It’s very easy to get sucked into the status quo, to not only forget that many of the things we take for granted are contingent but also to lose our ability to imagine something better.
Work is a good example. Throughout the bulk of humanity’s existence, work didn’t exist in anything like its present form. If you toiled, it was either to gather food and sustain shelter, or you were effectively self-employed, maintaining yourself through a skill or undertaking without oversight, in many societies for barter or goodwill rather than monetary or material reward.
In other words, work hasn’t always been this way and it needn’t be in the future either.
In ‘Understanding Power’, Noam Chomsky states:
“I think that what used to be called, centuries ago, “wage slavery” is intolerable. I mean, I do not think that people ought to be forced to rent themselves in order to survive. I think that the economic institutions ought to be run democratically — by their participants, and by the communities in which they live.”
Mark Twain had it pretty good too:
“Is it conceivable that there can be a ‘fair market price’, or any price whatsoever, estimable in gold, or diamonds, or bank notes, or government bonds, for a man’s [sic] supremest possession — that one possession without which his life is totally worthless — his liberty?”
Or as someone on Twitter put it more succinctly:
The point being that for me, and for along time now, work has felt, if not illegal, then jarring.
But when I’ve tried to read up on the subject in anarchist or other leftist writing, I’ve inevitably found that much of that literature emanates from the US, which can make its analysis somewhat alienating for those of us based elsewhere. Bold and clever people will present the work paradigm as a straight dichotomy of ‘working for the man vs sticking it to the man’. Its simplicity is catchy but feels a little… adolescent.
I’d say it doesn’t ring true because that juxtaposition omits exactly what US society often lacks: the possibility of answering to someone at work while not making money for them (or their ‘superior’). The American state seems to function almost entirely as a coercive body — police, courts, building permits; finger-wagging, neck-snapping and joy-killing— and while there are clear historical precedents for that, it precludes the way most other countries operate. In the UK, where I live, vast swathes of the working population are employed by the NHS, local government, universities, third sector organisations, etc. They’re not cash cows being milked by greedy capitalists. They’re often engaged in what boils down to plain old public service, albeit one abetted by a paycheck.
One irony of this is that you can be an anarchist who literally works for the state and not feel completely ashamed of it. There’s every chance you don’t see your work day as a degrading means to an end, where your labour is cynically used to keep Mr Rich in fancy cigars. Marx’s grim dispatches about Victorian factory work are half a world away. In the socialised utopian economy of the future, we’ll still need teachers, nurses and bin collectors.
And yet… many of those work days certainly are degrading.
In ‘Now’, the Invisible Committee talk of the ever-creeping tendency towards ‘calculating’, the habitual, prurient counting of things. Reports, data, costs, time, performance, comparison, dissection. “Capitalism is the universal expansion of measurement,” they say.
That’s not to purport that the public sector should consist entirely of layabouts and wastrels, more to point out the ways that the tendrils of marketisation can wend their way around us. Everyone in the public sector knows it and has seen it. And we know where it leads. Chomsky again, in an oft-quoted passage:
There is a standard technique of privatisation, namely defund what you want to privatise. Like when Thatcher wanted to defund the railroads, first thing to do is defund them, then they don’t work and people get angry and they want a change. You say okay, privatise them and then they get worse.
Priviatisation is the thick end of the wedge, but the sharp point is in the unspoken acceptance that new, modern, efficient, grown-up ways of working are developed by the private sector and imbibed by its poorer little cousins. It’s a colonisation I’ve seen first hand. “Those slick guys make the money, write the books, sell the courses. They can teach us how to manage better.”
And so we enter a private sector totality, an ineluctable realism where the priorities are: Get rid of them as soon as you can. Stop them pestering you. Tell them to use the web instead. Scrimp on equipment. Maximise your time. Get your metrics up, whatever the hell they measure. Keep costs down, however you can. Ideology.
You tread water. Do your best in the circumstances. Breathe deeply. Help where you can. Fight the good fight. Count your blessings that you have a job.
Or as Debord put it:
“Individuals who passively accept their subjection to an alien everyday reality are thus driven toward a madness that reacts to this fate by resorting to illusory magical techniques.”
At some point, it becomes untenable. Maybe you just collect numbers on spreadsheets, or code web pages, or open the emails. But you realise what those reports are for, or how that website’s being peddled, or what those emails are about, and you understand that even if you’re not working directly for the man, at some point him and all the other bastards have won, and what you’re doing is part of his victory dance. The language you use, the concepts you employ, the rubric you have for understanding it, the lens you peer through — it somehow became their language, concepts, rubric, lens. Where you’d thought you were supporting a creaking but virtuous support network you were really helping to hold up the emperor’s new clothes.
Joseph Wiezenbaum, a computer scientist who was wary of his work’s applications in the military, said:
“I don’t quite know whether it is especially computer science or its sub-discipline Artificial Intelligence that has such an enormous capacity for euphemism. We speak so spectacularly and so readily of computer systems that understand, that see, decide, make judgements… without ourselves recognising our own superficiality and immeasurable naivete with respect to these concepts. And, in the process of so speaking, we anaesthetise our ability to… become conscious of its end use… One can’t escape this state without asking, again and again,: “What do I actually do? What is the final application and use of the products of my work?” and ultimately, “Am I content or ashamed to have contributed to this use?”
Those three questions haunt so many people, even if they don’t spend their days generating profit for cliched fat cats.
And so it turns out that those stateside anarchists might have been right all along. It really is a dichotomy, just an occluded one.
Jacques Mesrine writes:“There is no other world. There’s just another way to live.” It’s in that spirit that I started Black & Red Mastering. I couldn’t shake that jarring feeling, couldn’t banish the niggling voices talking in business jargon, couldn’t justify the good fight… couldn’t satisfy myself with the answers to those three questions.
B&R is my attempt at changing how I answer those questions.
Wish me luck.