Working in a supermarket
I am working as a carry-out in a supermarket. It's
an extremely boring job. My job is to push carts of groceries to
the parking lot for the customers, unload them, and then return
with the empty carts. A moving belt between the market and the parking
lot, non-stop if it's really busy. The 'product' is our service
which actually serves nobody but the profit system.
Yet our service is more than a meaningless and absurd pseudo-product.
It is a purposeful device of consciousness-manipulation. What? This
sounds paranoid? It is hard to believe that a being who is regimented
in the organized life of the commodity society and assimilates its
mentality can ever revolt against the system. But this is exactly
the concept ingrained in all of our institutions today including
the supermarket. Through participation in institutionalized activities
which are always permeated by bourgeois values people
are forced to believe that the existing reality is the only reality
and thus commodity society secures for itself survival.
We have always been talking about a critique of everyday
life as a way of refreshing our sensitivity towards humanity
in a people-killing culture. Now I find it urgent to write something
about the supermarket as I see it, as a member of grappling with
my immediate everyday life.
The most significant feature of the supermarket for me is that
it is a reflection of the larger society's hierarchy, it is a miniature
entity of authority-relations.
First of all, the job classsifications are so structured that everybody
is related to others either by domination or subordination or both.
Not only is this self-evident of private ownership, assuring the
position of the owner as the head (I happen to work in a supermarket
that is not part of a chain and thus the big boss is less abstract),
but the whole hierarchy structure from the boss down adheres to
the management's concept of efficiency. Of course this concept of
efficiency is based on an arbitrary division of labour, and reinforced
by a merit system: one has more merit the higher up one is in the
hierarchy, and this, in turn, corresponds to the degree one is willing
to submit to the hierarchial establishment and its mentality.
This formal structure gives rise to two crucial aspects of the
working life: the nourishing of the bossing ethic that is
human relationships based on domination and/or subordination
and the submerging of peoples' consciousness into this process so
completely that they take this social reality to be the only possible
frame of reference. One has to give up one's own judgements of any
human relationship and in fact learns to repress the slightest awareness
of sharing in order to be successful in this game. Yet also important
and reinforcing of the bossing ethic is the fact that the boring
and unfulfilling work aggravates a tendency in every individual
to shift the burden onto his or her co-workers. And this is only
possible when one attains a certain prescribed level in the hierarchy
which legitimizes this bossing around.
The lowest grade - the underdog - are the carry-outs whose work
is most unfulfilling and, in fact, deadening. Both because of their
position in the hierarchy and in the division of labour as the last
part of the production process, there is no one below that for them
Above them comes the temporary section workers, section workers
on a trial basis whose work is to put stock up on the shelf. They
do not have a permanent section to work on and work when and wherever
they are needed. They have one of their legs in the carry-out world
which means they only work on the sections when the business is
quiet and enough carry-outs are stationed at the front. They have
the privileges and are supposed to learn to manifest this
privilege of shifting the burden of carry-out to the carry-outs
when helping at the front. They are supposed to help with packing
and call for carry-outs when the customer is ready to go. But as
I have said, they have one of their legs in the underdog world.
When it is real busy they have to do carry-out too.
Next comes the permanent section workers who are responsible
for a particular section. They stock shelves all the time. The difference
between the carry-outs and the section-workers (both permanent and
non-permanent) is not in terms of money, just power. The section
workers are able to avoid the deadening work of a carry-out. This
does not mean, however, that the section work is fulfilling. They
value their privilege as section workers because they have a greater
chance to work alone and thus lessen the sense of being bossed around
all the time.
On top of these boys are the section managers who are
directly responsible to the boss. They are quite a different world
of people, totally absorbed by the bossing ethic. They are the mini-boss
because they cannot but see themselves as part of the pillar of
the hierarchy. They are responsible to keep the boys
in line and to.straighten up their discipline. Not only do they
train the boy to do the work but also refresh their
sense of responsibility to the rules of the bossing game.
The super-boss is of course, the owner himself and as the name
implies, his work is to boss around.
This is the main body of the supermarket (except for the women
on the cash register). The whole structure is a hierarchy with many
miniature hierarchies inside systematically co-ordinated. The individual
reaction to this structure is to see oneself inherently competitive
with others, manifested in one's degree of attained power to dominate.
So the carry-outs always seek to go into the section work. The non-permanent
section workers then hope to became responsible for
one section under the section managers and so on.
Every individual's attitude towards the bossing game may be a bit
different but one thing is for sure: one is always either victim
or executioner. The different attitude is a result of one's position
in the hierarchy and one's past experience (e.g. family background).
So the big boss and the miniboss attitude is much less
obscure. Their position in the hierarchy which was probably achieved
after a long time in the bossing game, and their way of perceiving
their position is clearly seen in every little bit of their ethical
To illustrate the combined effect of position in the hierarchy
and past experience on one's attitude towards the bossing game,
I'll describe the situation of two immigrants.
First is a new immigrant from Lebanon who is working as a carry-out.
Very probably it is because of his experience as a humiliated new
immigrant that he exemplifies the most illustrative personality
of a captive being. He never refuses any work passed onto him; he
even rushes for wok; he simply accepts his position as an underdog.
The second one is an old immigrant from a Carribbean country who
has moved to the status of a mini-boss and who shows the worst of
all bossing attitudes and being bossed. This may probably be a result
of the same experience of a humiliated being who tries to reassure
himself by humiliating others. Bear in mind what Fanon has described
in Black Skin White Mask: the phenomenon of some blacks
who are trying to be more white.
Another thing which is very revealing is that the bossing attitude
is most expressedly manifest in the section workers. They are the
ones who most despise the carry-outs. This is probably because of
the fact that they have just begun to enjoy the privilege
which the bosses have alotted to them and thus try to flourish their
newly acquired sense of responsibility. Of course, there is the
fact that it is the best and most legitimate way of getting away
from the boring work of carry-out. One very revealing example: a
high school ninth-grader who works as part-time has recently been
promoted informally by being sent to work in a section.
He is really overjoyed in ignoring his ex-fellow carry-outs and
bosses them to do carry-out. He also never forgets that he's an
in person among in section workers. One
can also observe his hyper-awareness of his new status-symbols:
the duster and personal price stamp of a permanent section worker.
It's sad enough to see a ninth grader trying to be a boss. Yet it
is even more terrifying to realize haw completely our society is
organized along this principle of authority; along the idea that
the purpose of one's social activities is to dominiate. More than
that, how many people accept this idea and thus worsen the situation
by upholding the authoritarian structure through their own activities.
Thus, the structure becomes self-sustaining.
Then, the point I want to make is clear and simple. Capitalism
has never totally depended and is now probably far less dependent
on its open oppressive law and order machine. We know by just looking
around that our sense of reality comes mainly from the social activities
we participate in. The managers of capitalism in exerting their
power over the organizations of our social activity, succeed to
a certain extent in manipulating our consciousness.
The supermarket is a case in point. The employees below the management
level are all young people in their teens, either working part-time
after school or full time after quitting school (only to find it
the same boring life). These people have grown up in similar environments
of one institution or another, disciplined along the line of the
larger social discipline notably the family and the school.
To work in the supermarket, or any other workplace, is only to magnify
the detail of authority since the work job in our society
means to young people, a more calculated responsibility. It becomes
the next stage towards total adaptation into the regimentation of
the established reality. Therefore it is not just a problem of making
more pocket money for the part-timers, or shooting around before
getting into a better job for the full-timers, it is very much a
part of the conditioning of young people into the smooth functioning
of the machine of modern capitalism and their acceptance of its
underlying principles. To see carry-out and shelving as necessary
to make a living and to be willing to put up with the long hours
of boring work just to refresh oneself in nightly entertainment
and weekend drinking (whether this is refreshing or refreshing
for what? is also interesting to ask) is almost to accept
life as it is, to accept one's being dominated by the system.
The service mentality has become a science. One of the stupid things
about bourgeois sociology and the social sciences in general is
their superficial perception, always followed by claims of intellectual
neutrality and objectivity. That is why they call the post-industrial
society a service-oriented society, meaning by it that the service
industries have become dominant in the commodity market. By not
probing into the deeper implications of the nature of service
in our society they have already made the value-laden assumptions
of a status-quo morality . All that is left for the bourgeois world
to do, already well-practiced at theorizing social reality in its
own image, is to fit people into the only existing reality.
Some customers didn't really want us to carry-out for them; their
fate was to find a service forced on them. As to those who have
already integrated into the existing world of things, they merely
approve the service with an ever-decreasing praise, becomimg less
and less aware of the nature of the service. It never occurs to
them that it is based on the degradation of a human relationship
between us and them into a commodity relationship between this disintegrating
being the carry-gut as a dying object of a production process
and the customer who falsely believes that he or she is consuming
something in a completely normal fashion, as much a part of the
universe as the sun going up and down.
I don't mean to be pessimistic and say that every one of us working
there is a puppet being hopelessly conditioned. In short, I don't
mean social determinism; the very fact that we are human, having
a history of history-making convinces me against any kind of determinism.
I understand history-making in the sense that we are capable of
transcending the social environment shaping us, plus the fact that
I see everywhere within every one of us a seed of rebellion against
the dehumanizing nature of our society. The mere fact that carry-out
or section work is a deadening job has made us rebel against it
in one way or another. I see co-workers pissing around or working
for just one day and then quitting or taking lots of time to do
anything, thus slowing down the whole efficient process, and so
on. Of course, more is needed for a revolution but I think this
is the starting point. To be aware of the deadening nature of our
social activities and to see how it has created its own antithesis
in every street corner and workplace is very convincing.
Published in Volume 3, Number 1 of The
Red Menace, Winter 1979.
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