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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Professionalism as Legitimizing Ideology

Professionalism, as a friend of mine once put it, is the last refuge of scoundrels.

The concept of professionalism has achieved an unprecedented hegemony in society at large. For a very large part of the population, one's identity as a professional is the main source of reference.

People commonly, in situations where they are required to sum themselves up, simply identify themselves as professional. The "professional" self-designation appears in the same social contexts as "citizen" did fifty years ago. In the 1950s, it was common for someone to refer to himself, in situations completely removed from politics or government, as "just an ordinary citizen," or the like. Today, for many in the white collar middle class, it's "a professional." Professionalism has acquired the same ideological significance once held by civic culture and citizenship. In either case, the individual was defined in terms of some particular authority relation in which he existed.

Letters to advice columnists are commonly introduced by some phrase like this: "Dear Abby, my husband and I are both professionals in our 40s...." The implied subtext, of course, is "...so obviously this isn't something we caused by our own stupidity," or "...so this is a legitimate problem, unlike the idiocy you get from most of the beer-swilling yahoos who read your column."

The concept of the profession has also largely supplanted that of the skilled trade in the occupational realm. The adjective "professional" is used almost exclusively to describe work or behavior that would previously have been described as "businesslike," or characterized by a sense of craftsmanship. "Professional" and "unprofessional" are used as words of praise and blame, respectively, in occupations that were never regarded as professions back when the term had any meaning. People in virtually all white collar or service jobs, regardless of the level of training associated with them, are expected to display "professionalism" in their work attitudes and dress.

The concept of "professionalism" has spread like a cancer and contaminated most occupations. Originally, the culture of the professions grew out of the skilled trades. A master of arts, for example, was analogous to a master of any other trade, with bachelors and undergraduates corresponding to journeymen and apprentices; a university was a place where one apprenticed to a master scholar. I'd be happy to compromise on the original five professions--letters, medicine, law, holy orders, and arms--if we could reclaim the concept of the skilled trade for everything else.

So why has professionalism so successfully colonized the entire realm of work? Who benefits from promoting it as an ideology? What functions does it serve?

The fundamental purpose of professionalism, like that of any other ideology, is to get people's minds right--in this case, workers.

Professionalism fosters a house-slave mentality by getting large categories of workers to identify with management (Good ole Massa knows we're really like him, white on the inside--we're not like those shiftless old field slaves), setting white collar against blue collar workers, and enabling management to rule through a divide-and-conquer strategy. There's a saying that a dishonest man is the easiest target for a con artist. Likewise, it's a lot easier to oppress a status-insecure snob.

Professionalism undermines the separation of work and home. Throughout the entire service sector, increasingly, low-paid wage workers are expected to think of their job as a calling, and of customer service as something to sacrifice "ownlife" for. In nursing, an occupation that fell under the spell of professionalism long ago, this is old news. For all of living memory, hospital managements have cynically manipulated nurses' concern for their patients to guilt them into working unwanted overtime. This is often done, deliberately, in preference to hiring enough staff to avoid overtime, because it economizes on the costs of benefits.

But now the same levels of selfless "professional" dedication are required in some of the lowest levels of the two-tier economy. For example, consider Wal-Mart's abortive 24/7 availability policy at a store in South Carolina, which required people with shitty $8/hour retail jobs to live on call the same way that only doctors used to. The policy was abandoned in the face of public protest, and is not yet adopted as a policy at any level above the individual stores; but apparently it's been required in other Wal-Mart stores as well, and is probably the wave of the future if the bosses can get away with it. Here's how a store manager justified the policy, in terms of the values of "professional" dedication:

“We have many people with set schedules who aren’t here when we need them for our customers,” said John Knuckles [!], a manager at the store, which is located in the Nitro Marketplace shopping center and employs more than 400.

“It is to take care of the customers, that’s the only reason,” he said.

Workers who have had regular shifts at the store for years now have to commit to being available for any shift from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. If they can’t make the commitment by the end of this week, they’ll be fired.

“It shouldn’t cause any problem, if they [store employees] are concerned about their customers,” Knuckles said [emphasis added].

Ken Blanchard has expressed great dissatisfaction with the TGIF mentality, speaking for many managers who resent their workers' view of the job as a means to an end, and of their life in the outside world as the end their job serves. As Blanchard put it in his introduction to the Fish! Philosophy book, "too many people are trading time on the job to satisfy needs elsewhere..." Imagine that! People view going to a place where they're treated like shit, worked like fucking dogs, and required to take orders as a necessary evil, rather than looking forward to it as the central source of meaning in their lives. Next, he'll be complaining about the people in prison who count down the days until they get out. Come to think of it, I guess it's only a matter of time until prison inmates join the ranks of "professionals," and are expected to volunteer for "overtime" after they complete their sentences. After all, a good professional is willing to do whatever it takes to avoid inconveniencing all those customers who are waiting on their license plates or laundry.

Finally, management tries to identify "professionalism" with obedience and docility. This means, in concrete terms, that talking back to management and fighting for one's rights are forms of conduct unbecoming "professionals." Pressuring management to improve working conditions, reduce hours, increase staffing or pay, and the like, are the kinds of "low-class" behavior that proles engage in. In the old days, before the metastatic spread of professionalism, professions tended to maintain a collegiate mentality, an internal solidarity, against the demands of authority, much like the master craftsmen who resisted the watering down of quality in the industrial revolution. A professional might resist unreasonable demands from outside, like a demand to do substandard work or cut corners to compensate for understaffing, because of professional pride. Today, outside the old-line professions, professionalism has ceased to be a moral basis for resistance to authority, and instead become another force for promoting obediance.

This aspect of professionalism gets back to the divide and conquer function I mentioned above: "professionalism" means seeing oneself in the same social category as management (albeit at a lower rung), and part of the same "team."

Again, it's the vicarious self-esteem acquired by a house slave who identifies with the owner rather than with the field slaves. It's just another example of the more general phenomenon of the authoritarian personality: the oppressed overcomes his sense of oppression by identifying with the oppressor and directing his resentment, instead, against out-groups helpfully identified for him by those in authority. For the authoritarian personality, the bad guy is not the one whose rules he suffers under, but rather the one who seeks to change those rules or evade them. In the eye of the authoritarian, the rebel is the real enemy because he thinks he is better than all the others who have had to suffer from the rules.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

To me, the term "professional", still carries a bit of the old connotation of people employed in a field that 1) took some training 2) allowed them to be self-employed (doctors, lawyers, etc.). That is not how the term is presently used, of course.

As for modern day "professionals" seeing themselves in the same social category as management: well heck many of them *are* in the same labor category as management (whether or not they make the same income). That is to say they are "salaried" and entirely uncompensated for overtime. :)

July 18, 2006 4:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't have a reference handy, but Miss Manners agrees very strongly with you. One of her books has a fairly extended discussion of etiquette issues about dealing with work and personal life, and she comes down very strongly in favor of the idea that the two are and should be separate spheres of life. She's brilliantly harsh on schemes to make work "homey" without, you know, allowing for one's own life or anything like that.

July 18, 2006 5:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the wonderful essay, Kevin. If a military metaphor can carry a compliment, then you are one of our best intellectual warriors.

July 18, 2006 6:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My sister is learning this lesson the hard way. Her shitbag company (Aramark, I'm naming names, fuck you assholes) has her working 12-16 hours a day because they refuse to hire anyone to help her. She spends 70-80 hours a week at her job, and she runs everything on the jobsite except for one minor department. Most of it isn't her actual job, and she works the overtime to help the company. She gets no overtime pay or comp time for it.

So, she wrote a letter asking for a raise, asking to make the same amount as the guy running the one department (he works 40 hours a week, spends most of it milling about, and makes 15% more). They called her into the office, insulted her, denigrated the quality of the department she'd actually been hired to run (because she's working 50 hours a week covering the jobs those assholes won't hire someone to do), and rejected her request for equal pay for twice the work. Their complaint was "professionalism", because her hair was messed up one week because of a stylist's colouring error, a mistake she made the stylist correct just one week later.

So now she's looking for a job, and she immediately quit working all overtime. She works 40 hours a week, and not a microsecond longer, and when other departments call, she forwards their complaints to the "human resources" apes.

Fuck you, Aramark. Fuck you with a stick. And fuck you little shits in the HR department. Best of luck when that site plunges into the abyss because you won't hire help or pay your fucking workers.


- Josh

July 18, 2006 7:26 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

hahaha - synchronicity!

I was thinking about this very thing today...
it's another example of conflating a legitimate concept (commitment to reproducible, operational competence) with a whole host of other hidden implications.
Another product of the 'poison mythos' which has plagued us since the turn of the century or so.

At least the old timey workers KNEW they were being exploited.

July 18, 2006 8:39 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks to all for the positive feedback.


The main distinction I'd make between management and the lower echelons of white collar workers is the latter's lack of authority. They are expected to identify socially with people who not only make more money, but exercise absolutely unaccountable power over them.

Bruce Baugh,

"schemes to make work 'homey' without, you know, allowing for one's own life or anything like that."

Careful, you'll get me writing about Fish! Philosophy again.

Seriously, Jackall had some good material on watered-down human-relations approaches like Fish!. He noted the frequent following of utterly ruthless downsizings (you know, people showing up for work to be told without warning to "Take your $50 off the dresser and get the hell out, we're done wit ya," and escorted out by security) by smarmy rhetoric about the "family atmosphere." At the Employer That Must Not Be Named, the same independent HR contractor who's identifying the targets for downsizing is also in charge of the Fish! program. So she's responsible for bending us over the desk and making us like it at the same time. Jackall also quoted senior management figures at places most involved in such smarmy bullshit who, under cover of anonymity, expressed opinions on what a lot of horse hockey it was and said things like "Let 'em be happy on their own time." Somehow, it's easier not to hate someone like that.

Lady Aster,

"Warrior" is definitely a compliment--"soldier," not so much. Thanks!


That's a horrible story, but one that probably hits home for way too many people. I hope your sister saved copies of every positive evaluation she ever received from management, so she can contrast it against any negative stuff that suddenly starts appearing in her file. When I worked at the VA, I periodically went through my personnel file with a union rep and got a signed statement that no negative material was in there at the time, and kept these with copies of the positive comments on my annual reviews. It's always good to be insured against an attempt to manufacture a negative paper trail.

You might also pass along a link to Documented Reference Check. http://www.badreferences.com/ For a relatively modest fee (still under $100, I'd guess) they'll call up your job references and check to see if anyone's attempting to blacklist you. They operate under several different registered names, so they can truthfully say "I'm with So-and-so Corp., and I'm checking Joe Blow's job references." And the calls are made by licensed court reporters. Faced with evidence from DRC, companies tend to settle pretty quickly in slander cases.


In this day and age, "professionalism" in its new sense is likely to work against such dedication. The only display of conscientiousness that's permitted is self-sacrifice. Any attempt to fight the constraints *management* put on your ability to perform quality service identifies you, perversely, as "unprofessional."

July 18, 2006 9:57 PM  
Blogger quasibill said...

This is all so true, and yet, to me at least, just a little bit off with respect to the class warfare aspect.

In the legal profession, the professionals did it to themselves. All the ills you describe are there, but these people did it to themselves. Partners at most firms now work only slightly less than 1st year associates. Sure, they get paid more, etc., but collectively, the partners oppress themselves. I attended a lecture once by an attorney who graduated at the top of his class from an ivy league law school in 1988. At that time, he says, a firm that required 1800 billable hours a year was considered a sweatshop by his peers. A little over ten years later, and you couldn't find a medium to large sized firm which didn't have a billable hour requirement over 2000.

I think part of the answer comes from another strain of your argument - the cultural degradation into a consumer society obsessed with material goods. It's not necessarily class oppression, as much as people have lost the sense of not everything in life is measured by how much $$ you make, or how prestigious your job is. Granted, I think I agree that that is ultimately traced back to mercantilist manipulations, but I think some people will hear your arguments ring hollow if you don't at least acknowledge the fact that many people today do it to themselves.

July 19, 2006 5:49 AM  
Blogger Vache Folle said...

When I was a young man, I wanted very much to be a "gentleman" rather than a farmer or working class or tradesman or engaged in base commerce. I looked to the "gentlemen's professions" to elevate me above my station in life. I chose law (and a military commission in the reserves for good measure) because it seemed most easily attainable (medicine smacked of effort and math) and lucrative (clergy and soldiering pay less).

What a scam! Lawyering was by then no longer a gentleman's profession; it was just another form of commerce no nobler than selling insurance or used cars and in many ways even less dignified. I had taken all that training and had conformed to the system for nothing.

I never did become a gentleman, but now I don't even want to be one.

July 19, 2006 7:14 AM  
Blogger Doc said...

Kevin - well written and drawing awesome feedback. I like your collective response to responses.

as a scientist, an entrepeneur and a curmudgeon, i have no problem understanding motivations and assisting people that motivate me to come to their aid. The frustration of working with a series of misrepresentative takers jaundicedmy opinion of working with-in the framework of 'the professional'. One look at my pictures, description or accounts turns off most conventional readers. But the approach that i take toward enhancing my own wisdom in pursuit of truth generally motivates me to do things right and abide by the law, as long as it is abidable (is that a word?).

I relate very well to Vache, especially his gentleman story. If you cast yourself in that role, you tend to wish to stay within the role, even though it would be strategically better to step out of the role. But to what end? Ultimately, we work to satisfy our own desire for interest or for money - which is why i read a mutualist site - one for all and all for one plays well if greed is removed from the equation. Ah, Bartlebey - we know it cannot be.

July 19, 2006 11:50 AM  
Blogger k. edward warmoth said...

I, as well, have thought "professionals" to be someone that is one-of-a-kind and far advanced in their trade. However, I guess I'm a professional, with whatever it is I do.

I really enjoyed this blog and I've been looking for a good one on Mutualist principles and other sorts of things. Thanks for the great read and keep it up!

BTW, I'm adding this to my blogroll, because I feel all 4 of my readers would like it.


July 19, 2006 11:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, this is brilliant and spot-on. Yes, workers are expected to feel pride in work which they do not self-direct and which does not require independence, imagination, creativity or skill. They're expected to feel like it's a vocation. It might be reasonable to expect a doctor or a lawyer to feel that way, but why the hell shouldn't a waitress be able to punch a clock and then go home and derive meaning from being a friend or a sister or a mother instead of a waitress?

It's totally true that the old sense of "professionalism" is being twisted into something more like "obedience" or conformity, and this is true for people like doctors and academics as well as for blue-collar workers--just ask any HMO doctor.

I'm a bit confused as to what you mean by this, though--

I'd be happy to compromise on the original five professions--letters, medicine, law, holy orders, and arms--if we could reclaim the concept of the skilled trade for everything else.

Care to clarify?

July 21, 2006 9:10 PM  
Blogger Impatient Patient said...

Love this get it and will NEVER take a supervisor position unless it pays hourly. And even then---who needs the crap.

I could tell you about how a certain Canadian company that sells stuff makes it so there are too many chiefs and not enough gofers- and then how they screw their people out of EVERYTHING------but I am sure that there are a million stories out there like mine and it would be repetetive and boring. Socialism by Sam Roberts is making me smile these days- a catch anthem....

That said, I work for tips and I will tell you that there is nothing like busting my ass and getting recognized for it in the form of cold hard cash. Am i wrong to like that feeling and make a legit living????

July 31, 2006 12:31 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

"...I work for tips and I will tell you that there is nothing like busting my ass and getting recognized for it in the form of cold hard cash. Am i wrong to like that feeling and make a legit living????"

I don't think so. The more connection between work and reward, the better. The problem with giant corporations now is that those at the top don't know what a good job is, and those at the bottom have absolutely no incentive to improve productivity or share their knowledge of the process with their bosses.

July 31, 2006 12:40 AM  

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