The futility of work as expressed by Charles Bukowski
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British poet Philip Larkin once quipped, 'Work, paradoxically enough, is a comfort. One wakes up wanting to cut one's throat; one goes to work and in 15 minutes one wants to cut someone else's throat -- complete cure!'Larkin's sardonic humor about work unravels the strange paradox of work being therapeutic while at the same time evoking a profound sense of alienation, angst, and murderous fury among the working people ragingagainst the empty ritual of work itself.
The phenomena of work related rage murders is explored in depth in a remarkably courageous book published in 2005 titled 'Going Postal'. In his book which is cliche free, Martin Ames takes a hard unsentimental look at rage murders taking place in corporate workplaces. His study on rage murders is pure nitroglycerine.
From a careful examination of rage murders taking place in postal offices (hence the term going postal) and other corporate workplaces in the period 1983 to 2004, there appears a familiar pattern. According to the author "One reason the whole rage murder phenomenon may have started with post offices is that the eight-hundred-thousand-employee-strong service, the nation's second-largest employer, was one of the earliest and largest agencies in the post--New Deal era to be subjected to what was essentially a semi-deregulation and semi-privatization plan, in what the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute calls "the most extensive reorganization of a federal agency." [ii] Collective bargaining was weakened by banning strikes and profits were extracted by a stress- jammed work atmosphere squeezing the juice out the workers. This was called increasing worker productivity.
But it was the paradigm shift of the Reagan Revolution which transferred wealth from the bottom of the pyramid to the top 1% of corporate elites which could be the main culprit of rage murders. Reaganomics has become so deeply entrenched that it was continued under the Clinton administration when Wall Street was deregulated; downsizing continued unchecked and anti-employee pro shareholder culture became a way of life.
Corporations changed from providing stable jobs for working people to fear juiced stress engines. As Ames says-"New corporate heroes like General Electric's Jack Welch spoke of "unlimited juice" to squeeze from his employees--and wring their rinds he did. While work became increasingly stressful and time consuming with fewer rewards for the majority, capital was sucked from the middle and lower classes of working America and deposited into the offshore accounts of the very highest layer of the executive and shareholder class. As the Economic Policy Institute reported, "What income growth there was over the 1979--1989 period was driven primarily by more work at lower wages"[iii] The middle class in America is also imploding with more people going down the food chain while corporate CEO's have seen their pay skyrocket 571% times between 1990 and 2000.
The so called boom of the nineties, Census Bureau data suggests, has left most of the middle class in US in the cold and it is continuing. This can only fuel rage in a society which is seen as increasingly unjust with "the rich robbing the middle-class to make the rich into the mega-rich."
If eviscerating the working class and the middle class were not bad enough, the enduring legacy of the Reagan era saw the destruction of political solidarity among the American people. The post-Reagan era saw the futility of the two party system representing the same corporate interests. The voice of the people was seldom heard in the Congress which is dominated by lobbies for special interests. Grievances against corporate abuse against employees in workplaces such as unfair dismissals and harassment were met with indifference. The only mode of redress left for the employee is a violent one- with a shot gun.
Anger is also fuelled by a sterile corporate culture which lacks empathy with its employees. This is demonstrated in summary firing of employees from the work place. This cruel ritual involves the escorting of the dismissed employee out of the office by security guards with the personal effects of the employee dumped in a box.
In Amazon, the giant retailer corporation, a vicious dog eat dog atmosphere prevails where employees are encouraged to snitch on each other to further the profitability of the corporation. As the article on Amazon says"Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff -- "purposeful Darwinism," one former Amazon human resources director said. Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriagesand other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time torecover."[iv] The toxic labor practices are justified by the spin masters of Human Resources by using mellifluous words of corporate doublespeak: productivity, innovation, and competition.
Historically, the broad assault on the working people came through the ideology of a self regulating market which could be traced back to from the end of 18th century, through the 19th century and into the 20th century. The impact on the working folks was a terrible one as Labor was 'commodified'. Now labor was only a factor of production and what mattered was purely the return on investment. Shorn of human qualities the working people were a fair game for corporate abuse. They had no basic rights except as a factor of production to shore up bottom line profits. The commodification of labor meant that they were mere statistics in calculating wage costs against corporate profitability and spread sheet analysis.
With the gloves off, market capitalism truly abandoned the employees and fed them to the wolves. Now they could be squeezed until their pips squeaked.
In a disturbing article which appeared in Harper's magazine titled "The End of Retirement", Jessica Bruder paints a bleak picture of older folks who have no houses, no medical coverage and who live in trailer buses. They are the migrant gypsies who are the flotsam and jetsam of corporate capitalism and who keep their body and soul together by working in low paid jobs for corporations like Safeway, Home Depot and Amazon. As Jessica points out "Ageing isn't what it used to be. In an era of disappearing pensions, wage stagnation, and widespread foreclosure, American's are working longer and leaning more heavily than ever on social security."[v] The migrant geriatrics are cannon fodder for corporate America who work hard, never take leave even if they are injured, docile and dependable trapped in the never ending loop of endless work with unsustainable pay checks. On the top of it they must appear cheerful and say "Gee, thanks for the job".If working is a sort of dying Monday through Friday, why work at all? Why not turn on the propane and blow yourselfup lighting a cigarette?
According to Peter Fleming, the author of the book, "The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself", the frenetic,masochistic need to overwork happens under the mistaken notion that obsessive overwork is necessary for ones biological survival. With the advent of technology, productivity has soared and leisure was promised for the working people. As Fleming acidly observes: "In a society like ours, we simply do not require this immense theatre of labor in order to live well. Indeed, I am constantly amazed by how reluctant even left-wing commentators, newspapers and intellectuals are about questioning the so-called sanctity of work."[vi]