The Art of Work in an age of Technological Reproducibility

April 18, 2014

Text of a (somewhat rhetorical) talk I gave in Sheffield recently:


The Art of Work in an age of Technological Reproducibility


Two important pieces of news were announced/revealed separately on 31st March 2014. The were each interesting in their own with regard but more importantly, taken together they represent a largely ignored truths about the nature of contemporary higher education and the impact which the changes in the structures of indebtedness have had on students.

The first was George Osborne’s contention that he was aiming for full employment and refused to accept his Conservative predecessors’ contention that “unemployment is a price worth paying”. The point, however, is that previous administrations of all colours have made workers pay the price over several decades and now the price is being charged in reduced real wages.

The second was that the proportion of student loans that will never be paid back has risen from the original estimation of 25% to 45%.


In what way are these two facts intrinsically linked?


On the one hand, the Conservative view of full employment is one in which wages are driven down to such an extent that everyone is forced to take work. Benefit changes, 0 hours contracts, Workfare are all designed to achieve this aim (see here: . The government calls it a return to international competitiveness but, more pejoratively, we can call it the race to the bottom. The social safety net constructed during the 30 years after the Second World War and increasingly dismantled since the mid-1970s is no longer functioning. Full employment in its own right is a meaningless term. Let’s not forget that a slave owning society also had full employment. We have to ask about the nature of the work being done within that system of full employment. There is a wealth of analysis and data on the shift in the nature of employment and class from Andre Gorz onwards but they all agree that we have shifted from heavy industry to service employment.


However, as David McCallam pointed out we have in some ways gone back to an 18th century pattern of supplicant employment in which we have become increasingly subordinated to an untrammelled ruling class centered around the financial sector over which we have no control and which – in the name of trickle down neo-liberalism – has seen much of the wealth being produced trickle upwards. Recent analysis shows that the wealthiest 85 people in the world now own the same amount of wealth as the bottom 50% of the global population. This has not happened by accident or act of God.


Secondly David Willetts said on Newsnight that the reason that the revised figure for how little of the student loans was going to be recovered and repaid had fallen so far is that the wage at which those loans would start being repaid (£21,000) was being reached by fewer and fewer graduates, so that they would not have to pay it back. This is the other side of the coin, which is the decline in real wages and living standards.


Without realising it, between them, Osborne and Willets have confirmed the Marxist theory that the tendency towards proletarianisation is always ramped up in a period of economic crisis. What we have now, however, is the proletarianization of graduate jobs. Increasingly, a degree is not a route out of poverty and social isolation but a royal route into graduate poverty and the even more efficient exploitation of labour. In other words the rise in surplus value is being achieved at the cost of the workers. The difference now is the nature of the work is changed. Here in Sheffield workers are no longer destined to go down the mines or in the dark satanic mills but are more likely to be employed in the Bright satanic malls.


When Walter Benjamin wrote his famous essay about the work of art in an age of technological reproducibility he was concerned that commodification and proletarianisation was turning art from something produced by small numbers of people with relatively limited means of technological production into a massified and denuded culture industry, fit only for the deepening of the capitalist and, indeed, fascist state structure. For Benjamin and the Frankfurt School – and as Horkheimer famously said: those who want to say nothing about capitalism ought to keep silent on the question of fascism – capitalism and fascism were innately entwined. Benjamin’s final definition of fascism was that it was the aestheticization of politics.


There is no need for fascism today because capitalism is not under any threat from anyone to any serious degree, so that we get a sort of decaffeinated fascism in the form of Nigel Farage. A man for whom the epithet “history returns, but the first time as tragedy the second time as Farage” was invented. The absolute triumph of corporate capitalism means that even those areas which it once left to get on in its own irrelevant little way – namely us, the Humanities — have come within the purview of generalised commodity production. We are constantly having to justify our existence in purely monetary terms, but as it cannot be measured thus, even more of our time is spent inventing spurious forms of accounting for our “Impact”. As Helen Small points out, Oxford has calculated that the recent REF exercise consumed between 6000 and 10000 person days of labour time.


Human knowledge, the capacity to enjoy, to be passionate, to be hopeful about a different way of being, have all been integrated into the system. It does bear repeating, that oppositional elements within the system itself come to be integral parts of the system. This means that what in the 1960s were thought of as transgressive elements — remember the slogan “fuck the system, fuck around” – are now fully integrated. People are quite happy to wander around in T-shirts with Che Guevara on them (T-shirts probably made in Bangladesh in a sweatshop somewhere) and if you go for a coffee in the students’ union in Sheffield you go to a shop called Coffee Revolution, whose logo is a little red flag with a cup and saucer where the hammer and sickle should be.


Benjamin’s other point in his famous essay though is that for most of human history art itself was linked to ritual and religion. It is only with the secularisation of society and emergence of a post religious order that art could come out from behind the altar and help us to alter our perceptions of the world rather than just reinforce and bolster existing conditions. Modern art is therefore essentially secular art still trying to liberate itself from a centralised and authoritarian codes of meaning.


Religion, however, always contained within it that double edged (one might say dialectical) nature. On the one hand the word itself – Re-ligio – means a binding back, a tying down into the structures of all the authority embodied in the church as a representative of God’s will. On the other hand it also contains within it the message of Exodus and liberation. The second part of this equation is carried not by God but by Christ. That’s why God always seems so right-wing and Christ so left-wing. God and Christ are the bad cop/good cop partnership of traditional religion. God does the smiting and Christ does the saving. God is the one who brought the flood as punishment while Christ gives us the Sermon on the Mount as salvation. If there is an earthquake in a region thanks are always given for salvation and no condemnation is raised against the God who moved mountains in such mysterious ways.


Interestingly in inverting the title of this essay so that it becomes the Art of Work in an age of its technological reproducibility, we can see that work itself also has this dual or dialectical nature . On the one hand it is something that can bind us down, tie us in to the structures of advanced capitalism. Work is something required of us to create surplus value. Everything we are as a species and a society has been the result of work. It is its own re-ligio and it carries within it its own rituals – the worship of money and the fetishisation of commodities. On the other hand it also has a Christ-like quality. Work is also the thing which will liberated us from exploitative structures of and industrial society which — even according to NASA — is leading to social and ecological disruption on a massive scale if we don’t change our ways.


The real cynicism of the Nazis is that they took a statement which potentially a great truth – that work sets you free – and put it as a slogan over the gates to the crematoria.


But in Althusserian terms the point is to challenge the ideology of work and employment as practiced under capitalism, to question how we come to accept what we are told is the normal state of affairs. The idea that work as an abstraction is somehow improving and beneficial and that we should all chase and welcome any work is an ideological construct, not a state of grace.


However, there is a further level of obfuscation which needs to be dealt with: once we have recognised that work is this thing by which we can set ourselves free, we have to avoid the neoliberal trap of thinking that it can only set us free as individuals. The entrepreneurial spirit in which freedom is given to those who work hard for themselves and their families (there being no such thing as society) is as pernicious as the old idea that there is a place for everyone and that everyone should stay in place. Any true liberation through work has to be conscious and collective too. It also has to be universal, to liberate not only those of us who have already been liberated from direct exploitation through the export of exploitation to our modern productive colonies, but has to be the work of the free and the unfree in unity.


Contemporary capitalism enjoins you to enjoy the symptoms of your own free exploitation. You are allowed to do whatever you like apart from challenge the value of work as defined by contemporary capitalism? Why?


Because it is work that creates value. Nothing else. They know this. A robot can no more invent and produce a car than a shovel could till a medieval field. People do that. Laboring, creative people, working to create everything we see around us – including the destruction. We do that, collectively, as a species and we have it in our hands and abilities the capacity to solve all of the world’s economic and ecological problems. It is a system based on the exploitation and commodification of work that prevents this and it is only by taking work back into our own hands that we can overcome this system.


The point of the Humanities is to make you see the Art of Work and to take control of it and not to be controlled by it. It is what Kafka writes about when he has his characters trapped in the little snow globes of their own obsessions. In The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa, when looking back on his life before he became a beetle, says that he earned enough money to support his family and he gave it gladly and they took it happily BUT!, he says, in the most important sentence in his whole oeuvre and not just this story: “that special warmth was missing”. And what is the first thing that Gregor Samsa thinks when he finds when he wakes in the morning to find he has been transformed into a beetle? It is not: OMG! I have turned into a beetle! But, OMG! I am going to be late for work.


The “True” Art of Work therefore has to be to train us in resistance techniques so that we do not allow ourselves to be turned into beetles. Do not work towards the bureaucracy or the boss. Do not anticipate what you think they might be wanting from you and do not do it before they even think of it. Do not subordinate yourself to structures which require your subordination.


In the pharmaceutical industry’s Diagnostic  and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders there exists the category ODD, or Oppositional Defiant Disorder defined as an “ongoing pattern of disobedient, hostile and defiant behaviour.” Symptoms include; questioning authority, negativity, defiance, argumentativeness, and being easily annoyed – this description should of course cover anyone who has any questions about the way in which inequality in this society is organised and pursued. It also describes most of the people I know, thankfully.


Equally, in 1851, the American physician Samuel A Cartwright invented the term drapetomania to describe the mental compulsion of slaves to run away from their owners. So we see that the pathologization of the desire to be free has a long and inglorious history, from crucifixion to the Soviet mental hospital to the anti-suicide contracts at Foxconn branches in China.


When you see TV programmes of ADHD and ODD children then you can also see that the child is not always the problem, but the parent, who doesn’t know how to deal with a child that knows its own mind. As a collective too, it is not the workers or the stroppy ones who are the problem but the system which is seeking obedience and subordination and doesn’t know how to deal with the ones who won’t submit, the ones who know their own minds.


So be ODD, resist the creeping metamorphosis and think about what the Art of Work can actually do for us.

Duke book with Žižek on Bloch

September 25, 2013


Fred Jameson on my new Bloch book

September 25, 2013

This is from Jameson’s blurb on my new book on Bloch with Žižek

“Late capitalism has been celebrated by its apologists as that stage of society in which nothing more, nothing new, will ever happen (except for wars, catastrophes, bankruptcy and Armageddon): the end of history as the death of the future. In this affluent desolation, at the tail-end of all thought, we confront the immense enigmatic figure of Ernst Bloch and that tangle of the Not-Yet-Conceived —the heritage of unfinished business, loose ends and tired aporias, in which new problems are somewhere hidden, new futures slumber, and a freshening and a renewal of history is promised. The present collection makes a start on renewing Bloch himself as a living multiplicity of themes and questions, and may even mark a beginning of that new beginning with which he tantalized us.”—Fredric Jameson, Duke University

And from Žižek’s preface:

“Bloch . . . is one of the rare figures of whom we can say: fundamentally, with regard to what really matters, he was right, he remains our contemporary, and maybe he belongs even more to our time than to his own.”—Slavoj Žižek, from the preface

Guardian Die Linke

September 5, 2013

Just published an article on the German Left Party Die Linke here:

Perverts Guide Zizek

August 8, 2013

This is the text of a press introduction I have written for the premiere of the Sophie Feinnes/Slavoj Zizek film The Pevert’s Guide to Ideology in October. Slavoj likes it so it must be OK!

The Big Other is Watching You!

A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology by Slavoj Žižek

Ask most people what they think the word ideology means and they will say that it is something active, like Marxism, communism, fascism, or any number of active political commitments. But this is not the ideology that Žižek means. Drawing on Lacan, Freud, Hegel and Marx, Žižek shows in this film how it is the ways in which our unconscious is formed which is entirely ideological. Everything we think and do is not something we have autonomous control over but is primed by our unconscious responses to what is going on around us. It would be a mistake though to think that we are separate from this process. It is not simply something which is being done to us and which we passively accept, but something in which we are ourselves actively complicit. We think we are making our own stories and we are, but only within parameters already laid down for us.

We are ultimately and intimately trapped within the snow globe of social relations which are entirely ideological. The reason that this is a pervert’s guide is that in order to be able to see how ideology works you have to be able to look at it in a perverted way. Everything has to be stood on its head and looked at awry in order to be able to see it properly. In one of his earlier books he called this the parallax view and in They Live, excerpted in this film, the rather clunky mechanism of sunglasses which allow us to see properly is used. What becomes clear here is the lengths we will go to stop ourselves being liberated. We struggle against any attempts to strip away the ideological blinkers and see things more clearly. Žižek maintains that this is a painful process. As he said in his last film, Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema:  “I think this is what liberation means. In order to attack the enemy, you first have to beat the shit out of yourself. To get rid, in yourself, of that which in yourself attaches you to the leader, to the conditions of slavery, and so on and so on.”

It is for this reason that Žižek ends this film with a look at Christianity (rather than religion in general) because he believes that it is the only religion fundamentally based on the recognition of the absence of God. The point of the scene on the cross from The Last Temptation of Christ is that Jesus recognises that God has not forsaken him but that he was never there in the first place. He has never been watching over us and we are alone. What Žižek is trying to do in this film is to show that we create the story about our existence out of a recognition that our existence is absolutely unnecessary and that our individual death is as insignificant as every other passing, even if we do think we are Jesus. This is why he maintains that the phrase “only a Christian can be a good atheist and only an atheist can be a good Christian” (Ernst Bloch) is the key to understanding our psychological make up in late capitalism. It is only through the recognition that we are not necessary and that we are only here by mistake that we can make sense of the stories we tell ourselves.

The imagined Big Other – in this film Stalin, Hitler, money, or the love of money, God – is an essential component of our ability to survive collectively and to give our existence a purpose. If ideology – as the target of Žižek’s opprobrium here – is the way in which this basic human need and desire becomes perverted by those who wish to have control over us then this is also why he calls this film the pervert’s guide to ideology, because we ourselves are the people doing the perversion.

The Big Other is not watching you, you are watching yourself.

Egypt and the Revolution

July 2, 2013

Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly once said: “never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal.” All too often we hear people justifying their activities on the basis that what they are doing is legal. People are not tax dodging, for example, but practising tax efficiency and in any case what they are doing is “legal”. When it came to the expenses scandal , the constant refrain on MPs lips was “it’s all within the rules”. This fetishization of the law and rules as some sort of justification for whatever one is doing ignores the fact that laws and rules do not arrive on planet Earth fully formed from the mind of God but are the product of specific power relationships within society. This was Martin Luther King’s meaning. Those in charge of society will always be able to make rules and laws which support them being in charge of society. They will do this on all sorts of spurious grounds, from the divine right of kings, through to natural justice, common sense, racial superiority and all manner of various justifications which amount to no more than saying ‘L’Etat, c‘est moi’. Democracy is supposed to be the exception to this rule, but actually it suffers from it just as much, even if it does so in a hidden way.

It has become a shibboleth term, one which cannot be challenged and in the same way that laws have become fetishized, so the rule of law carried out by the will of the people as represented through parliamentary elections become sacrosanct. The Daily Telegraph got into problems this week because of this fetishistic thinking and it ended up saying that Morsi had to stay in charge in Egypt precisely because he won an election. But the slogan on the streets of Cairo today is “the legitimacy of your ballot box / Is cancelled by our martyrs’ coffins” and, in slightly less lurid language, what this means is that the struggle for political control in any society is one which goes on either side of the elections. In fact the struggle either side of the elections is the most important part of the democratic process. Elections are merely very rough snapshots of an ongoing process and the fact that we fetishize these elections indicates only the extent to which we have become a largely depoliticized and de-ideologized society — and that is not a good thing.

In addition of course, elections are not simply decided by the people in some sort of ideal platonic form. Rupert Murdoch, despite not having a vote, has much more power than I do when it comes to deciding the fate of a nation. His opposition to a particular political trajectory will mean that any party which wants to win governmental office will trim its sails to his wind. We see that quite clearly now with the Labour Party. It is not able to offer any alternative to government austerity not because austerity is logically the right thing to pursue, but because to stand against austerity is to take on the hegemonic view which has been cultivated that there is no alternative to austerity.

One of the most extraordinary and, indeed, impressive things that has emerged from The Great Recession (2007-2020)  is the way in which an economic system entirely in thrall to privatisation and financialisation has managed to shift the blame for the ongoing collapse of the economy (if you think that is an exaggeration, then think about the 64% unemployment rate amongst young people in Greece and Spain, far worse than the 1930s even) away from the banks, sub-prime mortgage lenders, Lehman Bros and various other speculative actors and onto the state and its apparent largess in funding “skivers” rather than “strivers”. It has been a brilliant example of how to create a popular mood.

And this is the point. The popular mood is a creation, just as is the law, and the popular mood changes in a way which the ballot box and the law find difficult to deal with. Morsi is finding that now. His blatant gerrymandering, his non-fulfilment of various pledges and a creeping Islamicization of what was a largely secular uprising means that the support that he won at the ballot box is no longer valid. The popular mood has broken free of the normal hegemonic restraints of the ruling ideology. In many ways that is a definition of revolution and when you have 14 million people marching against you then it is time to take notice, take down your tents and move on.

The Jenga Revolutions

June 18, 2013

The Jenga Revolutions

So what is going on? Since the start of the Arab spring in Tunisia we have seen revolutionary events flicker into life around the world. This week in both Turkey and Brazil it is, in the words of Paul Mason, all kicking off again. But what is the nature of this series of events? We have seen pictures from Taksim square, modelled quite clearly on 1789. Or maybe it is a new 1848, in which liberalism triumphed over almost all the old despotic regimes in Europe? Or is it our 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, this time with political and social collapse engendered by private rather than state indebtedness?

But how do revolutions happen? What is the precise mechanism between dissatisfaction and overthrow? This is where you need Hegel and the dialectic. In the past week I have heard talk of various modes of change. There has been the balloon which you gradually filled with water until it bursts, but you cannot predict where the weak point is that will lead to bursting. I have also heard of the Jenga theory of evolution and species collapse, where bricks are gradually removed from the pile until generalised instability leads to the collapse of the tower.

These are both great metaphors but Hegel got their first when he talked about the dialectic of quantity into quality. By this he meant that there is a constant interaction between objective trends and tendencies which will have their contingent outcomes and sooner or later these contingent outcomes add up to a qualitative change. If we think of the individual contingent events that go on to make up a revolution as the individual blocks in a game of Jenga than at first they can be removed fairly easily and the tower remains upright.

This model has been used to describe the way that individual species collapse and the effect that that has on the global environment as a whole. But, without wishing to sound too much like Engels in reverse, this model of species collapse can also be applied as a model of the collapse of authority. One protest here, one there can be managed but once people are rising up from Tunisia to Brasilia then something is qualitatively and perceptibly shifting.

But there is another dialectic of quantity into quality which has been going on since the mid-1970s and that is the gradual pulling away of the blocks of social solidarity as part of the neoliberal agenda to privatise the world. It didn’t start with Mrs Thatcher but it can probably be traced back to her friend General Pinochet and his military coup against the Allende government in Chile with the express support of ITT and the other global corporations. The global corporations were happy to see the removal of Allende as the first block in the attack on the post-war social settlement. This creeping global neoliberal coup has been so successful that in many ways we have not noticed that the very way that we think has changed. Even our dreams and hopes have been privatised and sold back to us in the form of a consumer paradise we can’t afford in the place of a social settlement which we can’t afford to do without.

Heidegger coined a word for this process: Verwindung. It means the silent and unnoticed distortion of something until its shape has eventually changed beyond recognition. Again, Hegel talks about the way in which by the time you notice the smell of perfume that has been released into a room, it has already captured that room and changed its atmosphere. What goes for perfume also goes for teargas.

The creeping Verwindung of the world into a neoliberal utopia has now been noticed. So many blocks have been removed from the tower of social solidarity that it is starting to wobble, not uncontrollably yet, but it is only a question of how many more blocks can be removed. The dialectical interaction between economic transformation and political reevaluation has reached one of those turning points that it did in 1789, 1848 and 1989. What is required is another good Hegelian term; namely the negation of the negation. The mass uprisings going on around the world are the first steps in the social negation of the negation of the social. What is required now is a new Verwindung. This time an active one in which the world is changed, as Ernst Bloch put it, into all recognition.


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