Disgruntled: Rediscovering Marxism the hard way

Charles Brown CharlesB at CNCL.ci.detroit.mi.us
Fri Sep 25 11:08:58 PDT 1998

Maybe there is a revolutionary earthquake tension building up underground, disguised by the seeming utter capitulation of 90's political culture. It seems that one can find sprinkled through the monopoly media glimpses of awareness of the classical Marxist symptoms of the ills of capitalism, such as alienation discussed in the below. These empirical vingettes are not at all presented as part of a coherent theory of the whole picture, for absence of social theorizing is central to anti-radical thought and bourgeois mindcontrol.

Perhaps eventually facts will be stubborn enough things so as to force thoughtful people of the new generation to rediscover the comprehensive critique of the system which is Marxism. Will the old school of hard knocks knock some sense into the children of Reaganism ?

Charles Brown

>From the market to the Marxit



I met Daniel Levine when I was working at my first real post-college job. I was an editorial assistant at a Bay Area business paper, and while I have since learned to kiss the very ground that working environment was built on, at the time I was shocked and appalled by the horrors of the adult working world.

I was struggling with 7 a.m. wake-ups, public transportation, cubicles, recycled air, the necessity of smiling at people I didn't like. I was struggling with exhaustion and with the fact that I worked full time and couldn't pay both my rent and my student loans. I was struggling with my hatred for the bagels provided every Friday morning and the leather organizer given out every Christmas in lieu of a decent paycheck.

Danny was a financial reporter at the paper, and I remember him primarily for his comments the day I quit to take a junior reporting position elsewhere.

"How much are they going to pay you?" he'd asked me, and when I'd told him $8 an hour, he'd shaken his head.

"Benefits?" he'd asked, and I'd shaken mine.

"Bastards," he'd muttered.

Although I barely knew him, I had felt an odd surge of gratitude toward this man who had seemed to be the only grown-up in the working world to see the sleaziness that passed for decent corporate policy and to call it by its name.

Judging by his book, "Disgruntled: The Darker Side of the World of Work," published this month by Berkeley Boulevard Books, he is continuing to do so.

The very real problems of the modern-day workplace -- stagnant salaries, long hours, economic disparity, demoralizing conditions, eroding civil liberties -- have been trivialized in the incredibly unfunny world of "Dilbert" and essentially ignored by the business pages. It's somewhat of a shock, therefore, to pick up a book and find yourself face to face with an unabashed acknowledgment of the fact that working for a living, generally speaking, sucks.

The book, which grew out of Levine's online magazine, Disgruntled, provides serious reporting on the state of the modern workplace, facts and figures about salaries and hours, and information about employer practices such as pre-employment screening, surveillance and drug testing. There are also workplace horror stories you're not likely to have seen in the mainstream press and wonderful accounts of employee revenge.

The inspiration for the book grew not so much out of Levine's own work experiences, he told me, but rather out of his experiences as a business reporter -- being expected to always write from an employer perspective, finding the people he interviewed increasingly unhappy with their jobs.

"If it seems we are working harder and longer for less, that's because we are," he writes in the book's opening chapter. "The debate gets framed in many ways. Critics talk about the widening gap between rich and poor, between workers and CEOs, but what really eats away at people and demoralizes them is their failed expectation of fairness in the workplace. For some reason they expect hard work to be rewarded, think those rewards should be proportional to the contributions made to an enterprise and feel everyone should be treated the same. The workplace has never been fair. Like they used to say in ancient Egypt, 'You don't get promoted to Pharaoh by working hard on a pyramid.'"

At least in the days of the Pharaoh, though, you knew who the enemy was. The guy in the loincloth with the whip in his hand was the guy ruining your day, and the guy in the funny hat sitting in the throne up on the hill was the guy ruining his. Those were the days before the era of team members and co-workers and mission statement participation.

It's as if somewhere along the way, employers realized you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and (for the most part) out went the goon squads of an earlier era and in came the company picnic and bagels every Friday. We eat our "free" breakfasts, call our fellow team members -- who just happen to make 200 times more than we do -- by their first names and wonder why we feel so, well, disgruntled.

Levine's book cuts through the façade of civility that has framed employee-employer relations in the second half of the century, and that's why it's so refreshing to read. It's riddled with stories of employees chained to their desks by supervisors, locked into the office for drug testing, spied on after complaining, traumatized by too-real security demonstrations and just plain pissed about too many hours and not enough money. Levine makes no bones about pointing out the lows to which employers will stoop to maintain order in their companies and fat checks in their bank accounts. And he offers suggestions on building a life less dependent on them.

In closing, here are a few figures from "Disgruntled" to keep you smiling on your way to work in the morning:

--Between 1980 and 1995, CEO pay climbed 500 percent, while factory wages rose 70 percent.

--By 1987, the average employee worked at least 163 more hours per year than in 1969.

--Since 1989, the total number of announced corporate layoffs has exceeded 3 million.

--And, just to throw in my two cents, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the median salary that same year was $490 per week, $29 less in real terms than was earned in 1979.

Now, get to work.

SALON | Sept. 25, 1998

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