How I came to be exploited
After finishing my MA in Criminology in 2011, I made a (not unexpected) discovery. “Criminologist” isn’t really a job and so there are no jobs for criminologists. I also found out that preparing for a PhD is a lot of work, but not of the kind that anyone will pay you for.
I soon found a job working night shifts in a home for people with developmental and physical disabilities. I worked nights, which meant I started work at 9.30, went to bed between ten and eleven. I got up again at 5.15 and worked till 8.30, getting people up, washing, dressing and feeding them. It’s hard work that is even harder when you’ve not had enough sleep.
I work with people with developmental disabilities because it is one of most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I don’t think there is another job with such a time/hug ratio and, it’s nice when someone actually shrieks with delight when they see you. I also picked this work because it is so completely removed from what I do ‚in real life‘ – in the academic context. Or so I thought.
My own research is into the connection between morality and neoliberalism. Specifically I look at the belief systems of people who profit from social inequality. If you follow classical Marxist theory, the very existence of capitalist systems depend on exploitation. Someone (for example a member of the proletariat) is being exploited when his or her work is not adequately compensated because someone else (for example a member of the bourgeoisie) is pocketing the difference. Marx believed that the exploited would start fighting back eventually and strip their exploiters of their power.
Marx had underestimated the power of ideology to stop that from happening. In ‚The culture industry‘ Theodor W. Adorno described how the belief that individuals can be successful too if they just keep playing by the rules helps discipline people. “As naturally as the ruled always took the morality imposed upon them more seriously than did the rulers themselves, the deceived masses are today captivated by the myth of success even more than the successful are. Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them. The misplaced love of the common people for the wrong which is done to them is a greater force than the cunning of the authorities.“ Exploitation is made possible not by brute force, but by convincing the exploited that it will all work out for them in the end.
My little trip into the world of work showed me a very different kind of exploitation. Social workers, nurses and other professionals in the social sector are notoriously badly paid and overworked. Now, in times of cuts to welfare spending, this will get worse.
We, as those professionals, should be outraged. We are badly paid to do a job that people’s lives depend on. We do a physically demanding, stressful and sometimes dangerous job (at the time of writing I am sporting a palm sized black bruise on my hip from being pushed over, a bite-mark on my leg and several smaller bruises on my left forearm from trying to comb an autist’s hair) and are paid considerably less than than people in other fields.
I expected my colleagues to talk and think about these things when I started work. I expected them to be angry about the socio-economic circumstances that value them so little. Instead, what I found was mostly that they were angry at each other.
Resentment and the culture of self-exploitation
Anger and resentment permeated the place and the interactions I had there. When I came into work in the evening I would find the work diary a regular catalogue of complaints and accusation, often directly addressed to people (“X has been parking on out parking spot with her private car again. Y, why did you not buy any fresh milk yesterday?”) Page after page of petty complaints and little passive-aggressive stabs. The night-staff meetings consisted mainly of a long list of admonishments, often peppered with patronizing appeals to our sensibleness (“We all want it nice here, don’t we?”)
My personal interactions there were also permeated by this resentment. I constantly listened to long and desperate sounding rants about one co-worker or other (Usually someone from the night-staff or a temp) about how unreliable they were. How they called in sick too often. How they were apparently too stupid or lazy to fold clothes properly.
Most distressingly, I noticed myself changing. I’d be in a bad mood before even setting foot in the home. I’d go in looking for stuff that was wrong. I’d feel a pang of annoyance at even seeing certain people. I’d frequently think ‚Hey, that’s not part of my job‘ when someone would ask me to do anything extra, even something as small as tying someone’s shoelaces. This doesn’t mean I didn’t get along with my colleagues or that I ever had a fight with anyone. But there was always a certain tension in the air. Some black cloud of unspoken things looming in the background.
How does a climate like that arise? Why do a group of people who, presumably, all entered their profession because they want to help people and who are willing to work hard for comparatively little money start treating each other as if they were all selfish and irresponsible teenagers?
I think the answer to this question lies in what I’m going to call ‚the culture of self-exploitation‘. At first glance what is happening at my work does not fit into the Marxian idea of exploitation. My employer has not been privatized; no one is getting rich off our work. This culture is born out of the fact that institutions like the one I worked for cannot function without its employees making certain sacrifices. Two main factors make these sacrifices necessary. First, we work in places that always have to be kept running. We can’t close down for a few days if half the staff is sick. We provide 24-hour care to our residents. So we have to have people working 24 hours a day, every day. Secondly these institutions are often under-staffed and under-financed. This creates an unhealthy working environment that makes people sick.
When it is implemented perfectly, this system creates an atmosphere of permanent crisis. I’ve lost count of how many of my phone conversations with work have included the sentence ‚You’re our last hope, Grace‘. It doesn’t help that the people who do come into work have to spend a significant part of their time trying to cover shifts for people who didn’t show up. Trying to get people who are already too thinly stretched themselves to work even more is a truly shitty job. Being called upon to take on almost twice as many shifts as you originally were willing to, is also pretty shitty. Everyone ends up in a bad mood.
Why do we buy into the culture of self-exploitation?
The thing that fascinates me about my work-place is how the people I work with blame each other for making their work hard, rather than blaming the circumstances. Working conditions like these are not inevitable. The solution for these problems seem pretty obvious to me: if they paid their staff better, they might be able to attract better-qualified and more reliable people to work there. If they were better paid, workers could work less and live better, making them less likely to get sick. Alternatively, as they already know we are going to need more hours than the work schedule suggests we need more people to cover the shifts. Again, one of the reasons this is difficult is that it is hard to even get people to apply for them. These things should be obvious to everyone.
This is all very unfair and on a cognitive level everyone will agree with it. In addition, there seems to be little we can do about the current situation, and it is very unlikely that financing will get much better. Thinking about this is painful. It is uncomfortable and it makes us feel powerless. I believe this powerlessness is what makes us focus on each other in our frustration rather than confronting the truth. Clinging to petty grievances helps us believe that our work would be bearable if only the other people around us weren’t such idiots.
Another good reason to blame your co-workers for all your problems is that it makes you feel better about yourself. Working in the ‚caring professions‘ is not only under-paid it is also under-valued. The lack of respect my co-workers show each other is something that reflects societal attitudes. We all want to be recognized for the work we do. We want the appreciation of the people around us. We want to know we are valued. None of us really feel that. So why give confirmation to each other?
Self-exploitation as a disciplinary technique
Self-exploitation isn’t all bad though. It’s part of what keeps our system going. As long as we are busy blaming each other for calling in sick too often, we are not looking at the bigger question. We are not asking why we can’t just have enough staff to not be in a permanent state of crisis. We don’t question why the city of Hamburg is spending millions on the ‚Elbphilarmonie‘ while we can’t even hire enough staff to cover all our shifts. The culture of self-exploitation has to be seen as a disciplinary technique. It keeps us in line and stops us from thinking and doing things that might lead to social change.
A society must provide for its weak and vulnerable. It can either get rid of this responsibility by privatizing the relevant institutions. This brings its very own, very dramatic problems. If it is not willing to do that, then the state has an interest in keeping costs down and thus pays the people working there as little as possible. The culture of self-exploitation is a vital tool to get workers to go along with this system.
As workers in the social sector we must reflect critically on our own role in enabling welfare cuts and social inequality. There are no easy solutions to the problems described in this article. We cannot simply refuse to let ourselves be exploited. Social institutions have to be kept going at all cost. Not doing so would mean sacrificing the weakest of our society. But what we can do is face up to reality, even though it makes us feel powerless. That way we might at least manage to create a working environment that is not built on resentment but on solidarity.
I would like to thank Jean Lennox for editing this post for me.