Dead Man Working

Carl Cederstrom & Peter Fleming
Zero Books 2012 £9.99

Reviewed by Andrew Millar

Dead Man Working is a non-fiction work that researches the idea that capitalism and corporations have become so much a part of people’s lives that they have no life of their own, a “paralyzed living dead”. That it is not capitalism and labour any more, but capital and life – “bio power”. The authors claim that the corporations have “plundered life”, rendering our very social being into “human capital” only useful for making money. The influence of this, they point out, goes far beyond the office and workplace giving examples such as team building exercises and computer programming.

The short work is in six concise chapters.

The Inconvenience of Being Yourself cites the example of girls at an adult resort, Delta airline hostesses and salesgirls who are implored by managers to “be themselves” at work, to be “authentic”. The authors call this “emotional administration”, and that modern employers are no longer interested in workers who role play but demand the real person.

‘Mainlining’ Life into Dead Labor states “turning off is no longer an option”. The example of a computer programmer is given, he is “dreaming in code”. Workers are encouraged to bring personal items into work, such as souvenirs, family photos, and sports banners. Work, the authors write, is “the Siamese Twin to life, as the sphere in which life can most fully thrive.”

Dead Man Working has a very high frequency of quotes from philosophers, artists and economic commentators. The quotes are used to illustrate points the authors are making. I found the quotes helpful to frame an idea, but felt sometimes they were compelled to simply work in quotes they liked. There are no bibliography or reference citations at the back of the book, or even footnotes.

Bob Geldof and Bono are cited as personifications of “liberal communism”, the “ideology of care”, Bonofication. The culture of Corporate Social Responsibility, say the authors was a “cynical PR exercise” portrayed by the rebranding of corporations like British Petroleum. An employee of such a corporation is quoted describing how his time in such a corporation as “asphyxiating”, with no time for learning and culture in his personal life.

The rising culture of infantilism, flotation tanks and spiritual therapy is considered in chapter Failed Escapes.

The grotesque side of the Dead Man Working is described in chapter The Big Exit. The authors refer to instances of suicides by employers in large industries. The never-used swimming pools and tennis courts in a Japanese industrial base are described as “cruel props”.

I found the authors conclusions in the postscript confusing and, again, seemed to work within the context of the quotes they were using, in this instance from Stephen King.

I found Dead Man Working to be very readable and generally well and clearly written. The tone is informative and encourages discussion given the bleakness and philosophical denseness of much of the subject matter. It is not oversimplified and does not use jargon without qualifying what is meant.

Recommended for anyone interested in modern philosophy and economics.

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