Working in a Supermarket

Working in a Supermarket

Observations on working as a "carry-out" in a supermarket.

I am working as a “carry-out” in a supermarket. It's an extremely boring job. My job is to push carts of groceries to the parking lot for the customers, unload them, and then return with the empty carts. A moving belt between the market and the parking lot, non-stop if it's really busy. The 'product' is our service — which actually serves nobody but the profit system.

Yet our service is more than a meaningless and absurd “pseudo-product”. It is a purposeful device of consciousness-manipulation. What? This sounds paranoid? It is hard to believe that a being who is regimented in the organized life of the commodity society and assimilates its mentality can ever revolt against the system. But this is exactly the concept ingrained in all of our institutions today — including the supermarket. Through participation in institutionalized activities — which are always permeated by bourgeois values — people are forced to believe that the existing reality is the only reality and thus commodity society secures for itself survival.

We have always been talking about a “critique of everyday life” as a way of refreshing our sensitivity towards humanity in a people-killing culture. Now I find it urgent to write something about the supermarket as I see it, as a member of grappling with my immediate everyday life.

The most significant feature of the supermarket for me is that it is a reflection of the larger society's hierarchy, it is a miniature entity of authority-relations.

First of all, the job classsifications are so structured that everybody is related to others either by domination or subordination or both. Not only is this self-evident of private ownership, assuring the position of the owner as the head (I happen to work in a supermarket that is not part of a chain and thus the big boss is less abstract), but the whole hierarchy structure from the boss down adheres to the management's concept of efficiency. Of course this concept of efficiency is based on an arbitrary division of labour, and reinforced by a merit system: one has more merit the higher up one is in the hierarchy, and this, in turn, corresponds to the degree one is willing to submit to the hierarchial establishment and its mentality.

This formal structure gives rise to two crucial aspects of the working life: the nourishing of the bossing ethic — that is human relationships based on domination and/or subordination — and the submerging of peoples' consciousness into this process so completely that they take this social reality to be the only possible frame of reference. One has to give up one's own judgements of any human relationship and in fact learns to repress the slightest awareness of sharing in order to be successful in this game. Yet also important and reinforcing of the bossing ethic is the fact that the boring and unfulfilling work aggravates a tendency in every individual to shift the burden onto his or her co-workers. And this is only possible when one attains a certain prescribed level in the hierarchy which legitimizes this bossing around.

The lowest grade - the underdog - are the carry-outs whose work is most unfulfilling and, in fact, deadening. Both because of their position in the hierarchy and in the division of labour as the last part of the production process, there is no one below that for them to boss.

Above them comes the temporary section workers, section workers on a trial basis whose work is to put stock up on the shelf. They do not have a permanent section to work on and work when and wherever they are needed. They have one of their legs in the carry-out world which means they only work on the sections when the business is quiet and enough carry-outs are stationed at the front. They have the privileges and are supposed to learn to manifest this privilege of shifting the burden of carry-out to the carry-outs when helping at the front. They are supposed to help with packing and call for carry-outs when the customer is ready to go. But as I have said, they have one of their legs in the underdog world. When it is real busy they have to do carry-out too.

Next comes the permanent section workers who are “responsible” for a particular section. They stock shelves all the time. The difference between the carry-outs and the section-workers (both permanent and non-permanent) is not in terms of money, just power. The section workers are able to avoid the deadening work of a carry-out. This does not mean, however, that the section work is fulfilling. They value their privilege as section workers because they have a greater chance to work alone and thus lessen the sense of being bossed around all the time.

On top of these “boys” are the section managers who are directly responsible to the boss. They are quite a different world of people, totally absorbed by the bossing ethic. They are the mini-boss because they cannot but see themselves as part of the pillar of the hierarchy. They are responsible to keep the “boys” in line and to.straighten up their discipline. Not only do they train the “boy” to do the work but also refresh their sense of responsibility to the rules of the bossing game.

The super-boss is of course, the owner himself and as the name implies, his work is to boss around.

This is the main body of the supermarket (except for the women on the cash register). The whole structure is a hierarchy with many miniature hierarchies inside systematically co-ordinated. The individual reaction to this structure is to see oneself inherently competitive with others, manifested in one's degree of attained power to dominate. So the carry-outs always seek to go into the section work. The non-permanent section workers then hope to became “responsible” for one section under the section managers and so on.

Every individual's attitude towards the bossing game may be a bit different but one thing is for sure: one is always either victim or executioner. The different attitude is a result of one's position in the hierarchy and one's past experience (e.g. family background). So the big boss’ and the miniboss’ attitude is much less obscure. Their position in the hierarchy which was probably achieved after a long time in the bossing game, and their way of perceiving their position is clearly seen in every little bit of their ethical judgement..

To illustrate the combined effect of position in the hierarchy and past experience on one's attitude towards the bossing game, I'll describe the situation of two immigrants.

First is a new immigrant from Lebanon who is working as a carry-out. Very probably it is because of his experience as a humiliated new immigrant that he exemplifies the most illustrative personality of a captive being. He never refuses any work passed onto him; he even rushes for wok; he simply accepts his position as an underdog.

The second one is an old immigrant from a Carribbean country who has moved to the status of a mini-boss and who shows the worst of all bossing attitudes and being bossed. This may probably be a result of the same experience of a humiliated being who tries to reassure himself by humiliating others. Bear in mind what Fanon has described in “Black Skin White Mask”: the phenomenon of some blacks who are trying to be more white.

Another thing which is very revealing is that the bossing attitude is most expressedly manifest in the section workers. They are the ones who most despise the carry-outs. This is probably because of the fact that they have just begun to “enjoy” the privilege which the bosses have alotted to them and thus try to flourish their newly acquired sense of responsibility. Of course, there is the fact that it is the best and most legitimate way of getting away from the boring work of carry-out. One very revealing example: a high school ninth-grader who works as part-time has recently been “promoted” informally by being sent to work in a section. He is really overjoyed in ignoring his ex-fellow carry-outs and bosses them to do carry-out. He also never forgets that he's an “in” person among “in” section workers. One can also observe his hyper-awareness of his new status-symbols: the duster and personal price stamp of a permanent section worker.

It's sad enough to see a ninth grader trying to be a boss. Yet it is even more terrifying to realize haw completely our society is organized along this principle of authority; along the idea that the purpose of one's social activities is to dominiate. More than that, how many people accept this idea and thus worsen the situation by upholding the authoritarian structure through their own activities. Thus, the structure becomes self-sustaining.

Then, the point I want to make is clear and simple. Capitalism has never totally depended and is now probably far less dependent on its open oppressive law and order machine. We know by just looking around that our sense of reality comes mainly from the social activities we participate in. The managers of capitalism in exerting their power over the organizations of our social activity, succeed to a certain extent in manipulating our consciousness.

The supermarket is a case in point. The employees below the management level are all young people in their teens, either working part-time after school or full time after quitting school (only to find it the same boring life). These people have grown up in similar environments of one institution or another, disciplined along the line of the larger social discipline — notably the family and the school. To work in the supermarket, or any other workplace, is only to magnify the detail of authority since the work “job” in our society means to young people, a more calculated responsibility. It becomes the next stage towards total adaptation into the regimentation of the established reality. Therefore it is not just a problem of making more pocket money for the part-timers, or shooting around before getting into a better job for the full-timers, it is very much a part of the conditioning of young people into the smooth functioning of the machine of modern capitalism and their acceptance of its underlying principles. To see carry-out and shelving as necessary to make a living and to be willing to put up with the long hours of boring work just to refresh oneself in nightly entertainment and weekend drinking (whether this is refreshing or refreshing for what? is also interesting to ask) is almost to accept life as it is, to accept one's being dominated by the system.

The service mentality has become a science. One of the stupid things about bourgeois sociology and the social sciences in general is their superficial perception, always followed by claims of intellectual neutrality and objectivity. That is why they call the post-industrial society a service-oriented society, meaning by it that the service industries have become dominant in the commodity market. By not probing into the deeper implications of the nature of “service” in our society they have already made the value-laden assumptions of a status-quo morality . All that is left for the bourgeois world to do, already well-practiced at theorizing social reality in its own image, is to “fit” people into the only existing reality. Some customers didn't really want us to carry-out for them; their fate was to find a service forced on them. As to those who have already integrated into the existing world of things, they merely approve the service with an ever-decreasing praise, becomimg less and less aware of the nature of the service. It never occurs to them that it is based on the degradation of a human relationship between us and them into a commodity relationship between this disintegrating being — the carry-gut as a dying object of a production process — and the customer who falsely believes that he or she is consuming something in a completely normal fashion, as much a part of the universe as the sun going up and down.

I don't mean to be pessimistic and say that every one of us working there is a puppet being hopelessly conditioned. In short, I don't mean social determinism; the very fact that we are human, having a history of history-making convinces me against any kind of determinism. I understand history-making in the sense that we are capable of transcending the social environment shaping us, plus the fact that I see everywhere within every one of us a seed of rebellion against the dehumanizing nature of our society. The mere fact that carry-out or section work is a deadening job has made us rebel against it in one way or another. I see co-workers pissing around or working for just one day and then quitting or taking lots of time to do anything, thus slowing down the whole efficient process, and so on. Of course, more is needed for a revolution but I think this is the starting point. To be aware of the deadening nature of our social activities and to see how it has created its own antithesis in every street corner and workplace is very convincing.