#215      22 min 30 sec
Working stiffs: Corporatism and its impact on our jobs and lives

Organizational theorist Prof Peter Fleming examines how corporatism pervades virtually every aspect of the lives of the modern worker and suggests ways in which we can regain work-life balance. Presented by Jennifer Martin.

"What seems to be really important today is the way in which work is being detached or delinked from what we used to think were concrete socially useful outcomes.  We seem to be doing made up jobs, doing made up things." -- Prof Peter Fleming




Prof. Peter Fleming
Professor Peter Fleming

Peter Fleming is Professor of Work and Organization at Queen Mary College, University of London. Among other things he studies how contemporary patterns of work have colonized evermore aspects ofpeople’s lives, and the ways they struggle to reclaim their time. He uses the term ‘biocracy’ to conceptualize novel forms of power that integrate ‘life itself’ (or bios) into the corporate control process. He has written numerous books including Contesting the Corporation (2007, Cambridge University Press) and Authenticity and the Cultural Politics of Work (2009, Oxford University Press). His latest book is Dead Man Working (with Carl Cederström, 2012, Zero Books), which the philosopher, Simon Critchley stated, “What has work done to us? Cederström and Fleming's brilliant dark and witty book tells us the truth. Working in our sleep? Dressing up as infants? Deprivation tank addiction? Fitness centrers? Suicide? Email? If you didn't already know what work has made you become then this book might have a devastating effect on your life."

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Host: Jennifer Martin
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
I’m Jennifer Martin.  Thanks for joining us.  Today’s guest opens his book Dead Man Working with a startling proclamation.  I quote:  Even its most ardent supporters admit that capitalism died sometime in the 1970s.  All attempts to resuscitate it failed.  Yet strangely now that it’s dead, it’s become the only game in town.  More powerful and influential than ever.  Peter Fleming is Professor of Organisational Theory at Queen Mary College, University of London.  He has been told that his 2012 book on how work has seeped into all aspects of our lives should carry a health warning.  He describes workers in the modern world as standing watching the horizon waiting as the sea recedes and builds for its final fateful tsunami.  But the dreadful wave never comes, leaving us with more of the same, day after day until we die.  Reading Dead Man Working is like discovering you’re living in a real life version of the 1999 science fiction action film The Matrix.  It’s a clear wakeup call to those seduced by the religion of work.  But what is a cog in the machine or the zealot to do once it learns its true place?  Here to talk us off the ledge of an existential crisis Professor Fleming says there are ways to work and live without going mad.  Peter, thank you for joining us. 

PETER FLEMING
Thank you.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Look first of all, your comment that capitalism is dead but we continue to worship a dead God, how so?  And look, does it make this God any less real if we believe and perpetuate the cycle?

PETER FLEMING
I think we still do believe in it but our belief structures are a lot less than they used to be.  For example in the heady days of Fordism when we had factories and we were industrialising, we used to believe in work as an ultimate cultural ideal, something that we identified with; something that we thought was a cultural and social good.  But today that’s waned.  We almost are hitting a legitimacy crisis around work.  I would say also the corporation and also more generally capitalism itself, we don’t really see it as the cultural good like we used to see it.  Nevertheless it’s the only game in town.  And so we’re living this strange irony, this strange paradox if you like.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So what evidence do you have of the organisations themselves or the people high up in the organisations not really believing in capitalism?

PETER FLEMING
Well I was really, really surprised through my research and a lot of which is in the book we’re talking about, that, you know, if you go into the very bottom rungs of an organisation you kind of are going to expect people to be a little bit cynical, a little bit sardonic about the virtues of work, the virtues of the organisation.  But what we were surprised by is that it seems to spread right to the top.  In fact the person that thinks capitalism sucks, to use the terminology, might as well just be the CEO of a large firm as much as someone at the very bottom.  
So it seems to be quite rife right throughout the social hierarchy.  Even though people might not say that officially, we got underneath the veneer, if you like, of many firms and we were just really surprised about how little people believed in what they were doing, but nevertheless having to pay the mortgage.  Not a very nice state of affairs.  Also a negative side of work that we don’t think really gets talked about for obvious reasons.  We just wanted to talk about it a little bit more.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So your use of the description of the tsunami which is by Franco "Bifo" Berardi, it’s undeniably powerful.  If I can quote him:  The sea recedes leaving a dead desert in which only cynicism and dejection remain.  So what is it do you think in this analogy that so captured for you the desolation of the modern worker?

PETER FLEMING
I think what was really interesting about that analogy or that metaphor of the wave was this kind of sense that, you know, all of the old social structures and institutions that we used to believe in such as the family through to the virtues of a career seem to have receded.  And on the horizon was this all-coming end, the wave, the tsunami.  We thought that really captured this kind of, not even cynical, but post-cynical society in which we don’t even believe in our disbelief any more.  We don’t even believe in our cynicism any more.  It’s a kind of a cultural malaise that’s very pervasive right through the workforce.  
So we tried to use that metaphor, but as we say in the book, you know, the metaphor works until the wave comes, because in his story which can be found on YouTube and it’s very poetic and very powerful, the wave comes along and wipes us away.  So we’re waiting for an end, a terminus to this kind of seemingly unending cog in the machine lifestyle that we have.  We argue that, you know, the wave might not actually come.  So we’re waiting there.  We feel that there is nothing left to really hold onto and the wave might not actually come.  That makes our predicament even worse because, you know, we want it to end but we can’t end.  Therefore we find ways to escape.  A lot of those ways aren’t particularly pretty.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Peter, in your book you unpack what you say is the mythology of capitalism.  The way we see it as something that’s fluid, dynamic, full of creative possibilities or the way it’s been presented to us.  What do you mean when you say that this is the ironic communist underbelly of capitalism?

PETER FLEMING
Well I think that from the research and the interviews we’ve done and the discussions with a whole bunch of workers, it seems that the mythology of capitalism is one that it itself is the creative flowing entity that creates wealth.  What we’ve found is that a lot of the time and certain institutions in particular the corporation, people have to work around the rules to get things done.  They have to be innovative and resourceful almost against the firm, almost against the rules of economic rationality.  They don’t really work anymore.  They have to work around in communal ways to get the job done well.  So we call this the ironic communist underbelly of capitalism because capitalism seems to ride upon and depend upon this kind of almost non-capitalist communal underside that is never really kind of acknowledged officially, but is nevertheless such an important part of so many organisations.

JENNIFER MARTIN
There’s also something you call the crucial ideological function that the fantasy of non-work plays.  So imagining ourselves elsewhere when we’re trapped in our nine to five or let’s face it, nine til nine job, you’re saying that only binds us tighter to that which we seek to escape?

PETER FLEMING
Yes, yes.  I think that what I would call neo-managerialism which is the latest kind of, I guess, trend in management thought and how to manage and motivate and to make workers like us productive, is this kind of conspicuous reliance on non-work, be it bringing photos from a holiday into the office; be it thinking about another budget airline holiday; be it various types of escape.  So non-work plays a very important role, I think, in maintaining our overworked lifestyle to the point where it gets even quite ridiculous.  For example, in the factories of China, in some of the big factory towns, they are very, very kind of humanitarian.  They have gyms.  They have yoga classes.  They have all sorts of signs of non-work.  The only catch is they never get used.  So they’re kind of a cruel reminder of what could be but they’re never used.  I think that’s kind of an extreme case of how non-work is so important in maintaining an overworked kind of lifestyle that we see amongst so many today.

JENNIFER MARTIN
This is Up Close.  I’m Jennifer Martin.  Our guest today is Professor of Organisational Theory at Queen Mary College, London, Peter Fleming.  Now Peter, you talk about this move to claiming leisure, capitalism claiming leisure.  Indeed, claiming the personal for the work space.  That’s a major shift of power.  So just when do you think our individuality became such a valuable work commodity?

PETER FLEMING
That’s a very good question.  There’s a number of reasons why this has happened.  I would argue that it became such an important thing probably with the crisis of neo-liberalism or neo-liberalist ideology itself in which basically, you know, it can’t organise itself.  It’s a very disorganised and inefficient and wasteful system.  So when that crisis occurred, among other things, it needed us to organise it.  That’s when you see self-management becoming very important.  That’s when you see personal relations at work become very important.  So I think they’re self-organising capabilities that we all have suddenly become important.  So we see individuality become important then.  
Also the types of jobs we do now are very different to the ones that we used to do when we worked in factories screwing on bolts.  Today our work is, a lot of it is communication.  A lot of it is social intelligence.  A lot of it is meetings and able to emote and talk with people.  That type of work is difficult to switch off from because it’s actually part of our bodies, right. And so what we find is that work begins to creep into evermore facets of our lives when we are unable to switch off at five o’clock because we are the job, rather than the job just being something we do among other things, like it used to be.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Is this what you mean when you talk about the virus of being at work?

PETER FLEMING
Yes.  I think so.  It’s an emotive term, but the idea of something being virtual.  So work used to be very confined and limited to a certain space and time.  It was organised like that for a very important reason, because we hated it.  So you had to set up workplaces that were akin to prisons to keep people there, to be disciplined, regimented etcetera, etcetera.  
Today work is a little bit different.  It seems to have escaped the factory and has kind of become part of our everyday lives, our bodies.  And it’s kind of akin to a virus in the sense that it’s virtual.  It’s not really tangible.  It’s not something concrete that we just do like we used to do in factories.  Therefore that makes it very pervasive and insidious.  It creeps into ever more aspects of our social relationships even to the point where, you know, some economists are saying treat your family as a workplace, treat your family as a market, because that is the most efficient way to organise your resources, scarce resources.  So it’s getting quite ridiculous at the moment in the sense that we’re even dreaming about our work.  So it’s kind of escaped the factory and it’s kind of like a Frankensteinian monster in that respect.

JENNIFER MARTIN
This is a perfect time for you to talk to us about team building.  In your book you give a rather hilarious but at the same time deeply disturbing example of an office sing-along.  Could you explain that example to us?  So what’s going on here in terms of perpetuating the capitalist ethic?

PETER FLEMING
Sure.  Well, the case relates to a call centre that I worked in as part of the research for this project.  One thing that this call centre was not going to do was it was not going to say to its workers, you know, this is a great job.  You’re going to be excited.  You’re going to be thrilled.  You’re going to be engaged.  They were upfront.  They said this is probably going to be one of the most boring jobs you’ll ever do.  And your customers are going to abuse you etcetera, etcetera; however, we’re going to be different.  We’re going to try and make the environment around the job fun.  We’re going to try and inject some life back into the job.  
So they came up with a whole array of ways to try and do that, some of which were a little bit puerile and as you said, a little bit scary.  That involved us all standing in a circle and singing The Rainbow Connection by Kermit the Frog from The Muppet Show.  So we were all singing The Rainbow Connection and we’re grown adults.  We were feeling very, very ridiculous but the team building manager was convinced that this was going to make us enjoy what was otherwise a bad job a little bit more.  Of course, it backfired completely.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Look, this brings me to what you say is the greatest fear of managers.  You say it’s presenteeism, being present only in body with every other part of you being far, far away.  Unfortunately in that hideous exercise you had no other way of being except in the moment singing.  So can you explain this fear of this presenteeism?  You talk about it’s why every child knows the smile and have a nice day from a customer service worker is, you call it fundamentally creepy.

PETER FLEMING
Yes.  I think that what we’re trying to say there is that the presenteeism is a situation in which managers get very frightened, because they want someone who’s going to emote and be socially intelligent with those customers and with those co-workers that they’re working with; they want to be switched on; they want the attention switched on to their job.  They want the person to be present basically.  Presenteeism it’s quite different to an old form of resistance which was absenteeism.  
Absenteeism is where you just don’t turn up to your job.  You throw a sickie, to use every day language.  Presenteeism is where you turn up to your job but you just sit there and you’re vacant and you go through the motions and you do the bare minimum and wish you were somewhere else.  You begin to have sexual fantasies.  You begin to think you’re on a holiday somewhere.  You begin to think about rebelling.  You begin to think about all sorts of, sometimes sordid, ways in which you could be spending your time.  As such you’re there in body but not in mind.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Then you say that imagining ourselves elsewhere only binds us tighter to that which we seek to escape.

PETER FLEMING
I think so.  If we get through another day, if we get through another year of an overworked lifestyle and overworked kind of way of life, a form of life if you like, through pretending we’re somewhere else or with escape fantasies or escape ideologies, then I think then it allows us to cope, right?  It allows us to cope in a way that binds us probably and connects us even more to the overproduced lifestyles that we have.  So I think that these escape fantasies are very, very important.  Not only fantasies but actually modes of escape as well.  I think in the book we talk about a deprivation tank chamber organisation here in London in which workers who are so overworked can’t turn off, go and spend a nice hour in a deprivation tank in which all of their senses are shut down.  We call these tanks of death because they were initially invented to get as close to non-being as possible.  And we think that’s indicative of what we’re really getting pushed to do now in order to escape an ideology that seems to be actually part of our bodies.

JENNIFER MARTIN
You’re listening to Up Close.  I’m Jennifer Martin.  We’re talking about the myth of capitalism with organisational theorist Peter Fleming.  So Peter, in order to understand your theory, we need to come to grips with why people work.  Now I suspect the fact that this question seems so evident points to part of the problem, doesn’t it?

PETER FLEMING
Yes it does, it does.  There are a load of reasons why we work.  The most obvious one is that we need to pay the bills.  Then we have other reasons that are not so kind of related to simple economic issues.  We work because we think that’s the best thing to do.  We work because we have a fear of not working, which I think is very, very important.  Some of the people that I’ve spoken with dread a holiday.  They dread the week-end because they don’t know what to do with their time.  We work for a whole bunch of reasons but what seems to be really important today is the way in which work is being detached or delinked from what we used to think were concrete socially useful outcomes.  We seem to be doing made up jobs, doing made up things.  
And there seems to be something non-instrumental in a lot of what we do, a purposelessness if you like.  So it’s that intangible, that disconnection from say something very physical, something very physical related to survival or related to concrete economic necessity.  Our work seems to have been delinked from that.  So it’s this kind of, if you like, a non-stop inertia is a term that others have used, a non-stop inertia in which we don’t know what to do so we just keep going and going and going, almost in a circle.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Peter, just how much of this argument can be dismissed as a bourgeois gripe session in the sense of we have too much time and money and education on our hands?

PETER FLEMING
I think that’s a very good question.  I gave a presentation on this book and these topics.  The person came back to me and said, you know, well at least we’re not the rat catcher of Mumbai, which was particularly considered the worst job in the world.  Being a rat catcher I think would be pretty awful.  So I think that’s right.  I would respond to that to say well, in some ways it’s a little bit of a double bind in the sense that we either put up with these rich but miserable lives or the alternative is to be a rat catcher in India.  I think that neither could we be justifying kind of a depressing work ridden life by arguing that at least it’s not a third world factory job in a sweat shop.  Well, the second’s not good either but neither is the first.  So in fact their argument often gets used to justify so many kind of extreme ideologies in our western societies, particularly the virtues of work and the virtues of office work.  Also the virtues of jobs that we don’t really see much kind of meaning in.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So Peter, what are the alternatives to the way things are?  Are you talking broad societal change or small daily decisions by workers that somehow claw them back independence and self-respect?

PETER FLEMING
Well I think that, you know, the book is a critique.  And it is a deliberately negative view just to kind of balance the books because so many of the things we read today tell us how wonderful work is and how without work we wouldn’t be able to be called kind of good citizens.  So it’s a deliberately negative view.  But what I would argue is that we’ve kind of become obsessed with this kind of chimera of work, this mythology of work.  We seem to be chasing it for reasons that we’ve forgotten about.  That obsession has meant that we’re kind of in a worker society in the worse sense of the term where just everything revolves around it.  We’re wedded to our jobs.  So the positive side of the book, I guess, the recommendation would be twofold.  
First of all, it is a societal issue.  In other words, trying to deal with these issues of stress and overwork and kind of workers lifestyle as an individual, oftentimes leads to self-destructive outcomes.  Oftentimes, it is very, very difficult to achieve without some sort of kind of policy backing.  So I think it’s a societal issue.  But what I would recommend to individual workers and I’ve done this and I’ve kind of tried to try it on myself because I admit I’m a workaholic, so there is an autobiographical element to this.  What I’ve tried to do is kind of de-work, de-work our relationships.  De-work ourselves.  That is basically find time.  Claim back our time.  Capitalism always did and always will work by sucking up our time.  Labour work hours, productivity is a temporal time issue.  So basically reclaiming our time; repossessing our time.  
But that’s not enough, because if you think about it, you know, we all have time away from work.  We all have our holidays.  We all kind of do find our spare free time.  What I was really surprised about in our research is that how many people did not know what to do with their time; how many workers and employees were afraid, were afraid of that time to the point where they absolutely dreaded a holiday.  They absolutely dreaded a week-end.  So it’s not only reclaiming our time, but also thinking about our time in a different way and a way that isn’t linked to having to do something.  As the great poet Charles Bukowski said, sometimes all of us just need to go to bed for four days.

JENNIFER MARTIN
That’s a lovely quote.

PETER FLEMING
It’s a beautiful quote.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Peter, thank you so much for joining us today on Up Close.

PETER FLEMING
Thank you very much.  It’s been very nice talking with you.

JENNIFER MARTIN
We’ve been speaking with Professor of Organisational Theory at Queen Mary College, London, Peter Fleming, about the pervasive malaise of capitalism in our lives and psyches.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia.  This episode was recorded on Tuesday September 11, 2012.  And our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I’m Jennifer Martin, until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close. We're also on Twitter and Facebook. For more information, visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Copyright 2012, the University of Melbourne.


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