Monday, October 6, 2008


When I write satire, I use exaggeration to criticize things I do not like. Normally, this involves seizing upon a talismanic argument or a revealing characteristic, especially in people or groups that enjoy unfair power over others. I will take an argument to its most absurd lengths, or mock a characteristic that shows how bad a person or group really is. All the while, I use these exaggerations to illustrate a gap between aspirational principles and day-to-day practice. If the satire hits its mark, that gap will be so glaring that it renders my target contemptible. Nonetheless, to generate that gap, exaggeration is essential.

Sadly, all too often real events transcend my ability to exaggerate. If something bothers me about a person, ideology or argument, I try my best to overblow them in my satires. But time after time, people seriously say things that sound satirically exaggerated. When that happens, I feel disheartened in my satirical endeavor, because reality itself does the work; and I worry that people will overlook the absurdity. On the other hand, sometimes this "satire in life" makes me feel vindicated. I feel that my satires provided a warning; and now the hazard I mocked actually comes to pass. I feel that I accurately predicted a negative trend. It saddens to me see negative trends actually happening, but strangely smug because I "knew it would happen that way."

I often satirize employment rhetoric. I do not like employment rhetoric--or employment relationships--because they reflect compulsion, unfairness and disparate power. As I have explained in earlier essays, employment derives from the French word for "use," and an employee is merely a "thing used." The employer is the user; the employee is the tool used. Individual worth means nothing compared to the employee's "usefulness." In return for being objectified as a tool, the employee receives a "compensation;" he must be "made whole" for the exploitation practiced upon him. Finally, the employer evaluates an employee's "usefulness" according to the efficiency with which the employee satiates the employer's economic interests. A "useful" employee maximizes productivity, thereby increasing the employer's profit. Employees are not "useful" if they have skills or habits that cost more than they win. In sum, employer-employee rhetoric completely objectifies the employee.

Today, I read the following language on an internet "job help" website about "performance reviews" for employees:

"I think employees should look at themselves like a balance sheet with assets on one side and liabilities on the other," states Brian Sommer, president of TechVentive Inc., a Chicago-based technology development company. "From one review period to the next, I want to know what the employee has done to improve their value to the firm and their career."

I did not make this up. A real person said this. It sounds like it could have come directly from one of my employment-related satires, but it didn't. Note that the speaker encourages employees to consider themselves nothing more than "balance sheets." Balance sheets are critical financial documents that show whether a business is profitable or not. They are symbolic. If a balance sheet has more liabilities than assets, it is a loser. By contrast, a balance sheet with more assets than liabilities is a winner. Here, the speaker calls upon an employee--a human being, not a stock holding or plot of land--to reduce himself to an asset/liability duality. He calls upon the employee to evaluate himself based upon his worth or detriment to the employer. The employer wants to see the employee broken down into neat pluses and minuses. He wants an easy way to judge him according to simple, business criteria. What about his worth as a person? It doesn't matter.

Later in the passage, the speaker says "he wants to know what the employee has done to improve their value to the firm and their career." The final clause about the employee's "career" sounds like an afterthought. It is completely irrelevant whether the employee has a rich future ahead of him; all that really matters is whether the employee has "improved his value to the firm." Performance reviews reflect a pure power relationship in which the superior employer scrutinizes the inferior employee, then passes judgment upon him according to the employer's criteria. The employer observes the employee; it is a one-way street. It is surveillance. The employer scrutinizes only those characteristics in the employee that "improve value to the firm."

In essence, the employer classifies the employee according to the employee's ability to serve his employer's interests. The more he wins for the firm, the more valuable a "person" he is. Yet there is an unspoken conundrum at work here: If the employee zealously advances the employer's interests, all he gets is a meager salary raise, while the employer reaps the full economic reward of the employee's toils. The employer might have made $1,000,000 on the employee's diligence. In return, he gives the employee a "favorable review," and spends an additional $3,500 per year on him in additional salary. Sounds like a pretty good deal to the employer: Get $1,000,000; pay $3,500.

I have satirized this kind of rhetoric. I believe that human beings have intrinsic worth beyond the amount of money they can win for another person. I hate to see people coldly objectified and judged according to exploitive standards. People work because they have to. Employees must do as their employers command, otherwise they will not have the money to pay their rent and feed their families. Employment, therefore, involves a cost in dignity. In order to take home a wage, the employee must not only enrich his employer through his labor, but must also submit himself to perverse surveillance and judgment. He must submit himself to "performance reviews" that express his worth in terms of "assets and liabilities." He becomes the subject of inquisitorial scrutiny. And all this for what? A paycheck that pays the bills.

At times I feel insulated from the world when I write satire. I think that things really could never be as bad as they are in my exaggerated farces. But time after time, the world gives me an example to show once again that they are just as bad--or worse--than even I could imagine.


Rockie4379 said...

The world is just so f*ed up sometimes. But there are those who have jobs where you're not just a balance sheet. I work at one and I'm thankful.

Great essay....but really sad :(

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Thank you for the comment. You are right that there are jobs out there that do not overtly objectify employees as much as the ones I targeted in my essay. I think you will find more decency in employers if profit is not the driving force behind the enterprise. On the other hand, it is difficult to do this, because the most prevalent reason why people go into business is to make a profit. Certainly there are government jobs and some private institutions that have other motives, but they are the rare exceptions. There is, after all, truth in the old adage about making money from a job: "What am I doing this for, my health?" Of course not--you would much rather be doing other things, but the need to pay bills outweighs any spiritual discomfort you may have with your circumstances. And that leads me to a whole different issue: Happiness and unhappiness as it relates to employment. We will wait until a further essay to take up that one.