The cushy trappings of modern life have tricked us into believing the conflict between labor and capital belongs to a bygone era. You’re not working fourteen hours a day in the pitch black of a coal mine so you might put food on your family’s table. Your boss isn’t calling federal troops to march to your workplace and open fire on striking workers.
You have a comfy little cubicle. Your boss recently bought new swivel chairs for everyone. Maybe you have casual Fridays. You got an all-you-can-eat buffet at last year’s holiday party. Everything is fine.
There is a burgeoning recognition in the American workplace – an emerging consciousness – that what is good for management is not good for workers, that bosses and workers are not, in fact, on the same team, but on opposing squads with very different interests. This consciousness has become prominent enough to force Republican officials and activists to cosplay as working class heroes and use a series of convoluted bad-faith arguments to push the narrative of a working class realignment in the American electorate.
Hollywood writers and actors are on strike. Auto workers, asking for pay bumps that would make their lives a little more livable, went on strike just today. Workers at hundreds of Starbucks stores have bravely joined unions in recent years despite brutal and highly illegal tactics used by corporate management. Nurses have used strikes since 2020 to secure concessions from management. It’s clearer by the day that folks who trade their labor for a little money took away a key lesson from the COVID era: They mean nothing to their bosses. They are but widgets in a machine designed to create stockholder value for people who do not work, who get rich on the labor of those who must work or face a life of destitution.
The bosses, as you may have read, are fucking pissed about this growing class consciousness among the human widgets that exist only to serve their bottom line. While it’s becoming clear labor turmoil in the US was not going to dwindle in the months and years following the darkest days of the COVID pandemic, the language of management has grown sharper, more threatening, more vitriolic. Workers got to work from home, have slightly more flexible schedules, and may have gotten a few bucks from the federal government, and their bosses responded with uniform fury. The mask of the collective Boss is falling away, piece by piece, showing working people what they are up against if they are to make gains in this destructive, inhumane era of unfettered capitalism in which capital seeks more avenues of expansion in new and diabolical ways.
The barely-disguised disdain management has for workers is a wonderful kind of clarity. We have reached the phase of capital expansion where bosses can no longer pretend to be teammates with the people whose labor they steal. We have reached the good-faith era of capitalist decline.
Probably CEOs the world over were none too pleased with recent terribly honest comments from Tim Gurner, a property developer whose net worth is north of half a billion dollars. Workers agitating for better pay, better benefits, and better work schedules during and after the pandemic, Gurner said, revealed these laborers “didn’t really want to work so much anymore.”
Gurner then offered a prescription for punishing working people who have dared request a sliver of the riches their bosses have made off their backs.
"We need to see unemployment rise,” Gurner said matter of factly, as if he had used the same line with his CEO buddies in their game planning around disciplining labor. “Unemployment has to jump 40, 50 percent in my view. We need to see pain in the economy. We need to remind people that they work for the employer, not the other way around."
Gurner continued, sounding like a well-rehearsed supervillain, with the slicked-back hair of a Wall Street psycho to boot: “There’s been a systematic change where employees feel the employer is extremely lucky to have them as opposed to the other way around. It’s a dynamic that has to change. We’ve got to kill that attitude.”
He then said the quiet – almost unspeakable part – aloud. Governments around the world, Gurney said, “are trying to increase unemployment” as a message to workers that they are expendable, that their lives mean nothing, and that they were born into this world to advance the interests of capital, then die quietly.
Gurner has a cool, unshakeable demeanor while giving his thoughts on how capital can torment labor back into submission. I suppose it helps that he has a clipped British accent. But you can feel the vitriol and sadism that animate his comments if you listen closely. This is a man who has put ample brainpower into thinking of ways to torment people who work for him. Gurner is adamant about perpetuating the myth that workers rely on management, not the other way around. Like anyone who has dedicated their lives to serving capital with whatever blood sacrifice it requires, Gurner knows that laborers have to believe in this myth if they are going to stay in line and work ungodly hours for minimal pay and blame their sorrows on fellow workers clawing their way toward the crumbs on the boss’s floor.
The Guardian’s Van Badham pointed to Gurner’s anti-worker screed as the sort of sentiment that fuels fascist movement in once-democratic, fairly egalitarian societies. The fear tactics deployed by Gurner and those in his elite circles over the past few years have a dual purpose: To immiserate and degrade working class people and to scare the middle class into supporting wretched neoliberal economic policies that keep low-wage workers stuck in place. Gurner wants middle class people to fear and hate those below them on the economic ladder. He wants us to kick those people off the ladder. Capitalism fails when folks with a little money partner with those with none.
He’s engaging in that ancient neoliberal habit of dehumanizing working people as some kind of acceptably expendable other. These people inflict the pain of unemployment on the rest of us as one might torture a rat with an overcharged electrode – except they don’t even oblige themselves to drop the body in a bin if the rat happens to die. For rich-listers like Gurner, the desire of working people to live lives of dignity and comfort is “arrogant.” By comparison, their multimillion-dollar lifestyle is a state of nature, something akin to the divine right of kings.
We need pain, Gurner said. And not pain for everyone, mind you.
Certainly not pain for Gurner and his ilk — people who have ditched their humanity for an unspeakably lavish lifestyle furnished by the accelerationist aspects of late-stage capitalism. Pain, he says, is the most effective weapon we have against working folks who want only to live a decent life. No working person with any sense believes they can get rich, and if they do, they probably have a lot of worthless NFT apes and cryptocurrency they were told to purchase by Elon Musk and other fascist swindlers. Workers refusing to abide by the pre-COVID rules of the workplace aren’t asking for much at all. Still, Gurner – who, of course, is a “wellness” freak – has deemed our reasonable requests as unacceptable. We are to be disciplined with pain.
No One Will Save You
Maybe you know I’m not an economist. In fact, any time I post about economic developments, I am quickly put in my box by those who know something about the economy. But these economy knowers have never been able to explain the disorienting headlines I see in major publications every month or two: Ones about unemployment remaining stable or even dropping, and how this development is bad for the economy.
This relatively good news for working people is met with calls for the Federal Reserve – the nuclear weapon of the ruling class – to raise interest rates until laborers are crying blood. Interest rates, it seems to me – someone who does not know about economics – must be jacked up until people feel pain and workplace order is restored. Rates must be raised until working families can no longer afford the basics: food, medicine, rent. Rates must go up until children starve, until families sleep on the street. This is the goal – to inflict maximum pain. While this is hardly a secret, it is never acknowledged by The Washington Post or The New York Times, and certainly no right-wing outlets.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and lawmakers and think tank officials and economic reporters might use fancy language to obscure the point of these rate hikes – to cause agony in regular working folks until they remember who’s in charge – but the point of our economic policy is clear to anyone paying even minimal attention. When officialdom talks about the economy, they do not mean people, they do not mean you and me. They are only referring to stockholders and others who don’t have to labor for money. They are the economy. No one else.
Neither of our two major political parties are going to save you from your bosses. For as much as right-wing online chuds use bad faith arguments to position the Republican Party as the new workers party, Republican lawmakers are as slavishly and savagely devoted to the expansion of capital as they’ve ever been. Look no further than the criminal 2017 tax cuts passed by Republicans in a party-line vote, which once again proved Republicans are the only people on the planet who hate workers more than the Democratic Party, the world’s second most fearsome defender of capital.
There are no politicians in the Democratic Party pipeline who will emerge as FDR-like advocates for working families because, unlike previous stages of capitalism, there is no longer room for an American political leader skeptical of the concentration of capital and its horrifying anti-democratic effects. There will never be another Bernie Sanders because a candidate can no longer gain power if they are not sufficiently deferential to the whims of capital, to the mission of growing capital at any cost. Meanwhile, mainline Democrats will continue to concede to wealthy interests because it’s the only way they can retain power. The slightest pushback against those interests and they will be replaced with a more servile and craven capitalist.
Working people are going to have to do this themselves. That realization has dawned on a growing number of workers, as evidenced by the labor movement resurgence we’ve seen since COVID ripped through our communities, killing millions, and bosses made it perfectly clear that their employees would be sacrificed if it meant a stable bottom line. There will be more labor-capital melees in the coming years, and that’s good and healthy – a signal that humanity is not quite ready to pack it in. We would like to go on living, workers are saying, if you don't mind too terribly much.
Solidarity is key. If workers look management in the face as their masks fall away, I think solidarity is achievable. Workers can inflict orders of magnitude more pain than the bosses. And they should.
Follow Denny Carter on X and Threads at @CDCarter13.