From a birthday hike on Tomales Point, elk watering at a pond with Bodega Bay and Sonoma county coast in distance across mouth of Tomales Bay.
The title of this essay is an old slogan I came up with in the early 1990s, back in the days we were founding such disparate “organizations” as the Committee for Full Enjoyment (not Full Employment) and the Union of Time Thieves Local 00. It was in the context of the last years of Processed World magazine, which was published from 1981 until 1994, always shining a bright light on the insipid pointlessness of daily life on the job across corporate and nonprofit and educational America, especially in the newly emerging high-tech offices of the era. Talking about work has always felt like going public with a terrible secret, revealing a closeted awareness that the emperor has no clothes, that work as we know it is largely a waste of time if not actually making the world much worse for the doing.
For many years it seemed that few others would take up this topic, and if so, only from the point of view of rather traditional leftist frameworks. So we have had endless campaigns promoting “jobs” as something we should be in favor of, fighting to bolster palpably corrupt or inept trade unions, and a basic acceptance of the notion that economic growth is good and capitalist profits benefit the whole society. Leftists even to this day will argue that workers just need to be reminded that they are part of the mighty Working Class, and that with this reinforced consciousness, radical social change will naturally follow. In light of the moribund ideologies surrounding conversations about work and workers, it’s hardly surprising that neoliberalism’s emphasis on individual “freedom” and self-organized entrepreneurialism have influenced more people’s daily practices than anything on offer from the “left.”
Given the desultory state of critical thinking on the left with regard to work and economy, it is gratifying that some new books have finally begun to appear that challenge this situation. The four writings I’m going to weave into this piece share a certain despair at their core, but I think despair is a pretty reasonable state of mind facing our predicament. And I don’t think despair means paralysis, nor is it that old bogeyman “defeatism.” We have to hit bottom before we can start back up again to something fresh that can shake off the doldrums and stodgy stasis of revolutionary thought.
It has been almost two years since I last took up this topic on this blog. I brought in some of the new writings at that time that inspired me, from Miya Tokumitsu’s cogent critique of the bait-and-switch promise hidden in advice to “Do What You Love,” to Kathi Weeks’ The Problem with Work, both of which get referenced in a couple of the works I cite here. The new books I just plowed through for this are Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex by Nick Dyer-Witheford, The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself by Peter Fleming, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, and lastly a long essay in End Notes #4 called “A History of Separation: the Rise and Fall of the Workers Movement 1883-1982”.
Taken together these writings help define the predicament we face, which is not easily summarized in a soundbite or even two. The century-long effort to promote workers organization, most prominently in the socialist, communist, and anarchist movements that arose in the late 19th century, depended on assumptions which have not been deeply challenged in a very long time. The comrades from End Notes face it in their essay, concluding that rather than an emerging collective consciousness based on a shared experience of work as predicted by everyone from Marx onwards, “atomization won out over collectivization.” They anchor this self-evident truth in a challenge to the theoretically suspect assumption that Marx shared with the 2nd International’s Karl Kautsky and the Bolshevik Leon Trotsky: “to achieve the abolition of the proletariat, it is first necessary that each individual be reduced to a proletarian. The universalization of this form of domination is the precursor to the end of domination.” But that rosy expectation has been shattered by the actual evolution of modern life. In the early 21st century, End Notes understands that working people still produce the world we inhabit:
Society is still the product of all these working people: who grow and distribute food, who extract minerals from the earth, who make clothes, cars, and computers, who care for the old and the infirm, and so on. But the glue that holds them together is not an ever more conscious social solidarity. On the contrary, the glue that holds them together is the price mechanism. The market is the material human community. It unites us, but only in separation, only in and through the competition of one with all. (p. 160)
Our atomized, hyper-individualized world, which we experience as being shaped by forces beyond our control, is far from a world where working-class community, or much of any other kind of community, provides a safe haven, or a meaningful daily life. We are on our own.
At present, workers name the enemy they face in different ways: as bad banks and corrupt politicians, as the greedy 1%. These are, however, only foreshortened critiques of an immense and terrible reality. Ours is a society of strangers, engaged in a complex set of interactions. There is no one, no group or class, who controls these interactions. Instead, our blind dance is coordinated impersonally through markets. The language we speak—by means of which we call out to one another, in this darkness—is the language of prices. It is not the only language we can hear, but it is the loudest. This is the community of capital. (p. 166)
Clearly a despairing analysis. Workers employ populist rhetoric to try to understand what they’re up against, but the very language and conceptual universe in which we are enveloped locks us into a “community” that is founded on our exploitation. Still, work remains at the (vulnerable, fragile) heart of capital. Similar to how we relate to cancer, we rely on language to understand work as a personal predicament rather than a social phenomenon, rather than an outcome of socially constructed choices and shared effort. But the antipathy to understanding work socially started long ago. It parallels the steady diminishment of taking pride in work, that intensified during the height of Fordist factory work when anyone with a brain found it boring and unfulfilling. The deindustrialization of the past decades is not the cause of the collapse of working class identities, but rather an accelerant for the social atomization that was already underway.
In Inventing the Future¸ Srnicek and Williams recognize that the historic left’s dependence on the industrial working class as its frame of reference has been outflanked by historical developments, not the least of which happened within the working class itself.
For the left at least, an analysis premised on the industrial working class was a powerful way to interpret the totality of social and economic relations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thereby articulating clear strategic objectives. Yet the history of the global left over the course of the twentieth century attests to the ways in which this analysis failed to attend to both the range of possible liberating struggles (based in gender, race, or sexuality) and the ability of capitalism to restructure itself—through the creation of the welfare state, or the neoliberal transformations of the global economy. Today, the old models often falter in the face of new problems; we lose the capacity to understand our position in history and in the world at large. (p. 14)
The ideas that the working class is the motor of history, or that class struggle follows a teleological trajectory towards human liberation, are harder to believe in now. The evidence of a century of war, barbarism, modernization, and radical technological and social change does not seem to have brought us much closer to revolution. Still, trying to make sense of the complicated relationship between our own labor and the world that confronts us is at the heart of our predicament. Reclaiming the concept of “proletariat” before we dump out the rubbish bin of history is a helpful step, and each of these writings does that in their own ways.