Dan S. Wang on Sun, 11 Aug 2013 11:36:39 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Companies and Towns

Posted a few weeks ago, thought some here might want to chew on it...
-- Dan w.

"The company town, that is the next logical step."

Said an old friend of mine in between chomps of his mixed seafood
salad?bosses' fare for a man expressing discontent from the point of view of
labor. Such is life in the Political Age of the 99%. Even the well-fed are
fed up. We were sitting at the counter of the Tadich Grill early on a Friday
night in June in San Francisco's financial district. This was a treat for
me?the food, the city, and now getting to hear a first hand report from a
pal who works deep within a major tech player. For him the treat was for the
first time in months leaving work for a dinner engagement before eight
o'clock. He had bolted the office at five not just to work around my evening
departure flight, but because he had already resigned himself to going in
the next day, Saturday, and most likely some on Sunday for good measure.

When I asked if he was always that swamped with work, he basically offered
that he was swamped with evaluations. No annual performance evaluations in
fast-moving Silicon Valley?no, those old-fashioned ways are for east coast
brokerage firms and midwestern insurance companies. In an application of
many a start-up guru's wisdom
<http://davidcummings.org/2008/07/06/quarterly-performance-reviews/> , this
internet behemoth (long beyond its legendary start-up days) subjected its
many hundreds of heavy-lifting engineers to the pressure of the quarterly
evaluation. At his salary level and with his skills, my friend learned to be
paranoid constantly, to assume that any negatives on an evaluation would
open the door for a younger, cheaper, and more recently graduated worker to
be brought in. He'd been there for three years and it is time to move up or
move on, else face stagnation, which in his field means a sour fate indeed,
a purgatory of the most Valley-kind: contract work for life.

What about the work itself? To see your brainpower and problem-solving going
into web architecture relied on by hundreds of thousands people all around
the world everyday, that must be satisfying, no? No. First of all, his
team's assignments come down from above, which means that his input on the
strategic level is very limited. When the assignments come, they come with
pressure?everything needs to be done yesterday. But the assignments are
cancelled and completely reformulated with equally short notice. Imagine
sprinting for a finish line as hard as you can in one direction, all the
while knowing that the race may be halted at any time, and that the whole
team will be redirected toward a completely different finish line and
expected to sprint toward it with no break. Second, this breakneck pace and
unceasing work, backed by the pressure of quarterly reviews in which upper
management grades on a curve, ie no matter one's empirical performance, half
the team is reviewed negatively?what is it all for? For this particular
web-empire's sports news portal. Can you say, Who the fuck cares??

Before he goes into his serious venting, my pal hands me a selection of
varietal chocolates courtesy of the company. 
This is his summary of the conditions there?a beautiful campus, free
high-quality, mostly organic breakfast, lunch, and dinner, free big-name
weekly entertainment (bands, authors, up-close celebrity appearances), yoga
and premium workout facilities, and little treats thrown at them all the
time like these chocolates, which ironically advertise themselves as being
free of slave labor. 
<http://prop-press.typepad.com/.a/6a0133f3da504b970b01901e3a7065970b-pi> Why
even go home when the goodies are at work? Oh, to sleep, change clothes, and
check the junk mail. Sleeping pods are the next amenity, if the Valley ever
runs out of single twenty-somethings with CS degrees who don¹t mind pulling
all-nighters. My friend is wrong. It's not the company town, it's the
company life.


"You see, Madison is a company town."

Those are the words of our local radical historian Allen Ruff
<http://allenruff.blogspot.com/> , spoken at theFighting Forward
<http://www.fightingforward.org/> session on the Aftermath of the Wisconsin
Uprising. He was speaking of the University as "the company" and he is
correct. Like the company towns that dotted the Rust Belt in its industrial
heydey, Madison is also home to many spin-offs, suppliers, and copycats of
the main company. The business of the University is research and education.
The spin-offs are the start-ups and tech companies, the creative industries,
the hospitals and clinics, and the whole range of knowledge-work
institutions that call Dane County their home. The support industries
include the coffeeshops, the 24-hour gyms, and the locavore restaurants. The
sizable body of non-UW state employees who reside in Madison also fall into
the category of workers in related industries.

Like the company towns of a generation ago, this town's company is under
growing pressure from new forces of competition, internal decay, and the
rigidity of its fixed investments. The superficial trend is toward a company
that does more with less, an abstraction of efficiency that tells nothing of
the real costs of the University's responses to the pressure it receives.
Those responses include the generation-long trend of steep tuition
increases?a development that shuts out academically qualified would-be
students and practically indentures others?and the making of a precarious
body of workers, first among them the graduate students who teach many of
the courses and almost all of the discussion sections. Moreover, a small but
increasing number of slots once offered to Wisconsinites and other Americans
are now being taken by the children of the cash-paying wealthy from around
the world, especially China.

The unfolding crisis is most apparent in the secondary institutions, the
ones that suffer some variety of the same ills but surf on far less
accumulated fat and prestige than does the University. And as in Janesville,
Saginaw, Benton Harbor, or any other twentieth-century company town, here
the gap between decay and reterritorialization is wide enough to accommodate
the establishment of a substantial class of human beings, what Ruff calls
(quoting Chomsky) the superfluous population, that is, people who are
neither consumers nor producers. For them, another industry serves,
employing guards, police, surveillance hardware, probation officers, and
social workers.

Near the end of the session a fellow in the audience, one of only two (from
what I could see) persons of color in the room (yeah, me being the other
one), asked a question about the achievement gap in Madison. He posed it as
a query concerning the connection between race-correlated high school
achievement in Madison and, as he said, the University¹s annual
"importation" into the city of thousands of white students. In attempting to
make sense of his own words, the man mentioned the factoid of Madison's
achievement gap being widest at the upper income levels, thereby implying
that controlled for income, racism stands as the most plausible explanation
of the operating gap between black and white students. Then he called
attention to our segregated geographies, citing the Owl Creek subdivision
c002e0.html>  as an example of the spatial margins of race in Madison.
Calling attention to racism in the context of a political discussion of the
Uprising through highlighting the specific marginalizations suffered by
black and brown people in our city was a welcome intervention, though his
synthesis remained incomplete.

In response and as a closing remark Allen spoke of the color line, of its
primacy as a line of separation keeping the full power of the left from
being realized. The simplicity of the statement only hints at the
complexities for of course there has always been more than a single, static
color line, and color lines stretch unevenly across geographical space.
Allen himself applied a spatialized racial analysis in the post-recall
analysis he wrote for The Progressive
<http://www.progressive.org/wisconsin_recall_post_mortem.html> . He
convincingly argued then that Scott Walker and the WI GOP leadership forged
a winning statewide coalition by successfully bridging the divide between
rich and poor, suburban and rural, through appeals to a white electorate.

How to apply this analysis to progressive, enlightened Madison is the
question. Thinking of the University as a company that, like all dominant
employers, manages its labor in accordance with the interests of the
institution (whether for-profit or not) may be helpful. Though not
capitalist by nature, for many years now and intensively in the last decade
at least, the University has been turned strongly toward a corporate and
privatized agenda, and now largely defines and negotiates its interests in
reaction to an aggressively anti-intellectual, anti-educational conservative
regime. Given that, and the consequent rollback of the University's once
active redistributive agenda, what is the connection between the University
and the worsening racial/spatial politics of Madison?  


It is a little over a month later and I am back in the Bay Area. My, how
four weeks can change everything.

My plane touched down only a couple hundred yards from the burned out hulk
of Asiana Airlines flight 214. I could see the investigators on the ground
studying the wreckage.

A broad contingent of inmates in California prisons are on hunger strike
000_n_3567639.html> .

BART workers are observing a shakey truce with management but may strike
again at any time 
or-talks-resume-and> .    

And my friend? He indeed has moved on. Interview and negotiation turned into
an offer; he is about take to the treadmill at yet another Silicon Valley
pioneer-turned-corporate-giant, by my count his sixth company in a career
less than fourteen years old. I'm crashing at his Palo Alto pad while he's
out east visiting family. His vacations only come between jobs. The
companies take the rest.



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