What if we are always on the job?

It has been less than a month since reporter Shauna Hunt’s famous confrontation with a group of sexist jerks outside of a Toronto FC soccer game. (In case you missed it, see the fairly extensive CBC report, including a link to the video here.) The bros were banned from the games of all MLSE (owner of TFC) franchises for one year. (Whether missing a Leafs season counts as “punishment” is another story.) There was speculation about the filing of criminal charges (e.g. Causing a disturbance) although I haven’t seen any reports that charges were actually filed. But at least one – the one who tried to defend the initial incident by saying it was “f__ing hilarious” and “you’re lucky there isn’t a f__ing vibrator here” – was identified via social media and as a result fired from his job at Hydro One.

Flash forward to a case, made public by CBC News yesterday, where an employee of Northern Pulp in New Glasgow, NS, was fired for complaining to the mayor about racism in the community. There are some differences in the two cases. Arguably, a statement like “[a particular rural Nova Scotia community] is the Mississippi of the north,” said to a mayor, is more obviously a political claim than “[a particular statement] is f__ing hilarious” (let alone the vibrator comment). There also may be more truth to it. Still, I can’t help but feel that the two are connected. Perhaps not in a causal sense, but rather in revealing something about contemporary society, and the dangerousness of its mix of ubiquitous surveillance, precarious employment, and pervasive branding.The point of ubiquitous surveillance, assumed at least since Jeremy Bentham dreamed up the panopticon, is that it tends to make people engage in more self-policing. But as he expresses in CitizenFour, Edward Snowden’s exposure of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs was motivated by the concern that “self-policing” would also mean the stifling of political dissent. In this context, it is important to remember how many political changes, that are now widely accepted as sensible, were driven by movements that were at the time seen as dangerously subversive – the US civil rights movement being just one obvious example.
The desire to break the law – for an individual not to fully internalize social authority as vested in the law – is hardly pathological. But being able to act on the desire to break the law requires a certain degree of security. In some cases, it is security grounded in privilege: you know that you are unlikely to be caught, or that the consequences will not be too severe. Given what many reporters subsequently said about the pervasiveness of such harassment, it seems plausible that the ex-Hydro One employee wrongly judged that he had just this kind of security. In other cases, there is a kind of moral security that comes with knowing that you are doing the right thing, whatever punishments may be inflicted on you.At least with respect to the former, a generalized condition of precarious employment is important (with some obviously being in more precarious situations than others). Most obviously “precarious employment” as a general descriptor means an increased reliance on short-term contract work in the economy as a whole. But it also means the dismantling of various protections, built into labour law, that apply even to workers in non-“precarious” jobs. And it means employment contracts are settled in a context where opting out of the labour market is increasingly difficult (tightened eligibility requirements for (un)employment insurance, for disability benefits or other forms of social assistance, increasingly expensive education, etc.) And, perhaps least obviously, the context includes an economy and socially accepted “standard of living” that is increasingly financed by personal debt, so that the vast majority of workers are only one or a few missed paycheques away from financial ruin and its associated perceived social costs.

The third dimension is the phenomenon of pervasive branding. On the one hand, this refers to developments in the contemporary economy where a company’s “brand” is increasingly important. The company’s name and logo represents a financial asset that has a measurable value, one that is backed by the company’s public reputation. Like all capital assets, these are built up by labour. Just as corporate marketers and spokespersons can build up the company’s reputation, and thus add to the brand asset, so too can an employee who publicly does something disreputable be seen to creating a real financial liability (hence the morals clauses that are frequently explicit in the employment contracts of public figures). And while “brands” are often thought of as a distinctively late-modern phenomenon, as in this article which describes the 1960s as the “Cambrian explosion” of brands, they have a longer history, which begins with the physical marking (burning and scarring) of flesh to make bodies legible as property.

Social activity today is highly individualized, and it is increasingly common to see the phenomenon of branding thought about and practiced at the individual, not just corporate, level. Precarious workers, who once had nothing to sell but their labour power (or “nothing to lose but [their] chains,”) now have their “personal brand.” And make no mistake: (personal) brand management is a constant task. (For more on this, see Alison Hearn’s excellent “Meat, Mask, Burden: Probing the Contours of the Branded Self” (unfortunately paywalled)) The constant refrain, especially to youth, to be more reflexive (self-policing) in their social media activity is a reflection of this. A kind of scrutiny applied to current or past indiscretions, that used to be reserved for politicians seeking high office, is now presumed to apply to anyone seeking anything like a middle-class career, or even just a tolerable social life. Thus the old-fashioned separation of “personal” from “work” activities no longer obtains, because anything that you do, on the job or off, may diminish the value of your, and your present or potential future employer’s, brand.

Personal branding as a kind of self-commodification seems troublesome enough, particularly if we recall the mutilation that is required to make living bodies legible as property. Ubiquitous surveillance and a precarious employment economy just seem to make it all the more necessary to engage in it, and to engage in it constantly. And if we are constantly providing an outward performance of a particular brand of ourselves, well, Vonnegut’s Mother Night puts it well:

‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’

All this seems to undermine the possibility for a kind of moral security, dependent on an inner resolve that King called “self-purification,” that makes principled resistance to authority (aka political dissent) possible.

Compared to Hydro One, the Northern Pulp case seems to give these questions a more explicitly political twist. Here the damage is not to the cultural capital that is built up in the company’s brand, but to the company’s political capital. The dismissal letter posted on the CBC story states in part: “you have tarnished the image [of the company] and undone a lot of work that the company has been doing to build relations with our local officials.” The implications that this has for the expression of political dissent (about concentrations of economic as well as state power) seem rather ominous.

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