TV Review: "Undercover Boss" and the misfortune of labor

"To be a productive worker is therefore not a piece of luck, but a misfortune." --Marx, Capital

"Are you a good team player/remember the boss is your best friend/kill your head." --Born Against

CBS chose to premiere their new reality show, "Undercover Boss", after the Super Bowl, indicating that they expect big things from it. And the premise is undeniably appealing: sending CEOs out to work entry-level jobs at the companies they control. In the first episode, we follow Larry O'Donnell, president of Waste Management, as he picks up litter, rides a garbage truck, and cleans toilets. As cheap populist theater, it's hard to resist.

Predictably, the show is really an affirmation of the class hierarchy it pretends to challenge. Its core lesson is that, should the benevolent corporate ruler deign to walk among the peasants, he will surely recognize the injustice of their plight and leap to action to remedy the situation. We get copious evidence of the CEO's empathy, his heartfelt desire to improve his employee's lives and help them enjoy their jobs. The episode ends with O'Donnell giving a speech acknowledging the struggles of the workers he has toiled alongside, as he promises to be a different and better leader from this day forward. As the credits roll, we are given brief "happily ever after" messages about the fate of the five rank-and-file employees we have met.

Of course, it's trite and obvious to point out that television tends to portray structural inequalities in terms of personal morality and individual solutions. If that was all there was to "Undercover Boss", it wouldn't rate a post. But what really struck me about the episode was something that relates to my recent post on guaranteed income. This show inadvertently makes the point that there is nothing noble or honorable about being working class under capitalism, despite what capitalist propagandists and even some traditional leftists would have you believe. On the contrary, being forced to work at an unpleasant job in return for wages leads to a degradation of the soul and a deformation of one's character.

This is made painfully evident by the heroes and villains in "Undercover Boss". The heroes--other than the CEO himself--are the everyday workers. And they seem like basically good people dealing with difficult circumstances. But their attitude toward their jobs is, at best, a resigned cynicism, like that of the woman who shrugs her shoulders at being followed by corporate spies and forced to urinate in a can in order to make her quota of trash pickups. And at worst, they show that they've internalized a work ethic that causes them to become complicit in exploiting their fellow workers. One man, who holds his job despite suffering from kidney failure, rides O'Donnell relentlessly for being too slow to pick up trash on a windy hillside, and then fires him after ridiculing him for being a worse worker than a dialysis patient. Even more horrifying is the man who brings a cheerful, can-do disposition to his job of sucking unspeakable waste out of the depths of a carnival porta-potty. O'Donnell commends him for his talent at motivating him to do this dirty job, even making it seem "fun". And one can see why as a CEO, he would this employee so valuable. But watching the two of them interact, one is struck by the gulf that separates a man forced to clean toilets, who adopts a positive attitude in order to make the work bearable, from the CEO who patronizingly approves of his attitude.

The villains in this drama are, in their own way, just as poignant. They are, for the most part, middle managers--pasty white guys who sit a bit higher on the corporate ladder than the spotlighted workers, but many rungs below CEO O'Donnell.  In several scenes of  "Undercover Boss", O'Donnell puts these characters on the spot and calls them out for various overbearing and callous managerial demands. These scenes fall into a long tradition of vilifying middle management in post-industrial American culture: it's the impulse that animates Dilbert, Office Space, and the Office.  Middle managers make easy targets because they're the face of the boss that workers actually see--unlike the top managers who will never meet workers face-to-face outside of the fantasy world of reality TV.

At best, people focus their resentment on middle mangers for the same reason that radicals and oppressed people feel a visceral animosity toward cops, even though they are only foot soldiers for a much larger power structure. But watching the interviews on "Undercover Boss", I was reminded of the stories of Soviet peasants and workers, faced with the brutality of, in turn, the Cossacks and the Communist bureaucracy. They would cling to the notion that the big leader--first the Czar, later Stalin--would be outraged if he only knew what his agents were up to, and would surely make things right.

But as the liberal economist Brad DeLong likes to say, "the Cossacks work for the Czar". The squirmiest parts of "Undercover Boss" are the interludes where O'Donnell expresses his shock and dismay at the brutal policies implemented by underlings as they attempt to implement the productivity targets that he himself has imposed. He behaves as though all of these nasty outcomes are the fault of small-minded managers, who simply misunderstood his benevolent motives.

In the end, then,  no-one on this show comes off looking good. The boss looks like a smarmy and self-satisfied hypocrite; the managers look petty and cruel; and the rank-and-file look either beaten-down, brutalized, or brainwashed. The secret lesson of the show is that the powerlessness of workers has horrible spiritual consequences both for them and for their bosses. I think a lot of people are reluctant to make this argument--I'm reluctant to make it too--because it seems disrespectful of people who are generally less privileged than those of us with the time to write rambling blog posts about TV shows. But that's a risk I'm willing to take, if the alternative is to patronize people by romanticizing their work even though, in all honesty, I wouldn't for one second consider trading places with them.

The healthiest reaction to the plight of the people featured on "Undercover Boss" is to fight for a society in which people aren't forced to clean out toilets and then pretend they enjoy it. One way to do that is to build strong unions that can stand up for the rights of people who will never be lucky to appear on a CBS reality TV show. But the left needs to think hard about other models, including the one I raised the other day--a minimum income that allows everyone enough to survive on, no matter what. It's hard to imagine that people would be so eager to oppress their fellow workers, or feign enjoyment of their crappy jobs, if they had the same choice given to the star of "Undercover Boss": the choice not to be there.


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