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How the pandemic is intensifying alienation

With increased surveillance monitoring of those working from home, greater job insecurity, and a lack of human contact in restructured roles, mental health problems are likely to rise among workers, says JOHN GREEN

THE other day I read a riposte on Facebook in response to a pro-socialist comment: “Why, if capitalism is so bad are so many people clamouring to be let into the USA, UK and other developed capitalist countries?”

A comment that cannot be easily brushed aside. Of course, the tragic irony is that most of those thousands of would-be immigrants are fleeing areas that have been devastated by precisely those “super-capitalist” countries to which they are attempting to flee. 

The overwhelming majority of those are, ironically, fleeing countries with capitalist systems but where the elites behave more ruthlessly and are not restrained by traditional democratic or legal structures. 

These would-be immigrants are also attracted by the perceived images of the leading capitalist countries as seen on social media, as well as by genuine meritocratic opportunities. 

It is not always easy for socialists living in one of the advanced capitalist countries to convincingly argue why capitalism is a destructive force. 

We recognise that capitalism, despite the undoubtedly many opportunities it can offer the ambitious, talented and hard-working, remains a basically immoral system. 

It contains within itself the seeds of its own and the planet’s eventual destruction and in the process extirpates the very essence of what makes us human. 

Marx and Engels were among the first to pinpoint the destructive forces of capitalism and to recognise the role played by alienation in that process. 

Today, we are witnessing an escalation of that erosion of our common humanity on a daily basis. 

Charles Eugene Bedaux was a French-American millionaire who made his fortune developing, and already already in the early 20th century was implementing, the work measurement aspect of scientific management. 

Bedaux was friends with British royalty and Nazis alike. He based his Bedaux system on the ideas of James Taylor. 

Both men introduced systems of human power measurement to help maximise exploitation and objectify workers as mere cogs in the wheel of industry. 

Charlie Chaplin satirised this hilariously in his 1936 film comedy Modern Times. 

Now, almost a century later, we are witnessing more insidious and sophisticated forms of this system and the present Covid pandemic is being instrumentalised to refine it. 

Amazon workers are tagged and their every movement tracked to ensure not a second of their time is “wasted.” 

Those using computers, at home or in offices, are increasingly being monitored and videoed, so that every keystroke, internet search or toilet break is recorded. 

In shops and banks where we used to be able to chat with the cashiers and counter staff, we are now confronted with automatic checkouts and cash dispensers. 

Public services are being outsourced — ie privatised — and we can rarely talk face to face with a human being who will listen closely to what we are saying, but have to deal with call centres and automatic voice messaging.
For earlier generations work was often hard and repetitive but there was always time for banter and repartee between tasks, as well as tea or coffee breaks, and it was these that helped make the work rewarding. 

Friendships were forged, a sense of solidarity and community was engendered. Work today has become increasingly a chore, with time so closely measured and monitored that interaction with workmates and colleagues has been made almost impossible. 

Workers have been isolated from each other. After all, a fragmented workforce is easier to control.

The ongoing Covid pandemic is leading to an entrenchment of some of the worst capitalist practices. 

Universities are using the pandemic to entrench online teaching, sacking staff and forcing students to forgo face to face teaching, increasing a sense of isolation. 

Teachers in our schools, obliged to follow prescriptive, narrow curricula, are told that their individual creative input is not wanted, their work has become mere training to enable students to pass exams.

Much manual work is today done by robots, but certain jobs still employ humans — posties, bin workers, road cleaners etc but their pace of work has increased, measuring and monitoring is ubiquitous.

Workplace distancing during the pandemic has become the new normal in many areas of work. 

Given such spatial distance, people lose their usual workplace and work organisation, as well as the opportunity to interact with colleagues that a more traditional workplace offers. 

The conditions of workplace distancing have similarities with telework, in that employees can work outside the organisation’s premises. 

In the psychological literature there are various approaches to the conceptualisation of alienation from work; however, most authors consider this as a negative state. 

A person’s detachment from work also leads to lower productivity, low job satisfaction, and other negative consequences. 

Empirical studies confirm the devastating consequences of work alienation for workers; it changes attitudes to work. 

Workers become less involved in their own working life. We see changes in behaviour, such as increased absenteeism, health consequences such as burnout, a reduction in work efficiency, as well as such side effects such as increased alcohol consumption. 

Research findings indicate that work alienation does not only have an impact on work itself but also negatively influences family life. 

In particular, the increasing meaninglessness of work has a relevance for both work outcomes and the enjoyment of family life. 

This underlines the need to highlight and tackle work alienation, and stressing that its effects can be seen inside and outside the work context. 

The economic and social consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic pose an additional threat to psychological wellbeing in different spheres of life. 

Working conditions during a pandemic frustrate the psychological needs of people in the workplace, thereby increasing their alienation.

Recent studies have confirmed these negative effects on mental health, such as symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as stress and lack of self-esteem. 

People are experiencing an increase in negative emotions (anxiety, depression and indignation) and an sensitivity to social risks, a decrease in satisfaction with life as well as a lower level of positive emotions. 

Studies have generally concluded that people in professional groups with intense interaction between people, such as healthcare workers, those in the service, sales and education sectors etc) are predominantly exposed to dangers in the form of infection and psychological consequences. 

This pandemic is having many consequences, associated not only with physical health, but also with a wide range of phenomena of a psychological nature.

Such studies show that work alienation has increased during the present pandemic and workplace distancing has increased the precariousness and flexibility of work. 

The introduction of information and communications technology and job insecurity are significant predictors of work alienation among university professors. 

Alongside this fallout, this Tory government has also deliberately undermined public service morale, particularly in the health service, as a prelude to achieve its ideological goal of full privatisation.

It can be expected that a number of changes imposed in the workplace by the pandemic will be maintained under post-pandemic conditions. 

Employers can save on office expenses by having staff work from home and surveillance monitoring will intensify. 

This is what capitalism does: uses even a public health pandemic to pursue its role of profit maximisation and more intensive exploitation, whatever the cost. 

The trade union movement will need to confront this new intensification of work and the consequences of alienation on all working people if we wish to avoid a further and alarming deterioration in our quality of work and life.


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