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You’re Always Working For Someone

A worker’s story of work

Source: https://www.gocomics.com/nonsequitur/1995/05/03/

You’re always working for someone, an American diplomat told me on the phone. The interview took place shortly after Donald Trump, to the surprise and shock of many, was elected to the White House. I was in graduate school and looking for summer work.

By saying, you’re always working for someone, the interviewer was perhaps suggesting to me that, yes, he is a foreign service officer and has one of the most prestigious jobs out there, living overseas and proud to represent America, but still has to follow orders — orders from Trump and his political hires. I speculate that when he saw my name, perhaps, inferred that I should be aware of the consequences, that working for the government could clash with my values.

To this day, this is the only thing I remember from that conversation. It was strange for me to hear that warning, you’re always working for someone, because up until that moment I never had an interviewer or, in fact anyone, reminding me that I always work for someone.

For many, that warning seems unnecessary, particularly for someone like me, someone from the working class. It is one of those unquestioned social facts of life like — you need money to live. Most of us will not become our own bosses. And many will not even consider that possibility. Some will try to become small business owners or entrepreneurs. But many will end up being employed by someone.

If one is always working for someone, then who is this person? To answer that question is to inquire further of who is in power. Work is a social institution of domination. People have always dealt with unjust and arbitrary power, from ancient despots to feudal lords to state dictators. And people, once they recognize the powers that be, can either acquiesce or revolt. People, for obvious reasons, often choose to maintain their silence. Often only famine and war would push people to revolt.

Before the rise of the nation-states and capitalism, people had another choice which was to exit or cease to play the game. People who were fed up with the arbitrary authority of the low-lying, agricultural state could pack their bags and head for the mountains. We, of course, no longer have this option because every piece of land is owned by a state or some rich individual. Even the ultra-wealthy rely on the coercive power of the state to safeguard their private property. People have always known oppression when they see it. But whether one can articulate the hierarchical social relations and whether one wants to change the relations and whether one can find an alternative is another story.

Unlike the diplomat earlier, most of us do not work for the U.S. federal government. Many of us work for a corporation or, some would say, the private sector. And in this context the answer to the question of for whom does one work is not so immediately clear.

Before the interview, I had already worked in the private sector for over seven years. This employer was cut out from the modern capitalist organization mold. The corporation had a hierarchical structure with tens and thousands of workers. In order to manage these workers, it needed thousands of managers. Above them was the corporate manager. And then there was the board of directors. Because the corporation was publicly traded, there were institutional investors who held large number of its shares. The interests of corporate managers and investors were tied together with the ownership of the shares and their price. Unlike workers, who occupy the bottom rung of the modern corporation, corporate managers and their middle management henchmen derived a substantial portion of their compensation from selling the company’s shares.

At this multinational corporation, my supervising manager, of course, had the power to fire me for insubordination or poor work performance. But workers often get fired for other reasons: to quickly reduce cost or to signal to Wall Street that the company is seriously about making a profit. So, when my team, including the manager, was fired because the company wanted to take advantage of the labor arbitrage in India, it was not clear to me who was making the final decision. Perhaps the culprit was our corporate manager or the board of directors or the Wall Street institutional investors. If these were my bosses, I never met them in the years of working for my employer. But they were the individuals who made the important decisions: what to produce, where to sell, whom to hire and fire. I’m confident that they did not know that I existed. And if I did exist to them, I was just a digit on a spreadsheet. It was one of the things I accepted when working for someone. I was just glad to have a job.

Whether it is the dictatorship of the Presidency or dictatorship of corporate managers or investors, working for someone else is an act of being dominated. Whether one likes her boss does not change the nature of the social relations. When the diplomat, my interviewer, said, you’re always working for someone, it was a reflection or realization of his subordinate position. The distinction between the public and private sectors is not whether one is put in a subordinate role, but in one context it is more clear for whom does one work. Some workers, broadly speaking, like the diplomat could exit the public sector and hope to work for someone less abusive in the private one. Hundreds of mid- to high level officials did leave the State Department after Trump became President. But this was a small fraction of the number of employees that the department had on payroll. Many workers do not have this option, to simply switch employers.

When I was working for my employer in the private sector, I could not articulate the different ways of domination it had on my life, inside and outside of the workplace. I was not intellectually aware of work as an institution of domination. What I did not see with my eyes, I felt with my mind and body. I remember being forced to sit and listen to my manager talking about something I did not agree with or care much about. I remember pretending to work from three to five o’clock because I had already finished my work but could not go home until when it was socially permissible. I remember I was often working on something that was devoid of any intellectual capacity and creativity. I remember when the layoff was about to happen, everyone was told by management to keep working and pretend like they had not known about the firing.

Unlike the industrial worker who toiled through the physical drudgery, the corporate worker suffers from a kind of spiritual violence. Unlike my father whose scarred and hardened hands stemmed from his work as an auto mechanic, I had no physical marks for which to show for my struggle. Sometimes I would feel ashamed to compare our work experiences. However, toward the end of my working days at the company, I was diagnosed with migraine aura, a kind of painless migraine that causes dizziness and temporary loss of speech.

Workplace domination had a pernicious effect on me. The so-called workplace wellness is industry created to ease the symptoms of work. Unlike the common cold, work as we know will not get better with respite from it. The vacations to Turkey and Peru that I took were about getting away from work. It did not matter that much that I had studied software engineering in college and was working for a tech company. The decision to study programming was as much due to the dictates of the labor market as my own desire.

In high school, before deciding to go to college, the only working experience I had was working for a fast food restaurant. When I became a tech worker I thought I had reach the light at the end of the tunnel. But this was not the sunlight that I had thought, but it was light emanating from a fluorescent bulb. I was holding onto this lamp like Gollum holding onto the Ring. I was afraid of the darkness if I let go. If I let go I was afraid of losing what I had worked to attain. I saw my colleagues sitting and waiting to get laid off so that they would get severance packages. Or they waited because they would not have to make the decision on their own, knowing that if they did quit they would get questioned by friends, family and co-workers.

I eventually left my employer, but did not completely understand what was going until several years later when I had the free time, though not idle time, to read, reflect and write on these matters. I discovered that I do have intellectual and creative abilities. Had I stayed and waited, time, my most valuable possession, would be continued to be appropriated by my employer.

But the employers, the labor market, and the State work together to punish those that try to live a dignified life, one without domination of bosses and the theft of time. For many of us, it is almost unthinkable to completely exit the labor market unless one has substantial savings or about to retire. I do not know of an alternative to this system of domination that we refer to as work. But in order to leave an abusive relationship, one needs first to recognize that it is abusive. And I think this recognition requires the courage to introspect on how we use our time, which is something we desperately lack in our culture of work and distraction.

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Dat T. Nguyen

Dat T. Nguyen

PhD candidate of politics and philosophy at ECNU.Shanghai | Of Rivers and Mountains @ jiangshan.substack.com

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