New York Times Editorial "Why You Hate Work" is Perfect Example of Capitalist Pacification

By Doctor Comrade

Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek said it best: "A typical boss no longer wants to be a boss.... A boss comes in jeans and embraces you with all the vulgarities, 'Did you have a good fuck last night?' Whatever, but, fuck you! Then he remains a boss. He nonetheless gives orders, but the social game is you have to pretend that we are friends and so on. In these relations, the first step to liberation is to force him to really behave like a boss. To tell him, 'No, fuck you, no comradeship!' Treat me as a boss and give me explicit orders and so on." This is to say that this faux-comradeship undermines the underlying revolutionary fervor extant in the workforce. Pacification of the workers reinforces the power of the pacifiers.

THE way we’re working isn’t working. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a job, you’re probably not very excited to get to the office in the morning, you don’t feel much appreciated while you’re there, you find it difficult to get your most important work accomplished, amid all the distractions, and you don’t believe that what you’re doing makes much of a difference anyway. By the time you get home, you’re pretty much running on empty, and yet still answering emails until you fall asleep.
— Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath

This excerpt from an opinion piece in the NYT started out with such promise (ignoring, of course, how it ignores everyone who doesn't work in an office), but it goes on to outline several strategies for increasing employee engagement and productivity. Although it was published way back in May, this editorial recently passed through my newsfeed and I thought it was a perfect example of how companies treat their employees as human resources. Like other resources, employees are used and exploited, and discourse about how to efficiently maximize production and improve employee satisfaction serves only to reinforce the capitalist teleology that workers exist for production of profit.

"Why You Hate Work" details why workers and managers become disengaged with work. The authors report that "just 30 percent of Employees in America feel engaged at work... [and around] the world, across 142 countries, the proportion of employees who feel engaged at work is just 13 percent. For most of us, in short, work is a depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some obvious ways, it's getting worse." Among the reasons listed by the authors are demand for time, competitiveness, "a leaner, post-recession work force," and digital technology that consumes attention. Respondents to a 2013 survey reported that only 18% engaged in regular creative thinking, 36% believed their work was meaningful and significant, and 25% said they were connected to their company's mission. To remedy these problems, the authors identified four core needs: physical energy, emotional value, mental focus, and spiritual connections to their work.

The authors claim that the "more effectively leaders and organizations support employees in meeting these core needs, the more likely the employees are to experience engagement, loyalty, job satisfaction and positive energy at work, and... all of their performance variables improve." Moreover, "Engagement... has now been widely correlated with higher corporate performance," including higher profitability, less theft, and fewer accidents. Exactly.

This editorial, with its pithy second-person title "Why You Hate Work," advertises itself as reading material for workers to improve their lives. What becomes obvious throughout the piece is that it's actually a list of strategies employers can use to maximize their profit margins and improve loyalty. The authors are encouraging employers to re-evaluate their workplace environments to encourage breaks, prioritization of tasks, and imbue a sense of meaning to production. Yet what these authors demonstrate is a complete unwillingness to share the fruits of labor with the workers who produce them. In effect, the editorial points to how employers can maximize surplus value by tweaking the means of production. I'll explain.

Surplus value, defined by Marx, is the value created by workers that is larger than the cost of their labor (ex: salary), which is kept by capitalists in the form of profit. The authors of this editorial have presented a set of strategies for bosses to increase surplus value without also increasing labor costs. In fact, the authors claim that "it costs nothing" to impose new rules that help employees feel "better taken care of." They also encourage companies to reward supervisors who display empathy, care, and humility.

The last paragraph is most telling when they quote a chief executive: "I can already see it's working... because our people are more focused. We're trusting them to do their jobs... and then we're appreciating them for their efforts. We're also on the right path financially. A year from now it's going to show up in our profitability... and now we're seeing what happens when we invest in our employees."

This editorial is not about why you hate work; it's about why your employer hates that you don't work hard enough. These elites are simply devising new strategies to prevent workers from resisting their employers' demands. This is not a more caring form of capitalism; it's a more insidious kind of control, designed first and foremost to maximize profits without sharing the wealth for those who do the work. You might be happier at work, you may feel less stressed, but that will only make you complacent and accept your place, accept your existence. The physical constraints of your job may have been slightly altered, but the existential realities have not changed, and the economic realities are actually worse. When workers are happier at work, they are less likely to demand the change necessary to truly empower them.

This efficiency discourse commodifies the life-force of the workers (the authors represent a firm called the Energy Project!). They do not care about workers, they care about how much extra work can be produced for the same labor cost. When they speak of "investing" in workers, we have to remember that investments are enterprises from which profits are reaped over time.