“Sooner or later, if we want a decent society — by which I don’t mean a society glutted with commodities or one maintained in precarious equilibrium by overbuying and forced premature obsolescence — we are going to have to come face to face with the problem of work.” Harvey Swados
So, I’ve been temping at this office in for the past few months, developing software training material. It’s nice to have a reliable income again, so I can purchase nice things and feed myself. The actual job I’m doing is easy, yet involves a bit of thinking every now and then, brief spurts of tactical cognition, followed by long stretches of tedium. Like most white-collar jobs, it doesn’t really require any serious education or technical training, except to the extent required to fit in socially. The people there are nice, but it doesn’t really matter because I can wear headphones all day if I want. It’s nice :)
I work in order to enjoy the time that I’m not working. I have no serious emotional investment in the fortunes of the company I work with, and the work itself is not inherently fulfilling, about the best that can be said for it is that it’s comfortable. The product of my labour is almost purely conceptual. No longer forced to sell actual commodities to the public, my current role is at an extremely meta level on the great chain of capitalist being.
I’ve been thinking about work a lot since reading James W. Rinehart’s exceptional study of Canadian labour history, The Tyranny of Work: Alienation and the labour process. Work is such a fundamental activity to our present lifestyle, it’s easy to forget that the social and environmental factors that sustain it are temporary, contingent phenomena. In the general sense, the origin of our concepts of employment can be directly traced back to the industrial revolution and the technological developments which followed. It’s striking what a drastic change in human activity this was; in 1901, 40 percent of Canadian labour was directed at agriculture. By 1981, this number had shrunk to 4 percent. Of course, just because a combine is doing your job doesn’t mean you can retire. The rise of the office worker, including managers, the technical trades, clerical work and sales, grew from 15 to 52 percent over the same 80-year period. Should we call this progress?
Probably. I’m not humpin’ straw out in the weather and I get fast Internet access, which is nice. But it isn’t perfect. For one thing, work remains largely a boring, repetitive, “rationalized” activity. Also, fatal disruptions to our way of life, (peak oil and massive ecological disaster to name two favorites), are virtual certainties, according to some. We live in a temporary world of constant flux; we are alive, and someday we will not be alive. Do you really want to spend most of your days working? What is to be done?
Party our asses off, according to the Work Less Party. They are a forward-thinking political party motivated by fact that our present consumer-capitalist system is unsustainable, and we’d be best to let it die with dignity rather than have it accelerate into a terrible flaming oblivion. To promote their message of laziness as a moral necessity, (which I fully support, by the way), they recently released their documentary film, Alarm Clocks Kill Dreams: The Movie. The screening at the Van East Cinema was packed with Commercial Drive denizens hoping, perhaps to catch a glimpse of themselves on film. According to the camera operator, the last time the theatre was so full was for The Matrix. The two movies are actually similar, in the sense that both films present a vision of a future of slavery, war and environmental disaster, the reality of which is hidden from the average person by the spectacle of consumerism.
ACKD is a series of interviews, footage from various events around Vancouver, and stock educational film footage from archive.org. To be honest, I found it hard to watch: It was sloppily edited, poorly organized and went on way too long. These sort of technical criticisms are mostly beside the point, of course. The motivation behind the movie has everything to do with proselytizing their worldview and nothing to do with th details of movie-making. The rough editing can be attributed to the desire to show the movie before the Vancouver municipal election (today!).
Part of the WLP modus operandi is putting on goofy, Situationist International-style performances like a “Rat Race” around the art gallery or handing out speeding tickets to people rushing around downtown, throwing huge raging parties, staging naked Critical Mass rides, etc.. Their Michael Moore-inspired trip to Raytheon was pointless and should have been cut from the two-hour documentary. (Guys: when someone says they work in “QA”, they mean “Quality Assurance,” not “Question and Answer.” Hahaha!) They do not, however, consider themselves “joke” candidates simply engaging in political theatre. They are running in earnest and they believe in the necessity and of change and the importance of injecting some appreciation of the larger trajectory or our society into the political discussion.
By far the most articulate interviewee was Tom Walker, the Vancouver-Point Grey WLP representative. He was the only one who seemed to have a command of the relevant facts and the ability to make a reasonable argument. Other candidates seemed not to be able to go much past vague and sort of naïve generalities like “ride your bike to save the planet,” or “our society is linear right now, but we need to make it more cyclical,” if you get my drift. (Hippies.)
We, human beings participating in a larger economy, are both consumers and producers. Both of these roles are important to our overall happiness and well-being. The advisability of exchanging our productive lives in order to drive an ever-accelerating consumption is one of the great deceptions of consumer capitalism. So I agree with the philosophy behind working less and working differently, but in practice my feeling is that the sorts of changes that are necessary to implement a truly sustainable economy are beyond any non-revolutionary political solution. I agree with Rinehart when he writes:
“The transforming potential of such enterprises is constrained by market forces and the necessity to generate profits. The only genuine solution to alienation involves a total restructuring of the workplace, the economy, and the state…. The most intransigent source of alienation is the market, which transcends national boundaries and exerts its centripetal pull over even the most reluctant nations.” (pp.209-10)
Is it possible to convince people to just step off the merry-go-round? I doubt it. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but I feel like the potential convincing enough people to choose to be poor, (which, really, is what it comes down to), no matter how essential for the continuation of live on earth, is pretty slim. I suspect the Work Less Partiers feel the same way, and that this explains the oscillation between serious political activism and the embrace of mockery and dancing and hedonism while waiting out the apocalypse.