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“Severance,” Identity and Work

split image of woman worrying

The following piece discusses the series Severance. I avoid specific plot details. But if you want to go into the show blind, stop reading now.

Severance follows a group of employees at Lumon Industries, a biotech company of unspecified purpose. The main characters have all received a surgery before starting this job. Referred to as the “severance” procedure, this surgery causes a split in the patient’s personality. After surgery, patients awaken to find that while they have factual memories, they have no autobiographical memories – one character cannot remember her name or the color of her mother’s eyes but remembers that Delaware is a state.

However, the severance procedure does not cause irreversible amnesia. Rather, it creates two distinct aspects of one’s personality. One, called the outie, is the individual who was hired by Lumon and agreed to the procedure. However, when she goes to work, the outie loses consciousness and another aspect, the innie, awakens. The innie has no shared memories with the outie. She comes to awareness at the start of each shift, the last thing she remembers being walking to the exit the previous day. Her life is an uninterrupted sequence of days at the office and nothing else.

Before analyzing the severance procedure closer, let us take a few moments to consider some trends about work. As of 2017, 2.6 million people in the U.S. worked on-call, stopping and starting at a moment’s notice. Our smartphones leave us constantly vulnerable to emails or phone calls that pull us out of our personal lives. The pandemic and the corresponding need for remote, at-home work only accelerated the blurring of lines between our personal lives and spaces, and our work lives. For instance, as workplaces have gone digital, people have begun creating “Zoom corners.” Although seemingly innocuous, practices like these involve ceding control of some of our personal space to be more appealing to our employers and co-workers.

Concerns like these lead Elizabeth Anderson to argue in Private Government that workplaces have become governments. Corporate policies control our behavior when on the clock and our personal activities, which can be easily tracked online, may be subject to the scrutiny of our employers. Unlike with public, democratic institutions where we can shape policy by voting, a vast majority have no say in how their workplace is run. Hence this control is totalitarian. Further, “low skilled” and low-wage workers – because they are deemed more replaceable – are even more subject to their employer’s whims. This increased vulnerability to corporate governance carries with it many negative consequences, on top of those already associated with low income.

Some consequences may be due to a phenomenon Karl Marx called alienation. When working you give yourself up to others. You are told what to produce and how to produce it. You hand control of yourself over to someone or something else. Further, what you do while on the clock significantly affects what you want to do for leisure; even if you loved gardening, surely you would do something else to relax if your job was landscaping. When our work increasingly bleeds into our personal lives, our lives cease to be our own.

So, we can see why the severance procedure would have appeal. It promises us more than just balance between work and life, it makes it impossible for work to interfere with your personal life; your boss cannot email you with questions about your work on the weekend and you cannot be asked to take a project home if you literally have no recollection of your time in the office. To ensure that you will always leave your work at the door may sound like a dream to many.

Further, one might argue that the severance procedure is just an exercise of autonomy. The person agreeing to work at Lumon agrees to get the procedure done and we should not interfere with this choice. At best, it’s like wearing a uniform or following a code of conduct; it’s just a condition of employment which one can reject by quitting. At worst, it’s comparable to our reactions to “elective disability”; we see someone choosing a medical procedure that makes us uncomfortable, but our discomfort does not imply someone should not have the choice. We must not interfere with people’s ability to make choices that only affect themselves, and the severance procedure is such a choice.

Yet the show itself presents the severance procedure as morally dubious. Background TV programs show talking heads debating it, activists known as the “Whole Mind Collective” are campaigning to outlaw severance, and when others learn that the main character, Mark, is severed, they are visibly uncomfortable and uncertain what to say. So, what is the argument against it?

To explain what is objectionable about the severance procedure, we need to consider what makes us who we are. This is an issue referred to in philosophy as “personal identity.” In some sense, the innie and the outie are two parts of the same whole. No new person is born because of the surgery and the two exist within the same human organism; they share the same body and the same brain.

However, it is not immediately obvious that people are simply organisms. A common view is that a significant portion, if not all, of our identity deals with psychological factors like our memories. To demonstrate this, consider a case that Derek Parfit presented in Reasons and Persons. He refers to this case as the Psychological Spectrum. It goes roughly as follows:

Imagine that a nefarious surgeon installed a microchip on my brain. This microchip is connected to several buttons. As the surgeon presses each button, a portion of my memories change to Napoleon Bonaparte’s memories. When the surgeon pushes the last button, I would all of and only Napoleon’s memories.

What can we say about this case? It seems that, after the doctor presses the last button Nick no longer exists. It’s unclear when I stopped existing – after a few buttons, there seems to be a kind of weird Nick-Napoleon hybrid, who gradually goes full Napoleon. Nonetheless, even though Nick the organism survives, Nick the person does not.

And this allows us to see the full scope of the objection to the severance procedure. The choice is not just self-regarding. When one gets severed, they are arguably creating a new person. A person whose life is spent utterly alienated. The innie spends her days performing the tasks demanded of her by management. Her entire life is her work. And what’s more troubling is that this is the only way she can exist – any attempts to leave will merely result in the outie taking over, having no idea what happened at work.

This reveals the true horror of what Severance presents to us. The protagonists have an escape from increasing corporate protrusion into their personal lives. But this release comes at a price. They must wholly sacrifice a third of their lives. For eight hours a day, they no longer exist. And in that time, a different person lives a life under the thumb of a totalitarian government she has no bargaining power against.

The world of Severance is one without a good move for the worker. She is personally subject to private government which threatens to consume her whole life, or she severs her work and personal selves. Either way, her employer wins.

Rent Crisis Responses

photograph of "Rent Strike" poster

While unemployment numbers continue to skyrocket due to COVID-19, many are left with no ability to pay their rent. Despite states issuing moratoriums on evictions, some landlords have ignored these directives and proceeded to evict tenants anyway. When challenged with the illegality of their actions, a number of landlords have antagonized tenants in other ways such as shutting off their power.

On June 1st, many courts have reopened and are now processing a backlog of evictions which threatens an estimated 20 million Americans to be evicted by September 1st. As service workers are among the hardest hit from job losses caused by the pandemic, some landlords have even asked tenants to provide a full year’s worth of rent payments in advance, evoking an ironic punishment for their being in a particularly vulnerable position.

The rent crisis that the country is experiencing has strained already tense relationships between landlords and tenants who have been voicing their frustrations online, expressing anxiety about how to navigate an unprecedented situation.

“But Landlords Have Bills Too”

One of the most common reactions to the current crisis has been to argue that while it is true that tenants are struggling, landlords are also in financially precarious situations because “they also have bills to pay.” This points to the fact that at least some landlords do not own all their houses, but are still in the process of paying the mortgage. The implication of this line of reasoning is that one should not manifest empathy towards tenants exclusively because landlords are also experiencing financial insecurity. It is factually true that landlords have mortgages to pay, but the argument in support of the “bills” argument paints only half of the picture. The fact that landlords have mortgages means that they cannot afford to pay for the house they purchased in full. Hence the mortgage, and the debt. In an ideal world, one would never want to buy what one cannot afford; no one enjoys being in debt. Yet a middle-class individual often does not have any other choice than buying property with a mortgage. This is all the more sensible when it comes to buying one’s first home. Having a shelter — a place to rest and protect oneself — is a vital necessity for survival. But the same cannot be said of a second house. Such a purchase represents an investment, one whose profit goes on top of what one makes with their own job. No one is required to make such investments. But if it is correct that buying a second house is an investment, then there is a competing response to the “landlords also have bills” argument: landlords may have made a poor investment. That is, they bought a property that they did not have to buy, that they could not afford to buy in full, nor as a mortgage. Investments carry profit margins as well as risks.

“Don’t Rent What You Cannot Afford”

One could respond by saying that if it is true that landlords should not purchase property they cannot afford, then tenants should not rent apartments that they cannot afford. But their situations are markedly different. As workers, tenants utilize their labor to gain the financial resources so that their rent can be paid for. And if it wasn’t for the raising unemployment due to the pandemic, tenants would continue to pay their rent we usual. It could be argued that instead landlords were never really able to afford their second houses by relying only on their financial resources. Proof of that is that landlords do not employ their own labor in order to pay for their second house. They rely on the labor of the tenants who rent their property in order to pay for it. If that wasn’t the case, they would not need to rent the property at all. But they do need to rent it in order to be able to pay it off.

But the necessity of renting should also be taken in consideration. If one moves to a new city for a job, for example, one must find a place to rent. And this problem cannot be obviated by renting in an affordable place or by working remotely. Affordable apartments are harder to find in cities that provide job opportunities, and working remotely is not always possible. Even for international workers, some visas for example (like the J-1) have a residency requirement. So while it is necessary to rent an apartment to live in, it is not necessary to buy a second house.

“But Landlords Provide Essential Housing”

Another argument is that landlords face an unjustified backlash because, after all, by renting properties they are providing essential housing. But this line of reasoning is incoherent by its own lights. To start, there is a difference between providing housing and commodifying housing. Usually it is not the landlord who builds the rented property but the construction company. Thus, technically, it is the construction company that provides the house, the landlord instead commodifies it — meaning, the landlord turns the property into a source of profit.

Let’s also pause on the term “essential.” Something is essential for someone when the lack of it endangers their survival. In this sense, oxygen is essential. Likewise, water and food are essential because one cannot survive without those. Going even further, some believe that healthcare is essential because without proper access to medical care, one may not survive. A shelter is also essential in the sense that without it, survival is at least made more challenging. Thus, landlords are correct in arguing that housing is essential but precisely because housing is essential, this would seem a point against housing being commodified. This of course is not to advocate that canceling rent would be the default solution. As some have pointed out, the issue of how to protect renters is complex and no solution is immune from problems. The point is more that it is not obvious that renters can afford their apartment less than landlords can afford their second houses. Given that renters have lower incomes and less financial stability than landlords, their ability to nevertheless be able to pay for their housing, which is often more than half of their income, should speak in favor, and not against, their being financially responsible.

This analysis should not lead to a confrontational attitude towards landlords, but rather it should be viewed as an opportunity to reflect on yet another issue that the current coronavirus pandemic has forcefully made even more evident. In a world where rents and housing prices exceed personal budgets, the need of more affordable housing is not simply a problem for the future but one that urgently demands our attention.

Should Pointless Jobs Exist?

Photograph of people at a booth in front of a partially obscured sign that says "Welcome Business Advisors"

Editor’s note: This article contains use of a vulgarity.

In 1899, Thorstein Veblen published “A Theory of the Leisure Class.” Veblen was a Norwegian-American economist who coined the famous term “conspicuous consumption.” Veblen argued that the ostentatious freedom from useful occupation and its symbols, such as excess possessions and elaborate hobbies, established and organized one’s power and status within a social hierarchy. Conspicuous consumption signals social status by displaying one’s dispensation from productive labour.  

One manifestation of such status for high-ranking persons (or organizations) is the proliferation of decorative underlings. These are “specialized servants…useful more for show than for service actually performed…[their] utility comes to consist, in great part, in their conspicuous exemption from productive labour and in the evidence which this exemption affords of their master’s wealth and power.”  

Veblen’s unflinching analysis contrasted with optimistic predictions for social and economic progress in his time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both Marxian and capitalist theories foresaw a reduction of labour in the future which would free up workers for self-directed, human-centred pursuits.  

Unfortunately, these prophecies have not been fulfilled. Marx’s proposed six-hour day was never implemented by Soviet regimes. Contemporary capitalism similarly shows little sign of diminishing work hours, flatly contradicting John Maynard Keynes’ prediction that the twenty-first century would usher in a fifteen-hour work week.  

Instead, Veblen’s anthropological observations have again become relevant. Labour has not been reduced commensurately to technological advances, in part due to an increase in service industries. David Graeber, in his recently published book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Simon and Schuster, 2018), notes that despite increasing automation of many fields, new service sectors have emerged. These include financial services, academic and health administrators, human resources and public relations professionals, managers, clerks, salespeople, members of traditional service sectors, and what Graeber calls the “subsidiary industries.” Subsidiary industries maintain service sectors by providing still more specific services, such as all-night pizza delivery or dog-washing, for example. All of these fall under the definition of what Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.”

A bullshit job, according to Graeber, is generally indicated by the secret belief of the person who does the job that their work is unnecessary. He acknowledges that this definition can be somewhat subjective – as “there can be no objective measure of social value.”  But Graeber expands his definition. He notes that ill effects to society would be felt fairly quickly if nurses, garbage collectors, teachers, mechanics, and even fiction writers were disappeared. But, he asks, would anything change – or change for the worse – if administrators, public relations personnel, hedge fund managers, subcontractors for subcontractors, sales representatives, telemarketers, and many service industries were eliminated?  

In making his analysis, Graeber highlights the inverse proportion between the social utility of work and its financial recompense in a move that is reminiscent of feminist economic critique (regarding the unpaid or underpaid work of women in health, education, and caring work). The most essential workers – i.e. those who do jobs without which society could not function – are generally underpaid and under-respected (with the notorious exception of doctors). In contrast, many of the “bullshit jobs” Graeber describes are well-compensated. This phenomenon could certainly be read in light of Veblen’s analysis that inessential workers are luxurious expenses designed to prop up the reputation of their employers, corporations, or clients.  

Graeber attributes this state of affairs to a still more disturbing explanation – class division to maintain the power structure of finance capitalism:

Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorized stratum of the universally reviled unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.).  

This account is reminiscent of that of philosopher Iris Young, who noted a “professional class,” i.e. those who benefit from the exploitation of the working class and yet are not a part of the capitalist class.  According to this part of the theory, bullshit jobs would function as a buffer between the capitalist and the working classes.

While many who belong to this “bullshit job” class could be considered as privileged relative to most essential workers (always saving the exception of doctors), the existence of bullshit jobs points to a spiritual malaise that Graeber discusses in his text. “How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?”

While Graeber and others point to power structures as the root cause of “bullshit jobs,” like Marx, he ascribes an ideological component that justifies them culturally.  The cult of work for work’s sake is one such cultural idea, which Graeber also links to social power structures as their root cause:

“The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger. (Think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the sixties.) And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.” (Graeber, page xviii).

While Graeber’s analysis of “bullshit jobs” deserves further analysis, this lens provides a deep look at the distribution of power, labour, capital, leisure, and prestige in contemporary economies. This lens strongly indicates that nineteenth-century observations on capitalism, classism, and consumerism continue to be relevant in theorizing and strategizing solutions to contemporary inequality and to the problem of alienated labor.

The Shifting Ethical Landscape of Online Shopping

An image of an abandoned mall.

Throughout the course of 2017, after a disappointing bottom line during the 2016 holiday season, Macy’s department store closed 100 of its locations nationwide.  Gap Inc. announced last year that it would close 200 underperforming Gap and Banana Republic locations, with an eye toward shifting greater focus to online sales.  Shopping malls across the country resemble ghost towns—lined with the empty façades of the retail giants that once were.

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Free Riders, Agency Fees, and the Fairness of Public Sector Unions

A low-angle shot of the U.S. Supreme Court

An upcoming case in the United States Supreme Court could have significant effects on the state of the American Labor Movement: Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. At stake is whether public sector unions can require employees who have not joined the union to pay agency fees—fees that go to exclusively cover the costs of negotiating the labor contract that covers all workers at a workplace, union members and non-members alike. If the court were to rule against the legality of required agency fees, this would overturn a previous Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which held that agency fees were allowable, just so long as those fees were not used for the political or ideological activities of the union.

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The Problem with Uber

"Dundas Square" by Michael Gil liscened under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

Uber has been taking the world of city transit by storm and has become the poster-child of the modern “gig economy.” At first glance, Uber’s service seems like a universal improvement over traditional taxi services: the app makes hailing a cab convenient for passengers, and the drivers are given complete flexibility to work as little or as much they like.

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Fast Fashion and the Ethics Behind Your T-shirt

A Photo of fashion design mannequins in an empty warehouse.

Can ethics and economics ever work together? This question captures the essence of the sweatshop issue that dominated the majority of media in 2013, especially highlighting Bangladesh. In 2013, according to the Guardian, a garment factory located from the fourth floor to the seventh floor of Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 1,135 people.This was not a natural disaster in any way, but rather was purely man-made. The workers apparently noticed a crack on Tuesday and reported to their manager, which resulted in a supposed Wednesday off for inspection. However, for some reason the building was declared safe to work in later on, and hesitant yet voiceless workers were called back to work, as CNN explains. Unfortunately, the Rana Plaza incident was not the first incident related to garment factories that occurred in Bangladesh. Previously in 2005, reports indicate that there were 70-plus deaths in a garment factory in the same area. Additionally, in 2012 another garment factory fire has already killed more than a hundred people in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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Overworking the Western World

There’s no question that technology has caused Americans and others around the world to work more. It’s not uncommon for a typical white-collar job in the United States to come with a company phone, company iPad and company computer. All these devices contribute to increased work and work-related stress. Carol Olsby, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s expertise panel, states, “Technology allows us to work anywhere, anytime.” This culture of overworking is prominent in the United States and worldwide, and has detrimental effects for mental health.

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Workers’ Rights in the “Gig Economy”

Working an inflexible nine-to-five schedule is often not conducive to the demands of ordinary life.  Parents find themselves missing events at their children’s schools that occur during the day.  Cautious workers manage their sick days conservatively, not knowing what health challenges the year might bring.  Taking a day to care for personal psychological health strikes many as an impractical luxury.  

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Freedom of Association and Right-to-Work Laws

This post originally appeared on October 20, 2015.

In March 2015, Wisconsin became the 25th state to adopt “right-to-work” laws. Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Montana, and West Virginia are all considering such laws. Right-to-work laws do not prohibit unions. They prohibit agreements between unions and employers that require workers to be members of unions or to pay agency fees for the benefits they receive from union representation.

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