Naked @ Work – the Neoliberal Workplace

By Thomas Klikauer and Meg Young

capitalism 1

It is no longer uncommon to hear people saying, I love my work. Is this just the latest stage of capitalism getting us to work harder so that someone else benefits? Historically, it all started when former peasants were – at times, with brutal force – converted into workers. It was the time when capitalism quite literally was Making the Working Class inside its Dark Satanic Mills.

Having punished and beaten workers for decades to come under factory administration, eventually, personnel management mutated into human resource management. Meanwhile, the management of capitalism’s companies and corporations moved from what McGregor later – in usual managerialists’ brilliance of management studies and very imaginatively called Theory X and Theory Y. This indicated a shift from forcing workers to work towards incentivizing – as management studies calls it.

Increasingly, Theory Y is assisted by ever more sophisticated manipulative techniques (corporate PsyOps), telling workers managerialist fabrications like, for example, Just be Yourself, to have a positive attitude to work, or simply, love your work. In reality and in spite of Managerialism’s ideologies, labor journalist Sarah Jaffe might be more on the mark when arguing that Work Won’t Love You Back.

For millions, if not billions of workers and no longer (if ever) in the Global South only, work, so we are told by our bosses, supervisors, CEO’s, HR-managers, etc. is something we should enjoy – even love. And, we should do so despite the fact that many experience wage stagnation and an ever increasing job insecurities. Many of those who are told to enjoy their work are exhausted, underpaid and stressed while working with absolutely no work-life balance – despite the common myth

Yet, beyond working longer hours, many also work beyond the clock being available 24/7. As someone once said, your entire working life you get hassled about deadlines, and when you retire, they give you a f*** watch! Long working hours, unpaid overtime, etc. puts further meat to the bone that the much-acclaimed work-life balance remains a Fata Morgana – an optical illusion. Much of this renders the ideology of the “labor of love”, a managerial ploy to make people work harder and more concocted by corporate apparatchiks.

Meanwhile, people on the other end, the wealthy, have always known that work is something someone else is doing. These “someone else” are the ones condemned to useless toil driven on by performance management’s KPIs. Since the days of Thucydides, (460BC), this is justified as, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. In other words, even before the advent of capitalism around the year 1750, work has always been something that we suffer from. 

Not surprisingly, when you ask dismissed General Motors’ workers in places like Lordstown (Ohio), virtually nobody says they missed work itself. What they missed was a well-paid job secured by a trade union and collective bargaining. Instead, in the post-1980s’ neoliberal work arrangement, many workers face the insecurity of an underpaid Amazon-like warehouse job having to urinate into Coke bottles because of work pressure. Yet, we are told to love our work. Some are even required to come to work with a smile on their faces or are threatened with HRM’s:

my way or the highway! also known as FIFO: fit in or f*** off!

The neoliberal mantra continues to be, “the choice is yours and you bear the cost of making the wrong choice”. Simultaneously, neoliberalism’s individualism means off-loading costs onto the individual worker. This is the privatization of choice along with the privatization of work stress spiced up through a rise in anxiety, forced to re-apply for your own job to keep your job, constant job hopping, and ever expanding themes like just-in-time labor. Much of this depicts the three great advantages of Human Resource Management: 

  1. Workers are a commodity – easy to hire:
  2. Workers are a commodity – easy to fire; and most importantly, 
  3. Workers are a commodity – easy to control.

Yet, the ideologues of the neoliberal workplace continuously make us believe that we are all in one boat, the modern workplace is one big family. These are the things that generations of workers have been told since the dawn of capitalism. Of course, these corporate ideologies also tell us that work is one big family and we should (and, here it comes): naturally love work. Don’t you love your family?

Hidden behind the shiny business speeches of CEOs and adjacent corporate apparatchiks on corporate social responsibility, business ethics, corporate citizenship, etc., this – and more importantly: simultaneously! – also means democracy and its most evil version – industrial democracy – has been rendered impossible. 

Whether it was the 18th and 19th century factory administration, 20th century management, and 21st century Managerialism, the main imperatives of authority, discipline and command march on. This lays out what is known as path-dependency formulated by early French management writer Henri Fayol in his seminal Administration Industrielle et Générale. It is authority, discipline and command – not democracy. 

Simultaneously, collective bargaining and its evil twin of general strike have suffered a similar fate inside, as well as outside of companies and corporations. These terms have been whipped off our vocabulary and thereby, they have ceased to exist as part of the world we all live in.

They have been eradicated from the public debate by our corporate mass media at least since the late 1970s, when the ideology of neoliberalism became the all-defining hegemony of capitalism. Instead of collective bargaining, we should just work harder and longer – our managers tell us. It is a stealthy coercion hidden behind the friendly mask of the prevailing ideology of love your job.

Since neoliberalism’s interception in Augusto Pinochet’s Chilean Villa Grimaldi, and the adjacent marriage between two neoliberal figures heads – Reagan and Thatcher – the ideology of neoliberalism has become the principle catechism of neoliberalism. Simultaneously, the ideological project of neoliberalism has always relied on the labor of love ideology to camouflage one of its key methods: coercion. This project has generously been furnished by Max Weber when arguing that,

one works to be good, not to be happy.

To divert attention away from happiness, management studies like to focus on job satisfaction, which, in turn, supports loving your work. Yet, we no longer mind having partners as long as we can be made to believe that we love chocolate and we love our work, even when it means changing jobs as frequent as a serial monogamist changes, well, partners! Strangely, work not only is loveless, it also seems that we get the very opposite of what we want:

  • Many workers want less work but they got a working life dominated by maddening demands of the boss. 
  • Workers want job security but they got casual jobs and work fragmented into gigs under what is euphemistically announced as the gig economy. 
  • Workers want non-hierarchical trade unions but they got neoliberalism’s anti-unionism spiced up with union-busting. 
  • Workers want freedom for creative pursuits and happiness but they got Managerialism at work and mind numbing Affluenza, so that we can buy stuff that we don’t need with money that we don’t have to impress the people that we don’t even like. 

Despite the fact that capitalism implies that two plasma screens will make you twice as happy as one, capitalism and even more so marketing, will never love us and it will never make us love one another. Simultaneously, work will not love us either and it will not make us happy – ever. Even the most elaborated corporate wellness programs will not change that. 

Yet, even the most sophisticated corporate wellness program and even with the best boss who might even genuinely care about you and works in the best companies or corporations imaginable, will never be able to escape the inescapable fact that this is your boss. You and your boss not only define an asymmetrical power relationship that signifies management, but bosses also represent the financial concern – the profit motive – that drives companies, corporations, and ultimately – capitalism.

These imperatives of management and capitalism increasingly define our private lives as the separation between home and office is vanishing into thin air. This has not always been the case. The division between a home and a workplace didn’t exist in feudal Europe, but it began to become essential when peasants were made into workers laboring away in early workshops. 

With the advent of the German Büro, the French bureau, and the English office and the move from manufacturing to the service industry came the widespread use of the Internet furnished with E-Mail, Zoom meetings, etc. On an almost daily basis, new technologies enhance the capability of bosses to control us remotely through log-ins, Microsoft Teams, digital cameras, movement detectors, etc. Concurrently, our space for un-molested private lives is shrinking. 

Much of this no longer marks Polyani’s Great Transformation but a Great Domestication of workers. After decades of working under capitalism – starting with an assumed birth year of 1750 for capitalism –several generations of working class people have been accompanied by a sizable ideological apparatus (schools, army, police, laws, poor houses, prison, churches, newspapers, radio, TV, Internet, etc.), today, we have internalized capitalism’s great domestication. 

As a consequence, remotely controlling bosses – using tools like Time Doctor, Toggl, RescueTime, Timely, Harvest, Everhour, Timeneye, ClickTime, TopTracker, etc. – are mostly accepted just as we accept the conversion of private time into working time.

Many of these things work even better when the kitchen table has become the home office under the 3-2-2 formula: three days in the office, two days home office, and two days for the weekend. With the Coronavirus pandemic and the move into home offices, kitchen, and bedrooms, etc. the middle-class suburban home – once the signifier of petit-bourgeois achievement – increasingly becomes a self-imposed panoptical prison engineered and overseen by capitalism’s corporate representatives: managers.

For decades, managers have made workers believe that leaving the family home to go to work was actually a step towards empowerment. Neither the workplace nor the home office was, is, or is likely ever to be a place of empowerment. Instead, in a typical Orwellian twist, the term empowerment more often than not stood for the opposite: less power for workers and more power for corporate apparatchiks. It is like Orwell’s Ministry of Love. It was never a place of love but a place of torture.

Worse, the myth of empowerment and the ideology that you should love your work is skillfully linked to neoliberalism’s desire to make us believe that the freedom of capitalist labor and commodity market is something we should embrace. This is powerfully supported by Thatcher’s TINA: there is no alternative. 

Like the “never-really-empowering” home office, the free market is presented as a site of individual liberty. Yet, it turns out that it is individual freedom in a heartless world govern by capitalism and its corporate henchmen (lower management) and managerialist apparatchiks (middle- and top-management). At the same time, corporate media are here to make the entire enterprise acceptable to us.

In society as in the workplace, instead of work that loves you back, what we have seen are neither freedom, nor liberation, nor joy, not even satisfaction. Both worlds are governed by what is called workplace despotism. 

Outside of work, the same thing applies. Bu this time, it reflects what William Davies calls punitive neoliberalism. Even for some of the graduates with “no” future, an ever increasing private prison complex opens its doors as social services are replaced by punishment regimes for those who fail to perform. Yet, in her seminal masterpiece Work Won’t Love You Back, Sarah Jaffe argues, 

We cannot simply go back to a time before neoliberalism: the return to the Fordist bargain and to the factory is not a thing that anyone should be wishing for, even if it were possible to turn back the clock. That model of capitalism destroyed the planet in order to provide benefits for a relative few, and neoliberalism simply sped up the process.

In other words, the contradictions of capitalism that are set to kill the system of capitalism might not be – as Marx at his time correctly predicted – the opposition between capital and labor leading to the end of capitalism. Instead, the destructive forces unleashed by capitalism against the environment since about the year 1750 might end capitalism. Capitalism’s relentless drive to growth based on global environmental exploitation has not just transformed the entire planet but is about to destroy planet earth. 

By now, most know that our corporate media have convinced many of what Mark Fisher once called, it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism. Yet, increasingly we are made to believe that there is no outside to capitalism. 

Just as there is no outside to work, a society mass manipulated by what German philosopher Adorno called the mass deception of the culture industry does not love us back either. And, this is despite the neoliberalism/Managerialism hegemony so generously supported by corporate media. Still, capitalism, management, organizational culture, and work crave for our affections. 

Perhaps the aforementioned Sarah Jaffe isn’t far off when concluding, capitalism must control our affections, our sexuality, and our bodies in order to keep us separated from one another. The greatest trick it has been able to pull is to convince us that work is our greatest love.

Thomas Klikauer teaches MBAs at the Sydney Graduate School of Management and has 730 publications and is the author of books such as Managerialism (2013) and Media Capitalism (forthcoming). 

Meg Young (GCA and GCPA, University of New England at Armidale) is a Sydney Financial Accountant and HR Manager who likes good literature and proof reading.

Originally published in Znet

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