Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The White-Collar Gulag (semi-rant)

So the New York Times article on what it’s like to work at Amazon has apparently struck a nerve. On Sunday, the New York Times published a massive exposé of Amazon's "punishing" work culture. The company, the Times alleged, "is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable."

Of course, Amazon is only the most extreme case, working in any “professional” job today is pretty much the same drill anywhere you go now, albeit at a lower level of abuse (and pay). You’re constantly watched, constantly assessed, constantly harassed, constantly browbeaten, constantly under pressure, and constantly under review by your “peers,” You have to show up bright and bushy-tailed every single day and display the right “attitude” or else be castigated for your “morale.” You have to look a certain way (white, upper-class), act a certain way (cheery, upbeat, outgoing, backslapping, glad-handing), dress a certain way (office casual), have the appropriate lifestyle (2.5 kids, minivan, suburban white picket fence), have the appropriate hobbies (golf, skiing, lawn care, spectator sports) and the right beliefs (Republican) to advance. You must constantly be on guard for what you say and what you do. It’s a high-tension atmosphere of paranoia and fear that only Stalin’s inner-circle would have had to deal with sixty years ago, and now it’s the new workplace normal. Working brutal hours is required unless you want to be “let go” in the next “redundancy.” You’ve got to love those corporate terms. Orwell was off; private industries are far closer to his dystopia than any government (Newspeak, Big Brother, two-minute hates), and it’s there that we spend most of our time. Like everything else, even despotism has been privatized. And all this just to work!

Welcome to work in the twenty-first century. Here’s what our sociopathic masters in Wall Street and Silicon Valley have in store for all of us. It’s a culture specifically designed to promote monsters in the name of “efficiency.”

Now, no longer can you just show up and get the paycheck that you need to live, you must show “enthusiasm” in order to get a job “opportunity” and then display the proper “attitude.” It’s like training a dog.

Employees are expected to have an overweening, Messianic sense of “mission,” no matter how mundane their job, heroically sacrificing everything in the service of…what exactly? No wonder the “human resources” in these corporations are soulless, dull, one-dimensional idiot-savants who think of nothing but staying on the gravy train and climbing the corporate ladder and making sure their immediate genetic offspring are positioned to remain in the appropriate social stratum (the right school district, music lessons, sports, helicopter parenting, tiger moms, etc.). It’s like they’re not even human. It’s a fair bet that the next generation of “high achievers” will be even more sociopathic.

And thanks to being instutionalized from birth, the “successful” are carefully selected for their devotion to overwork, blind enthusiasm, and hoop-jumping, while the skeptical and critical thinkers are weeded out and cast aside, no matter their innate intelligence or talent. That explains everything from the early start times (which make no logical sense), to the crushing amounts of homework, to the constant assessment exams, to the extracurricular activities as a sign of “leadership,” to the obsession with GPA, to the “pep rallies” in dystopian American schools. The sheep are weeded from the goats early on, and all the goats can look forward to is a jail sentence, or maybe earning just enough to have a studio apartment and a meal at Little Caesars. It’s social engineering on a massive scale. Of course, you can always be drugged into submission. This probably explains the inability of our clueless, cloistered leaders inside the bubble to see the collapse coming; after all the “best and brightest” are promoted to be meritocratic technocrats, and the rest of society who can’t keep up will just roll over and die, right?

The psychological damage done to workers and students is immense. Now, instead of breaking their bodies, capitalists are determined to break workers’ souls.

Of course, apologists will say that since we no longer die of black lung in the mines anymore or crush children between the gears of machinery, we have nothing to complain about. That is, only corporal pain and punishment matter. But any psychologist will tell you that mental suffering and anguish is far, far worse than physical pain. And for what? Remember, Amazon is the company that stationed ambulances outside its warehouses to treat heatstroke instead of paying for air conditioning. And we should be thankful for it because otherwise they will just buy robots and kick us out on the street. “Any labor that competes with slave labor must accept the conditions of slave labor.” Don’t worry, I’m sure Amazon is doing their best to get a few laws repealed so that they won’t need the ambulances anymore, just shovels.

Work must consume your entire life, both inside and outside of work. I call it “the cult model of the corporation,” and I’ll use my own workplace as an example. Once a month on Monday we have these Nuremberg-like rallies meetings, where we must line up and cheer or suffer obloquy if you’re not there showing sufficient enthusiasm for our quarterly profits and our high birthrates (I don’t know if this obsession with natalism is a Midwestern “culture of life” thing or if every company is obsessed with their employees’ breeding habits and reproductive potency). We’re supposed to “live our mission” and memorize our mission statement and strategic plan and recite it like an oath (thankfully we don’t have to salute yet). We’re feted for our “years of service” (service – don’t we get paid? Is this the army???)

Extracurricular activities are almost constant – last week it was the company golf outing, this week the it’s company picnic. Then there are the alcohol fueled “social “events” practically every other week. Eager beavers sign up for the softball league, the bowling team, the paintball outing, and anyything else they can get their hands on. Now that the football season is starting, ”fantasy football” will become the (sole) daily topic of obsessive conversation (followed up in spring by “March Madness”). Soon will come the pumpkin decorating contests and Halloween costumes, potlucks, bake sales, and the execrable “holiday party” (which I’ve never attended). The golf-obsessed got to take clients to the PGA tour, a sure sign of being “chosen.” At our annual “performance reviews” we are forced to come up with feedback and goals, like some sort of self-criticism session from Mao’s China. People even walk around dressed in clothing “branded” (like a steer)  with the company logo.

One company I worked for wanted us all to be walking unpaid  salesmen for the company in our off-hours by memorizing an “elevator speech.” In another, the owners would menacingly walk past the desks at 8:00AM sharp to make sure everyone was there and working (the office was in a distant exurb in the middle of a cornfield – literally. Most workers were there by 7AM). At my company they’re even doing “biometric testing,” supposedly so we can “take change” of our health, and hectored to hit the gym and eat the right foods, despite the fact that we’re chained to a desk eight fucking hours a day and served high-carbohydrate processed crap at work lunches. We even have blood drives. If you’re blue-collar, expect to be drug tested. So your company will even monitor your blood pressure and precious bodily fluids, something even the most despotic dictators of the twentieth century would never even contemplate.

I did not expect any of this just to have a fucking job. I was naively oblivious to the fact that my political skills, “personality” and Stakhanovite work ethic mattered far more than any ability or talent. It’s a tough lesson to learn. I feel sorry for the feckless youth taking on college debt burdens who will learn this the hard way Such is life in a country where most people are ground up and spit out in the service of hard men’s profits. That’s the real  “American Way™,” and the only thing this country has consistently stood for since its inception. Let’s face it, we’re practically cattle at this point.

I’m not kidding. Often times when I go out for lunch and walk around, I will see the pale (unless they’re Indian), sallow, sunken-eyed IT workers in their khakis and button downs on temporary furlough from their windowless, fluorescent cubicles roaming around freely downtown during the lunch hour with RFID tags hung around their necks or clipped to their belts. And every single time what am I reminded of?

I believe Dilbert originated the term cow-worker
Soon, everyplace will be Amazon and it will no longer shock. This dystopian workplace is our future. Outplay, Outwit, Outlast. And anyone who doesn’t want to live like that will be berated as “lazy” and blamed for their plight when they are rummaging through dumpsters for food, sleeping in bedbug-ridden shelters and dying of treatable pneumonia. That’s the endgame. It also explains the recrudescence of Social Darwinism as a popular philosophy among the ruling class (now called “human biodiversity”). It’s “survival of the fittest”in the name of progress. Welcome back to the nineteenth century.

Of course, the corporations can only fire you, they cannot kill you, but the politicians and businesspeople are doing their best to shape society such that it is a distinction without a difference. Hence the shredding of the social safety net, asset stripping, automation of work, outsourcing, tying health care to your job, elimination of workplace regulations and minimum wages, temporary contracts, “right to work” laws, and demonization of the unemployed as “scroungers” and “parasites” (when they’re not murdering them outright). Any rat who refuses to run the maze will be fed to the biodigester by the research scientists. You’ll forgive me if I don’t buy the rhetoric about how now is “the best time ever to be alive!!!!” and skeptical that capitalism has made us so much more moral and less violent. You can keep your cell phones.

No wonder people want the whole fucking system to burn down. As I’ve often heard, it is the pessimistic view that see this system continuing and continuing to ratchet up, collapse is actually the optimistic outcome.

But what do I know? I’m just a loser.

RELATED: The Core of the Conservative Mindset 


  1. It won't last too much longer, but there is still time enough for it to get worse.

    Jobless young people to attend 'boot camps' in 'no excuses' crackdown on youth unemployment

    "Jobless young people will be made to attend “boot camps” in return for benefits as part of a new Conservative drive to bring a “no excuses” culture to youth employment.

    Under the plan, anyone under 21 who is out of work and on benefits will have to take part in a three-week intensive course to help them find employment or training.

    They will have to sign up to the programme within a month of claiming benefits – or see those benefits stopped.

    The course, which ministers are provocatively describing as a “boot camp”, includes practising job applications and interview techniques. It is expected to take 71 hours to complete and benefits will be dependent on attendance."


    Amazon Backlash: ‘Always On’ Tech Industry Sees Burned Out Workers, High Turnover And Diversity Fails (But You Can Still Get Rich)


    My guess is that the hate and frustration levels are through the roof and I bet this story is likely connected to it.

    FBI Still Doesn’t Know Who’s Cutting California’s Fiber-Optic Cables, Or Why


    Desperate vengeful people are dangerous people. Just in the last couple of years I have heard a great increase in the number of commenters who say they want to see it collapse. If you have been excluded and there is no hope, why would you give a shit anymore?

    1. But there are more rational reasons for wanting a collapse, too. If we look at climate change and other environmental catastrophes bearing down on us, along with resource depletion (but no! We NEVER look at things like that!) and then add in the kind of things this blog talks about--regimentation, constant spying, the merging of the corporation and state--and look at the state of politics almost anywhere in the world--there is no realistic hope that things will get better through policy change. And every reason to expect things to get worse, until the plundered Earth changes radically enough that human survival is no longer possible. Unfortunately, a collapse that kills hundreds of millions or even billions of people is our BEST hope. Too bad humans can't do collective decision-making, but it seems we can't.

    2. "No excuses" and "boot camps?" Yikes! It's worse than I thought. Are poor houses far behind? Even Dickens didn't live to see "homeless spikes."

      At least it's not the American strategy of criminalizing everything including minor drug offenses, locking people up and forcing them to work for 10 cents an hour in prisons where slavery is legal under our thirteenth amendment (the idea that we're outlawed slavery is actually *false*). But most people still have the attitude of "first they came for..." Napoleon felt that "individualism" made people easier to control. He was right.

      And even people with jobs are being ground down as you pointed out. I read a comment somewhere from someone who said that in the twentieth century, sociopathic industrialists were often threatened with kidnapping and murder (why Carla Bruni's father moved out of Italy to France). Cutting cables is probably a safer form of monkeywrenching than that. they system today is so complex and has so many points of vulnerability that the people who just don't care anymore will have lots of points of attack.

      the problem with modern capitalism is that it works the few who do have jobs into psychosis and condemns more and more people to alienation and irrelevance. If it doesn't deal with the problem, it will be fatal. Right now the only strategy seems to be the rise of a massive police/surveillance state. I can't see this lasting forever, but it may last for some time a la Soviet Union.

      This comment was interesting:

      In the years following the great depression, the Labour Party ('party of and for the workers) set up british Labour Camps for the unemployed. There is a film about it at
      Over 120,000 unemployed men were given the 'choice' of no dole or a period in a labour camp. The camps were proposed by the Tories but then enthusiastically set up by the 1929 Labour Government.
      Conditions in the camps were nothing like as brutal as those in Stalin's or Hitler's camps (or even the Concentration Camps that the British set up during the Boer War). However, as this shocking film shows, they were brutal enough, and may have got far worse if Britain had faced crises as deep as those of Russia or Germany in the 1930s.

      Work makes you free?

  2. I disagree that "it won't last much longer". On the contrary, belief that life is the reward for work underlies all of Western civilization (hat tip: Oswald Spengler). It is tied directly into the reason we are alive and want to wake up tomorrow. People will continue working until there is no civilization left to respect.

    1. "life is the reward for work underlies all of Western civilization."

      Good, one thanks. Really, that's the philosophy that undergirds the agricultural regime when it transitioned from hunter-gathering. Hunter-gatherers/foragers do not believe this which is probably why they tend to reject agricultural lifeways as long as possible (until they are wiped out). Although there has always been a "leisure class" of idle rich. "If a man shall not work neither shall he eat" was the rallying cry of the Communists in opposition to the landed aristocracy. The "dignity of work" has always been a snow job for the poor, but it seems like our elites have actually bought their own BS (although they control their hours and conditions, and actually receive the benefits of their work).

      I've always thought the notion of the rich "working harder" is bizarre. They have two hands, one mouth, one brain, and 24 hours in day. How much "harder" can they possibly work, even with zero sleep and no need to eat or go to the toilet? If you calc out the fortunes of the rich, it amounts to thousands of dollars every minute of every day. Sure, some work may be more specialized or important to society, but the justification of such disparities seems self-evidently ridiculous no matter how much its pushed.

  3. I've been wondering for some time what underlies the rise in popularity over at least the past decade in dystopian and apocalyptic fiction.

    In nearly every dystopian book, revolution is brewing against the oppressive ruling class and their toadies and the protagonist becomes the figurehead of the resistance movement.

    In apocalyptic fiction it's a scramble for survival against zombies/cannibals/robots/aliens that to me is a more intense version of the rat race we working stiffs face from the beginning of working life to retirement, as we try to survive brain-eating corporate life and the boss mobs at the end of each level of this dreariest of Gameboy offerings.

    I also believe that the system as it stands is destined to fail. People can really only be pushed so far.

  4. It won't last because it is too energy intensive to maintain - not because the plebs are going to take it down. Although some might help it along like Mr cable cutter. More energy is going into extracting energy and other resources. No one is involved in these ventures to make friends. Global corporatocracy is not possible without the backbone of the infrastructure techno industrial civilization. Infrastructure that cannot be maintained let alone built out. Band aide fixes will no longer suffice. Throw in the ever increasing rate of infrastructure destroying temperatures, extreme weather events and sea level rise and it's failure is a certainty and we only need to get to a tipping point, not have the whole edifice destroyed.

    Aging US Power Grid Blacks Out More Than Any Other Developed Nation


    2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure

    America's GPA: D+ Estimated Investment Needed by 2020: $3.6 Trillion

    Blame and can kicking, but the money/energy is not there and it never will be again.

    Congress approves stopgap bill to keep highway projects going


    More and more resources are going into fighting wildfire, battling drought, cleaning up after record deluges and snow falls, storm surges and the cost of repairing or rebuilding. Who's paying for it all? It all takes enormous amounts of energy. The infrastructure buildout was a one time deal and it is not repeatable and it cannot be maintained. It starts on the periphery and works towards the center. Great parts of Detroit are on the periphery. The corporate world is near the center and they have essentially been sawing the infrastructure branch they are sitting on. More people unemployed or lowly paid is less tax dollars for infrastructure band-aides. The more power and control they get the sooner will be their demise.

    Raging Western Wildfires Are Burning Through Firefighting Budgets


  5. 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure

    America's GPA: D+ Estimated Investment Needed by 2020: $3.6 Trillion


    Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Infrastructure (HBO)


  6. I am breaking a strict never read the comments policy as it is usually such efluvium. I am an exceptionally intelligent, highly educated at a prestigious program and well read. In spite of my qualifications, I choose to work at a blue collar job. Why? Because so much of this insanity is.reserved for the social betters. Remember in 1984, the proles were not monitored. Nobody cared. I go to work, put in my 8 hours, get sweaty, tired, dirty and sore. The magic is that as long as I.complete my assigned tasks, my mind and spirit are my own. I AM even one of the vanishingly few lucky ones with pay I can live on decently and benefits. I have been a plant in a cubicle farm. Never. Fucking. Again.

  7. Anonymous, your exceptional intelligence is likely unrelated to your excessive formal education and the prestigious program. Most of the people who run the world and created the psychopathic system come out of those institutions and are considered highly intelligent. I say they are merely schooled - trained up. I spotted the bullshit earlier than you and started a well paid apprenticeship when the others were in their first year of post secondary indoctrination and running up debt. Eyes and ears wide open, book stores and a good library does the trick.

  8. Thoroughly depressing commentary. Must be a vicious cycle: I'm negative, I'll be cynical, I'll refuse to see possibility except my own pessimistic motivations, I'll refuse empathy or even acknowledge that some people seek fulfillment through goals and competition.

    1. I have no problem with goals or competition, I do have a problem with having to join a cult just to get a fucking paycheck. Honestly, I'm so fucking sick of the accusation of negativity whenever I point out how things are getting worse. I don't even know why I bother. Jesus fucking Christ. Why don't go off and live you perfect fucking life offline and leave me the fuck alone.

  9. The company, the Times alleged, "is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable.

    This hardly surprises me. We are, after all, talking about the company that came up with "Mechanical Turk."


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