White Collar Blues: An Interview with Nikil Saval

Nikhil Saval

Even at a time of low pay and degraded working conditions, meritocratic notions surrounding white collar work are hard to dispel.

Remeike Forbes / Jacobin

Interview by
Jake Blumgart

Many Americans spend an ungodly amount of their lives in an office. They spend more time with their colleagues than their friends and family. And unlike the office jobs of yore, today’s white-collared masses are not rewarded with pensions or job protections. Instead, like the blue-collar economy, the professional workforce is beset by the same forces of precarity, wage stagnation, and terrible benefits.

N+1 editor Nikil Saval’s new book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, takes a look at the history of white collar working conditions, their promise of social mobility, and the office dweller’s strange place in America’s class structure. “No other workplace, no matter how degraded, has been such a constant source of hope about the future of work and the guarantee of a stable, respectable life,” he writes.

In the nineteenth century office, workers held an awkward position between the forces of labor and capital, often siding with the latter despite periodic upsurges in organizing. The office worker was, according to Saval, a symbol of reaction during the Red Scare following World War I, in much the same way “hardhats” were popularly considered the embodiment of backlash in the early 1970s.

Saval has worked in a few publishing houses, but now toils in the freelance trenches. Cubed is his first book and has been met with a bevy of reviews from those who loved, misunderstood, or apparently didn’t read it. I interviewed Saval — a fellow Philadelphian — in one of the few dive bars remaining in Center City, among the teeming masses of office workers who have re-populated the business district’s offices and condos in recent years.


JB

You mention in Cubed’s introduction to Cubed that you were inspired by C. Wright Mills’ White Collar. What are some of the connections between the two books? It certainly isn’t in your tone, which is notably less acidic than his work.

Mills captured the importance of psychology, status, and prestige claims. He was arguing with what was an older Marxist tradition in which white collar workers were thought to be deluded and would ultimately fall into the working class and develop organizational forms like the industrial working class. He accepted white collar workers, in structural terms, resembled the industrial working class, but for reasons of their status claims belonged to a separate or outside class.

Basically it’s a question of what made white collar workers feel they were different. That’s key to understanding what stands between capital and labor in the US.

The tone of Cubed is obviously different than White Collar, and that’s something I thought about a lot. I initially wrote an article about the history of the cubicle and it was a little more scathing. But it didn’t make sense for me to say, “white collar workers are so horrible,” because it felt like I was one in some basic sense.

JB

Throughout Cubed, you note the difficulties that have faced white collar organizing efforts. In the nineteenth century, clerks aspired to be their bosses, not to bargain with or overthrow them. Today, Silicon Valley tech workers consider themselves individual entrepreneurs, with a libertarian ethos. What accounts for this? Is it self-delusion? Or is that a condescending and simplistic way to look at it?

This is one of the things I set out to figure out and, in a way, I didn’t. It’s not necessarily that white collar workers are deluded, but it’s also wrong to think people aren’t ever deluded. There are these upsurges in organizing, but there is something to the meritocracy in white collar work that is hard to dispel.

Some people do actually make it in a way that’s not necessarily true of industrial settings. There are different barriers, characterized by office politics, psychology, things that make it harder to embrace the confrontational nature of organizing and strikes. When you do find successful organizing, it’s often because the meritocratic basis of these workplaces seems to be totally eroded or severely undermined, as in the 1930s or with secretarial organizing in the 1970s.

But it’s not predictable. You’d think in the 1980s, during that recession, there would be an upsurge in organizing. That didn’t happen. Or now. It isn’t a predictable process, and the fact that it’s not makes me think you can’t simply attribute it to a persistent delusion.

JB

There are also structural barriers. Taft-Hartley outlawed unions for foremen and supervisors. There’s the Fortune magazine article from the early 1950s you cite which suggests that part of the benefit of moving offices to the suburbs and exurbs is to get them away from the unionized working classes.

Periodically, the pay scales of blue and white collar workers have bent close together, especially when blue collar workers are organized — which potentially undermines the privileged sense of self that white collar workers have.

That has occurred throughout history. Right after World War I, white collar workers lost ground compared to blue collar workers, and it led to a spike in organizing. Even now, there is resentment. One thing I don’t discuss is public sector white collar workers, who are more easily organized, but there is a resentment of a perceived sense of aristocracy.

Even if the gap narrows, that doesn’t mean people are going to think, well, I should organize. It depends on the larger climate. Other countries have higher levels of white collar organization, and that’s often due to political appeals where social democratic or socialist parties see white collar workers as part of their constituency.

JB

In countries like France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the Netherlands, some of the discontent and anger of the 1960s and 1970s was put to productive uses. Works councils gave workers a more direct say in the office. How did that influence the design of the workplace, and how did those power dynamics play out in office structure and design?

It really comes to the fore in the direction the US takes, and England to some degree, versus northern Europe, Italy, Germany, and France. Open office planning was invented in Germany in the 1970s, and it was seen as a very progressive, egalitarian design.

But as part of a larger rank and file workplace revolt, there was this sense of a new mode of worker organization that spilled over into white collar workplaces. They realized was that open office plans were only spuriously egalitarian. When it came to work, they were totally debilitating. Noise, distraction — all those points were constitutive of open office plans. So workers rejected them.

They instituted works councils and systems of co-determination, and there were laws passed that ensured workers would be included in the design of their workplaces. This led almost invariably to more private offices. Workers wanted workplaces where they had an office of their own, no matter where they were on the totem pole of work. It’s a very clear instance of design being connected to levels of worker solidarity.

The US goes the opposite direction — that’s when the cubicle takes hold. That might be an example of a deep erosion of worker protections in the US more generally.

JB

What role does gender play in these dynamics? You talk about women in the workplace being the proletariat of the white collar world. The temp economy started as a gendered structure because women weren’t expected to build long-term careers — the assumption was that they would eventually be married and their real work would be at home.

In the early years when women entered the white-collar workplace after the Civil War, there was an immediate sense of relief among white-collar workers that the expanding clerical sector was increasingly filled by women. This could maintain a notion of white-collar work as middle class (if you were male).

Women were also divided. There was a division between the typing pool and the private secretaries. There is a concept called derivative status: If you have a great boss, a rich boss, you get a sense of power and prestige.

That comes up in a lot of stories of attempts to organize clerical workers — the sense of prestige in an office. It’s almost like a pre-capitalist relationship to your boss — your work is a kind of an apprenticeship. You gain something by being close to a powerful person that creates a sense of belonging to a class when you don’t actually have the power or the life chances of that class.

On the other hand, secretarial work was the site of some of the most successful workplace organizing in the 1970s. This was some of the most interesting stuff for me to write about: There’s a certain freedom that was found in the workplace. There is a lot of fiction about this — stories told over and over again of women entering the workplace and finding a degree of freedom. That’s also why I couldn’t let myself be totally scathing.

JB

It’s important to note, of course, that American office workers were quite privileged for a long time (and some still are), enjoying a kind of private welfare state even without being organized. You include a great quote from a business analyst who concludes in the postwar years that the average college graduate “does not want to rebel against the status quo because he really likes it.

It wasn’t always the most stimulating work but, hey, you’ve got healthcare, decent pay, a pension, and drinks at lunch. Now we’re seeing a greater tendency towards workplace insecurity, rolling back twentieth century workplace expectations.

There is a nostalgia for that era. You see it in the enthusiasm for Mad Men. Thank god we don’t treat women that way anymore, but wasn’t it great to smoke and drink at work? The office went through a real period of disenchantment during the 1980s and through the 1990s. Dilbert and Office Space were the peak manifestations of this understanding that work sucked. The loyalty one was supposed to express to a corporation was no longer returned.

Part of that is the rise of temporary and part-time work. It’s beneficial to the employer because they create this reserve army of labor, a fluid labor market where you can lay off masses of people and hire whoever you need at lower wages. But you also see this prerogative exerted by workers themselves who actually seek freelance work as a way to avoid the compromises associated with corporate organizational life. That’s very common, even though it is not the reason for this increase in independent contractors.

Labor historian Richard Greenwald studied this stuff and has spoken to a lot of freelancers. They see this as a way to exert control over their craft. Some see it as entrepreneurial, even when it’s exploitive and anxiety-inducing. Flexibility is often a tool to get workers to work more, but the fact that people want it and it’s becoming more common is not nothing. There’s something to be retained from the idea of people wanting control over their work.

The rise of co-working spaces is very interesting. Workers who don’t need to go to an office space actually choose to pay for it. In a way, it proves that offices are ultimately social in some sense and not necessarily good spaces for doing work. When you are a freelancer you can be very isolated.

JB

Could these very practices, freelancers working at home or in a coffee shop, make organizing even more difficult?

That is a really intractable question, although it might not be to those actually engaged in organizing precarious workers. I do not find the solutions on offer very promising. I talked to someone who worked for the Freelancers Union and it felt like that was an institution that saw itself in the tradition of great labor organizations like the garment workers unions. Sara Horowitz is a child of garment workers, she has a portrait of Sidney Hillman in her office.

But that’s a non-profit organization that counts people who are on its email list as its members. I think I may be a member of the union, but I don’t pay dues. They are trying to cushion but not really organize the workers. Who do you shoot, as they say in the Grapes of Wrath.

JB

Do you see any signs of white-collar professional workers actively trying to do something in an organized fashion about this new economy they find themselves in?

I see it less in white collar organizations than in certain service organizations. I think there is more discomfit with piecework in Amazon warehouses, in Walmart, among day laborers. When you find places where labor markets are tighter, as is actually the case in Silicon Valley, you do find more efforts at worker control.

By worker control I don’t mean strong ownership cooperatives, but less of a tolerance of bosses and a kind of bureaucracy. It may be libertarian — I don’t think they are anti-capitalist — but when labor markets are tighter it’s easier for people to make demands.

JB

You write that the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates forty percent of the workforce will be freelance by 2020. What kind of policies would we need for these workers to augment their pay and increase protections from the vicissitudes of the market?

This is where I get less optimistic. The thing that immediately comes to mind is a universal basic income. But these things don’t just come about through legislation. You need strikes, disruption, riots. You need something on a mass scale, something that is threatening to the ruling class. Otherwise, they don’t care. They don’t even think, oh, we could have a better return on capital if we had more active demand. They just don’t care.

JB

We’re sitting here in Philadelphia, Comcast Country, and they are building the tallest skyscraper in the city — the tallest currently also being a Comcast building. You talk a lot about the history of skyscrapers and their powerful symbolism, but you also write that they are, at heart, “an especially tall collection of boring offices.” Why do corporations sink so much money into building these monuments to themselves?

The second Comcast tower will be a pretty grotesque object. It’s by Norman Foster, the architect who is not coincidentally the favorite architect of dictators. He designed the Palace of Peace in Kazakhstan, the NYC library plan that got spiked, thank god. There is a vanity to the Comcast tower. It projects a certain sense of power it actually has in the city, but it doesn’t need a skyscraper to prove it. It already has one.

People have felt this for years though. Lewis Mumford used to say that all skyscrapers are absurd objects. Comcast is a distillation of a certain kind of grotesquery in Philadelphia, but it’s not exceptional. It’s also this giant self contained universe that doesn’t even make sense in city life. It’s a bad idea to live or work in the shadow of that kind of monolith.