Emily Guendelsberger’s On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane is definitely a must-read: but who must read it? Who must read it are those who will never read it, the masters who dictate the work conditions under which others have to work to create the masters’ profits. The book covers three low-tier jobs at which she worked. One of the jobs is at an Amazon fulfillment center (the others are McDonald’s and a customer service call center). It would be great if Jeff Bezos not only read this book but also worked for at least one Christmas season as a picker, trekking 15 miles per day while popping free pain meds from vending machines. (Yes, free: rather than change the job to make it less brutal, it’s more profitable to give out Ibuprofen gratis to the damaged workers.)
But he won’t do either. And even if he did, it wouldn’t change anything. No ray of enlightenment would direct him to change conditions so that the workers could work in a more humane place if it meant customers would have to wait longer to get their consumer needs filled. In fact, what it might convince him to do is to go even more full-bore into automating the picking process as much as possible in order to dispense with humans altogether.
In other words, what Guendelsberger exposes in each of her jobs is the cyborg-job mindset at the lower depths of our particular brand of capitalism. Empathy and morality, though vital to human interactions, “are often illogical within the simple framework of free-market capitalism,” and so, by design, they must be eliminated as much as possible: “Life gets marginally crappier for workers everywhere. But it’s supposed to. It’s designed to….Corporations have weighed the costs of high turnover against the costs of making the experience of work less miserable, and, because workers and customers are both kind of stuck with them, they choose bad service, terrible work conditions, and high turnover. It’s not because it’s some law of nature—it’s like this because the unskilled labor pool can’t vote with their feet when everywhere sucks.”
She draws a direct line between the crappiness of these work situations and the slings and arrows suffered by the lower end of the labor pool: depression, pain, suicide, abrasive stress, villainous uncertainties: “So why is America so crazy? It’s inescapable chronic stress built into the way we work and live….Is it surprising that Americans have started exhibiting unhelpful physical, mental, and social adaptations to chronic stress en masse? Our bodies believe that this is the apocalypse.”
She ends her book with this call to action: “Imagine a better world, one you’d like to live in. Imagine a world that’s kinder and less stressful than this one, a world built on human rather than shark values.” She exhorts her readers to reach out to others who also think “the status quo is cruel and ridiculous,” and through this expansive sharing, “you’ll become a part of something bigger than yourself—and, weirdly, you’ll feel more in control of your life than you have in years [and] you’ll start feeling like a human being again. You’ll know what do from there.”
I’m all for the kind of sharing that Guendelsberger suggests – after all, this is how political movements get started, have to get started. But that once we do share, we’ll know “what to do from there” – against Amazon? Against the techno-Taylorism that grinds down human choice to the barest minimum needed to function during a day? Against the masters of the universe and their shark’s way of thinking? Because to achieve what Guendelsberger wants does require a class war, and who among us knows “what to do from there”?
Others, however, don’t go the class-war route but instead try to reconfigure the conversation about the thirst for growth that drives the free market. Aaron Timms wrote an interesting piece on the degrowth movement for The New Republic (Jan-Feb 2020), “Beyond the Growth Gospel.” Degrowth, at least the variety he describes, is a wholesale rejection of mass consumerist society in favor of a more Amish way of life, as one of the people Timms interviews calls it, a repudiation of the modern in favor of simpler, more human-centered ways of living which will, when practiced, save the planet from overheating.
Though, to be honest, much of what Timms conveys in his piece about the degrowth’s arguments makes them sound more like a Puritanical harangue against sinful luxury than a workable plan of social and economic resistance and transformation. They seems to want not only a new system but a new people to inhabit that system who will rejoice in privation and the rudimentary: “What the degrowthers seek, in their priestliest utterings, is not only a new society but also a complete reset of the psychological habitus of everyday life….a project to build a new person.”
As Timms notes, this particular conjuration of degrowth cannot solve climate change since its time horizon is far beyond the current house-on-fire situation in which the human race finds itself. And it certainly will not appeal to the billions of people who are already living a version of degrowth and want desperately to escape from it.
So, it seems that we are back to where we started, working in jobs that drive us crazy in a world disintegrating because of the very sharkish hunger for profit that makes the job so crappy to begin with.
What to do?
It’s back to the warfare – there’s no other option. We can’t consumer our way out of our dilemmas, we can’t dispense with modern comforts, we can’t robot-worker and universal-basic-income ourselves into prosperity and peace, we can’t democratic-socialism ourselves into social harmony: it is “workers of the world, unite.”
A really Guendelsbergerian “you’ll know what do from there” moment can only happen when that unification happens, and in our society, that can only be through unions or union-like activities – uni(on)ification – that push back and push back against the free-market omnivore, not just to get larger and larger pieces of an oligarchic pie but to creatively destroy it.
This is not an easy historical task. Astra Taylor wrote about the challenges and abysms of this task this in a very cogent way in the May 17, 2019, issue of The New Republic. But she stressed that while enormous and difficult, accomplishing the overhaul is not impossible since it’s been done before, and it is being done already in many places in the world, though very locally and with limited scalability.
Slavoj Žižek, in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, points out that communism is something of Platonic ideal, eternal in some fashion, because even if particular manifestations of it don’t work out, there is always a need to use its lens to examine why a certain time and place becomes barbaric and divided. This is such a time and place, and this is why, as Taylor asserts, “what Engels somewhat melodramatically, but also alluringly, called the ‘kingdom of freedom’ can only be achieved by cooperation, not competition—and by breaking the power of a system that hoards resources and makes it seem there’s not enough to go around.”