Radical media, politics and culture.

Worker In Control, or Workers Under Control?

Arthur Zinault writes:


Which will it be?

by Brian Oliver Sheppard


Clusters of small white domes stretch across the countryside, gleaming in rows that resemble massive, neatly laid eggs. There are over 4,300 of these "eggs," and each of them are about 40 feet tall. The impression from a distance is one of an otherworldly hatchery rather than a community of humans. But New Oroville is a city, and it does not have a mayor. Instead, it has a CEO.

The "cubicle domes," as one libertarian cyberculture journal referred to them, house human beings, shops, temples, and most importantly, places of work. The co-founders of the town call it an "information technology township," and it exists to house, train, and provide leisure for at least 4,000 high tech workers. The founders of the town are three former executives of Microsoft who left to form their own company, called Catalytic Software. They needed cheap labor, and they needed it in one place, where it could be regulated, structured, compartmentalized, and renewed indefinitely, as business needs demanded. That led to the creation of this 21st century experiment just outside Hyderabad, India. "New Oroville is our place," Catalytic CEO Swain Porter declared to Wired. "We set the rules. We enforce them. We're not going to have a lot of discontents."This total environment is one blueprint for workers' control. Unfortunately, it is the kind of workers' control that represents control of workers rather than control by workers. It is one possible future, and it is approaching quickly.

Another possible future is one that working people may find a little more desirable: that of their own determination, in solidarity with other workers, both manual and intellectual, skilled and unskilled, to develop communities and indeed the future history of the planet as they see fit.


Far from being a cultural anomoly, New Oroville represents more clearly than many other places the attempt of corporate chieftains to establish totalizing controls over communities and their workers. Attempts to completely control the lives of community inhabitants in the First World are usually held in check by cultural dissidence. But in India and elsewhere, where many live in abject poverty, corporations have freer rein to implement their vision of a perfect, total community. This is why New Oroville serves well as an example of a community built from the ground up by those whose only consideration is maximizing profit. In an important way it is the
crystallization of the phenomenon of entire living experiences consciously planned around the exploitation of labor.

But the New Oroville model is not entirely particular to the Third World, either.

In privileged parts of the world, enlightened, New Age corporations have developed corporate "campuses" complete with well-manicured parks, fountains, libraries, and cafes. Such corporations readily admit that they structure the working and living environments of their workers thusly to keep them "happy," since happy workers are more obedient and productive. This extraordinary admission of psychological manipulation, with its revelation of a presumptuous shaping of employee behaviors to those most desirable to corporate controllers, passes with little remark. The corporate campuses and company towns of the First World are what happens when a company becomes large enough, audacious enough, to directly engineer social life beyond its 9-to-5 operations.

What we are led to, again, is a schema of controlling workers, so that they might produce reliably, efficiently, and with as little deviation from the goals of corporate managers as possible. Some employees are no doubt satisfied with this sort of relationship, as it provides a paycheck, which in turn provides the means to life. They seem to be satisfied with the power relationship between their employer and themselves in the sense that some prisoners are satisfied with prison since it comes with free food and housing.

New Oroville is a prototype for the colonization of the planet in the image of unabashed profit. Looking every bit like a space colony, it is perhaps doubly appropriate this way. New Oroville and other less-developed sweatshop compounds in Asia are colonies of non-stop labor, where architecture, family, and indeed any living experience outside of work, are merely ancillary to work. New Oroville may be a "dream town" to some (as Ziff-Davis India called it), but it represents the graveyard of any meaningful movement against authoritarianism, and certainly the graveyard of any meaningful labor movement. Every new New Oroville that pops up across the face of the planet should be considered another tombstone for workers, another necropolis that houses not free humans but lifeless drones locked into a lifestyle of toil.


The New Oroville model for the future of workers' control resembles closely the "plague city" that Michel Foucault describes in Part Three of his Discipline and Punish. The "plague city" is a town run under totalitarian controls, controls necessitated in Foucault's example by fear of infection and disease entering the community. The plague city, writes Foucault, "lays down for each individual his place, his body, ... his well-being, by means of an omnipresent and omniscient power that subdivides itself in a regular, uninterrupted way even to the ultimate determination of the individual, of what characterizes him, of what belongs to him, of what happens to him."

"A proper place for everyone, and everyone in their proper place": an array of neatly ordered cubicle domes, inside which are nested cube farms of compartmentalized human beings, babysitting servers or plugging in code, their lives inextricably tied up into the perpetuation of the corporate apparatus that surrounds them on all sides and at all times. In this world, the worker is no longer a person; he is an appendage of profit and his being is indistinguishable from that of the corporate entity in which he is immersed.

Or, alternately, resistance: the collaboration of workers not for making corporate overlords wealthier, but for making their own lives freer; cooperating to, in the first instance, withdraw their own producing power from the productive process in order to win some demands, and then, in the second instance, to wrest control of the entire apparatus from totalitarian hands, to be transferred to the democratic administration of the community at large. This second option is resistance; it is revolutionary; and the corporate process will regard it as a plague entering the community, to be eradicated.

If employees are happy living regimented lives, in perpetual receivership of whatever living conditions corporations give to them, there will be no use in convincing them to form revolutionary unions for the act of democratizing their workplaces and then society at large. If, however, working people suspect that there is something more to life than what the company provides -- or allows -- they may find forming revolutionary labor organizations their only hope. If what the corporation wants is diametrically opposed to the freedom of its workers, then joining a revolutionary labor organization may be the only definite way that workers can defend their autonomy and push the tide backwards towards a comprehensive social freedom.

So: a planet dotted with congeries of corporate labor colonies, mining earth and human alike for the resources needed to perpetuate the rule of impersonal profit? Or a global force of workers organized industrially to resist this exploitation, and to eventually take for the workers of the world what they themselves created?

Which will it be?


Brian Oliver Sheppard is the author of Exploitation and How it Affects You (Barricade Books: Melbourne, Australia, 2000). He is an anarchist writer & poet who writes regularly for the Industrial Worker. His work has appeared in Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, Onward!, Kontrapunkt, San Francisco Bay View, Black Business Journal, and many others. He can be reached at bsheppard@bari.iww.org or at (972) 993-2020 x1943.