The indignity of service work | My experiences as a fast-food worker | Part 2

Previous part can be found here. It explains some of the key theories that will be used in this series.

This article continues by explaining how games are used in the workplace to secure participation and domination of workers.

Initially, this job was a means to the simple end of survival but mostly enjoyed as it meant speaking to lots of different people everyday. Eventually, any passion I may have started out with was replaced by cynicism and depression. I doubted the authenticity of my co-stars in the fast-food theatre as my own work performances increasingly became a series of banal performances. Yet I continued to delude customers at their request, understanding that most people were in on the joke of customer service. Most of us seem to find ways to rationalise away the reality of quotidian domination and here was no different, even if domination here was much subtler. Ironically, as the fakeness of most interaction alienated me from co-workers, it simultaneously brought us closer. Behind the till counters, away from the audience, we were dominated and alienated from each other in more complex and mystified ways.

In an article comparing Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about domination being based on a somewhat consensual hegemonic order with Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas about domination being partly resultant from a misrecognition of social domination by the dominated, Michael Burawoy talks about his experiences working on a factory shop floor. Burawoy talks about the types of concessions given by management to the workers in order to legitimise and make more consensual their relationship, which is analogous Burawoy and others like Gramsci could claim, to the class relationship in broader society, between capitalists and proletarians. One of the sources of consent-making identified by Burawoy was the consititution of work as a game.

At the factory floor, the piecework goal of the game was to keep production output over 125% but not above 140%. Although Burawoy admits there were some benefits to this kind of game which make it not uncommonly found in other places of employment. Games can counter the ennui, arduousness and boredom of work, helping workers endure it. Playing the game also contributed to a work culture of continuous evaluation of colleagues and enforcing a pseudo-solidarity whereby refusing to participate meant ostracisation. In the factory floor situation, the benefits of the game for management were obfuscated slightly by the existence of quote restrictions, not just minimums.

Burawoy traces the development of methods of “manufacturing consent” (unrelated to Chomsky’s writings nearly a decade later) as ways for the capitalist class to expropriate more surplus value from the workers in light of the development of workers’ rights. For example, the despotic power to hire and fire at will was no longer a useful tactic in ensuring the participation of workers in their own domination. Thanks largely to unionisation efforts, workers needed more persuasion to work. This development allows work to be constituted as a game because under despotic regimes of production, the arbitrary nature of sanctions and goals produced too much uncertainty for, at least on the surface, consensual, hegemonic order to be possible.

Although the domination of worker is still apparent when considering her means to life as being ultimately controlled by capital, participation in the system is considered consensual, or rather, failure to participate is considered an act of will thus deserving of whatever punishment is delivered. This point is key to understanding Burawoy’s ideas about domination and social relations under capitalism and reflects his Marxist influences. He claims following this, “[…] the economic process of producing things is simultaneously a political process of reproducing social relations and an ideological process of producing consent to those relations […].” (Burawoy, 2012, p. 194).

In the next article I will continue by applying this thinking to my own experiences working at a fast-food chain from late 2012- late 2013. Thanks for reading!


REF: Burawoy, M., 2012. The Roots of Domination: Beyond Bourdieu and Gramsci. Sociology, 46(2), pp. 187-206

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