Capital knows who the enemy is

January 24, 2019 (1335 words) :: Labour is often confused about where its class interests lie. But capital never forgets.
Tags: class-struggle, big-tech, ideology

This post is day 24 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Today, I want to talk about a Bloomberg article with a hell of a scoop, which I tweeted about earlier: Google Urged the U.S. to Limit Protection For Activist Workers. The lede kind of sums it up:

While Google publicly supported employees who protested company policies, it quietly asked the government to narrow the right to organize over work email

The background of the piece involves a fairly esoteric National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling from 2014, Purple Communications, in which it was ruled that employees should have the right to organise over work email. Given that the Google walkout was mostly coordinated over corporate email, any reversal to that ruling could have a major impact on future actions of a similar nature. As current (and soon to be former) Google employee Colin McMillen (also a creator of Memegen!) says in the article:

“It demonstrates that Google leadership is not operating in good faith,” said McMillen. “They can have a town hall and try to say soothing words and get people to not want to quit, but then if in the background they’re not just rejecting carrying out most of the demands of the walkout, but also trying to tamp down our ability to even coordinate and talk to each other about these issues, that’s extremely concerning.”

Now, Google’s request to the NLRB to reverse the Purple Communications ruling occurred in the context of a kind of weird case, where an employee filed a complaint about Google’s “very, very left-wing office culture”. Apparently this was a different complaint from the one James Damore filed after he got fired for creating a hostile workplace environment for women (and also just making Google’s numerous “diversity” efforts look like the window-dressing that they are). (I have a lot of thoughts on the inanity of this sort of complaint, where “tech companies are too left-wing” is really just code for “people don’t like it when I’m being a jerk, which is unfair”, but I’ll bracket that for another blog post.)

But Purple Communications is very broad, and reversing it would impact more than just some right-wing idiots who want legal protection for being bigots. Without the protection of that ruling, employers would be able to ban any sort of organising over workplace email, or retaliate against workers who do attempt it. That would be a huge blow to worker organising as a whole.

So why would Google’s lawyers suggest this, so soon after the walkout?

Well , let’s not assume that they’re clueless, for one. They’re paid huge amounts of money to know what they’re doing. And in this case, they’re acting exactly as they should - exactly as would be expected given the interests of the corporation, and capital as a whole. After all, it’s in capital’s interests to diminish the power of labour, and cutting off potential channels for organising helps to keep them as atomised and obedient as possible.

An organised workplace could demand a lot. They could demand better benefits, wages, conditions - especially for TVCs and workers who face various types of discrimination. They could demand that the company’s products be built with social responsibility in mind, implying the termination of lucrative military projects, for one. They could demand an end to the massive power gap that enables workplace predators to thrive.

All of these could threaten corporate profitability. So, of course, the company has to take action to prevent organising before it gets out of hand. You can’t even really blame Google for this - the company is just acting in accordance with its class interests. It’s what capital always does, when it comes down to it.

It’s funny, because this is so obvious to people in other industries, or people who have had shitty work experiences in tech. But in a certain millieu in tech, it’s almost anathema to suggest that there is such a thing as class, and class interests. Everyone in the company is all in it it together, and the company is the underdog, up against a hostile world where journalists are all biased against them for some reason. So everyone just has to band together and work hard and things will get better.

If you’re a tech worker, there’s one thing that I want you to take away from this post: management is not on your side. Not ultimately, not in a way that matters. Maybe some individual execs are better than most, but as a class, over a long enough time frame, they will do whatever they can to preserve the system that limits your freedom as workers, because that is what the hierarchical structure requires to survive.

There are fundamental class antagonisms at play. These antagonisms can be submerged for a while, but they will surface when conflict arises. No matter how much the executives at your company may talk about how you’re all in this together, and everyone is just one big family, remember that they are making way more money than you, and if they ever happen to leave for whatever reason, they’ll have golden parachutes: a huge severance package, or a job of similar status at another company. Those who make it into the hallowed halls of the tech elite tend to stay there. Not everyone gets a parachute, golden or not.

There’s a broader problem at play, here. It’s not just confined to tech. There’s a whole socioeconomic system deliberately designed to shield the ultra-wealthy from facing any negative consequences for their actions by shifting the blame to the very poor. In the US, furloughed government employees are going to food banks while the ruling elite says they should just get loans or ask for free food from the grocery store??? (I wish I was making this up.) In the UK, austerity is somehow still going despite growing consensus on its harms. And we’ve seen a wave of layoffs in journalism in the last week, for no real reason other than some rich people want to make more money (if it’s a choice between “paying journalists for doing societally-beneficial work” and “increasing profits” …) Plus that whole Sackler thing? Beyond belief.

We’re living in the middle of some dystopian shit, basically. And tech is not immune to the broader economic divide that’s starting to open up in other industries.

Right now, the tech industry is shrouded in this weird mystification that causes some workers to be unaware of their class interests. They think that because they’re paid well right now, then they’ll always be valued, and so the system will continue to work for them indefinitely. Maybe they genuinely believe that the system is the best we can do, and that the people above them in the hierarchy will make the objectively correct decisions in the long term. Or maybe they’re just unfamiliar with any sort of antagonistic analysis, because the company’s internal PR & all of the tech press exude nothing but positivity.

The end result is that some workers do not act in accordance with their interest as workers, choosing to abstain, or even taking the side of capital. But capital never forgets - it knows how to behave in line with its class interests, in order to maximise its reproduction as capital, even if the individual actors do not publicly (or even privately) acknowledge what they are doing. How could it be otherwise, in a system deliberately designed in order to incentivise the endless accumulation of capital?

Workers who organise are not starting a class war. There’s always been a war going on, it’s just that capital has a knack for pretending that there is no war, and that things are fine the way things are, anyway. Workers who organise are merely fighting back.

And if they fight back hard enough, who knows? It could open up a whole new realm of political possibility. It could change the world.

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