Home > Politics > Unstoppable Force / Immovable Object

Unstoppable Force / Immovable Object

This isn’t the blog I was intending to publish this week – I had begun work on a little discussion about the situation in Greece which I may get back to hopefully before the world changes too much again. But events in the last week of my own life have provoked a somewhat different topic, and as the Hollywood saying goes, “this time it’s personal”. Even now I am reticent to write about this because my emotions are running hot on the matter, but then sometimes there are truths to be found in passion. I need to be somewhat circumspect in what I write as it may have further (legal) implications for me that I would wish to avoid. But, at least as far as I am aware, my own life experiences remain my own property to do with as a please, and if I have signed away that much then my problems are indeed serious. So I will tell my tale, avoid naming names, and try as best as I can to relate it back to the more general philosophical ideas that this blog is committed to…

My dirty little secret (well, at least one of them, and the only one that I will offer up today) is that I earn an income by writing software for investment banks. Over recent years, as my philosophical and moral compass has moved in a particular direction, leading to a growing amount of cognitive dissonance for me. How can I be involved in an industry that I have so many issues with, both ethical and practical? The income from the work has allowed me a degree of luxury to pursue frequent periods of unemployment in which to pursue the real thing: writing music, reading politics and philosophy, and, now, writing politics and philosophy. I offer that not as excuse but simply as explanation.

My discomfort with the industry and my role in it may have come to a sudden head in the last week. And in coming to be, I might just have discovered the neoliberal answer to that age-old philosophical riddle: in a battle between the unstoppable force and the immovable object the former destroys the latter. Last week Wednesday I resigned from my current role, and on Thursday I was fired from it, with immediate effect. This all goes back to last November when the company announced that all contractors (of which I was one, being paid a day-rate) would undergo a security screening process. This is common practice in this industry when applying for a role but relatively uncommon during employment (although I suspect it is becoming more common). This process involves checking that people have worked where they claim to have worked, have no criminal record and so forth. So far so good – I have nothing to hide. As I was away on holiday for most of the period of December and January, most of this story takes place in the last few weeks. (There are some details that relate to the earlier period too, but in the interest of clarity I will skip over that bit and go straight to when I returned after my break).

So, as I mentioned, I arrange my work through term-based contracts in order to have periods where I am not formally employed. This is where the problem begins. Bureaucracy gets upset when the world fails to meet their box-ticking model of the world, and nothing looks more suspicious to the protestant work ethic than periods of not being in paid employment. My periods of actually living, henceforth to be referred to as (employment) “gaps”, fail to conform to the box-ticking worldview despite being relatively common amongst day-rate contractors and eminently laudable. They are a priori reasons for suspicion. This led to a demand for documentation of my “gaps” – specifically, travel documents, passport stamps, flight tickets, and bank statements. I declined to provide these, pointing out that, despite respecting that they wish to minimise their risks, such documents are private and not pertinent to the role. I invited them to pursue their search, suggesting that any irregularities that might be of interest to my employer can be best found through criminal record checks (to see if I am or have been a wanted fugitive), Interpol (to see if I am a global terrorist) and credit checks (to look for those kickbacks from my life of crime and corruption). These are all (with the exception of Interpol) standard practice for such screenings. (I mention as an aside here that such credit checks cannot possibly be to see whether I can pay my bills – they will always owe me money and never vice versa, and since 2008 this is not even a funny joke). I confess here to “picking a fight” – this is something I feel very strongly about and it is a practice that I abhor. I have encountered these demands from prior employers and ended up acquiescing after an appropriate token protest. But, having taken full ownership of my home last year and having a little in the way of savings in the bank, I decided this time I would make the principled stand. To continue the tale, the unstoppable force responded that these documents were required by policy. To which the immovable object responded that the company had no more right to these private documents than I had to demand proof of what they do on weekends and holidays. Not only that, but these documents do not demonstrate an absence of misdoings. Such an absence is, by definition, impossible to positively demonstrate – to compensate, the process starts with a presumption of guilt. That aside, if I were inclined to engage in nefarious activities (and I think I’d be rather good at it) I would most certainly not do so in a way that showed on my regular bank statements. I need not even do my wrongs during periods of non-employment – I could just as easily do them while employed. The irony is that if I actually had something to hide I would be more than eager to provide any documentation that would suggest otherwise. Or imagine that I had travelled to, say, Iran (I would very much like to) – what conclusions could be drawn from this? Then there is the “slippery slope” argument. By opening up my private life to (frankly pointless) intrusion I encourage the practice to grow – what next, proof of what I do on Sundays? (Maybe they wish to know whether I am a good church-goer – I am not, maybe it’s just “policy”).

Anyway, never argue with a machine. This went on for a few weeks, and after repeated demands for these documents and repeated attempts to explain and defend my own position I gave up and tendered my resignation – life is too short – expecting to work the remaining four weeks in peace. The following day my contract was terminated with immediate effect: the immovable object ceased to exist, at least as far as the unstoppable force was concerned. I was notified by email, mid-afternoon. The reason given was that by failing to provide necessary documentation I posed a security risk. Score: Unstoppable Force 1 / Immovable Object nil.

I have to say a word or two about the legal structure under which I worked in this job. Bare with me – this will hurt more than a little. On the surface of it, I went to a building on many weekdays and interacted with real people doing things that were hopefully useful to someone and that resulted in money appearing in my bank account from time to time. Here’s how (as I understand it) the law sees it: Legal Entity “A” (that would be me) is employed by Legal Entity “B” (the umbrella company) who enters into a contract with Legal Entity “C” for my services who then enter into a legal contract with Legal Entity “D” (the company in whose service I ultimately laboured). Did you follow that? Yeah, neither did I – but I’m learning in a real hurry at the moment. During the screening process “C” and “D” were quite happy to bombard me directly with emails and phone calls, right up to the moment of the final email. I replied to that final email, expressing disappointment that my resignation had been superseded by immediate termination (causing both financial and reputational loss as it did) and that I would not even be able to hand over my work to my teammates. And then the real reason for the existence of “C” became clear. My line manager (one of those real people who I worked with, and an employee of “D”) had been instructed not to communicate with me as I was in fact an employee of “C”. So “C” essentially operates as a legal shield, a firewall, for “D”. My post-firing email to “C” and “D” was replied to several days later by a representative of “C” with a statement that all enquiries to them should be made through my immediate employer, Legal Entity “B”. “B”, being a company set up for no other purpose than to administrate invoicing and tax collection wants nothing to do with this disagreement. The contract that they entered into with “C”, unbeknownst to me, contained sufficient scope for “D” (by way of “C”) to dismiss me for any reason they choose at any time. They also suggest that the contract that they (“B”) have entered into with “C” has no bearing on “A” (me), which is patently silly – it is on my behalf that they entered into that contract and it is the terms of the B-C contract that have allowed my dismissal without notice or recourse. So I now find myself in a surreal M. C. Escher maze with staircases that take me nowhere, with no obvious line of recourse or response. Which is where I find myself today.

That, then, is my sorry tale of woe. So what, beyond giving me a place to vent my current anger and tell a ripping good yarn, is the point of this discussion? There are several that could be made.

Firstly, some ironies within the context of Entity “D” – the final employer… In a period of history where investment banks are seen as immoral and unprincipled it is a curious display for them to eject staff that have taken a moral and principled stance and because of that stance. The only morality in evidence is, as ever, shareholder uber alles. Then there is the further matter of whether the shareholder is even well protected by any of this. Part of my stance was that the demanded documentation did not show reduced risk. Furthermore, this process has been going on for several months now and affects many hundreds, probably thousands, of workers in that company. All of them have the threat hanging over their heads. I am now personally a head-on-a-pike in that workplace, a warning of the price of not complying. This affects morale and productivity in the workplace in all the obvious and predictable ways. Bravo for people management, puttin’ the “H” back into “HR”.

Secondly, I took a principled stand largely because I am relatively well off. This needs to be acknowledged honestly and openly. I was able to stand up for what I believe is right only because I felt that I could absorb the costs of doing so. This will not be the case for most people. The sort of practice that I have taken a stand against proliferates because people give in to it. They do so, by and large, because they have mortgages to pay and children to feed and school. I mean by this to cast serious doubts on the conventional right-wing notion of responsibility. Responsibility is not and cannot be compatible with making heroic and costly efforts – it cannot exist as an isolated social norm and must be supported by other social norms. The two groups best positioned to stand against such forces are those with nothing to lose and those who have so much that they can afford to lose. The former are largely ignored, the latter largely disinterested in biting the hand that feeds them. And so the invisible hand leads us once more into darkness.

Thirdly, there is the matter of the law. I have commented elsewhere on problems about the notion of the rule of law – how the fact of law is only important if the content of the law is fair. As one friend told me this week, legal institutions are not about dispensing justice – they are about dispensing law. I have to say explicitly at this point that I don’t know how my current situation would test against the law. I suspect that the law would do me no favours (that the content of the law would not be to my advantage), but actually testing this is an entirely different matter. Part of my objection to the notion of rule of law is not only that the content of the law is important but so too is access to the law. A major problem in labour laws is that the people who should be protected by it also have difficulty using it. Even I, as a relatively wealthy individual, have serious doubts as to whether it would be economically rational to flush my own resources (money, health, and happiness) down the s-bend of legal action that in all probability I would lose. At the very least, the byzantine lattice of legal firewalls between me and the company to which I provided my services would ensure a lengthy and unpleasant battle. And, of course, big employers rely on this. This is never truer when the action one wishes to test against the law relates to their income. This is to say simply that far from equality under the law, access to the law, by being subject to the market and to wealth, is characterised by my overall theme of unequal bargaining power.

Finally, there is the issue of the legal edifices that have been erected here. Party “C” exists for one and only one reason – to provide “D” with all of the benefits but without any of the attendant accountability and responsibility. This is yet another ugly way that corporate law makes a lie of the neoliberal emphasis on responsibility. To repeat, I cannot complain too much – I am a reasonably well paid professional, at least when they pay up. The point I am about to make does apply to me and those like me, but has a greater moral force in the more general case. Such company structures exist everywhere these days. We find their spectre throughout the corporate world, and we should fear their shadow whenever we hear such euphemistic terms from government as “public private partnership”. It is common, for example, for people providing “building services” (janitorial, catering, and so forth), hotel cleaners, and many other low-paid workers to be employed by outsourced companies who act as firewalls to those who benefit from these services. Under this legal cover they can be fired without notice, denied standard benefits, held on tenure without pay, and treated generally with impunity. It’s all perfectly legal. It’s all perfectly compatible with neoliberal “liberty”, both to the beneficiaries of the work and to the workers (who “choose” to agree to these terms). But of course it makes a mockery of the word “liberty” in doing so. It’s not “efficient” in any normal sense, but the overhead costs of coordinating these occult structures are more than matched by the savings made by companies who no longer need to meet pesky obligations to real people. Which means, of course, more money for the shareholders. Repeat after me: “Shareholders uber alles!”.

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  1. Doug
    February 22, 2012 at 3:08 am

    I say FUCK entities “B, C, and D” — sue them all, aim for a nice settlement instead of a protracted legal battle, and pursue your music — you’re young enough, talented enough, and have that safety cushion, your nest egg, to fall back on.

    Regarding economics/politics of these sorts of situations, it’s not just corporations — even small businesses (at least over here) use these structures to defer liability, or to skim profits,etc.

    I don’t recall offhand your CV, but perhaps you can return to school and get your PhD in Econ, while gigging your art at night… I only say this because, as I’m sure you know, regardless of how magisterial your book is, a parchment would help advance it in terms of the “politics” of the modern publishing world (especially in Britain where things are particularly fierce)

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