Some time ago I read two books ‘back-to-back’. The first was ‘Going Postal; Rage, Murder and Rebellion in America’ by Mark Ames, a history of workplace and school ‘rage’ shootings in the US, the second, ‘Horizontalism’ edited by Marina Sitrin about the revolutionary eruption of mass direct democracy in Argentina during the crisis there in 2001-2. What struck me about these books, was the correlation between them, in terms of the psychology of social power and powerlessness, despite them being on two seemingly disparate subjects and set in different cultures.
The first book (Whose title is derived from the phenomena of a rash of rampage shootings by USPS postal workers- which has come to have a place in American slang for ‘going crazy’) detailed the many explosions of violence in schools (most infamously Columbine), offices and factories by students and workers who were deeply affected by institutional and direct bullying and perceived injustices – alienated individuals who were outwardly, relatively ‘normal’ but whom the FBI, educators, psychiatrists and the media portrayed as deranged ‘lone nuts’ who ‘snapped’. Time and again the specialists tried, but failed, to profile them in any meaningful wayto demonstrate that they all had a shared psychopathology. This was done with a view to supposedly prevent killings in the future… Ames found that while the mass shootings appeared to be arbitrary (and at no point does he condone or glorify the murders), he discovered that quite often the shooters targeted those in authority, or those fellow workers or students who had made their lives a misery, as bullies, grasses or tormentors. These ‘disgruntled employees’ and ‘unhappy students’ turned into the angels of their own form of vengeance hunting down those they felt to be their oppressors…
The author (largely putting aside the issue of US gun laws) records how blame was almost always, inexorably shifted to the psychology of the perpetrator, without ever considering any social factors. For instance, US High Schools are well known for their cultures of extreme competition, pressure to perform academically, and bullying- bullying which is tacitly accepted as part of the High School experience-indeed the school authorities more often than not, turn a blind-eye to it, play down its effects, even to the point where they are complicit in maintaining a hierarchy within the school as an ‘introduction to adult life’ with the enforcement of the ‘pecking order’, – with ‘jocks’ at the top, ‘fags’, ‘freaks’, ‘nerds’ and ‘losers’ at the bottom of the shit-pile. One school administrator describing it as ‘culturally normative’. This culture, was, initially never an issue during the investigation of mass killings- though bullying has only recently has it begun to be addressed in schools, but the perpetrators are still usually described as ‘evil’ or ‘insane’ as the authorities refuse to accept any critique of the environment where the killings gestated.
Ames goes on to detail the de-unionisation and mass ‘downsizing’ that happened during the Reagan-era, with the consequent loss of worker’s rights and conditions, the mandatory extra hours, the productivity hikes, shorter vacations, the fear of unemployment and the general impact that this has had on blue, and white,-collar workers from day-to-day, giving tyrannical supervisors or managers a free-hand to bully, terrorise, pressure, humiliate, observe and degrade employees in many and varied ways, from the very petty to the deeply serious; micro-managing the competent, verbally abusing them, ignoring health issues etc.
Ames also details the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich and the growing inequality in the US, how, bizarrely, ordinary workers idolise Reagan and other job-destroying, union busting, worker-hating millionaires, such as Jack Welch (who boasted he could squeeze ‘unlimited juice’ from workers), despite the huge pressures put on their fellow workers…
Ames then enters into an analysis of African-American slave revolts in the 1800s which were surprisingly far and few-between (despite understandable latter-day mythologizing), drawing comparisons with today, how the lack of collective resistance led to outbursts of spontaneous individual violence which were put down to ‘madness’ and the usual racial bullshit and subject to brutal punishment and repression, .
Southern Society was shocked and bewildered by acts of individual or collective,violent resistance because they could see no reason for them since their slaves appeared to be ‘content and happy’. This is hardly surprising since the majority slaves did not revolt against their bondage on a large scale (not even during the Civil War), partly down to habitual fear of their master’s wrath, but largely thanks to human adaptation, social conditioning, the creation of an ‘unconditional submission’, economic dependence and effective management techniques. Slavery was quite simply, by and large, the ‘accepted norm’ for both masters and slaves -even slaves that ran away from the plantation were described as being ill, suffering from ‘monomania’, and individuals and small groups of slaves who committed acts of violence against the slave-owner, their families or their overseers were treated as ordinary criminals,(though they were naturally subject to more extreme punishments than whites) and were not seen as rebelling against the system of slavery itself, or striving for freedom. The image we have today of slavery is one of a constantly simmering rebellion, whereas the opposite was true -a fatalistic acceptance and people ‘getting on’ with their day to day lives (which is not deny that revolts that didn’t happen, like Nat Turner’s in 1831, or that slaves were actually happy with their lot overall, as apologists and racists would have it).
Nonetheless, the slave-owning class lived in paranoid fear of open revolt, often seeing it where it did not exist, but they strove to ensure a docile workforce through the development of the science of slave management, to keep the slaves relatively healthy and contented, through recreation, reasonable living conditions, incentives, and an identification with the interests of the master-
“The master should make it his business to show his slaves, that the advancement of his individual interest is at the same time an advancement of theirs. Once they feel this, it will require little compulsion to make them act as becomes them” (Southern Agriculturalist IX 1836)
Ames makes an explicit comparison here with modern management practices-
“By means of this [pension plan] and other welfare practices, the Company endeavours to ‘take care’ of its employees throughout their working careers, and beyond. In return, it naturally expects employees to be genuinely concerned with the welfare of the business and to feel personally responsible for its reputation and continuing success” (AT&T employee handbook 1941)
-and the working conditions which lead some modern day wage-slaves to stage ‘rebellions of one’ ,since the above welfare practices have been so eroded in the US under Reagan, Bush, Clinton etc., leaving an atomised, conforming and powerless workforce at the mercy of their managers and of market forces…
‘The workplace is never free of fear-and it shouldn’t be. Indeed, fear can be a powerful management tool.’
(Wall Street Journal, “Manager’s Journal: Fear is Nothing to be Afraid Of”. Jan 27 1997)
Workers are simply reduced to being Labour Units, ‘variable capital’ and productive economic activity is seen as the benchmark of social normality- despite the fact that that norm is a de-humanising one by virtue of the profit motive and the complete and utter absence of democracy in the workplace, where workers are subjected to both managerial pressure and a form of infantilisation as objects of that management (see how a recent report on mental health in the UK, was couched in terms of productivity lost and gained-‘Mental ill-health costs £105bn per year’. The committee was headed by an economist rather than a psychiatrist).
In the US the murderous rage rampages are symptomatic of a system that alienates and exploits wage-slaves, but one that still expects them to be ‘happy, grateful workers’, where the opportunities for collective resistance have been all but destroyed, and are, as Ames relates, supposed to ‘get over it’ and to ‘move on’ as a way of dealing with social and economic pressures- including the bloody aftermaths of mass killings at High Schools and workplaces…Mass murder, suicide and the widespread use of anti-depressants are the fruits of this illusory ‘Have a nice day’ culture (as Burger King’s employee’s handbook stipulates in Rule 17- ‘Smile at all times’), and are all deemed, despite the occasional brief flurries of soul-searching in the media, to be acceptably ‘culturally normative’.
What happens when a crisis strikes and there is no option other than collective resistance as opposed to individualised misery? In ‘Horizontalism’ edited by Marina Sitrin, the experience of people during the 2001-2 collapse of the Argentinian economy, the subsequent social revolt and the creation of popular assemblies in workplaces and neighbourhoods reveals the depth of social conditioning, accumulated stress , and the toxic hierarchical relationships that Capital depends upon.
Argentina is an advanced capitalist market economy that suffered from a collapse of its currency as the state defaulted on its debts with the bankruptcy of many of its banks- society ground to a halt, millions lost their savings overnight or were made redundant as companies went bust and closed down- protests, riots and strikes swept over the country and a state of emergency was declared. The government fell repeatedly and thousands refused to vote or spoiled their ballot papers in protest at the political elite. Workers occupied their workplaces, from restaurants , hotels factories and clinics, popular assemblies sprung up spontaneously across the country to debate and formulate solutions to pressing social needs that neither the government nor business could meet…
This explosion of mass popular and direct democracy exposed people to an entirely new way of seeing society, their workmates, neighbours and the economy. People discovered that they were no longer ‘alone’- for the first time they were able to express and share their opinions, skills, feelings, ideas, concerns, fears, psychological, economic and social needs in a social space that was open to all, regardless of class, gender, race, sexuality or status- challenging egotism and encouraging participation, to be heard and to have their opinions valued. Needless to say this came as quite a shock and a revelation. The ability to make democratically arrived at collective decisions through open debate was something totally at odds with the habitual deference to authority that was the accepted norm, so much so that an entirely new set of linguistic values had to be tentatively formulated to express the new-found ways of relating to other people within the community and workplace.
The empowering nature of these autonomous assemblies improved people’s confidence, lifted their self-esteem and almost acted as a form of collective therapy to shed the corrosive, infantilising and demeaning old attitudes and behaviours that hierarchy demanded of them in ‘normal’ times, where managers and bureaucrats exercised the ‘soft violence’ of their social power by dismissing workers ideas as worthless or ‘insolent’ and by arbitrarily harassing, victimising or sacking them. In developing non-hierarchical ways to communicate, it is almost as if people consciously set about de-programming themselves, psychologically re-adjusting their minds and social relationships towards a totally egalitarian set of subjective, participatory, principles – effectively abolishing alienation, free from the stress of an ever-present, insidious, undemocratic and menacing authority:-
“One of the most marvellous things is not thinking solely about the future, and not turning your life over to someone who’ll guarantee the future for you. We’re about reclaiming life. It’s as if we’ve started living again and believing that, above all, our life and everything else that we transform belongs to us. That’s the most marvellous thing.”
They put the ‘social’ back into society, debating, co-operating and sharing with mutual respect- it wasn’t perfect by any means- assemblies could be manipulated and disrupted by gangsters, leftist party members and state agents, public gatherings would be dispersed by the police (because, living, real democracy is the ultimate threat to the system) – the alternative economic barter system was likewise sabotaged, (Though admittedly it also had problems of its own).
Sadly the Argentine revolution melted away with economic reforms, a new currency, elections and the return to the status quo…But at least it showed that another way of living and relating to others was possible. In the process of becoming truly social, truly human, people discovered their true sense of worth as people, free of the stupidity, greed and wilful blindness of bosses and politicians. They conclusively asserted and proved that Capitalism is merely a set of social relations, and not just an unequal system for the distribution of wealth.
It’s like the workplace joke- organisations are like a tree full of monkeys, the ones at the top look down and see nothing but smiling faces, but the monkeys on the bottom branches look up and see nothing but arseholes…
Just as the ‘Rage’ gunmen of ‘Going Postal’ demonstrate the destructive effects of dehumanisation, psychological isolation, brutal hierarchy, corrosive competition and a crushing conformity, ‘Horizontalism’ shows the opposite, that collective resistance is constructive, mentally liberating and socially healthy and that the inherited attitudes of mental slavery, both historic and modern can be overturned and effectively destroyed. What is variously described as ‘normalcy bias’, ‘operant conditioning’, or the ‘spontaneous consent’ as described by the Marxist Antonio Gramsci can be happily eliminated from people’s lives.
The freedom we are told we have now is a lie, the ‘democracy’ we live in is a lie, and the principle of ‘equality’ espoused by the state is a lie. There is no Democracy in any workplace; workers have little or no real power in their job, we are expected to accept that we are part of some sort of degrading Social Darwinist, animalistic, hierarchy with Alphas, Betas and Epsilons, we are subject to the whims and vile egos of people who quite often lack the competency they are supposed to have to wield authority and yet we are supposed to ‘respect’ them and not ‘answer back’. They rule through fear and psychological threats, they bank on us being submissive and compliant, accepting poor treatment and conditions, and not having a human voice -to ‘kowtow’ and be grateful to have a job.
Increasingly in the current crisis, capital is looking to ‘reform’ the labour market, but what they really mean is to regress or reverse it, so that the workforce becomes more ‘flexible’, meaning more pliant and submissive- in short they are looking to reinstate a deeper slave mentality, abolish effective opposition or resistance to a increased rate of exploitation… The question is, will the future be ‘Postal’ or ‘Horizontal’…or will we all remain ‘happy slaves on the plantation’?
“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”
“The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it’s profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theatre.”
THE RICH ARE OUR MISFORTUNE.