Note: I started work on this article two months ago, but I was too busy enjoying life to finish it until now.
Work, as a moral imperative, seems to function a lot like the panopticon: you discipline yourself, unsure whether anyone else is watching. This makes a lot of sense if you accept, a la Max Weber, that the capitalist spirit derives (at least in part) from the Protestant work ethic. For Protestants (speaking very generally), God was always watching and hard work is how a soul displays his or her faith, so, of course, people would do what they could to please him. After all, salvation was on the line. Additionally, because God fearing Protestants wanted the community to be treated favorably by the divine, there were serious social penalties for making your people look bad with your laziness. This assumed position of total servitude might have something to do with Martin Luther’s belief, at least according to Zizek, that humans are properly understood as God’s excrement.1
Later, the notion of an all seeing being was secularized and engineered into the geography of the primary institutions of the industrial state (what, after Foucault, we call panopticism). So, it makes sense that we should be anxious in the factory, the school, the barracks, the hospital, the cubical — these spaces are designed to make you feel watched and supervised at all times even though a majority of the regulation comes from inside the mind.2
It is interesting how we still internalize this when we know no one is around to watch us. For example, I don’t believe in a grumpy personal God who is watching my every move nor do I have much desire to contribute to the growth of an exploitative economy, yet I still have the constant need to feel productive in some way. And when I’m not doing something that I classify as productive, I am saddled with guilt. It makes sense to me that this is a consequence of the disciplinary functions of panoptic institutions, and even upon reflecting on what I now think might not be the healthiest of instincts, that it might just be too deeply engrained in my being to change without serious effort. Though there are some obvious criticisms, it seems a viable hypothesis that the Protestant work ethic hung around and a social ethic, affecting even those that don’t buy into the foundations of the institutions that spawned and shaped it. Whatever the reasons, Americans work more than anyone else in the world and we feel guilty when we aren’t. If we don’t feel such guilt, we dare not tell anyone for fear of being called a parasite or incurring some other social penalty.
Though globalization is quickly changing the world, there are still many places that don’t subscribe to American moral attitudes about work and the ethical necessity to be on time. I first learned this while I was working for Vandana Shiva in India where I was always first to arrive at the office by an hour or so each day. It took me a while to get used to the idea that “work starts at 8 AM” meant something far less literal than I was used to. It took me even longer to be ok with that. Eventually I came to understand that the other employees weren’t avoiding work — they liked it! — they were just happier and more effective when they weren’t rushed and pushed around. Of course, everything functioned just fine.
Similarly, many travels to Italy taught me exactly what people mean when they say “Americans live to work” while Italians (and others) “work to live”. In other words, life away from work is one’s primary concern and the stress of employment is to be left at the workplace. Try to navigate Italy in August and you’ll know what I mean (you’ll have a tough time since most people are on vacation). Interestingly, Bifo Berardi argues3 that Italy never fully adopted the Protestant/capitalist work ethic due to the counter-Reformation and the Baroque spirit which accompanied it. As a result, political attitudes on work and organizing in the workplace are of a wholly different character. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that autonomia was born in Italy. For Bifo,
The affirmation of Northern European capitalism opens the way to the Industrial Revolution and to the creation of the material sphere of the Indust-Reality. But the Baroque cultural stream of modernity has not been erased, it has never stopped working underground in the modern imaginary, and it resurfaces at last, when the capitalist system changes its social nature and its imagination, at the end of the 20th century. Postmodern imagination can be considered as a resurgence of the Baroque spirit, and the centrality of semiotic production in the sphere of the economy is the main mark of postmodern society.
It is one thing to allow that others live differently — in some grand gesture of multiculturalism or whatever — and quite another to accept just how dehumanizing the American attitude on work is. Outside of the fact that it encourages us to view people as competitors instead of fellow human beings, consider the effects: low pay, low job security, social isolation, long hours, short vacations, lack of a social safety net, expected fealty to employers, etc. Even workers in the so-called creative classes who think they’ve got it good compared the rest of the poor wretches are being cheated out of their humanity. In my mind, the most important thing we forfeit through full participation in this system that we are always lacking is adequate time.
Time away from work is where self-development happens. It is with time that we are free to explore the world, be with family and community, educate ourselves politically, and enjoy the basic interactions with other human beings that we need so desperately for our mental health and happiness. And, time is at the heart of what freedom means. In fact, until the neoliberal era, even famous economists (like Keynes for example) agreed that the market, progress, and technology were important because they would lead us to a point where industrial labor would become efficient and mechanized, leaving humans incredible amounts of time for fun, education, and reflection. If we go back even farther, we can see that time and political freedom are closely related concepts. In her essay, What is Freedom?, Hannah Arendt argues that since antiquity, philosophy has progressively relegated freedom to a question of inner freedom as opposed to a freedom to operate within an open and alterable political sphere.4 With this history in mind, the fact that we work more than ever and have less time for politics (broadly conceived) in an age that is celebrated for its technological achievements, is wholly absurd. Clearly there is a disconnect from what we are being promised and what is being delivered.
With capitalist progress giving us less time and stability, I suppose it shouldn’t surprise us that the space for political involvement has also declined since neoliberalism took hold. In Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit, David Graeber makes a provocative argument that the real point of modern capitalism isn’t simply efficiency and growth, but to balance these imperatives with social control.
A case could be made that even the shift to research and development on information technologies and medicine was not so much a reorientation toward market-driven consumer imperatives, but part of an all-out effort to follow the technological humbling of the Soviet Union with total victory in the global class war—seen simultaneously as the imposition of absolute U.S. military dominance overseas, and, at home, the utter rout of social movements.
For the technologies that did emerge proved most conducive to surveillance, work discipline, and social control. Computers have opened up certain spaces of freedom, as we’re constantly reminded, but instead of leading to the workless utopia Abbie Hoffman imagined, they have been employed in such a way as to produce the opposite effect. They have enabled a financialization of capital that has driven workers desperately into debt, and, at the same time, provided the means by which employers have created “flexible” work regimes that have both destroyed traditional job security and increased working hours for almost everyone. Along with the export of factory jobs, the new work regime has routed the union movement and destroyed any possibility of effective working-class politics.
Crushing personal debt. Constant surveillance. Environmental collapse. A vast wealth gap. Mass poverty in the richest nation on the planet.
Why would we continue in this struggle if we had any other way to make a living? For Graeber, this question grants insight into the current rhetorical posture of capitalism’s chief defenders:
Defenders of capitalism make three broad historical claims: first, that it has fostered rapid scientific and technological growth; second, that however much it may throw enormous wealth to a small minority, it does so in such a way as to increase overall prosperity; third, that in doing so, it creates a more secure and democratic world for everyone. It is clear that capitalism is not doing any of these things any longer. In fact, many of its defenders are retreating from claiming that it is a good system and instead falling back on the claim that it is the only possible system—or, at least, the only possible system for a complex, technologically sophisticated society such as our own.
Perhaps the most frustrating fact is that the surest way to lessen the chances of environmental collapse is to slow down our economic machine: cut production, work less, and stop using so much energy. Because most of our productive efforts are aimed at fueling consumer luxury instead of providing basic well-being, we could significantly cut production and still have enough food and energy to live more than comfortably. Additionally, because growth and debt have a corresponding relationship — namely, the more debt is issued, the more economic growth must occur in order to pay off the interest and principal of debts — a sharp cut in production could be partnered with a global debt jubilee. This would have the added advantage of providing us with that much needed time for human development and socializing while destroying the debt that causes so much grief for humans and nations alike and erasing the need for an endless growth economy.
Of course, to the serious people, such ideas are unrealistic and fanciful because we would give up our competitive advantage over the other nations that make the extraordinarily wasteful American way of life possible. The only thing American media and government can tell us is that we’re not working enough! Anything contrary to the dominant market/growth ideology is excluded from the mainstream, so for most people, alternative approaches simply don’t exist. Though our dreams of progress have created a society so stressful that one of our largest industries exists to produce happiness pills just to get us through another day, the mainstream answer to our problems is to push the same failed program forward at an increased velocity. We’re exhausting the limits of the human mind/body and the biosphere at exactly the same time.
But, at home there is a promising development which prompted me to write this article in the first place. Despite my never ending annoyance with Portland’s major hypocrisies, we are doing at least one thing better than everyone else in this country: we excel at laziness.
Consider, for example the Oregonian’s hilarious lament about the lazy, young white men in Portland who work and consequently earn less than their counterparts across the nation. Apparently, the Portland Business Alliance and the Oregon Business Association are terrified that these people won’t be able to pay taxes and maintain our infrastructure:
“People want great schools. They want great parks. They want great roads. And you need tax revenue to do that,” said Sandra McDonough, president of the Portland Business Alliance. “People lose that connection. The only way we’re going to get more money for schools is to grow the pot that we can tax, which is income.”
Conventional wisdom says the best way to do that is to propel more young people to complete college, thus equipping them for high-wage jobs — and the high tax payments that come with them. A recent study confirmed that Oregonians with college degrees earn more than those without, no matter what field.
A few things about this article. First, “[t]he only way we’re going to get more money for schools is to grow the pot that we can tax”!? Is the Portland Business Alliance openly advocating that we should legalize weed and grow it to drive our economy forward? I sure hope so, because that would be an excellent idea.
Second, as any reader of Mismanaging Perception will know, “conventional wisdom” to the Oregonian generally means the neoliberal/corporate wisdom of the Portland Business Alliance. For these people, shifting the costs of operating a functional society away from corporations and the wealthiest among us to the working class is simply a natural consequence of capitalism. Why should we job creators be forced to bear the incredible burden of paying taxes to pay for services!? Their scheme doesn’t work if people don’t.
Third, why the exclusive focus on 25-39 year old white males? Is this a veiled expression of sadness that the class that is supposed to carry the capitalist banner forward is not so interested anymore?
Fourth, and most exciting, consider the content of our laziness character as portrayed in the graphic above. Not only do we refuse to work long hours, but we love the humanities, have some affinity for science, and could give two shits about business. Score!
Of course, Portlanders aren’t lazy because they don’t want to spend all of their time at work. In fact, Portlanders are extremely productive in developing a vibrant culture, involving themselves in local politics, and just enjoying life. There is a vibrant localism movement that has people engaging in all sorts of activities that fly in the face of views of human nature that say we’re all just in it for our own self-interest. We grow more of our food at home, barter and give our used items away, and exchange or give away services. The gift economy seems to be growing very quickly. Though I know that most people don’t consider these sorts lifestyle choices to be political (in the broad sense), of course they are: they invite us to renegotiate our relations with one another and the dominant market ideology even if this conflict is not explicitly stated. There is an active recognition and celebration of the fact that Portland culture is vastly and intentionally different from that of other American cities. Though the meaning is contested, there are many that would like to Keep Portland Weird.
Nevertheless, access to this lifestyle isn’t available to everyone. For every college educated white male who can afford to score some more free time, there are plenty of others who have no such freedom. It would be unwise to treat one’s own good fortunes in this vein as automatically available to all others. Privileges traditionally available to middle-class white folks account for much the basis for what eventually serves as the markers of social success. For an example of an organized campaign to address economic inequity outside of dominant structures of society, one need only review the history of the Black Panthers — who audaciously and effectively to provided free services to underserved communities and faced the full wrath of the state for their efforts — to see that a culture of resistance is received differently across ethnic and socioeconomic lines. (Here is an excellent Master’s thesis on the Black Panthers in Portland: The Model City: Civil Rights, the Black Panther Party, and the Revolution of Urban Politics in Portland, Oregon by Lucas Burke). One could say much more about this, but I’m going to leave it until I have more time to give the topic of privilege full treatment.
Also, because our fledgling cultural experiment is taking place within a system that has to obey the larger market rules of society, an alternative culture can currently only take place as minor exceptions to existing laws and norms. Though we like to pride ourselves on doing well in relation to the rest of the United States, our social solidarity and sense of community are pathetic when compared with other cultures.5 This is never more evident for me than when the issue of gentrification enters the discussion. Friends who are “progressive” on many issues are as cruel as Tea Partiers when it comes to accepting the market’s tendency to displace poor people at the whims of a new housing trend. This well-known consequence of cyclical housing development is simply ignored or explained away when enjoyment of one’s new house or apartment depends on it. Perhaps the more we are in a position to rely on one another — which apparently is going to be more and more necessary — the more these communal instincts will grow and flourish.
So, to wrap up, I’m advocating for a very conscious recognition that wanting to work less or to have your workplace operate democratically are political statements and, as such, the more that people see their efforts as politically connected, the better chance we have of succeeding in our goals of capturing time. I know of several efforts underway to politicize the idea of more workplace control as a way toward improved lifestyle — especially within local cooperatives — and I plan on popularizing them whenever I have an opportunity. It seems to me a worthwhile project to help as many people as possible obtain the ability to devote their productive energy to projects that will serve the entire community and allow the time for culture and self-development to flourish. Though this essay is a bit rambling, I hope it will at least generate some discussion around issues that have been circulating in my mind throughout the summer.
- “Martin Luther directly proposed an excremental identity of man: man is like a divine shit, he fell out of God’s anus. One can, of course, pursue the question into how the deep crises that pushed Luther towards his new theology, he was caught in a violent debilitating superego cycle: the more he acted, repented, punished and tortured himself, did good deeds, etc., the more he felt guilty. This made him convinced that good deeds are calculated, dirty, selfish: far from pleasing God, they provoke God’s wrath and lead to damnation. Salvation comes from faith: it is our faith alone, faith into Jesus as saviour, which allows us to break out of the superego impasse. However, his “anal” definition of man cannot be reduced to a result of this superego pressure which pushed him towards self-abasement – there is more in it: it is only within this Protestant logic of man’s excremental identity that the true meaning of Incarnation can be formulated. In Orthodoxy, Christ ultimately loses his exceptional status: his very idealization, elevation to a noble model, reduces him to an ideal image, a figure to be imitated (all men should strive to become God) – imitatio Christi is more an Orthodox than a Catholic formula. In Catholicism, the predominant logic is that of a symbolic exchange: Catholic theologists enjoy dwelling in scholastic juridical arguments about how Christ paid the price for our sins, etc. – no wonder that Luther reacted to the lowest outcome of this logic, the reduction of redemption to something that can be bought from the Church. Protestantism, finally, posits the relationship as real, conceiving Christ as a God who, in his act of Incarnation, freely identified Himself with His own shit, with the excremental real that is man – and it is only at this level that the properly Christian notion of divine love can be apprehended, as the love for the miserable excremental entity called “man.” “ [↩]
- This is becoming less true with digital surveillance. Consider RFID chips for students and the now public NSA electronic surveillance program. Instead of wondering whether we might be watched, we can be pretty sure that we are. [↩]
- After the Future Chapter 3: Baroque and Semiocapital [↩]
- This is a nice essay to engage with. [↩]
- Rabid nationalism, on the other hand, is a defining characteristic of this country’s inhabitants. [↩]