"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Fast capitalism and the devaluation of labor

I hear a lot, “Well just remember, you’re lucky to have a job.”  

It’s usually in regards to a discussion about our working conditions deteriorating, and ever-eroding morale.  Some context from my perspective: state employees haven’t had a cost of living increase in over seven years, while our health insurance costs have skyrocketed, and our pension fund is used like a gubernatorial piggy bank.  But I'm lucky to have a job.  Not that I'm smart and hardworking and talented and that my labor is valued. I'm just lucky.

The language of fast capitalism has taken over the workplace, and while I got truly sick of reading the word capital-D Discourse in The New Work Order, I recognize the need for emphasis.  Changing the language changed the workplace, and I’m pretty sure the workers are the ones left behind in most of that Discourse modification.  My employment group jokes about the old trope, "do more with less!"  It's offered as a challenge, like there's a prize at the end of the event, like it's a game show or reality show.  Of course, "do more with less" is a standard part of the "streamlined" and "lean and efficient" business.  The people doing more with less somehow always seem to be at the bottom of the pay scale, though.  I don't see executives with golden parachute packages doing more with less.  

Gee et al write,
In fact, there is a danger of widespread cynicism in the workforce, based on the idea that fast capitalist practices are meant to “dupe” the worker into working harder and longer for less reward—or at least with greater risk—in the service of elites who still formulate the basic vision in their own interests.  (p.31)

I guess I've reached that place of cynicism, as I've already been asked repeatedly to "do more with less." (Which is one way of saying, "work harder and longer for less reward.") 

Our workplace has a new workplace motivational Discourse initiative, too, and in the first meeting about it, the first thing that was said was, "We know compensation is employees' biggest issue, but we're not going to address compensation."   So, here's the delivery of a Discourse about what a wonderful workplace we have, with the immediate elimination of our top employee concern. 

The Discourse of fast capitalism, of the “enchanted workplace,” also frequently includes this privileged notion of “do what you love.”  There are plenty of people who  hold their jobs simply to pay the bills, and this idea that you must “do what you love” really invalidates many different kinds of labor.  It's likely that the people cleaning your building are not doing what they love.  I'm not doing what I love when I schedule meetings, or order catering, or book travel, for sure.  But I have bills to pay, just like millions of other people. 

This all made me think of an article I read recently called “Do what you love—the dangerous work mantra of our time.”   The author, Tokumitsu, writes,
By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL [do what you love] distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace. (p.1)
I realize that I’m suffering from reading too much with the text on this one, and I could stand to have a more critical perspective.  But I think that “do what you love” and “you’re lucky to have a job” and "do more with less" are all the same idea from different perspectives:  all are Discourses intended to devalue labor.  I have some intense feelings about the devaluation of labor, but that’s another blog post for another day.   


  1. Your "reading with" Gee et al strikes a chord. My last three years in the Bureau of Prisons was spent trying to slow down the downsizing frenzy. We created "Super" supervisors of education (same pay, but now overseeing multiple institutions; we eliminated many teaching jobs and "empowered" inmates to teach themselves; we "streamlined" the regional positions so that education administrators could be "closer to the ground" (by assigning extra duties to the prisons staff), etc. Fighting the budget cuts was not an option at the time. But IF ONLY management would have leveled with us (internal stakeholders) and the attorney general & congress (external stakeholders), and simply told the truth: "given the economic state we are in, we will be doing less with less." Why was that truthful message not permitted? For me it was the dishonesty in the discourse that was dehumanizing not the cuts themselves....:)

  2. I agree! I think putting a positive spin on things that are not at all positive create a climate of mistrust between organizational leaders and their subordinates. In today's fast-paced, rapidly changing workplace, I believe that communication is key. Employees will never know if changes were made out of necessity or if management just made them because it seemed like a good idea. It's hard to buy in to something and be cooperative if you don't know the reason for the change.

  3. Ha, I read "with" the text too, but I think that's because it fed into ideas about capitalism and labor that I already had!
    I can see how our employer keeps trying to change the discourse instead of making meaningful change, but I think that's a common problem with capitalism. I am getting tired of the workplace discourse that we should do what we love, but what is the alternative? How can I make money off what I love in a capitalist society? Maybe we should all drop off the grid and live on farms. ;)

  4. Yeah, I guess that's my beef: I love doing things that are not valuable in capitalism. I love gardening and making jam and reading books and fostering animals for rescue organizations. None of those are "marketable" skills, so my day job is a means to the end of doing what I love. There's no discourse about "Squeeze as much money and benefits out of your day job as you can so that you can spend more time doing what you would truly prefer to do." Which is my internal Discourse.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.