Many of our readers here at the Tribune are hard working people who often have to hold down a minimum wage job in order to fund their day-to-day lives, on top of completing their degree. Since the recent election, issues such as the national housing crisis, affordable accommodation for students, ending zero-hour contracts, and better working conditions have been on the tip of any politically active tongue. While these issues have been consistently important for many generations of people, the economy and the way we experience work has fundamentally changed. Yet is it a change in the right direction? When I think of the modern working environment, the film Office Space (1999) by Mike Judge comes to mind. It follows a profoundly unhappy, unmotivated and tired pencil-pusher named Peter Gibbons who works for a tech company mired in infinite memos and bureaucratic nonsense, trumpeted by a boss who personally couldn’t care less for the wants and needs of his staff. In his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher comments on the film stating that; “naturally, the memo concerns a bureaucratic practice: it aims to induce compliance with a new procedure of putting ‘cover sheets’ on reports. In keeping with the ‘being smart’ ethos, the management style in Office Space is a mixture of shirtsleeves-informality and quiet authoritarianism.”
Within his landmark work, “Discipline & Punish”, the French philosopher Michel Foucault looked at the layout of the modern workplace, prisons, schools and hospitals, showing how societies of control use these spaces as a means of maintaining efficiency, productivity, surveillance and manipulation. Even the way in which an office space is organised, the way the desks are placed, open or closed plan format, all affect how power relations operate in the workplace. In the factories of the 1800’s, stations for each particular stage of production were subdivided, and forced to operate on a strict timetable. The division of the factory allowed for managers to be hired and to oversee the workers, and most importantly to prevent them from stopping or slowing down production. Nowadays we have moved into a post-Fordist economy, with much of the same issues disguised as different ones. Many have seen through media or have worked in the typical modern tech company office that feature; open plan layouts, a young and hip manager that rides an electric scooter to work and pats you on the back when you arrive at your desk. Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek and Mark Fisher argue that modern employment tactics create the illusion that our employer is not involved in employer/employee power relations but is actually our friend. The economic and professional sphere is blended into the personal, we’re all too familiar with the typical employer mantras of; “Can you not stay a while longer? I really need you for this, I’ll owe you one. We need to be a team.”
Slavoj Žižek analyses the postmodern workplace under the lens of what psychoanalysts refer to as the symbolic-structure or Big Other. From this perspective, there’s an officially accepted perspective/view/culture at odds with a general awareness held by individuals. An example of this in action would be if a private company makes it officially well-known through PR that they give a certain percentage of their income to charity, they care for their staff, and their products are well made and fair-trade to some degree. Following this it is eventually found out by the wider public that this company does not pay a living wage, unjustly fires its workers for joining a union, and their goods are not actually fair trade. The result would be disastrous for the shares of the business. An example within Office Space would be when Peter happily admits his actual habits during his workday in speaking to the downsizing inspectors, like sleeping at his desk, coming in late and regularly “spacing out.” While workers, customers and even management are generally aware of these goings on, they would never adopt it as official by the wider PR structure.
These theories work their way back to Karl Marx’s pre-cursor understanding of alienation, whereby the worker cannot achieve fulfilment through their labour within the current cog-like industrialized capitalist system. He states, “under these economic conditions this realization of labour appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.” Through this process of objectification, workers feel incredibly small, unimportant and separate from the powers of decision making. If this contemporary issue interests you I would highly recommend following the Facebook page, “Inhumans of Late Capitalism,” as it collects photos that show Late-stage Capitalism in its most absurd, darkly humorous, ruthless and amoral forms. For example, there was a picture of an ad campaign for a world renowned show brand that asked its shoppers to buy their new line of shoes before taking part in the “revolution”. This can be seen as an incorporation of anti-capitalism into capitalism itself, as it constantly tries to renew itself, adapt and expand even at the expense of itself. This may seem counterintuitive, but it helps companies seem more like responsible and caring entities in the eyes of the public. The marketisation of the academic sphere is particularly notable nowadays, as universities across the country including UCD have been jacking up rents for on-site accommodation, and are seen by many as treating their students as an endless money pool or “cash-cow.” Mark Fisher states: “This is in part a consequence of the inherent resistance of certain processes and services to marketization. (The supposed marketization of education, for instance, rests on a confused and underdeveloped analogy: are students the consumers of the service or its product?)” While we may not be slaving away in a coal mine or factory, at least those in previous generations knew the role that their employer played, as that of the boss, not as a manipulative friend.
Aaron Collier – Philosophy Columnist