In an uproarious interview with Vice published in 2013, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek describes a dynamic all too familiar to many workers today. He says, today “a typical boss no longer wants to be a boss.” He goes on to describe how, in the postmodern workplace, workers are forced to pretend their employers are their friends. You have to be overly polite, give the boss a hug, “exchange vulgarities,” and so on. The whole time both parties act like this is a relationship of friends and equals.
Management sometimes goes to absurd lengths to keep up this illusion. They will go out for after work drinks or parties with workers, engage socially during off time, invite workers to funerals and weddings, and even try to position themselves as on the side of workers, really. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard my manager say, “I’m on your side guys. I asked the owner for a wage increase but he said no and there’s nothing else I can do.”
This game wears you down fast, especially if you work a low-wage job. Management or HR expects you to maintain a good, polite mood and passion for your job while making your life materially miserable. Some even deploy a line like, “this is a very chill workplace, I try not to be too hard on you guys” as if it were a benefit like decent healthcare or ample vacation time, which are usually missing. All the while, consumer price inflation leaps ahead, wages stagnate, and working conditions steadily decline.
On the flip side, this dynamic can lead to some workers trying to overperform to impress the boss or play into favoritism to secure preferred treatment and respite. Management’s intrusion into the off-hours social lives of their workforce can also act as a form of social surveillance and conditioning on the workers – you can’t talk frankly or even safely vent about your issues if your management is there. Or, if you do, management can easily use that to bribe, isolate, or otherwise retaliate against workers. They threaten to stop being nice.
When you dispense with the niceties and pull back the curtain, the whole sham reveals itself as a classic divide-and-conquer strategy. Employers set up pay structures and work conditions that pit workers against each other in productivity competitions. But to keep workers from cutting each other’s throats, management’s “door is always open” for workers to vent to a friendly ear if they want. Management wants workers to have good social relations only with them. Snitching and ratting out are encouraged, every worker is expected to be a teacher’s pet, and the only way to get any relief from poor working conditions is to play into a manager’s favoritism.
The late Mark Fisher touches on this form of working class isolation in his hard-hitting 2009 book Capitalist Realism. Like Zizek, he hones in on the postmodern workplace and argues that this pervasive structurelessness serves to both alienate workers from each other and break our will to fight. He illustrates this with a point about discipline; during the earlier parts of the 20th Century, workers were regularly subjected to rigid discipline directly from capital, the state, or their agents. Today, workers are socially conditioned to have a “good work ethic,” practice “self-discipline,” and “hustle” to increase labor productivity instead of withstanding discipline meted out by the employer. Management hardly has to intervene.
Furthermore, Fisher argues that this state of affairs conditions working class resistance to capitalism into useless individualized channels like consumer activism. Without knowledge of a class structure (and capitalists pretending to be Just Like Us), there is no clear target to force into giving us what we want. And thus, the problems of capitalism feel as though they have no beginning and no end, intractable as the movement of the planets around the sun.
Unfortunately, Fisher does not offer us much in the way of practical advice for moving forward. Luckily, the IWW is full of battle-hardened class warriors who have learned many hard lessons over the years. In my personal experience, the “nice employer” has proved one of the toughest barriers to getting a union drive off the ground. I generally see management organizing after-work socials, happy hours, and events much more than workers themselves. In my own workplace, managers join workers for game nights and often accompany workers on outdoor activities like biking or camping. It seems they will do anything to make workers forget that the labor relationship is anything besides fundamentally economic in nature.
Management’s deep tendrils in workers social lives tends to make workers reluctant to take actions that may jeopardize their friendships. Organizers must know who is close to whom in the workplace in order to avoid this trap and prevent management from turning workplace leaders and other workers against an organizing effort early on. In our Organizer Training 101, we teach new Wobblies this, what we call Social Mapping, as one of the very first steps in a budding union drive.
In that section, trainees learn that the workplace is already organized. Only, it is organized by management with the capitalist’s interests in mind – usually for maximum labor productivity and profit extraction. I see management’s efforts to infiltrate and structure (or isolate) workers’ social lives as a deliberate way they organize the workplace. It is the organizer’s job to clearly see that and start to break management’s structure down. But organizers must know the lay of the land first if we are to make effective strides toward collective action.
Once the organizers are armed with a good understanding of the social structure and who the leaders are in the workplace, they can start building relationships and pulling workers away from management toward the nascent union with Agitation and Education, or even before that starting to “socialize the workplace;” i.e. developing relationships with coworkers outside of management’s view. This step may be increasingly necessary to counteract the growing alienation and isolation of the modern workplace and getting workers to care about each other and be a bit more involved in each other’s lives. This is the raw material that class consciousness and class conflict is built on, but it can take time and effort to grow.
While Fisher is a bit nihilistic about our prospects, Zizek goes on to say in his interview, “the first step toward liberation is to force [the boss] to really behave like a boss.” He is a bit glib, but his point is a good one. In today’s muddy waters where class organization has been suppressed almost to nil and everyone is forced to act as if they are an “independent contractor” who works for the passion of it, even drawing the lines clearly seems like a radical step. But it is a necessary one that can cut through the confusing fog of modern existence and lay the groundwork for a brighter, revolutionary future free of capitalist exploitation. As the old labor saying goes, “united we fight, divided we beg.” I, for one, am sick of begging.
We must be able to bring our coworkers together to see past management’s superficial niceness in order to fight for that future. I teach new Wobblies in Organizer Trainings that one of the most important and powerful parts of Agitation and Education is helping our coworkers slice through the propaganda to see the world for how it really is. In this case, management’s politeness comprises a small tactic in a much larger strategy on the part of Capital to delude workers and maintain labor peace. We must help our coworkers stand firm for ourselves, together, against management. We can’t be afraid of not being nice –in fact, we can use it as a weapon just like they do.
Furthermore, in many workplaces management remains the sole puppetmaster of workers’ social lives. Modern management theory seems to have recognized the fractured state of the working class and seeks to prevent our organization by relentlessly trying to mediate, filter, and prescribe workers’ social lives. I think this is a key to building an effective organizing committee; sometimes even before having one-on-ones, IWW organizers must build up some on-the-job social life to pull workers away from management. Meet up for coffee and chit-chat. Have small group events with no managers. Having a stake in each other’s lives is a crucial building block toward effective one-on-ones and toward the trust necessary for taking collective action.
Slow, steady building will pay off in the long run. Take the time to build some friendships and other long-term relationships in the workplace. Agitate and Educate coworkers effectively. Over time, we can build strong worker committees that can finally drop the curtain of politeness, make clear demands, and take collective action to materially improve all our lives. Just don’t fall for the bait.
Jay Bettencourt is an Organizer Trainer with the IWW. Read more about the history of the IWW Organizer Training program here.
Contact the IWW today if you want to start organizing at your job.