Giving Your All – The Art of Self-Exploitation
Banker Jan Schiemer learned the most important lesson in his first year at work - in a text consisting [in German] of 6 words, 33 letters, and 5 spaces between. Late one night, around 2 a.m., Schiemer sent a bank colleague a report he had just completed. This PDF was accompanied by a message consisting of just two words: “Everything done”. Just 3 minutes later his mobile phone beeped. The SMS merely said: “Nothing is ever completely done”. Since then Schiemer has always kept this on his latest mobile phone, stored on a SIM card. That is one of the few constants in his unsettled life. The dogma of a quasi-religious economic system runs: “Think like an employer. Optimise your achievement”.
Rationalising our leisure time out of existenceJan Schiemer is one of millions who have inherited the New Economy. This hasn’t bequeathed any money but the former image of a worker has been melted down in the heat of incinerated billions and a new one created, now also long valid for the Old and Very Old Economy. Bosses say: “Do what you like so long as you bring in profits”. Shallow hierarchies, teamwork, trust-based working hours, personal responsibility, flexibility, readiness for action, self-realisation, first-name dealings with the man in charge: modern work practices give employees freedom, fun, diversity, and recognition, but at the same time subject them to new constraints and expectations.
Chemnitz sociologist Günter Voß talks of the “entrepreneur of his own work-capacity” as being a dominant new type of employee. “He no longer allows the boss to control him; instead he monitors his own work. He comprehends his capacity for work as a good which he constantly strives to optimise”. That often leads to excessive overtime. “We find this type in more and more professions” explains Voß. Engineers, architects, consultants, employees of insurance companies or banks, etc, can also be reached by colleagues while on vacation. They themselves rationalise their leisure time out of existence, and book further training at their own expense for the last free weekend. The millions of self-employed, supposedly self-employed, and people with two or more simultaneous jobs do likewise.
Suspended UnemploymentGrumbling is contractually forbidden at Nutzwerk, the Leipzig software company. “The anti-annoyance clause is one of the best ideas I’ve ever had” says manager Ramona Wonneberger. “Work is more fun for my people and results are better too”. It is no longer sufficient just to do one’s job. We are also expected to be in the best of humours and totally motivated. Managerial visions spark off enthusiasm, work and partying merge as an ideal productive state, colleagues become friends, and doing an extra shift on a Sunday is as self-evident as helping an acquaintance move house on a Saturday afternoon.
“If an employee experiences his workplace as an absolutely fear-free zone, over the longer term he will make less effort and achieve less” explains Winfried Panse, a Cologne expert in business management. So it is convenient that unemployment is still high, tenure for life vanishing, and part-time work, supposed self-employment, and precarious short-term engagement booming. Jobs are becoming more insecure, competition tougher, and employees must make ever greater efforts to survive. Even someone who has a supposedly secure job transforms his position into a state of suspended unemployment. Every individual is suspected by his or her boss as being basically unnecessary in the firm’s daily struggle for survival, so she or he must seek to dazzle with particularly good behaviour.
The Office as an Inescapable State of AffairsDesktop-football, cappuccino machine, fitness studio, quiet room for power-napping: the modern workplace imitates our homes. Conversely, where we live is also increasingly often a place of work. The Federal Office of Statistics already lists over five million people working completely or partly from home. Siemens operates on the assumption that employees working at home are around 20 % more productive. Among the reasons is that you can no longer evade work once you’ve allowed it into the house. The computer never sleeps and each item of new mail initiates action. The office is no longer a place; it is an inescapable state of affairs.
Ways out of Self-ExploitationThere will not be any return to the old world of industrial work. And who would still want monotony, orders, and obedience? It is good that work offers more and more people fun and self-determination. However to make use of these opportunities and at the same time to counter new dangers, it is necessary to look twice. We must distrust the fine promises and understand the mechanisms involved in the new world of work.
Modern forms of work demand a modern version of industrial action, but the nature of future disputes between employers and employees is uncertain. Will the trade unions be able to unite individual self-employed people for industrial action? Will the institutions of education have to teach citizens how – once again – to conduct negotiations on behalf of sufficient leisure time? Perhaps a debate within our society on the relationship between work and life will also lead to a change in values. Only one thing is certain: the struggle against the total dominance of work begins in the head of every single employee.
Hans Pongratz, Gunter Voß: Der Arbeitskraftunternehmer. Erwerbsorientierung in entgrenzten Arbeitsformen, Berlin, Edition Sigma, 2003
Richard Sennett: The Corrosion of Character. The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, New York, Norton, 1998
is the author of Die Kunst der Selbstausbeutung. Wie wir vor lauter Arbeit unser Leben verpassen, Cologne, Dumont, 2007.
Translation: Tim Nevill
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion
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