Sunday, March 20, 2011

Please Master

Richard Seymour (aka Lenin) posted this:

As public citizens we exercise a franchise, but in the private sphere we accept bondage: the discipline of the market compels us to accept it. For most of our waking hours, we cede executive control over our bodily and mental powers to someone else – in the vain hope of one day retiring with a decent pension. Whoops, that’s gone. You’ll just have to save more. But you’ll have to borrow more, because the economy needs you to spend. And we find that in all but the most mundane matters, when it comes to the activities and processes that constitute the major part of our lives, we have no autonomy. We do not govern ourselves.

Even our free time is not really ours. Much of it is spent commuting for a start - the average person's commute is equivalent to four weeks out of a working year. Four weeks - on that tube, that bus, that motorway lane. Think about what that's costing you psychically. Much of the rest is spent recuperating, essentially recovering our ability to labour so that we can go into work and do it all again the next day. And don't forget, of course, that even your free time isn't necessarily your own, because companies now want to organise your fun. Dress-down Friday - because Friday is funday; birthday parties, and office drinks, team-building outings, sporting days. Your fun, your enjoyment, your affection, often your time - on their orders. Awkward socialisation with middle and senior managers, stressful, moronic conversations, and long-winded explanations of what goes on in different departments that you didn't ask for, and you don't need. Then there's voluntary, unpaid overtime, worth £29bn a year to the employers - that's called flexibility, and what a good sport you are for doing that.
And so on; the entire post is worth reading.

"Voluntary, unpaid overtime" used to be one of the signs of the decadence of the Soviet Union. But it was always part of capitalism. That's not really surprising, when you think about it, because "capitalism" and "socialism" are not necessarily mutually exclusive opposites. What the Soviet Union instituted under Stalin was state capitalism, driven by the same logic of industrialization as capitalism in the US, Britain, and elsewhere: concentration, centralization, hierarchy, and mastery. As Raymond Williams pointed out in a 1982 essay, "Socialism and Ecology," (reprinted in Resources of Hope [Verso, 1989], socialists proved no less susceptible than capitalists to the dream of mastering nature:

Because of course these attitudes of mastering and conquering had from the beginning been associated not just with mastering the earth, or natural substances, or making water do what you wanted, but with pushing other people around, with going wherever there were things which you wanted, and subjugating and conquering. That’s where the metaphors of conquest and mastery came from. They were a classic rationale of imperialism in just that expanding phase. They were from the whole internal ethic of an expanding capitalism: to master nature, to conquer it, to shift it around to do what you want with it. Engels went along with that and then suddenly remembered where the metaphor came from and said, quite correctly: we shall never understand this if we fail to remember that we are ourselves part of nature, and that what is involved in this mastery and conquest is going to going to have its effects on us; we can’t just arrive and depart as a foreign conqueror. But then he shifted back, under the influence of this very strong nineteenth-century triumphalism about nature, and took up the metaphors again. And still today we read these triumphalist arguments about production. They are a bit less confident now, but if you read the typical case for socialism, as it became standard between the wars in the dominant tendency, it is all in terms of mastering nature, setting new human horizons, creating plenty as the answer to poverty [214].

It has always been a running argument within the Labour Party, especially since 1945, whether we’re going to get equality, and what are usually referred to as ‘the things we all want’ – schools and hospitals are usually the first to be named – when we’ve got the economy right, when we’ve produced enough, enlarged the national cake and so on; or whether equality and the priority of human needs require, as their first and necessary condition, fundamental changes in our social and economic institutions and relationships. I think we now have to see that argument as settled. The usual ‘national cake’ position, the soft political option, can be seen to rest on a basic fallacy, which the United States has demonstrated to the world – and no society is ever going to be relatively richer in gross indiscriminate production than that one – that by getting to a certain level of production you solve the problems of poverty and inequality. Tell them that in the slums, the inner cities, of rich America! All socialists are then forced to recognize that we have to intervene on quite a different basis [222].
I'd add that it isn't only "all socialists" who are "forced to recognize that we have to intervene on quite a different basis." "Socialism" encompasses many different programs and understandings anyway. I'm less attached to the label (though I'll accept it happily) than to the understanding that "gross indiscriminate production" is not going to give "us" equality and "the things we all want." Inequality has increased in the US as gross indiscriminate production has increased, and as capitalism has thrown off regulation and become more and more unrestrained. I'm not calling for the abolition of industrial production, as some will surely jump to assume, but for its control by human beings. As the example of the USSR and China shows, that will be no less necessary, and no less a problem, than it is in the West.

I should add too that I personally suffer less from the invasion of privacy by my workplace than many (most?) Americans. My daily "commute" is about 5 minutes each way. We don't have Casual Day. There are occasional attempts by upper management to encroach on our lives and feelings, but they are ineffectual at the level where I work; I suspect it's different in more white-collar departments. (Notice that the guy in the treadmill above is wearing a suit, not overalls.) One reason I've stayed in my job so long is because it leaves me considerable personal freedom, and when I come home I'm able to recuperate fairly quickly and attend to things that interest me. TV and other such commercial entertainments are the equivalent of junk food for people who don't have much time after the latest lap in the rat race and must unwind as quickly and efficiently as they can. When people have more leisure time for leisure, they'll use it more variously. This is not just a personal beef of mine, but something that affects many people, including people I know, more harshly than it affects me. One of the purposes of specifically "free-market" capitalist organization is to isolate people and make sure that they watch out only for themselves.