Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 2 December 1998; on the web by permission, August 2003

A great many books reviewed in CNT in recent years have been critiques of global capitalism. No apologies for that. It is the dominant reality of our time. Books reviewed here have criticized the system from diverse points of view—theological, economic, ecological, political, and philosophic. That is all to the good.

Yet after reading the umpteenth review, or book itself, readers yawn. Is the system really as flawed as critics claim?

Levine answers this question without discussing global capitalism at all. His topic is the working lives of everyday people, and the rotten things that happen to them as employees. He left his own job as a business journalist to launch an Internet web-site for inspecting work from the perspective not of CEOs but of their underlings. The web-site proved popular. Visit it at www.disgruntled.com. His book combines first-person horror stories that earlier visitors have shared electronically, with Levine's own analysis.

"Big Brother is here," the author writes, "but Orwell got it wrong. It's not the government that has stripped us of our privacy, but our employers." This insight hits the mark. Among the most immediate consequences of global capitalism is the loss of employees' countervailing power vis-a-vis their employers. Citizens have to leave their freedom, dignity, and self-respect behind when they walk through the workplace door. Inside the corporations of a nominally free society, there is often tyranny.

Instead of repeating one of Levine's stories, I can tell a newer one. In the midst of writing this review, I spent a morning at the local courthouse photocopying documents from a lawsuit brought by a chemistry professor against the university that formerly had her on its faculty. She lost her job, she claims, because she tried to practice academic freedom, and refused to place her research in the service of her department chair's private company. She says the university not only let her go on that account, but spread false rumours that she stole other scientists' work.

The day she was called in to receive her termination letter happened to be her birthday. The dean, she alleges, joked that she could take the letter as a birthday present.

The university is asking a court for summary dismissal of this professor's claim, on grounds that she has failed to provide the clinical notes of her family doctor. The professor has filed a letter from her doctor, but she argues the university has no right to see his notes on her visits to his office, unless these notes are shown to have some bearing on the case.

Every reader of CNT, I wager, knows someone with a tale of similar alleged ill-treatment at the hands of a corporate employer. Levine writes for people who want to fight back.

The chapters of this book are in the sequence of an ordinary person's working life. Part 1 describes job searching and negotiating pay. Part 2 ("Inhuman Relations") reviews ways workers are abused: discrimination, sexual harassment, invasion of privacy, health and safety risks, the shift from full-time to contract, and anti-union maneuvers. Levine quotes Harvard professor Elaine Bernard: "As power is presently distributed, workplaces are factories of authoritarianism polluting our democracy."

The final chapters discuss how workers respond, how they try to reclaim self-respect. Sabotage is the first solution, a common one among disgruntled employees. There is a chapter on the dangerous game of whistleblowing. Levine's preferred solution is to quit. Increasingly, he says, work-weary people are abandoning high-consumption lifestyles for less costly, more human ways of life.

To anyone, male or female, contemplating this last alternative, I recommend also Paula Brook's new book, Work Less / Live More: a Woman's Guide (Doubleday, 1998).

More common, of course, than any of these solutions is the sacrifice of self to corporate demands, for the sake of getting a raise and increasing one's spending power. But Levine isn't writing for people who take the easy way out. He concludes the book with lists of organizations and web-sites of interest to those seeking change—not so much in global capitalism as in their own short lives.