Bullshitting Jobs

Jamie Woodcock, Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres

Pluto, 272pp, £17.99, ISBN 9780745399065

reviewed by Benjamin Noys

My idea of hell is working in a call centre. I hate using the phone at the best of times, don’t like sales, lack the capacity to ‘smile down the phone’, and don’t do well under constant observation. Of course, even if we don’t work in a call centre we all have the call centre experience of being cold-called. Usually once you have rushed to pick up the phone there is a pause, which is the warning sign, and sometimes you can hear the voices of those working in the call centre humming in the background. Stuck between trying to be polite and feeling vulnerable to the ‘social engineering’ that is used to get sales I try and put the phone down as soon as possible. I am usually left with a feeling of guilt about my rudeness and a sense of irritation and sympathy for the call centre worker.

Jamie Woodcock’s Working the Phones tells the story of working in a call centre from the other end of the phone. It makes for depressing reading. This is a world in which supervisors and managers take the character of David Brent from The Office as a role model, not a figure of satire. Woodcock worked in a London call centre while writing his PhD on call centres, and conveys the sense of futility, desperation and guilt experienced by call centre workers. David Graeber has recently skewered the 'bullshit jobs’ of contemporary capitalism, jobs which serve no social purpose and seem purely exploitative of both the worker and, usually, the customer. The call centre worker is the archetypal bullshit job, but worse than that this is also a job that requires bullshitting. The call centre worker has to cajole and persuade those they call into buying usually useless services. In the case of Woodcock this is insurance, and he has distressing anecdotes about trying to sell to the recently bereaved and the severely ill.

Jamie Woodcock’s book is not, however, merely a trawl through the horrors of the call centre. His book is informed by a Marxist optic, particularly Marx’s notion of a worker’s inquiry. Ironically, this was a survey designed to inform Marx and his comrades about the conditions that worker’s experienced. Even more ironically, it did not receive many replies. The method was taken-up by a number of heterodox Marxists, especially the group around CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya in the United States in the 1950s and the Italian ‘workerists’ of the 1950s and 1960s. In both cases these groups focused on class struggle, trying to break the stranglehold of official Marxism. They were not so much interested in how workers might be galvanised from outside by Marxist ideas, but with their struggles in the workplace. These inquiries were not neutral surveys, but explicitly used to develop struggles and engage workers with possibilities of resistance. Woodcock’s work is one of a number of recent revivals of these ideas, now applied to the service workers of contemporary European and American capitalism rather than the workers on the production line. That said, as Woodcock points out, conditions in call centres produce a different kind of regimented work – the ‘production line in the head’, in which our feelings and character are drawn into work.

Working the Phones leads us through the various circles of hell that is the modern call centre. We begin with the experience of starting in the call centre. Here we are introduced to a regimented work environment based on zero hours contracts in which workers can be sacked on the spot for offences. In what makes painful reading Woodcock describes the monitoring of work, what he calls ‘computerised Taylorism’, after the Taylorist organisation of the production line. Each call is recorded and can be played back to check infractions and failures. These recordings form a source of anxiety and guilt, a record of success and failure that generates a culture of confession and contrition, if you want to keep your job. The emotional costs of call centre work come to the fore. These include the costs of trying to ‘smile down the phone’, to project positive emotion, to improvise on pre-scripted encounters to ensure the human touch, and the exhortations of managers in ‘buzz sessions’ to enjoy what is obviously soul crushing work.

Management plays a key role in this monitoring and supervision, to ensure that workers continue to perform. Woodcock, like others, borrows the idea of the Panopticon to describe this situation. The Panopticon was a design for a prison proposed by the British Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It consisted of a central tower from which a guard could watch a large number of prisoners arranged in cells left exposed in a circle around the tower. As the guard was not visible to the prisoner Bentham hoped, as a cost saving measure, that eventually prisoners would internalise surveillance and no longer require a guard in the central tower. It’s also worth noting that Bentham’s brother, Samuel, worked as a naval architect and was interested in the Panopticon as a means to discipline workers in dockyards. The French philosopher Michel Foucault took-up this idea to argue that contemporary power worked through surveillance and that we now lived in a ‘surveillance society’. In the call centre this is now computerised, with monitoring of calls and screens, although also with more traditional use of managers and supervisors to ensure appropriate behaviour.

Moments of resistance, as Woodcock calls them, tend to be just that, moments. In this environment it is difficult for workers to disrupt or resist the regime of surveillance except by feigning sickness, and so losing pay, or trying to extract extra time at breaks and to leave early. Unlike jobs that appear at least to serve some social purpose, Woodcock suggests care work and teaching, there seems little point seizing control of the call centre. Unless we imagine a future communist society in which call centres might be used to do worker inquiries the best thing seems to be to abolish them. The lack of hope and purpose workers experience is acute. While this can offer a powerful critique of all forms of capitalist labour, which is tied to the production of value rather than any meaningful achievement, the fate of the call centre worker is extreme and isolated.

This experience of isolation is one of the key points of this sensitive and thoughtful study. Woodcock’s own position as a lone researcher indicates the limits and change from the collective aims of previous worker inquiries. His attempts to organise run-up against the limits of weak unions, lack of trust, and the dispersion of call centre workers. There are some successes in getting workers together to share grievances, but what comes across is the radical changes that would be need to regulate let alone abolish call centres. In a year which has demonstrated beyond doubt powerful reactionary forces at work in our societies, Woodcock’s book is a salutary effort that indicates the difficulties of the struggles ahead. Perhaps the saddest note is that when Woodcock told his co-workers about his research they had no desire to read it. The lesson of this is that it is for those of us who don’t work in call centres and similar jobs to agitate and organise against bullshitting jobs. This is what makes Working the Phones vital reading for all those who imagine call centres as hell.

Benjamin Noys teaches critical theory at the University of Chichester. His most recent book is Malign Velocities: Accelerationism & Capitalism.