Work Without a Face
Issue #32, April 1997
The relations of production in their totality constitute what are called the social relations, society, and, specifically, a society at a definite stage of historical development.
To be rich today is to possess the greatest number of poor objects appropriating things by appropriating people.
The existence of a class which possesses nothing but its capacity to labour is a necessary prerequisite of capital.
— Karl Marx, "Wage Labor and Capital"
Are You Being Served?
I've been on the phone with Wells Fargo Bank three different times this week, spending hours trying to get checks sent to my house. Three times. Three different "Customer Service Agents." Three incredibly frustrating sessions with workers in the information/money business. How many times have you had a frustrating experience with a person on the phone who is there to "serve you"? I find myself dealing with this kind of situation numerous times each month, not for my work but for my "needs."
Many people's initial response to frustrating phone calls with information workers is rage. You may find yourself suddenly very angry at the person on the other end of the line and want to unleash every angry feeling you have about anything in your life on that particular person on the other end of the phone line. But have you taken the time to think about that person's life, about that person's job, about how that particular person exists as a worker under late-90s capitalism? I have. That's why every time I find myself in one of these frustrating situations on the phone, I always end up saying, "Listen I know your job sucks. And I know it's a drag to have to take calls from irate customers at 2 a.m., but can't you please help me?"
My apology is certainly a small concession to these workers who are so completely alienated from the product of their labor that they are reduced to non-dimensional movers of information and capital. The Customer Service Rep, the Catalog Sales Rep: these are people who neither see the people who they are "serving" nor the products of their labor. They simply document the transaction of capital for those in power, those who receive the profits. And this, unfortunately, is the case for the majority of workers we interact with on a daily basis in the grand USA.
It is astounding how many of the activities in our everyday lives are centered on work and the production of profits for the capitalists. The average worker in America spends fifty or so weeks, 2,000 plus hours each year at work. The majority of the US population spends the majority of its waking hours working in an environment designed to produce profits for the capitalist owners. Most of these workers' interactions with other people occur while they're at work. They are communicating with other people in a work capacity for the sole purpose of facilitating the mechanisms of capitalism. Even when they are out of their own work environment, say grocery shopping at the supermarket, crossing the toll bridge, getting gas, buying cigarettes, eating at a restaurant, or going to a movie, most interactions with other human beings, other than family and close friends, are based on the transaction of capital. Analyses of capitalism and the worker may seem trivialized by these commonplace facts; but that is what people need to understand — capitalism and the alienation of the worker and humankind that capitalism creates are commonplace. In fact, they are so commonplace that people fail to recognize and acknowledge them and the role they play everyday in our lives.
As you're reading this article ask yourself a few things: If you're reading it in hard copy, where did the paper and ink or carbon come from? Who maintains the machinery that printed it? If you're reading it on-line, who helped to build the computer you're using with all of its parts, like its plastic casing and its micro-chips? Take a few minutes to consider the complicated network of labor involved in this minute part of your life that you are experiencing right now. Then think about the clothes on your back, the shoes on your feet, the food in your refrigerator, the refrigerator itself. Everything in your life is saturated with the labor of another. I try never to forget that. I try to remind people to remember that.
Waiting For The End
A few months ago, me and a friend were driving through southeast California on our way to Arizona. We were tired and hungry and decided to stay in a little town called Indio to eat and sleep. I had just finished working a bunch of long shifts and weekends. I was exhausted. We rolled into Indio at around 9:45pm and checked into a motel. When we asked about food, we found out that one restaurant, "Carrows," would be open until ten. If we hurried, we could make it.
When we got to Carrows, your basic coffee-shop chain like Denny's, most of the brown booths were empty. A waitress, who appeared to be somewhere in her late fifties, sat us at a table. I apologized for being there so late and told her we would be quick. I know how frustrating it is when you're exhausted, your shift is almost over, and new customers come in causing you to stay late and do more work. She asked if we wanted coffee, and I told her we didn't. When she left the table, I told my friend there was no way I was ordering coffee. She had probably spent the last twenty minutes cleaning out the coffee pots. I wasn't going to make her get them dirty for me.
Within the next few minutes about ten more people came into the restaurant. Our waitress was working all by herself, and I could see how exhausted she was, but she kept smiling. One customer demanded coffee immediately. She smiled. She went over to the coffee area, took out the freshly cleaned coffee pots, and made him a cup of coffee. He barely drank any of it.
Me and my friend ordered, ate, and left an even bigger tip than usual. When we left, we talked about our waitress and what kind of life she probably lives and how she probably has quite a few kids and maybe a not-too-nice husband, how maybe she has a trailer or a one-bedroom apartment with a recliner and a TV. We talked about how she would never be working a job like that if she didn't have to. We talked about labor, about how people completely ignore the reality of the workers they face everyday in the course of their lives. In the course of our conversation, I came up with the idea of writing this article.
Unfortunately those who are able to recognize the alienating and disempowering effects of capitalism on the everyday worker are frequently those who themselves are alienated from the worker because they have access to an elevated class, cultural capital and financial privilege that most workers do not have. Many a scholar studies Marx and capitalism in the late 90's, but few really understand the reality of the workers they face everyday or see them as real people with actual lives, families, histories, dreams, and feelings. Scholars rarely differentiate between work as what one does for mere material survival and the romantic (and highly privileged) concept of work as a means of pursuing what one loves. Most scholars tend to ignore the disparity between the number of people who work for survival and those who work for fulfillment. This disparity is fairly equal to the number of people in the capital market who are "owners" and possess power and the number of people who are disempowered and work merely to strengthen the power of the capitalist "owners."
Professors and graduate students often refuse to acknowledge the privilege they have and the value of the cultural assets they hold. They do not realize how rare it is to get paid doing something one loves, how rare it is to be able to pursue one's interests on the job, not off it. The idea of attaining higher meaning in everyday life is just not one that average workers have either the time or energy to dwell upon. They have neither the monetary resources nor the cultural capital necessary to pursue a "higher" interest. Their financial and mental resources are spent on survival.
This is why church and religion are so popular among the poor and disenfranchised. For most people who fall into this category, the basic human need to pursue a "higher" interest has been displaced onto the church and religion. They don't study; they go to church. It's not too hard to figure out who makes the profits by exploiting this basic human need for higher meaning: those who hold positions of power in the churches. Some of them preside over profit-making machines as big as major corporations — media conglomerates complete with television stations, radio stations, newspapers (e.g. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim Baker, etc.). Even the current wave of New Age nonsense plays this role in higher-end white collar workers who have enough education to know that they are not satisfied with their current situation and who turn to religion as a solution rather than critiquing the system that is making them unhappy.
Make It A Blockbuster Night
When the church does not pacify the need for Higher Meaning, the entertainment industry does. The video store, the Hollywood movie, commercial radio, television: these replace the human need for "intellectual" growth while at the same time increasing the profits of media conglomerates like Time-Warner and Fox. Furthermore, by quelling the need for personal growth, the entertainment industry simultaneously smothers the chance for the working masses to think about and question their own position as workers who produce profits that they rarely see themselves. Instead, workers forget their workday behind the screen of big media entertainment. In a true Marxian scenario — the video store replaces the pub, where the worker spends what little surplus earnings she/he may have by drowning the workday's unhappy memories, anxieties, and pain in the comfort of a nice piece of big media propaganda.
To add to the grim picture, big media supports big business which in turn deprives the workers even further of what few resources they have scrambled for. We especially see this in the ever-expanding chain stores that are colonizing every suburban, urban, and rural landscape in America. Huge conglomerates like Target, Costco, Office Max, Blockbuster, and Home Depot are taking over every corner of America. They move in to towns, level low-income neighborhoods, bust labor unions, destroy small businesses, and exploit their employees. Because of the militaristic nature of these big businesses, workers are even further reduced to machines and stripped of their individuality, making them even more invisible to the average "customer" at the store. It's hard to see clerks as people, when they're all wearing the same exact uniform, bearing walkie-talkies and headsets, and when they are all speaking in a pre-written script mandated by the chain's management — "Attention Target team members!" The more powerful chain conglomerates become, the less power the individual has. Even if the individual wanted to break free from this corporate work farm and start her/his own business, success is highly unlikely as conglomerates purchase exclusive contracts and buy out all competition with the massive power of their capital.
Because these big conglomerates do not hire union labor, bust union organizers, and basically give their employees the minimum amount of pay and benefits to keep them alive but without power, the contemporary workplace is permeated with an overwhelming "each for his own" mentality. Corporate practices deprive the worker of a sense of collective spirit. As long as each person is taking care of her or his "own," then no one is taking care of the many. This serves to further reinforce a power structure designed to benefit those on top — the owners. Basic individual needs are all that is important to the worker. Workers cannot even see each other as real 3-D people; they see other workers as threats, competition, or an ugly reminder of their own position. The illusion of "advancement" does not even exist for the average worker as it did in the past. Simple survival is the goal, keeping the job day to day. There are few hopes for growth or promotion of any kind. And people wonder why they aren't getting "the service they deserve" when they are dealing with that clerk at the video store or that Customer Service rep at the bank?
Many people think that "white collar" workers hold a position of luxury, because they have more upward mobility and better working conditions. However, many jobs that are perceived to be "white collar" are merely clerical positions, and people holding clerical positions are some of the most underpaid and overworked members of the American workforce. They are frequently only one step above (if any) workers in the service industry (food, gasoline, retail). Clerical workers are predominantly women, people of color, and representatives of other disempowered populations. Heterosexual white males are few and far between in the clerical workforce. Clerical workers frequently hold the lowest paying jobs with the least benefits, yet they are the people with whom we often get frustrated in our interactions. A common term that pops up in the work place is, " You get what you pay for." People frequently experience frustration when dealing with workers in any number of situations, renting a video, buying a book, or eating at a restaurant. The "customer" wants to take out his own frustrations on the worker without thinking that worker has no personal investment in her or his work and without thinking of the reality of the worker's existence. The worker is doing the job because it is necessary for her or his survival. Period. It is purely alienated labor for the profits of the boss. People are no longer people, but some kind of qualifiable machinery, whose value is measured by a time-clock, a typing test, a transaction record, or percentage of sales.
Serfing the Dead Sea
The rise of "temp" work has further magnified the decreasing rights and alienation of the worker. It is common corporate practice to phase out full-time employees and hire temporary workers to take on more workload in less time. When facing a pressing deadline, a corporation may pay $15 - $20 per hour for a temp worker, but the temp worker will only see $7 or $8 of that money. The rest goes to the temp agency, which is usually a corporate chain, such as Kelly Services, that blatantly makes its profits off of other people's labor. This increases profits of the corporations because they can increase a workload, get rid of the employee when they're finished, and not worry about paying benefits or unemployment for that employee. I have had to work with temps a few times in my current position, and the workers only want one thing — a full-time job with benefits. We really wanted to hire one temp I was working with, but we could not offer her a full-time job because it would have been a breach in our contract with the temp agency that employed her. To hire a temp full-time, we would have had to pay the agency over a thousand dollars. Through this practice and policy, the temp agency locks its temporary workers into a horrible new form of servitude from which the worker cannot break free.
Furthermore, corporate powers push workers to take on bigger workloads, work longer hours, and accept less benefits by instilling a paranoia in their workforce. The capitalist bosses assume dishonesty, disloyalty, and laziness amongst workers, and they breed a sense of guilt and fear through their assumptions. Where guilt doesn't seep in, bitterness, anger, and depression take over. The highest priorities of Big Business are to increase profits and limit liabilities. Personal relations and human needs are last on their list of priorities. So what we see is a huge mass of people who are alienated, disempowered, overworked, mentally and physically ill and who spend the vast majority of their time and energy on their basic survival. They are denied any chance to really "live," because they are forced to make profits for the capitalists in power.
So next time you want to yell at that person on the phone trying to sell you a magazine, next time you think the waitress in the restaurant did not bring you your food fast enough, next time you complain about the "bad attitude" of that clerk in the store who is there to "serve" you, think about who those people really are and what kind of life they are living. Think about working their jobs and waiting for that paycheck every one or two weeks, just to give it all back to those in power. Then see if you're mad at them. There's a lot to be mad about, but the real culprit has an invisible face whose name begins with a "C" — Capitalism — the biggest thief in America. It is a murderer really, for Capitalism steals people's lives and stomps out every bit of life blood they were born with. Maybe this seems too simple to you, too commonplace. But that's a big part of the problem. Workers become invisible because they are commonplace and we see them and interact with them everyday. I try to remember that, I hope that you do too.
Kim Nicolini is the Director of a small non-profit organization that provides arts education to underprivileged people. Kim is the first person in her family to get a college degree, and she thanks her father and grandfather, an ironworker and a teamster, for helping her understand the realities and struggles of laborers. She can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.