Waste, Labour, and Value

Further from my earlier post on productive labour and alienation (here), I want to explore the relationship between labour and value in a bit more depth. It feels especially timely to do this as there are a series of social crises in the UK, and the  industrialised West more broadly, that relate very closely to the categories of work, value and productivity. These are neatly captured by the growth of the gig economy, with all its accompanying social pressures, the threat of automation, and the broader economic crisis facing the international system as a whole.  There are a variety of explanations for this crisis, of which I have found Michael Roberts’s work on the falling rate of profit one of the most interesting. However, it is insufficient in itself, because this has to be situated against global economic growth and rapidly widening inequality, in which the very wealthy have been able to extract remarkable returns on their capital. Whatever complex web of explanatory factors is taken into account, it is clear that the current fully-globalised phase of capitalism is succeeding in pulling vast amounts of value out of the system and accruing it to the hands of an increasingly narrow group at the top. Perhaps profit margins are being squeezed at a systemic level, but that might not be a useful point from which to start when trying to get a handle on inequality and its relationship to waged and unwaged labour. It is important to note that this accumulation process provokes serious economic crises like the most recent financial crash, which actually helps to obscure the fact that the system operates at a constant level of social-crisis-conditions for the majority of the world’s population. But, as with thinking about profit margins, foregrounding these social and ecological crises does not give us a clear insight into the process that is expanding inequality in a broader system of increasing production (growth) coupled with increasing immiseration.

I would argue that the key mechanisms of that process reveal themselves in the relationship between labour and value. In my earlier post I focused on the particular feelings of alienation that come with waged labour, and that are particularly acute with office-based service sector jobs where at times the value or product that you might be creating is almost impossible to perceive. Although David Graeber had more things in mind when he talked of ‘bullshit jobs’, as a term it does capture the discomfort that haunts the employee who, when being honest with themselves, is very dubious about the value they are supposedly creating, and thereby of their own job security and self-worth. Graeber focused on the idea that it is very valuable to the ruling classes of capitalist societies to keep their populations engaged in pointless jobs to stop them thinking about other things (politics, for example). This is a useful point, but it misses an often overlooked key fact of capitalism. This is that capitalism wastes resources, and thereby capital, as part of its systematic function. This means that the existence of ‘bullshit’ jobs rests on more than an elite political conspiracy, or even a vaguely social-democratic response to ‘market’ pressures of automation and international labour competition.

The inherent wastefulness of capitalism is often overlooked, in the face of its wide variety of exploitations. It is clear that, since its inception, capitalism has always depended upon vast amounts of unpaid labour, the appropriation of existing resources which can be valued in the market (so-called primitive accumulation and accumulation by dispossession), and the exploitation of waged labourers creating surplus value as profit for their employers. But these are all the oft-repeated economic ‘strengths’ of capitalism, which, for those who do not care about ecology or the flourishing of humanity, are easily held up as achievements unsurpassable by any other form of social organisation. The relate to the capitalist system’s ruthless exploitation of all resources.What is so easily overlooked in this process is the waste involved in the function of capitalism. Waste on a scale that should boggle the mind, and must be unique in history.

Thinking about waste as central to the function of capitalism sheds a different light on our understanding of labour, value and exploitation. Yes, one can work in a bullshit job in which it does not seem to hold true that you are producing socially valuable outputs from which your employer is claiming a large amount of value and for which they reward you with a smaller part. It is also quite likely that such work is encouraged, and the profits for the employer supported, by government aid, in one form or another, for a variety of political purposes – both nefarious and benign. But it also seems true that the waste of your existence that is involved in such employment is also endemic to capitalism. 

This should not come as a surprise. Most of us have seen (footage of) the mountains of rotting food that pile up in farmland, where the cost of transporting it to consumers is too high for its market price; the excessive quantities of food (three-for-two when you want one!) purchased by richer consumers without the capacity to eat it; the waste involved in restaurants at all stage of the production and consumption process (epitomised in high dining shows like Masterchef); and in supermarkets that now work hard to lock away their waste food lest some poor soul manage to forage it from their bins and thereby both sustain themselves and somehow undermine its market value. This process has become so absurd that we even live with cautionary tales of individuals who consumed free food, preventing it going to waste, became poisoned and then sued their benefactor, subsequently retiring to some island resort to live off the compensation secured by their fantastic lawyers… who, presumably, were working pro bono because they hate the idea of free food so much. Actually that last sentence I intended as sarcastic, but I can imagine many who would fit the bill. Joking aside, this patently absurd ‘anecdote’ is still trucked out as a reason to lock away food waste, or to have certain surpluses released only through government registered charitable bodies – thereby controlling and monitoring those who find themselves existing on the fringes of the state (I hope to write more on this later, after having heard disturbing reports of collaboration between Shelter, St Mungo’s and other homelessness charities and the Home Office). Again, even if you can imagine the recipient of free food wanting to sue for food poisoning, how on earth do you go about this without wealth, education and contacts – the tattered remnants of legal aid?

Waste, in market terms, is also essential to the function of imperialism within the international economy. This is an process in which vast systems work to overproduce in huge quantities and then dump this on defenceless nations under the guise of aid, be it food or other basic consumer products. It is a system in which built in obsolescence is central to most production models, and in which meaningless incremental technological releases are central to the profits of tech giants that are supposedly ruthlessly competing with one another. The production chains behind most modern industrial products are strewn with vast quantities of waste at every point, embodied by the vast tracts of polluted land in associated with the extraction of fuel and the production of rare earths for smartphones and laptops.

That the idea that waste is central to capitalism might feel somewhat counter-intuitive is rooted in the mythology that surrounds the idea of ‘competition’ and the drive for profit. This is where capitalism, and the private sector, justifies its own existence: in the pressure of competition and the harnessing of human greed (supposedly the most powerful of motivators) to the progress of all humanity through ruthless efficiency gains and technological innovation. There are many persuasive pieces of work available setting out to counter this mythology, and Mariana Mazzucato has done a particularly good job in demolishing the idea of the private sector as the engine of invention and innovation, but they are not central to this discussion. What is important to focus on is the power of this mythology to convince its audience that capitalism cannot be wasteful, because to be wasteful is to forego chances of making a profit. Moments of waste can then be understood as a breakdown of the system, as market failures.

Now much of Marxist theory has dedicated its time to explaining how these failures are central to the function of capitalism; that crisis is inherent to capitalism. The historical record demonstrates this to be true, but we are still faced with politicians claiming to end cycles of boom and bust as if these have simply resulted from us meddling too much in the purity of the system. This delusion is central to the entire discipline of economics, as it feeds the idea that it is possible to make a meaningful separation between social reality and an economically-modelled reality, and that we can somehow work to effect ‘pure’ market conditions by stepping back and letting those mathematical and mystical forces do their own work. I have yet to sit in a talk by a remotely mainstream economist and not laugh (inwardly) at the absurdity of their listing of definitions and scope in order for their analysis to begin. The best example of this is current work on inequality, which for all its insights continues to founder on an inability to account effectively for existing wealth, or for the reluctance of the top percentiles to reveal their income sources.

Just as crisis a central component of capitalism, so is waste. In particular, wasteful labour. Waste itself is the destruction of value, both in terms of the failure to realise any potential use of the wasted product, and the failure to exchange it for any other form of value. In this sense waste is also the destruction of labour, invested in the production, transport or transformation of material that is now wasted. But wasteful labour is slightly different. In that instance labourer’s time is being purchased, whilst the labour is, perhaps, not producing social value. For the concerns of the employer, that capital spent as wages is being wasted. Surely this should be insupportable, and standard economics would expect the ‘market’ to correct this ‘aberration’. However, at the very least this would require those involved in the business to care, or to have access to the knowledge that they are wasting labour. I want to advance two arguments for why this might not be the case.

Firstly, the idea that this concern will be central to the capitalist, CEO or shareholders, is rooted in the aforementioned myth that capitalism is ruthlessly efficient. This itself is rooted in the mythology of capitalist competition. The beauty of Marx’s Capital is that it exposed this myth even accepting the idealised conditions of classical economics, but the argument I want to pursue here is that thinking of waste as central to capitalism helps to foreground something other than discussions of efficiency and competition. Instead, it draws attention to the differentiation made between waged (productive) labour and everything else.

A lot of Marxist theory, in its critique of capitalism, has been accused of falling foul of an overt focus on waged labour, as the producer of commodities and the driver of capitalist exchange and the production of surplus value. This overlooks a series of crucial elements of capitalist accumulation. Quoting Maria Mies, Jason Moore (2017) put this brilliantly, noting that ‘[t]he paid work of (some) humans remains the economic pivot of capital – socially necessary labour-time. But its necessary conditions of reproduction are found in the unpaid work of ‘women, nature, and colonies’ (Mies 1986, 77)’ (my emphasis). Moore goes on to state that ‘[c]apitalism thrives when islands of commodity production and exchange can appropriate oceans of potentially Cheap Natures – outside the circuit of capital but essential to its operation’ (2017, 6). It is worth bracketing for the moment Moore’s idea of ‘cheap natures’, which are the ways in which he sees natural objects as being valued for the purposes of joining the ‘circuit of capital’. I think we can go further to say that this unpaid work, and ‘cheap nature’ is absolutely central to processes of accumulation within capitalism, and should never be considered as ‘outside’ of the circuit of capital. This is highly reminiscent of the ways in which economists have tried to refer to factors that fail to get priced into economic models, as ‘externalities’. Although this clearly functions as an accounting method, the reality is rather that capitalism, or the extraction of profit from productive processes, relies on externalising various costs – be they species- or environmental-reproduction, household labour or social care more generally, or existing investments in infrastructure (public or private). Accumulation, in this sense, requires dispossession by wilful ignorance (and brutal force).

Secondly, I would argue that a potential side effect of this systemic externalising of costs in order to extract profit finds itself replicated within the workplace, and service sector jobs in particular. Clearly wasteful labour on a production line is easily identified, and the management practices of such work seem defined by this reality. In the service sector, slightly different forces seem to operate. Because production of value is more amorphous, particularly with ‘consultancy’ services, and highly socially dependent, high ranking managers and CEOs tend to operate purely in pursuit of their own career goals, caring only about the value they are able to extract from whatever sector they find themselves in. Under such a system, very few people will care whether or not the labour-time anyone is expending is actually producing anything of value. They are concerned about office politics – about job security, who will palm off what workload to what other sector of the business, and which group of high level managers will decide to restructure what in pursuit of their career goals. Within this the ability to secure a career path into the upper echelons requires the absence of any real knowledge of technical capability, but rather an understanding of which palms to grease and how – epitomised in the skill-set of a project managers or ‘change consultants’ who sell themselves on the production of highly abstract ‘results’, rather than the long term health of whatever organisation they blundered their way into.

I think of this as vaguely similar to how Joseph Schumpeter described capitalism’s production of the career politician. But rather than understanding any of these things as separate, we can these this entire process as endemic to contemporary (late) capitalism. A sclerotic and abominably wasteful social system, leeching off the unpaid labour of millions of women, children and men, partially enslaving many more, exploiting further millions in exploitative labour, and then employing numbers more – that lucky few, to have escaped the previous categories – to frantically waste their lives in exchange for a wage they cannot see the sense of, should they dare to look too deeply. Through them all work those with an aspiration to be at the top, and above them sway the 10% or 1%, or whichever measure we decide to take, who are managing to secure riches in the most bleak of productive phases, and upon mountains and mountains of waste.

 

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The Politics of Safety

I know a lot has been written about the many problems associated with Facebook’s ‘declare yourself safe’ feature, and I don’t really feel I can say anything new on that topic. But with the last attack in London it has come to the fore again, and I feel like some kind of response is worth recording. There is something so particular about having alerts occur in the news feed as people I know in London declare themselves safe, alongside others inquiring after my safety. I know attacks like this are horrific. They are particularly horrific if attention is given to the actual thought processes killers must go through using such proximate methods of murder. No simple explosion, requiring only the nerve to detonate, or the misfortune to have a fail-safe take care of a change of heart. This is coupled with the disturbingly quotidian nature of the tools involved. What these two things mean is that it is absolutely impossible to guard against such attacks. People already drive cars into pedestrians, and some people stab others with knives. The laws we have in place in regards to buying and carrying knives, and driving and renting cars are sufficient. Police presence to deal with the possibility of street violence is also, bar funding and recruitment issues, sufficient – in that such events cannot be prevented by increased numbers. You cannot protect yourself against the possibility that someone is psychotic enough to mow you down with a vehicle, or attack you in the street with a knife. Well, perhaps with the latter some jujitsu training might help, but probably not much. I know that, for myself, confronted with a psychotic person willing to harm me, I tend to frieze up, not go all Bruce Lee. I like to flatter myself imagining that if it’s directed at someone else, I would play the hero, but I haven’t had that tested.

Political leaders, however, have to respond. It is refreshing that we currently have a few sufficiently sane to express sorrow for the loss, horror at the actions, and regret that we live in, have helped to create and are continuing to create a world in which such psychotic actions are conducted all the time on an unimaginable scale and at a distance that allows the perpetrators and their commanding fanatics to imagine themselves untouched. Actually that is unfair – plenty of those forced or by the dictates of chance to find themselves controlling the drones or flying the planes are seriously troubled by what they do. The problem lies with the organ grinders. Among those of this fanatical stripe are politicians who respond to atrocities like those committed in London on Saturday (and not those committed elsewhere) by claiming events like this happen because we are insufficiently vigilant, a soft-touch, too ‘tolerant’ of extremism. As if it is tolerance that breeds extremism.  Of course we could claim there have been levels of a soft-touch here, as our fanatics nursed extremists at home and abroad in the hope that they would spread chaos only where they want to see it, in the cities of Libya, Syria or Iraq. But to do so is to break the line, the solidarity of we who are the victims of their aggression.

And here is the key problem with being declared safe on Facebook. It is complicit in the game of these fanatics. Complicit in singling out these events as something that demands action, if as ridiculous an action as status-flagging. People I barely know have (auto) inquired about my safety. If, as would have been roughly as likely, I had been killed while cycling across London, would they do the same? Would anyone beyond my very close friends and family ever know? Why then, would the death at the hands of a differently motivated psycho be of so much interest to so many disconnected people? Now of course this will read as callous and cold-hearted. But London is a big city and people are dying in it all the time. To hazard two of the main killers, I would guess that air pollution is very high on the list, domestic violence, and perhaps poverty, and sleeping rough are right up there.  Without the support of my family I would have ended up homeless at various points. Would Facebook have enabled me to declare myself ‘unsafe’? Would there be a reaction?

This function begins to take on a different meaning in these circumstances. One that is even worse than that implied by the blatant Western-centrism of the function’s initial appearance; that we care about certain lives so much more than others. This is about the necessary corollary of that declaration of certain life as sacred. It is a political mobilization. I am safe, and this is a safety brought at the price of the safety of many others. It is both relief, I am not among the wounded, and battle cry – I am safe, we are safe, we will remain safe, you will not shake us. But we cannot and should not be safe. We are not safe. Not safe from the myriad deaths that await any of us as we rise from our beds, and not safe from the consequences of our support, tacit or otherwise, for the fanatics who wish to wage war. There is a hideous dualism in the declaration of safety, combined with the same culture’s demand that its rulers be willing to launch a nuclear holocaust.

Recognizing the risks posed to all of us, to the ever present absence of safety, could be an important part of resisting the mobilization of our bodies by an elite that day by day are revealing colours of a deeply sickening hue. The world from which they profit is one deeply riddled with risk, one in which wealth provides the clearest form of safety. In these terms, London’s population of six going on seven million contains a lot of people who are very far from safety. These are the things that matter. These are the things we have a hope of controlling. These are the risks that we might see reduced with the right political choices. Prising the fingers of fanatics from the reins (and triggers) of power will also do the same thing. Playing the politics of safety in any form plays into their hands, and we shouldn’t have any part in it.

‘Productive’ Labour and Alienation

I get a chance to write another blog post today as I find myself at a loose end, in a manner that gives me cause to reflect on some life patterns, and on the relationship between the individual and their broader environment. In essence this brings together the two dominant influences on my thinking – a philosophical existentialism, and a more recently acquired structural materialism. The former relates very closely to the sort of psychotherapy based life philosophy I associate with my parents, focused on trying to understand how the psychology of the self might be creating life-patterns, or, in a more esoteric or religious vein, how the soul or essence of the self is here to learn some specific life lessons. The latter sees this more as the frustrated attempts of an individual’s psyche to cope with the buffeting of a world more or less out of their control, to read patterns where there may indeed be patterns (generated by structures with a certain logic to them, the dominant influence of which is currently capitalism), but to impute this as something internal, centred on the self. This last thought pattern arises as a product of a further influence; namely a conservative ideological indoctrination that consistently drives oppressed individuals to understand the circumstances of their oppression as resulting of their own bad choices, genetics, or other failings, rather than in social structures which they might, in collaboration with others, struggle to change.

A whole variety of Marxist theorists have helped me to develop an appreciation of how these two things interact, with the Marxian influence meaning that material structures tend to dominate my understanding of the world. That said, the vestigial mystic in me draws life-pattern inferences from my experiences despite my knowledge that my circumstances are not of my choosing. Along with this has come the idea of a life curse. Today I have realised that this is rather specific, although I will get to it in a very round about manner.

I have been employed in a variety of jobs at various points, and all of them have involved significant time sitting around stuck, unable to do anything that feels particularly meaningful. There is a residual angst that accompanies this when I am being paid, which fits nicely into that aforementioned ideological indoctrination of the wage-labourer – ever aware that the benevolent capitalist employing him is paying for the ‘productive’ use of his time. Of course, there can be meaning in the struggle of this ‘downtime’; a chance for the labourer to stick two fingers up to his employer, upon whom it is incumbent to find productive use for the body and mind it is paying for. However, my overall experience with wage-labour, work, and feeling ‘productive’, complicates this somewhat, preventing the easy retreat into the capitalist-vs-labourer dynamic. In order to get to grips with the broader ‘life-pattern’ and it’s psychological and structural-material sides, I’ll have to recap what I remember of my experience of these three categories.

I use wage-labour, work, and a feeling of being productive because they are at the same time separable and complexly interrelated. I’m going to engage in some self-indulgent pseudo-philosophy with each of these concepts.

Wage-labour, Work and Productivity:

Wage-labour is an easy category to understand. Time, spent doing something, given in exchange for a wage. Time is also simply one way of understanding the limit to our existence in life as we know it – and is therefore better understood as life given in exchange for a wage. This wage itself is equally better understood, for those of us born without access to significant assets, as the means to continue living. Which creates the politically dangerous parallel between wage-labour and the necessary expenditure of something (energy, time, life-force) in the struggle to continue existing. The political danger arises because of the way in which the concept of ‘nature’ functions in our social web of meaning. If something is ‘natural’ it is somehow interminable, unsurmountable and unchallengeable. It forms, in many neat ways, the horizon of our imaginative possibilities and the justification for our social evils. ‘All things must struggle to survive, that is the natural world’; ‘you have to work to earn money to live, it is the way of the world’. This is a statement which, somehow, has great persuasive power, despite the lack empirical proof for either statement.

Work is slightly more complex, although it is basically exactly the same as wage-labour. However the social meaning of ‘work’ is more nuanced, and it is used differently in conversation (given that only rather niche conversations go on about wage-labour). Although wage-labour is self-evidently a social relation, the concept of ‘work’ in the sense in which I am trying to isolate it here, has a greater emphasis on that social element. Specifically I am thinking of work here as a mix of ideas, relating to employment, but employment tied to a social position – work as something which one has, does, and is embedded in that locates and identifies one socially as a meaningful, non-threatening entity. For me, this is a relatively personal thing, because I have been unemployed, without ‘work’, job-‘seeking’, at numerous points in my ‘adult’ (judged socially independent for government purposes) life. As a consequence I have many years of experience of the social dislocation that comes from not having identifiable ‘work’, for not having a clear answer to the question of what it is you ‘do’. This line of thought actually just made me think of the awful nature of that film ‘About a Boy’ which for all its sweetness has bloody awful class-politics – the central character feels unvalued socially because he has no need to work. Poor millionaires who don’t need to ‘do’ anything and as a consequence feel useless… However, as much as it is distasteful to admit, there is a very basic level of commonality between the position I am describing and a rent-earning capitalist. Actually I just answered my own question there – there is no commonality precisely because that individual is earning rent. I will not allow myself to get further diverted by pontificating on the rentier class, so I will cut that digression short.

Continuing the discussion on the nature of work, I want to emphasise the social intersubjective function of this concept. Acquiring ‘work’ and social-meaning isn’t quite as simple as ‘finding’ a job, or finally managing to exchange one’s life-force for the means to continue living. I know this because, out of the 18 (bloody hell) years since becoming an ‘adult’ in the eyes of the government (I worked in a corner shop and on a paper round before this), I have spent 9 years in full time education, 3 years in fulltime waged employment, and therefore a grand total of 6 years in part-time employment or unemployment. As a side note I should point out that this means, because we have no contribution system for the underemployed (ie not earning enough but not claiming benefits) or those in post-high-school education, I will never qualify for the state pension (whatever that will actually mean if the bloody system is still going in 30 years). So yes, 6 years is a long time in which I have had to struggle to justify my existence to most people beyond (and a few within) my close family. But it was very nearly as difficult during at least 6 of those years of full-time education. I say only 6, because for some reason undergraduate study (for all the shit students get) somehow escapes the same social judgement meted out to those in post-graduate study. The latter category are those who are ‘still’ students, or even ‘eternal students’ (awkward haha). Whether we understand this as self-policing by the labouring classes, or a vague unease amongst the landed (asset-laden) classes, it still represents social isolation, dislocation, and alienation. I will address alienation a bit later, as it is central to how I want to develop this post, but for now it is interchangeable with its synonyms.

So we can sum this section up by acknowledging that work is a signifier of social meaning, crucial to social acceptance. Furthermore, it is almost always (for those who must do so) wage-labour – the nature of the work, and the size of the attached remuneration, subsequently determine the quality of that social acceptance and the location of the inclusion within the social structure. In my life I have been mostly without this ‘work’, either as a consequence of social interaction or my own internal sense of dislocation, but crucially connected to high levels of un- or underemployment. I am also reminded of an ILO study that highlighted that those experience who experience unemployment are 75% more likely to experience it again than someone who hasn’t… Knowing that all statistics are hard to come by and often hide more than they reveal, this is still disturbing – especially if we think of this as social location in addition to somehow earning a ‘living’. Coupled with this, it is worth considering the ways in which upper-middle class individuals have of concealing (even from themselves) periods of unemployment that might problematize such statistics – unpaid internships, phantom posts, tinkering of the CV, all supported by background access to wealth. If you can convince yourself that you have never been unemployed, do you escape the stats?

Finally, we can come to the feeling of being ‘productive’. Again, this is very closely related to both work and wage-labour, but it involves greater emphasis on both the ‘self’ and on the material world. However, although I say this, production is mostly also social in some sense – and in this way it always threatens to collapse back into the categories of work and wage-labour as I have discussed them. This feeling of being productive though, perhaps in part due to my experience of social dislocation, can be highly personal. It can be as simple as producing a material thing of some kind, presumably that has some value (use or exchange?!), against which one can feel that time (life-force) has been well spent… Which is disturbing because it is spent (and replenished!) all the time. I’ve just been inspired to think mathematically. If time = life-force, and to spend or replenish life-force is a function of time, then it all seems rather cyclical and Zen.

In this Zen sense then, a feeling of productivity can simply be a state of mind, related to a feeling of time well spent. Perhaps you would feel this if your expenditure of time was socially valued, or if it was valued by yourself, but the end product might well be the same. As a final note to the materialist in me, perhaps one feels more ‘productive’ about material changes to the world around us, but I am not sure.

In any case, with wage-labour, work, and a feeling of being productive understood in these loose ways, my experience of them means that when I am engaged in wage-labour, and I have nothing to do, and no manager trying to make me do something, I don’t usually feel a victorious sense of sticking two fingers up at the capitalists. I think I feel some kind of despair that I cannot contribute anything to the world that has social meaning; that even though I have acquired the trappings of social acceptance, the truth is that the (capitalist) world requires nothing of me.

This then becomes the life-pattern – a feeling of being not useful, a fear of that meaning that I am selfish and lazy, because the only real meaning I have been able to attach to my life has had to come from within me as some kind of exhausting effort of will (not in an Atlas Shrugged kind of sense). Specifically for me, and following the completion of my doctorate, I have begun to think of this as a curse – because of the hilarious circumstances surrounding some near-misses with acquiring very well paid (and therefore that much more socially accepting!) work. I am cursed to be cut off from the productive, meaningful, engaged life of all of those around me. Cut off from wage-labour, and cut off from work (and a feeling of being productive) even when I finally get waged-labour.

I have [had – read post-script for the circumstances surrounding a necessary correction of tenses] this experience now with the circumstances of my current job, and my only experience of having a large amount of disposable income came from circumstances in which I was paid to be close to a desk in Japan from 8am to 4pm five days a week but was only asked to do about 5 hours of work during that time – hours of feeling unproductive, and socially meaningless (I tried to write then too).

Alienation:

This finally brings me to the more academic side of the terms I have used for the title of this piece. I am sure I am very far from alone in feeling the way I do. This can come from the surety that, in some sense, the ideal of a socially meaningful and content life held by others is more than likely mostly projection. Although sometimes this thought itself has to be acknowledged as a kind of hope, because with the world as it is, who should feel comfortable? But perhaps you can feel socially meaningful without being comfortable with things as they are.

This is just a side note however, because the concept of alienation is designed to capture the interrelationship between wage-labour, work, and a feeling of being productive. The concept has its roots in the wage-relation combined with productive labour. When you work as a carpenter for an employer, the product of your labour is already owned by them, as they purchase whatever you do with your employed time. In this sense the worker is, very directly, alienated from what they produce. But it further captures the broader more abstract alienation experienced by people under capitalism – partly as a product of this systematic alienation within the wage-relation, but also within the transforming social relations under the dynamic of capitalist social reproduction. The varieties and potential space for alienation are infinite, as new use and exchange values are created (under the pressure of marginal profitability). A few examples might be as follows: alienation from parenthood (alienation directly from your own offspring), both in the sense of paying for childcare, or having a meaningful connection to the growth and education of a child, or to the broader social network that operates between and within different families and generations; alienation from green, open spaces, locked in an urban environment and within that locked within offices; alienation from clean water, or food (this is direct alienation from the means to reproduce and produce life).

Alienation is a useful concept for many reasons, but particularly because it captures the profoundly dystopian reality of life within capitalism. It is also remarkable because, as David Harvey has been fond of pointing out, there seems to be no limit for the capacity of humanity to both alienate and be alienated, to immiserate and be immiserated. But to return to the personal starting point of this post, this is precisely what I feel –profoundly alienated. What exactly is being asked of you if, finally receiving a sufficient wage to, perhaps, appear more socially real and situated, you don’t have to do anything? What am I being alienated from, other than myself?

This reflection finally brings us to the alienation involved in wage labour without clear productivity. On some level this seems to be partly captured by David Graeber’s idea of ‘bullshit jobs’, where the important thing seems to be that people are kept occupied, waged in order that they can drive the wheels of consumption, and otherwise locked into reproducing the social system even though what they actually ‘do’ at work is largely meaningless (or could very easily, and cheaply, be done by some kind of automated system). Although on some level this doesn’t seem to account for the need for corporations to make profit, this tends towards edifying the efficiency of the private sector (a classic product of contemporary ideology). The explanation goes that surely the pressures of competition and the drive for profit means that the private sector cannot pay for the dead weight of bullshit jobs. This is clearly not the case, as any cursory examination of most businesses would reveal – not least consolidated in the ranks of senior management who tend to be immune from the ruthless hack-jobs conducted in the name of efficiency for the vast profits of consultancy firms like PWC and Deloitte.

But there is clearly something absurd about the function of the contemporary working day, in terms of an employer paying for an 8 hour chunk of your time, and the actual ‘productive’ potential of that slice of time/life-force. As a consequence, it is even more absurd that so much social acceptance and meaning is attached to making sure you have that period of your time/life-force locked down/drained away.

But there are clearly two capitalist processes locked up in this dynamic of work, productivity and alienation; namely disciplinary and exploitative processes. Some profit is being extracted in some manner from the work time, and a large amount of discipline is being exerted through both the structure of social norms and the pressures of survival – avoiding homelessness and starvation which are local realities to which a large amount of effort is directed towards helping us ignore.

As to the former (the length of the working day) it is important to consider critically why it is, at least for the UK, currently 8 hours, and to think about those for whom the EU work-time directive is a meaningless abstraction as they regularly sign their agreement to work longer hours. Harvey claimed it is set at 8 hours because capital, in some sense, cannot find profit below that, and that labour should perhaps fight to reduce it and break the system that way – imagine the two day working week (which reminds me of Andre Gorz). But if we consider the shift to the gig economy, something I find terrifyingly mirrored in academia, then you can see the pressure already exists for the employer to pay you only for those brief periods of time in which you are actually productive. Kill the dead time. Many liberal arguments for shorter working days, for me, mirror those in academic work, or other seemingly-creative workspaces, in which some workers convince themselves they are free, and that they have very few ‘actually productive’ hours in the day. This only ever makes sense measured against the ‘standard office hour’ life, which seems to be in short supply. Perhaps then, these are all simply vestigial elements of the worker ideology of the golden age of capitalism… But it is still important to consider how and where, in the process of work, surplus value might be extracted from the labour of a worker, which cautions one against thinking simply in terms of reduced working hours, necessarily coupled with some kind of social wage or UBI.

Postscript:

There are some wonderful inconsistencies attached to this post, if one overlooks any that arise from the text itself, to which I have not paid sufficient attention. I began this ‘endeavour’ because I was being paid to sit at a desk and a computer, whilst not being able to do anything actually linked to the job I was being paid for, and not able to access any distracting forms of entertainment (although I could sit and read some random Wikipedia pages or something…). Ironically then, for some reason this was the most appealingly ‘productive’ use of my time – to write for an (as yet says the voice of hope) non-existent blog-audience. Which actually makes this more of a diary exercise, and therefore the idea that diary-writing is productive to me should be revealing of something. However as soon as I started in earnest, office things began working and I COULD actually do the ‘productive’ labour my employer (abstract as they are in this instance) is actually paying me for. Yet at this point I had started the post and was vaguely in the mood and wished to finish it. Now the call of my (abstract and absent in all forms – thank you for the current lack of micromanagement) employer is being resisted by my own desire to do my own thing – to resist the alienation of employment, to conduct low-level labour resistance against capital, and to use my own time as I wish (as I wish given a series of constraints, prominent among which is being situated physically at a desk, in front of a computer).

These inconsistencies, if that is even the right word, although increasingly it will not do, replicate themselves further. My ‘employer’ has no idea what I should be doing, and equally has no way of knowing if I am or ensuring that I do. However, my job is basically to help out my brother, who needs support, and the faster I get up to speed the better for him. So in a classic move of capital vs labour, the social ties in which I am embedded (and through which I FINALLY managed to get ‘full-time’ exploited by capital) are actually those that motivate me to obey the dictates of capital; namely that I use the time for which they are paying me in pursuit of their interests. In addition, the capital which is exploiting me is actually a charity, based predominately on volunteer work to provide social care in local communities. I just happen to be sitting in a London office surrounded by Suits working for law firms (some of the world’s most odious have their offices in gleaming tower blocks dwarfing the weird seven floors of sixties concrete that forms the UK head office of the British Red Cross). So technically I am not resisting capital, but resisting the collective desire of well-minded people to provide social care. This in turn is counteracted by the corporate structure and behaviour of the Red Cross at this location, and the fact that its services are filling a gap created by under-funding social care at the government level, which in turn is driven by the needs of capitalism more broadly, and the British ruling elite more narrowly. Thus we come full circle somehow, and I feel vaguely justified. However a further irony arises in the fact that one of the very few people likely to read this post is actually the very same brother I am supposed to be helping, thus I feel less justified and somewhat guilty. But then I remember that he is in all kinds of ways unhappy and angry with the institution, and therefore I feel less guilty. But then I remember that he likes his work and it is important, and the guilt returns.

Thus, following the general discussion of the post above, I feel guilty because I am engaged in something that on some level feels worthwhile to me, potentially ‘productive’ in a broader social sense, but is also counter-productive in the sense that I am supposed to be engaged in the specific task of lightening my brother’s load and I am avoiding it, whilst being employed in an abstract wage-labour relation which demands nothing specific of me and does not monitor me, except through the aforementioned family ties, nested within a broader set of life patterns in which I feel ‘unproductive’ and not socially valued for whatever it is I can actually contribute (read produce) to the world around me. That lack of social value then comes up against, and undermines, any sense of personal value I find in my own existence engaging in the kind of activities in which I feel speak somehow to what it means to be me as a person – leaving one with the distasteful experience of only finding self-value in activities that have no social value and are therefore selfish. This final bleak view is tempered by the fact that all measures of social value have been subverted beyond all meaning under the pressures of exchange value surmounting use value, and the broader social dynamics of capitalism driving the constant shifts of both exchange and use values.

Dividing Lines

The other day I had one of those classic modern-internet moments, where my Facebook feed included a shared post of a statement by Tommy Robinson, of EDL fame. I had a double-take, and had to mentally review my ‘friend’ list. The usual option at this point is ‘unfollow’, to tailor my ad-ridden Facebook experience to provide me with things I find more in tune with whatever it is I use the bloody thing for. I paused at that point however, thinking back to the weird connections that meant this had appeared on my feed. I even watched a bit of Tommy Robinson’s video, read up a bit on him, and depressed myself by reading the comments on the video and abhorrent Spectator article that had just devoured some of my time. This last part isn’t an unusual internet experience.

What is horrendous, however, is the gulf that separates me from the experience of someone sharing these videos. It got me thinking to the radical divide that lies within many divisions of opinion, and at the heart of politics. I have been wondering what it would be like to help in the Labour campaign in Oxford, knowing that this would mostly be some kind of strange performative activity and would be meaningless because Labour will hold in Oxford East and Oxford West (where I am registered) will remain Conservative. Unless somehow all of the Lib Dem vote becomes Labour… maybe it is just the absence of my participation that holds back the socialist tide.

Increasingly it seems to be completely pointless to have a political discussion with anyone. Either the people I talk with agree with me, in which case we tend to just bemoan the fact that we appear to live in a country dominated by heartless bastards, or I’m talking to one of those heartless bastards who is confirming my opinion of them in the course of the discussion. But actually this caricature elides a frustrating personality trait that (bar the occassional slip) dominates my discursive self. I try to empathise and slowly persuade. This isn’t to set myself up as some kind of saint. But I have spent (wasted) many many hours of my life tolerating some truly bullshit opinions in an effort to convince their holder to understand what structural conditions have led them to hold that position dear, and why they are ultimately bad opinions to have. Why is that not working, I hear you ask…

There is something rather primal there, perhaps linked to a sense of self-identity affiliated to a political party, perhaps to brainwashing in education, perhaps to self-interest, or a mix of that and a deluded belief in neoliberal economic theory. The point is that the consequence is that political discussion is impossible – utterly pointless. Neither of us will change our opinion. Sadly, most of these discussions have, for me, been with people who do not study international political economy, or even politics. The disciplines are irrelevant actually; they are not people who read critically and widely and are suspicious of all source material. With Brexit as an example, this leaves me in the uneviable position of trying to explain to someone that their desire to ‘have the UK govern itself rather than the EU’ actually makes no sense, will certainly not be realised by Brexit, and to be meaningful in any sense would actually require a global revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. But I might as well be bashing my head against a wall for all the impression it makes.

Reading the comments thread on Tommy Robinson-related internet material, we see the same thing. Everyone who doesn’t agree with his position is a liberal lefty wanker who would say that shit anyway, and as a side point is probably in league with some international Islamic conspiracy. Should I try and engage in discussion with this Facebook acquiantance, hope that somehow our past interactions might help them not dismiss me, and try and help them, and myself, achieve some more enlightened and nuanced position? Could that help combat some of the hate-mongering that I assume is worse where they live? I don’t think so. In this process actually I did learn things that I wasn’t aware of – about the establishment of the EDL, and about the post topic, which was on criminal gangs grooming, assualting and raping young girls. The slide from that to Islamaphobia, and racism, is a depressing one. But, to be honest, I share a discomfort with religious faith. Admittedly mine is directed at all faiths. But I’m also aware that it is people in general that find reasons to do whatever horrendous things they do.

This issue then reminded me of a discussion I had a very long time ago with a couple of fellow PhD students. They were admonishing me, and some friends of mine, for forming a Marxist clique who didn’t engage sufficiently with people of different opinions. I pointed out that we were just too different – that there wasn’t anything to be gained by rehashing arguments with people when, to quote Bertrand Russell, ‘the worlds we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us.’

I love that quote, and perhaps it goes too far. But in that conversation I struck upon a useful topic that captured our positions perfectly. I brought up the railways, and privatisation. But whereas this topic could founder on the rocks of uncertain economics, and the difficulty of differentiating public and private enterprises, our dividing lines jumped to the fore over me complaining about the ridiculous expansion of First Class carriages. I do not think First Class travel should exist. I do not give a shit if you have to work on the train and you need an especially spacious leather lined seat in which to do it. Watching the operation of such a system, be it on overcrowded trains where people occassionally rebel, to Ryanair hopelessly policing the dubious benefit of getting on their plane slightly before other people who paid less, will always reveal interesting social dynamics. I find it abhorrent. In every way imaginable. I guess for some this kind of crazy communist position would all have us transporting ourselves around in some kind of drab depressing tin cans. But that is bullshit, and in any case, most of us are experiencing that right now. In any case, a difference of opinion of this kind, for me, appears insurmountable. On a long list, obviously. And that provides a very easy clear way of drawing a political line, over which one could then get rather Schmittian. Or Maoist if one was eschewing Schmitt. Swords etc.

 

Labour’s NEC and Left Politics

The decision of Labour’s National Executive Committee not to allow local Labour constituencies, and Labour members, any say in the candidates the party puts forward for the snap election is, as Aaron Bastani on NovaraMedia has put it (see here: http://novaramedia.com/2017/04/21/democratise-labour-to-democratise-britain/), a huge missed opportunity. But it is not surprising, considering that the NEC is still a battle ground between those who support the project advanced by Corbyn and McDonnell and those fighting tooth and nail to keep party as the same neo-liberal conservative machine it has been for my entire adult life. I am informed that the Left are still short of a majority position on the NEC, and as a result it would seem that the wealth of new members, and the Labour leadership, still have no control over the most important decisions that the party machine makes.

The NEC is currently only open to challenge through the established bureaucratic procedures of the Labour party. I have little to no idea what the specifics of these are, although we were treated to some insight when the NEC moved to block Corbyn’s re-election. I have no doubt that the party apparatchiks that work within and had a hand in forming the rules, will have done so with a mind towards insulating the upper echelons of the party machine from any deviance within its membership. Heaven forbid a major political party in the UK would be meaningfully democratic.

The current state of affairs, moving into the 6-week rush before the snap election, is depressing. No possibility of engaging people locally in a fresh and hopefully inspiring process in which they as members of a party might actually have a say in the candidates that they will vote to represent them. I think Bastani’s points in NovaraMedia are spot on  – that would be a huge opportunity to mobilise local memberships, with a stake in the selection of their candidates, to campaign for them far more effectively locally. Furthermore, to be participating in a process that actually represented a meaningful shift from business as usual. Instead we are asked to shut up and vote, as the extent of democratic participation.

My intuitive response to this was a strong desire to challenge the NEC decision, and to change the power of that body, but engaging in that kind of action in present circumstances would be self-defeating (perhaps in a classically ‘left’ manner). What, however, is to prevent local Labour Constituencies following Corbyn’s wish for trigger ballots – organising hustings in constituencies where the candidate put forward centrally could not muster 50% of local members to support them. Thanks to the NEC’s decision they would not be able to change the choice of candidate, but to do so in spite of that centralised decision-making process, to elect shadow-candidates, would still reap the benefits of renewed local engagement and a sense of democracy, as well as potential campaign support. In fact, would this not be better than general preparation for a standard (and incredibly short) election campaign anyway? The media will remain stacked against Labour, and so it makes little sense to claim one can win that battle in which the polls already have the party massacred. Why not push for the reinvention of the party from below anyhow. In such circumstances, surely pressure on the NEC would increase, the chances of Labour MPs being elected would also increase, and whatever the outcome of the GE2017, the seeds will have been planted for a more effective grassroots organisation within the party, and the first steps towards challenging the NEC and its existing aversion to democratic participation.

Anyway this is all hot air as I am not even a member. But current circumstances have me thinking of joining and, if I can somehow find the will within the darkness, actually campaigning.

Non-revolutionary Times

For anyone in the UK with broadly left politics, these are depressing times. For myself as a fractionally-employed academic in the UK, they are acutely depressing for extra reasons, without for a second imagining that I am close to the bottom of the pile… Writing that final noun needed some restraint to avoid bilious adjectives… Anyway, this paragraph only really serves two purposes – one to sketch out the nature of one of hopefully a few authors who might contribute to this blog, and in doing so to highlight my tendency towards the bleak – and secondly to explain the title, Law, Disorder and Revolution. Really that is an homage to another blog, with revolution tacked on. But it is worth raising the question, which I take from an obituary for Daniel Bensaïd, of how to deal with revolutionary aspirations in such a bleak political landscape.

Central to the response would be that it is almost certainly only in retrospect that times look sufficiently ‘revolutionary’, and that in any case Gramsci’s adage applies at all times: optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect. I hope for whatever is written here to serve the small task of adding broadly pessimist voices to the mix, but imbued with a hope for the future – for otherwise, why write?

There is a further selfish reason for my own contributions here – namely that the processes of academia have killed my passion for writing, and it can only be rediscovered through practice – practice delinked from the treadmill of career initiation/progression that helped destroy it. So this is a space for that.

A crude introduction if ever there was!

As a further note to scene setting and filling out the back-story. The idea of restarting a blog has been talked about between myself and a few close friends for a very long time. Somehow Teresa May’s call for a snap election has provided the impetus to write an initial post. I’m not sure what that indicates, if anything. But the next 7 to 8 weeks are going to be interesting (a brutal shitstorm) and writing might provide some small solace, and perhaps another place for discussion.