Consciously Uncontracting

2024-06-25 08:31:3016
Amber Husain , June 6, 2022

Consciously Uncontracting

In defense of burning bridges Unknown artist, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament(ca. 1834). | Yale Center for British Art
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It was never my intention to hurt my Covid boss. Like doubtless many of the roughly forty-seven million U.S. workers who quit their jobs in 2021, I, a UK worker, had, until the moment of notice-giving, assumed the core of my nervous implosion to be largely internal. My sense of being unable to continue had arisen, I imagined, despitemy boss’s well-meaning gestures, despitehis tireless advocacy for my value. Within our several hours of phone calls per working (and unworking) day, there were certainly one or two minutes at least where I welcomed his sympathetic ear. I owed him for the glowing reference that allowed me to rent my flat; I owed him for generously hiring me, as he put it, on “diversity” grounds.

Mine was by no means obviously a lamentable work situation. As an editor for a publishing project based within a university, I was to some degree doing what I wanted, albeit not in the way I had imagined. My boss, an artist-“professor,” had founded this operation, in which publishing staff hired to edit books and journals often found ourselves straining to tactfully edit work of his. Meanwhile, we were also called upon to apply for research grants in his name, seemingly with a view to researching for him, too. Despite the awkwardness this entailed (political differences, aesthetic misalignments, and generational conflicts of interest abounded), my colleagues and I believed that these were simply the rules of engagement. Someone had to legitimize our para-academic work in the eyes of a redundancy-dealing sector: someone who, we were led to understand, could only be our boss. We saw the irony in his using a rainbow of diversely precarious staff as grounds to congratulate himself as a benevolent employer with a worldly research record. And yet, we figured, at the end of days, at least we all had jobs. We may subconsciously have wished to be devising ideas more germane to our actual interests, but we understood this would never come to pass unless we did our time practicing appeasement.

Consciously Uncontracting

This wasn’t the end, my boss assured me, of his involvement in my life.

It should perhaps have been unsurprising, given this history of acquiescence, that my boss, in pained confusion at my “sudden” resignation, refused to accept my carefully nondescript “need for a change” as legitimate grounds for divorce. Why would I give up a regular salary, the prospect of contract renewal, my name on his honorable masthead, and continued displays of affirmation if not to stab him in the back? It was only when forced to articulate the reasons for my “betrayal” that these reasons came fully into focus. Only then that I started to register that all these accretions of debt to the man were the very engine of the psychic breakdown I’d assumed was mine alone. Within a minute, his typical aggressive cheer collapsed into pure aggression: How could I side with those of my colleagues, themselves on the cusp of resignation, whom he had so diligently established as my enemy? How could I leave him, knowing the weight it would give to their overhanging grievance claims? This wasn’t the end, my boss assured me, of his involvement in my life. This, he said (compounding rather than allaying my desire for extrication), was the worst mistake I could have made.

The very naming of the “Great Resignation” of 2021 was enacted in a spirit of caution. Anthony Klotz, the associate professor of management to whom the term has been attributed, apparently first deployed it in an interview with Bloomberg Newsin which he was asked for advice on how to quit one’s job with minimal damage. Months before October’s parade of strikes in health care, food service, agriculture, and academia, a more diffuse and less organized yet agglutinative set of refusals was roiling the capitalist class. Workers were throwing in the towel at rates that seemed, to business minds, to belie their own best interests, even if they signaled evident truths about low wages, unsafe conditions, precarity, and an immanent sense of bullshit. How, Klotz was asked, should workers exercise their right to leave without the cost to all concerned of burning bridges?

Of course, as a management scholar, Klotz’s research is primarily concerned with the interests and concerns of managers, which palpably underpins his attitude toward employees. “Your reasons should be honest,” he offered, with the air of a sympathetic guide, “but not all the reasons. For example, if the job doesn’t provide meaning, that doesn’t need to be said.” “We’re going to see lots of ‘boomerang’ employees,” he went on to explain, “who a year from now miss their jobs and decide their novel isn’t going as well as expected.” In short, he sought to impress on workers driven to a sense of the no-longer-tolerable that they would in due course accept once more their unacceptable conditions of existence. Similarly avuncular advisories have continued to echo his suggestion in 2022. “Maybe the problem isn’t all with the employer,” a Guardian journalist crowed this March. Blaming the “confusion” of mass resignation on the naivete of Generation Z, he and countless others have begun to cite employee “delusion” as the spur of an inevitable “Great Regret.”

It is such threats that traditional dreams of an easy life are made on. And it is of course in their long shadow that the reactive edifices of “cruel optimism” (as Lauren Berlant had it) have been built—those injurious systems of belief that not only is rampant misery somehow natural, but what’s more, “I myself” am due to transcend this (organized) misery via some imminent biographical plot twist. In the workplace, hopes for this transcendence are tethered to the ideology of meritocracy, in which talent and elbow grease are held aloft as routes to success. In such a world, the grass is whatever color you are able to dye it. To psychically crumble is therefore always a problem with you. To burn a bridge, in such a universe, is to immolate yourself—to foreclose the path to freedom that stretches ahead, if not before others, then before us.

He sought to impress on workers driven to a sense of the no-longer-tolerable that they would in due course accept once more their unacceptable conditions of existence.

If, however, any cruelty-free mode of optimism can be said to exist—an attachment, say, to a vision of broader, more systemic workplace transformation—it is not immediately clear how such a transformation should arise from individuals’ disavowal of their employers. What’s more, to apply any moral or political weight to the decision to leave one’s job would be a gross misapprehension of the unequal conditions in which we do so. And yet we find ourselves in a situation where the emotional stakes of leaving are themselves a necessary site of workplace struggle, since the hostage-taking rights of emotionally parasitic employers are a central mode of exploitation to be resisted. It is worth taking seriously the value of burning a bridge or two in the case of those for whom the risks fall anywhere short of immediate destitution. The Great Resignation, after all, was not a withdrawal from labor altogether; the majority of workers who quit have found new jobs or started working for themselves.

As many on the left have pointed out in relation to the act of resigning, the orchestrated misery workers have suffered under Covid demands an organized struggle, one that must be fought, to some extent, from within the workplace itself. And yet, as the mixed effects of last year’s “Striketober” brought to light, relative leverage for workers is by itself no match for the contemporary challenges of a globally competitive labor market, the crippling of unions, and the vanishing of labor protections. In such a situation, we have seen the labor movement turn toward “Bargaining for the Common Good”—attempting to construct alliances that join industrial conflict with other forms of political contestation. It is not just wages but the social wage—that which otherwise funds survival—that demands to be demanded. The prerequisites of this broader political project are not unlike those of workplace organizing, depending as it does on supermajorities as well as material power, if significant upheavals are to be made. Such a project requires not just that we retain our status as workers but that we understand what it is that makes “workers” vulnerable as a class.

This understanding reframes the question of what to do with an employer who has warped themselves into the weft of your very existence, and who has done so despite your subterranean knowledge that their greater prosperity comes at the expense of your intensified labor and unhappiness. On both sides of the Atlantic, liberal politicians’ claims to champion the rights and freedoms of “all” depend on a fantastical if not cynical denial of any conflicts of interest—a denial, in short, that politics is a matter of taking sides. These figures of “unity” are mirrored by employers whose self-serving tendencies often manifest in delusions of beneficent guardianship. Look at all I’ve done for you, they say, as you wish they would do nothing near you ever again. As the engines of capitalist accumulation find ever more covert ways to exploit labor, masking exploitation in informality and overfamiliarity, those who make use of such strategies in their own managerial lives are increasingly oblivious to where this places them in an ongoing struggle for power. If it falls to us to find ways to reconstitute ourselves as political subjects, can we do so while affectively in thrall to those we must reconstitute as our enemies? While they live in the zones of our psyche reserved for fathers, sisters, friends?

“I can’t promise I won’t keep calling you,” my particular tormentor snarled as I confessed my desire to cut ties; “I didn’t think your contract was all our friendshipwas about.” Leaving aside that this man and I were separated by politics, interests, priorities, senses of humor, and many years in age, this wasn’t entirely unreasonable given the bonding effects of extensive, if predominantly unwanted, exposure. In fact, it had taken this alarming conversation to make clear to me what it was that I needed to make clear to him: the simple fact that until this point, for as long our relations had been friendly, I’d relied on his continued good will for my rent. He protested that we were a family. He was a leftistfor Christ’s sake. No, I finally explained, we were a company. He was a landlord.

In Sarah Jaffe’s treatise on how Work Won’t Love You Back, the labor journalist takes this particularly contemporary truism as a basis for insisting that workplace organizing alone is insufficient to the task of emancipating workers. Where labor is a site of love, we require “more than slight improvements in our individual workplaces or even massive overhauls of labor laws.” What workers need, Jaffe shows, is “a political understanding that our lives are oursto do with what we will.” If an emancipatory politics for the many is a matter of wrangling, both within and without the workplace, for a situation in which our dignity, privacy, and subsistence are no longer dependent on work, we must understand that bosses’ demands for intimacy distract from this pursuit as much as their demands for manpower obstruct it.

Readiness to refuse these demands can feel impossible from a place of enmeshment with one’s current job. In fact, for those who are able to leave a job without threatening their own survival, it can take the burning of bridges to set any consciousness-raising in motion. It is sometimes only through this process that we can breathe in the sense of exploitation that has been trapped in the hot squeeze of a coercive employer-“family” hybrid; that we begin to map ourselves in an antagonism greater and more challenging than that of the family romance.

In burning a bridge, we may foreclose for ourselves some variety of fulfillment, yet we do so in the necessary hope of one much greater.

As Gen Z has created a new aesthetics of workplace quitting, setting the moods and rhythms of the Great Resignation to music on TikTok, there will of course be those without the processing power to see in this phenomenon more than a performative mistake, a traction-centric “career trend,” driven by short-sighted, narcissistic kids. What such commentators miss is the degree of conscious sacrifice quitting so often entails. Not merely the sacrifice of the obvious benefits of staying in whatever employment can be found but also of the ego ideals that sustain our drive for personal success. Such ideals, while deeply structured by a competitive economic system, can also be hard to disentangle from the people who have promised them to us, the people whose shunning can feel as though it were a betrayal. Yet to become a political subject of the “radical” kind implies in its very nomenclature an act of deracination. It requires at least the interruption of convenience and at most the severing of thickly rooted desires. While this might not land us a better job, it offers us a better chance: of committing to ally with colleagues to demand and set the terms of our employment and with the entire working class to demand a more just society. For what if the priority were not to keep our individual options open but rather to position ourselves with those for whom such options are entirely, grimly, foreclosed?

If there are those who would describe burning bridges as an enactment of the Freudian “death drive”—an impulse to self-annihilate tantamount to a disavowal of life—it is also possible to think of this brand of arson in more affirmative terms. In burning a bridge, we may foreclose for ourselves some variety of fulfillment, yet we do so in the necessary hope of one much greater. Writing as a graduate student now with a jumble of gig-grade jobs, I can’t deny that I miss a decent salary and a sense of upward “progression;” a title with which to identify and a place in which to daily exist. Yet neither can I deny that I have found it easier in these conditions to go on strike and contribute to my local labor movement; to wrest back the time to nurture ideas, and to begin to remember peace of mind. Burning down a “friendship” with so heavy a toll should not be a cause for Great Regret. Sometimes, I think, we need to be protected from what we want.