Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Never Work? Nevermind

 Never Work
Today is a day of no work, according to Jewish injunction. I suppose even non-observant MOT's take off for this. My wife reminds our older son, as they both work in Hollywood (in the greater geographical sense as well as the metaphorical one), that the High Holy Days mean time off work. Despite the rest of the economy, siestas and holy-holidays persist, within the margins.

The notion of what we are to do on this day off varies nowadays. Kol Nidre, with its plaintive chant of collective guilt, and its haunting melody, ushers in the night of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. We ask pardon of each other, and together in temple, of God. As a relevant aside, I'd hate it when I'd hear a priest's sermon, as a child, and the labored exegesis on a post-Vatican II, guitar mass at-one-ment rattled out as if a marvel of deep thoughts.

However, the prospect of taking a break from everyday life is commendable. When I was in college, I worked at J.C. Penney. The mall opened at 11 or noon (can't recall now) and closed at 5. This meant some semblance of a nod to time off remained. At least in cities, nothing seems to shut down 9-3/5-ish except banks, medical offices, and schools. The pressure to follow fast-food and gyms to stay open all night seems to grow, but I wonder if has diminished a bit when Amazon now promises one-hour delivery as of this month, in my native city as well as other hectic, Type-A or hedonic urbs.

The Situationists, of whom I've been reading lately with mingled interest and contempt, celebrated "ne travaillez jamais": the new commandment riffing off the First, to keep the day holy by never working. Yet not one day, but all week. Is this really possible? Can you get by doing what you please? Outside of a generous dole in a welfare state, can one do this in a capitalist system that demands one look for work, and provide one's biopower, as Foucault phrased it, to run for profit?

The then-youthful collective at CWC tried this around the late last century. They emerged from anarcho-punk's stubborn idealism, Ten years after, amidst our Great Recession, they debriefed.
It’s tempting to brush this off as mere performance art. Yet we have to understand it as an early attempt to answer the question that still faces would-be revolutionaries in the US and Western Europe: What could interrupt our obedience? Contemporary insurrectionists are attempting to ask this same question now, though the answers many of them offer are equally limited. By themselves, neither voluntary unemployment nor gratuitous vandalism seem to be capable of jerking society into a revolutionary situation.[2] Despite everything, we stand by our initial hunch that it will take a new way of living to bring about such a situation; it’s not just a matter of putting in enough hours at the same old tasks. The essential fabric of our society—the curtain that stands between us and another world—is above all the good behavior of exploited and excluded alike.
They criticize the situation more recently. "It turns out capitalism has no more use for us than we have for it. This doesn’t just go for anarchist dropouts, but for millions of workers in the US." What had been praised as voluntary refusal for a few misfits became for many, a involuntary predicament.

I've been called out as "wanting to be with the cool kids" by hating this economic and social system we labor under. Hard work, after all, we're all schooled, is our ticket out and up. I made schooling my way out of a bleak existence, where a dog kennel represented the future, I came from a blue-collar family, living in an industrial zone in a faceless sprawl of dust and concrete east of L.A.. If not for boosting GPA and blowing off lots of fun in my earlier years, I'd never had made it to this level of education preparing me for my career. Back then a Cal and a Pell Grant, work study, and scholarships could cover a lot more than the inflated tuition everywhere now. I had no safety net, no rich uncles.

Speaking of which, when hedge-fund manager Martin Shkreli jacks up the anti-parasitical medication Daraprim he controls from $13.50 to $750 a pill overnight, one wonders about moral free markets. Under investigation for insider trading "irregularities." Claiming "altruistic motives" for this 7500% increase in the medicine he now owns, this Turing Big Pharma CEO represents the shadow under the bright benefits of enterprise where the winner takes all, and the rest can go to hell. Makes me sick.

(Update: he did renege the next day. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton used this case to push for drug reform. Americans can pay 10 times what Canadians do. I'd put up with more taxes wisely spent than the medical, housing, educational, transportation, and other debt burdens we increasingly bear. But as the GOP rushes to remind us, and HRC too, we must instead invade Syria and return to Iraq.)

Some praise this system as affording the lowliest opportunity. The kid from Somalia who enters Harvard is an inspiring story. But for most of us, a global race into the havens of the elite means a lot more left beside the gates than getting in. Bill Gates did drop out of Harvard, but he made it in, and that's what counts. I am more an auto-didact than a proud product of what I did for homework, and I will give my opponents their due by reiterating there's a lot out there to help anybody near a library. Let alone online, with Duolingo, the Khan Academy, and Open Culture. So, I see the other side. I was brought up to witness the treatment of the little guy, and to beware of fat cats and golden handshakes.

The imbalance of ambition to its rewards rankles. It may seem silly to some that I carry a chip on my shoulder. My mom always hoped I'd become a lawyer. On a humbler note, I found out I make, after two decades, about the same as Kim Davis, the controversial anti-gay county clerk in Kentucky, who inherited her mother's sinecure. I know. I have no naivete that the humanities pays off like a jackpot.

I realize I am lucky to have full-time employment in an occupation where now three-fourths of us are teaching on non-tenure, often part-time "contingent" tracks. Assisted by digital delivery, the nature of my work has changed dramatically since I began over three decades ago. I am in front of a class less time than before, at least in compressed fashion, eight rather than fifteen weeks. But I also work more at home. I am online every day. E-mails replace phone calls, but I am still on call, and monitored too.

So, as this 24/7 nature of work expands over the past two decades, I also feel drawn to suss out those who articulate alternatives to our malaise. The escape from work that our ancestors had, when at least they attended a church or temple to leave their peasant troubles behind a few hours, is gone. Perhaps along with the illusion of a Stern or Loving Presence, we have abandoned the ability to settle down. That is, away from our cubicle and on our couch, the luxury of shutting out media, alone in thought. Some, cast off to search, lament this status. In dead-end jobs, underemployed, not doing what they want, they face the anguish of getting food, finding shelter, meeting the bills. They must accept any work on the offer, and they lack any choice or any privileged disdain of how the hoi polloi toil.

Unless we have the nepotism or inside connections Kim Davis or colleagues enjoy, we have to battle to keep our positions. It's easy from some Oregon squat to mock Joe Lunchpail or Jane Assistant, but dumpster diving and shoplifting will not pay my mortgage. Rent isn't cheap, credit is as alluring as quicksand, and despite our attempts at savings, many of us are near the edge if disaster strikes. We face a sharing economy where we are told to drive our cars or rent out our spare rooms to support each other. Pensions vanish, loyalty of boss to worker evaporates, and bottom-line decisions rule. Unions fade, the helping hand withdraws, and all-but-open borders enable global competition. The rooted lives some of our families had, working decades in one career in one place, are swept away.

While nostalgia is dangerous, the dissolution of family ties and the imposition of economic imperatives minimize our individual status even more. Outsourcing, offshoring, offloading. We do the work of more, if we are considered valuable enough, or work far less, if we are not. Either way, the job turns precarious. Automation and cheaper labor somewhere else combine to shove us down.

CWC elaborates: "Now erratic employment and identification with one’s leisure activities rather than one’s career path have been normalized as an economic position rather than a political one." They go on: "Capitalism is also incorporating our assertion that people should act according to their consciences instead of for a wage. In an economy full of opportunities to sell one’s labor, it makes sense to emphasize the importance of other motivations for activity; in a precarious economy, being willing to work for free has different implications. The state increasingly relies on the same do-it-yourself ethic that once animated the punk underground to offset the deleterious effects of capitalism." That is, volunteers clean up after a BP oil spill, or I might add, take in refugees in the EU from Syria on their own. The State, in the CWC reaction, expects more of us to do its dirty work. But, a left-libertarian might reason that this agency, in the hands of everyday people, is also liberating. Why should we wait for the State to help each other out?  CWS wants subversion and resistance, and end to the conditions creating poverty--and ecological ruin, and imperialist slaughter, all the same.

This all seems twisted to me into a New Age or corporate-sponsored slogan. T-shirts are peddled with Situationist art and phrases. "Do what you love and never work a day in your life," we are urged. I like teaching, but the administrative tasks and additional responsibilities can wear one out. In my tenure at LAUSD, I'd bristle at the clause "and other duties as assigned" which gave a principal total command over what a teacher could be made to do. The union must have capitulated there. Yet I find even in my own profession, how once a review is commissioned (if gratis, furthermore) or a research project assigned, it turns into homework. That discipline can motivate me, and editors excise me of the tortured or verbose tendencies of my prose and my thought-process, a necessary surgery.

But I also like roaming on my own, learning whatever I want. Duolingo for Irish, Italian, French. The Net for ideas. FB for book recommendations from my friends, or films and music to catch up on. A.S. Byatt's novel Possession was one I abandoned years ago, for in grad school I hated reading of the more privileged, less attenuated and generously grant-funded stints of my British counterparts in English Lit. Yet I remember fondly Byatt's evocation of a life where one's research and one's passions mingled, and one's reading encompassed (still pre-Net then) the immersion into thought and action. The two blended, and in that moment, a glimpse of the imagined radical future can be prefigured.

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