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: http://defytheeconomy.wordpress.com/2011/10/07/financialisation-of-welfare/ . 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.