Everyday, the current neoliberal iteration of capitalism further alienates us. We are alienated from our labor and exploited at work. We toil for wages that we can barely survive on, sometimes working two or even three jobs to make ends meet and while we are doing this we are met with authoritarian and demeaning policies and work environments. This is why we need worker autonomy.
What do we mean by worker autonomy? Worker autonomy is realization of the workers full labor power and the ability to make decisions regarding what happens in the workplace, a place most people will spend a third of their life. As it currently stands, you probably have little to no say in what happens day to day at work. We barely have to look at all to see examples of awful working conditions. Such as the now infamous, demoralizing and exploitative policies like Amazon’s production monitoring where employees are required to have devices that monitor their productivity; the amount of breaks they take and for how long, when their movement changes, where they are and if they are falling behind. The device will give them an objective, like picking up a package, and a timer will start. Nearly every aspect of labor at an Amazon warehouse is timed and your productivity measured. This has led to the now widely publicized stories of people urinating in bottles because they are worried about bathroom breaks and being written up.
What is criticism of this met with? How do many respond to workers demands for improved conditions or compensation?
“Get another job.”
The proposed solution, as is typically the case in capitalist society, is to blame the individual. The problem isn’t a clearly draconian and absurd policy; the problem is you, so if you don’t like it, just leave. This logic always prevails. If you are one of the nearly 70% of people in the US who doesn’t have 1000 dollars saved, you are told it’s your fault, that you didn’t work hard enough or you wasted your money or you should have gotten a better job.
The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is pervasive and usually most expounded from people with relative privilege, that or people who have bought this narrative hook, line and sinker; it’s as if they are holding out hope that one day they can be one of the anointed elites. The problem here is that it is highly improbable just by the nature of this system that you will ever have any real financial security. The division of labor in capitalism requires a massive body of workers, it requires a huge pool of cheap labor. Ask yourself what would happen if this was actually the case. If tomorrow everyone “pulled up those bootstraps”. The masses workers that are needed would disappear and capitalism would be unable to function. Capitalism needs poor people, it needs you to have debt, and it needs you to depend on a wage so you have no option but to produce.
People expounding this adage usually fail to recognize the complex social and structural factors that construct barriers between individuals and realizing their full potential. This is especially bad in the peripheries of the society and in marginalized neighborhoods; often consisting of people of color. They forget that there are vast populations who lack access to basic services like education and healthcare. Communities of immigrants and other people of color that have been ravaged by the prison industrial complex and over policing; parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sister and cousins sent to prison; leaving children without role models or people to teach them even the most basic of skills that many take for granted. This is why “get another job” will never be a solution.
The recourse a worker should not be limited to sacrificing their income and the well-being of themselves and people who may depend on them. Coal miners shouldn’t have to choose between black lung and safe working conditions and feeding their children and Amazon workers shouldn’t have to piss in a bottle or choose between having every second of their day surveilled and buying medication. Workers should have democratic control of their workplace, we should all have a say in how things are ran. We should be able to decide whether or not a policy is fair. Why are the interests of the workers who make up the vast majority superseded by a handful of bureaucrats at the top?
To give a concrete answer because, by nature, the wealthy who run the corporations have fundamentally different values, needs, and desires than a worker and they have all of the power. A CEO’s ultimate goal is to increase profit, this supersedes all other concerns. The CEO is beholden to it’s share holders and the primary concern is increasing profits. What does a CEO want from his worker? Put simply, for them to be as productive and create as much value as possible while compensating them as little as possible. This leads to policies like the device Amazon employs which monitors productivity.
Now, turning our lens to the worker, what do they desire? What does the worker strive for in this context? The exact opposite. The worker wants to do as little labor as possible for as much compensation as possible. There is zero incentive for a worker to work more hours or work harder and be more productive if they don’t receive anything extra in return. This antagonism is irreconcilable, the worker will never want to work harder for less and the employer will never want the worker to work less for more.
I am not of the opinion that capitalism is inherently evil in some absolute or biblical sense, nor am I of the opinion that Jeff Bezos or any other CEO is necessarily evil. The logic and values of capitalism necessitate a fundamentally antagonistic relationship. This is one of the primary reasons I believe capitalism must be abolished and not reformed. No amount of reform will ever eliminate class antagonisms that are inherently part of capital.
This antagonism necessitates that if we want and desire fair and equitable working conditions, the majority, the workers, must have control over their workplace. Otherwise, how is this relationship any different than the relationship between a lord and a serf or an emperor and a plebeian or a dictator and a citizen? A worker must have a means to change their workplace and the policies that govern it. Every community, city, country and so on has different values, needs and desires and they all need the ability to make decisions based on their historical-geographical experience and have the ability to have a say in decisions that affect them the most.
We here from slightly more “woke” individuals is that the system is broken and needs to be fixed. We need more safety nets and more social welfare. Although this is better than saying, “everything is fine, you’re just lazy or stupid”, the truth is much worse. The truth is the system isn’t broken, that capitalism is operating as normal and these are completely natural side effects of this disease. Indeed, it is easier to blame over 200 million individuals for not saving 1000 dollars or say we just need the right people to fix the system than to admit we need a much more radical change. This is a daunting thought. Mark Fisher’s realized this and in his 2009 classic, Capitalist Realism, he opens with the sentence,
“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Since the task of replacing capitalism and achieving true autonomy will be so incredibly difficult and long there are some things we can and should do in the interim that will advance us down a path towards freedom and autonomy: fight for your work place; organize individuals and form unions. This is how nearly all improvements have been made for working conditions. It took nearly 100 years of workers organizing for the 8 hour workday for it to be nationally instituted in the US.
Threaten what capitalism values most, profit. Workers have power in numbers and the threat of with holding our labor power can force employers to give better conditions and wages. Sharing experiences can also be helpful in gathering public support; this is evidenced by the current outcry against Amazon, largely brought on by employees documenting their conditions and experiences. While participating in these struggles be careful and hide your identity. Employers and bosses don’t usually appreciate you publicizing bad working conditions or trying to form unions, you will likely face retaliation.
Our ultimate goal should be the abolition of capital and wage labor. A system where the workplace is democratically and horizontally organized, where power wells up from below, where every worker has a voice and we all decide how our labor is used. Demand autonomy and remember that all value is only made possible through your labor, without the worker the capitalist has nothing!