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Neoliberalism’s War on Workers: An Interview With Peter Fleming
(Image: Pluto Books)

Neoliberalism’s War on Workers: An Interview With Peter Fleming

(Image: Pluto Books)

Neoliberal ideologies and economic shifts are to blame for the intensifying role of work in our lives, says Peter Fleming, the author of The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself (Pluto Books, 2015).

There is no shortage of people with complaints about particular work stresses and instances of overwork, but Fleming, a professor of business and society at City University London, has made it his particular vocation to serve as one of the world’s leading critics of work itself.

Work is too often treated as the “be-all and end-all of human existence,” Fleming says, and we are strengthening its grip on our lives by accepting neoliberal ideologies that sap our ability to imagine what we might do with our free time if we didn’t have to work, or what the social order would look like without the “constant imposition of paid employment.” Truthout asked Fleming to discuss these and other ideas from his latest book.

Truthout: I wanted to ask you some questions about The Mythology of Work and how it connects to notions of education. Can you comment on how education contributes to the work model you talk about in your book and how are our schools like the workplace? Is education ritualized, much like work is, in your view?

Fleming: Education today is for me one of the more depressing aspects of the way work has been mythologized and treated as the be-all and end-all of human existence. The problem has a number of dimensions that interrelate. With the privatization of education, it is difficult for people to actually study. Instead, they are drilled with a competitive ethic and an “I want whatever you say I want” attitude to authority, so that people leave the university, for example, with little critical curiosity or desire to question their world.

The ritual of pointless labor serves a useful control function.

For years, they have been rewarded for automatic obedience, and thus correctly believe that is the key to success. In this sense, education is today more about a certain performativity: the important thing is to look like the correct economic agent, exhibit the correct speech and attitude, which all have little subjective substance. That performative element is, of course, crucial to the mythology of work. From the neoliberal state’s point of view, if we do not look like a worker, then we must somehow be morally deficient and lacking some core human qualities. We learn the ability to present the desired facade and almost avoid individual depth from an early age.

Much of this is the direct outcome of privatization and the [high] levels of commercialization that schools have been forced to adopt. Neoliberal spokesmen from Friedrich Hayek to Steve Jobs have argued that if students become “customers” who can pick and choose between a range of schools competing in a free market, then the good schools will be rewarded and the bad ones punished. The customer is king.

If I enroll in a university as a “customer,” it is even worse because of the inevitable sunk costs. Once enrolled, it’s economically irrational to jump ship. And like the supermarket customer, I have no say whatsoever over the how that institution is run. The commercialization of universities in the UK is indicative of that trend. All of a sudden, we have university “management” who are distant and aggressively chide input from faculty and students. The actual space is intentionally designed to discourage political engagement and self-organization.

In this environment, students inevitably give learning and organizational involvement less priority than trying to be best positioned to pay off an awful student debt. All of this leads to total disempowerment. The consumer is not “king,” but the apogee of anti-democratic sentiment. That is the key message we learn when we enter the education system under neoliberal capitalism. Say the ‘right words,’ or even better, keep your mouth shut, try your best to look like the socially ‘correct’ subject of economic sacrifice, and hope for the best.

Many citizens might believe that work indeed creates wealth. How does your work show that this is not the case? How does work do the opposite, perhaps: create inequality and poverty? Also, how do you address wealth concentration as it relates to your thesis?

Well, workers certainly do create wealth and not the employers who manage and regulate this employment. The problem is that these wealth-creating properties have become perverted by two trends that have transformed work into an activity that makes most of us mentally, emotionally and existentially recoil from it.

Firstly, work is now integral to the class subsidization process that has led to such eye-watering levels of inequality. Work is no longer about “making a living” or instilling moral virtue, if it ever was. Today, it is more about facilitating the transfer of wealth from the 99% into the hands of a small non-working elite. Direct labor creates a surplus for the employer, no doubt, which is conventional exploitation.

The second trend relates to the ideological capture of the very notion of work itself. Analysts are now realizing that there is a major disconnect between the institutional structures of work – the increasingly long and draining work week – and the actual economic functionality that our jobs were once designed to accomplish. Much of our work is self-referential and done for its own sake. In other words, we work now not only for economic reasons – which are still important – but also for cultural or ideological ones.

So what purpose does this ritualistic or ideological development serve within contemporary capitalism? I believe there could be a number of drivers.

First, because work still has such convincing essentialist connotations – without it we would perish like hunters and gatherers who stopped struggling for survival – this must mean that the current capitalist employment system is unquestionable.

Second, the over-ritualization of work derives from a lack of imagination regarding what we might do with our free time without work, or what the social order would look like without the constant imposition of paid employment. In economic terms, work is increasingly becoming unnecessary, given technological progress and so forth.

People are literally paying to work.

My main premise is that the ritual of pointless labor serves a useful control function. Power knows when and where you are without having to be overly intrusive. This illustrates what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls the control society. Using simple statistics and probability (and now “big data”), a governmental official will now know roughly where you are and what you are doing and convey the necessary details to the correct authorities if you are out of order.

Can you discuss how work tends to entail costs on the worker? How does the mythology of work lend to “running in place” in the society for many middle class members especially? Furthermore, do work advocates mistake productivity with empty activity in your view?

Late capitalism is extremely expensive to maintain in economic, social and physiological terms. More so than other economic systems. Whereas these costs were once paid for by the firm or managed via the public sphere, including the state, they have now largely been individualized, pushed back onto the solitary worker. This is how we can explain the terrible phenomenon of personal debt, which certainly did its part in the 2008 financial crisis. Employees are now required to pay for their forced existence within 24/7 capitalism and its near suicidal work ethic. The commute. The equipment. The training. Both the direct and indirect expenses that emerge from the extreme culture of work. People are literally paying to work. These costs are also social because shouldering all the responsibilities of deep capitalism invariably takes its toll on personal well-being and family relationships. Research has demonstrated that job-related stress can be more dangerous to your health than heavy smoking.

The neoliberal world has nothing to do with happiness whatsoever, and is perhaps cautious of social joy since it evokes images of the anti-work movements of the 1960s. Austerity in the US and Europe is redolent with this anti-freedom sentiment, and I fear that our children born into this climate might actually believe that this is what living really means.

The middle classes in particular find that they are no longer progressing like past generations. They now spend most of their time desperately trying to hold on to their class position, since they know that their children will not enjoy the benefits that they had. In fact, let’s face it, the middle class is dead in most societies who have embraced extreme neoliberalism. I don’t even use the term much anymore because it proffers the myth that society has a comfortable middle-majority, like something out of a 1950s sitcom.

Managerialism was an important component of the class war initiated under Reaganomics and Thatcherism. Its function is to demobilize the workforce, rather than simply control them.

Concerning work and productivity, this issue has become complex. Economic growth has dramatically declined over the last 30 years, and some suggest we may never see the types of figures that once characterized Western economic development. There are many reasons for this demise of growth. But a strong cause, in my opinion, is that the model of capitalism that has entrenched itself today is fundamentally parasitical. Profit is captured rather than produced. This applies to the state as much as the corporate sector. Hence the conspicuous return of rentiers and unearned income elites, which John Maynard Keynes viewed as the enemy of sound fiscal policy because they are such a drain on innovation and social justice.

What I argue in The Mythology of Work is that jobs are no longer approached as an input. They are now more of an output in its own right. A firm will treat my eight hours in the office as an output, believing that it must represent productive activities. But there is no necessary connection, between the hours I put in at the office and value my work creates since office culture has become disconnected from concrete work.

In the book you discuss managerialism. What is it and how does it fail to instill initiative? How do leaders of business ignore history, politics and education and the realities of initiative, responsibility and productivity? What exactly makes some leaders sadists?

Managerialism is the leading technocratic arm of the neoliberal war against democratic involvement by employees in the workplace. It’s a manifestation of a class situation and has nothing to do with coordination, efficiency, motivation and so forth. Managerialism arose in the 1980s, precisely when the Fordist era of labor relations was being replaced by union-free workplaces, precarious employment systems, individualism and “flexibility.”

Managerialism was an important component of the class war initiated under Reaganomics and Thatcherism. Its function is to demobilize the workforce, rather than simply control them. I argue that it is different to earlier types of managerial activity for a number of reasons.

Firstly, its main preoccupation is with worker elimination, which is why it is embraced by the human resources function in organizations. How do you dismiss an employee who is taking too many sick days or challenging the no-union policy?

Secondly, it sends a strong message of disposability to the workforce. Thus the culture of fear, anxiety, paranoia and reticence that characterizes so many workplaces that emerged in the wake of the neoliberal economic revolution. We got a real taste of this in the recent New York Times report on office life at Amazon.

Corporations have been sold to us as wealth/job creators, which is the exact opposite of what they generally do in practice.

Third, managerialism needs and is attracted to non-managerial “raw material” to justify its existence. In other words, you, me and most of the workforce. It thrives on creating conflict for this reason, because it cannot function in a world in which some kind of “deficit” or “drain” (i.e., the workforce) is not present that requires remedial attention. This is why managerialism can always find something wrong with even the most proficient employee, and thus ironically kills the things that make an organization productive such as creativity, good morale and initiative. People become too scared to think for themselves under these conditions.

Employees secretly rebuke managers and leaders for being sadistic for this reason since there does not seem to be any direct economic or organizational rationale behind their fear-inducing tactics. It is almost as if managers are causing social pain because they like it.

And fourth, managerialism is noticeably characterized by what I term a “spreadsheet mentality.” People are viewed as numbers, without history or existential meaning. It’s easier to fire someone if they are just a number. Usually by email.

Managerialism avoids actual concrete people, which is why it immediately wilts when forced to account for itself in a public democratic forum. I have seen this happen many times. The iron-handed technocrat suddenly looks lost and out of her depth, almost vulnerable. Stealth and distance is more managerialism in its natural habitat, like the drone in contemporary warfare.

What do you think are the long-term effects of corporate ideologies? It seems that wealth creation does not lend itself to liberating humanity while impacting the environment. Why do proponents of work think that free markets prevail by ignoring the mythology of work?

The ideology of corporate capitalism is a fairly old one in Western societies and has been the mainstay of economic exploitation since the inception of this mode of production. Except during the World Wars, corporations have been sold to us as wealth/job creators, which is the exact opposite of what they generally do in practice. They tend to expropriate wealth and help deploy the mythology of work to extend the discipline of an irrational socio-economic paradigm by suggesting that you need capitalism more than it needs you. Corporate ideologies are generally an embellishment of that basic assumption. However, there something different occurring in the world of work and society more generally that is interesting.

Capitalism is in such a strong and confident position that the only thing it seeks to communicate to the 99% is that it is master of the universe. It is tempting to see in this the end of ideology, but things are not so simple, since power itself is the ideological message. Happiness, well-being, commitment and all of those other soft buzzwords that the “soulful corporation” tried to drum into the workforce in the 1980s and 1990s no longer apply.

How do you define “crisis capitalism” and how does this fuel the mythology of work?

Crisis capitalism is particular to the neoliberal system of governance, since it exploits its own instabilities to extend the logic of rent-seeking behavior. We see this in the way that the global financial crisis provided an opportunity to increase class divisions, bolster “corporate welfare” (using methods such as “quantitative easing” and tax breaks) and the further the erosion of the public sphere. In the city I live in, London, we have what some call a “housing crisis” since the rental market has been managed to create a deep scarcity in property. A landlord recently made the news when he tried to rent a mattress under a staircase in a shared house for £500 (plus bills) a month.

“Austerity is here to stay” is the central message of politicians who spent most of their childhood in exclusive and prohibitively expensive private schools. It is why the economic crisis currently feels endless and touches everybody not only on an economic level, but also on social and increasingly psychological levels too. If there is a class war, then it chiefly manifests as that unbearable pressure experienced when sitting alone in the jungle waiting for the next firefight. Even the calm silence of nature signals a potential danger, even death. Neoliberalism calls this everyday fear of life “personal freedom.”