Extract from Dead Man Working, Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming

Oct 29th, 2012 | By | Category: Articles


A bracing thesis to consider on your tightly regulated lunchbreak..... Gathering examples from Žižek to Woody Allen or film adaptations of Stephen King, the book is mordantly entertaining. Stephen Poole, The Guardian

Cederström and Fleming, like a present day Virgil, bravely venture into an underworld full of shades whose entire lives have been put to work, who throw themselves heart and soul into the job, and who are constantly implored by management gurus to “be themselves,” “feel free,” and “have fun” in the office. This fascinating and dark little book is an excellent and disturbing introduction to what increasingly large realms of the world of work have become. Michael Hardt, Co-author of Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth.

What has work done to us? Cederström and Fleming’s brilliant dark and witty book tells us the truth. Working in our sleep? Dressing up as infants? Deprivation tank addiction? Fitness centrers? Suicide? Email? If you didn’t already know what work has made you become then this book might have a devastating effect on your life. Read it! Simon Critchley, Hans Jonas Professor, New School for Social Research


‘Mainlining’ Life into Dead Labor

The screwball characters of the child/adult’s television programme The Muppet Show might seem far from the stupefying atmosphere of the modern corporation. But capitalism has become strange. While work is still something we would rather avoid like the plague, the tyrannical boss has been replaced by another figure: the passive aggressive Human Resource Manager. Armed with the latest kitchen-sink psychology, and behaving like David Brent from The Office, convinced that his real talents lie in performance art, this new architect of corporate culture attempts to convince workers that they should enjoy their own exploitation. Their aim is clear. Not only to make us do something we would rather shun, but also make us want to do it.

Picture the scene: On a chilly Monday morning a group of twelve call center workers feel a twinge of anxiety as they leave their ‘call-pods’ and file into a large meeting room. The firm – let us call it ‘Sunray Customer Service’ – are well informed about the alienating nature of labor, especially when it comes to the mind numbing, depressing and frequently humiliating job of a call center slave. But Sunray management had a clever idea. Knowing that it was only when its workers had checked-out (either literally or mentally) that they begin to feel human again and buzz with life; knowing, also, that call center work requires high levels of social intelligence, innovation and emotional initiative; knowing all these things, Sunray had to find a way of capturing and replicating that buzz of life … on the job.

Capitalism has always destroyed the thing it needs the most. But when it is the very humanity of the employee – his or her capacity to communicate, think creatively and be social – an array of hired occupational scientists have attempted the impossible: to inject life into the dead-zone of work.

Managers at Sunray were rabid enthusiasts of this human technology. It encouraged employees to treat the call center as if it was their home or a late night party. As the training manuals and motivation talks relentlessly reminded them: Most call centers treat their employees like battery hens. Not Sunray. We are free rangers and respect that everyone is different and special.

The mantra repeated in an Orwell-meets-Oprah manner was ‘Just be yourself!’ All of those elements of personality that were once barred from work – sexuality, lifestyle, fashion tastes, obsessions with pop stars and health food – have now become welcome, if not demanded, on the job. If you are gay, that’s great! If you hate capitalism, wonderful! If you are of Nepalese ethnic descent, perfect! For there is no better call center worker than one who can improvise around the script, breathe life into a dead role and pretend their living death is in fact the apogee of life.

Back to the Sunray meeting-room on that cool Monday morning. The workers looked at the floor anxiously, feigning smiles but knowing that something pretty awful was about to happen. They were told to form a circle as Carla – the ‘team development leader’ – prepared to deliver a pep-talk, which would have been funny if not for the sadistic glint in her eye. ‘As you all know, life at Sunray is more than just a job, it’s all about fun and enjoying yourself, here you can really shine and be yourself!’ The workers shifted nervously as she bleated on, ‘And it’s all about color and fun … OK guys, lets do it!’. ‘Oh Jesus’ muttered one worker with blue hair and an anarchist tattoo on his wrist. Carla hit PLAY on her outdated CD player and we all began to sing Kermit the Frog’s only Top-10 single: Why are there,

so many, songs about rainbows, what makes the world go round … someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers and me …

This team building exercise, which one of the authors observed when studying new methods of exploitation in the service sector, seems remote from the large-scale power shifts reshaping a waning late-capitalism. However, we suggest that it is indicative of how novel forms of regulation are focusing on those moments of life that once flourished beyond the remit of the corporation. Like a desperate junkie that resorts to ‘mainlining’ (injecting straight into the vein) to sustain an unsustainable condition, moribund-style capitalism is attempting to revive its flagging fortunes by turning to that which it has always killed … living labor. We know from Marx’s prophetic study of capital that living labor is its central source of value. This is defined primarily by movement and sociality, our creation of a common world – our world – that is rich with reciprocal social relations, networks of co-operation and mutual aid. This is the ironic communist underbelly of capitalism. On the outside, capital may seem fluid, dynamic and full of creative possibilities, but that is part of its mythology. In fact the opposite is evident once we free our selves from the mentality of work. Marx is clear on this point. What to us appears to be a creative movement – the essence of life itself – is in fact a cunning ruse fabricated by the frenetic and goal orientated nature of speed-labor. Despite all the hustle, nothing really changes. Only when the sleeper awakes and soberly considers life from the position of non-work does the figure of the dead man working come into sharp relief. Perhaps what is different today, however, is the crucial ideological function that the fantasy of ‘non-work’ plays. Ironically, imagining ourselves elsewhere only binds us tighter to that which we seek to escape.

Book cover

Extract taken from Dead Man Working, published by Zero Books May 2012

ISBN: 978-1-78099-156-6, $14.95 / £9.99, paperback, 83pp

Author Bios

Carl Cederström is Lecturer in Human Resource Management at Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University.

Peter Fleming is Professor of Work and Organisation at Queen Mary College, University of London.


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One Comment to “Extract from Dead Man Working, Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming”

  1. john hunt says:

    am I the embodiment of dead man working? Superficially, far from it. Work from home, with a view, have control….
    But it grinds me down. i’ve stopped taking any pleasure in it. I’m lucky in that I’ve found replacements, and don’t get pushed out altogether. But this was one of the books that prompted me to take the step. thank you.

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