The fearful, confused and cooperative worker

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they had known they were slaves.”

—Harriet Tubman

Last month’s column, “Why UofL is becoming a bad place to work,” yielded a level of response I haven’t seen in some time. Not surprisingly, many readers reached out with similar stories of woe from their own workplaces. To be sure, the University of Louisville is not alone in needing better leader-worker relations. When we account for the fact that universities are usually a bit more progressive than the communities that house them, we are left with the strong possibility that many workers are experiencing much worse treatment than those at Louisville.

Unfortunately, while people are anxious to speak of their suffering, they just as quickly make it known that they will never say or do anything because of fear. Others aggressively support bosses and condemn fellow workers who fight back. As Tubman said, they are slaves but don’t know it. They reinforce the ignorance, fear and apathy that marginalization needs to survive. Growing discontent among many American workers is widespread. People know something is wrong — they just don’t know what to do. Lawrence Grossberg masterfully speaks to the construction and maintenance of domination in his classic “We Gotta Get Outta This Place”:

“In a hegemonic struggle … the social field cannot be easily divided into two competing groups. The diversity of ‘the people’ confounds any such simple divisions; for while the masses appear to be undifferentiated, social differences actually proliferate. The difference between the subordinate and the dominant cannot be understood on a single dimension. Power has to be organized along many different, analytically equal axes: class, gender, ethnicity, rage, age, et cetera, each of which produces disturbances in the others.”

“At the same time, those seeking to hold the dominant position do not constitute a single coherent group or class. Instead, a specific alliance of class fractions, a ‘bloc’ which must already have significant economic power, attempts to win a position of leadership by re-articulating the social and cultural landscape and their position within it. This re-articulation is never a single battle. It is a continuous ‘war of positions’ dispersed across the entire terrain of social and cultural life. At each site, in each battle, the ‘ruling bloc’ must re-articulate the possibilities and recreate a new alliance of support which places it in the leading position. It must win, not consensus, but consent.” (p.245)

Put simply, Grossberg is saying a significant portion of peripheralized people must cooperate in this process — they must consent. Of course, they consent to conspire in their own suffering without knowing it. Confusion, cynicism, hopelessness and terror numb them. In this milieu, there must exist a constructed disinterest in alternate perspectives and a willingness to be lied to. Grossberg continues:

“The apparent success of such manipulation cannot be explained by falling back on images of the masses as intrinsically manipulatable, as cultural and ideological dopes. In fact, vast numbers know or assume that they are being lied to, or else they seem not to care … A large proportion of the population is outraged by at least some of what is going on, yet they remain inactive and uncommitted. There is a feeling of helplessness: what can anyone do?” (p.258)

To be sure, many people have lost faith in American institutions and desire to respond. This is what sits at the heart of the rejection of some current establishment political candidates. Voters are open to Donald Trump and Ben Carson even though both are unhinged. They are also willing to give Bernie Sanders a momentary listen even though he is an acknowledged socialist. People are now proclaiming, I think we’re going down a bad path. I think we need a change, because the current stuff isn’t working. They are wrong, of course. The current stuff is, in fact, working. It works for the few. The challenge is how can we construct something new that works for the rest of us. That noble endeavor will demand that we destroy the aforementioned ignorance, apathy and fear — and fight back in our workplaces and beyond. Are you willing to do that? •

Dr. Ricky L. Jones is chair of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville. He is author of “Black Haze” and “What’s wrong with Obamamania” (both from SUNY Press). Follow him on Twitter @DrRickyLJones.