Thursday, April 4, 2013

Tell me why, I don't like Mondays

The Song of the Shirt
Thomas Hood, 1843

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread –
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the ‘Song of the Shirt’.

“Work! work! work!
While the cock is crowing aloof!
And work – work – work,
Till the stars shine through the roof!
It’s Oh! to be a slave
Along with the barbarous Turk,
Where woman has never a soul to save,
If this is Christian work!

“Work – work – work
Till the brain begins to swim:
Work – work – work
Till the eyes are heavy and dim!
Seam, and gusset, and seam,
Till over the buttons I fall asleep,
And sew them on in a dream!”
These are only the first three of the twelve stanzas that comprise the poem, but it’s clear what is being expressed. We of the civilised world know it well, and hear its echoes in Bob Black’s diatribe against work, which begins: “Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you'd care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.” Whence this cultural antipathy to something as universal and necessary as work? Is the infamous capitalism to blame?

In The Empathic Civilization (2009: 290ff), Jeremy Rifkin spends some time tracing the demise of guilds and the emergence of a labour class. “In the sixteenth century in England, an independent merchant class was beginning to challenge the guilds’ control”. Generally, great changes were afoot, in particular the enclosures, which loosed peasants from the land, creating an exploitable labour force. Advances in transportation using rivers and canals sped trade up. These factors enabled merchants to bring cheaper goods to market, which made them enemies of the guilds. Eventually, 
the old social economy, based on controlling production, fixing prices, and excluding competition from the outside, was too provincial to accommodate the range of new technologies that were making possible greater exchange of goods and services between more people over longer distances. The new technologies gave birth to a capitalist class hell-bent on exploiting their full potential. They found their commercial mode in self-regulating free markets. 
Work became a commodity, along with almost everything else.

That human work became an exchangeable commodity subject to the forces of the ‘free market’, is, I feel, perhaps the prime reason work is as hated as it is today. This governing of work by the price system, in conjunction with mechanisation and the industrial revolution, led inexorably to the state of affairs we have today, and have had for many decades. Work-for-wage at any job at all is a matter of survival. How can we have pride in our work if it is most often for another person’s profit, if we are mere cogs in the machinery of a profit-seeking monolith that cares only about its own (endless) growth?

Charlie Chaplin ‘slaved’ over his films. He wrote them, directed them, acted in them, wrote the music for some of them, edited them, but would not have called that (at times highly repetitive) work “evil”, nor the long hours. I work hard on my blog posts. People everywhere work hard on their own labours of love. But even the ironing, the vacuum cleaning, washing the dishes, changing nappies, none of these things are hateful when we recognise them as necessary elements of a healthy and pleasant life. Then we can say “whistle while you work”, and mean it warmly. Perhaps the distinction is that these forms of work are self-directed and more or less freely chosen.

If capitalism is about capital – as it must be –, and if work is one form of capital that can be exploited in pursuit of profit, and if profit is almost exclusively monetary in nature, then work must be stripped of its potential nobility and grace by capitalism over time. This is, I assert, exactly what we have witnessed. As readers of this blog know, I don’t believe this model is sustainable, for reasons of technological unemployment, planetary carrying capacity, and good old fashioned change. Jeremy Rifkin is similarly critical of this dynamic, as are many other thinkers,  but anticipates an evolution towards what he calls “distributed capitalism”. By this he appears to mean a transition from rigid hierarchy towards flatter, more anarchic arrangements (I don’t recall him using the word “anarchic” though!). In very broad brush strokes, his prediction crudely mirrors some of the aspects of how I envision a resource-based economy gathering steam. Regardless, from where we are now, culturally relearning the grace and nobility of work via transition presents us with a number of challenges.

1. We are still children of the industrial revolution, and this is nowhere more evident than in state education. Grades, large class sizes controlled by a single authority figure tasked with pumping into those malleable minds as much of the state-sanctioned curriculum as possible to sort ‘the wheat from the chaff’, clearly demarcated subjects, lessons begun and ended with the ringing of bells, are all design consequences derived from industry needs. Factory workers are not permitted to be imaginative, critical thinkers. They must be unquestioning drones who are also easy-to-addict consumers. Money, industrialism’s god, requires a constant supply of such humans to grow and grow. Money-as-wealth, money-as-profit, can only see humans as capital to be exploited in its own interest, for its own eternal glory. This is a centuries-old socio-cultural dynamic, so we will not escape it quickly. In other words, we are industrialised, mind and body, yet tasked with changing the system which shaped us, and thus changing ourselves. We are blind, immature and unprepared, yet we must act. The transition can only be bumpy.

2. Can it be capitalism if there is no exploitation (pursuit of profit at the expense of others)? This is a definitional issue, but an important one. Dan Pink is a behavioural economist whose main area of focus is motivation. He cites experiments that have been repeated across the world showing how menial tasks are indeed well motivated by money, whereas cooperative, creative projects are negatively affected by the promise of financial reward. As automation increasingly takes the menial and the repetitive out of human hands, what is left of economic (or public) work for humans will be cooperative and creative. If in this area monetary reward produces worse results than other forms of motivation (i.e., ‘success is its own reward’, the joy of meaningful accomplishment), no explicit profit as measured by money can be the goal of such endeavours. What does this mean in terms of capitalism? Is “distributed capitalism” a contradiction in terms? If capitalism is fundamentally about the pursuit of profit, or the accumulation of capital in ever-growing amounts as leverage for still further growth, doesn’t the distribution of the fruits of socio-economic endeavour along less profit-oriented lines imply socialism? Again, this is a definitional problem, or perhaps one of vision, but one worthy of our attention I feel. To what ‘ends’ and in whose name will we want to work, if not money?

3. Because of 1. and 2. above, state-based socialism may seem attractive in some areas of the world, perhaps all, though the US is packaging its own brand as Freedom! I feel this would be a dead-end. Replacing the Money God with the State God – a mere slight-of-hand trick –, the beneficent father looking after his weakly and incapable children, would be but a continuation of the patriarchal/industrial mindset, as it was in Russia after 1917.  To not exploit each other, but also not to place our entrepreneurial and inventive potential, our individuality, our creativity in the hands of some all-powerful governing institution, is what our maturation from socio-cultural childhood is about. The immaturity I touched on in 1. above is pervasive; we are all infected with it to some extent. The desperate narcissism of the Internet is clear evidence of this. To evolve towards more distributed social structures requires a mature citizenry. We must grow ourselves up, mature, cut ourselves from new cloth. This is hard work. We hate hard work.

And there’s the Catch 22. Part of what is demanded of us to evolve is a re-embracing of that which we have come to despise.  To love work, to appreciate that success is its own reward, to taste the joys of meaningful accomplishment, requires hard work. But, “hard work” as our own hard work, taken on in a spirit of community and cooperation towards meaningful goals and guided by a vision in which money-based profit is distant anathema. We could well rename this “hard work” hard leisure. But, until we begin in earnest to build this as yet unknowable New, promises of the Twenty Hour Week, the Life of Leisure, will remain promises. Our view of them now is similar to the way we anticipate holidays on the beach. They are well-wrapped sweets to be plucked from an evergreen Christmas Tree, only capable of satisfying us for as long as it takes them to dissolve to nothing in our mouths. For work to be good again, for leisure to be more than an empty distraction, we have to put in the hours.

So roll up your sleeves and get down to it. Do good work!


Debra said...

Really interesting post, Toby.
For fun, let's look at the etymology of "capital" in the OED.
12th century Latin, in ecclesiastical and legal use. In its first sense, adjective : "relating to the head". 2. "Affecting or involving loss of, the head, or life."

Remember that the things that are most difficult to understand are the ones that are what has been called the... "self evident truths", right ?

The idea of capital fits into an enormous structural metaphor which we could call "the BODY politic".
The idea that our social structures mimic ? are incarnations of ? that supremely complex structure of the individual human body.
The capital is what pertains to the... head.
The head is in the logical position of... COMMAND and AUTHORITY, now, isn't it ?
How does the body... work ? without an entity to command ??
It... doesn't, in my observation.
That doesn't mean that the head gets very far without the other WORKING MEMBERBS of the body.
But they definitely can't get along without it.
Take this metaphor, and see what we have been stubbornly (and stupidly, from my perspective..) trying to do to bottom it out ?
Lots of people talk about denial, Toby...
When they do, it is to point a finger and say that somebody else doesn't believe what they believe.
Personally, I see no.. evidence whatsoever that we can get along without our heads of body, our.. CHEFS, as the word goes in French, which means head...
Looks a lot like "chief" doesn't it ?
I'll comment more later...

Toby said...

Hi Debbie, I'm not sure the head is about command and authority, but that does not mean I am against command and authority. Nor do I believe that capitalism is characterized by command and authority structures and dynamics; the 'free market' is certainly anarchic in much of its mythology, even if its proponents seem not to want to talk about the market in this way. Authority, hierarchy, command, service, working members, etc., are all fine. What I'm tackling in this post is the calcification of power as a dangerously conservative force unbalancing society and preventing too aggressively needed adjustment to changing circumstances, and further how this calcified power has 'infected' us all. I guess you could say we are all too much in the head, and not enough in the body, that society reflects this more or less.

But you know all that, so I'm looking forward to your coming expansion on your opening comment.

Anonymous said...


If you're going to use the human body as an analogy for society then please don't stop with the head. The body is a total system design. Every cell is supplied with the nutrients and fuel required to sustain it. When you injure a limb you are gentle with it and nurse it back to health. It's a socialist design, not a capitalist one. When the head no longer cares about the welfare of the body, or some organs try to cannibalize others, then something has gone terribly wrong.

Debra said...

Toby, you know how I like hands on examples of our ideas at.. work.
Two days ago I went to visit a friend at her home in the mountains.
For lunch, there were four of us : three women, and one man, who is employed by my friend to do some home improvements in building.
When my friend put the food onto a serving plate, I took the plate, and proposed to... serve everybody, asking people what they wanted...
This in the context of talking about François Hollande's speech when he accepted to.. serve the republic as its president.
The two other women would have been happier if I had set the food on the table, and we had passed it around, everybody INDIVIDUALLY taking the plate, and serving himself/herself.
But the lone man... he was really mystified to see a woman prepared to SERVE HIM, Toby.
He really appreciated it...
I propose to you that that little incident is very instructive.
And it instructs us about what is the problem with our attitudes about work.
Because we no longer want to serve, Toby.
Not even... for money.
Over a period of 500+ years, we have been gradually getting closer and closer to our pagan Greco-Roman sources, and those people ? For them, work could not be noble, or graceful. It was anathema.
If you look at the "reality" that so many of us never see, you will see that over time, your house gets dirty. Dust accumulates. You eat on dishes, and then, day after day, from year to year, you are confronted with the way daily life repeats, and man's human condition of having to dust and clean, to WORK, to avoid being submerged by the effets of time (and Mother Nature. Think weeding in the garden.)
To me, those 500+ years of Renaissance humanism have brought about a particular situation in which we have become increasingly divorced from the idea of LAND as a form of permanent, refuge, store of value. (Even the Romans never abandoned this belief.)
Having the land as a measure of wealth/value insures that we remain conscious of our dependance on it, and thus, in relation with it.
Capitalism announces a major shift in value towards not profit, but volatile liquidity.
There is no reason why we should assume that what profits the entrepreneur does not ALSO profit the worker. The "and" word again.
Why do we have these assumptions, and where do they come from ?

Karl, I am not using the body as an analogy.
I am saying that our political systems mirror the structure of our bodies.

Anonymous said...

Debra, saying that society mirrors the human form is just weird. That's not nuance; that's distortion. I can understand using "mirror" as an analogy for "better understanding ourselves", but I'm not sure that's what you're trying to express.

What Russ, Toby, and a host of others talk about is that, no, our society does not mirror us. It is in fact anathema to how we are. Our social institutions are structures engineered by others in the past and they do not suit us as we are now. You could say these structures came to be "organically", and if so, they are now undergoing a transformation that is "organic" in the same way. There is nothing in them that we must take as given, as if "that's just the way things must be" because "that's the way people are".

By the way, Douglas Hofstadter has a new book which focuses on how we use analogy.

Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking

Toby said...

Perhaps there needs to be a distinction between work and service, or perhaps they need to merge, I'm not sure. That most do not want to serve is in part, I suspect, due to what Eisenstein calls The Story of Ascent, ascent away from the muck and mess of the body, of earth, of the feminine, and up into the squeaky clean skies of the masculine where pure, unadulterated creativity can carry on unmolested. In my view we need far more feminine. If part of this is the beauty of service, I am certainly all for that! :-)

"There is no reason why we should assume that what profits the entrepreneur does not ALSO profit the worker. The "and" word again."

I agree, but we would need to define profit, and look at things like contracts and property and ownership. Also, we need to accept that capitalisim is about profit maximisation, which must mean lowering costs; the primary cost is wages. There is of course the argument that a rising tide lifts all boats, but that argument does not take technological unemployment into account, nor does it deal with the very real weaknesses of the price system in measuring value; value is far more subtle than market-generated prices can ever catpure. Our cultural sense of profit is badly distorted; we have the wrong measure of value: money. The rising tide arguement also does not address the problems of our systemic addiciton to perpetual economic growth on a finite planet (Ascent again). So, until we've defined profit intelligently, until we've dealt with the social problem of measuring value, that is, while we live in capitalism, the entrepreneur is bound to exploit the worker.

Capitalism did not create inventiveness. Capitalism does not own hard work. Capitalism is not the only possible social mode in which creativity is permitted. I don't think we should assign to capitalism exclusive ownership of entrepreneurial impulses. Capitalism is, surely, simply the accumulation of capital, which is then used as leverage for the accumulation of yet more capital. Earning money via the rents made possible by owning vast amounts of capital is hardly inventive. It is exploitative and lazy, and has nothing to do with service. Willing service is fine, enforced peonage is not. In fact, service is only really service if it is freely chosen and given, as in your example. It ceases to be noble (or even service) when it become prostitution for mere survival.

So, again, I am not against the entrepreneur, nor am I against work, nor am I against service, and neither is this post. I am against the blind refusal to adapt wisely to new realities.

And I think society reflects our poor understanding of the body. The body is exquisitely cooperative. As soon as competition begins in the body, it breaks down.

Karl, I would say that society mirrors our ignorance, but that it does not mirror humanity's deeper nature, which is esentially cooperative and friendly, circumstances permitting. But, society is not exogenous, is not imposed on us by aliens, even though we are born into a society that shapes our perceptions and habits of thought almost completely. I guess I think we're on a hiding to nothing trying to solve the chicken-and-egg problem here. What counts is how we each go about building the new, how we contribute to wise and intelligent change.

Debra said...

I think that when talking about capitalism, it is important to see it as part of a much larger framework.
Capitalism emerges as part of a new cosmogony.
A cosmogony is mind boggling, and no individual has the intellectual means of understanding all of its implications. We are caught up in it ; we can't see all of it.
A cosmogony assigns relatively fixed places to man in relation to the rest of his natural world.
This sounds deceptively simple, but the example I mentioned above at the lunch table shows how much our daily life is determined by our ideas, and how much our ideas are really... BEHIND our daily life, often in such a way that we do not see them, nor recognize them.
We are far more comfortable with the.. idea that our ideas are visible in text, in arguments, in books that expose them in rational, orderly, often argumentative fashion.
Our ideas in this form are scholastic, and.. scholarly. Academic, even.
But our world is a far cry from being a purely scholarly one, and it is very debatable to what extent the scholarly world has much power over our daily experience. Or that it has ever had much power over our daily experience, which is... oral, for the most part.
We like to believe that, as heritors of the Enlightenment we have the individual, and collective power to SELF DETERMINE much of our lives. I believe that this belief is... mistaken, and naïve.
So, capitalism as one small part of a new cosmogony can't really be addressed without looking at the other elements of the cosmogony.

I think that we perhaps spend too much time defining.
In the end, Toby, I think that Renaissance humanism was a reaction to what must have appeared to our ancestors as the Church's ideological totalitarianism, and rigidity.
There comes a point though, when reaction tends to become its own new... totalitarianism.
From one empire to its polarized opposite ?
Scylla to Charybdis ?
When you look back on what our ancestors say about living in THEIR time, it appears diabolically difficult to keep one's head in the midst of so much turmoil. The ideal of reason, for example, is appropriate only in certain settings, not in ALL... ("how many things by season seasoned are to their right praise and true perfection", Merchant of Venice V,i, 107)
Toby, almost everything that I know of this wide world, and have retained, I have learned with greatest profit from... the Bible, and Shakespeare.
I have a preference for Shakespeare...
Given the choice between reading 1) economic books 2) philosophical books 3) scientific books, I still believe that Shakespeare still delivers more than any of the above on the human heart, which is what interests me more than anything else.
And in Shakespeare, I am still in touch with the.. old cosmogony, even though the new one is rushing in at breaknet speed in his world.

Debra said...

Karl, if you are a frequent visitor to Russ's blog, you will have noticed that Russ and I are not exactly great buddies.
Russ has much more belief in self determinism than I do.
I am not a nihilist.
The problem with the democrat model lies in transmission.
In order for any human society to transmit from one generation to the next, thus ensuring its.. continuity, there has to be some form of recognized, legitimate.. authority. Authority means simply that people are believed, and recognized as legitimate. It really is very simple.
But... the modern democratic model seems to be based on the idea that any form of authority is an illegitimate usurpation...
You take your society down that way, Karl, in my opinion. You bottom out transmission, as I have already said.
These problems go way back in our civilization, and are already visible during the Reformation.
There seems to be a constant tension in the very idea of representation, i.e. that someone exercises a FUNCTION in which he/she REPRESENTS, in very much the same way as an actor on stage is playing a part. (For example, a person who works as an accountant REPRESENTS, to the extent that we cannot reduce that person simply to his/her FUNCTION of being an accountant.)
Our civilization is constantly tempted to reject such representation into the domain of "lies".
If... you reduce fiction to a lie, Karl, you destroy the possibility of representation, and then you imperil your SYMBOLIC INSTITUTIONS...
The way ours are imperiled right now..

Debra said...

By the way.. Shakespeare really says it much better...

"If thy soul check thee that I come so near,
Swear to thy blind soul that I was thy Will,
And will, thy soul knows, is admitted there
Thus far for love my love-suit, sweet, fulfil.
Will will fulfil the treeasure of thy love
Ay, fill it full with wills, and my will one.
In things of great receipt with ease we prove
Among a number one is reckoned none.
Then in the number let me pass untold,
Though in thy store's account I one must be ;
For nothing hold me, so it please thee hold
That nothing me, a something, sweet, to thee.
Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
And then thou lovest me, for my name is Will."

Sonnet 136

Toby said...

Good stuff, Debbie. If by cosmogony you mean roughly paradigm, we are more or less in agreement. However, I still think the small c definition of capitalism above is useful to my purposes here, since that is how I understand capitalism at a crude level. Crude, but not useless!

I read the sonnet and tried to map it to our discussion, but failed. I kept on seeing bawdy and lewd imagery and puns. Then I hunted this analysis down. I'd be interested to hear what you think of it. It seems well researched and reasoned to me:

Debra said...

Toby, I cheated in sticking that sonnet down, to the extent that it is not directly related to what we are talking about...
But notice how Will's language is incredibly ambiguous, and how he manages to talk on several planes at the same time.
The rather flat analysis glosses over William as a consummate metaphysical poet, as the considerations about such abstractions as the status of the number one... not a number, and the desire to remain uncounted are pertinent to our modern situation. Our attitude towards what we can count is not the same as towards what we can't count. Counting introduces mastery, and dominion over what is counted.
The number one is the cornerstone for the monotheistic religions of the Book.
"One" evokes both the push towards concentration/unity, and the push towards separation/individuation. At the same time. Polysemy.
The Book... and not the books...
William, as always, plays on legal and accounting terms. That's why he remains so modern...

Toby said...

Well said again, Debbie. Actually, the line you reference was the one that caught my eye, but I couldn't make the rest of the poem work at that level; I only got the flat reading. But, it's quite spooky that you should bring my attention to this line, because I am again deep into my book (now titled "The Meaning of Money"), and in chapter 6 (on money), I recently wrote (and quoted):

"Money…objectifies the ‘style of life’, forces metropolitan people into ‘objectivity’, ‘indifference’, ‘intellectuality’, ‘lack of character’, ‘lack of quality’. Money socializes human beings as strangers…money also transforms human beings into res absolutae, into objects. Simmel’s student, Georg Lukacs, correctly noticed that this objectification (in his words: reification and alienation) did not remain external, cannot, as Simmel maintained, be the ‘gatekeeper of the innermost elements’, but rather itself becomes internalized."
Hannes Böhringer

"As a final component of the composition of money, I want to take a brief look at numbers themselves. Numbers, like other symbolic abstractions, are fascinating things. Simply asserting that there is such a thing as “1” is an amazing cultural accomplishment, an act of intellectual wizardry I find very revealing regarding the evolution of human perception and cognition. What is 1? What utterly discreet, totally distinct entity can there be which is 1 and only 1, indivisible? I know of know such thing. The great Greeks of course gave us the word atom, coined as a consequence of the intellectual pursuit of the indivisible unit, the smallest building block of which all else is made, a God particle, a first entity, a kind of uncaused cause. But we can’t find it anywhere; everything seems to be made of something else. Yet still we search. It is as if we are searching for our selves."

Weird huh? I think that's an example of synchronicity and your influence on me...

Debra said...

Synchronicity ? My influence on you ?
Maybe that during a revolutionary period like the one we are currently going through, it is interesting to think of chords, as in the idea of harmony of the spheres.
As in harmonics, when you strike one note, several others enter into resonance at the same time.
My perception of the world pushes me to try to keep paradox intricated.
Paradox as in... what is the creature whose head is in the sky and whose feet are on the ground ?
What is the creature which appears... one, but is made up of billions and billions of other... ones ?
Just how much more.. POLARIZED can you get with your head in the sky and your feet on the ground ?
It's hard being both one and ones..
It's hard living that way. It has some very definite disadvanges.

Debra said...

Another point, Toby.
The desire to break " one" down into further discreet separations goes with the desire to go back to... Genesis. The beginning. The.. ORIGIN.
The shrinks talk about the desire to be present at one's own conception, for example.
But we can also understand it as a desire for total self determinism.
"I am who I say, think, believe I am, and nothing else or more."
This is a particularly.. Promethean fantasy, shall I say ?
Because, in my eyes, the evidence does not point to allowing me to.. REDUCE ? AGGRANDIZE ? myself to a self determined individual.
No, because I have received.. life from others who historically came before me.
And my civilization has its own history, which I am a part of, in ways that I can not even begin to discover, or understand.
And I also received my civilization's history, whether or not I wish to acknowledge my.. DEBT ?? to those who came before me.