Sometimes you find your ideas echoed in the oddest places… I’ll have to read more writings by Eugene McCarraher, who is characterized as a “faithful Catholic and fierce socialist”… I really detest Catholicism, the most bloodthirsty cult in the world with by far the most real estate… but there has been that interesting schism in the church since at least the mid-60s and Vatican II that led to the rise of liberation theology. I was really impressed when I travelled in Brazil in 1988-89 and visited a wide variety of social movements and activists, and repeatedly found liberation catholics in the midst of them.
Anyway, McCarraher is clearly a marxist thinker in spite of his Catholicism… his essay is an important contribution to the body of “work” that might finally someday create a cultural imperative to rethink what we do all day long… since so many of our contemporaries tend to focus on shopping and consumerism as the bete noire of our culture, I’ll quote a bit of his essay here:
Thus, as the contemplative mysticism of commodity culture, consumerism is also a form of imaginative labor that fuels the political economy of accumulation. Conservative moralists in particular don’t like to acknowledge that the accumulation of capital requires the proliferation of consumer desires. We must spend money, we must enjoy ourselves, lest the whole apparatus of production and employment totter and collapse through attrition.
Attending to the political economy of consumerism opens our eyes to the volume of work that’s expended on consumer culture. On one level, consumerism might be better understood as the work ethic of consumption. People who want lots of stuff have to work harder, both to produce the goods and to acquire the money to purchase them. If they don’t have the cash, they’ll use credit cards and installment plans, both of which enforce a new brand of self-discipline: the monthly budget. Thus, the modern consumer practices a “this-worldly asceticism” every bit as genuine as the kind Max Weber attributed to Calvinist merchants.
On the production end of consumer culture” the part that’s routinely forgotten in the irrepressible urge to moralize” there’s the travail of advertisers, market researchers, and public relations specialists; the ranks of service workers, shackled in their compulsory cheerfulness; the cubicled proletariat ever-ready to take your order, assist you today, or field your petty complaint. (Not to mention the billion-strong anawim who, according to business apologists, should be downright thankful for the ill-paid privilege of sewing our shirts and sneakers.) The other name of Consumer Culture is the Republic of Customer Service, which is to say that talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism.
When confronted with these objections, the acolytes of the Work Ethic rehearse the boilerplate of Progress. Thanks to hard work, they scold, we’re richer, more comfortable, healthier, and technologically adept. As is so often the case with the apologists of Mammon, historical illiteracy passes for “realism,” and quantity becomes an intimidating surrogate for quality and morality. Talk of alternatives, ethics, or aesthetics is dismissed as the elitist bray of those who’ve never” select your clichÃ© from the following menu” Worked Hard, Met a Payroll, or Had the Headaches that Come with Running a Business.
As for the bad history, there’s plenty of evidence that technical development and workplace organization could have taken any number of directions, and that the path on which they were set” subdivided factory labor, assembly-line machinery, managerial supervision and discipline” was determined by merchants and manufacturers bent on controlling the labor of dispossessed artisans. (The “free market” has always rested on similar coercions, erased from the historical memory of the economics profession.) Indeed, thanks to the Work Ethic, the moral economy of American capitalism has a distinguished lineage of mastery and surveillance: the Puritan curtailment and criminalization of formerly religious holidays; the time-clock and piece-work of industrial exploitation; time-motion studies and “scientific management,” that beatific vision of control freaks; and the “flexible,” “infomated” office of today, where “multi-tasking” and “empowerment”" “enabled” by cell phones, head sets, Palm Pilots, the new hardware and wardrobe of indenture” “permit” you to Get More Done.
What have these labor-saving devices achieved? More work for everyone. (That was always the purpose behind the technology: save labor on one task so you could perform some more.) Imprisoned in the free market, Americans now work longer hours, are more harried, tired, and distracted, and dislike their jobs and bosses more than they have in a generation. According to Juliet Schor, the average worker now spends a month longer at the job than in 1970. And that job follows them everywhere: as one executive proudly crowed to Jill Fraser in White-Collar Sweatshop, “I want my employees to have telephones in their bathrooms.” It will be a great day, brethren, when “wage slavery”" once fighting words for the Republican Party” re-enters our moral vocabulary.
Dare I offer up an ‘Amen’?