Throughout this series I have drawn upon my own experiences working in a fast-food chain from late 2012 to late 2013. Although after years of higher education have allowed me to reflect on the experience and articulate it in what might seem an overly scholastic form that might make the job seem more complicated than it was, these experiences were hardly unique and reflect the harsh, dull reality of millions of workers still in that industry today. I cannot say for sure, what exactly has changed since then, but I am confident that it won’t be much. If anything, with the increasing precarity and decreasing real wages of workers across the Western world, I am confident that things have only gotten worse.
This series was based on an essay I wrote during my second year of university study, as a way of practising our “sociological imagination” by connecting our personal experiences with the public world. With renewed confidence in my ability to communicate these experiences (and hopefully connect with those workers who have already begun to make the connections between their social position and the wider systems of domination that keep workers subordinate to powers beyond our immediate sight and control) I re-write this essay somewhat despairingly.
I know that this blog has little chance of reaching the audience it might impact most. However, this is not to say I am pessimistic about those readers who believe my experiences and agree with my conclusions have no potential to be political allies in the fight of the workers for dignity. Rather I am more cynical about the current state of the world and would not blame those who empathise with those subjected to the plight described in this series for focusing on their own problems. I would only ask that in reflecting on the problems of their own position, as I have tried to do here, they try and connect them to the broader world and see that workers, whether in fast-food, transport, energy, medical, IT, or anything- workers of the world- realise that overcoming the systems of domination that produce these situations are connected in such a way that we all have a common interest in transcending them.
I concluded the original essay by noting how Taylorist practices (scientific management) have maximised efficiency leading to increased profits but only superficially benefiting workers. In streamlining production processes, work seems easier for the worker, because it is simpler, but it ironically makes the worker more exchangeable and disposable. This has led to mass deskilling of the workforce, meaning there is a much smaller disincentive for employers to fire workers as new workers hardly require the investment (which eats into profits) of training them.
The problem of deskilling was predicted by the founder of modern economics, Adam Smith, as early as in his magnum opus the wealth of nations, where he talks about what I call “the paradox of opulence”. Smith wrote about how increasing the division of labour, to the extent that workers are simply performing repetetive tasks over and over, allows for greater productivity but at the cost of that workers mental faculties. This may come across as patronising, and Smith used this point to argue for the state to provide public education, but Smith was arguing against the indignity of reducing workers to machine-like equivalences in the productive system without giving them the opportunity to develop all of their other faculties which make them human.
It’s not difficult to find these types of critique throughout the world of contemplative thought. Marx took this critique further by pointing to how the form labour takes under capitalism (wage labour) separates humans from our species-being as free creative beings. We are instead forced and locked into the roles we choose in the division of labour, which requires us to specialise and compete among each other as beings of that very role, rather than free beings which choose in any moment to perform that role. For example, the engineer must constantly update their skills, update their being as an engineer, to keep that position or be made unemployed for not creating enough value for their employer, but in doing so they focus all their being into becoming an engineer and so changing careers becomes less possible.
This is all without touching upon the unfairness and inhumanity of the system which limits the potential of humans to choose the kind of role they become too, due to the reproduction of class by the education and family institutions, wherein certain roles are only within the realm of possibility for certain classes, and with social mobility between classes being exceptional and proving the rules of the system.
The existentialists and humanists were critical of how this need to take roles as making it impossible for us to live authentically. Heidegger, for example, saw the making of the human being, being in the moment, in conflict with the system which produces Das Man, inauthentic and basically the same with no truly meaningful variations. Similarly, I think, Marcuse in “One-Dimensional Man” was critical of how all of the ways we individuate ourselves in bourgeois society are not truly meaningful. In my own frustrated scrawling, before quitting from my last job at another fast-food joint, I decried how getting better at the work I was assigned made me more like a machine and all of my human potential, my possible futures, were wiped away as I became the burger machine. I recall a YouTube video from back in 2012, which was very inspirational at the time, by Myles Dyer called “what a waste of human potential” where he is critical of the job of basically being a walking sign.
I am somewhat glossing over these examples, and I could go on, but I only use them as examples to highlight the point that this kind of criticism of our working life is not uncommon, however I feel that much of this critique does not offer much in the way of realistic ways out of this predicament. I do not intend to go into the solutions I think are correct, and the obstacles to such solutions, in this post but I will summarise by saying that once one becomes aware of these things, entrance into the socio-political field becomes so necessary it is almost automatic. There are many obvious dangers to this but they also help explain what is often a retreat into some ideology, escapism, mental health issues, depression, anxiety, derealisation and depersonalisation, racism, homophobia, etc. as a reaction to the task ahead which often seems insurmountable. It is worth repeating however that I think a key part of overcoming these obstacles is realising that the social position of the worker is the most important category that links these situations and imbues those subordinate to them with common interests to transcend the current system.
Concluding, I leave the final sentence of the original essay and hope that whatever your position, this series has given some insight into the world of fast-food work and the connections between that mileu and the wider social system, and the connections between it and other subordinate positions, such that all have a common interest in abolishing this system.
In my experience, the emotional labour of the fast-food worker is not just the forced smile to represent a company that doesn’t care for you, or managing the emotions of customers that respect you as much as a food vending machine, but it is also the labour of struggling to keep hold of the dignity and humanity you have left after it has been absorbed by the façade you perform in order to live.