In celebrating Labor Day, we tend to forget the men and women who fought—and often died—to bring us the weekend, the 40-hour workweek, paid time off, and a ban on child labor. Indeed, like many national holidays, Labor Day’s meaning has been lost to shopping and sports.
Beneath this veneer of leisure, however, many of us can easily get in touch with an omnipresent anxiety that pervades working life. Today, the very security and benefits our fellow workers once fought so hard to achieve are eroding by the minute.
What might psychoanalysis have to say about labor’s plight? On the surface, not much at all. While Freud certainly engaged with the manifold injustices of class society, economic conditions were of secondary importance to primitive psychic forces. And throughout the 20th century, the broader field of psychology displayed a troubling tendency of reducing class conflict to personal neurosis.
Other psychoanalysts—notably Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, and Otto Fenichel—saw a more fruitful partnership between psychoanalysis and workplace politics. Their spirit lives on in the rich scholarly tradition of Critical Theory. Howard Stein also redresses psychological reductionism in his analysis of “organizational totalitarianism”:
Lest we forget, even though American-style organizational totalitarianism has primarily symbolic casualties, they are casualties of terror nonetheless. One should never say that these are ‘only’ the victims of psychological oppression. And even though most of those who have been disposed of are resilient and find other jobs (usually of lesser pay, benefits, and status), they carry the emotional scars of betrayal and of having been treated as inanimate ‘dead wood’ or as ‘fat’ to be trimmed.
More broadly, the relational turn in psychoanalysis—which deeply informs the work of the Center for the Study of Organizational Change—allows us to rekindle a shared subjectivity that is inherently political. It may also allow us to find new ways of collectively organizing, finding “union,” and combatting the terror many of us experience at the hands of contemporary organizations.
Labor Day serves as an invitation to begin this important work.