The Third International after Lenin

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"Low-Wage Capitalism" - the sitcom?

“Outsourced” NBC-TV Thursdays 9:30pm
reviewed by Jay Rothermel


A note to the reader: These notes were written over the course of a week several months ago. They were written at work while on breaks and at lunch. I planned to shape them up into a proper small review of about 750 words and then send it out for consideration. But the necessities of work, family responsibilities, and the pleasures of political activism intervened.
Jay Rothermel

tragedy + time = comedy; or, equals a lame mass-market TV sitcom attempting to be clever and funny while imitating [ripping-off would be too harsh a word considering the level of dramatic lameness involved] .

Outsourcing is ripe for satire and send-up, and and contradictions and incongruities of call center workers thrown into the global economy, and the challenges they must navigate to keep getting a paycheck, are ripe for scabrous satire.

1. “Outsourced” gives it something a little less than skewering.
2. This is "The Office" with sometimes near-identical physical resemblances between actors who play similar roles.

“Outsourced” takes the side of the US boss "forced" to keep his job by running a call center for his employers in India, after his US facility closes. He is young, single, and has just been promoted to boss off the floor.

Unnamed Indian city where the call center is located is a radiant studio set. Exteriors filmed in India are suffused with a pristine "magic hour" glow redolent of the sensual East.

Street scenes in studio are busy with extras [full employment for Indian thespians at last, and none running the Kwik-E-Mart] but are free of the dirt, grime, and funky reality of life in a workers’ district in any city in the world, whether Mumbai or Minneapolis. Everyone is clean, has their own clothes and style-sense, clearly can afford soap, shoes, laundry detergent, and to pack their lunches.

The call center seems to be open during daytime hours; as anyone who chained to the oars in a call center can attest, Indian call centers are open all night to assist North American customers during daytime business hours. This is why call center reps in Indian lose their hair and suffer sleep deprivation: they all have daytime jobs, too.

The boss is friendly and caring and longs to connect with his employees. The raises “Outsourced” to the level of JRR Tolkien fantasy. Call center supervisors are notorious petty Napoleons who take deep pleasure in setting reps against each other and stirring rumors and acrimony to keep workers divided, often [in the US] along racial lines.

No discussion of money, wages, rents, prices, groceries, utilities.

Only homes seen are rather like inner-city single-family dwellings. No tenements, no slums or slum-dogs in sight.

Call Center employees are children [the boss is their teacher/guide/mentor, unlocking the cornucopia of pleasures of North American consumer culture to them]. Some are seen as children because of their emotional eccentricities [the bug-eyed and quiet yet passionate young female oddball]; some are actually grown men with a childish and childlike [or permanent adolescent] mentality. Work for employees is a place where they go to relax and play and take their egos for a walk.

The wages system and its damnable warping of consciousness and conduct in the workplace is totally absent. [How could it not be on network TV?]

This is outsourcing pictured as a Utopian dream-come-true opportunity for Third world people to be like us. The boss is their model of behaviour.

Absent so far: the "calibration session" - which is self-criticism and the boss’s passive-aggressive sadism raised to the level of motivational science [mad science, that is.]

The incipient love interest is between the female employee who comes closest to stereotypes promoted in the West about “Women of the East” and the young U.S. boss. [A “Sam and Diane” situation]. The woman is seeking an arranged marriage, but we already see the foreshadowing of a future "interrupt the wedding" episode where the boss breaks into the ceremony and whisks her away to the American Dream of mortgages, credit card debt, and a lifetime whipsawed between ever-shifting interludes of employment and unemployment.

[....] "Outsourced" comes about ten or fifteen years too late. This is flashy, network-scale jewel of propaganda for how US economic globalism will homogenize and unite the workers of the world. Today, to anyone working in a call center, just laid off from a call center, or fearful that their next job will by necessity be in another damned call center, the sham and fraud and bad faith are laid bare.

Rather like a charming painting that one only learns later was executed not in oil paint but elephant dung.

None of the realism of work depicted in "Roseanne" and "The Simpsons". A call center worker viewing the show knows that these people never really take a hundred calls a day, have AHT goals to meet, and get written-up if they are more than three minutes off on their adherence to break and lunch schedules.

[Work on TV is usually reserved for doctors, lawyers, cops, secret agents. So a TV show about call center employees and their workdays sounds pretty good to anyone; the fact that it takes place in another country is for US TV nothing short of astounding. Normally the only US shows that take place in other countries are hymns [or semi-sarcastic hymns] to foot soldiers of the national security state.]

Class-conscious call center workers face many challenges:

>>bosses set employees in active, measurable, statistical competition with each other to see who will keep their jobs and who will be fired for not meeting their goals [nothing more infuriating that bidding farewell to a co-worker fired because their average call handle time was 5:06 instead of 4:59 as they wish everyone goodbye and are escorted from the building and into the waiting arms of the jobless recovery.]

>>employees are set against the customers who call in; the customer is presented as a resource that must be husbanded, but at the same time a dangerous and volatile creature [rather like a wild boar or a triffid] that must not be allowed to rampage, making demands that exceed the revenue they generate for the company.

>>call center workers must make a leap in consciousness individually [ because no class-conscious rank and file or organized labor leadership present in most call centers to take up the role] to appreciate that they need to interact with their co-workers on the basis of solidarity and practical concrete mutual support to develop skills to meet employment criteria, or collectively wildcat against specific guidelines which are impossible to follow; and to realize that they must form a united front with the customer on the phone and defend their rights as fellow workers as long as such conduct is within guidelines.

Imagine a job where you are in one place all day, with your overseer about five feet away, and every word you say is digitally recorded. Imagine working at a job where, in the course of an eight hour shift, you speak with 90 or 95 people who cannot figure out how to work their cell phone or their cable tv remote or pay their bill? Imagine 95 people each day telling you horror stories of unemployment, foreclosure, eviction; begging you for time to pay their bill; imagine that to put food on your own family's table you have to tell them no. Welcome to the world of the call center worker in the age of low-wage capitalism and permanent jobless economic "recovery."

It makes you laugh, but it also gives you the opportunity to not think.


Show is "un-political" political in the sense that for the whole question of low-wage capitalism, globalization, outsourcing = THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE.

No sense India is in political and economic eruption and that it has a combative, militant working class.

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