Thursday, 3 September 2009

All work and no play makes Jack a dull culture

As I write this I'm sitting in the draughty old dining room of Stately Fish Manor, debating whether to whip up another two cups of South American coffee in the cafetiere. I haven't eaten as yet; I should probably get around to that sometime soon. Especially because a patch of undeleted junk mental code from my teenage anorexic days is chattering away that if I hang on for another seven hours, it'll have been a whole day since I last ate something OMG. Bloody annoying, though to be honest right now it's only coffee I crave. Maybe I've broken through some crack in the genome, and mutated into the world's first human with an entirely caffeine-based metabolism. God knows it's plausible, given the amount of the stuff I get through. Or maybe I'm just so hyper-caffeinated I haven't yet noticed I'm hungry.

Today's main task was going to be writing out an application for a Library job at a local university, but that will not happen now, because I looked at the hours on offer. The best job, the one with the most hours, in fact actually the only one that could be done anything like full-time, is a five-to-midnight shift. Five o'clock to midnight every night, week in, week out. Aside from the fact that's going to make it very hard to attend gigs, there's transport to consider: last Metro from Newcastle leaves before midnight. Last bus to where I live from Heworth leaves just after eleven. The only alternative is to cripple myself financially by paying for a taxi home every night, or to cripple myself in both wallet and liver by hanging around the late-night bars then walking the streets like David Thewlis in Naked during those last dark interstitial hours when the bars are shut and the cafes aren't yet open, before finally getting on the earliest bus home and going to sleep at the crack of dawn. No thanks: I may like reading about vampires, but I'm past the age where I'd really like to be one.

There is a deeper appeal about that kind of shift though, and it's what I call the Jack Torrance Factor. You'll recall that in The Shining, Jack accepts the job of caretaker at the Overlook Hotel because, among other things, it's a quiet gig which'll give him time to get some writing done. This, in the past, was one of the unspoken perks of this kind of job: it was dull, uninteresting and involved anti-social hours, but it would give you some time away from the hurly-burly in which to write your novel. As long as you turned up and were on the scene to do what was required when necessary, you were free, during the longeurs of the job, to do what you wanted with the time. There are whole novels and corpuses of poetry out there which were written by people when they were theoretically at work but had nothing to do, and not just at the low-pay, menial end of the spectrum either. TS Eliot was a banker. Wallace Stevens was a lawyer for an insurance company. We can't know exactly when they were working, but it's a good bet that at least some sections of The Waste Land or Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird were written during empty hours at the office desk.

They probably wouldn't have gotten away with it today, though. The modern workplace is a Calvinist treadmill where the worker is expected to be (horrible phrase) on task for every minute that they're present, even - especially - when there is nothing for them to actually do. I once worked in an appalling job at a call-centre for a retail operation which is now (as proof that karma does work sometimes) a shadow of what it once was: my job was to take calls from impoverished parents already killing themselves by paying for plasma-screen TVs on hire-purchase, and convince them to dig themselves further into debt by signing up for the company's credit card. It was the kind of job which slowly warps the soul and which seemed to have marked the management with all the outward and visible signs of an inner and invisible gracelessness: they were, beyond doubt, the ugliest people I have never met. More than once, I forced myself to suppress an urge to ask them what they were doing there, and whether they actually thought Jabba the Hutt's palace was going to guard itself.

But what made it worse, what turned it from a merely bad, mind-numbing job into some Kafkan mental torture, was the fact that there were long periods during which no calls were coming in, and in which we were expected to do - nothing. We couldn't talk to each other. We couldn't read while we waited. We couldn't write. Even though there was actually nothing that could be done during these temporal lacunae, it was considered vitally important by the management that we should be in a state of perpetual readiness, never knowing the day or hour when, like a thief in the night, a harrassed mother-of-seven from a council estate in Romford would phone up placing a bulk order for Lonsdale hoodies or Lacoste polo shirts, but ever watchful, ever vigilant. And ever, it need not be said, bored.

Filling any of this dead time with writing was strictly verboten, even should the result of that writing turn out to have been as good as 'The Burial of the Dead.' Nothing I ever wrote was that good, but I was forbidden to try it anyway. The managers there were not a particularly literate bunch, their collective devotion to Heat magazine notwithstanding, and I think they disliked writing even more than reading, in part because they saw it as a standing rebuke to their own ignorance, and in part I suspect because, in some small, ever-suspicious part of their reptile brain, they feared I was writing about them. The fact that I usually was writing about them doesn't make their attitude acceptable, though I admit that is a rather nice distinction.

One can't really blame them on a personal level, though. Good and faithful servants of an increasingly managerialist culture, they were just doing their job, and any capacity to question had been beaten out of them long ago in the extended process of soul-annihilation that the job entailed. That's what I like to think, because the alternative is that they had always lacked the capacity to question their role, and didn't really care to, either. One of the saddest things about the world is that that second explanation is probably, in fact, more plausible.

The greater fault lies with the culture that grants such people legitimacy. As pointed out by Adam Curtis in his excellent documentary series The Trap we live in a culture where we no longer trust ourselves. We live in a culture which believes that unless a worker is on-task every minute of the day, they can't be working, and that the only way to make people stay on-task is to task other people with the job of supervising them. There have always been hierarchies at work, but never to the extent that we have them today. Go into any modern workplace and you'll see an inverted pyramid of supervisors, team leaders, leadership supervisors, leadership supervisor team leaders, assistant managers, deputy managers, branch managers, assistant general managers, general managers, etc etc, not to mention byzantine structures of 'line management' in which it sometimes seems like everyone's watching everyone else. Right-wing cretins like to bash the public sector as if it's the only part of the workforce that engages in this stupidity, but in my experience the private sector is just as good at erecting needless levels of authority in order to keep an eye on the workers below.

The problem with these structures is that they provide a natural home for the worst kind of employees, smug careerist types with no real sense of insight or humanity, just a relentless reptilian urge to get on. To move up the ladder. These people aren't particularly interested in doing a good job. For them, it's all about promotion. If you want loyalty, they say, buy a dog. (Weirdly, in my experience a lot of these people actually have dogs. Make of that what you will.) They don't have time to waste hanging around and learning how to do a job properly. They have presentations to give, people to impress. Everything becomes subordinate to their irresistible rise to the top, and if you actually refer to their career in those terms they'll take it as a compliment and completely miss the Arturo Ui reference.

And the only way they can complete that irresistible rise is by showing their superiors (who are themselves all obsessed with how they, too, will get to be King of the Mountain) how great a job they're doing. And this is where the train runs into the buffers, of course, because actually these people can't prove that they are doing a great job in any legitimate way, because these people aren't necessary.

If you're at the coalface, you can prove that you're doing a good job really easily. If you make things, you either make them well and quickly, or you don't. If you sell things, you either sell a lot of them or you don't. If you drive a bus, you either turn up at stops on time or not. Simple.

If you manage people at the coalface, though, you can't prove you're doing a good job so simply. In fact you depend entirely on the people underneath you. In this situation what you want is for everyone to be doing a terrible job, because then there'll be something you can do. But what if they aren't? What if, like most people in most jobs most of the time, they're doing a perfectly good job and things are ticking over and stuff's getting done? How the hell are you going to impress your boss in that situation? How are you going to actually justify yourself being in that position, come to that, if everything's working perfectly well without you?

This is where you have to initiate schemes to improve things. To raise productivity. To go the extra mile (only managers can go the extra mile and have it be a good thing. Go an extra mile as a bus driver or a postman and you'll be sacked for deviating from your route.). And this is where the relentless drive to get and keep people on-task sets in. You might suggest the use of keylogging software. You might start an incentive scheme. You might agitate for the introduction of some meaningless management fad like the pseudoscientific quackery of Six Sigma. But whatever you do, you must do something. If it ain't broke, at least pretend to be trying to fix it.

In this situation, the people beneath you - the people actually doing the job - become your enemy. They are the ones holding you back. They are the reason you haven't advanced up the ladder. Because they haven't been working hard enough. They haven't been on-task enough of the time. You must make them work. You must keep them on-task. And you must keep them on-task even when there's no task to be on. If necessary, you must make them pretend like they're working.

This is not a work culture which produces healthy workers. It is a culture which produces sick drones who plug away at jobs they know to be bullshit week in, week out, and try to blot out their deep, soul-gnawing sense of frustration in what off-time they have with bad food, bad booze, bad drugs and bad media. This is a work culture which kills truth and breeds lies like mutant rabbits. And the biggest lie of all is that by following the nostrums of this culture, by increasing productivity and keeping everyone on-task all day, every day, we create a happy and vibrant workplace in which everybody has a chance to grow.

You want to imagine the future? Imagine a call centre in which everyone sits around staring straight ahead, blank-eyed, in total silence, every ounce of original thought in their minds slowly calcifying into a carapace of mean-minded, envious prejudice, forbidden by managerial gatekeepers who make the Morlocks look like decent human beings to show any sign of thought, of dreams, of life, on the off-chance that someone might call to buy a three-piece suite.

And if that isn't what you want, imagine better. But remember not to do it while at work. Wouldn't want you going off-task, now, would we?

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