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 It has been replaced by one more ruthlessly efficient and fantastical!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.

Equality — Which?

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A recent academic debate has both disturbed and motivated me. Disturbed because of many reasons but the most relevant, intellectually, is that very smart individuals speak of equality but seem unclear as to what it means, exactly, and how it translates operationally into the various social arrangements. And it has motivated me to inquire and expound upon a concept that I think we all take for granted in thinking that we know what it means.

Let us begin with basics: denotative definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines equality in several ways:

  1. The condition of being equal in quantity, amount, value, intensity, etc
  2. The exact correspondence between magnitude and number in respect of quantity, the existence of is which is sometimes expressed by the sign =
  3. The condition of having equal dignity, rank, or privileges with others
  4. The condition of being equal in power, ability, achievement, or excellence
  5. In persons: fairness, impartiality, equity; In things: due proportion, proportionateness

The first definition is the essential meaning, it describes the condition/relationship between two objects and their identicalness, correspondence, or sameness. I will call this Platonic Equality in that it describes the purest, most fundamental essence (or form) of equality – all other descriptions of equality have this essence contained within its meaning. The second definition is Mathematical Equality in that it refers to quantity and/or magnitude. It bears little significance to the upcoming discussion but is worth mentioning.

The third, fourth and fifth definitions are all related in kind but differ in degree. For that reason I will refer to them as Aristotelian Equalities given that they have an operational relevance in politics, economics, and society in general. Moreover, each definition in turn can be further classified by their functioning within human social systems. For example, the third definition describes what can be considered as the basis for liberal democracies. In this way, people are equal to each other in that they all have the self-evident, inalienable human rights codified in the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of Human Rights, and as such an equal share in directing their sociopolitical system(s). For this reason, I will refer to this as (AristotelianPolitical Equality.

The Fourth definition refers to the capability or capacity of an individual. These abilities are those we are each born with or develop over time, which helps to make us unique. When people say that “we are not all equal” it is usually this equality to which they refer – “Not everyone can play basketball like a MIchael Jordan; not everyone can lift weights like Arnold Schwarzenegger; and not everyone is an Einstein.” And while this is true, most certainly, there are equalities even in ability. For many of us make the same grades as others; or score identically on IQ tests; or even have the exact same top running speed or high jump. Indeed, one need look no further than statistical standard deviations to see the truth of this. This definition is problematic because it is often cited to highlight inequalities more than equalities, and thus seems to contradict the tenet of equality. However, as I’ve pointed out, even though the extremes of any deviation referred to are rare, most of us fall within similar deviations/categories and are equal in that respect. Given the contradictory and counterintuitive nature – and use – of this definition, I will refer to this as (Aristotelian) Statistical Equality.

The fifth definition refers to a judicial system. Under this meaning, equality means equality under the Law. This means that all are culpable (or commendable) for their actions; whether President or pauper, if one breaks the law, one is subject to punishment. In other words: No one is above the law; we are all equal under it. For this reason, I will refer to this equality as (AristotelianLegal Equality. It should be noted that there are other specific forms of equality, like gender equality, that are manifest but I find, so far, that they fall under one of these mentioned categories. Gender equality would fall under the Aristotelian Political (and Legal) Equality, for example.

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The context of the debate that sparked this inquiry was a discussion about Vladmir Lenin and the establishment of the U.S.S.R.. Under Lenin’s system there were essentially two castes: the vanguard (and later the Politburo) and the masses – both inaccurately subsumed under the term, the Proletariat. In Communism, all were equal workers entitled to the means of production and what was produced. However, Lenin established an inner circle of cronies, with himself at the center, who received more – in all ways possible – than those outside of it. This two-tier system is perfectly exemplified in the memorable phrase, and Animal Farm commandment, in George Orwell’s novella about Leninism/Stalinism: “All Animals Are Equal, But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.”

Here emerges a new type of equality. It is a hypocritical equality, a contradiction, and utter nonsense – for there is no such thing as more equal. Yet, this was the way that Soviet Russia operated under its dictatorship of the proletariat, and this “logic” was accepted and enforced. But, again, this is nonsense. But fear is a powerful motivator, and history is rife with examples of human beings accepting illogic as logic, and inequality as equality, all due to fear. This definition of “equality” is not given in the OED but I think it should be. I will refer to this conception of a two-tier equality – really just another form of inequality, but accepted as its opposite – as (Aristotelian) Orwellian Equality.

The argument was made that Orwellian equality was equality proper, despite the fact that all the participants to the discussion knew this to be a false equivalence. Several times the contradiction was pointed out, and several times it was denied, even though everyone knew it to be otherwise. Then there came a new argument:

Soviet Russia was a “closed system.” There was an authority that determined “truths,” and his cronies were responsible for disseminating it. All the rest were equal in their submission to it; and the inner circle insisted that itself, too, was equal to those outside of it. But this was not the case; clearly, the inner circle had privileges the masses did not. And by definition, this is no type of equality other than Orwellian equality, which is, in fact, a contradiction of equality. I understood the analogy, it was accurate in describing the social system developed by Lenin, but it was in no meaningful (or literal) way, equal.

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So, why make these distinctions; why write out this inquiry; and why try to clarify? In short, because it is important. First, and in the context of the discussion mentioned, it is important because what the Soviets practiced was not proper equality (nor was it Communism in the Marxist, denotative-philosophical sense). It was a practice very similar in our times of people calling themselves Christians but living very unChristian lives – just because one calls oneself something or claims to live under certain principles, does not mean that that is, in fact, the case. In order to determine the veracity of such statements, they must be judged according to the standard of its definition(s) or practice(s). Equality is equality only if it satisfies the condition of sameness; and a Christian is a Christian only if (s)he satisfies the doctrine, i.e. definition, of Christianity.

Second, it is important because the world is getting more complex and yet our language (or maybe it’s our thinking) is not evolving with it. And this matters because the more precise our language the more our ideas, and ultimately our lives, approximate truth (about what we talk and think). Without this precision, we cannot be sure that we are talking about the same thing, thus confusing terms and keeping ourselves unnecessarily divided and powerless. This phenomenon is prevalent in modern-day politics, so much so that it has an official term: double speak. Politicians use words like “freedom,” “equality,” “fairness,” “liberty,” “capitalism,” and “free markets” but, like Lenin and his comrades, they often mean different things than what those who hear these words think. This is a major problem with American society today: ignorance, and exploitation of that ignorance through tactics such as double speak.

It is absolutely critical that we develop this linguistic precision so as to communicate more effectively, and, ultimately, shape our world with these words and ideas; and even hold those accountable who lie to us in such duplicitous ways. By doing this way, we maintain the vigilance that is a citizen’s duty; earn our intelligence as rational agents; and develop our humanity as conscious beings.

Utopias: Old and New

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The significant problems we face today cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them. -Albert Einstein

In the most general political sense, the Oxford English Dictionary defines utopia as “a place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions.” Etymologically, the term derives from the Greek words ou and topos, and literally translates as not a place or no place.

This inquiry is the result of a conversation I had with a renown theorist and practitioner of international relations, national security, and policy. The original debate circled around the the argument that the original idea of communism has been appropriated to mean something different – what most people understand it to be in contemporary times – and that the significant distinction between the two conceptions is neglected to our detriment.

Similarly, a following debate ensued about the term utopia and that, similarly, there is an important distinction between the meanings with important political implications. However, in this instance, it wasn’t about two simultaneous denotative conceptions, but between an existing conception and a burgeoning one. In short, the argument was that the aforementioned definition of utopia is part of an old paradigm; that a new conception is possible, if not necessary, and with it, a commensurate political paradigm.

“Utopia means ‘no place,’ it is an unrealizable goal,” went the assertion. “Yes, under an old conception of the term but here it is proposed that utopia means something different, something subtle yet significant,” went the rebuttal. The discussion continued, “This new conception isn’t a refutation of the old conception; in fact, it embraces the old definition – it relies upon it for its own definition – it sees the truth in it, but sees that truth more deeply and ironically. Indeed, utopia is not a place, but a process; it no more an independent entity than running is an independent entity from the legs that hurriedly move.”

There is a growing consensus among the psychological, neurological, neuro-philosophical communities that the mind is not a separate entity from the body. Rather, the mind is (the product of) the functioning of a holistic information processor identified as the brain. Without the brain – a working brain – there is no mind. With no mind, there is no self – and often they are understood as one and the same. In fact the word mind is a misnomer under this scientific conception – a better and more precise term would be minding, since the gerund form of the word indicates the true nature of the mind as an action, a process (like running). This is both an empirical refutation and solution to the “mind-body duality (problem)” that emerged thousands of years ago.

Similarly, utopia should be viewed etymologically/literally as not a place but a process. But not a innate process of political objects, i.e. human beings, like minding is to brains, but a willed process – the continuation of a decision made, much like the continued decision to stay in a marriage, a healthy lifestyle, or a consistent moral life. The reason being that the former oversimplifies the concept and renders it an impossible goal.

Most people’s conception of utopia is understood as some end state that is free from conflict, diversity, individuality, and change – this is because people incorrectly view it as a form of human perfection (which also, incidentally, is in need of a similar redefinition). And since human perfection is impossible, so, too, the reasoning goes, must be any political product humanity creates. Again, this is correct, but only if the concepts such as utopia and perfection are understood as end states and not processes.

The word process implies the interaction with(in) time. This is key for several reasons. One, it means that utopia is not a heaven – it’s not some final state where humanity solves all the problems of the human condition and everyone is happy all the time. This is likely never to be the case, even within this new conception of utopia – human existence takes place within the Universe, which is in a constant state of flux between creation and destruction; humans will always reflect this nature since they are an embodiment of that nature. Two, it means that utopia can, and eventually will, mean different things at different times. Sociopolitical architects will decide on what is the best form of government at the time and, hopefully, when new information emerges and people are ready, changes will occur and a new government will be constructed to suit these people under new conceptions of the best form of government. In this way, humans are allowed to grow and evolve, donning new sociopolitical systems when they need to and, similarly, doffing them when they must. In this sense then, utopia, is the process by which human political systems are perpetually improved with certain goals in mind (for example, reducing war, poverty and famine, needless suffering, crime, etc – notice the word reducing and opposed to eliminating – remember perfection [under the old paradigm] is not a realizable goal to which we should work; instead, we should continually strive to be better than before – morally, intellectually, personally, etc).

When combined with Reason and the scientific method, human beings can not only enhance their governments but develop entirely new ones altogether! This is an endeavor limited only by the imagination of human hope and effort; and tempered by the understanding of human nature and the limits of their technology. The technology of our age gives the people of our time the advantages of greater information and mobilization than the generations before could ever have imagined – and still don’t. It is time that we begin in earnest to start thinking about utopias again, but this time equipped with the knowledge of our time and its best methods. For it seems unlikely that the way things are currently progressing (and promise to continue to do so) are ever going to bring about the kind of changes worthy of the word utopian.

So this begs the question(s): “But wait – don’t we do that already? Isn’t that what democracy is in the West – people changing laws so that their governments and societies are better than they were before?” Not in the sense I mean: the changes I have in mind are those similar to that between changing from a feudal monarchy to a capitalist democracy, for example. A capitalist democracy is an improvement in many ways but it is not the final best form of government – there are better ones awaiting us still, and we are long overdue. However, in the grand scheme of things, we do, indeed, engage in utopianism when we petition our government and change our laws. In short, if we are vigilant and meaningfully participate, we are engaged in a continual, if albeit gradual, process of change and readjustment – a micro version of utopia argued for in this post.

How about that?