We Should Be Free to Say “Fuck You” to the Boss

As soon as we show up for work, our much-vaunted free speech goes out the window. But when we win full employment and don’t fear losing our jobs, we can tell the boss what we really think.

Leo Panitch pointed out that full employment enabled workers to say, “Fuck you, boss,” without having to fear the consequences.

A tweet by someone calling themselves “gnocchi mane” recently went viral, going like this:

Me when Bernie is president: Sorry can’t come into work too busy gaming.

My boss: That’s okay you may take a gaming sabbatical as the law allows.

Me: Fuck you.

My boss: I’m sorry sir.

Those of us who’ve had our fair share of shitty jobs (which is most jobs) know this feeling of wanting to say: “Fuck you, boss.” The tweet was funny because we have the same words on the tip of our tongue but don’t dare say them. But why not? After all, in modern societies, we all are equals, right? We have the same right to vote or be elected, the same right to speak, the same right to choose whichever job we want. This is capitalism, after all, not feudalism — or the dark ages.

Of course, Marxists will say: well, your freedom actually ends at the shop, office, or factory door. Once you’re at work, what you produce with your brain or your strength doesn’t belong to you — your boss pays you a wage and takes the rest of the value you produce as his profit. Because he can. Because he owns the enterprise you work for. And as long as he can get a profit off of you for this, you have a job and, sometimes, when the labor market is tight, they’ll even call you a fancy title like a “partner.” When there’s no profit to be made, the “partnership” is over — and you’re out of a job. Of course, there’s always the alternative of collectively seizing the means of production and having a socialist worker-owned factory.

This much is true. But there’s more to this tweet — and our (in)ability to say “fuck you” to our corporate overlords whenever we feel the need. The Marxist political scientist Leo Panitch once made a brilliant observation about this freedom to say “fuck you.” He didn’t call it that — at least not in writing. But in exploring our freedom to say what we mean, Panitch made particular reference to the cultural revolution of the 1960s — or, as Fox News calls it, the collapse of civilization and common decency.

What Panitch did was introduce political economy to the tremendous cultural changes of the 1960s, which he experienced in his youth. Introducing materiality to the seemingly immaterial — culture — allowed him to identify the connection between the cultural revolution of those times and Keynesian full-employment policies during the era of Fordist capitalism. Panitch pointed out what new freedoms came with these policies for the working class. If your boss told you to work harder, let alone longer hours or unpaid overtime, you could simply say, “Fuck you, I ain’t gonna do that” and “Sure, fire me, I don’t care, because I’ll find another equally paid, just as good (or bad) job down the street.”

It might seem like a trite point — perhaps of only historical use-value. But the implications of this observation for our lives under contemporary capitalism are actually quite something. Essentially, Leo Panitch pointed out that full employment enabled workers to say, “Fuck you, boss,” without having to fear the consequences. In other words, only full employment made workers free enough to feel and act as equals.

Freedom Through Socialism

Panitch’s observation has tremendous consequences for any cultural, historical, or sociological inquiry into the 1960s cultural revolution. Any such study will probably miss the point if it doesn’t take into account the concrete political economy of capitalism.

Full-employment policy was the basis for cultural change because it leveled the playing field between capital and labor. It provided the material foundation for being able — at least as a young white man (given the Fordist male-breadwinner model) — to not give a shit, to let your hair grow long, and to let your spirit run free. It also applied to women workers, who particularly benefited from the Keynesian growth in public-sector jobs. As Panitch wrote, this aided women’s financial independence — often providing a way out when faced with patriarchal abuse from their husbands.

Keynesian full-employment policy was the material foundation for wanting more from life than just 9 to 5, labor routine, and the same kind of job until you die. It was the material foundation for experimenting with drugs as a means to finding “your true self,” for living “every day as if it were your last,” and for listening to late 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, early 1960s beat, and late 1960s psychedelic music as an expression of that particular search for “a higher state of mind.“ Really, the next time you hear the Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” the Turtles’ “Happy Together,” or Tomorrow’s “Revolution,” think of full-employment policy.

Sex, Full Employment, and Rock ’n’ Roll

Establishing the connection between full-employment policy and “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” isn’t just of historical importance. It has a crucial relevance for our lives today.

As the neo-Gramscian theorist Stephen Gill has so excellently pointed out, when these kinds of Fordist freedoms caused a profit squeeze for capital in the 1970s, neoliberal monetarism — the shift from demand-oriented to supply-side-oriented macroeconomic policies — was also a deliberate means to discipline the working class by reintroducing mass unemployment.

This brought anxiety — and even terror — for those who now feared losing their job. The neoliberal reforms of the welfare state during the 1990s (like the United States’ Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Germany’s Hartz reforms) complemented this fear with a permanent Sword of Damocles: the humiliation of “workfare” and the loss of self-determination through all sorts of punitive social policies.

Disciplining the working class and engineering a new Protestant work ethic was a conscious decision during the neoliberal turn. As Gill also points out in his major work on the Trilateral Commission, which paved the way for “neoliberal globalization,” ruling elites declared that the problem of the 1960s and early 1970s was “too much democracy.” They really didn’t like them Marx-reading, poetry-writing, guitar-playing, love-making, pot-smoking youngsters. In West Germany, the former Nazi (who became a leading German conservative sociologist) Helmut Schelsky helped level an influential critique against the “social hammock.” This term was used to decry, delegitimize, and dismantle the welfare state by pointing to a few bad apples who took unfair advantage of the system.

In this sense, culturally speaking, mid- to late-1970s punk music might even be considered the expression of the end of Keynesian full employment, combined with a still robust welfare state: “We’re superfluous, we’re worthless, and we’re proud of it!” We may not have much, but we’re just fine with what the welfare state provides, so deal with my Mohawk and fuck you!” Likewise, one might then conclude that the corporate absorption of 1980s underground music after grunge, the aesthetic atrocities of post-grunge, and the precariousness of avant-garde and experimental music ever since was an expression of Bill Clinton “ending welfare as we know it.” So the next time you listen to the Sex Pistols’ “fuck you” to society, think of monetarist financial policy and a still-functioning welfare state. And the next time you think of the horror that is Creed or the economic hardships of brilliant experimental artists like New York’s Marnie Stern, think: “Fuck you, Bill Clinton!”

Job Guarantee, Yes Please

But Panitch’s historical observation could also be relevant to our lives today. Gnocchi Mane’s cheeky tweet indicates what new freedoms left-wing and socialist policies could and will bring to the working class. What potential we will be able to develop, if and when things like Bernie Sanders’s federal job-guarantee program are really set in place.

It wasn’t only the experience of Keynesian full-employment policies that showed how the lack of fear of losing your job increased your freedom to speak your mind — a paradoxical safety valve even in what are rightly considered highly unfree societies. The East German novelist Ingo Schulze — considered by many a new Günter Grass, given his public prominence — recalls how he was never as afraid of the party functionaries before 1989 as he was of the wealthy boss at his local small-town warehouse once he encountered German capitalism.

Or take the high drinking levels in the former East Germany, as explored in a study funded by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung — the political foundation associated with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Given this institute’s conservative politics, one might have assumed this research would conclude that people drank more because of the lack of freedoms, the lack of many consumer goods, and the general suffering under “a socialist dictatorship.”

But instead it reached a quite different conclusion: people drank more simply because they could! They had more leisure time, less workplace pressures, and no fear that capitalist rationalization schemes, the lack of profitability, or capitalist crises would put them out of a job. “The reason” why people had such disproportionately high alcohol consumption levels, author Thomas Kochan concluded, was “the experience of a collective community with very little competitive rivalries” and “existential carefree-ness plus a life in a world whose limitations were compensated by a richness in leisure time.”

Creeps

The silly tweet thus points to quite fundamental issues. It underscores how socialism is not the opposite of freedom, but rather how socialism is — or can and should be — its very precondition. Because socialism means that the capitalist freedom to exploit and to oppress, including sexual exploitation at the workplace, will be replaced by the freedom only socialism can offer. To not be afraid to say “fuck you” when the creepy restaurant boss puts his hand on your butt or offers you a job for sexual favors. Job guarantees and other socialist measures eliminating the fear of unemployment help level the structural imbalance between capital and labor. They turn formal and political equality into actual social and economic equality.

Freedom through socialism also means the shift from the mere “freedom from” (being beaten by the police, put into custody without legal basis, etc.) to the “freedom to” (do things you actually want and desire), as 1960s philosopher Herbert Marcuse put it in his book “One-Dimensional Man.”

For instance, getting rid of tuition fees would free us from having to choose — against our passion and interests — a business degree instead of a history degree (and these days, only rich kids at Ivy League universities can afford to study history anymore). Just like how Bernie Sanders’s demand for eliminating tuition fees and canceling student debt would free people from needing lucrative posts in corporate law and union-busting instead of labor law and defending workers’ rights, just because the damn debts need paying off.

In short, the promise of socialism is that we’ll no longer be one-dimensional, but rather multidimensional, full human beings. The 2020s could be like the 1960s again. Well, maybe without the drum circles and without the tie-dye clothes, but the same spirit. And the drum circles and tie-dye clothes for those who insist.

And, of course (returning to Leo Panitch’s initial observation), Keynesian full-employment policies fell far short of socialism. To a certain extent, they excluded women and, the more they started failing, increasingly migrants, and they were based on a patriarchal system of reproductive labor exploitation and oppression of women. The Cold War situation that gave birth to this very particular historical compromise between capital and labor in the West isn’t coming back either —nor should it.

Socialist freedom from anxiety will go further in two ways. First, we’ve learned that capitalism can only be democratized so much. Eventually, like in the crisis of Fordism (1967–79), the newly gained freedom of workers to say “fuck you” to their boss eventually squeezed capital’s profits and confronted the Left with the alternative of either full socialization of the means of production and taking away capital’s main source of power or allowing capital to reestablish capitalist discipline over workers through monetarism and the class project of globalization. This latter led to the neoliberal turn of the 1970s — a mistake we shouldn’t make twice.

Second, it’s true that Keynesian full-employment policies alleviated the fear of mass unemployment and allowed the boomers to let their hair grow. Yet the reason why the youth revolted was that labor was an alienating experience, as it still is after the 1960s. That will only end with democratized workplaces, when workers make decisions about what, when, and how to produce themselves. Kind of like in Bernie Sanders’s Workplace Democracy Act.

Nevertheless, the freedom that existed because of full employment — the right to a job — as limited as it was (largely to white men and female public-sector workers), is something worth remembering. It can liberate us from what Leo Panitch’s coauthor Sam Gindin has called the greatest victory of neoliberalism — namely “the lowering of our expectations” of what is a good life, of what is a life actually worth living. We instead need a life where we can say “fuck you” to whoever we please — and “I love you” as well. Especially that.