The Business Suit is Liberating

Ain't work cool? Why go home? Let's just keep working! All the time!

The jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers of today's work world are not signs of liberation. On the contrary, they mark Capital's success in co-opting every last vestige of personal life, folding our very selves into the will of production.

The business suit — a pain in the ass, no doubt, and rarely attractive — marks a clear line between home and work. It is a uniform that declares: "This is me at work. There is another me that is, frankly, none of your business."

In the old days, you couldn't get a job if your hair was long, your nose pierced, and tattoos covered your arms. Today, at least in San Francisco, it seems like a requirement. Capital realized that the maintenance of a personal life distinct from corporate life is not productive — for the corporation. All that wasted time making love to your spouse! All that wasted time reading, writing, strolling, thinking, eating drugs! You could be using all that time to write another PowerPoint presentation! Work, you drug addled freakazoid!

I watched it happen in San Francisco in the last 1990s during the dot com explosion. Suddenly, the work space was filled with bikes and skateboards and everyone was in t-shirts and jeans, tatted and pierced and, well, working their asses off. What a find for Capital! These little fuckers get shit done!

And the bars and coffee shops, filled with the same kids, became extensions of work. The cafe went from being a refuge from work to being the site of work. And thanks to microcomputing, we are always jacked in.

Now work permeates every aspect of the day, more or less. Every moment is a potential moment of productivity. Look at how the new corporate order functions. Google — and Apple and Genentech — bus their employees to work — oops, to campus. Now, this no doubt makes said employees' lives easier and reduces the dreaded carbon footprint. But, come the fuck on, can't we have some time to ourselves? And, once on campus — oh, the word creeps my shit out — you get free lunch! Just like in prison!

And we have foosball! And M&Ms coming out the yin yang! And, look, everyone's cool and wearing t-shirts and jeans! They're your friends! Isn't work great? There's no reason ever to leave — except that housing you is expensive so we'll bus you back to your over priced condo dorm — for which you pay a rent or mortgage that keeps you in a state of perpetual indentured servitude — before busing you here in the morning.

The genius of Capital is to have you identify yourself, once and for all, with the desire of Capital, to have your most personal selves be a source of productivity, of energy, for the capitalist engine. This is accomplished through branding, of course — "I'm a Mac," "I'm a PC" — but through an absolute identification with work, as well: employees wearing Google t-shirts.

This means we identify at once with production and consumption, the ultimate dream of Capital. It's an infinitely fast circuit — the kids working all day to make the shit, buy the shit (except, of course, for the real kids of the Third World — with them, we stick to good old fashioned exploitation!).

As our uniform stays the same from home to work, our privacy gives way to the Spectacle. Look at the modern office: no private offices at all. Even the conference rooms are all glass — so when you sneak in to make a call, everyone can see you. The open work space is the splaying of the private before the panoptic eye.

The suit that kept work contained in its office has given way to the bleed of denim and the continuous, always exposed, always-on work day.


drip said...

15 years ago, I complained to my secretary that I hated wearing a suit. She said, "That's like a stripper complaining about a g-string." That was funny ... then. Now, I guess no one would understand.

So we work in our cars, except doing so is a crime. So we work in coffee shops, except the whole world can see us. So, 40 hours isn't enough and 40 hours is too many.

Anonymous said...

I can relate to this. Growing up wearing a uniform to school there was this separation between the school me and the real me. I find, now, that I can mostly wear what I want that it's harder to distinguish between work and 'this is my real life, give me some fucking privacy'. If every job had a uniform precept I'm certain American stress levels would decrease substantially.

Nathan said...

At my last job I wore a suit every day. While the dress code of the office was certainly formal, I was overdoing it. I’d get comments from my co-workers about dressing down a bit, but I couldn’t really be reprimanded for being too formal. It was my little way of resisting the office culture. By donning the uniform of business, like a costume or a prop, I reminded myself, and others, of the inherent performativity of work. The service economy, in particular, is all about performance: a certain posture, a thoughtful expression, a balance between levity and earnestness and, of course, the rhetorical weaponization of jargon. While I don’t think that approaching work as theatre is genuinely subversive – at the end of the day, your awareness of being a cog in the machine doesn’t really change that fact – but it does help to mitigate the allure of the cool or authentic workplace. Since work is always a matter of performing, there can be no freedom from the mediating effects of the workplace. Better to meet work on its own vaudevillian terms than invite it into realm of our private lives.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Jesus, Nathan: that is beautiful, smart, and eloquent. I'm tempted to plug your comment in as the post....

Cody said...

As an usher at Broadway theatres we wear a maroon jacket with a coat of arms, a tie, white shirt and black everything else. While the older "lifer" ushers often come to work with the tie already on so they just have to put on the coat, myself and a few other ushers make a point of wearing street clothes to work and then changing completely when we get there. While it's a hassle, it always reassures me symbolically that my reality-tunnel isn't entirely predicated on my nights and weekends gig. And then on top of that there are a remarkable variety of postures and variations on the usher uniform: the raver swagger (pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable to wear with the maroon coat, constantly texting), aging moonlighting rockstar burnout (skintight pants, long hair, smelling like weed etc) etc

someone said...

D, your 'always jacked in' comment reminds me of a discrepancy in club culture that I have observed between rave's heyday (late-80s/early-90s in my calendar) and today.
The last thing you would ever do to an E'd-up club kid in a sweaty warehouse in '89 was ask them about their job. The club or underground party was created as sanctuary from the Thatcher/Reagan-era blues. The operation was disappearance – sublime hedonism.
Today, the center of the dancefloor is where people blandly talk/text/document themselves and network.
Even while being pummeled by beats, after an overpriced vodka'n'redbull doing sustainable cocaine, people are still exchanging business cards, trying to get their other leg up.
The Creative Class is a fairly liberated one, but exists in a dull in-between state. Sure they can work two days a week via the Wi-Fi café of their choice, but even their dealer can't give them the jouissance that makes life worth living.

Ruby said...

Having worn a school uniform for over eight years, I was always amazed that people only saw a negative side to uniformity. School without the uniform would be far less equal than school with it. There has been a craze for a few years now of women wearing pyjamas in public- I’ve seen them, with fluffy slippers too, in bank queues and supermarkets. It’s pretty normal, at this stage, to just see them in the local shop or playground. Anyone can be caught for milk and dart across the road but this phenomenon is exclusively working class as unemployed women are determined to prove how relaxed they are by not getting dressed. Of course, it makes everyone else feel incredibly awkward but there's an absurd defiance to it which I love.

drwatson said...

Here's something I think about in terms of dress. At my teaching job I'm usually like a cartoon character - slacks and a button up shirt, unless I didn't wash clothes, which means jeans and a button up shirt.

But in my other life I'm a musician - and I'm always aware that one thing musicians do is dress for gigs - so I try to avoid that look. Which means I might wear a T shirt promoting Tom Waits or Drive By Truckers, but I'll never look like I dressed up for the gig.

However that is clearly just as bad as the opposite. Its like a symptom of being hyper-aware - growing up with Simpsons and Seinfeld. I don't have a punch-line - just an admission of swirling in the punch bowl.

drwatson said...

Coffeen - I stole your Looney Tunes/Disney example for a paper - I cited your podcast - but did you come up with that? It's really useful.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Someone (MK): that may be the saddest thing I've ever heard — except that you deploy so many excellent phrases — "The operation was disappearance – sublime hedonism" and "sustainable cocaine." Ah, this is the stuff that makes me happy regardless of the decay that surrounds us.

@ Ruby: When I was teaching at Berkeley, students would come to class in sweat pants and flip flops, as if the class were their living room. Which I kind of loved: education should be an extension of yourself — unlike some idiotic job.

@ drw: Fuck yeah, I came up with that. Use it all you can and will, please.