A Conversation with a Customer

Today I want to recount a conversation with one of my customers. He was a friendly gentleman, who worked as a hospital supply officer (he ordered the medical equipment for hospitals), and we got into an animated discussion on work.

I had argued that workers are squeezed given the corporate structure. He replied that this process was ongoing, because top managers wanted to squeeze the lower level employees first, before they reduce their own privileges. Okay, so he must also be on the side of the workers. Not exactly.

He also said that the biggest expense of the company is payroll (employees) and that restructurings (i.e. firing workers to reduce labor costs) are necessary.

I made the quite abstract case that human resources are the most important resource in the company and that any poor country in the world is poor due to their poor human resources (lack of training, education etc.). He conceded that, but then turned around and attacked many workers in the retail sector of the rich countries for providing poor customer service, because they were not interested in their customers, but more in their after-work plans.

So workers as an important-in fact, essential- resource for capitalist production are suddenly no longer an important resource, but they consist of lazy rascals, who are bleeding dry the corporate treasury. Reality of course points to the opposite: the workers are the essential resource, and the top managers and shareholders are bleeding dry the corporate treasury. He hinted at that briefly, but found it of no greater moral concern that that was going on. The moral concern for him are the lower level employees instead. As Malcolm X put it, “If you are not careful, the newspaper will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

The perspective of the customer reflects the most fundamental acceptance of the kind of capitalist precept that has produced so much unnecessary suffering among workers.

When I had earlier complained about the restructuring in our own industry, his only concern were the needs of the industry and the customers, and not for the workers. He said that the store he liked to go to used to sell polo shirts, and he usually bought them, but that the store stopped selling those polo shirts, because when the business owners made the calculation of the cost of rent relative to the revenues from the shirts, they found that there were not enough customers to warrant the continued sale of the polo shirts. So he-as a disappointed customer- had to get his needs satisfied elsewhere.

I replied that the fundamental problem lies not with the consumer, who can usually find his products in a different location (one benefit of capitalism is consumer choice). The problem was the way how employees were treated.

But for him only consumers and the capitalist owners existed as having relevant needs. The workers, who are essential in this relationship, are invisible, or they are the selfish and slothful retail workers, who can’t do their job properly. (Not that they don’t exist, but they are not the fundamental problem in this economy.)

I tried a different tack by speaking of McDonald’s workers who are in part being replaced by advanced computer technology. I came to that topic, because he had talked about his son, who was studying to become an engineer. He had spoken of the huge needs that we have of engineers, especially when servicing the corporate sector. I replied that the job market was even poor for many engineers, though doubtlessly better than for most other workers (Thibodeau 2014). But more importantly, it were the engineers, who have developed the kinds of labor-saving technology, which most businesses had been craving for all along (so their profits can get even larger at the expense of their employees). Where are the displaced low-skilled and increasingly high skilled workers going to go?

This social problem seemed to be of no concern to the customer, and he went on to praise the important contribution of engineers to further optimize the business process. But optimization with what social outcome?

I should stress at this point that I am no Luddite. I am a as fascinated about technical advances and engineering ingenuity as he, but I am also interested in the social impact of unemployment, and the larger government policies that are necessary to cushion unemployment and social hardship. That would include both a job guarantee, and a negotiated reduction of the work week.

But regardless of the proposals that I have in mind, that particular customer was incapable to contemplate alternative outcomes, because he was too narrowly interested in what makes sense from a business perspective regardless of the social consequences.

Form a social class perspective, I presume that the customer is no more than upper middle class (though as a chief officer of hospital supplies, he commands no less than a low six figure salary). He is not a capitalist himself, and he is likely an employee himself. But he has so thoroughly absorbed the capitalist logic that it would be hard to distinguish him from real capitalists.

But this is what the system is ultimately based on. Capitalism is a system carried out by humans against other humans, and a system perpetuates itself through the hegemony of the ruling beliefs, as Antionio Gramsci had pointed out. It is the game we all have to involuntarily play. But we can decide whether to like it or not. The customer chose to embrace it.

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