Slavery, Wage Labor, and the Inversion of Work

This scene from the 1969 film, Burn! is certainly thought-provoking. However, it operates under – as this blog will argue – a defunct paradigm. It has been replaced by one more ruthlessly efficient and fantastical! It is they hyperreal component of our contemporary society-economy. This is the third blog in a row on the topic of hyperreality – and it will be the last (for a while, at least) – but this particular situation is not only fascinating but relevant for us all.

But first things first: definitions.

Work. Work, in economic-productive terms (i.e., what you do at a job), is defined by the OED as a particular act or piece of labour; a task, job.

Labour, by the same meaning, is similarly defined as physical exertion [can be and often is mental in contemporary society] directed to the supply of the material wants of the community; the specific service rendered to production by the labourer or artisan.

Job is defined as a piece of work; especially a small definite piece of work done in the way of one’s special occupation or profession.

But work, in this context, and in the context of our contemporary society – one in which mass material production as the basis of the economy is largely obsolete, replaced  by services and other intangibles as the new consumables, and all this being facilitated by a global network of mass communications systems – takes on a new and terrifying meaning. Crimethinc’s most recent publication, Work, gets into the specifics of what work used to be, what it has become, and what we can do about it. For them, work is the leasing of one’s creative powers to others. They continue:

Selling our time rather than doing things for their own sake, we come to evaluate our lives on the basis of how much we can get in exchange for them, not what we get out of them. As freelance slaves hawking our lives hour by hour, we think of ourselves as each having a price; the amount of the price becomes our measure of value. In that sense, we become commodities, just like toothpaste and toilet paper. What once was a human being is now an employee, in the same way that what once was a pig is now a pork chop. Our lives disappear, spent like the money for which we trade them.

But it isn’t just the person that is transformed from human into commodity, but the socioeconomic system as well. Guy Debord wrote, in Society of the Spectacle, of what likely preceded such a personal transmutation:

When economic necessity is replaced by the necessity for boundless economic development, the satisfaction of primary human needs is replaced by an uninterrupted fabrication of psuedo-needs which are reduced to the single psuedo-need of maintaining the reign of the autonomous economy.

We, especially as Westerners see this all around us, every day. The sacred importance of the economy is as ubiquitous as the priests of the economy – CEOs, economists, politicians, and laymen alike – seeking to construct endless GDP as surely as the Babylonians sought the heights of omnipotence. These caste-members give pronouncements as if they were oracles: lower interest rates!reduces taxes on the most profitable!; disempower labor unions!; cut domestic aid programs!open up foreign markets!privatize!!: as if the economy were a fickle god, whimsically bestowing upon its subjects profit or poverty depending on the value of their prostrations. The economy has become the God of the West (and Jesus admonished us: Matthew 6:24), and we serve it now (not the other way around).

But this is not the end of the analysis. For Baudrillard infuses the chimerical into work:

The whole world still produces, and increasingly, but subtly work has become something else: a need (as Marx ideally envisioned it but not in the same sense), the object of the social “demand,” like leisure, to which it is equivalent in the course of everyday life. A demand exactly proportional to the loss of a stake in the work process… :the scenario for work is there to conceal that the real of work, the real of production, has disappeared. And the real of strike as well…

So… Our work is not really our own; it is not even meaningful in a social sense since it no longer truly serves us; and as a result, the work we do has become a farce of the process of human being. But what if one of us were to find happiness and meaning in our work – could we somehow contradict this conclusion? It doesn’t seem likely. For it amounts to a Sisyphean feat: eternally pushing the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down again and again (And Camus argued that we can – we must! – find happiness in this).

I think he’s right: it is possible for a slave to love his condition, but then again: a slave isn’t a subject, but an object; not a person, but a commodity.

Simulacra, Simulation, and the Spectacle

Ren? Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928–29, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009

This post serves as the primer mentioned in the previous post. It gives a more thorough understanding of key concepts in Baudrillard’s philosophy as well as that of the Situationists International (SI).

As previously defined, simulacra is a copy without an original. Baudrillard originally uses the example of a map so detailed that it covers exactly the land it is supposed to be representing. Such a map would be as big as the territory and would include topography to mimic the topography of the original landscape. Ultimately, Baudrillard says, the landscape changes but the map does not change with it. What is left is map. It is the map that has become the “real” territory by which the people live. This map is a hyperreal terrain, indistinguishable from the real terrain that it once emulated, covered, and now obscures. This map, for those who live according to it, is the real – for they know no better: that it is merely a copy.

Baudrillard’s example isn’t exact enough, though, because the map is a copy of original terrain. Another example, then, seems in order. Imagine your typical Irish pub. A dingy dive, decorated with four-leaf clovers, leprechauns (fighting or otherwise), fire station paraphernalia, advertisements for Irish alcohol, some of which is served on tap; there may even be an Irish folk singer that plays regularly, perhaps Irish cuisine is served — all this gives the impression that one is really in Ireland, or at least in a bar that one could find there. This is the simulacra. There is no authentic Irish pub that serves as the model for this typical American “Irish pub.” Certainly, elements from it could be found in a real Irish pub, but taken as a whole there is no original. What is being created is an illusion, an impression, a simulacra and simulation of an Irish pub so that this particular drinking establishment can offer a “real” experience of Ireland to its patrons (and distinguish itself from other bars so it can establish an economic advantage). These types of simulacra, Baudrillard argues, inundate our reality to such an extent that our real society is replaced by a hyperreal one – regulated, maintained, and propagated by such symbols and their relations to one another.

Simulation is the production and relation of these symbols. Simulation in our post-productive society involves the destruction of the real that used to serve as a basis for the symbols, simulacra, and simulations. Whereas the original landscape in the map example simply changed with time, our society actively destroys the original terrain – it must. And the primary terrain of our lives involves the relations amongst ourselves. And this hyperreality, Baudrillard and the SI argue, is where we all exist; is what is produced and reproduced ad nauseam in myriads ways; and, ultimately, inescapable…(?)

Situationist Internationalist, Guy Debord, wrote of this phenomenon 15 years before Baudrillard and he used a somewhat different language and more optimistic tone. He referred to this phenomenon as the Spectacle. He defines the spectacle as being, “not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” Like Baudrillad, Debord writes that, “the spectacle subjugates living men to itself to the extent that the economy has totally subjected them. It is no more than the economy developing for itself.” Both authors argue that the modern post-productive, mass-communications society both “informs” and transforms society. Society becomes an entity itself, existing only for itself and not for those by whom it is constituted; it is autonomous and semi-sentient, and subjects its inhabitant-participants to simulation of a society; once a social-contractual organization in which men ruled and dictated for themselves, but whom now only dictate (merely like some necessary appendage) on behalf of the economy-society. The symbols “manufactured” on its behalf mollify the men and women that used to reign, convinces them that this illusion – the hyperreal – is real (because hierarchies still exist, because freedom to choose among given choices exist, because the hyperreal is too fantastical and simply cannot exist!).

“Love” is a perfect example of a relation that is managed by the society-economy. In fact, the recent movie, Don Juan, illustrates it perfectly. Men’s understanding of love is informed primarily by exploitation, sex, and pornography; women’s understanding of love is informed primarily by naive notions perpetuated by Disney and various Hollywood happily-ever-afters like romantic comedies (“romcoms”). The result is that both sexes use these manufactured understandings of “love” to inform their relationship and how to behave in it as sexual-romantic partners, often with negative consequences (the necessary result of the fantasy of illusion) — this is how the relationship between “lovers” are mediated by the images and symbols presented by these media. This symbol relation and mediation also informs friendship, parenthood, education, maturation, work, success, politics, etc, etc. Whereas Debord is optimistic as Don Juan — for the movie ends with the protagonist learning about and living “authentic” sex and love — Baudrillard is not. He thinks that some threshold has been passed: that the real, which our simulacra seek to simulate and replace, is no longer knowable, and as such: impossible. For Baudrillard, no escape from the hyperreal is possible because there is no real (or any other alternative) to which to return.