BEING A CORPORATE EMPLOYEE
By Roland Watson
Compared to the executives, the lot of the ordinary employees, the lower classes of the corporate system, is completely different. They truly are a "human resource," viewed not as thinking and feeling individuals with a wide range of unfulfilled needs and aspirations, but only as one more "factor of production," albeit with somewhat more complex maintenance requirements (than a machine). This perspective of employees derives from the fact that companies are subject to change, which occurs due to changes in the marketplace, from the actions of competitors, and the introduction of new technology; and also from change that is generated within the company itself. As a company responds to, and generates, such change, it repositions itself periodically, if not continually. But, in this repositioning, as it changes products and businesses (and production and sale locations), employees are not viewed as humans, as real people, at all. They are used as long as they are needed (although during this process they may be treated quite well), but when such repositioning eliminates their usefulness, they are discarded.
One check to this practice, though, is the existence of labor unions. However, in the United States unions have been emasculated. They have lost power, and members; corporations largely have won. But also, unions regularly undergo the general process of institutional evolution as well. Power becomes centralized, and is then abused. It is not used to fulfill the common aspirations of the workers, but to service the personal desires of the union's leaders.
"As most workers realize...unions are police agents, in place largely to control workers. Each union local is the property of an international union, and dissident activity goes nowhere for that reason. If a local starts to get out of line, the international puts it into receivership, i.e., it takes it over."
- Green Steal, Should EF! Work with the Steel Union? - Bad Idea, John Zerzan, Earth First! Journal, May-June 1999, page 4
It is also worth recalling that a soviet, as in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, is a "worker council," i.e., a union. The potential for abuse in and by a union is as great as with any corporation.
But, to continue with life inside a company, the effects of employment can be seen most clearly in terms of one's personal identity, and one's relationships. For the former, we have seen that menial employment effectively demeans the individual. Over time one adapts, one lowers oneself, to such a job, and any inclination to individuality and personal achievement is crushed. You identify yourself with your job, you are only as good as it, and this is reinforced by the fact that this is how the rest of the world views you as well. This is your form, both to yourself and to others, but in this way your identity is not only defined by your job, it is limited to it. You are only a clerk, or laborer, or factory or warehouse worker. In the overall scheme of things you are one of the low, and hence you have less personal value than those people above you. They are better than you.
However, it is not just the workers in the least-skilled positions, the people at the base of the pyramid, who are so affected. Similar outcomes occur in the supervisory and management ranks as well, where it is common for people to deteriorate into corporate drones. Such people take on the corporation's values, to make up for a lack of their own. They also feel suffused, through identifying with the company, with a (misplaced) sense of power and self-importance.
This in turn reflects another process that regularly occurs. When you first begin a career, you think, "Okay, I'm off!," even if your choice of what to do was based entirely on chance. But then, as the years pass by, boredom sets in, for all but the few people who are given rapid advancement. In service industries, this is particularly apparent. People hate their jobs, and they take it out on their customers. You can tell when someone has done the same job for a long time. And this is a common aspect of modern employment. It is very difficult to change careers, to do something new. Therefore, many people end up dissatisfied with their jobs, and careers, and lives. They think: there is so much that I could have done; there is so much that is worth doing; how did I end up like this?
More insidiously, corporations turn life, everything in life, into a business. And everything, and everyone, including you and I, are products for sale. The underlying value is that you must sell yourself - you must prostitute yourself - to succeed. You do not have a life; you have a career. And, as we have seen, most eloquently with Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, if you fail to achieve career success you are subject to the ultimate penalty. The ground zero value is that "a failure in society and business has no right to live." (author's commentary on Death of a Salesman, Viking Critical Library edition, page 169)
This is an extremely harsh basis on which to construct a society, and we must do everything in our power to fight it. We must bring to an end The Age of Human Sacrifice. (It is not over yet!) We - you and I - must declare that we are not products for sale.
"I am a human being, goddammit! My life has value!"
- from the film, Network
Or, to recall the idea of feedback:
"The new form of managerial industrialism, in which man builds machines which act like men and develops men who act like machines, is conducive to an era of dehumanization and complete alienation, in which men are transformed into things and become appendices to the process of production and consumption."
- from the Afterword to Orwell's 1984, Erich Fromm, page 267
How, one might wonder, do corporations succeed in being so oppressive? For the answer to this, we should recall their subtlety. We have been persuaded to take, unknowingly, many small steps, the accumulated result of which is for all intents and purposes a new type of slavery.
For example, it is a common practice in a corporation that you must work even when you are sick. Subtle, and not so subtle, persuasion is used: "Come in just long enough to finish the project," or, "if you won't do it, someone else will!" This is one of the first steps that we take in the devaluation of our health, of our physical well being, as one of our primary motivations. Furthermore, a second, and much stronger factor, is the modern workload that is demanded of employees. At any level, wage and overtime, or salary, or salary and bonus, forty hours a week is nothing. Fifty, or sixty, or even more hours of work, this week, every week, is now the standard. The consequences of this are so widespread that we do not even see them, including obesity, premature aging, and greatly increased stress and susceptibility to mental illness and heart disease. We truly are making the ultimate sacrifice. (Is it worth it?)
Then there are the consequences of corporate life on personal relationships. Inside a company the competition among employees that exists at the top, actually extends to all levels. Corporations regularly engender ruthless competition among their employees, even though they are all meant to be part of the same team. In this way they encourage us to devalue other people, and our relationships with them, just as they have already persuaded us to devalue ourselves. (More generally, any time you have an institutional affiliation, you start working for it as well as for yourself. This necessarily splits your loyalty.)
Of course, inside a company you will have friends, and there is a certain camaraderie. But the relationship between the company and its employees is almost always stronger than the relationships between employees. But if you doubt this, consider the following scenario. Suppose you receive an order from your company to relocate. Do you follow it, even though it means leaving your friends behind, and perhaps your family as well, or do you refuse?
As we saw earlier, corporations force us to pit our loyalty to them against our loyalty to our personal relationships; to give our time to them rather than to our family and friends. The way they do this is to get us to evaluate the utility of these relationships. If the relationships are not making positive contributions to us at this very moment, the implicit suggestion is that we should terminate them. The overall effect is that we are influenced to view other people not as individuals, but as deals, valuable only insofar as they give us something, and that they give it to us right now.
The consequences of this corporate value on social stability and harmony have of course been disastrous. Partners do not have enough time for each other, to maintain and develop their relationships, hence they regularly fail. And our children suffer enormously from a lack of parental contact, which occurs both because of the high workloads and also the tremendously increased divorce rates. And, since these children represent our society's future, the end to which the corporate world is leading us is truly a frightening prospect.
(This is an addition to the list in the Education section: you want your children to copy the fact that you are not a slave to your job; and that they, and your partner, and your friends, and also yourself, are more important than it.)
As to our friends, in the real world people recognize that such relationships move through cycles, with high points and lows. Because of this, you do not drop your friends in the bad times; write them off as failed investments because the profits are down. Instead, you stay loyal, because friendships are essential to their, and your, well-being. After all, what happens when you reach a low point yourself, and this happens to everyone periodically: you need your friends!
Through shaping us in these ways as their employees, corporations are effectively restructuring the entire basis of personal relationships in society. Also, this is one of the primary factors behind the rise in the incidence of extreme social ills, the ills that were discussed earlier in the Social Breakdown section.
The only other comment I will make on a corporation's relationship with its employees regards dissent. Corporations are intolerant of employees who express dissent, ranging from simply pushing for new job opportunities, all the way through to being a whistleblower who publicizes company misdeeds. For the former, the corporate system is so inflexible that if you push against it in any way you will be in trouble. Employees are carefully channeled. (This is - or was - known as manpower planning.) Ambition is allowed, even encouraged, but only within the boundaries that are set for you. And this reflects their perception of who you are and what you mean to them, in other words, your form to them.
But this applies to more than just trying to transcend your place; it also has significant ethical implications. If you are asked to do something unethical, such as the earlier case of venting pollution, you have to do it. You have no effective recourse or appeal. (The ethical system inside a company is a variation of natural law.) If you go over your boss to object, you will likely doom your career prospects with the company, and you could easily be fired as a troublemaker.
Regarding whistleblowers, who are real troublemakers (at least to the companies), they are punished immediately, and this helps instill a climate of fear to suppress any further rebellion. Also, not only are the dissenters expelled, they are denied any form of recommendation, which they will need to secure new employment. In this way the corporate system truly is "a system." Though competitors, different companies work together to dispel from their system any individuals who rebel against it. Together, they purify their staffs as an additional means to enforce submission.
Lastly, all of this is being implemented through advanced techniques of surveillance. The employees of many companies must now wear special ID tags, which track their location at all times. And, every word that you speak on the phone at work, and every key that you strike on your computer, is subject to recording and review. Modern corporations, like all authoritarian organizations, are developing their own secret police, really, "thought police," since through such surveillance they are able to track, minute-by-minute, what you think and do.
Unfortunately, and would that this were all we could say against them, there is still a long way to go. The next public to consider is our community as a whole.
© Roland Watson 2016