people used to say stupidity doesn’t pay. In universities, it increasingly does.

In universities and elsewhere, refusing to love your job, refusing to see it as the most important thing in your life can become a form of resistance. This can also lead to dismissal, demotion or exclusion when it comes to promotions. Another form of resistance may well be refusing to seriously engage with the most frustrating demands of the workplace, e.g. switching off and not participating in endless work meetings – which are the true highlights of any halfway decent corporate apparatchik.

Even inside universities, work is unable to hold people’s devotion; it hardly ever provides workers with the meaning that they had been promised by management it would have. Deceptively, all too many people still hold out hope that their next job will be more satisfying, will eventually offer them some sort of sense-making, meaning and even human recognition, perhaps a nicer boss, or a higher salary.

Instead of such false hopes, workers might be better off placing their hope in virtually the only institution that can save them: trade unions. Overall, trade unions carry two elements: firstly, there is a commonality of interests among all workers, worldwide; and secondly, there is unity and strength found in the time-honored saying, united we bargain – divided we beg. The commonality of interest has three further elements: a) we all have an interest in higher wages; b) we all have an interest in shorter working time; and finally, we have an interest in decent working conditions. These three apply to the professor of law at Harvard as to the garment worker in Bangladesh.

Beyond that, union have two more goals: the first is safeguarding and protecting working life in a workplace; the second, and perhaps an even more important goal, is to work for an ever expanding trade union. This means bringing ever more workers into the union. 

There simply is nobody else around other than trade unions to fight for a future without managerial indignities; the petty cruelties of bosses, overseers, supervisors, and corporate apparatchiks; capitalism’s exploitation that makes some very rich and gives worker wage stagnation; the general misery of capitalist work is created day in and day out; and the wasting away of workers. This is one worth fighting for.


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