In 1967 in Philly, UPenn tortured a lot dogs. You see Martin Seligman and Steven Maier had an idea, "Let's rig up some dogs." And the dogs were rigged: A control group, a group that got electrocuted and had a level that –when pushed—could stop the electrocutions and a third group that had a level that could not stop the executions. As volts when through fur, group two (generally) figured out that pushing the level gave them control over stopping the shocks. Group three had no control, pushing the lever did not to stop the flow of electricity; the dogs could do nothing. They lay down and whined -crying as electricity surged through them. These three groups where in pens that had a removable wall. A section of what looked like, to the dogs, stable wall could be lifted out, and then the dogs could easily hop a small base to a section of the (now revealed to be bigger) pen. They could get free from all this electrocution business. Easily. A funny thing happened. Only the dogs that had the level that stopped the shocks would move. Even when the choice was given to group three, those dogs just laid there and cried. They had learned helplessness. Their experiences taught them that there was no control over their horrible existence, and they should just lie there, whimpering.
Learned helplessness had been given a name by this experiment, but many have forgotten it –probably because of the shocking existence so many of us share these days. Now we're the dogs, and learned helplessness is the preeminent descriptor of capitalism's working beasts. This is what capitalism has wrought and the intended fruit of its continuation. I get to see it daily while I fix the toys of the rich over the phone; I'm capitalism's bitch. Most of us are, and we were taught to be:
We're in the break room -the smell of ramen and too old off brand bologna. This is where we get to spend our thirty minute lunch. I'm eating dry cereal and listening to a man get shocking news on one call. He is going to be late on his pay day loan (which, by the way, those loans are advertised inside our company's building –no soliciting in this temple of profit, unless you're a money lender). He's upset, because he won't have time to catch a bus to sell his blood across town and then catch a return bus to the money lender before it closes. That means he'll be late on his payments and incur steep fees, but he figures he can sell that blood tomorrow and try to work out a payment then. He is locked in a system where he's learned that crippling debt is normal; there is no point to struggle –or even really get angry. They only means of production he controls are in his bones. Literally. It's time to leverage that production to meet his daily needs. Every call center is like a setting sun.
Our company rewards those that it knows work off the clock. It forces the rest of us to work off the clock as much as possible. We all know this is illegal; we just know if we complain we'll get fired and get a shitty reference. It's easy to whimper amongst ourselves. This is such a common situation, our state's website uses it as an example of a way labor laws are broken. The problem is, we've already been broken, and it's not worth trying to move to the other side of the pen. It seems there's bound to be some shocking punishment over there as well. People fear for getting fired if they clock out too often to go to the bathroom. That's right; we have been instructed to clock out to pee –and if we do that too much; well, we've learned we'll be without help when pleading for our jobs. People are afraid to drink water, for needing to leave momentarily; one man gets terrible cramps and other serious symptoms of dehydration. He needs that $10.60 an hour though. I mean, sure, he could maybe see a doctor, but the insurance that is offered is not really insurance. It doesn't meet the requirements of the ACA as –you know—real health insurance, but they'll happily sell it to you and take your money. You learn to just whimper less when you get a charley horse –like a good dog.
I work in one of the smaller sections of my call center. There's –maybe—50 of us working together at a time; all looking to go home as soon as the nightmare of screaming customers is over. By my count for at least 4 or 5 of the people on the floor in my section, that home is usually a car in the parking lot. It's getting cold, so some of those people are taking a little nip to stay warm. It's easier than complaining, and our company has a shower on site! Around ten percent of my section is homeless, and I wonder if that stat holds for the multiple larger sections. Some try to save some money for a deposit; some have the money, but nobody will lease to them because of credit problems. They learn to like the break room, its shitty coffee and the lady that patrols the parking lot at night. It's like during training when the company bragged about giving milk away to employees at some of our off shore locations; you're not paid enough to buy milk or a place to bathe regularly, so the company will generously provide this help. You didn't earn it, but here's a bone.
It's so very easy to learn that you are helpless. I did, and so many others have too. It breaks my heart. It breaks my heart like when I first learned about those dogs being taken to a laboratory. I cry when I read about sequestration and other budget cuts affecting services to the poor. The dogs in group three that had learned helplessness wouldn't climb over to safety when given the opportunity –except when they were given help. When lab workers repeatedly physically moved the dogs, in a manner that mimicked how the dogs would naturally walk away from accepted pain and towards something better, the poor creatures learned they could help themselves. There are so very few places where a depressed, broken person can get shown that there is still hope, and the number of those places is decreasing. We are the means of production for the most powerful empire ever assembled, and we're being treated like dogs. When rich people can take a tax break for their second home while the people serving them make their home in a car at a call center, something is wrong. I know so much of labor has learned that we're helpless; I just have hope somebody will show us how to stand up again.