Boredom at the office
A 1973 leaflet from the Brisbane Self-Management Group. An oldie, but some of it still relevant today. I intend to comment on office work and whether self-management is the key to subverting it later.
BOREDOM AT THE OFFICE
“It’s nine o’clock. Once again I’m at my utterly boring, monotonous job. My eyes wander to the grey-haired man near me. This office has drained thirty precious years of his life. I can expect the same.”
It should be obvious that white-collar workers spend most of their time avoiding work. A quick look around the office shows people actively doing as little as possible – reading books under the desks, talking to others, or taking long, slow trips to the toilet. It seems universally true that office workers have little interest in their jobs. They spend almost the entire day dreaming of life outside the office. They try to overcome the reality of the situation by rationalising it or slipping into fanciful escapisms.
FOUR VARIATIONS ON HOW TO GRUDGINGLY ACCEPT DRUDGERY OF OFFICE WORK
1) WORK IS A NECESSARY EVIL. One common reaction to boring and meaningless activity is to assume that work in itself is the basic fault and should be avoided. People accept that watching T.V. or drinking beer at the local are the only alternatives to the oppressive work environment. However, ‘Revolution Seven and ‘XXXX’ and eight hours of boredom do not add up to a joyous and fulfilling existence. Man has a basic need to work – to engage in creative and productive activity – activity over which he has control.
2) IT’S ONLY FOR EIGHT HOURS A DAY. Many think they only have to worry about it all between eight and five. But work has a dominating influence on peoples lives. People attempt to cement their superficial relationships. Their relationships are superficial because their work does not carry the weight of people initiating and controlling their own activity. Work is trivial and pre-determined. There is no creative co-operation from which trust could be built. People try to compensate for this lack of solidarity by building group identity and using meaningless differences like colour to define another group as separate and inferior. Because people feel powerless to change their situation, they are full of resentment, and they hurl it around blaming or scape-goating an identifiable group. Only by having a positive alternative to submission at work will workers abandon their racism. Moreover, because attempts to change their situation are frustrated, workers believe they cannot run their own lives. They either identify with a leader in an effort to feel potent through him, or vie for leadership positions to exercise power over others. In the family, they hold authority over wife and children for these same reasons. Where love, equality, co-operation and trust should prevail, i.e. both at home and at work, indeed anywhere people gather socially, there is instead irrational authority, clearly expressed at work and more subtly carried over into the home and other institutions in society.
3) IT COULD BE WORSE – I MIGHT BE DIGGING ROADS. Office jobs and industrial work have one thing in common – the utter drudgery. A person who has to dig roads and trenches shares the same continual feeling of hopelessness that office workers experience in their jobs. At least such labourers have plenty of fresh air and sunshine. Considering the layout of most offices, they bear close resemblance to a prison, and exhibit great lack of regard for people who must use them. Almost nothing is as hideous as the thought of spending thirty or forty years in such an office.
4) IT STINKS BUT DONT TELL ME – TELL THE BOSS OR THE UNION. Because people dont initiate work (office work does not flow from the needs or impulses of workers) nor control work, they feel alienated from the content of their work and powerless to alter the form of work. This leads to a belief in their own inability to change their situation and a belief in leaders (bosses and unions) to change it for them. But bosses and unions cannot alter things to suit people’s needs; they dont even know what such needs are. The re-organisation of work and all aspects of life and society can only be accomplished by the activity of workers trying collectively and equally to determine the best way of satisfying their needs. The means of carrying out this task is workers’ management of production, organised as workers’ councils on shop-floors, in offices, in factories and throughout whole industries and all society.
WHAT IS WORKERS’ MANAGEMENT?
Workers’ management does not mean that individuals of working class origin are appointed to replace today’s managers. It means that industry is managed by the collectivity of the workers, employees and technicians. Affairs affecting the shop or the department are decided by the assemblies of workers of the particular shop or department concerned. Routine or emergency problems are handled by stewards, elected and subject to instant recall. Co-ordination between two or more shops or departments is ensured by meetings of stewards or by common assemblies. Co-ordination for the factory and relations with the rest of the economy are tasks for the Workers’ Councils, composed of elected and revocable delegates from the various departments. Fundamental issues are decided in general assemblies, comprising all workers in a factory.
Workers’ management will mark the end of labour’s domination over man, and the beginning of man’s domination over his labour. Each enterprise will be autonomous to the greatest possible degree, itself deciding all aspects of production and work which do not affect the rest of the economy, and participating in decisions which concern the overall organization of production and social life. The general objectives of production will be decided by the whole working population. The chosen plan will ascribe to each enterprise the tasks to be accomplished in a given period, and the means will be supplied to them for this end. But within this general framework, workers of each enterprise will have to organize their own work. A study of the demands of workers and their informal struggles indicates the lines along which the reorganization of production will develop. Externally imposed standards of work will be abolished, co-ordination of work will take place through direct contacts and co-operation; the rigid division of labour will start being eliminated through rotation of people between departments and between jobs.
There will be direct contact between machine and tool-using departments and machine or tool-making departments and factories. This will result in a change in the workers’ relation to the instruments of production. The main objective of today’s equipment is to raise production through the subordination of man to machine. When the workers themselves manage production, they will start adapting equipment not only to the needs of the work to be done but mainly to their own needs.
By the conscious transformation of technology, man will become master of his productive activity. Work will cease to be the realm of necessity. It will become a field where man exerts his creative power. Present science and technique offer immense possibilities in this area. Of course, such a transformation will not take place overnight, but it must not be seen as lying in the very distant future. These matters will not take care of themselves, but must be fought for as soon as the working class takes power. This will be the start of socialism.
No more bosses and bureaucrats – let the workers rule.
SELF-MANAGEMENT GROUP – FOR A SOCIETY BASED ON WORKERS’ COUNCILS.
N.B. Contact with S.M.G. is through the Red and Black bookshop, shops 21 and 22, Elizabeth Arcade, Elizabeth St., City.
4th May 1973.