Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Murderous Smile: Mark Ames on American shoot-ups.

Someone in the comments boxes recommended Mark Ames' Going Postal shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre. You can read Ames' take on the Virginia Tech Massacre here, but do pick up the book if you see it. An aphotically witty and fact-heavy investigation such as this ought to be supplied to workers and students who want a preparatory course on the sources of these massacres. The heuristic is infallibly correct, which is remarkable since he starts with a hypothesis that the killings are in some senses 'justified'. That, I assume, has a few jaws dropping - but stick with this.

Little Doughboy's revenge
The title refers to the fact that these massacres began to occur in the 1980s in the US Postal Service (USPS) and expanded rapidly to various American workplaces, from Louisville to Honolulu, often destroying companies in the process. Hence, a workplace assassin has 'gone postal'. The turning point came when Joseph Wesbecker entered his workplace in September 1989, a printing press called Standard Gravura, and shot seven of his co-workers to death, causing twenty others devastating wounds. He then put a gun to his own face and pulled the trigger. Ames was able to interview one of the survivors, Michael Campbell, whose body is deformed by the impact of six bullets from Wesbecker's various munitions. Oh hell, Campbell has told Ames' contact, "everybody supported him, everybody saw where he was coming from. His only problem was that he shot the wrong people." He isn't alone. Another worker at the plant tells Ames that Wesbecker was "pressed into it" And if he'd only got "the right people", he would have "had a lot more sympathy. Still does, as it is!" Finding out what could induce workers at the plant to say that takes Ames on a scintillating journey through America's corporate landscape. The initial media reaction - indeed the stock reaction to these events - was to describe a 'flip-out'. For here was a man who had been a conscientious worker, working enormous amounts of overtime, taking on the onerous role of working a noisy and dangerous machine called 'the folder' (which, due to its fumes and emissions, is a dangerous device and can only be worked for half-hour stretches). He saves up, buys a nice car and a good house. He is ambitious, but always good-humoured. Ah, but - he has marital problems, and suspects (apparently with some reason) that his wife sleeps with his co-workers. He is mocked and derided by his co-workers. He is on anti-depressant drugs. One of his sons had been seriously ill, and another had been caught flashing. And perhaps, oweing to his nickname, 'Rocky', he was known for violent tendencies. That must explain the indiscriminate rampage, then. Except that the massacre wasn't indiscriminate at all - he specifically, despite media depictions, picked his victims off while leaving others unharmed, and there is a great deal more to the story. Firstly, 'Rocky's' first nickname was 'Little Doughboy' on account of him being overweight and soft - he acquired the sobriquet 'Rocky' after mouthing off to a woman in a bar for the benefit of his friends, who then kicked the shit out of him. Secondly, his marital difficulties and his general difficulties with women were not new, nor had they exactly stopped him from trying.

In 1978, however, after working for the firm for seven years, he started to experience a multitude of problems - this was when he divorced his wife, when he son became sick and his other son got busted. In 1980, naturally enough, the stress of the work he had devoted himself to became too much. He requested that he be taken off 'folder' duty, and claimed that it was harming his health - other workers say that the 'folder' is indeed damaging. But the company refused to do so, and continued to refuse his request for years: no other worker wanted to take over, and he - a sort of laughing stock with both management and staff - didn't have any leverage. The union's strength had been diminished by economic hard times, and a Reaganite anti-union drive was about to make it even weaker. The plants was exposed to severe job cuts and wage freezes, and the owners - the wealthy Bingham family - were secretly constructing a new plant in Tennessee to shift production. They told the union leadership, when it was discovered, that they had either to agree to austerity measures or face the plant's closure. The union caved. So, when Wesbecker is expected to continue in a role that could well be killing him for a company that doesn't appear to care about him and indeed seems intent either on getting rid of him or squeezing the last drop out of him, he looks for every means to escape. The union will do little, so a doctor writes a letter for him begging the company to take him off the 'folder', to no avail. He files a discrimination complaint against the company on the grounds that he is diagnosed as a manic depressive, a form of incapacitation, and the company has made allowances for incapacitation in the past. The company's 'Human Resources' department (how I hate those words, and those people) stonewalls, offering the county's Human Relations Commission, which supports Wesbecker's claim, an outlandish string of claims explaining why Wesbecker and only he must be available for the 'folder'. Eventually, Wesbecker has to drop the claim and take medical leave for psychological stress. When he returns, instead of compromising, they stick him on long-term disability and drastically reduce his pay. The company was planning to cut his disability pension to 60% of its previous value in October 1989 - Wesbecker got them before they got him. After his massacre, the company was destroyed and had to shut down: such was the aim. He wished to destroy both the specific agents he saw as responsible for his miserable condition and the company that encouraged the bullying and victimisation that he experienced.

Slave rebellions and the capitalist road to serfdom
Wesbecker was not to be a one-off, and the circumstances tended to be similar: it was not a social type that could be identified so much as a set of conditions. The infamous postal massacres had always involved an element of workplace bullying and victimisation by management. The USPS, regarded somewhat benignly by most, was an arena of cruelty and suspicion between management and workers. And since the Nixon administration had forced the postal service for the first time in 140 years to subsist on its own profits, with competitors like Federal Express introduced later on, the workers were being squeezed to the last pip to get those profits in, with weekly workloads extending to 70 or 80 hours, and an increasing of terror and intimidation on the shop floor. It was Wesbecker who introduced the office massacre to the corporate mainstream, and in short order 'white collar' workplaces were being shot up all over America. Repeatedly, the killer is perceived as mild-mannered, pleasant, the last person to flip out. Repeatedly, it is discovered that the killer is experiencing either direct victimisation or serious distress as the corporate culture undermines basic conviviality. Repeatedly, the victims were picked off and others deliberately left to survive, with the supervisor being a primary target (often lucky enough to be out of the office, however). This is not random mayhem: it is insurgent rage.

Ames compares the office shoot-ups to the antebellum slave revolts, often involving doom-laden, violent outbursts, inspired by 'visions' or a sense of religious purpose. These modern Nat Turners are seen as incomprehensible lunatics, ingrates, precisely as the slave rebels were. To be clear, since some people have a knack for misunderstanding, Ames isn't saying that the condition of 'postindustrial' American workers is equivalent to that of slaves. But he notes that there were few such revolts, and suggests that the slaves adapted to their fate for a number of reasons: it was routinised, and became over the long-term a 'normal' state of affairs, such that resistance was often incomprehensible; another is the endless multidimensional PR efforts to get slaves to accept their position, usually led by the Church; another is the overwhelming militarisation of America before and after the Revolution, and the ability and willingness of the local ruling class to viciously suppress any manifestation of revolt; most important, in his view, is the willingness and ability of human beings to adapt to a great variety of oppressive or difficult situations. While we now regard the abolitionist position to be obvious and its challengers absurd and despicable, the situation in the early 1800s was quite the reverse. Even when abolitionism came to be an acceptable political platform, the 'moderate' or 'realistic' abolitionism was preferred to the 'radical' version. And so, we might discover with a shift of perspective that these massacres are comprehensible as a revolt against intolerable, desperate conditions, a result of a sustained blitz on workers' security and income.

Well, there is plenty of evidence for the latter, and you wouldn't have to read Ames' book to find that out. The statistics on wage growth, inequality and workplace safety tell their own tale, as does the almost psychopathic denial that is issued by corporate spokespeople every time a similar 'tragegy' occurs. But Ames discusses the full range of the attacks on workers since 1980. This includes not only the atrocious ways in which wealth has been transferred to the rich, while ever-expanding numbers of American workers have to put up with no health insurance, lousy wages, diminishing benefits, eroding pension schemes, and longer hours, but also the much-celebrated drives by people like Al 'Chainsaw' Dunlap and General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who insisted that workers have 'unlimited juice to squeeze', and that fear in the workplace was an invaluable tool of business. Indeed, the assumption of the right of capitalist firms to terrorise their staff is so ingrained that Ames has no difficulty turning up editorials and statements from successful CEOs on the topic, as well as some detail on the practise. One document, an internal memo from the CEO of the Cernel Corporation, is sickening and vile in its attempt to bully the middle managers into bullying the staff more effectively. The car parks aren't full at 8am, the boss whines, people are being allowed to come in late, and leave early. The managers are told that if they don't make sure that everyone is at work, arriving half an hour early and leaving half an hour late, they will be fired: and this is to be achieved by out-of-hours emergency meetings with staff in which they are threatened with the boot. Staff numbers are cut, facilities are cut, benefits are frozen, etc etc. There ought, says the boss, to be pizza men arriving at 7.30pm to feed starving workers. And there is no shortage of official corporate ideology legitimising this. Welch explains, for instance, that fear is "healthy, like pain is healthy" because it "gets you out of that comfortable equilibrium". It destroys "comfortable equilibrium" alright - sanity, marriages, families, livelihoods, communities...

Middle managers are therefore expected to humiliate and abuse, because it creates the necessary atmosphere for the efficient accumulation of capital. And surprise - the massacres often attempt to target victimising supervisors, screaming middle-managers, puffed up little tyrants who like to spy on the staff or threaten them with disciplinary action on the slightest grounds. In the absence of collective action, Ames suggests, more and more workers are internalising these corporate norms, making their diminishing office space into their personal sitting room, unlearning the average forms of communication that one needs to get on with the family on the odd occassion one sees them, losing touch with leisure time which they are increasingly unable to enjoy. Indeed, such is their fear of the sack that a new phenomenon started to emerge in the 1980s known as 'presenteeism' - people coming to work even though they were too sick to do their duties properly. Without a general critique, a frame in which to perceive these issues correctly, people tend to internalise the torment. They see themselves as at fault for not being perfectly happy. They put about that bonhomie that puts others at ease and protects them from the suspicion that they are losers. They conceal their stress, their difficulties, their depression. They're often noted for precisely their mild-mannered and commodious disposition. But sometimes, especially if their long hours and commitment have been rewarded with singling out, bullying, degenerating conditions - well, then they might stalk from office to office, single-mindedly tearing up selected victims with a stash of guns in a gym sack. These slave revolts are therefore the isolated acts of those finally and permanently deranged by corporate culture. They take out their perceived enemies, often shouting some vengeful last words as they do, and then (usually) destroy themselves while still on top of matters.

But, why the schools?
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are heroes to some. It wasn't long after their massacre before notes appeared on message boards or lists explaining that they did what many young people want to do. Tribute sites appeared, some offering advice on how you might complete your "mission" even more successfully than "St Eric" and "St Dylan". Subsequently, as we know, a bunch of 'copycats' were stopped in their tracks. Intelligent student misfits from two-parent loving families in 'Middle America' probably aren't the usual candidates for deification, but the act of mass murder has propelled them into many young hearts. They were not, as is usually claimed, Nazis, goths, gay, druggies or Marilyn Manson fans. Even so, as Ames points out, you don't go expressing sympathy for these people in public, otherwise you're off to boot camp, where you stand a chance of dying from wounds incurred there. You go online and chatter away to other assassinophiles, with a reasonable prospect of anonymity.

Well, before you get to the reason for this covert sympathy, you need to try and understand the nature of the crime. As has been repeatedly pointed out, no successful profile of a typical school shooter has yet been devised. Good students, bad students, wealthy ones, poor ones, ones from stable familes, others from broken homes... there's no archetype. This is because, as Ames puts it, "It isn't the office or schoolyard shooters who need to be profiled - they can't be. It is the workplaces and schools that need to be profiled". Now, this bit is rather crucial. I quote verbatim from his list of characteristics to watch for:

complaints about bullying go unpunished by an administration that supports the cruel social structure;

antiseptic corridors and overhead fluourescent lights reminiscent of a mid-sized airports;

rampant moral hypocrisy that promotes the most two-faced, mean, and shallow students to the top of the pecking order; and

maximally stressed parents push their kids to achieve higher and higher scores.

The second point, to avoid misunderstanding, is serious. The dispiriting, uglified surroundings provide an important experiential backdrop for the bullying and hypocrisy and stress. But of course, the main points here are the competitive social structure and the parents' eagerness to ensure children succeed within it. The school is a training ground for the workplace, inculcating the kind of discipline and habits that one will be constant throughout one's life. Most waking hours, at least five days a week, will be spent in competition with one's peers, and the assholes will always rise to the top if they weren't there to begin with. Bullying will be overlooked or tacitly condoned by people who sympathise with the bullies and find it difficult to manage their subordinates without them. They call it 'hazing', apparently, and its often meted out in a formal fashion along socioeconomic lines, sometimes by sororities and fraternities. It's defended as a bit of fun, or as a means to inculcate respect: on the contrary, it is often quite serious and generates fear and mistrust. Aside from the formal 'hazing', there are asshole teachers who will emotionally humiliate students in the name of discipline, and the usual ritual drudgery and idiocy that goes on the minutiae. Many of the most miserable, demeaning things that can happen at work can happen at school, and anyone who remembers their school years knows that it seems to matter a great deal more at that age, and it seems to last forever, even if its only a few years.

That this is an experience with at least some widespread purchase is evident in the subterranean sympathy for the mass murderers. The support of some young people wasn't restricted to Klebold and Karris. When Andy Williams, a lower middle class student attending an upper class college in the fading Republican town of Santee, decided to wipe out many of his classmates, within weeks there were attempted and actual 'copycat' massacres. So far from the Pump Up the Volume fantasy, these kids don't solve all their problems by learning to express themselves through pirate radio stations, and sincerely talking through all of their problems. They implode or explode. The implication of the phrase 'copycat' is that people really want to be like the hick serial killers and destroy their own lives in the process, so that someone who doesn't matter will say they were cool. That's a cheap and lazy excuse for analysis. But, precisely as the slave revolts in the workplace often involve explicit or implicit reference to previous revolts, the example of others provides an interpretive framework, and a 'way forward'. And it might be added, as with those other slave revolts, the kids who do it are often (not always) the ones you'd least expect. So quiet, so diligent, and so pleasant.

Which brings me to the title of this post. The murderous smile in question is the quality of 'niceness' that one is supposed to evince in a company setting, the ability to smile and put others at ease. The killers so often have been among those who have taken the corporate 'Don't Worry Be Happy' bullshit as the normal response to wage-cuts, hateful competition, slashed benefits, longer hours and management terrorism, and have done their best to comport themselves in a fitting fashion. I suppose, in light of the Zombie Labour theme, you could call this 'playing dead'. So be wary of niceness. It's the last step before someone goes postal.