Never trust a hippie: Steve Jobs and the neoliberal work ethic

Posted by Pierre de la Fortune on October 15, 2015 @ 12:01 a.m.

Written by Tiziana Aregento

A couple of days after the much-publicised demise of the former CEO of Apple, an acquaintance of mine reposted a split image on his Facebook wall. A mugshot of Steve Jobs subbed “one dies – a million cry” was contrasted with a photograph of starving African children and the message “millions die – nobody cries”. No doubt my friend’s intention had been noble, but my initial reaction was one of knee-jerk cynicism. What good would it do the starving African masses, I thought, if everybody stopped shedding crocodile tears for the “visionary businessman” that was Steve-what’s-his-face and instead spared some for those at the bottom of the global pecking order? Have vulgar displays of empathy with the ‘disadvantaged’, in fact, not long become part and parcel of capitalist rule? Would bourgeois culture still be possible without its Bono component?

To be honest, I didn’t know that much about Steve Jobs before he kicked the bucket. When the internet started to get clustered up with images of Jobs striking a cheeky ‘nerd idol’ pose and obituaries that referred to him as a ‘rebel’, I got the basic idea. Like that other geek god, Bill Gates, I figured that Jobs, too, would have been a great philanthrocapitalist, possibly saving the rainforest or, well… helping starving children. I was disappointed to see my prejudices demolished when Wikipedia informed me that Jobs terminated all of all Apple’s philanthropy programmes upon returning to the company as CEO. No crumbs from Jobs’s table! What was perhaps less surprising was the fact that Jobs was notorious for terrorising his subordinates and firing staff on a whim. Indeed, former employees reported that he seemed to get a morbid kick out of sacking whoever he happened to share an elevator with. Rather than referring to him as a sadist or monster, though, the news media euphemised this behaviour as ‘unconventional’, ‘unorthodox’,’ eccentric’, and various other liberal clichÈs.

Although he didn’t suffer from the same Oskar Schindler complex as Richard Branson, Steve Jobs was otherwise cut from the same cloth. Hailing from a generation of business-savvy, post-Woodstock hippie entrepreneurs, Jobs’s success story coincided with the transformation of the capitalist West from traditional industrial nations to the post-Fordist service economies at whose mercy we are today. A product of the West Coast counterculture, the acid-dropping Silicon Valley denizen Steve Jobs was one of the anti-authoritarians that gave us Apple Inc., Virgin, and the Body Shop – in other words, the groovy people that anticipated the neo-liberal economic reforms of the 1980s and rose to positions of immense power on the back of them. In 2006, for instance, Jobs received $647 million from vested restricted stock on top of his nominal $1 salary.

Aside from his talent to sniff out and market interesting cyber-developments, Jobs was also a poster boy for the super-individualist, anti-politics, libertarian zeitgeist which continues to inform our culture inside and outside our workplaces. As much as the economic doctrines of neoliberalism have been discredited among the urbane commentariat since 2008, its ethics remain the official religion at work – just as popular culture always has a place for celebs like Steve Jobs, ‘rebels’ against a conformist society that had ceased to exist by the end of the 1970s.

Of course, employment in the brave new world of the hippie capitalists has never been any less dehumanising – on the contrary. One needs not look as far as the sweatshops of China’s Foxconn City, where women, men and children produce Apple’s iPods under positively pre-Fordist, 19th century conditions. Simultaneously in the ‘democratic’ West, flexibility is the magic word of private sector workplace culture and red tape the enemy. In many cities, call centres exploit a massive, casualised, and largely non-unionised workforce; in Glasgow, for instance, almost 10% of all workers are now condemned to this excessively monitored, poorly paid, and often humiliating dead-end existence. Liberal entrepreneurs, who may otherwise be concerned about green issues or gay rights, cannot be expected to worry how the several dozen workers whose shifts they’ve just cancelled at short notice are going to pay the rent. Aren’t they free to work wherever they like, after all?

Then there are those lucky enough to have signed a work agreement for some office job or another. No matter how monotonous and soul-destroying the tasks in hand are, this is a ‘dynamic work environment’ – so congratulations, you’ve just made it into the ‘middle class’! Case in point is your funky manager, who warns you half-jokingly over a beer that he will rip your head off if you ever attempt to unionise the company. Yes, he knows your sort, ’cause after all, he too was a ‘loony lefty’ before his parents arranged this post for him; but surely you agree that unions are so 70s? You want to go home already – you don’t want to be sitting in this pub listening to your manager’s banal drivel. But they’ve bugged you about company outings for so many months that you ultimately gave in. Unlike in Fordist days, you are not supposed to merely endure your job any longer – you are expected to have fun doing it.

Times may have changed, but some tried-and-tested methods to increase productivity and suppress class antagonisms have proved timeless, additionally helped by the evaporation of trade union and labour movement culture. Today’s equivalents of the fascist ‘Strength through Joy’ organisation are in private hands and organise cross-class leisure activities for workers and management with invasive frequency. It is not a good idea to evade these for extended periods of time, let alone start looking too much like the discontented prole that you really are. We’re a big family, dude, and if you don’t appear to have fun, you might just be sacked come the next wave of budget-driven dismissals.

Working hours are ‘flexible’ in the sense that you still start early in the mornings but are frequently asked to stay longer without overtime pay. And remember to keep your phone switched on when you head off home – your pal, the manager, might contact you about extra work at any time. Underlying all this is the neoliberal ideal of the ceaselessly proactive ‘can do’ employee, whose productive capacity is at the company’s disposal around the clock. In contrast to the social-democratic jobsworth, who was at least free to do as he pleased after 5pm, the contemporary white collar wage slave has next to no spare time at all. He belongs to his employer entirely, ‘this is not a 9 to 5 job’ being his badge of cosmopolitan delusion.

The troubling bit is how well this actually works. No matter how routinized and profoundly alienating their jobs, many white collar workers accept the notion of being part of some mythical ‘middle class’. The idea of joining a trade union or political workers’ organisation is alien to them, like an image from another time, another place. The hope of climbing the ladder and becoming an overseer of one sort or another crushes class solidarity. Likewise, the casualization of the workforce in call centres and such succeeds in counteracting any sense of coherence or collectivity. You never know who you will be sitting next to tomorrow, and a system in which your productivity determines whether you will be booked again ensures that you are in permanent competition with your co-workers.

Liberal despots such as Steve Jobs are the gods in this capitalist heaven – and rather depressingly, they are held up for admiration by the mass media to great response. We, the atomised wage slaves, assimilate its messages with stunning ease: Facebook was buzzing with ‘RIP’ status updates dedicated to Jobs, the ‘crazy rulebreaker’. In a world where the dominant ideology is always that of the ruling class, it is not unusual to see servants praise the ‘nonconformism’ that progressively robs them of their rights. On a side note, it is quite remarkable how many CEOs and businessmen think of themselves as ‘anarchists’. Yes dude, they hate ruuules… especially if the rules interfere with their reckless moneymaking operations. Like the character in Pasolini’s SalÚ, or the 120 Days of Sodom, who at one point suggest that “we fascists are the true anarchists”, they essentially look at their underlings as conformist cattle.

If the punk explosion brought anything useful to the table, it was not its petty-bourgeois DIY philosophy, but a healthy cynicism and desire to expose all that masqueraded as groovy, nice, and liberal. ‘Never trust a hippie’ was arguably the most constructive punk slogan of all, vindicated a million times since the Dead Kennedys’ California ‹ber Alles. Beyond his role as a figurehead of countercultural capitalism, Steve Jobs was fully aware that his Chinese sweatshop employees were savagely exploited, left sick, and driven to suicide – and he did his best to deny it. As for the starving children in Africa and elsewhere, one cannot but state the obvious: they are dying as a direct result of a global system that serves the likes of Steve Jobs. The fact that he didn’t instrumentalise images of their suffering for PR purposes is the one thing I will give him credit for.

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