We would be hard pressed to find any firm today that did not have some blurb on its website or induction manual about how it is ‘giving back’ to society and aspiring to be sustainable.
But as numerous studies have demonstrated, the multinationals that have the most lush and grandiose Corporate Social Responsibility policies are precisely those which do the most damage: petroleum companies, tobacco firms and so-forth.
The rituals of capitalism are inherently against life
While we might see British Petroleum’s attempt to rebrand itself as Beyond Petroleum (complete with a green flower) as a cynical PR exercise, it is the function that this ‘ideology of care’ has inside the firm that is crucial.
The language of ethics, sharing and social responsibility appears strangely attractive to the disaffected post-industrial employee.
Managers have a problem: how do we connect with a generation of workers who think capitalism is not only a dead end, but fundamentally destructive to society and nature?
This is when appeals to Corporate Social Responsibility and its discourse of the social become vital in the postmodern enterprise.
A study of a notoriously pugnacious management consultancy firm in London found that Corporate Social Responsibility was crucial for realigning the disengaged employee with an awful business model.
A raft of social responsibility initiatives such as the use of Fair Trade in the cafeteria, sabbaticals for employees to work in Africa, and community-care-days were all aimed to reconcile the worker with a job fundamentally at odds with his or her values and ideals.
The pseudo counter-capitalist values conveyed in the Corporate Social Responsibility discourse provide one way to square the socially progressive expectations of an educated workforce (some of whom even reported that at heart they were ‘communists’).
Every worker knows that the rituals of capitalism are inherently against life, even if repackaged in miniature Buddhas on the computer monitor.
But when the economy of work infects one’s early morning dreams, spills over into booze-soaked weekends and reduces almost every social relation to a cold cash exchange, workers are the first to realize that life becomes a perpetual living absence no matter how many smiley-faces dot the cubicle.
As T.W. Adorno wryly noted in his strikingly prescient analysis of late capitalism, the fact that we continue to live in this petrified air merely indicates that we have learnt to breath in hell.
We have been witnessing the birth of a new culture industry with its artificial zones of ‘leisure’, whose rationale has been to provide a momentary escape from a society without purpose.
We see the clumsy attempts of industrial psychologists to create spaces of externality as part of this fantasy of a world beyond work. Of course, most employees know this is a swindle. The things in life we could look forward to, beyond the daily grind, are few and often sadly mundane. The real fault-line today is not between capital and labor. It is between capital and life.
Life itself is now something that is plundered by the corporation, rendering our very social being into something that makes money for business. The computer hackers dreaming code in their sleep. The airline stewards evoking their warm personality to deal with an irate customer (‘act as if the airplane cabin is your living room’). The aspiring NGO intern working for nothing. The university lecturer writing in the weekend. The call center worker improvising on the telephone to enhance the customer experience.
What makes capitalism different today is that its influence reaches far beyond the office. Under Fordism, weekends and leisure time were still relatively untouched. Their aim was to indirectly support the world of work.
Today, however, capital seeks to exploit our very sociality in all spheres of life. When we all become ‘human capital’ we not only have a job, or perform a job. We are the job. Even when the work-day appears to be over. This is what some have called the rise of bio-power, where life itself is put to work: our sociality, imagination, resourcefulness, and our desire to learn and share ideas.
But as we all know, modern corporations cannot provide these drivers of value by their own accord. That’s why we are enlisted to do it for them. Self-exploitation has become a defining motif of working today.
Indeed, the reason why so little is invested by large companies into training is because they have realized that workers train themselves, both on the job, using their life skills and social intelligence, and away from the job, on their own time.
So how can we resist capitalism when it has penetrated our very mode of social being?
Perhaps the old Marxist argument about class politics still holds true. Being a worker is nothing to be proud of. Meaningful workplace politics ought not to be calling for fairer work, better work, more or less work, but an end to work. Might this also mean the end of the worker?
This is an edited extract from Dead Man Working by Peter Fleming and Carl Cederström