The Growing Degradation of Anti-Work Arguments

Get it together, liberals.

I try not to rely on an article’s title too much to dictate the title I use for myself because it can often come off as lazy.

…But then when did that ever stop me?

So here we have a fairly extensive and interesting look at work by Michael D. Yates at truthout. It was shared by a fan of the site named Joel a few months back and I’m finally getting around to it. It’s got a lot of interesting information and arguments in it and it takes a few turns that I didn’t expect that I’ll take some time to respond to.

One thing I want to say at the outset is that the word “clopening” is stupid.

Apparently someone thought that the practice of forcing your employees to close a shift and then open the next day should just be some sort of ridiculous portmanteau. And likely one that your friends would come up with and think they’re being clever while they’re stoned on some really shitty mushrooms or something.

But it’s not clever and it’s just called being an asshole.

That’s really all there is to it. We don’t need to create ridiculous words to call people assholes and we certainly don’t need to do it when there’s better ways to do it than this. It’s like people who use the word “virtue signaling” when they could just say “showing off”. Saying “virtue signaling” just becomes it’s own virtue signaling after a certain amount of time.

Anyways, Yates has put together a heft read and so I’ll divide this up accordingly.

I: “Clopening” or Being an Asshole

As mentioned before Yates picks out a few phenomenons within the current economy that he finds particularly egregious and I can’t argue with the idea that overworking employees is certainly up there.

What does management do to justify this practice?

Management justifies the practice by claiming that turnover in restaurant and other service jobs is so high that only the relatively few longer-term employees are sufficiently trustworthy and “have the authority and experience to close at night and open in the morning.”

Labor advocates say that the reason for clopening is that scheduling is often no longer done by actual managers but by “sophisticated software” purchased by companies.

Surprisingly Yates says that both of these explanations don’t suffice.

Now, I expected Yates to call bullshit on the first but it struck me that he doesn’t think the labor-side of the explanation doesn’t work either. Yates quickly explains that the first one puts the (implicitly) unfair blame on the employees and moves on but I’d like to go a bit deeper and take it further apart.

With that said, the idea that those who are “longer-term” are the only ones who are trustworthycreates an informal hierarchy based on seniority. This in turn can create unintended consequences such as informal power relations between people who have been there longer and those who haven’t. It also can sow distrust between workers and management as well as between the workers themselves.

So even if the blame on the workers was fair it would still have some fairly negative consequences worth considering. But the other problem here is that the management is basically punishing the workers for just getting there. From the moment they officially step into the buildings as actual employees they are punished for not having a time machine and speeding things up. Which also means that they’re liable to feel like criminals and a few of these employees may even act it out.

That sort of phenomenon, for those curious, is referred to as a stereotype threat.

It’s also important to remember that the labeling theory explains why people often feel like they have to act out what others label themselves as. This can have weird internal pressures where if I’m not doing everything I can in a day to slack off or to live up to my anti-work theory then I’m somehow a failure. This is the “imposter syndrome” for being a slacker instead of a hard worker, I suppose. And if it’s not obvious, neither of these imposter syndromes are healthy.

Of course, creating distrust, informal (and formal) hierarchies and treating their employees are implied criminals are all parts of many different industries. So I’m not suggesting the management is doing anything particularly surprising here because it’s not very surprising at all. But it’s also worth exploring a bit more than simply pointing out the victim-blaming logic of employers. Because that’s a fairly basic argument that can just easily turned around by saying, “Well of course I am going to blame the employees. What else would I do?” To me, actually criticizing the effects of these policies and approaches to management seems to me to be a much more effective way to grapple with this issue.

Here’s a point by Yates that is interesting though I think he could just as easily be incorrect:

When shifts consist of people who have been on the job for many years, their loyalty to one another might come to outstrip their corporate fidelity, making them more willing to act collectively in opposition to their supervisors. They are more likely to insist on better treatment and to organize a union when demands are not met.

This could be true but why does Yates presume this?

It could also just be the case that some of these employees develop a sort of Stockholm Syndrome about their employers and the brown-nosers are all what’s left. Or that there’s still a few rebels at heart but their overrun by the brown-nosers. I don’t see why we should presume that these workers are necessarily going to develop some sort of bond when it could jut as easily go another way. The worn out look I’ve seen on some long-term employees wouldn’t indicate that they’re interested in showing solidarity so much as they’re interested in showing up to bed at night.

Let’s look at Yate’s treatment of the labor-side justification for overworking employees:

The second justification suggests that scheduling software is bought to lessen the burden of those who previously had to make work timetables. On the contrary, this software is used by corporations to squeeze as much work out of the mass of employees hired as possible. The goal is to minimize unit labor costs and to achieve maximum control over the labor process, which encompasses every aspect of how work is performed.(1) Workers are conceptualized as mechanical cogs in a system that transforms inputs into outputs, and a host of managerial control techniques are implemented to force those hired to perform what they are ordered to do in a machine-like fashion.

A lot of what Yates is saying here is suggestive of the routine-orientated work that we recently discussed via John Danaher and David Autor. It also relates to the individualist anarchist critique of work which states that this collectivization of workers into mechanical cogs is a deeply anti-individualist approach for labor. If we want to reclaim our lives from the oppressive hold that work has on us then we’ll need to start by reclaiming our own individual identities first.

The “outputs” and “inputs” that Yates discusses here is the sort of collectivizing abstraction that manages put individual workers under so that they can (likely) feel better about the control they are enforcing. If we just think of people as a means to an ends then we don’t need to worry about the individuals themselves. We’ve subsumed these individuals under useful cognitive shortcuts that, as managers, allows us to exploit them that much easily.

None of this is to say that technology or cognitive shortcuts are bad things in of themselves. But under the use of capitalism and especially state-capitalism it’s a dangerous combination of unjustified power and oppressive systematic constraints. And so the fact that capitalism uses this technology isn’t a statement so much about technology as so much who (or what) is making use of it. I’m not sure that Yates would disagree but I wanted to make that explicit.

Interestingly, Yates mentions the just-in-time inventory process:

An important modern control device is just-in-time inventory, meaning that a business keeps only as much inventory – car seats in an auto plant, frozen French fries in a fast-food restaurant – as will be needed over a very short period of time.

This actually makes the system more vulnerable to the actions of radical unions, as Kevin Carson has written:

Absent the restrictions of the Wagner and Taft-Hartley labor regime, today’s “just-in-time” economy would likely be far more vulnerable to such disruption than that of the 1930s. Prominent labor journalist Jane Slaughter argued as much:

“Just-in-time”… has made the union potentially more powerful than ever. The lack of buffer stocks makes
with labor power—if workers in a department refuse to work, management has no extras to replace them. Action by even a few members could affect production drastically.”

A British management consultant warned, in similar terms, about the vulnerability of just-in-time to disruption:

“Without buffer stocks between production each process is entirely dependent on the upstream one to deliver. Hence JIT bestows upon those who work it the capacity to create disruptions which, intentionally or otherwise are likely to be extremely pervasive….A mere refusal to work overtime or to be flexible about tea breaks and working practices could cause severe problems, and a work-to-rule or stoppage could be disastrous….

The ideal JIT system has no inventories, no buffer stock, and no stocks of finished goods.If the supplier fails to deliver, production stops; if any one process fails to deliver, production stops; and if transport fails, production stops.” (p. 4)

Of course, I doubt Yates is advocating for the Industrial Workers of the World to start going full force after JIT but it’s a point worth making that the problems he’s pointing out could be exploited for our own benefit.

Yates goes further to explain how this JIT system applies to workers and how many hours they get for the week based on the demands of the products within a very short time-span. This puts more pressure for some workers to agree on “on-call” shifts where they do something as ridiculous as come in for a grand total of two hours before leaving.

II: “Management by stress”

Yates conjectures that the slow rise of the employment in the US has to do with how much workers have been exploited and how this exploitation is only rising and becoming worse. Which brings to mind the problem with outlets like truthout which is that they sometimes rely on ideology more than data. So, for example, Yates makes a claim here that seems rather intuitively plausible but rests on this intuition alone without using any sort of empirical data.

The point here isn’t to deny Yates basic point that workers are being exploited and in many objectionable ways. But rather the point is that if he is going to try to make claims about the economy he may want to rely on something more than ideological claims that will appeal to his audience, some of whom I assume are less sympathetic than I am.

In any case, Yates has an interesting term for these sorts of control:

Some have called the new forms of control, “management by stress,” meaning that employers constantly stress the labor process to force more production out of less labor. (2)

In economic terms, every second counts, and eliminating a fraction of a second from the performance of a particular job detail means a great deal of money when applied to tens of millions of repetitions.(3)

So, speed up the assembly line and keep inventory, including labor, low. Reduce the size of work teams – but keep raising the output quota; outsource work to lower-wage countries; and super-exploit undocumented immigrants. Threaten those who can’t keep up with demotion or firing; engage in constant electronic monitoring of employees on the job; even, as Henry Ford once did, keep tabs on the worker’s private lives, which today often means eavesdropping on their Facebook and Twitter posts.

I’ve tackled the negative effects of work on our health many times over (most recently here) and I’ve also denoted the spying that employers can do on employees via the folks at Stuff You Should Know. But what’s commendable and noteworthy here is how Yates combines a lot of these individual strands I’ve been picking at before and puts them under a fairly intuitive (read not “clopener”) title of “management by stress” which I’d never heard before.

This is a fantastic phrase not just because it’s easy to remember and say but it really cuts at the heart of many of the issues with work today. Workers are constantly over-stressed by employers who gives them too much to do with inadequate tools and all while paying them too little. This isn’t even mentioning the lack of health benefits that part-time employees especially have and sometimes even full-time employees get the short end of the stick here.

And of course all of this pressure affects us with our sleep and our ability to do other things besides work. Which turn becomes evidence for this offensive argument against working less. Because after all, what do people do when they’re not working? They’re trying to rest from work! So let’s make them work more and that will somehow solve the problem!

But this misses the fact that work is such a privileged activity in this society and acts as a sort of conduit for much of the corrupt society that we live in today. And when people can finally get away from that of course they’re more likely to just fall asleep on their couch while watching reruns of some show they don’t even care about. Of course people eat a lot of fast food instead of preparing home cooked meals that may mesh better with their preferred eating habits.

That last example, for the record, isn’t to shame folks who eat fast food. If you enjoy it then all of the power to you. But I suspect there are many less people who would eat it and watch reruns of shows they don’t even like if we had more time for ourselves and less time indebted to state-capitalism.

To his credit, Yates notices this as well though on a different angle or two:

Without adequate sleep, our mental functions are impaired, making it more difficult to comprehend what we are reading or what others are saying. We have little time and energy for meaningful social interactions, and as a consequence, family life can break down, and we are discouraged from developing political awareness and participating in groups that benefit workers, such as labor unions and campaigns to improve wages, hours and conditions of employment, the very things that could stop or radically diminish on-the-job stress.

I want to add however that unions are hardly the only way to radically diminish on-the-job stress. I was able to reduce much of the stress I had at jobs by not giving a shit. Which isn’t doable for all of us but if you think it’s possible for you to care less about your job so that it’ll take less energy from you then you should do it. And you should especially do it if you can still produce the level of outputs that your employer expects…or at least somewhere in the ballpark.

The next quote was the signature quote for Joel:

When we combine relentless time pressure with the mind-numbing and physically destructive nature of most jobs, we have a recipe for acute human misery.

It’s a good quote indeed but also sadly where the article plateaus.

III: Potential Remedies (and Poison)

As with many anti-work articles of a liberal sort, the article comes up short when it comes to solutions.

But I want to take the good points for what their worth (which isn’t trivial) and focus on that first.

Plus, they come chronologically anyhow.

Yates is surprisingly realistic about the potential for modern day unions acting within a state-controlled context:

…[U]nions cannot effectively combat “management by stress,” in all of its dimensions, until they abandon the labor-management cooperation strategy that still has a stranglehold on them. Rather than confront employers, cooperating unions like the United Autoworkers have large cadres of union staff people who actually help the companies stress the workers.

…[W]ith union density in the United States as low as it was 100 years ago, labor will have a difficult time getting states to enact a similar law, especially with its general unwillingness to politically mobilize members to confront legislators.

The understanding that labor unions of any merit are in a short supply isn’t something many liberals tend to understand. So I certainly have to give props to Yates for being politically aware enough to realize that the Powers That Be would likely never listen to a union about making radical reforms to a system that heavily benefits them.

Unlike many writers, Yates seems to understand that the folks who make the law are still people and not unicorns. They’re not whatever we want them or imagine them to be. We can try to pretend that they won’t listen to the incentives of the people who lobby for the laws that keep them both in power, but the reality of the situation is much different.

Instead, we have to admit to ourselves that most labor unions today are not radical and not usually willing to fight the government on their own (the union’s that is) terms. If they want to fight within the regulatory framework of the state then they’re going to have to play by all of the rules that the ruling elite has much more control over then the unions do.

And even those unions who have decided to make deals with their local or state governments will still likely have to go through a bunch of hoops and rules just so they can stay afloat. There’s likely no way that union members who are already highly stressed out by work are also going to be able to take on the federal government.

So again, I’m grateful to Yates for at least (sort of) getting all of that.

Employers have their own solution. Do nothing. They argue that businesses will voluntarily address workplace problems when the market sends them signals that this is what employees want.

Funnily enough, I think this is a much better strategy for the employees than the employers.

Surely Yates is familiar with slow-downs, right?

Perhaps even more impressively Yates takes aim market regulation as a potential (but failed) remedy:

This is envisioned as a combination of labor union organization and agitation and political initiatives. In both cases, labor and other markets are taken as given (inevitable), and the only possibility is to set certain parameters, or limits, as to what market results are allowed to prevail.

This strategy has had some success in the past, but today it hasn’t yielded much for wage laborers.

The fact that Yates recognizes this is something I’ve been dying to see a liberal commentator acknowledge for the longest time and I’m so glad I’m finally seeing it. It’s likely fair to claim that there’s been “some success” in the past but even that success (if I may make the “perfect the enemy of the good” for a second) was mitigated by prevailing interests of capital, the state and Big Labor (i.e. state-collaborative unions).

I don’t have the time or interest to rebut Yates historical narrative of reforms however. For the sake of argument I’ll grant him that many of the things that liberals have fought and won for could be non-controversially described as “gains”.

Yates is at his best when he becomes the most “pessimistic” (realistic):

Unfortunately, all of these gains have steadily eroded as employers regained the initiative in the mid-1970s and launched the ferocious neoliberal austerity that has dominated the United States ever since.

Unions were caught unprepared and responded in a defeatist, defensive way, while their liberal allies deserted them. Labor leaders began to give employees dramatic concessions, and today givebacks have become so prevalent that it is an open question why a rational person would join a union. Strikes are remembered today mainly by retirees.

Nothing much can be expected of government, where the level of corruption is so great and the hold of our corporate overlords so strong that we believe we have achieved a remarkable victory when the government doesn’t take something away from us.  (emphasis added)

For the record, I disagree with this particular narrative of power. I don’t thnik that “corporate overloads’ is the right term for them because they’re more likely partners and specifically with the state.

Consider Roderick Long’s formulation in Remembering Corporate Liberalism:

The main plotline of the Star Wars prequel trilogy concerns an apparent conflict between the central government (the Senate) on the one hand and a coalition of mercantile interests (the Trade Federation, the Commerce Guild, etc.) on the other. As events unfold, however, it quickly becomes obvious to the audience (though much less quickly to the protagonists) that the conflict is largely a ruse, with the leadership of the two sides (Chancellor Palpatine and Count Dooku, respectively) secretly working hand in glove.

Which isn’t to say that all is rosy between them. Each wants to be the dominant partner; witness Dooku’s failed attempt to betray Palpatine in Episode II, and Palpatine’s successful backstabbing of Dooku and his corporate allies in Episode III. Still, the partnership is stable enough to succeed in manipulating the protagonists into unwittingly undermining the very liberty they have been seeking to protect. As the pseudo-conflict escalates, there are, in the words of Episode III’s opening crawl, “heroes on both sides” – but the good guys on the two sides have been duped into fighting one another, each side grasping the evil of the other side’s leadership but not yet that of its own.

Now…I have many thoughts about the Star Wars prequels (most of them negative) but we’ll put that to the side.

Regardless, I see Long’s power analysis as much more accurate than seeing the corporations as having total control over the economy. But even with that said, Yates is surely more correct than many of his other contemporaries when it comes to assessing the odds of affecting change.

But still…it could use some improvement:

The unhappy truth is that we can never beat those who own the world’s capital at their own game. They rule the marketplace, and we do not; the government of almost every nation exists to aid and abet them; and the control over the billions of property-less people in the world grows and deepens every day. Organizing within this hegemonic system while assuming that the market mechanism is inescapable, and being grateful for a few crumbs from its table, is a strategy guaranteed to fail.

It’s certainly true that the capitalist control the marketplace and that governments often try to aid the capitalists but this also works the other way around. If a capitalist cannot appeal to congress or get the right sort of licenses then they’re practically forced to either give up or work underground. If congresspeople don’t like the capitalist or if the laws are simply too risky or costly to work through then the given capitalist becomes dependent on the mercy of lawmakers.

I’m not trying to point a sympathetic case for the capitalist (and obviously upper class ones are less likely to have these issues) but to just point out the sort of mutuality of this oppressive system. It’s true that capitalists tend to lobby for regulations that benefit them and this has been well documented by many historians such as Gabriel Kolko.

But this relation isn’t a one-way street.

Sometimes corporations need the government to get certain permits or restrictions lifted. Other times corporations need to renew their legal agreements with local courts over their corporate body. And there have been plenty of times that corporations and governments have gone to court over a struggle for power.

All of this is just to say that the marketplace needs to be fought on both anti-corporate, anti-capitalist and anti-state grounds because without all of these reasons our battle for liberation will be woefully incomplete.

Unfortunately, this is where Yates ends up in his analysis: Woefully incomplete

The market is nothing more than a surface phenomenon, behind which lies the critical social relationship of unequal power, which means that focusing our efforts solely on regulation of the market ignores what is fundamental. So perhaps instead, we should make demands and take actions that threaten the market, that is, by directly attacking the power of those who are its masters and not accepting arrangements that allow the system to absorb our efforts and continue much as before. In addition, because the market is enveloped by an array of institutions – the state, media, schools – that buttress the power of those who control it, efforts to radically alter society must aim to change these as well.

To me, this pattern of thought seems to almost connect the state and the market but seems to treat the market itself as some sort of enemy. To me this is misguided because it isn’t marketplaces themselves that we should oppose as anti-work theorists because capitalists are the ones who dominate the marketplaces, not workers or individuals.

The second problem I’d highlight with this passage is that we have to “radically … change” these positions of power instead of abolishing them. I don’t want some nicer masters of the markets, I want no masters at all. But Yates seems to think we can somehow (in spite of his realism previously) that we can do better even with the same incentives in place.

IV: Conclusion

Yates ends up calling for some sort of general principles and commitments which includes many laudable goals such as abolishing the prison system, ending corporate subsidies and open borders, just to name a few! These and some of the other goals are (to a lesser extent) also laudable such as free universal healthcare, community policing and disestablishing the link between work and income.

The first could be done in an anarchist way and so could the second while the third likely implies some sort of universal basic income based on a government. Which would also explain things like “free schooling” and “banning” certain profit-making practices that harm the environment, etc.

To be honest though, the proposal is just a mess.

What individuals and organizations would sign on to this? What would be the end result of it? What government would ever end corporate subsidies and open its borders? Are people creating small enclaves that are acting out these principles and commitments on their own terms? Why would the government allow any of that to happen?

This “strategy” is so muddled that it’s unclear exactly what the point of any of this would be. To send a message to governments? But why would they listen, much less do anything about it? And is there such strong popular demand for all if any of these demands? If Yates knows something I don’t know, then they better be willing to share with the class.

Yates gives us some specifics, some of which I appreciate more than others:

The commitments could embrace as many forms of collective self-help as imaginable (Cuban-style urban organic farming, cooperatives dedicated to education, child care, health, food provision, the establishment of worker-controlled enterprises); a shedding of excessive unnecessary possessions; a willingness to offer material support to local struggles aimed at empowering those without voice; a refusal to join the military or participate in the mindless and dangerous patriotism so prevalent in the United States; and a promise to educate ourselves and others about the nature of the system in whatever venues present themselves to us.

As I said before, I think our emphasis on liberation from work should be rooted in individualist ethics so situating these struggles around “collective” self-help is more of a hindrance than a help. That isn’t to say that I have anything against cooperatives or worker-controlled enterprises because I don’t. I thnik both of these things are very important for the development of a new society that actually bases its success around the individual and not in spite of it.

But there are things in here that point to disregarding such a metric.

To take some examples: What decides what are “excessive” amounts of things that we own? Who is to decide what possessions are “unnecessary”? Should we take away the stamp collectors stamps because they aren’t “socially useful” to the broader community? Should we decide that someone’s collection of family heirlooms shouldn’t be held because they only “selfishly” do something for that family or a particular individual in that family?

I’m not asking these questions because I thnik Yates or folks like him want to take away the stamps or the family heirlooms but because these are questions that should be considered. Who or what dictates what is “socially useful”, “unnecessary” and “excessive”? Is it the community? A government? An organization that might as well be one?

Regardless of Yate’s answer, I doubt it will be satisfying to me. I don’t think anyone’s possessions should be regulated by the very slippery metric of what constitutes “socially useful”. Certainly, the “transfer of abandoned buildings and land to communities and groups who will put them to socially useful purposes” isn’t a very fair metric for those who can hardly contribute to it physically or mentally. This raises questions of also considering disability as well as class, which I think Yate’s analysis sometimes ignores and liberals in general tend to ignore.

Though, for what it’s worth Yates is a very good liberal. He’s probbly better described alongside radical liberals like Howard Zinn and (this will get me in trouble) Noam Chomsky. Both of whom I have much respect for but wouldn’t say that they are without their flaws. And certainly Yate and I have very similar values and objectives in a lot of ways and I think his article points out many huge issues with working. But his solutions to these problems and even some of his analysis of the root issues are too caught up in anti-market ideas to prove as useful as possible.

There’s a sort of degradation of the anti-work critique I’ve seen over time as more and more liberal groups decide it’s a popular thing to write about or have someone write about it. But the critique eventually becomes muddled by the fact that the commentators don’t understand that the state isn’t something that can be reconciled with their critiques.

Though, to Yates credit he certainly gets the closest to this understanding. My guess is that he would admit this is true for the capitalist-controlled state but thinks we can move towards the liberal notion of the neutral state.

Yates list some “ancillary ideas” that I’ll briefly address:

FIRST, the details of these will naturally flow out of the specifics of actual events and struggles around them

SECOND, whatever relatively small or local changes we fight for should always be connected to the larger and more global principles.

THIRD, commitments should be part of a social process, in which we pledge ourselves to come to the aid of others.

FOURTH, democratic, critical education is essential in all battles for radical social reconstruction.

(edited for brevity)

All of these are interesting ideas and Yates was kind enough to give us some examples alongside the way for most of these things. But again, I want to point out that the third point Yates makes us all committed to each other in some sort of bizarre system that compels us to help each other. If he isn’t talking about compulsion in some physical sense he may as well be given his interest in having us pledge ourselves to each other and make “promises”.

And I don’t dislike such things  because I thnik we should only take care of ourselves but because these sorts of social ties actually hurt communities more than they help it. Promises are a really hard thing to make and an even harder thing to keep because life is fucking crazy and you better damn well make sure you can keep your promise.

Promises are a big cultural signal and they are deservedly taken as seriously as they are currently. But they’re certainly not a stable or sustainable way to maintain a community given how badly the failure to uphold a promise can harm others and how personally folks can take it.

But even if that wasn’t true it still seems heavily unfair to make everyone “understand” each others oppression in the same way and using the same method. Not everyone can do the same things as everyone else and often that has to do with our own individual limits, character and abilities. I feel like Yates isn’t taking this enough into account.

Yates also makes this claim further down that, “We live in an age of disposability. The drive to make money has now engulfed every part of the world and every aspect of our lives.” But I’d contest it isn’t the drive to make money that is inherently bad but rather how we use this drive. If we’re using this drive as an excuse to treat other folks as a means to an end then that’s surely an unfortunate thing. But just as with technology and capitalism, the latter doesn’t necessarily say much about the former except that under certain incentive structures the former will behave in negative ways.

I think my basic point is that he comes so damn close to anarchism but doesn’t seem to go through with it.

And for the life of me I just can’t figure out why.

Because by the time you’re calling for the military to retreat from the Middle East, opening the borders, ending corporate subsidies and ending the prison system then you may as well be an anarchist to most people anyways!

And avoiding this inevitable conclusion of a robust anti-work critique doesn’t help, it hinders.

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