The Private Life of Power

20 Mar

From the Seattle Times:

When Justin Bassett interviewed for a new job, he expected the usual questions about experience and references. So he was astonished when the interviewer asked for something else: his Facebook username and password.

Bassett, a New York City statistician, had just finished answering a few character questions when the interviewer turned to her computer to search for his Facebook page. But she couldn’t see his private profile. She turned back and asked him to hand over his login information.

Bassett refused and withdrew his application, saying he didn’t want to work for a company that would seek such personal information. But as the job market steadily improves, other job candidates are confronting the same question from prospective employers, and some of them cannot afford to say no.

Since the rise of social networking, it has become common for managers to review publically available Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts and other sites to learn more about job candidates. But many users, especially on Facebook, have their profiles set to private, making them available only to selected people or certain networks.

Companies that don’t ask for passwords have taken other steps – such as asking applicants to friend human resource managers or to log in to a company computer during an interview. Once employed, some workers have been required to sign non-disparagement agreements that ban them from talking negatively about an employer on social media.

From The Reactionary Mind:

Historically, the conservative has sought to forestall the march of democracy in both the public and the private spheres, on the assumption that advances in the one necessarily spur advances in the other. Still, the more profound and prophetic stance on the right has been to cede the field of the public, if he must, but stand fast in the private. Allow men and women to become democratic citizens of the state; make sure they remain feudal subjects in the family, the factory, and the field.

h/t Aaron Bady and Brian Schefke

Update (March 21, 7 am)

Incidentally, that quote above from The Reactionary Mind plus this story make clear why I treat libertarianism as a creature of the right, and not the left or something that transcends left and right.

28 Responses to “The Private Life of Power”

  1. mike C March 20, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

    Isn’t it great for a company to demonstrate its values BEFORE you make the commitment to actually work there? If you cannot say no to that invasion of privacy, would you know to say no to someone asking you to be, say, complicit in fraud?

    I always check facebook, google, tumbler, and random blogposts before I hire someone. I want to make sure that someone has at least an internet trail of doing what their resume says they have done; sometimes it really to their credit.

    Keeping their private life private? priceless and welcome aboard.

  2. Alexandra Kollontai March 20, 2012 at 9:41 pm #

    Here’s the thing, Mike C: Your and other companies’ values boil down to this: totalitarian. Because you can. Because so far, you and your class and your state have agreed that workplaces can be totalitarian. You can repeat it’s normal all you want, but that doesn’t make it right, or conducive to a good society. Your values are as trashy as your non-hire’s private lives. So if we make them public, I think we both agree, they’re subject to evaluation and judgment.

    We’ve heard all the plaintive stories of commie totalitarianism, but there are a billion stories of grinding, dehumanizing, day-in, day-out workplace totalitarianism all around us.

    For just one in my experience, when I was young (early-1990s), I worked for American Express processing billing. Gigantic floors of human processors in cubicles. Glorified factory job–we were required to call ourselves a “team” and a “family.” It was so dehumanizing and stressful, I spent a chunk of my $20K salary (That’s right. No compensation for consistent overtime. It was a 20K salary!) on emergency-room bills for when my back seized up gruesomely painfully, and I couldn’t even sit, let alone stand. (And I have exceedingly high pain tolerance. Just ask my midwife.) You ought to be able to call it corporal violence when job conditions regularly cause a 23-year-old back to seize up.

    The condition of getting the glorified factory job required fingerprinting. As if the serfs at the computers and check processing machines were the potential big threat, rather than the credit companies themselves, and their upper management.

    Totalitarian, day-in and day-out: American Express minions were regularly told, via mass communiques, how to vote, and that we should call our legislators to demand this or that policy the corporation wanted. They conceived their employees as their serfs.

    Totalitarian is normal: Once I had to leave my Saturday shift early to catch a plane. I had arranged a month in advance for a substitute to take over my shift. I waited, and had to leave so as to not miss the plane. Group billing processing, horrors of humanity, was slightly delayed by an hour. I don’t know how capitalism didn’t come tumbling down. When I came back from my trip, I found that my departure without timely replacement required punishment. I was put on computer monitoring. If I had to leave to go to the bathroom, I had to request of the entire “team” permission to leave my desk and log my bathroom break with the computer.

    My only solace was the giant-font “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign that I hung over the entire gigantic floor’s communication white board, and how the American Express brass let that stay up the whole year. I guess, like Mike, they were just signaling their values.

    • Arker March 23, 2012 at 9:34 am #

      It sounds like a really awful place to work, and I wouldnt minimise that at all. But at the same time I understand that they are only able to behave like this because the market for labour is and has been kept artificially low by government and quasi-government action. You cant solve that by patching the situation with yet more intrusive laws and economic tinkering, that can only make the problem worse, not better. But simply ending the manipulations and allowing the labour market to reach a natural level would make labour far too valuable to be mistreated this way for long. Rather than a law saying you cant do this (which would open a pandoras box of other issues and probably wind up being twisted to the exact opposite of the intended ends by the time it is really implemented anyway) wouldnt you rather just have a competitive labour market where if you are treated like this you know you can just go to work for any of a number of other places that wont mistreat you instead?

      I know I would.

      • Todd March 24, 2012 at 7:54 pm #

        “the market for labour is and has been kept artificially low by government and quasi-government action”

        Please explain.

        “wouldnt you rather just have a competitive labour market where if you are treated like this you know you can just go to work for any of a number of other places that wont mistreat you instead? ”

        Except that you can do this already ie quit a job where you’re “mistreated” to go find another one where you supposedly will be treated better.

        Meanwhile, while you’re looking, what do you do for income? And why should you run away from your income because a bastard treats you like a cog?

      • Arker March 24, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

        “Please explain.”

        The government interferes in the labour market in myriad ways, the net effect is strongly to increase the cost of labour, which in turn depresses the demand for labour, which causes unemployment. Unemployment – i.e. an imbalanced labour market – in turn creates the situation where the employer has such an absurdly overpowered hand because changing employment becomes such a hardship. In a free market with full employment the natural power relationship is more equal, and employers who mistreat employees will eventually find it impossible to keep staff.

        “Except that you can do this already ie quit a job where you’re “mistreated” to go find another one where you supposedly will be treated better.”

        You can, yes, but because the market is distorted in favour of the employer this will cost you, the employee, greatly. So greatly that some argue it amounts to coërcion.

        “Meanwhile, while you’re looking, what do you do for income? ”

        Exactly my point. In a regulated labour market you may sit for years unable to find work, and this is a punishment and a conditioning to reënforce workplace authoritarianism. It is the condition of standing, general unemployment, not just the specific instance of an individual quitting a bad job, that causes the problem. With no standing unemployment, no prolonged period of unemployment might be expected, and hence no great hardship.

        “And why should you run away from your income because a bastard treats you like a cog?”

        Because you dont want to be treated that way, and there are plenty of other sources of income available?

  3. Chris Bertram March 21, 2012 at 3:55 am #

    Corey I take it you’ve seen

    http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/03/workplace-coercion/

    by that woman whose reaction to your post on bathroom breaks was to comment deploring unions. See her view that employers “permissibly constrain” employee options and that that employers requiring employees to have sex with them or be fired is wrong is that it amounts to a deceptive change in “job description”. Note then, that anything that an employer flags up at interview is fine (since not involving deception), including this kind of thing. So much for the bleeding heart!

    • Corey Robin March 21, 2012 at 6:44 am #

      I hadn’t seen this, Chris. Thanks. In addition to the problem you cite — how far is she willing to take this consent argument, I wonder; she seems awfully willing to conflate consent with normative authority over — her argument raises another problem.

      I wonder if some of these folks have ever looked at an actual job description. There’s no way it could itemize all the ins and outs of a job. Job descriptions are usually incredibly generic. If she’s saying that since the job description doesn’t include giving up sex to the boss, you can’t be required to give up sex to the boss as a condition of the job (not sure where laws prohibiting prostitution fit in here, but whatever), what about all the other things bosses will ask their employees to do as a condition of the job? I’ve never seen a job description that specifies you have to hold in your pee if the boss tells you to do so (or that you have to pee, for that matter, if a boss tells you to do so). I’ve never seen a job description that specifies you have to answer your boss if s/he asks who you voted for in the last election. Hell, I’ve never seen a job description that specifies you have to do whatever your boss tells you to do. So she’s either granting employees a tremendous amount of freedom — whatever is not specified and detailed in the job description is impermissible; any requirement to do such tasks, on condition of being fired, is coercion (a definition of coercion that goes well beyond anything I was talking about in my previous posts) — or she hasn’t quite spelled out the implications of what she’s saying. (Just think of the job descriptions you and I receive for our jobs. Mine doesn’t say anything, for example, about class size — even though that’s a major issue for any professor. I doubt any job description for faculty specifies class size.)

      But this just gets to the larger issue. The reason we have laws is precisely that we don’t want — nor do we believe it’s really possible — to have each and every contract spell out all the conditions of labor. Such a contract would be as long as the register of the law itself (or at least of employment and labor law).

      Of course, she could just revert back to some basic notion of common law authority that employers have — all the residual rights and responsibilities of ownership and the management authority that comes from that. But that then raises the question of the law itself, and what should or should be allowed by law. It makes the question of “normative authority” that she cites not an issue of basic right or consent but of the law. I.e., convention. So if the law specifies total rights of authority for management, it can be changed to specify contrary-wise. It also suggests what’s wrong with her use of the kidney example: she takes a physical body and the normative claims we have over our own bodies and conflates that with property law and the conventions therein. She just naturalizes — and fetishizes — a social convention.

  4. wetcasements March 21, 2012 at 5:43 am #

    You can check a potential employee’s Facebook without coercing them into giving their login information. Huge difference.

    “I want to make sure that someone has at least an internet trail of doing what their resume says they have done”

    So instead of checking actual references you check out check out their Tweets?

    I can’t imagine your business is doing very well with that kind of cognitive dissonance at the top.

  5. Chris Bertram March 21, 2012 at 6:56 am #

    I think my contract requires me to perform such duties as the university deems necessary, or something like that! Certainly it used to (I think they may have tightened up a bit). No doubt she thinks the responsibility is on the individual to hold out for a watertight and complete specification of duties when they sign on. Of course (a) all contracts are incomplete and hence the effectiveness of “working to rule and (b) anyone who tried that line in an ordinary job would be outing themselves as crazy and would get to offer withdrawn.

    • Corey Robin March 21, 2012 at 7:02 am #

      I’m fairly certain mine doesn’t (though we have a union). Even so, it doesn’t spell out either the complete duties (and the conditions of those duties — early on in my teaching career, we had a spring that was incredibly hot; I remember one class was on something like a 100 degree day with God-awful humidity; there was no AC (they had a rule then about not turning it on until late May), and it was really unbearable. I just canceled the class b/c I couldn’t teach it. Of course nothing in the contract either way about the temperature in the building.) Nor does it leave it up to the university to define those duties (and I’m not sure most contracts do).

  6. unixclan March 24, 2012 at 5:19 am #

    Proprietarians like the US Libertarian party and Ron Paul are right wing.

    Actual libertarians are left wing.

    http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/150-years-of-libertarian

  7. Todd March 25, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    Arker wrote this:

    “The government interferes in the labour market in myriad ways, the net effect is strongly to increase the cost of labour, which in turn depresses the demand for labour, which causes unemployment.”

    a repetition of this:

    “the market for labour is and has been kept artificially low by government and quasi-government action”

    Needless to say, the former doesn’t explain the latter. I want you to explain to me exactly what the government does to keep the price of labour “artificially” high.

    “but because the market is distorted in favour of the employer”

    Isn’t this contradicting your above points?

    “Because you dont want to be treated that way, and there are plenty of other sources of income available?”

    You seem to believe that anyone can get a job just by snapping his fingers. If, as you contend, the labour market is priced artificially high, this mitigates against being able to get a job easily, no?

    • Arker March 26, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

      There isnt any one good answer to that Todd because the answer really is something you have to get by looking at the whole pattern – many thousands of mostly small interventions, almost all of which incrementally increase the cost of labour. Taxes are part of it, but so is every other mandate imposed. No matter what the specific purpose a specific mandate is aimed at accomplishing, and regardless of whether or not it is effective there, there is also always this ‘side effect’ of compliance cost.

      So if you understand economics at all, you know that when you incrementally add these extra costs, employers respond (and have to respond) by making do with fewer employees. This is not a one-to-one trigger response but it is equally certain on a statistical level – across the nation, you increase the cost of labour ever so slightly, you will reduce the number of jobs ever so slightly. This is how you create unemployment.

      I am not contradicting myself, you simply are making an unwarranted assumption that *artificially* raising cost of labour favours labour. It does not, as I am trying to explain to you. When you raise the cost of labour artificially, you create unemployment, and unemployment is the implicit aggression which then gives the employer the power in the employer-employee relationship, which is what creates the stage where the abuses in the workplace that lefties decry can actually occur.

  8. Todd March 26, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    Arker wrote:

    “the answer really is something you have to get by looking at the whole pattern”

    This is better than what sounded an awful lot like conspiracism.

    However, if you want to look at the whole pattern, you’ve so far ignored the desires and actions of capital to keep labour markets as slack as they can and employees under control through fear of losing their jobs.

    • Arker March 27, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

      “Conspiracism” could mean a lot of things. It’s my experience that conspiracy is a normal feature of human politics. On the other hand clearly insane ‘conspiracy theorists’ tend to see a single huge conspiracy ruling all the others, which is entirely contrary to my experience.

      By capital of course you mean employers and potential employers, and of course we can and should expect them to pursue their own interests. Motive is a given. But opportunity? Almost entirely a matter of lobbying for and leveraging state power. Not only to increase labour costs (which can be sold to labour in various ways as helpful, even though it isnt) but in many other ways as well.

      Legislation to artificially raise cost of entry into markets (to prevent competition) is usually sold as necessary for safety in some form or another, for instance. And it may be that the bill mandates common-sense safety measures that are hard to argue against in one section, while also increasing the cost of generating and curating the necessary documentation, for instance. You can argue that has a good (safety) effect, but at the same time it increases the price of labour (not, mind you, take home pay, but the cost to employ – which includes the former but is not limited to it) and increases the cost to enter the market, which helps the incumbent employer by creating unemployment (a strong motivator for the employee to be submissive rather than risk the job market) and protects that same incumbent businessman from would-be competitors at the same time. Those effects are far too pernicious for the safety increase to be worth it, and furthermore, without them, I would expect to be more likely to find a job where proper safety equipment was used anyway. Why? Because without unemployment, it is the employER not the employEE who doesnt want to end the relationship and risk the labour market unless absolutely necessary.

      • Todd March 27, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

        “Motive is a given. But opportunity? Almost entirely a matter of lobbying for and leveraging state power.”

        What about the news piece above, or the one about bathroom breaks? That had nothing to do with lobbying or leveraging government; it was business privately running the lives of its workers wherever it could in order to facilitate profit-making or fear of the sack. Yes, obviously capital does what you describe, but you make it sound as though it has no private power whatsoever and doesn’t seek to increase that private power.

        What about what happens when owners aren’t making their expected returns on capital? They fire workers, en masse if they feel that’s necessary, which is an exercise in private power.

        “Legislation to artificially raise cost of entry into markets”

        Yes, this does happen, but what about legislation aimed at reducing the cost of entry into markets eg “right-to-work” laws and laws designed to bring in guest-workers who’ll work cheaply and more pliably than someone who takes it into his/her head that s/he has a right to demand more?

        “which helps the incumbent employer by creating unemployment (a strong motivator for the employee to be submissive rather than risk the job market) and protects that same incumbent businessman from would-be competitors at the same time.”

        So, by this account, it’s far more important to create more employment by giving businesses “what they want”, while at the same time increasing competition (which isn’t what capital tends towards in any event) than, say, installing safety measures (we won’t go into the assumption that capital will automatically create more jobs if people bow its wishes, something that’s been empirically disproven for the past decade or so).

        “I would expect to be more likely to find a job where proper safety equipment was used anyway. Why? Because without unemployment, it is the employER not the employEE who doesnt want to end the relationship and risk the labour market unless absolutely necessary.”

        Again, you show a remarkable (yet undeserved) faith that an unemployed person will get a job right-away that, through market-action, has managed to alleviate the problem that drove him away from the previous job. A market _can_ do this, all other things being equal (which they usually aren’t),but why assume this will happen in good time?

        Have you read Kalecki’s “Political Aspects of Full Employment”?

        http://www.cfeps.org/ss2006/readings/Courvisanos_c.pdf

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