Ivor Southwood tells the story of how, at a time when he was living in a condition of underemployment – relying on short-term contracts given to him at the last minute by employment agencies – he one morning made the mistake of going to the supermarket.1 When he returned home he found that an agency had left him a message offering him work for the day. But when he called the agency he was told that the vacancy was already filled – and upbraided for his slackness. As he comments, `ten minutes is a luxury the day-labourer cannot afford’. Such labourers are expected to be waiting outside the metaphorical factory gates with their boots on, every morning without fail (p72). In such conditions:
daily life becomes precarious. Planning ahead becomes difficult, routines are impossible to establish. Work, of whatever sort, might begin or end anywhere at a moment’s notice, and the burden is always on the worker to create the next opportunity and to surf between roles. The individual must exist in a state of constant readiness. Predictable income, savings, the fixed category of `occupation’: all
belong to another historical world (p15).
invisibility. In the global North at least, capitalism proposes itself as the only possible reality, and therefore it seldom `appears’ as such at all. Atilio Boron argues that capitalism has been shifted to a `discreet position behind the political scene, rendered invisible as the structural foundation of contemporary society’, and cites Bertolt Brecht’s observation that `capitalism is a gentleman who doesn’t like to be called by his name’.3
For too long, perhaps ever since the war, we [have] postponed facing up to fundamental choices and fundamental changes in our economy … We’ve been living on borrowed time … The cosy world we were told would go on forever, where full employment could be guaranteed by a stroke of the chancellor’s pen – that cosy world is gone …
We have to live and suffer the defeat of truth, of our truth. We have to destroy its representation, its continuity, its memory, its trace. All subterfuges for avoiding the recognition that reality has changed, and with it truth, have to be rejected … The very blood in our veins had been replaced.6
One of the more pervasive phenomena in the current cod-neoliberal academic dispensation is CV inflation: as available jobs dwindle down to Kafkian levels of postponement and implausibility, the miserable Träger of academic capital are obliged not just to overfulfil the plan, but to record … every single one of their productive acts. The only sins are sins of omission … In this sense, the passage from … periodic and measured measurement … to permanent and ubiquitous measurement cannot but result in a kind of Stakhanovism of immaterial labour, which like its Stalinist forebear exceeds all rationales of instrumentality, and cannot but generate a permanent undercurrent of debilitating anxiety (since there is no standard, no amount of work will ever make you safe).7
The tendency today is for practically all forms of work to become precarious. As Franco Berardi puts it, `Capital no longer recruits people, but buys packets of time, separated from their interchangeable and occasional bearers’.10 Such `packets of time’ are not conceived of as having a connection to a person with rights or demands: they are simply either available or unavailable.
The acceleration of information exchange … is producing an effect of a pathological type on the individual human mind and even more on the collective mind. Individuals are not in a position to consciously process the immense and always growing mass of information that enters their computers, their cell phones, their television screens, their electronic diaries and their heads. However, it seems indispensable to follow, recognize, evaluate, process all this information if you want to be efficient, competitive, victorious (p40).
They cannot take a vacation without bringing the office with them; their office is on their cellphone. They complain that their employers rely on them to be continually online but then admit that their devotion to their communications devices exceeds all professional expectations.11
worker autonomy: what they got was managerialism and shopping. The current political situation in the UK – with business and its allies gearing up for a destruction of the relics of social democracy – constitutes a kind of infernal inversion of the autonomist dream of workers liberated from the state, bosses and bureaucracy. In a staggeringly perverse twist, workers find themselves working harder, in deteriorating conditions and for what is in effect worse pay, in order to fund a state bail-out of the business elite, while the agents of that elite plot the further destruction of the public services on which workers depend.
and there is no bringing them back.
1. Ivor Southwood, Non-Stop Inertia, Zer0 2010.
2. See Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zer0 2009.
3. Atilio Boron, `The Truth About Capitalist Democracy’, Socialist Register 2006, p32.
4. As argued by Jeremy Gilbert in, `Elitism, Philistinism and Populism: the Sorry State of British Higher Education Policy’, 2010, opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom.
5. See Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques (eds), New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s, Lawrence & Wishart 1989.
6. Antonio Negri, Art and Multitude, Polity 2010, p10.
7. Savonarola, `Curriculum mortis’, conjunctural.blogspot.com/2008/08/curriculum-mortis.html, 2008.
8. Phillip Blond, The Ownership State: Restoring Excellence, Innovation and Ethos to Public Services, ResPublica/Nesta 2009, p10.
9. Tobias van Veen, `Business Ontology (or why Xmas Gets You Fired)’, 2010, fugitive.quadrantcrossing.org/2009/12/business-ontology/.
10. Franco Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-Alpha Generation, Minor Compositions 2009, p32.
11. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other¸ Basic 2011, p264.
12. Jodi Dean, Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive, Polity 2010.
13. See Dan Hind, The Return of the Public, Verso 2010, p146.
14. David Smail, Power, Interest and Psychology: Elements of a Social Materialist Understanding of Distress, PCCS 2009, p11.
15. See Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, Polity 2007.