The Voodoo you can do vs. Resistance that Matters

A breezy and fun article I found a while back and read today talks about the psychological benefits of using voodoo dolls of your boss for frustrations related to abusive workplace conditions. Here’s a snippet:

A study of 229 workers in the US and Canada found that engaging in ‘symbolic retaliation [sic]’ lowered feelings of injustice by one third.
Although revenge is often viewed negatively, the researchers say the findings highlight ‘the largely overlooked benefit of retaliation from the victim’s perspective.’

Assistant Professor Dr Lindie Liang, of Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario Canada said voodoo dolls could help staff

“As weird as it sounds, yes,” she said  “We found a simple and harmless symbolic act of retaliation can make people feel like they’re getting even and restoring their sense of fairness.

As the article points out, it doesn’t have to be voodoo dolls. You could be your favorite disgruntled employee in a movie who throws darts at a picture of your boss. But the important thing, for the article anyways, is that you do these forms of abstract retaliation (meaning not against the person themselves) so you don’t do anything too, let’s say, hasty.

In some situations I could see this as being helpful, even if it’s promoting a retaliatory mindset that works against moving past abuse. To me, wanting to constantly get back at people who harm you doesn’t solve the initial harm and adds more harm on top of the previous harm. That’s not to say those feelings aren’t valid or understandable. And there are ways to engage in short-term retaliation (like shredding important documents before you leave your job) that can help you in the moment and be more effective.

But for the most part physical retaliation isn’t going to do much against your boss or the larger system of capitalism that they represent. Assaulting themy isn’t going to make them change their ways in all likelihood and it isn’t going to make them change their ways against any future employees of theirs. In fact, it’ll likely make it worse for them.

Again, it’s not like I can’t sympathize or understand why people do certain things on their last day of the job. But striking blows (either physical or mental) against a singular boss doesn’t do anything to undermine capitalism itself. Take the ultimate act of physical retaliation: assassination.

One of the most famous cases was when the anarchist Alexander Berkman who attempted to murder famed industrialist Henry Clay Frick. For his attempt Berkman spent 14 years in prison (though it’s fair to say we got an excellent memoir as a result if nothing else) and eventually published Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism where he writes:

Violence is the method of ignorance, the weapon of the weak. The strong of heart and brain need no violence, for they are irresistible in their consciousness of being right.

Now, to be fair, I don’t think this is completely true and I’m not sharing the quote because I think it’s 100% right. For example, I think violence can be undertaken in self-defense legitimately and for intelligent reasons. It’s also naive to think that capitalism can only be resisted with a strong heart. Ultimately, power concedes nothing without a demand, to paraphrase Frederick Douglass. Still, I think Berkman’s quote here shows the limits of, if nothing else, individual resistance against individual capitalists.

In it’s own way, sticking pins into a voodoo doll isn’t much better, though it’s far less likely to give you 14 years in prison at least. Even so, it’s just the other side of the coin and the fact that business leaders would rather you stick pins in dolls instead of anything else shows this tactic as a breezy way of saying, “Hey, capitalism isn’t so bad!”

Adding to this, the study linked in the article isn’t available as far as I can tell so there’s no way to know for sure how effective this is. It’s also worth noting that the study only focused on a little over 200 subjects. For a given study to produce statistically significant results it would have to be much closer to 1000 if not more, so the study doesn’t tell us much either way.

And even if it did, it’s not a method I’d personally recommend. I’d much rather plan to get out of there for another job, make unionizing plans with my co-workers or start up a cooperative. Building something better is the best form of revenge. So if you still think retaliation is going to end capitalism then I think the best way to convert that into positive energy is to build something better for yourself, your workers and your communities. It’s not easy (capitalism ensures that!) but it’s possible and beautiful.

That’s not to say that being angry, feeling negative or channeling anger isn’t OK or shouldn’t be encouraged to some extent. As my favorite band has said, “Your anger is a gift” but gifts should be used wisely. It’s not up to me or for anyone else to say what’s objectively the wisest way for everyone in every situation, but I think there’s decent rules of thumb for dealing with abusive bosses and workplaces:

  • Anything effective individually is more effective in groups
  • Violence will often be squashed by the police and its consequences won’t reach capitalism at a root level either way
  • Walking away and doing/making something better is sometimes best way to get even with the abuse you’ve suffered
  • Get in touch with your local IWW union or other more radical (read: not company unions) in your area
  • Look to the long history of labor struggles to inform your actions
  • Individual sabotage such as slow downs, workplace theft and sabotage more specifically have their place but, refer to Rule of Thumb #1
  • Talking to friends or people who have dealt with your situation can help
  • Research online and in contemporary labor movements
  • Self-care such as (but not limited to) meditation, writing down your feelings and exercising are insufficient but necessary to some extent if you want to cope with your feelings effectively
  • Organize in the workplace!

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