The Mythology of Work

Peter Fleming discusses the themes in his new book The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself for Pluto Press.

‘According to a recent study, the average worker in England spends 36 days a year writing emails. Fleming TMOWLondon workers in particular receive around 9000 emails each year. This tells us much about the ritual of work in late capitalist societies. Only neoliberal capitalism could subvert the clever labor saving possibilities of an invention like email and use it to extend the working day ad infinitum. The tyranny of the workplace email is now so out of control that even the multinational corporation is starting to have second thoughts about its utility. Some French companies, for example, have banned its employees logging on in the evening. Similarly, a number of German firms automatically erase incoming emails when its employees are on holiday. And for good reason. Those last few days of vacation are often ruined by dark thoughts of the overflowing inbox awaiting us at the office. Capitalism understands its own contradictions here – the human body’s inability to fulfill the glorified ideal of homo oeconomicus without breaking down or making errors that hurt the bottom line. Hence it tries to moderate the 24-hour work ethic it has unleashed with the rise of neoliberal (un)reason; a task it often struggles with, as the death of Bank of America intern, Moritz Erhardt, demonstrated in 2013 – Erhardt died after working 72 straight hours.

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Not In Kansas Anymore

In this piece for Pluto Press, Nick-Dyer Witheford discusses the digitization of both labour and capital, and their manifestations, as an introduction to his new book Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex.

‘It is seven years since the financial meltdown of 2008 and four since rebellion erupted from Tunis Dyer Witheford CPto Cairo, from Madrid to Wall Street and beyond. Now we are officially in the recovery from a crisis that, at its height, rocked the foundations of global capitalism. Yet despite the apparent return to neoliberal normalcy—of which the recent Tory UK election victory is just one depressing symptom— the global system continues to seethe with discontent and contestation.

In Canada, where I live, university “edu-factories” are awash in strikes and protests by precarious, low-paid teaching assistants and contract faculty. In the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement reverberates from Ferguson to Baltimore and beyond. And in Europe, Syriza and Podemos raise the challenge to rule-by-debt. All these movements confront the contradictions and paradoxes of organizing in a world where computers and networks have, over the life of a generation, reworked global class composition. They are learning to struggle in the middle of a digital whirlwind.

Cybernetics—i.e. computers and networks–have been a weapon wielded by capital against the proletariat, the class that must live by labour. Two counter-tendencies exist—first, the auto-destructive effects of cybernetics on capital itself, and second, proletarian resistance, which in turn bifurcates as refusal and recapture. The crash of 2008, caused by capital’s auto-destructive cybernetic practices generated a surge of resistances combining both rejection and adoption of the digital in new configurations which continue to morph to this moment.

It is well known that the cybernetic revolution developed in the military-industrial complex of Cold War. The new technologies it created were also, almost from their inception, but especially from the 1970s on, deployed on advanced capital’s home front, to breakdown an industrial working class whose strike power drove wage and welfare gains. This involved:

  1. Automating factories and offices ­- the classic mechanical liquidation of labour pursued at a higher level by self-guiding tools.
  2. Relocating industrial production via supply chains dependent on telecommunications infrastructures, modularized interfaces, bar codes and RFIDs – the logistical aspect of cybernetic, which rather than replacing labour, expands it globally, but at the lowest wage, and with maximum disposability in a savage arbitrage.
  3. Financialisation – developing instruments such as derivatives and futures initially to defensively hedge foreign investments, which then morph into high risk speculative activities dependent on computer modeling and high-speed trading.

Over some forty years, this cybernetic offensive decomposed the factory bases of the classic working class, the stereotypically male, mainly white, eventually relatively well-waged mass worker of the planetary north-west.

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The Enigma Election

Radhika Desai and Alan Freeman, author of The Benn Heresy, discuss the “surge of nationalism” and other enigmas in the recent UK General Election.

‘The most unpredictable election in the U.K.’s history has delivered a most inscrutable verdict. While correctly predicting the Scottish Nationalists would overrun Scotland’s 59 seats and the Liberal Democrats would be wiped out, all pre-election polls were also running the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck and predicting a hung parliament where either party might form a coalition government.

As Britain voted, leading political scientists were predicting weeks, if not months, of uncertainty as one party after another attempted to build a stable coalition out of a fractured verdict. However, the BBC exit poll predicted the Conservatives would fall only a few seats short of a majority, one that could be made good, for example, by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists. By early morning, revised calculations predicted the narrow Conservative majority, which the final results confirmed.

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The Stain of Big Oil is Smearing Earth … and Our Culture

This month we published Mel Evans’ Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of BP’s catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In this article, first published on commondreams.org, Mel explores the ongoing – and yet increasingly scrutinised – relationship between oil companies and many of our most loved and prestigious cultural institutions.

Evans AW‘This week marks the 5th anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. The company continues to be hounded by the legal fallout, including criminal convictions, and it is desperate to do whatever it can to cleanse its public image. This is especially challenging in the face of intense criticism globally from the fossil fuel divestment groups like 350.org, the #keepitintheground campaign and the movement to end oil sponsorship of the arts.

One of BP’s PR techniques to weather the Deepwater Horizon backlash is ‘Artwash’ – the title of my book which has been published on the same day as the anniversary. By sponsoring the likes of Tate and British Museum, as well as the Olympics, BP hopes to achieve a guise of social acceptability, or what oil PR specialists would call ‘social licence to operate’. But over the same period since the disaster, a multitude of voices have risen up to criticise cultural institutions for associating themselves with BP.

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The story behind Rebel Footprints

David Rosenberg’s Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History was written for us to discover the hidden, radical history of London. But what inspired the author to write the book? We find out…

‘As you open my book, Rebel Footprints, take a moment to read the dedication at the beginning. “But that’s just the author’s family. I don’t even know them,” you are probably thinking to yourself. Please indulge me and read on. Apart from my family (who are nice and interesting people) it says, Rebel Footprints“…and to a ground-breaking social historian, Bill Fishman.” Those who knew Bill will understand immediately why I used the term “ground-breaking”. Bill was the pioneer of radical history walks in London’s East End.

In 1984 I had the privilege of attending one of Bill’s unforgettable and truly inspirational walks. Needless to say, I was blown away. Without that experience I would not have written this book. As well as providing shed-loads knowledge he showed me how important it was to put yourself in the shoes of the people who made our history. I wrote my dedication to him when I submitted the final manuscript of Rebel Footprints at the end of last November. Sadly Bill died just before Christmas, at the age of 93, but he lives on in the work of many people he inspired, including myself.

Since 2008, I too have been walking the streets of London telling the stories of ordinary people who did extraordinary things to change life for the many, not the few. Yet each year, as I tramp the streets, it is a bit different. When I reach the Lord Morpeth pub on Old Ford Road, instead of saying: “Notice that pub sign with a suffragette selling a newspaper”, I find myself saying: “until last year there was a sign on that pub…” On Donegal Street in Islington, I now point to where there used to be a wall, “and on the wall there was a plaque for a leading Chartist, James Bronterre O’Brien.”

London is changing rapidly and not for the better. The inner-London sites of so many struggles for social justice are starting to be obscured and erased. As houses, shops, municipal buildings and other older structures disappear, often the artworks or plaques that had been placed on them come down too. New monuments are taking their place; the luxury flats and financial houses are monuments to the triumph of casino capitalism. We can occasionally win a small victory to temporarily halt a “development”, but we don’t seem powerful enough to stop this process of recolonisation of significant parts of our city and its spaces by massive wealth. Once an important landmark is gone, it is difficult to put back anything meaningful to show what once was there.

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Jaurès Today: Socialism and Democracy from the Bastille to Barcelona

To accompany his important new translation and abridgment of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, we asked Mitch Abidor to reflect on the relevance of Jaurés’ writing to contemporary political struggle.

‘During a recent visit to New York Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, the left-wing party that Jaures ASHOTFRgrew out of the Indignados, and which has become a rising force in Spain, was asked – or rather harangued – about the revolutionary era we’re now living in. Iglesias refused to accept this characterisation. Similarly, he later refused to condemn Keynesian measure out of hand for saving capitalism, pointing out that in his country people were hungry, jobless, and homeless and couldn’t wait for socialism to have their problems solved. Iglesias’ refusal to play the game of “I’m more left than you could ever be” was impressive in its willingness to accept the reality of a period where achieving any positive reform is an uphill battle, and I felt that perhaps the time was coming for the return of Jean Jaurès.

Jaurès’ masterpiece, A Socialist History of the French Revolution, is the rarest of books: a serious work of history that was also intended to be an inspiration and guide to action. Jaurès is clear about this right from the start – his book is, after all, entitled A Socialist History of the French Revolution; his parti pris is proudly brandished on the cover. And once the book is opened, the first paragraph contains a political program: “We want to recount the events that occurred between 1789 and the end of the nineteenth century from the socialist point of view for the benefit of the common people, workers, and peasants. We view the French Revolution as an immense and admirably fertile event, but we don’t see it as something eternally fixed that leaves the historian with nothing else to do but explain its consequences. The French Revolution indirectly prepared the advent of the proletariat. It realised the two essential conditions for socialism: democracy and capitalism.” This is a book to read, reflect upon, and be guided by.

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Fredrik Barth: An intellectual biography

As  a new biography of social anthropologist Fredrik Barth is published this month, we ask the author Thomas Hylland Eriksen, himself a renowned anthropologist, to expand on why he chose his subject…

‘Social scientists come in many shapes, some more interesting than others. One of the Fredrik Barthextremes is the wide-ranging scholar who circles the planet in a helicopter with a pair of binoculars, eventually developing a theory about life, the universe and everything. The opposite extreme is the khaki-clad explorer crawling on all fours while peering at the grains of sand on the beach through a magnifying glass. This is the end of the continuum where most anthropologists find themselves. Yet, the grains of sand are not enough. Indeed, a major ambition of anthropology consists in ‘seeing the world in a grain of sand’ (Blake), building social theory from everyday events in ordinary communities and discussing human universals through the life-worlds of a few individuals leading perfectly average lives anywhere in the world.

In this endeavour, Fredrik Barth (b. 1928) is an undisputed master. One of the most influential anthropologists of the latter half of the 20th century, Barth’s career spans six decades and has brought him to more than a dozen field sites. This book tells the story of Barth’s life from his student days in Chicago just after the war to his retirement years in Oslo; and in doing so, it highlights the power of the ethnographic gaze and the critical potential inherent in an anthropological approach to human life. At its best, anthropology can tell us that everything could have been different, that there are many roads to the good life, and that the present social order does not necessarily constitute ‘the best of all possible worlds’ (Leibniz). Anthropology treats all lives in an equitable way, giving no pride of place to the pale and powerful.

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