Dolly Parton knows good class analysis. 9 to 5 remains one of the clearest iterations of ‘antiwork’ politics in song since “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!”: a powerful, clear expression against an ideology that labour has an inherent dignity that benefits the worker, despite almost all human experience pointing to the opposite. In a few catchy verses Parton pretty neatly encapsulates a specific relationship of white-collar and pink-collar labourers to their work which runs counter to the ‘American Dream’ ideology – the United States’ variant on the ‘dignity of work’ myth so beloved of the mainstream European Left throughout the 20th Century. In Pop we can always find kernels of workers’ desire; here I’m going to pull out a trio of songs from the past 30 years which interact with an antiwork tendency and engage with the changing conditions of the American workplace. These three bangers all offer some hint towards an antiwork politics generally ignored by the political mainstream, and are presented in the hope that we can perhaps think of building a future workplace politics around not Stakhanov or McDonald’s Employee of the Month, but Dolly and Shangela Laquifa.
Released in 1980 to accompany the eponymous film in which Dolly starred, 9 to 5 isn’t laced with the “fuck your boss” anarchic rebellion of much emergent hardcore punk of the time, but instead a more nuanced and thoughtful example of a class analysis of the workplace. The song comes at an interesting moment in the class struggle: 1980 was the year Ronald Reagan was elected and began his personal brand of neoliberal reform already begun by Margaret Thatcher in the UK, deregulating financial services whilst launching a concerted attack on the working class through attacks on various representative organs, such as trade unions, and the minimal workplace rights their presence protected. These reforms were yet to kick in, however, when Dolly laid down her track. Instead the workplace 9 to 5 describes is the tail-end of a working environment laid down after demobilisation in the Second World War, albeit one which had been through an enormous workplace revolution in regards to women’s rights and the feminist movement of the 1970s.
Fundamentally, it is a steady workplace; at the top of the hierarchy sits the “boss-man” (and he is always a man), whose total control of the workplace is demonstrated through his control of workers throughout the company. Despite Dolly’s “service and devotion” to the company, a “fair promotion” is very much down to managerial discretion, and the worker feels trapped within both her workplace routine and her allotted role in the company. It’s here the divergence between the ideology of the American Dream - that due effort is rewarded with due success - and the reality - “Want to move ahead / But the boss won’t seem to let me in / I swear sometimes that man is out to get me” - reach a point of rupture.
From here on out, Dolly Parton’s analysis of the proletarian condition is sharp, concise and furious. “They let you dream / Just a watch ‘em shatter,” she rails, eviscerating the U.S. national ideology, before getting down to the brass tacks of the capitalist system “You’re just a step / On the boss man’s ladder”. Aren’t we just. 9 to 5, however, is firmly located amongst the last hurrahs of the fordist labour process, as evidenced not only in the monotony of the routine, but also in the almost casual recognition that workers’ power is still latent in the workforce in the shape of generalised employee solidarity and their attendant dream of a process of communisation:
On the same boat
With a lot of your friends
Waitin’ for the day
Your ship’ll come in
And the tide’s gonna turn
An’ it’s all gonna roll your way
Granted, what we could call ‘Partonism’ might still retain the odd whiff of historical determinism, but perhaps this is contingent on the unique, pre-Reaganite condition of the U.S. working-class. Still, it’s worth being clear here; what Dolly offers is a powerful example of a workers’ subjectivity which renounces the dominant ideology both of the bosses and the trade unions.
9 to 5, yeah, they got you where they want you
There’s a better life
And you think about it, don’t you?
It’s a rich man’s game
No matter what they call it
And you spend your life
Puttin’ money in his wallet
Stopping just short of calling for a ‘Worker’s Party Against Work’, Dolly nonetheless has elucidated a clear call here against both the capitalist system and the small, fragmentary and limited gains the working class have made through reformist demands for regularised, formal work patterns. What remains at the core is a rejection of the very form of work, and a desire to escape the mental, affective and physical straightjacket of the wage relation in toto. As Bifo has laid out, however, it was this very desire of workers to escape the regimented form of the Fordist workplace, and the political struggle against it, that helped transform the productive regime into the precarious, post-Fordist regime of totalising semio-capitalism today. So how did the antiwork ethic and the relation between boss and worker change as the organisation of production changed? Let’s look at two more examples of songs which recount this change: TGIF by Le Tigre, a NYC-based electroclash band formed in 1998, and Werqin’ Girl by Shangela Laquifa, a totally sickening drag queen (IMO) who broke through on Ru Paul’s Drag Race Season 2.
Don’t fuck with me I’m the fuckin’ manager!
The move from Dolly’s world to the post-fordist world is perhaps best summed up in TGIF by Le Tigre, whose lyrics speak of trying to balance a creative practice in the arts (“some kind of underground electro feminist performance artists”) with the rapidly dwindling prospect of job security in a white collar job (“I know 40 hours a week would suit you fine / but your application’s been denied, surprise! / This is how it feels to be free.”) This is combined with the gendered division of labour we saw earlier with Parton’s “boss man”, this time demanding not only that the worker does the job she’s contracted for, but also that she emotionally identifies with the (heavily surveilled) role, as is clear in the intro: “You better write down everything you accomplish /And lemme see your fuckin smiles around the office.”
The 9 to 5 of the office environment is on its way out, brought about in this historical double-bind of workers’ desire to escape the routine of rigid labour, whilst being cursed by the precarity that escape from the production line brings. There’s literally no way out of this bind short of destroying wage labour, btw. But in TGIF, what still remains is solidarity, and revelling in the illicit thrill of the antiwork subjectivity which still implicitly attacks the ideological position of capitalist managers, whether bosses or union bosses: that there is dignity in labour. As Le Tigre put it:
I hope this feeling never ends
cuz you’re beautiful
And your boss is an asshole
and I don’t give a shit what the dick thinks.
We will survive as thieves, we will survive as freaks.
Here we see a distinct literary and political echo of the early work of Italian autonomist Antonio Negri:
Nothing reveals the immense historical positivity of workers’ self-valorization more completely than sabotage, this continual activity of the sniper, the saboteur, the absentee, the deviant, the criminal that I find myself living. I immediately feel the warmth of the workers’ and proletarian community again every time I don the ski mask…
The sabotage of absenteeism and deviancy from workplace discipline evident in the intro to TGIF perhaps shows the generalisation of the antiwork tendency as Dolly’s world gives way to something akin to our world of labour; affective yet atomised, precarious and lacking basic representation of labour unions and other working-class institutions. Despite being released at the height of an unprecedented boom due to the post-79 financialisation, with house-prices at an all-time high and credit unsustainably cheap, there’s little love lost here between the white-collar NYC office worker and the world of work; a clear communist, antiwork ethic is on display which puts wage labour outside the acceptable moral boundaries of the proletarian, even if it remains our defining characteristic: “It’s okay to hate your job, after all it’s fucking wrong.”
This is hardly an innovative moral statement. However what’s interesting is how far even this act of ethical disavowal with the wage-relation has dissipated in the decade that followed. As we see in Werqin’ Girl by Shangela Laquifa, the developing post-fordist model has resulted in the creative industries in a uniquely powerful identification not just with labour, but a subsumption of the labour process into the subjectivity of the worker. In Werqin’ Girl Shangela is so desperate for a job she structures her entire performed labour around herself as product.
I came to work. I’m here to work. Didn’t you see my badge? I’m a professional.
Sometimes I feel like drag queens are the only ones who really understand the collapse of the massified workers’ subjectivity. A decade on and we see a much more developed sense of the creative worker being a full-package, with labour almost totally indistinguishable from sense of self, in Shangela Laquifa’s Werqin’ Girl. And unsurprisingly, because what a decade: between the two songs we’ve seen a techno-cultural revolution in web 2.0, combined with totally new possibilities for developing entrepreneurial forms of income. We’ve also seen the rise of the Reality TV and new forms of celebrity built almost entirely upon personal brand and affect.
To call Werqin Girl a melting-pot of representations of affective labour would be to put it mildly; gender, race and class ping from the screen within the first 30 seconds as Shangela asserts the only references she needs for her prospective job are based upon her socio-political position: “I heard you was hiring… you ain’t gotta interview any of those other chickenheads out there. I got my credentials from the street, baby.”
Like in the drag ball scene that the contemporary US drag scene pulls its cultural references from, ‘realness’ (the ability to blend into the hegemonic cultural norms) is key to survival here: there’s a direct link between the drag and the ability to work “clock the bag, clock the shoes — now punch the clock, it’s time to work.” And work is what Shangela is advertising; the video is a constant reiteration that she’s the most employable candidate over all the other queens, priding herself on the very precarity of her working conditions, the ‘never-off’ condition of the creative worker. As she says “No 9 to 5, round-the-clock, overtime / haters cannot touch my drive / references? I’m a pro!” Fuck, this video is amazing.
More than this, Shangela’s status as creative worker must be maintained by an attention to personal branding through identification of her personal brand with consumer brands, despite, like many women in the creative industries, not being remunerated anywhere near enough to afford those goods: “No Kardashian Kollection here! / Donna Karen, Mui Mui, Jimmy Choo rhinestone shoe / looks like a pimp-hoe got her tax return!” All existence, all identity is the labour that reproduces Shangela’s proletarian condition. Is this not the true condition of the affective labourer? My god!
The fact that this identity is an illusion used to market the creative worker to a prospective employer – the fact that the boss/worker relation is fundamentally unchanged, that Shangela is far from a professional in turns of selling services rather than labour – becomes clear halfway through the video, when the post-production effects, the clothes, the make-up and the ideology is dropped. We all know the classic scenes from cartoons. The coyote reaches a precipice, but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is nothing beneath it. This is Shangela’s condition: the boss has stopped the music, called time on the illusion that the precarity of affective labour is some form of freedom, and brought in her heavies to remove her from the room. With all workplace solidarity removed, and the worker in the figure of Shangela isolated through the introduction of extreme competition between workers, what opposition can Shangela offer? Nothing but a plaintiff cry to continue identification with her prospective boss. “Put me on top of the pyramid!” she cries, unaware that the only thing that can put her on top of the pyramid is the real movement that abolishes the present state of things (that is to say, communism).
As the video ends we’re reminded that, despite the glamour of ideology, the affective cultural worker is not a privileged worker who has won a degree of freedom, as imagined by her predecessors fighting against work in 1970s Italy. Instead she is a worker on the edge; her fierce makeup and sickening clothes are just workplace expenses (paid from her own pocket), and precarity remains the proletarian condition. As we fade out, what do we see of the workers’ autonomy? The continued threat of force and physical coercion (“Oh no you ain’t gotta call security on me. I came up the elevator I can go back down the elevator”), intimidation and workplace bullying (“Ok, I know she better stop rolling her eyes at me from behind that cubicle!”) and always-impending poverty (“Err, no, I have a ride home thank you - err, is the bus still running?”).
The drudgery of Dolly’s 9 to 5 routine is now a utopian pipe dream next to Shangela’s totalised “werq, werq, werq, werq, werq, werq, werq” routine of precarious affective labour. Capital has reacted to the demands of the emergent class subjectivity in the 1960s and ’70s, for an end to the regimented boredom of the production line, for sexual autonomy and self-expression, and has transformed those demands into a new regime of labour more precarious, more profitable and more destructive than ever before. To reproduce our lives we must sell not just our labour but our humanity. And what a way to make a living.