“Severance”, the new face of alienation at work

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The changeover takes place every morning at 9.00 am sharp, in the elevator leading to theopen space spotless. The employee sees his external memory deactivated and is left alone with his office memory, thanks to a chip implanted in the brain. His personal life and his professional life have been completely shut down. Every employee of the company Lumon who has gone to the scalpel has a double that he knows nothing about, and vice versa.

What at first glance seems like a magical solution to compartmentalize your life, turns out to be hell: the collaborators conceived by Dan Erickson in severance pay are forced to perform mind-numbing and terrifying computing tasks; they are guarded by a sadistic owner, abused by a violent guard and led by a psychopath in a gray suit. In short, they are we can no longer alienated and caught in this hellish separation from itself. Can they break free?

Alienation, the essential marrow of labour

Like any dystopia, series severance pay describes both a world that does not exist and a distorted, though sometimes recognizable version of our current world. The life of these mindless employees speaks to us: the absurd tasks, the slow discussions between colleagues, the organized pots, the depressing furniture…

The cut between the “innie” and the “from” of a character, that is, between one’s Self inside and one’s Self outside the company, can be interpreted as a magnifying, metaphorical mirror of any kind of work. Observed for what it is, stripped of any element beyond its own logic, the work reveals an inhumanity without a name. The four servants whose severance pay follows the story share the same fate as the workers whose Karl Marx described “alienation” in the 19thand century – apart from the difference in salary. With Marx, the proletarians are alienated from the capitalists: the bosses, who own the machines and pay their workers too little, prevent them from owning their means of production and enjoying their fruits. Employees cannot recognize themselves in the activity they contribute to and become “strangers” to themselves.

Mark (Adam Scott), the main character, so made the choice for the “cut” precisely because in his life before that he had already felt alienated by his work – unable to balance between office life and his depression after the death of his wife. “Getting the implant helped me”he assures. helly (Britt Lager), the young recruit for whom he is responsible, is horrified to discover his new life and then tries to commit suicide. Her Outer Self discovers that she has committed suicide – and therefore committed suicide, due to circumstances – and sends a video to the supervisor in charge of theopen spaceSeth Milchick (amazing Tramell Tillman), a kind of terrifying foreman with eyes “playing to look nice”to warn her. In this video, the free Helly says to the imprisoned Helly: “I am a person. You are not.” Without pity, she condemns her professional doppelgänger to the chains of servitude. In this dystopian world, in order to free yourself from your work, you must accept that part of your Self becomes a pure slave.

Employees, indispensable opponents of the company

The track record of the four employees of this open space hellish is to stare at numbers on the screen all day and “throw a few in the trash”† Surrealistic instructions, but which they eventually manage to follow. It is not rational, but emotional that the decisions of the employees are made: it is necessary to identify “Scary Numbers” and get rid of it. More we don’t know for now… But this found scenario, which tilts the series into a form of fantasy, takes a critical look at the mobilization of the “emotional intelligence” of workers, which are becoming more and more popular these days. If the procedure of severance pay the conscience cut between office life and leisure – was set up by the company Lumon, for this reason: the algorithms do not have such skills.

Making algorithms docile is easy. Housing workers is less so. That’s why Lumon is packed with ideas for innies don’t cut their veins: Milchick organizes “waffle parties” and gives workshops in which you pretend to learn a little more about your neighbor. When an employee breaks down, they send him to a therapist who tries to calm him down by inventing a fulfilling life for him outside; when he rebels, he is tortured in workshops reminiscent of Maoist ‘battle workshops’. Employees can hear that they “are part of a big family”, it is above all adversaries who must be subdued to ensure profit and success for the patron saint. Again, nothing new, just a device that magnifies our present. As described by the occupational sociologist Daniele Linhart in The human comedy of work (Erès, 2015), these management techniques hypocritically push the worker’s “know-how” to increase productivity. We feign humanization to achieve the opposite.

A new balance of power

Where the series perhaps best observes today’s metamorphoses of alienation at work whose traditional structures have been deeply destabilized by the advent of digital technology, it is in stressing the mental load that weighs individual on every employee. The balance of power is no longer between the worker and his superior, nor between the union and the hierarchy, but in each of the individuals. Employees who choose the severance pay have internalized, so to speak, the class struggle in their own minds. They no longer even try to fight collectively in the real world, convinced that they have lost in advance, preferring to accept defeat by separating from themselves. Work on the one hand, life on the other. The cervical implant replaces the mediations that are supposed to allow the worker to peacefully combine these two lives.

The “cutting” thought experiment offered by the series highlights a very real problem, faced with car entrepreneurs, “uberized” workers and other telecommuters, forced to differentiate between work and private life, where the two often become dangerously confusing. How to legally guarantee that living spaces are respected? Ironically, the series had just ended when the Deliveroo company was fined €375,000 in France for hidden work. In severance pay, a clandestine network is being set up to fight against the legalization of this surgical procedure. For the activists, the question of the separation between private and professional life should not be left to the discretion of employees or their employer, but is a political, collective problem, to be discussed in full light according to rules recognized by all. Otherwise, the employee loses every time.

Disconnection, ultimate illusion?

You can’t help but view this series with a hint of bitterness or suspicion. The Apple group, which produces severance payseems to integrate its own self-criticism through this cultural product to better shorten external comments: in addition to the remarkable fact that there are still no unions in Apple stores in the United States, which the series clearly does not remind us , Apple is undoubtedly one of the companies most responsible for the economic transformation of the past twenty years and the distress at work it has caused in all classes of society (without smartphones, no uberization, etc.). Thanks to severance paythat combines dystopia and a semblance of self-criticism, it’s like Apple washes away its sins itself – nothing new, you might say, this little smoker also presided over the series Squid Gameon Netflix.

Still, Apple subscribers, popular brand of “connected” urban CSP+, will easily recognize themselves in this tug-of-war between the search for meaning at work and the quest to disconnect. Those who are the researcher Fanny Lederlin Qualified for “expropriated”open space participate year after year in the economy of self help including the sociologist Eva Illouz shows the contradictions and denounces the shortcomings. These 2.0 workers go to yoga to guard against the burnoutthey do fasting courses for to upload and quitting big companies to better reinvent themselves Startup where they will finally feel that they are creative and give meaning to their lives, unable to imagine a life free from the very idea of ​​work. Like Mark, they believe they are happy. Are they real? In severance payMark’s brother-in-law, Rickon (Michael Chernus), embodies this request to yourself to change from within to find yourself better. We laugh at this naive and talentless writer, but we listen to him with interest, because we know that he is right to write in his book: “Our job in life is to enjoy the outdoors. †

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