By Ryan Culpepper
by Ryan Culpepper
“We’re not leaving this book until you’ve taken action,” we are warned in Heike Geissler’s 2015 novel Seasonal Associate, which follows a contract worker through one holiday season at a distribution center for Amazon. (Seasonal Associate was translated into English last year by Katy Derbyshire.)
But what kinds of action, if any, might be possible? The novel won’t give us simple steps to undermining bosses or to smashing Amazon, much less capitalism. We won’t even get the stock inspirational “rise up” ending we expect from good “socialist” fiction. But Seasonal Associate does give us a snapshot of industrial conditions today: stable jobs rare, wages stagnant, unions defanged and distrusted, workers commuting farther distances and working longer hours, with little confidence in collective action. Yet the novel refuses hopelessness. It calls us to see wage work as it is and to calculate what it takes from us, what it does to us, what we can withhold and refuse. And it forces us to think in real terms about how workers might, even at a place like Amazon, re-find themselves and one another and build a network of friendship and trust that is capable of resisting and winning.
This is the same point Karl Marx made in his writings on alienation, or estranged labour: capitalism not only hordes value by exploiting labour, relies on unemployment to keep wages down, and creates crises and then profits from them. By alienating workers from the product of their labour and from their own fellow workers, capitalism also robs us of our freedom to be fully ourselves.
‘The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities they create’
As our narrator starts at Amazon, she is quickly overwhelmed by the enormous scale of junk products coming through the warehouse (“Everything exists, in case you were going to ask. Absolutely everything exists, and you can buy it all”); by the conflicting direction she receives from managers; by the vacillation between hyperscrutiny of, and total indifference to, her work; by the unspoken but strict internal hierarchies among employees; by the slavishness to process and the censure of employees who try to think or solve problems; by the sheer boredom of being left alone with a scanner and endless pallets of bar-coded products to “receive” so that they can be sold.
All this is bad enough, but the problem with Amazon is not boredom or burn-out or bosses or even fatigue. Seasonal Associate is not an expose of a “bad” workplace—or at least not a workplace that’s bad because of the work itself. There’s nothing inherently soul-crushing about activities that are repetitive and essentially mindless; in our private lives many of us find these kinds of activities (crafts, sports, baking, gardening) highly rewarding.
What makes the job at Amazon unbearable is that it demands too much of its workers—it doesn’t only eat up the time and physical energy they require to complete their work tasks. It embeds itself; it goes home with its workers. It alters their thought patterns, sleep patterns and relationship routines. It undermines and changes their senses of who they are.
‘Does not develop freely their physical and mental energy but mortifies their body and ruins their mind’
Some of this personal undercutting is overt, as in the insulting and sexist ways the narrator is treated by both managers and co-workers, or the infantilization of Amazon employees with juvenile rules and over-supervision of every activity. At one point, an employee accidentally walks through the factory turnstile with a cell phone in his pocket. He immediately realizes his mistake and, without any prompting from management, returns through the turnstile, apologizes and stores the phone in his locker. Yet in a “repeat 100 times” schoolyard-style humiliation, he is still forced to write and sign an apology letter and circulate it for all his co-workers to read.
Other impositions of Amazon into its employees’ personal lives and wellbeing are less direct. In an episode that will be familiar to Ontario workers, our narrator calls in sick one morning after a feverish and sleepless night. Dreading the phone call becomes, in the first place, its own kind of sickness. Then the narrator is overcome by self-doubt and humiliation as she has to visit a walk-in clinic to “cough a ridiculous cough . . . in a test, in a job interview for a sick note” where you “have to show that your sickness exists and you’re essentially willing to work.” Although she actually is sick, she second-guesses her own body and says “You feel like you’re faking . . . How dare your employer intervene in your nice private sickness, how dare it prompt you to suspect you’re not ill at all?”
Like Sorry to Bother You (the 2018 Boots Riley film), Seasonal Associate exposes the corporate invasion into the privacy of workers’ bodies and psyches. At one point, the narrator reflects on her reasons for taking a job at Amazon in the first place and then, while hating the job, hopes she might distinguish herself and be made permanent someday. “Something inside you dreams ready-made dreams,” she says, dreams that are not your own but that nevertheless drive your actions. “Something inside you believes unshakably that a huge pile of money will one day come to you.” And that belief, despite regular evidence to the contrary, compels you to pour more and more of yourself into your job and indeed to find satisfaction and meaning in that personal emptying.
The narrator remembers a previous seasonal job in a mail warehouse from which she was summarily fired after missing her bus and arriving late for work one morning. But still she stayed and worked the rest of the day “exactly like before,” knowing it was her last. Why did she stay? Why did she work? Because she felt it was the right thing to do.
What sours the narrator on Amazon is not an academic understanding of exploitation and capitalist wage-relations. She does not appeal to ideas like workplace fairness or justice. In fact she concedes that workplaces are unfair, that they don’t pay workers enough, that they require too many hours and that they operate by silly rules, enforced by the constant surveillance of incompetent supervisors. This is not, for the novel, a revelation or a scandal; it’s something all workers know and mostly accept.
Rather, what she finds intolerable is the inhumanity of her work at Amazon: not only its violation of her personal boundaries (the ways it shows up uninvited in her private motivations) but also its equalizing and standardizing of workers themselves as interchangeable and replaceable parts, without individual needs, talents and frailties; its treatment of them, too, as temporary, as seasonal, no different from the heaps of product that move in and out each day without anyone’s attention or thought.
‘Labor in which humans alienate themselves, is a labor of self-sacrifice’
To endure this dehumanization is a kind of personal death. The narrator says, imagining possible actions, that “you ought to prove to your employer that you’re alive.” She isn’t interested in “arguments against this form of labor.” To begin with, we have to defy the inner urge, which is not our own, to be good workers. She says, “you ought to have more guts than me and try not to perform your work as well as possible.” She fantasizes about hiding products so that Amazon can’t sell or profit from them, and about deliberately damaging products so that they are taken out of circulation or refused by the people who buy them.
To combat the dreaming of “ready-made dreams”—she emulates Gertrude Stein, “who liked to sit in the bathtub and kick her legs and stamp her feet,” and suggests that this exercise should be considered a prerequisite for work each day.
But these are individual solutions, and our narrator already knows that individual solutions won’t be more than a personal balm; they won’t make the workplace different. In one of the novel’s most powerful passages, the narrator imagines the line of Amazon employees waiting to clock in as a long snake that, in theory, could do anything other than compliantly walk through the doors and work:
We can stop the traffic if we step onto the street as a long, broad group and don’t stop walking, and don’t care whether the lights are red or green, we’ll walk because we’ll be a walking we, and we’ll simply walk on and on . . . What if they did all go on walking? Oh, it would be fantastic. But most people in the crowd know, and know from experience: then they’d be out of a job . . . Everyone who went on walking would be replaced in due time, they’d be nothing but the cause of a minor temporary personnel shortage expressed in a single sentence on the company website: Due to poor weather conditions, we currently anticipate delivery delays of up to three days. We apologize for any inconvenience.
This is a familiar problem: workers don’t want to take collective action because they don’t want to get fired, and they don’t believe it will accomplish anything. But it is also an old problem, and one that has been overcome many times before in the history of the working class. Why does it seem harder now?
‘The estrangement of human from human’
Seasonal Associate gives two intriguing answers. First, if the snake of employees did somehow manage to keep walking and shut Amazon down (even briefly), “they’d suddenly have time on their hands and wouldn’t know what to do. There wouldn’t yet be any new ideas suitable for everyday life—when would they have been developed?” The corporate theft of workers’ private lives, then, not only helps create profits; it also creates conditions where workers forget why they might rebel in the first place and what the payoff would be: more time, a richer personal life, the opportunity to freely pursuit their own ideas and interests. Perhaps we have forgotten what those ideas and interests even are, except as mediated by our system of employment. The damage includes, the narrator notes, even the natural bonds humans have to one another. Those ties harm work productivity. Seasonal Associate notes that even “the family [becomes] the employee’s continuous, irritating background noise. The family is what the worker hears when they’d like to recover from work.”
In an alternative version of the narrator’s snake fantasy, she later imagines that each worker, before beginning work each day, insists on walking around the factory floor and personally greeting every other Amazon worker. This would be a form of refusing to allow work demands to extinguish our own social and moral values, and it would, of course, take the entire day and ensure that no work was ever done at Amazon. And this is the novel’s second answer to the question: why is it harder, in times like our own and at places like Amazon, for workers to take collective action? It is harder because these massive workplaces rely on anonymity and incivility not only toward but among workers.
For workers to arrive at Amazon, ready to work their shift, but fully as themselves (as whole, active, empathizing, social creatures who recognize that same humanity in their co-workers and acknowledge it with a simple individual greeting) would be sufficient to grind operations to a halt, because Amazon can only generate profits with workers whose humanity it distorts and diminishes. It automates work without even bringing in robots—by acculturating its human workers to act like robots on our own.
All-day handshaking at Amazon may also seem like an impractical idea, but its beauty is that it suggests a kind of action that might both damage the corporation and simultaneously restore some of the humanity that is lost at work, chipping away at what the novel identifies as an obstacle to collective action: that we don’t know what we would do, or who we would be, without our work.
‘The emancipation of the workers contains universal human emancipation’
Seasonal Associate is not a field guide but a novel, and workers need art not to give us readymade campaigns but to open our imaginations to radical possibilities—possible worlds to live, act and work in, however incongruous they seem to our actual worlds. As another of the narrator’s heroes, Hannah Arendt, always reminded us, no action’s end can be known at its outset. Merely commencing an action changes the world that the action takes place in; as the action progresses, the world, in its turn, also progresses and changes. The key, for Arendt, is to start.
And as our narrator herself says, “as soon as you have an idea to put into practice you see an army of head-shakers and brusher-offers . . . all of them saying, Nonsense, that won’t work. This army inside you is what you have to get past.” Good fiction should help us subdue the army of doubt inside us.
At the end of the novel, our narrator checks in on her earlier demand of us, that we wouldn’t be allowed to leave the book until we’d taken some action. And her answer gestures to the novel’s central charge: that we expunge our bosses from our private selves and open that space for connections with one another, in the confidence that finding and being in touch one another will help us build collective determination and power:
I wrote: We won’t be leaving this book before you’ve taken action.
I’m not sure: Have you taken action or not?
Yes, you have
Let’s stay in touch.