Wake me when its quitting time
(introduction in progress)
Bureau of Labor Statistics reports on use of time on an average weekday in 2015, shows that “Americans age 15 and over slept about 8.8 hours, spent 5.2 hours doing leisure and sports activities, worked for 3.5 hours, and spent 1.8 hours doing household activities. The remaining 4.7 hours were spent in a variety of other activities, including eating and drinking, attending school, and shopping” (xxx). While every job includes some tasks that are not part of the job description, there’s a discrepancy between position and what workers actually spend their time doing. A 2014 survey conducted by market research firm Harris Interactive, found that U.S. employees at large-sized companies (1000 employees or more) only spend 45 percent of their time on primary job duties (XXX). The other fifty five percent of the time? Email, meetings, administrative tasks, and “interruptions.” Among their chief complains, meetings that could be email and the most frustrating workdays are when all of the above prevent a worker from doing their job.
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Distractions aren’t limited to being work related either. With virtually every workplace being connected to the internet or every worker having a smartphone in their pocket, miniature escapes from work are only a click away. “Employers aren’t turning a blind eye to this… A third of employers said that even if performance isn’t affected, they care if employees spend time on non-work related emails and websites” (http://www.careerbuilder.com/advice/cyber-monday-shopping-at-work). This obviously sets the employee and employer in an adversarial relationship. A sort of cat and mouse game where management is trying to squeeze every possible ounce of productivity out of their employees, who very often have little invested in the company besides time, given little motivation to do more than what is asked of them, if that.
This adversarial view is a byproduct of what F. A. Hayek would describe as classical liberalism. In his book “The Constitution of Liberty”, Hayek lays out his defense of free market capitalism. “Whoever desires the regular income for which he sells his labor must devote his working hours to the immediate tasks which are determined for him by others.” (186). This sets up the two major classes, the employee and the independent, similar to the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie in Marxist philosophy.
The employed, as Hayek sees them, are beholden to the Independents. They aren’t exploited in strict Marxist sense, but have made the voluntary choice to eschew greater responsibility for the security of a more-or-less guaranteed paycheck. “For the independent, it is a question of shaping and reshaping a plan of life, of finding solutions for ever new problems.” (188) The independents are the risk takers, the innovators, and the ones engaged with the world as a whole. What does this mean for the employed? When they made the choice for sell their time for money, did this also rob them of their engagement with their workplace or world?
A quick web search results in thousands of hits regarding employee engagement. To management, it is the emotional commitment an employee shows for the organization and its goals (Kruse 2012). An engaged employee is one who cares and is passionate about his job and company goals. This employee exists outside of Hayek’s labels, not just to working to get their paycheck rather their goals and the companies goals are aligned.
Yet, a 2015 survey of employee conducted by Gallup Daily found that the employee engagement is stagnant. Gallup categorizes workers as “engaged” based on their ratings of chosen metrics, such as having an opportunity to do what they do best each day, having someone at work who encourages their development and believing their opinions count at work — that predict important organizational performance outcomes. The majority (50.8%) of employees were “not engaged,” while another 17.2% were “actively disengaged.” Actively disengaged is the best possible description of the Dante Hicks and Randal Graves, the protagonists from the 1994 slacker-genera hit Clerks.
The opening sequence is relatable to anybody who’s ever called themselves employed. A faceless, nameless boss calls Dante to get him to open his convince store on his off day. However, he isn’t directly told to, however the boss employs a management technique of asking him. Dante offers little resistance; his greatest concern is playing in a hockey game that afternoon. Of course, the boss promises him that he will only have to work until noon, a promise on which he later reneges and to which Dante has no recourse. This familiar scenario directly puts the employed at odds with the employer, who’s intrusion into the work-life balance is disrupted.
This balance between life and work, according to Hayek, is primarily a concern of the Independent class, “For the independent there can be no sharp distinction between his private and his business life, as there is for the employed, who has sold part of his time for a fixed income” (188). This distinction can be considered a separation between work and personal life, however “the lines between the two have gradually become blurred, attributable to the technology advancements which allow people to be constantly connected and businesses to be active and accessible at all times without boundaries” (https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/273280). This separation of “work” and “life” is complicated when we start to identify who we are by who we work for. In the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Prof. Daan Van Knippenberg wrote that “When working in an organization, employees identify, to some extent, with the organization, as part of a collective group. “(571). The ever minimizing of the life work balance increases how much the employee identifies themselves with what they do.
Dante and Randal are represented as mostly intelligent, self-aware individuals struggling to find their identity in the employed class. The movie takes place over the course of one day, detailing with some exaggerated but clearly repeatable service industry woes. Long periods of boredom broken up by demanding and odd customers. Dante struggles to grin and bear it, going through the motions of a script. Throughout his day, he’s forced to interact with all sorts of demeaning or aggressive customers, but because of his position, he capitulates, unable to confront them due to his position. This “service role” is known as emotional labor, which is defined as “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display; emotional labor is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value” (Hochschild, 1983). Where Dante is freely selling his emotional labor, Randall takes the alternate route. Randal vocally and sometimes violently reacts to the service work setting. He’s a working-class hero, acting out what many in the service industry can only fantasize about, his only active engagement in the workplace telling customer exactly what he thinks, and calling out Dante’s passiveness. Hayek see’s their status as a voluntary one, their minimal responsibilities are exactly what they’re looking for.
Dante’s active disengagement is a product of what Marx described as alienation. His mundane existence doesn’t just lack genuine interaction, it’s in direct conflict with his role in customer service. Marx predicted “This alienation in modern industrial production under capitalist conditions workers will inevitably lose control of their lives by losing control over their work. Workers thus cease to be autonomous beings in any significant sense. (https://faculty.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/Marx.htm), Employees, regardless of their position in life, are human, have lost control of their ability to express their humanity in their work. This loss of control, which Hayek argues is voluntary if not gladly given up, is a driving factor behind the lack of engagement at work. Marx saw this as “Men no longer enjoyed the right to dispose of what they produced how they chose: they became separated from the product of their labour.” Dante is miserable because he never sees the result of his labor, he’s walked on daily, by company and customer alike, and is denied any recompense because of how utterly replaceable he is. At the end, Dante laments for change “‘I’m stuck in this pit, earning less than slave wages, working on my day off, dealing with every backward fuck on the planetâ€¦ I can’t make changes like that in my life. If I could, I would-but I don’t have the ability to risk comfortable situations on the big money and the fabulous prizes.” (XXX) He sees his status as part of the Employed class as being inescapable. Randal essentially (and likely unknowingly) replies with Hayek’s views “You’re comfortable. This is a life of convenience for you, and any attempt to change it would shatter the pathetic microcosm you’ve fashioned for yourself.” (XXX). Dante’s situation is no better off than where he started, only realization that he is firmly entrenched in the world of the Employed, envying the independents. “Point is-I’m not the kind of person that disrupts things in order to shit comfortably.” He desperately wants change, but doesn’t know how to change.
The want/need for change is the drive behind Fight Club, a 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk describes the real-life events that inspired the book in an interview with The Guardian “(after getting into a fight) â€¦ I went back to work just so bashed, and horrible looking. People didn’t ask me what had happened. I think they were afraid of the answer. I realized that if you looked bad enough, people would not want to know what you did in your spare time.” This, along with other stories about the service industry told to him by friends inspired the creation of his main character(s) in Fight Club. They, specifically the narrator and Tyler Durden, became agents of change in their boring and tedious world.
From the beginning of both the book and movie, the themes of repetition, alienation, tediousness, and inauthenticity are key. The narrator, a middle aged white male who in all interactions never gives his actual name, describes his occupation as a recall specialist for a “major” automobile company. He works a nine to five white collar desk job, where each move he makes is dictated by a boss. He then goes home to an apartment filled with junk he doesn’t need where he continues to want more. His days are repetitive to the point where he can tell what day it is based off the color of his boss’s tie. He feels detached from the world, his flat affect is exacerbated by insomnia and isolation. His entire world is set up in what he describes as single serving “Everywhere I travel — tiny life. Single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of butter” (Palahniuk, 28) to a fellow passenger on an airplane that his job is apply a formula, one that that determines if the price of a recall is more than the cost to fix the defective parts and lawsuit settlements. He is essentially employed to apply his company’s bottom line against the potential cost of human lives. The job is undoubtedly depressing and morally questionable. The loss of human life, a simple mathematical equation, the nature of the job practically calls for detachment.
The narrator finds authenticity was in support groups for the sick and dying, as recommended to him by a doctor who he was seeing to treat his insomnia. Here, the narrator meets Bob, a former bodybuilder now testicular cancer survivor. Bob’s openness and authenticity allow the narrator to compare true suffering to his own. He finds the only place where people are present, where they really listen to him, is in a place where they think he is just as sick as they are. Instead of appreciating the analogy and realizing that he is still healthy enough to change his life, to take a risk and find new employment, maybe even go out on his own, he instead becomes addicted to the meetings, finding ways to attend one a week. Nevertheless, he makes no meaningful changes in his life and despite searching for human contact, he is also exploiting or manipulating the members of these groups to gain the acceptance he cannot find elsewhere.
The narrator, tired of his job vacations to a nude beach. After sleeping, he wakes up to see Tyler Durdan, pulling driftwood out of the ocean and forming a structure. He constructs a sculpture out of them that casts a shadow in the shape of a human hand. “For one minute, one perfect minute, Tyler had sat in the palm of a perfection he’d created himself” The display of enjoying the work you created, even if it lasts for one minute, sets the stage for Tyler. He, like Randal Graves, is a walking fantasy for the everyday working man. He belongs to both the independent and employed classes, and moves seamlessly between the two.
At nights, Tyler is a part time movie projectionist. Through the narrator’s description, we learn of the miserable conditions of working in older theaters that use multiple reel projectors that require changing during the film. “The projectionist booth is soundproof because inside the booth is the racket of sprockets snapping film past the lens at six feet a second, ten frames a foot, sixty frames a second snapping through, clattering Gatling-gun fire” (Palahniuk, 27). The projectionists shining moment comes through when they perform the changing of reels’ mid-film.
The dark is hot from the bulbs inside the projectors, and the alarm is ringing. Stand there between the two projectors with a lever in each hand, and watch the corner of the screen. The second dot flashes. Count to five. Switch one shutter closed. At the same time, open the other shutter. Changeover. The movie goes on. Nobody in the audience has any idea. The alarm is on the feed reel so the movie projectionist can nap. A movie projectionist does a lot he’s not supposed to. Not every projector has the alarm. At home, you’ll sometimes wake up in your dark bed with the terror you’ve fallen asleep in the booth and missed a changeover. The audience will be cursing you. The audience, their movie dream is ruined, and the manager will be calling the union.
The implication is a well-done job is one that is completely unnoticed, the only time the movie watchers even consider the projectionist is if they make a mistake. This lack of appreciation in the work place severely impacts a workers engagement “The single highest driver of engagement, according to a worldwide study conducted by Towers Watson, is whether or not workers feel their managers are genuinely interested in their wellbeing. Less than 40 percent of workers felt so engaged.” (https://hbr.org/2012/01/why-appreciation-matters-so-mu). The idea that Tyler is waking up in the middle of the night, afraid that he’s missed his cue to change reels when not even at work is also a sign of the ever-increasing intrusion of work on the life-work balance, despite not being the owner of the company.
As member of the Independent, Tyler owns his own soap company. In describing the process of making soap, he details the history, likening the discovery and creation of soap to sacrifice. Tyler steals fat at first from the love interest in the book, Marla Singer, and later from liposuction clinics, processes it, and uses it to create his soap, which he then sells back to those who can afford it. Capitalism embodied.
After an unfortunate incident leaving the Narrator homeless, he meets Tyler in a bar. It’s here that Fight Club is born. They both admit to never having been in a fist fight, and at Tyler’s suggestion, has the narrator hit him as hard as he can. Others at the bar take notice, and the club is created. This community they create, like the support group the Narrator attended before, are a place to find acceptance. (marx alienation, club as employment?)
With fight club in his life, the emptiness now seems to be filled. In fact, fight club has become the most important thing in his life. After some time, the damage to the Narrator’s appearance accumulates, cuts become scars, bruises are slow to disappear or are replaced by new ones. This is highlighted when his boss decides to deliver the presentation personally instead of the Narrator. During the meeting, he locks eyes with the Microsoft rep, Walter. Walter is described as having soft, clear skin and perfect teeth. He’s essentially a representation of what the Narrator was, or at least wanted to be: “complete”. This transformation and comparison to Walter denotes the transformation that the Narrator is taking part in. He’s discovering that his identity and value exists separate of his occupation. He sees his corporal and spiritual self-destruction as ways of discovering who we are, and what we are really capable of. Tyler explains this in a monolog
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“Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collarsâ€¦We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off” (Palahniuk 75).
This is where Hayek and Tyler both agree, “there is something seriously lacking in a society in which all the intellectual, moral, and artistic leaders belong to the employed class” (193). Tyler wants the men to feel like they are appreciated as both employed members of society and as individuals themselves. Though it only exists for a few hours a week, Fight Club is a total embodiment of a classless society because their possessions and social status’ do not matter for that one perfect moment.
The members once had dreams and goals, however most eventually settle into Hayek’s employed class because of the fear of failure, debt, or simply the lack of opportunity. This is exemplified by the “sacrifice” of Raymond Hassel’s life. Raymond is ambushed by the Narrator at a bus stop, after a late-night shift at a convenience store. Hayek surmised that it’s in societies best interests for the employed to change their station in life, even if they wanted to do so. “It may indeed prove to be the most difficult task of all to persuade the employed masses that in the general interest of their society, and therefore in their own long- term interest, they should preserve such conditions as to enable a few to reach positions which to them appear unattainable or not worth the effort and risk” (186). Tyler and the Narrator reject the notion that maintaining the status quo is best. Through fear of being murdered by the narrator, Raymond is forced at gunpoint to realize the value of his own life, and is “encouraged” to return to school and pursue his dream of becoming a veterinarian.
This idea, that fear must be used to truly grant the masses their freedom, has sinister implications. While Raymond may now try to better his life, but is only motivated by corrosion. The conversation that takes place is similar to what happened between Dante and Randal in Clerk’s, only slightly more aggressive, and at gun point. Ironically, in the alternate ending of Clerk’s, Dante is killed after closing the store by a man after the small amount of money in the register.
The narrators insurance job, the threat against Raymond’s life, the human sacrifice origins of soap; death and work are a constant theme through the book. This brings us back to Bob, the narrator’s first friend in the support groups. In the Hayek sense of the word, Bob was an independent who took his chance and failed. Bob was a bodybuilder who at his peak, marketed a chest workout program sold on late night TV. His career path destroyed his body with anabolic steroids. After multiple divorces, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Then he went bankrupt. Hayek sees Bob’s failure as the cost of freedom, “When men are allowed to act as they see fit, they must also be held responsible for the results of their efforts” (139). Bob’s choices, much like the narrators, Dante’s and Randal’s, are afforded to them because they live in a free society. This freedom to fail, is exactly what is stolen from Raymond in the narrator’s efforts to save him from his fear of failure.
The consequences of this theft mark a turning point in the book, the fight club itself takes a darker turn, as does Tyler’s philosophy. Realizing the dependence on the employed, Tyler sets in motion a proletarian revolt. “The people you’re trying to step on, we’re everyone you depend on. We’re the people who do your laundry and cook your food and serve your dinner. We make your bed. We guard you while you’re asleep. We drive the ambulances. We direct your call. We are cooks and taxi drivers and we know everything about you. We process your insurance claims and credit card charges. We control every part of your life” (Palahniuk p. 166). Their clubs purpose has change, their perfect moment has passed. Equality and appreciation were once their goals, now Tyler’s vision has become the independent focus of the organization. This is a vision of a new world that returns to a pre-agrarian way of life as his prescription for saving the planet. Project Mayhem is born out of what fight club was, now more of a cult where, with time and effort, members can graduate to the higher echelons of understanding. Fight club allowed the men to independently search for their identity separate from their station. This move from freedom to fascism, though fantastical, is warned against by Hayek, “Freedom is thus seriously threatened today by the tendency of the employed majority to impose upon the rest their standards and views of life” (186). Failure, fear, and complacency are dangerous, sometimes even fatal, but they are necessary prices to pay for a free system.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1996.
Uhls. Jim. “Memorable Quotes from Fight Club.” International Movie Database. 1999.
Singer, Peter. “Marx: A Very Short Introduction.” Oxford University Press, USA, 2001.
Segal, Jerome. “Agency and Alienation: A Theory of Human Presence.” Rowan & Littlefield, 1991
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Ed. Samuel H. Beer. Wheeling: Harlan Davidson, 1955.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club: A Novel (p. 27). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
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