It’s Not Subversion, It’s The System

I ran across this Boston Globe article about a Boston College professor who believes she has successfully identified a new form of civil disobedience, or as she terms it “economic disobedience.”

The interview changed the way Dodson talked with other supervisors and managers of low-income workers, and she began to find that many of them felt the same discomfort as the grocery store manager. And many went a step further, finding ways to undermine the system and slip their workers extra money, food, or time needed to care for sick children. She was surprised how widespread these acts were. In her new book, “The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy,” she called such behavior “economic disobedience.”

I’m perplexed as to why Prof. Dodson is so surprised by this. Looking back over the jobs I’ve worked in the last ten years, ranging from hourly work just above minimum wage to a family owned business to the corporate world, every company I’ve worked at has seen managers or owners making reasonable exceptions for people in order to help them out: Letting people leave early without clocking out; not officially making someone off work when they’re home with a sick kid; giving left over food, supplies, etc to people who are known to be hard up; etc. This happened at least as much at the small, family-owned company I worked at for a couple years, where it was clearly not a case of managers “subverting” a system in order to help people out, since it was the owners themselves granting exceptions and giving people extras.

What the supervisors here are doing is, technically, breaking the rules of giving away resources that are not theirs. Too much of this kind of thing can be bad for the company, and if a manager is constantly putting people down as working hours they didn’t work, upper management will probably eventually notice and be upset about the waste of resources. (So might be the workers who actually work all their hours.) However, it’s fairly normal for managers to assume, rightly or wrongly, some of the prerogatives of owners in regards to granting exceptions and handing out favors. And indeed, it’s arguably not just good for the workers but good for the company if managers make reasonable exceptions at times. The working mother who’s given unofficial time-off to take a sick kid to the doctor is likely to be a harder and more loyal worker as a result than she would be if her boss refused her time off or held back wages for the time missed.

Good supervisors know that if they take good care of their workers, their workers will be more likely to watch out for the good of the company, putting in extra hours when necessary and letting them know when they see problems or things that could be improved. Contrary to the populist imagination, being an inflexible jerk is generally not good for business.

4 Responses to It’s Not Subversion, It’s The System

  1. Foxfier says:

    The only system I can think that it subverts is the legal system type hoops put in the way– I know I’ve heard of a lot of places getting attacked for giving away beyond-sell-date food, and there can be taxes on any recompense that an employer offers an employee…. Ditto with the flipside of workers willing doing an extra ten minutes after they’ve clocked out so the work is done right.

    (My sister did that once– and was informed that she’d be fired if she did it again, because the risk of legal action against her workplace was way, way too high. Not out of fear of risk, but because she was willingly doing something extra without being paid.)

    It doesn’t seem the lady drew the same sort of conclusion I would’ve, but the phenomena seems to be in the same vein as the various Catholic services that have had to shut their doors because the law says X can’t happen, and there’s no way for them to sneak.

  2. Pinky says:

    Dodson’s perspective is so screwed up. Her implicit starting point is that the system is evil and soul-crushing, and anyone who acts humanely is undermining it. And the fact that she’s surprised by human charity! Is she stunned when someone holds a door open for her? Does she see that few-second pause as an undermining of efficiency? or maybe an attempt to overthrow “the man”?

    Foxfier is right that in an absolutely legalistic society, there’s always the possibility of complaint. What we forget is that such obsessive interpretation of the law is a relatively new thing. There’ve always been decent people doing a little extra.

  3. Zach says:

    This type of understanding is often produced by academics, for whom work can only be understood as an abstraction. When you trade in ideas, it’s easy to forget that the idea you have in your mind may not have any correspondence to reality, especially when it’s an abstraction like “the capitalist system,” which is almost meaningless. Philosophers, political “scientists”, psychologists and social scientists are most susceptible to this. It seems this professor has been “mugged by reality”.

    I actually like the understanding of charity as subversive, but not subversive of “the system”. Charity is subversive of evil!

  4. Foxfier says:

    Oooh, Charity as subversion of the fallen nature of man, maybe? I like it….

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