Thursday, August 11, 2011

Indignities of labor


The movement [Joe] Hill lived and died for has proved less durable. As Mr Adler recalls, the Wobblies flourished for a brief, electrifying moment at the dawn of the 20th century, when industrial capital was new, raw and brutal. At the time the IWW’s vision of a new worker-controlled order seemed “if not on the verge of becoming reality, not preposterous either”.

And yet the fundamental relationships have not changed. Americans, for example, have yet to achieve the same "rights and freedoms" in the workplace that they revere everywhere else -- freedom of speech, freedom of association, the right to privacy, elected representation, etc. -- and this in the very space where they spend the bulk of their lives! To step into the private workplace is to surrender one's rights on a daily basis; surrendering them all the more, the more hours one works. The paradox must be regarded as natural in the context of capitalist "government by the people": the governors are not the people, and the people spend precious little of their time governing; rather, they are working, and with no access to the rights by which they regard themselves American.

Concomitant to questions of rights and freedoms, however, there are perceptions of dignity, and it is only by obscuring the relationship between classes that US culture has arrived at a place where dignity becomes more a question of fitting in than acting human. Not bearing the stamp of social exclusion is significant: to be a "team member" is qualitatively different than being "illegal," even if neither means being free. To be singled-out for a special abuse within its broader application is what most people notice and respond to best, as opposed to general lack of freedom in "the way things are."

In the early industrial period, the working classes understood themselves as occupying this role of social inferiority. They weren't yet consumers or title-inflated quasi-professionals. Because household wealth was not contrived through debt, they had fewer illusions about how far their actual wealth could take them. Wherever they lacked the means, they went without. They understood their "place" as assigned by class.

Today there are many more avenues for American poor and working people to "keep up appearances" via consumer credit than in the earlier periods attended by labor radicalism. You can own an Escalade, and nobody has to know your social standing based on the clothes you wear. Orwell writes about being shamed for not having money to buy a loaf of bread: the whole neighborhood might know he was a pauper, and treat him that way.1 But in the US today, even if you dress like a bum you might be a wealthy person; the implications under consumerism just aren't as obvious.

When communities detect they are being singled-out, they often flare up, and this comes back to questions of dignity, though not always freedom. Dignity relates to how one is seen, and whether one's place warrants respect. One's place needn't be a place of equality of power with others -- what freedom means -- it could be an "honorable" position of servitude: being seen as a "human being," even if human beings aren't free.

It's much easier to organize into accepted standards than to organize beyond them. When workers of the 1910s saw their rich neighbors enjoying "the good things in life" they saw things they wanted for themselves that they couldn't obtain by any other means than fighting. When workers today see things they want for themselves, they become indebted to rich people to have them. They don't have to go without in the eyes of others, but the price they pay is their freedom, and there is nothing dignified about that.

1. Orwell, writing in the same general period, but from Europe; Down and Out in Paris and London.


Cüneyt said...

You see this rather clearly. Bravo.

Abonilox said...

Thanks for the post JRB. Very helpful to me at present.

JRB said...

Cüneyt, I'm excited about your new blog. Just added it to the blogroll.

Abonilox, I'm heartened you think so. The questions you regularly pose around your place are helpful to me too.


Abonilox said...

To step into the private workplace is to surrender one's rights on a daily basis; surrendering them all the more, the more hours one works.

Hence the term "wage slave" which is so apt in our current system.

If you think about it, our "high standard of living" that we are so proud of has been immensely profitable to the capitalists. By exploiting workers in other countries, expanding access to credit, manipulating the tax code etc... the american worker has been duped into believing that he/she is better off than anybody else on the planet. And the capitalist makes a profit on both ends. Workers are given enough credit to keep the consumer driven economy chugging along buying disposable clothes, disposable fucking everything. Sorry, I got off topic...

Yeah, rights at work? You serve at the pleasure of your master.

Lots of great stuff in this post. It gets me all worked up.

Ethan said...

We visited the Baronette's home town recently, and a church on the outskirts had a big sign out front reading "DEBT EQUALS SLAVERY."

Jack Crow said...

Where it gets ugly, and probably sooner than later, is when people (as employees, as opposed to as workers) in the States catch up with people in the Ukraine, for example.

My goddaughter's mother was born and raised in the Ukraine. She still has most of her family there. A few days ago, she was explaining to me during a long car ride that her cousin just had to pay almost $5k to buy a job. That there's no job in Ukraine, or throughout most of the region, which you don't get without buying it first.

That's how it used to be here, and that's how it's going to be in the future (though I don't necessarily think that the purchase price will be set in cash, for cultural reasons).

Jack Crow said...

Eh. It's already that way here, for those who need credentialing to secure employment. $50-80k is a pretty stiff price tag, to buy a job what keeps one from sweeping floors.

I was referring to the ugliness that will follow when the floor sweeping jobs start to have obvious purchase prices attached.

Brian M said...

I think one could define the free "internships" that most young people go through now as "buying jobs" in a sense.