Machismo at Work: False Consciousness or Self Defense?

The man was nearly deaf. “He won’t wear hearing protection!” exclaimed his exasperated wife. I turned to the man and asked if this was true. He nodded and confessed that none of the guys at work wore hearing protection.

Feminists would describe this behavior as workplace machismo, or male toughness. Marxists would describe it as false consciousness, where workers fail to recognize their class interests, in this case, to protect their health on the job.

I suspected something else, so I replied, “I think I understand. If you value your hearing, then you are valuing yourself, and that would create conflict in a job where you are not valued.” His eyes widened in recognition. Then he looked at the floor and nodded. His wife asked me what I was talking about. And so I explained.

The more employers devalue their employees, the less they have to pay them, and the more profit they will make. In contrast, employees seek greater recognition of their contribution in the form of higher wages. Workers command more respect when they pull together.

In 1937, General Motors was the biggest corporation in the world. Genora (Johnson) Dollinger describes the confidence of workers who forced GM to recognize their union:

“Every time something came up that couldn’t be settled or the workers got a tough foreman who told them, “Go to hell,” they’d shut down the line. The men were so cocky, they’d say to the foremen, “You don’t like it?” They’d push the button and shut down the line.”

In response, the capitalist class set out to strip the unions of their power. In Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States, Sharon Smith explains how conservative union officials joined with government to drive socialists and other militants out of the unions. By the 1950s, American unions had been transformed from fighting organizations controlled by workers to bureaucratic organizations run by middle-class professionals. But the bosses wanted more. They wanted complete control of the shop floor.

Degrading Workers

In Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, Harry Braverman describes how employers robbed workers of their power by applying an industrial system called “scientific management” or Taylorism.

Frederick Winslow Taylor developed three methods for transferring control over the labor process from workers to managers: separating mental and manual work; de-skilling the labor process; and micro-managing every step of the work. In combination, these methods reduce the skilled worker to a cog in a machine, interchangeable with any other cog. As a writer of the time observed,

“It is not, truly speaking the labor that is divided; but the men: divided into mere segments of men — broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail.”

Today, Taylor’s methods are the norm. Fast-food restaurants are structured like assembly lines. Hospitals function like factories where separate departments tend to different parts of the body, in assembly-line fashion. Classroom courses are scripted to the point of describing which hand gestures to make while teaching.

Devalued workers are treated as expendable. An estimated 55,000 Americans die every year from occupational injury and illness, far more than died on 9/11. Despite this shocking level of industrial slaughter, politicians do not denounce employers as “terrorists,” and they do not order Homeland Security to patrol the workplace.

Ninety percent of all work sites in America, covering 40 percent of the nation’s workforce, are not inspected regularly for health and safety violations. When violations are found, the penalties are too small to force any real change.

The State virtually gives employers a license to kill workers. In 1970, Congress declared that causing the death of a worker by deliberately violating safety laws is a misdemeanor (not a felony) with a maximum sentence of six months in jail. This is half the maximum for harassing a wild donkey on federal land.

Workers stripped of skill, dignity and social worth suffer low morale, sickness and frequent absenteeism, all of which lower productivity. To boost productivity, experts in medicine, psychology and human relations serve as the maintenance crew for the human machinery. These professionals are not employed to remedy the assault on the worker. Their job is to manage the worker’s reactions to that assault. The worker becomes the problem, not the way work is organized. And that’s how a middle-aged worker with hearing loss ends up at the doctor’s office feeling embarrassed about not using hearing protection.

False Consciousness?

Is this worker suffering from “false consciousness”? I would say no. He knows he has a conflict. He understands the danger of excessive noise and wants to protect himself. However, he also recognizes (even when he can’t put it into words) that if he and his co-workers valued themselves, it would be more difficult to tolerate a job where they are not valued.

Given the employer’s disregard for their hearing, these workers have two choices. They can unite and demand less noise and more effective health and safety provisions. Or they can “go along” by dissociating from their need to protect themselves. The first option would create conflict with the boss. The second option creates conflict with themselves and each other. The workplace is structured to promote the path of least resistance, which is to “go along to get along.”

When challenging the social order seems impossible, machismo serves as a form of collective self-defense. Machismo helps male workers bear their degradation by making it seem that they choose to risk their health on the job, as a confirmation of their manly toughness.

To view the problem only as masculine strutting is to fail to recognize the worker’s real oppression. To view the problem only as false consciousness is to disregard the creative forms of self-defense that workers use when they see no class-based alternative.

Similarly, racist workers have a legitimate need to defend their jobs. However, workers who blame other workers for their problems trade apparent short-term gain for real long-term pain. The need for self-defense is real, but the method is self-defeating, because employers use racism to lower living standards for all workers.

Socialists strive to provide workers with the knowledge and experience that will help them to see the social source of their misery and their collective power to end it. The term “false consciousness” is used to explain why workers persist in supporting a system that oppresses them. (Feminists also use the term “false consciousness” to explain why women support a system that oppresses them.)

Marx never used the term “false consciousness,” and Engels refers to it only once, in a letter. However, the concept bears an uncanny resemblance to Freud’s concept of psychological resistance. When Freud’s patients refused to accept his interpretation of their problems, he called this “resistance,” a psychological defense against discussing, recalling or thinking about painful realities.

Freud’s concept of resistance assumes that the therapist is always right and the patient is always wrong. In reality, therapists frequently fail to appreciate the larger social context that compels people to behave in ways that seem self-defeating, but are actually self-preserving in the absence of other choices.

Consider the unconfident woman who stays with an abusive mate despite her therapist’s recommendation that she leave. Freud would view the deadlock between therapist and patient as resistance, where the patient is resisting the therapist. There is another possibility. The therapist may not appreciate the woman’s financial inability to support herself and her kids and the real possibility that her mate may kill her if she leaves.

Just as the concept of resistance creates conflict between therapist and patient, the concept of false consciousness creates conflict between socialists and non-socialist workers. Who decides whose consciousness is “true” and whose consciousness is “false”? Socialists may not appreciate the extent to which capitalism is structured to keep most people feeling powerless most of the time, regardless of what they know, and that understanding these forces is the first step to overcoming them.

The Body Tells the Truth

The self-defense methods that workers use to “get through” are not entirely successful. They preserve a semblance of dignity, but fail to protect against the ravages of exploitation. What the mind refuses to acknowledge, the body protests by generating pain and other disabling symptoms (like hearing loss). As Michael Schneider writes in Neurosis and Civilization:

“As long as the working class does not rebel against these new and intensified forms of exploitation, heart, stomach and circulatory diseases of individual workers will rebel for them. Even though the worker may still ‘go along,’ his circulation, in any event, will not. Even if he says, ‘actually I feel alright,’ his stomach ulcer will prove the contrary.”

As the rich get richer, the rest of us get sicker. Capitalism produces obscene wealth at one end of society and epidemics of dis-ease everywhere else. The medical system hides the relationship between class and illness by treating sickness as an individual malfunction, instead of the inevitable price of a profit-driven system. Even universal health care cannot stop the sickness produced by capitalism. Only the working-class majority can transform an illness-generating society into a health-generating one.

Machismo, racism, dissociation, sickness and other forms of self-defense both mask and reveal the reality of worker oppression. By viewing worker compliance with capitalism as false consciousness, socialists pit themselves against workers.

Workers do not want to suffer. They want to be judged even less. Socialists can align with workers by appreciating the complexities of their lives and their need to defend themselves. This alliance is essential for workers to learn to fight as a class.

As Braverman concludes, until workers fight back as a class they will “remain servants of capital instead of freely associated producers who control their own labor and their own destinies,” and they will “work every day to build for themselves more ‘modern,’ more ‘scientific,’ and more dehumanized prisons of labor.”

Susan Rosenthal is a life-long socialist, retired physician, union member, and the author of POWER and Powerlessness (2006). Sick and Sicker: Essays on Class, Health and Health Care (2010), and Rebel Minds: Class War, Mass Suffering, and the Urgent Need for Socialism (2019). She can be reached at: Read other articles by Susan.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Fiona Bateson said on September 29th, 2007 at 10:09pm #

    Thank-you. I’m female and I work for a retail chain, HBC (Zeller’s) in Canada. In the past 3 months which I have worked there, 2 of my fellow employees have been put on anti-depressants, one has developed a bleeding ulcer and the rest just plod along like dairy cattle. The lifer’s as I refer to them (10+ years) are the most miserable lot of women (and 3 men) I’ve ever met.

    We are forced to push instant credit applications for store credit cards or Master Cards down the throats of every customer who crosses our paths, and have a set number per day which we must sign up. If you fail to do so, you are called into the office to discuss the matter with your supervisor and manager, and as we are not so subtly reminded constantly, it could mean your job. We are paid barely above minimum wage. At one point, as I’m told, last year when an employee who’s no longer with the company attempted to encourage unionization, she was basically shunned by the rest of the employees.

    Conditioned sheep, the lot of us, and too afraid to do anything about it, for fear of losing our lousy, thankless, horrible jobs. By the way, most of us are single mothers struggling to make ends meet from paycheck to paycheck. Your article doesn’t make me feel any better about my job, but it at least puts how I do feel into perspective.

  2. paul said on September 30th, 2007 at 12:22am #

    Good article. If I may add, since I have some personal experience of that condition, the feeling of not being valued compounds with a feeling of powerlessness that leads to a longing for death, “jokingly” expressed as for example “one has got to die from something, anyway”. This is particularly striking among the males in the workplace. Life is a struggle and a fight, isn’t it ?