The writer William Burroughs made the theme of “control” central to his work. He spent most of his life obsessed with the idea that he was under the insidious control of outside forces, and by extension, so were we all. His life can be seen as a quest to free himself from control: through drugs, through Scientology, and, most of all, through writing. There is no doubt that one reason why his works resonate with readers is that Burroughs was on to something important. Unfortunately, however, his diagnosis of the source of control was badly mistaken. Like the American libertarian he was, Burroughs believed that it was the government, which to him represented the forces of collectivization out to subordinate the free individual, that was trying to control us. Thus he was repelled by the socialism of the Soviet Union and even the social democracy of the Scandinavian countries. He feared that the more government there was, the closer we were to the kind of total control represented by fascism. [I might add that Burroughs’s obsession with the individual seems to have translated into an egotism that denied any social responsibility. He was a crack shot, yet he killed his wife with a pistol while playing a “William Tell” game and with a weapon he knew had an inaccurate sight. Then he quickly abandoned his son Billy, who was raised by Burroughs’s parents in Florida. Billy soon enough took to drugs and alcohol, but his father showed little concern. When Burroughs brought a teenage Billy to Tangier, the poor boy was constantly harassed by Burroughs’s gay companions for sex. Ultimately Billy had to have a liver transplant, one of the first performed by the legendary surgeon Thomas Starzl. The new lease on life soon gave way to old habits, and Billy destroyed the new liver as well. He died still a young man. Maybe fatherly concern and love would not have helped the son, but we will never know.]
There is good reason to fear the government. Modern states, especially the United States, with its vast military apparatus, have an immense capacity to ruin any individual’s life. Should the U.S. government want me to disappear, I have no doubt that it could easily make this happen. And the U.S.S.R.’s government put dissidents in prisons, mental hospitals, or a grave. But what Burroughs failed to grasp, at least in the case of the United States and all other countries organized economically like it, was that it is the organization of the economy in a capitalist form that is the fountainhead of the control exerted over us and which is the source of our foreboding, our alienation. What makes us human is our self-conscious interaction with non-human nature and with other people who are, of course, a part of nature, as we go about producing that which satisfies our needs and dreams. This production, or work, is fundamental to our being and is the source of our remarkably complex social organization. Our understanding of what we are doing, our grasp that we alone can reshape the world around us and imagine ever more diverse and sophisticated productive activity, gives us not just food, but our art, literature, and science.
Burroughs was lucky to be able to create his art, though he struggled mightily to do so, because in creation he was acting like a full human being. Most people, however, are not so fortunate. In contemporary society, human consciousness and activity have made it possible to produce enough output for every person to live in material comfort and also have enough time to develop his and her creativity as fully as possible. Yet, those few who control most of the world’s productive forces secured this control and maintain it by systematically denying it to everyone else. And in the process, they thoroughly stifle our capacities.
The most basic source of their control is their monopoly of access to employment, which means essentially access to the property of others. Here capitalism is far worse than gathering and hunting or feudalism. So called primitive peoples naturally combine themselves with the world around them to produce the means of their own existence, and even serfs had the right to use part of the land of the estate. Today there is no right to use the land or tools or machines and buildings unless you own them; otherwise you have to depend on the willingness of some employer to hire you. It is incredible that in societies capable of producing goods in abundance, people have no guarantee whatsoever that they will get any part of the output or be able to develop and use their skills. Once employment is secured, control over our capacity to labor is owned by the employer; our labor power is the employer’s property. We have no right to work as we see fit; if the way we work is not pleasing to the employer, we can be fired. There are myriad ways in which employers tighten the screws at work: they herd us into factories, the better to observe us and make sure our noses are to their grindstones; they take our skilled labor and divide it into details or subtasks, making it easier to replace us and harder for us to grasp the totality of the entire work process; they study us with clocks and cameras, devising the “optimum” way in which each subtask is to be done and compelling us to work in exactly this way; they devise diabolical techniques to make us work harder, such as speeding up the assembly line, cutting the size of work crews or teams, and reducing the materials available to us, but expecting us to maintain the level of production (and publicly humiliating is if we do not); they invent ingenious carrots and sticks to habituate us to the whole system of robbing us of both the output we produce and our dignity. Many volumes have been written about these “control” mechanisms. Suffice it to say here that, while employers do not always succeed in implementing them and workers often resist, it is inevitable that the bosses will try mightily to make work as machine-like as possible and their “hands” appendages to those machines. The result is, as Adam Smith put it (with no grasp of the fact that he was describing labor in capitalism rather than labor in general), work requires the laborer to give up “his tranquility, his freedom, and his happiness.”
Employers have spread their tentacles outward from workplaces to the larger society—to the government, to the schools, to the media, toward every aspect of social and cultural life. They try to pressure other social spheres, through the power that their wealth and control over society’s productive forces gives them, to enhance the domination over the labor that is the ultimate source of this wealth and power. Today, when the organized strength of working people is weak, employers have come to all but operate the government. President Obama has already caved in to corporate pressure in opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act and national health care, and his economic recovery program has put working men and women at the back of the line. For all practical purposes, Goldman Sachs and its brethren are running the country. And Obama was supposed to be a friend of the working class. The nation’s schools, responding with typical cowardice to the No Child Left Behind law, have made the schools even more craven to their corporate masters than one would have thought possible. How anyone comes out of our public schools (much less our private religious schools or home schooling) with any capacity to think critically is a mystery to me. Economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis showed long ago in their classic account of U.S. education, Schooling in Capitalist America, that the student traits that were rewarded with good grades were perseverance, obedience, punctuality, identification with school, and similar virtues, which turned out to be exactly the same characteristics used by employers to reward employees. With schools teaching to the test, operating classrooms as if they were business enterprises, and thinking of students as consumers, is it possible to imagine that the traits Bowles and Gintis found negatively correlated to grades—creativity, independence, and aggressiveness—have suddenly found favor with teachers? As for the media, the ways in which we are controlled and the reason why do not often find their way
into our newspapers, television newsrooms, magazines, and movies. A discussion of the police-state quality of many of our workplaces is less likely than the suggestion that space aliens have secretly infiltrated our brains.
One consequence of the absence of freedom at work is that workers seek freedom elsewhere. For the vast majority, this is a futile search because the grotesque material poverty that they suffer precludes much enjoyment of any kind. For the rest, it has become increasingly difficult to be free of the market and wage labor outside the sphere of direct employment. Every nook and cranny of family and community life have been invaded by the market and made subservient to it. We are left only with the impersonal buying of consumer goods, which has implicitly become the sole purpose of life itself. As the late capitalist Malcolm Forbes put it, “whoever dies with the most toys wins.” Forbes was one of those in control, however, so easy for him to say this. And he doesn’t mention that we are every bit as controlled as consumers as we are as workers. Mass marketing has achieved a level of sophistication so great that most of us don’t even know that we are being manipulated.
Our experiences in our workplaces, in schools, with the government, with the media, as consumers, and with almost every other institution with which we come in contact, help to shape our thought processes in such a way that we behave most of the time in ways that reinforce the control that employers need if they are to make money. Of course, there is the usually invisible threat of violence lurking in the background in case more subtle measures fail to elicit the desired behavior. But ordinarily these are unnecessary. People have become so habituated to workplace control that they think of it as normal. In the work “team” pioneered by Japanese automobile companies, team members have, at management’s request and insistence that this would somehow empower them, actually time-studied one another, knowing full well that time studies mean only two things: fewer workers and more intense labor. Consumers seldom complain no matter how shoddy the product or how bad their treatment. A student of mine once said to a friend, in reaction to something I said in class that the student know to be true, “I can’t believe what Mike said,” meaning that it was more comfortable for him to believe what wasn’t true. Students would take down whatever I said and never ask a question, good preparation for mindlessly doing what their bosses tell them to do.
How can this control be combated and finally vanquished? If we say, as I believe to be the case, that only an organized working class has any chance of success, we have to realize the daunting nature of the task at hand. The system of control is extraordinarily powerful, so much so that the workers’ own organizations, the labor unions, have come to resemble to a frightening degree the corporations against which they are supposed to be fighting. The most discussed labor leader in the United States, Andrew Stern of the Service Employees International Union, has structured his union along strictly corporate lines, right out of instructions from the management theoreticians who write for the Harvard Business Review. He thinks not in terms of an energized, empowered, and class-conscious rank-and-file but in terms of dues units, union density, and adding value for employers. He sees members the way Frederick Taylor saw workers: as means to a corporate end but not as an end in themselves; they are to be controlled so that the union can get larger and Stern and company more powerful. Karl Marx said that the capitalists, by taking actions that would ultimately intensify class struggle, were digging their own graves. This may be true. But when you see working people blaming immigrants for their difficulties; when you see working people not understanding that Medicare is a government program; when you see working class parents sending their children off to kill Iraqis and, in the case of reservists, going themselves; it is hard not to think, when you are feeling hopeless and the optimism of the will gives way to the pessimism of the intellect, that workers are busy making coffins—for themselves.