Friday, December 4, 2009

To Be Employed

We are saturated with an ideal and felt necessity of being with employment. It’s the first topic of acquaintancing. Violations of this obligatory component of adult life are seen as an imposed condition the affected are trying to overcome - being unemployed rings pity. Too many and it’s a national crisis. My current, chosen situation of exalted unemployment is nearly inconceivable, it cannot even be registered by my interlocutors. Inevitably the conversation meanders to when I will return, come back to some kind of perceived ’original state’ of adulthood or ‘normal path’ of which I am now in deviation. Its discourse irritates me, continually being thrown back onto my being as an assumption: When will you have a job again? When will you begin your career? How do you pay the bills? Inquiries into bill paying really rile me up. My existence seen as bill payer is disgustingly insulting.

Let me tell you folks, this is seeing life through a manipulated lens. The capitalists no longer are external tyrants. They are internalized superegoic agents - they have won. This crazed craving for jobs is rationalized as survivalist, “we have to eat”, but it is a sickness. Jobs are gobbled up with an incredible overflow of applicants. We compete for them. Okay, I’ll break, cease now from this tirade, which must be understood, but for now, let us backpeddle for a closer examination, lest I fulfill the lurking suspicion that I begin to blame the victim of a systemic malaise.

What does it mean to be an employee? For most, it is the condition of a steady stream of income that supremely validates and drives them toward maintaining the role, and desperately seeking it if it is lost. Money is problematic - like food, it must be constantly sought and replenished, its stockpiles dwindling as one lives. Self-sufficiency seems no longer viable as we depend on goods and services we cannot ourselves offer, and we purchase them from groups (companies) that can. The Thoreauian question of the way in which we live in constant purchasing will be taken up elsewhere, as I digress. But the digression reveals the structural complexity of the problem of employment as desirable - we are deeply and heavily mired in a societal framework that resists the changing of one element. Because so much rests on that element.

Back to the central meaning of being an employee. Being employed is to be commissioned into a contract of compensation for labor. Most often today, at least in the first world, the employed denizens are compensated directly for offering temporal inhabitation in a work setting - they are to perform tasks in a pre-specified block of time that they willingly give up for a pre-specified amount of money. Thus, monetary compensation is more valuated than time, at least for the amount that is exchanged. There are variations of course. However, the basic structure remains. This is straightforward enough and I don’t expect the workforce to really argue with this description. What is more intriguing and liberating to make explicit is the real meaning of being an employee, beneath this reciprocal veneer of exchange between workers and companies - a Marxian analysis of the grinding-out of capitalist processes. Our time and what we can do in it is essentially purchased and appropriated for the particular goals of the organization to which we commit. These are never our goals - they are not things we choose to do autonomously. They are foreign, other, extrinsic. Thus, as employees, we advance the goals of others, and not just any others, but more powerful others than ourselves. For we are working for them. Looking at employment from a longview, one’s dedicated and long-term employment is a tragic life project - one has merely lived for another’s cause and purpose and has failed in the task of self-creation and individual exploration, this being left to dwindling "spare time". Now, if one identifies with this other’s cause as worthy, that one‘s individual efforts can be subsumed into larger endeavor one couldn‘t possibly effect by oneself, perhaps this kind of employment is redeemable. However, this needs to be well-scrutinized in particular instances for it is the perfect type of justification that capitalists prefer workers to have (so, caution!). All for-profits ultimate aim, we must all admit, is to generate profit. And so at the end of the day, being an employee means to further advance the more powerful others’ profit surplus and by doing so, employees are monetarily compensated. But if all employees contribute income to their employer and the employer’s compensation to the employee is income, we can clearly see who it is that is being entirely ripped off. Duped. Taken advantage of. It can be no other way: to be an employee is to give over labor and time for far less than it is worth. You receive a paycheck for your labor and time only because your labor and time pays powerful others a lot more. I finally understand my father’s admonition: “You can make money in a good job, no doubt, but you will never get rich working for another.” Why would anyone desire handing over the wealth inherent in their time and labor to others who exploit that wealth by channeling it away from the employee?

The generations of today are being born into a system of mass employment. It is no longer an unusual practice in a more basic setting of subsistence living, in which everyday life is managed independently by the household. Our households are open loops of goods and services and these loops extend far wider and along complex trajectories that surpass the availabilities of our enwombing communities. Back to our lack of self-sufficiency as related to our analysis of employment, we are essentially caught up in a position where we cannot provide for ourselves: the foods we digest, the clothes we don, the entertainment we stream into our dwellings are all loci of continual monetary feeding - they require us to generate payments, relentlessly and regularly. Lacking self-generating abilities, we outsource. Note that in other times and in the agrarian cultures of the world, there was or is no problem of continual income replenishment - their problems, however real and dire, were and are of a different source and structure. Participating in a postmodern world, we are beset by the need for income. The generations of today were born into this need yes, but also born into a network of income opportunities that are satiated most easily and readily by employment. This seemingly basic fact reveals our moment in history: that already, an elite minority controls and regulates, who hold the vast majority of the wealth, the very means to catapult further away from the rest in assets. When you accept employment, you continue to extend this divide. Your labor, as exploited, further engrains us all in a system of dependency. You make the already mightily powerful still mightier. Employment may be a perceived necessary, but employment is the means of the weak and powerless to live. So much for the “grand success” of securing a position, good-paying nonetheless.

It’s a difficult entrenchment, but this shouldn’t and needn’t render us hopeless and resigned. This is precisely the attitude capitalists depend on the working class to engender. That our smooth-flowing economy without recession or depression “depends on”. It requires its masses to be employed to run efficiently, making challenging employment anathema. It often works against us, at this historical moment, to take an independent, contrary stance by self-employing and self-supplying because the resources of individual production are far outstripped by those aggregated at the apex of employment. Power so removed from the people is dangerous.

There are many nuances and considerations in which I will further refine and expand, for this question of employment, in its written unfolding, has proved far more expansive and problematic than originally anticipated. This initiation is merely to set the stage for deviant thought, to provide an exposé illuminating the basic nature of employment that has been repressed by the impotent workforce. It is time to resurrect what it is that we are actually doing when we are employed. It is time to resurrect what it is that we are actually doing, period. Welcome to the scope of this blog. Readers, I encourage you to meditate on your concrete lived experience of being an employee, for surely most of you are employed, given our situation, given our birthright. Workers: share, and then we will unite.


Ολας said...

It is a refreshing thing to find a blog that is focusing on the issues of the day from a production side. Most people who are concerned with Marxism and socialism instead focus on consumption. This is problematic for the the deep left. While complaining about rampant consumerism, they tend to implicitly uphold consumerism in a negated form. That is to say they speak of activism from the point of view of subject-as-consumer, and telling that subject to disavow this consumer core. However, this approach, while in the right direction, upholds the modern liberal-bourgeois conception of the subject. Think of Starbucks and its attempt to ease people's conscience by claiming that they only use fair trade beans. This of course obfuscates how they got their money in the first place, through stealing the labor from, well, most of us. They are saying that by consuming (with them) you are going to do moral deeds. This leads directly to the next problem. The view of the consumer is the view of man as passive and victimized. Typically associated in these writings is stories of people being oppressed by corporations. This is the modern ethics. Ethics is about the subject-as-victim. Rarely is there an emancipatory ethics which views man primarily as a creative and active agent in his/her life. Thus the negating of the consumer diagram is not wrong, but incomplete. They attempt to make us become active agents while wearing our passive pajamas. This is true. We are partially passive, buffeted by the corporate drive to consume. However this neglects the other side, we are creative, active participants in this environment, typically through labor. Labor is the space of value creation. If companies are profitable, it is through the theft of labor. Also in labor we can find our creative energy to revolt, resist, and rebuild. Thus the deep left must both attack the system of production and the system of consumption.

With the current financial crisis, we see people (esp. older people) saying something similar. Having worked at a company for numerous years they were thrown out of their job for this reason alone: the company wasn't making enough profits. Here is the question: what is to be done? As almost an axiom, capitalists can last much longer than workers without getting paid. This is because the worker produces for pay, (ie life) where as the capitalist is in it for capital (not life but just the circuit of more money). All roads point to the necessity for radical restructuring. The circulation of capital must be broken. We cannot solve this by merely being "responsible" consumers nor can we overcome alienated labor by being "responsible" laborers. Talk of the responsible individual is a neo-bourgeois attempt to allow us to appease ourselves by nugatory acts that are capitalized. It obfuscates the systemic problem. We need to be irresponsible citizens. By this I mean citizen qua citizen-of-a-capitalist-society, we need to be what would be considered irresponsible by this very society. Ethical and responsible in this society means alleviating death and suffering through purchasing, worker hard and building a career. All of these things are humans as an impotent, passive species where things such as "corporations," government, and the They are active. Thus to be responsible is to be ethical. But this ethics forgets the core of our being, that we are active self-creating subjects. Thus if being responsible and being ethical means sustaining humans in their impotence, the only choice we have is to be irresponsible in their eyes. Our choice is the choice of active resistance. We must be the very excess of the system we inhabit. That is to say, we must be the aspect of the system that is in the system more than the system itself. Only through this excess will we be able to disrupt the flow of capital.

TONIN mckelvey said...

Some deviant thought here. Just what I attempted to encourage, although I suspect you've had it far earlier than the blog's prompts. YES - it is this active reclaiming that the individual is responsible for engaging (and responsible not in the 'systemically taught sense' as you mention, but I appropriate the word a la the existentialists). You reminded me of an argument from the vegan perspective on the "cage-free" and "humanely treated" movement - it provides the ingester of these meats moral relief of guilt. Although seemingly it is a step in the ideal direction, according to the vegans at least, it is a far worse maneuver, blinding those eaters to the real issues - the moral considerability of animals and the question of whether we should eat them, formerly caged or not.

Resistance to consuming trends is analogous here. Cage-free is the economic interests' marketing attempt to continue to produce and have buyers of meat under the influx of new ideas. The idea loses its vibrant potency - it is captured under The Problem.

So, how to disrupt the flow of capital? Initial thoughts: interdependent self-sufficiency (bartering networks); invading the waste surplus and repurposing it (which includes, but goes far beyond, dumpster diving); simplifying need - or rather parsing out need from synthetic desire (via the internalized capitalist whisper). What other irresponsibilities have we here?

You also point out both the primacy and power of labor - that it has inherent value, whisked away when one is employed, which can be unplugged from theiving employment. It is our labor. The current exploitations are a theft of something more fundamental, that which can stand alone meritoriously. Aren't we sick of being labor-raped?

Stacy McKelvey said...

It is amazing how complex the capitalist system is, especially in terms of its (manipulatory) ability to (falsely) align the workers' interest with the company's interest. While you have already theoretically explored this issue thoroughly, I wanted to include an example from my experience working as a Target employee (I always run to the particular because it allows me to better understand the theoretical). My favorite part of this job was the "huddles" we had at the beginning of every shift. I enjoyed these merely because they allowed me to dissect the ways in which the company attempted (and is still attempting) to convince the workers to drive profit margins. At every huddle the manager told us the sales report, explaining how much money our particular store accumulated the previous day. They would then use this figure to encourage us to work harder, using locutions such as "We were a little short yesterday and we all know that in order to give you more hours we have to make more money. If you want hours, then you need to make sure you are helping every guest find what they need so they can buy it." This statement reveals the inherent power structure of the capitalist system. It reminds the workers that they depend on the company's success in order to still have a job. Therefore, there is an incentive for the employee to drive sales even though the employee is not the person who ultimately benefits. That is the problem of the capitalist system: the employees really do depend on the success of the system to survive. While this statement sounds as if it supports the capitalist system, it does not. It merely is meant to augment the earlier comment that focusing on consummerism is not enough. Merely reducing consumption not only fails to address the real issues (such as alienated labor), but also adversely affects the working class. As Slovaj Zizek notes, the success of Main Street depends on the success of Wall Street. What this means is we cannot resolve the many problems we have with the current capitalist system through the capitalist system. It is only through dismantling it that such issues can truly be resolved. I am not saying that reducing consumption is not meritorious because it is. However, I am saying that reducing consumption does not resolve the problems of capitalism. Capitalism only functions when people are driven to consume more. Capitalism fails to work as a system when people choose not to overconsume. To be an anti-consumerist means to necessarily be an anti-capitalist.

TONIN mckelvey said...

Living out of the particular is aligned well with the phenomenological tradition of returning to lived experience, so your commentary from the perspectivee of an everyday activity, the huddle, is extrememly important for our critique of capitalism. Props for finding a way to make the manipulatory experience work for you - in providing daily examples of what is wrong with our system!

This mentality, 'upper manangement' tries to inculcate, of "we need to do good for our company", has really been effective. Their messages have been internalized by the masses of employment. I hear its rhetoric everywhere in those working hard in their jobs. They believe it and do not see its subjugating and exploitative intent. It is interesting to note that the same process is cast upon, internalized, and passed on by this employed level in the hierarchy, for surely the huddle leaders are no capitalists, but in the grand scheme of things, closer to the greeters, cart pushers, and sales floor staff than the (elusive) corporate elite.

We have been speaking of getting outside the suffocating bounds of the capitalist system, effectively not playing by its rules, and stating that manipulating consumer trends is not enough, for it is mere play within capitalist grounds....but I am wondering if the system would indeed crash if consumer trends exceeded normal fluctuations. Then again, you always have the problem of government intervention to "salvage" the dying economical system. What would be the wedge?

Kyle said...

All very interesting and thoughtful arguments, but one must never forget that Marxism is a boil on the ass of humanity. I am sorry, but utopian ideals can only go so far. Then you are left with the real issue of who is going to lead the egalitarian revolution. This normally ends up being the death-merchant who is filthy rich while the workers STILL earn a pittance(Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-Il, Castro etc.)and lose freedoms. At least in capitalism, I have the option of trading one corporate overlord for another. With Marxist statism, that option is taken away at the point of a gun.

Give me one example of a marxist government that has not eventually used deadly force en masse against its citizenry. Not socialism, Marxism.

I am a liberal, but I cannot honestly say that socialism/marxism/statism/communism is better than controlled capitalism. Do there need to be more protections for workers? Yes. Do we need a proletariat revolt to overthrow the evils and excesses of capitalism? Maybe. But in its place, we cannot look to a nanny state approach for protection because the state in any form is the enemy of the people. Instead, the people, through free and fair trade (not the rigged form of crony capitalism that the western world engages in currently) must use their ingenuity and hard work to build a FREE and fair society. A true capitalistic society, not the neo-fascist system we currently engage in. That is the only way people can ever be free. I believe that freedom of choice is what makes a person; it is our most base foundation. That is the very thing that marxism (and capitalism, to a far lesser degree) strives to take away.

I will take an evil free society over a benevolent dictatorship any day.....

Kyle said...

P.s.- While you anti-consumerists type comments on your thousand dollar computers made by marxist chinese slaves onto a message board ran by a for-profit corporation, never forget that the only reason you are free to do so is because you live in a society that values open expression and you were lucky enough to have been born there. The world is filled with blind luck and you shouldn't be wallowing in rich man's guilt because you can afford to feed you family.
THE WORLD IS A HELL-HOLE AND WE ARE MERE PLAYERS. Be GLAD that you aren't a worker in the great Chinese bureaucracy. Between the 7 14 hour days you would be working and making sure that your friends and neighbors didn't overhear you dissenting or grumbling about said work, I sincerely doubt you would have time (OR ACCESS, SINCE IT WOULD BE FILTERED) to get on the internet (created by capitalist pigs) and type your long diatribes about the inequalities of said system. That is, unless you are a party member. Then you have all the time in the world. Seems a little unequal, huh?


TONIN mckelvey said...


I had lapsed on my blog (see recent entry, 9/11/10) and in the interim, you had commented and I wanted to proffer a response, which I hope will find its way to you.

Firstly, thank you for taking the time to read this entry and express your views. It is rare for this kind of involvement. However virulent your tone (and I have to say I was at times taken aback by the violence I incited), I think you bring up a number of decent criticisms that I shall weigh out and ponder, as well as a number of what I believe to be critical misreadings of the project of Marx's revolutionary - both the proletariat group as well as his idea of social change.

Let's start there, and I will proceed to seriously address your legitimate criticisms. I, like Marx, offer the critique of that which exists, capitalism, more or less, and do not propose a rigid, concrete alternative, even less the alternative of massive government control. Marx argued for human liberation, no less, and is often confused with certain historical executions in his name. After reading primary texts with my sister and brother, it was my sister who decided she shall create a documentary entitled, "What the *&^% do you know about Marx?" to address this very problem that you've fallen into: the mass misrepresentation of Marx. There are possibilities of a democratic society with a different economic structure.

You bring up the fact of essentially me as capitalist, even as I denounce it, by my very participation in the system. By utilizing goods made possible by the employed enslaved I am trying to awaken, I further the divide, I entrench the current regime. These facts often give me moral qualms. As Heidegger puts it, we are "always already" within a perceptual world that is running, and so I see it that I was born into this and it will take more than a mere anti-stance to completely remove myself from it. It will take a community. But, yes, in this awkward stance of opposition and upholding, there is a strange tension of hypocrisy.

I like your idea of a free and fair society, if you could expand. And although I am grateful for my postion in life, that I can indulge in active re-creation of the lives we find ourselves in, I will not lower my idealism. Remember Victor Frankl who said if we conceive of man along the dimension of flight, he will lift off the ground on which he taxis that if his loftier dimensions ignored, we would condemn him to a life on the runway.

Dustin said...

I haven't read Marx, but understand that he was suggesting that capitalist societies evolve from democracies to capitalist-run oligarchies, then suggests that it may go further to communism. We, sadly, seem to be close to, if not already entrenched in, the oligarchic phase.

The idea of unwinding the web of our corporate/consumerist society and replacing it with a sustainable one is appealing, but I question 1) what would this society actually look like, 2) how do we get there from here with minimal disruption (much less global collapse. One can learn a lot from gedankenexperiments with enclosed ecosystems, by definition sustainable.

Individually, we can certainly move to live in this way, but will face rejection of our choices from much of society. I was once confronted by a child who said "you live kind of poorly, don't you?" I replied that I had nothing in my life that I didn't want, wanted nothing that I didn't have, that he would be hard pressed to find another person in the world who could say that.

Finally, from just about any way you view it, we would be better eating only those things we are willing to kill and cook ourselves. It would solve the problems of obesity, feedlots and "inhumanity" to farm animals, loss of farms to corporate control, quite a lot of pollution, and antibiotic resistance from prophylactic use in industrial farming. Not that I've attained that point...

TONIN mckelvey said...


Thanks for the comments! Your questions are ones Marxists should address - they are the daunting questions I continually ask - if not somewhat answered, what are we fighting for? Yet, I cannot reconceive of this project we call society. And then there's the problem that it is always already running. Minimal disruption is the arena of the reformers. Marxism is revolutionary. I like to say I am in the latter camp, but the fact is, life is too good to enact revolutionary change - I speak for myself and the general feeling I get from those around me. The way I get around it is recognition and exit - I have chosen to become self-employed as of this blog entry. This solves one problem - the problem of employment, but it doesn't solve them all.

Your last paragraph has an interesting parallel to my life - it is what my family calls 'gameatarianism'. It IS a viable option (for the few, never for the masses - there isn't enough game).