“'What a time you've been, Norah,' grumbled the old lady.
‘It’s only just turned the half-hour, Madam,’ said Norah in a special voice, bright and cheerful like the nurse. I wondered if Maxim’s grandmother realised that people spoke to her in this way. I wondered when they had done so for the first time, and if she had noticed then. Perhaps she had said to herself, ‘They think I’m getting old, how very ridiculous,’ and then little by little she had become accustomed to it, and now it was as though they had always done so, it was part of her background.”—Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
“Maxim’s grandmother suffered her in patience. She closed her eyes as though she too were tired. She looked more like Maxim than ever. I knew how she must have looked when she was young, tall and handsome… That was all finished now for her, all gone. Her husband had been dead for forty years, her son for fifteen. She had to live in this bright red gabled house with the nurse until it was time for her to die. I thought how little we know about the feelings of old people. Children we understand, their fears and hopes and make-believe. I was a child yesterday. I had not forgotten. But Maxim’s grandmother, sitting there in her shawl with her poor blind eyes, what was she thinking? Did she know that Beatrice was yawning and glancing at her watch? Did she guess that we had come to visit her because we felt it right, it was a duty, so that when she got home afterwards Beatrice would be able to say ‘Well, that clears my conscience for three months’?
Did she ever think about Manderley? Did she remember sitting at the dining-room table, where I sat? Did she too have tea under the chestnut tree? Or was it all forgotten and laid aside, and was there nothing left behind that calm, pale face of hers but little aches and strange discomforts, a blurred thankfulness when the sun shone, a tremor when the wind blew cold?”—Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
“I wanted to go on sitting there, not talking, not listening to the others, keeping the moment precious for all time, because we were peaceful, all of us, we were content and drowsy even as the bee who droned above our heads. In a little while it would be different, there would come tomorrow, and the next day, and another year. And we would be changed perhaps, never sitting quite like this again. Some of us would go away, or suffer, or die; the future stretched away in front of us, unknown, unseen, not perhaps what we wanted, not what we planned. This moment was safe though, this could not be touched. Here we sat together, Maxim and I, hand-in-hand, and the past and the future mattered not at all. This was secure, this funny fragment of time he would never remember, never think about again. He would not hold it sacred; he was talking about cutting away some of the undergrowth in the drive, and Beatrice agreed, interrupting with some suggestion of her own, and throwing a piece of grass at Giles at the same time. For them it was just after lunch, quarter past three on a haphazard afternoon, like any hour, like any day. They did not want to hold it close, imprisoned and secure, as I did. They were not afraid.”—Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
“She smiled, and pinched my arm, and I thought about being placid, how quiet and comfortable it sounded, someone with knitting on her lap, with calm unruffled brow. Someone who was never anxious, never tortured by doubt and indecision, someone who never stood as I did, hopeful, eager, frightened, tearing at bitten nails, uncertain which way to go, what star to follow.”—Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
I try to avoid the news as much as I can. The kind of anger it produces – an anger that cannot possibly materialise the desire for which it stands – is ultimately just a corrosive, melting away whatever hope one has for the world. The position I take is one of informed apathy: I know what sort of thing is likely to happen, I can do without the details. Of course the cops break the law, they’re a gang of thugs hired by the State to keep order. What do you expect? Of course politicians lie and CEOs line their pockets while impoverishing society. That’s what they do. And if you cut one down, there’s ten more to take their place. And, of course, the discussion in the ‘free press’ circles round and round the absent signifier of structural causation – like those little horses on a merry-go-round – individualising blame, producing and directing anger towards those who – whatever the ethics of their personal choices – are ultimately only carriers for their social function. If this particular pseudo-controversy manages to depose the Garda Commissioner he’ll be replaced by another fucking cop. You can skim a layer of shit off the top of the tank, but there’s always more lurking in the depths waiting to float to the top. Some victory.
What should be obvious, but somehow isn’t, is that ‘popular anger’ is not some primordial force entering politics from the outside: it’s actively produced by the political conjuncture. We’re invoked to be angry here and not there, in this way and not that, at this individual and not this structure, and to consume our own anger through the mediation of the press in ways that are never allowed to amount to a meaningful collective challenge to power.
“'What a rubbishy arrangement sex is,' said Leonard Browne. 'And I don't just meant the machinery of it, though that's stupid enough in all conscience. A projection upon one body is labouriously inserted into a hole in another. It's the invention of a mere mechanic, and a very fumbling and unimaginative one at that. I remember when someone told me about it at school I simply didn't believe him, I thought it couldn't turn out to be something so totally grotesque. Later on when I had more of a stake in it I persuaded myself otherwise. But now that it's all past and done with I can see it again for what it is, a pitiful awkward ugly inefficient piece of flabby mechanism. And consider flesh too, if it comes to that. Who could have dreamed up such stuff? It's flabby and it stinks as often as not or it bulges and develops knobs and it is covered with horrible hair and blotches. The internal combustion engine is at least more efficient or take the the piston rods on a locomotive and it's quite easy to oil them too. While keeping flesh in a decent condition is almost impossible even leaving aside the obscene process of aging and the fact that half the world starves. What a planet. And take eating, if you're lucky enough to do any. Stuffing pieces of dead animals into a hole in your face. Then munch, munch, munch. If there's anybody watching they must be dying of laughter. And the shape of the human body. Who but a thoroughly incompetent craftsman or else some sort of practical joker could have invented this sort of moon on two sticks? Legs are a bad joke. Twinkle, twinkle, twinkle.'”—Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat
“She had now no memory of what had been said, only of that terrible air of suffering. She tried to remember how much it had irritated her once. Tallis was framed for suffering. Let him suffer. She must remain cold and hard and purposeful and vile. She must keep sharp and rigid her intent to survive, whatever cries were heard, whatever blood was shed. So long as I can keep it all completely dismembered, she thought. Keep everything small and separate and manageable. Frame no general picture. Do not wonder what he is doing now in the kitchen. She thought, and her consciousness seemed to reel at the effort, I simply must not give way to that ghastly heart-breaking tenderness, that animal feeling. For this moment, I must have no heart strings and no heart. She felt giddy. It was as if love or terror or something were trying to thrust itself through into her mind. She felt a pain which was curiously like sexual desire. She knew that in a moment she would be in tears.”—Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat
“Tallis pulled his legs up and leaned back. He could not think without a table. Better give up and sleep now. Get up early and finish lecture. Better not thoughts now. Sleep. Unbeing. No point in kneeling down, folding hands, muttering. Self-abasement, prostration, licking the ground and wriggling through. Tears and sex. God, what a muck-heap my mind is, thought Tallis. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe slowly and regularly. Words came without volition, sinking very slowly through his mind like pebbles. Words out of some lost and ancient past. Lighten my darkness. Tiddy pom tiddy pom tiddy pom from up above. The perils and dangers of this night. With his eyes still closed he uncurled his legs and turned over to lie prone on the bed, burying his face in the pillow. That peace which the world cannot give. There was light somewhere, cool precious light, somewhere quite else. The pillow smelt of dust and age and grief. It was an old pillow. It had attended upon life and death and birth and was tired of them all.”—Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat
“Nay point hoping for the best. Ye could spend yer life doing that; hoping. If ye were gony sit about hoping then okay, go ahead, but that’s all ye’ll do, know what I mean, it’s like waiting, ye’re aye waiting. Waiting rooms. Ye go into this room where ye wait. Hoping’s the same. One of these days the cunts’ll build entire fucking buildings just for that. Official hoping rooms, where ye just go in and hope for whatever the fuck ye feel like hoping for. One on every corner. Course they had them already: boozers. Ye go in to hope and they sell ye a drink to help ye pass the time. Ye see these cunts sitting there. What’re they there for? They’re hoping. They’re hoping for something.”—James Kelman, How Late It Was, How Late
“The whole breadth of the river was filled with boats, waiting for a lock-gate to be opened. In all the boats were gay young people in light, bright-coloured clothing; they were almost reclining there, freely abandoned to the warm air and the coolness of the water. They had so much in common that their convivial spirit was not confined to the separate boats; joking and laughter was passed on from boat to boat.
He now imagined that in a meadow on the bank… he himself was standing. He was contemplating the festival, which was not really a festival at all, but one could call it that. He naturally had a great desire to join in, indeed he longed to do so, but he was forced to admit to himself that he was excluded from it, it was impossible for him to fit in there; to do so would have required such great preparation that in the course of it not only this Saturday, but many years, and he himself would have passed away; and even if time here could have come to a standstill, it would still have been impossible to achieve any other result; his whole origin, upbringing, physical development would have had to be different.
So far removed, then, was he from these holidaymakers, and yet for all that he was very close to them too, and that was the more difficult thing to understand. They were, after all, human beings like himself, nothing human could be utterly alien to them, and so if one were to probe into them, one would surely find that the feeling which dominated him and excluded him from the river party was alive in them too, but of course with the difference that it was very far from dominating them and merely haunted some darker corners of their being.”—Franz Kafka, 1920 diaries
This extension results not only in a quantitative increase in alienation but in a qualitatively different kind of alienation.
Not content with mere spectators, the spectacle now seeks to engage the proletariat as an active participant in its reified world. The present expansion of alienation is a demand for its reciprocity, resulting in a reciprocal alienation in which the distinction between spectator and show, between signified and signifier, becomes blurred. In place of mere passive reception emerges a reified subjectivity in which the individual is able to choose among a number of possible responses - he is given the illusory freedom of a greater role in the construction of the world of his own alienation.
The advance of such an active alienation has had a direct relationship with developments within the sphere of capitalism’s star commodity, culture. ‘Avante gardist’ experiments in ‘participatory’ theatre are now being applied to mass-media as a whole. As usual, capitalism has proved to be one step ahead of its professional critics: McLuhan’s voyeuristic fantasies of “participation” via the media, for instance, are being realised on a far more complex level than the vicarious tribal rites which he imagined for the ‘global village’ of the commodity. The strictly unilateral communication which McLuhan celebrated gives way before a kind of bilateral monologue in which the spectator’s response serves as a stimulus for further transmission… With the development of Cable TV, which allows for greater specialisation and cultural diversification, and two-way receiver-transmitters, media has advanced beyond a simple reproduction of images for a passive audience - the entire sphere of consumption has acquired an added dimension.
“He feels imprisoned on this earth, he feels confined; the melancholy, the impotence, the sickness, the wild delusions of the captive break out in him; no consolation can console him, for the very reason that it is mere consolation, gentle, head-splitting consolation in the face of the brutal fact of imprisonment. But if he is asked what he actually wants he cannot reply, for - this is one of his strongest arguments - he has no conception of freedom.”—Franz Kafka, 1920 diaries
“All the current changes in the spectacular organization of appearances, however, are only part of a change in the appearance of organization. The contemporary reconstruction of bourgeois society involves not only its form but its content. The reform of the environment is simultaneously a reform of power which exhibits itself on many levels. Structurally. the hierarchical matrix of power which was physically embodied in the traditional city now reproduces itself on an infinite and local level. The advanced spectacle has dispensed with a physical centre of command in favour of a poly-centered system of authority… As the locus of power shifts from rigidly defined structures to a multi-faceted nexus of relationships, new organisational forms are emerging which will bind the individual more closely to his social environment. The decentralisation of authority is not to be confused with its destruction, it merely represents its further extension.”—Point Blank, The Changing of the Guard (early 1970s)
“You know, some people say life is short and that you could get hit by a bus at any moment and that you have to live each day like it’s your last. Bullshit. Life is long. You’re probably not gonna get hit by a bus. And you’re gonna have to live with the choices you make for the next fifty years.”—Chris Rock, I Think I Love My Wife (via learned—helplessness)
“I wish they’d conduct a national poll to find out who feels out of place and who doesn’t. Just to get the numbers, you know? To get a feel for how many of us there are. Sometimes at work I get the feeling that it’s got to be right up against 100%. I’ll head out to the register to help out during the lunch rush and the new cashier will look so confused and lost, and then I’ll look at the customers she’s supposed to be helping, and they’ll look lost too, and then when I sneak a glance toward the tables there’ll be all these people staring at their food or at each other with blank looks in their eyes. And I’ll think: is this just me? Is everybody else actually fine, and I’m just trying to imagine they’re like me? But I don’t think so. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m pretty sure that some ridiculous percentage of the population is walking around feeling like aliens.”—John Darnielle, Master of Reality
“And yet I knew that what I saw wasn’t as simple and good as it appeared. There was a price to be paid for it all, a general falsity, that could be easily believed, and could be the first step down a dead-end street. The band began to play again and the boys and girls began to dance again and the lights revolved overhead throwing shades of gold, then red, then blue, then green, then gold again on the couples. As I watched them I said to myself, someday my dance will begin. When that day comes I will have something that they don’t have.
But then it got to be too much for me. I hated them. I hated their beauty, their untroubled youth, and as I watched them dance through the magic colored pools of light, holding each other, feeling so good, little unscathed children, temporarily in luck, I hated them because they had something I had not yet had, and I said to myself, I said to myself again, someday I will be as happy as any of you, you will see.
They kept dancing, and I repeated it to them.”—Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye
“Went out for a walk this morning and passed the Iglesia Esperanza Nueva. I had that empty floating feeling I get when I see people whose faith is strong. The Iglesia Esperanza Nueva used to be a shoe store, it was a Thom McAn’s, but then this whole neighborhood just gave up a few years ago. The buildings were empty, some guys would open up little stores that’d stay open for only a month or two and then they’d just be gone overnight. There was a newsstand, and a music store. A little restaurant that served beer in glasses and burgers and fries. But everyplace around here closes. It’s like there’s a curse, but a very mild curse. All the buildings will be nice, but nobody will ever care about them.
Something hurts inside me when I pass a church. Especially a small one in a converted shoe store. I hear their joy and I wish I had it.”—John Darnielle, Master of Reality
“Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head: then the other words; there’s something wrong; there’s something far far wrong; ye’re no a good man; ye’re just no a good man.”—James Kelman, How Late It Was, How Late
“That Sunday I took some paper and sat down to write about how I had seen the President. His open car, trailing flowing streamers, had entered the football stadium. One car, full of secret service agents, went ahead and two cars followed close behind. The agents were brave men with guns to protect our President. The crowd rose as the President’s car entered the arena. There had never been anything like it before. It was the President. It was him. He waved. We cheered. A band played. Seagulls circled overheard as if they knew it was the President. And there were skywriting airplanes too. They wrote words in the sky like ‘Prosperity is just around the corner.’ The President stood up in his car, and just as he did the clouds parted and the light from the sun fell across his face. It was almost as if God knew too. Then the cars stopped and our great President, surrounded by secret service agents, walked to the speaker’s platform. As he stood behind the microphone a bird flew down from the sky and landed on the speaker’s platform near him. The President waved to the bird and laughed and we all laughed with him. Then he began to speak and the people listened. I couldn’t quite hear the speech because I was sitting too near to a popcorn machine which made a lot of noise popping the kernels, but I think I heard him say that the problems in Manchuria were not serious, and that at home everything was going to be all right, we shouldn’t worry, all we had to do was believe in America. There would be enough jobs for everybody. There would be enough dentists with enough teeth to pull, enough fires and enough firemen to put them out. Mills and factories would open again. Our friends in South America would pay their debts. Soon we would all sleep peacefully, our stomachs and our hearts full. God and our great country would protect us from evil, from the socialists, awaken us from our national nightmare, forever…”—Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye
“She stared at her passport, and it seemed to her suddenly like a death warrant. It filled her with shame and horror. She took it in her hand and it fell open at the picture of herself. It was an old picture taken in the worst days of her fear. At the Nina whose hair was golden a younger black-haired Nina stared back, anxious, haggard and fearful. Here was her very soul on record, stamped and filed; a soul without nationality, a soul without a home. She turned the faded pages. The earlier ones carried the names of the frontiers of her childhood, frontiers which no longer existed in the world. The later pages were covered with the continually renewed permits from the Ministry of Labour. The Foreign Office which had issued this document had disappeared from the face of the earth. Now nothing could make it new. It remained like the Book of Judgement, the record of her sins, the final and irrevocable sentence of society upon her. She was without identity in a world where to be without identity is the first and most universal of crimes, the crime which, whatever else it may overlook, every State punishes. She had no official existence.”—Iris Murdoch, The Flight from the Enchanter
This is a short batch of solo songs, prompted by my ongoing reflections on anarchism. I’m still quite young, but most people who get involved with anarchist circles are not still around by the time they’re my age (at least in my experience of anarchism in the United States). There are innumerable factors that contribute to this phenomena, but these songs are most generally about the sense of escalating difficulty I experience in determining what the point of anything I do as an anarchist is supposed to be. And I can see how that would be a major factor in people drifting away from anarchism as they grow older.
The revolution is not going to happen, at least not the way people wrote about it in the 1800s. “Building the new world in the shell of the old” demands investing inhuman levels of energy into establishing more-or-less effective models of alternative social values so that they can be stripped for parts by recuperators before being demolished entirely. The charity work anarchists often undertake (Food Not Bombs, bike co-ops, etc) is all nice and friendly stuff, but it is harder and harder for me to convince myself that it is related in any way to the overall project of establishing a world without domination.
Anarchism penetrated my thinking twelve years ago, and no other conception of life has threatened to supplant it since. Yet there is no apparent path from this world to another. I have no solution to this dilema. So these are songs about sticking it out anyway—probably not due to any rationality on my part, but also not just out of stubbornness.
Perhaps what I’m trying to communicate with these songs is that I became an anarchist the way one falls in love, not the way one balances competing arguments in a debate. To be so in love with freedom that everything becomes worth risking for it requires the madness of romance and lust, not the reason of a logician.
Turning away from it all now would be to live a life knowing what passion is, but never permitting myself to experience it. There are many good reasons to believe anarchism is stupid, but I’m not sure anything would be more stupid than living like that.
“I once had a talk with someone who said that we should reopen Auschwitz and exterminate the richest 2% in this country. This kind of extremism has a sort of gut appeal. But there were a couple of problems… The second problem was the industrial, and therefore capitalist, nature of his solution. The reason that we can’t use prisons, concentration camps, or even firing squads for our liberation is not that we are liberals who respect an absolute right to life. It’s because these are dehumanising institutions for the jailers as well as the condemned. Rebel violence can be liberating, but can never be institutional. We use enough violence to achieve our aims; we need to create a new community out of our struggle, hopefully as many people as possible can be integrated into this human community as rapidly as possible. As the revolution develops, more and more people will be attracted to it. We aim to unite with whoever really shares our struggle no matter what role they play under normal conditions. The situationist Ratgeb/Vaneigem expressed this brilliantly: “Doesn’t it give you a certain sense of pleasure to think how, some day soon, you will be able to treat as human beings those cops whom it will not have been necessary to kill on the spot?””—Anonymous, Class Analysis for Anti-Capitalist Struggle
I realise this is the kind of thing that it’d probably be impossible to do any accurate research on, but I’d be really interested to know if there’s ever been anything written about the distribution of sexual fetishes across time and space. Like, it feels like something people don’t have any control over, but at the same time it’s so historically contingent on a whole variety of factors that be really specific to certain historical settings - from actual technological stuff like the availability or otherwise of latex, to the fetishisation of certain roles that only exist in certain social contexts. Were master/slave fantasies more or less common in societies where actual slave ownership was a widespread thing? How have changing constructions of race influenced the kind of raceplay that people are into? Given how much of BDSM consists of a kind of performance of sex-negativity, what would BDSM practices look like in a society where sex wasn’t seen as dirty? Interesting questions, even if they’re probably unaswerable.
“She used to think sex wasn’t an issue, it wasn’t crucial, it was a pleasant form of exercise, better than jogging, a pleasant form of communication, like gossip. People who got too intense about sex were a little outre. It was like wearing plastic spikes with rhinestones and meaning it, it was like taking mink coats seriously. What mattered was the relationship. A good relationship, that’s what she and Jake were meant to have. People commented on it at parties, as if they were admiring a newly renovated house.
That was what it had been at first: no mess, no in love. By the time she met Jake she’d decided she didn’t much like being in love. Being in love was like running barefoot along a street covered with broken bottles. It was foolhardy, and if you got through it without damage it was only by sheer luck. It was like taking off your clothes at lunchtime in a bank. It let people think they knew something about you that you didn’t know about them. It made you visible, soft, penetrable; it made you ludicrous.”—Margaret Atwood, Bodily Harm
On this shifting scale all positive positions are defined and structured against a negative someone else. There’s “us”, and there are those who’ve failed; who don’t try hard enough; who are lazier than the rest of us; who parasitise the collective taxpayer; who don’t even care for their own neighbourhoods. Thus a fractal logic by which white professionals — come round to anti-racism — measure themselves up against feckless chavs; poor whites against an immigrant bogeyman; South Asians against lazy Afro-Caribbeans; Afro-Caribbeans against Somali criminality, and so on.
Contrary to the pseudo-sociological taxonomies of media stereotypes, the “less so” here, the someone else, has never come to constitute any coherent “underclass”, definable by its relation to welfare receipts, unemployment etc. Indeed, through this period the opposition of welfare and work came to be undermined by a proliferation of welfare untethered to unemployment, such as child benefit, or actually hinging directly on work, such as tax credits. At the same time, unemployment itself has been redefined as an ever-steeper chute back into the labour market; recent developments in “workfare” are only the latest extension of this longer term logic. Thus, while massive unemployment was the direct consequence of Thatcherite restructuring as whole major industries were demolished, this has given way to a regime of insecurity in which… worklessness appears as “jobseeking”. On the other hand, employment itself has become increasingly unstable as a category, with rising temp work, short-term contracts, and most recently the “zero-hour contract”, by which employees are guaranteed no minimum number of hours of actual work, but must simply hope for the best from one week to the next. In these senses, comparisons of actual employment levels with those of the 1970s can be deceptive, since the meaning of the work/unemployment distinction has changed so significantly over the period. If unemployment figures remain high compared to the years of the post-war settlement, employment itself is qualitatively less distinguishable from unemployment.
For these reasons it is important not to read the tendential precarisation of the wage as leading necessarily to the constitution of any neatly delimitable “surplus population”, identified simplistically by a lack of formal employment or residency in some marginal zone: it was never directly “the surplus population” that took up residency in Britain’s poor urban estates, nor was it in any immediate sociological sense a “surplus population” of unemployed that developed a propensity to riot over this period. Indeed, a majority of rioters in 2011 seem to have been either in full-time education or employed, and though unemployment remains of course higher in the marginal areas in which riots tend to generate — and was spiking significantly in the period leading up to the riots, making it legible, perhaps, as a significant contributing factor — it has remained markedly low in hyper-flexibilised Britain, compared to other European countries. While the general law of capitalist accumulation is to produce a surplus population, and this is a central dynamic of this epoch, we should also be wary of identifying these developments with a clearly specified “precariat” class, for the erosion of the stability of the wage is something socially general, not neatly confinable to a specific part of the population: insecurity is everywhere, only with varying types and degrees of intensity.
For such a long time you wanted us to speak but we kept quiet, this time we are going to speak up. We know the majority of you sincerely want to help us. Each in your own way have tried everything. You have been strict or easy-going, patient or impatient, attentive or distant. You have thought about things, talked matters over between yourselves, with us, with the college administration.
You have told us so many things, we said nothing or very little, we’d keep quiet, we’d smile. You used to say to us: “It’s no laughing matter, get on with your work” or, “we have a laugh here but we work really hard”, or even “if you don’t intend doing anything don’t interfere with your friends who…”, or, ”make an effort”, or, “Mr so and so do you think you’ll be allowed to turn up late for work?” or “oh it’s you, get back in your place”. Or, “answer doesn’t anyone know?” or, “well, in 10 years of teaching I’ve never come across anything like this before” or, “if you have a problem come and see me at the end of the lesson” or, “come on now, ask some questions!” and “I also have a daughter of your age”, “keep quiet when I’m talking”, “take a sheet of paper” and “repeat what I’ve just said”,”come on – find me a piece of paper” and “I warn you I’m not like what’s his name”.
Well, you’re wrong. It’s all the same - you’ve tried hard but that hasn’t changed a thing. You have given us your advice, you’ve seen our parents, you’ve said: “if it were my son”. You’ve worked hard, gone back to the beginning, prepared courses, arranged visits, trips, provided summaries, prepared days out. we’ve drunk coffee together, you’ve gone on strike, shouted and bawled and maybe even cried but that hasn’t changed a thing.
Year after year, the social meat grinder has devoured us. You wear the pupils you’ve saved like medals – they are well deserved, each one of us has cost you plenty. But that’s not possible with everyone.
Neither you nor we were the problem, it is everything else.
To be sure, you knew it but you probably thought it was inevitable. It’s not the failure of the school system we reproach you with but for having accepted for too long and trying to make us accept too, a state of affairs, of people and of relationships between people, which are unacceptable.
To you we’re problem kids, you felt sorry for us in advance – as if your life was something marvellous. We can see well enough how you react, how you are also fed up.
You say: “What have you done with yourselves?” Well to be exact, because of what we’re doing today we criticize our former passivity.
You say: “That’s unfair, our lives aren’t a misery, we don’t do as we’re told, we want to help you”.
Prove it! You want to talk to us! We wouldn’t understand you all that well, we‘re already out of earshot, come closer; if you don’t, in a week’s time you’ll not have the foggiest clue.
Before our passivity was your excuse (not any more). YOU CAN’T HELP LIKING US, WE STATE THE TRUTH, a heart felt truth that people are fed up with hierarchical relationships, with separation, with a cramped narrow life. You daren’t say so or even believe it. But that’s what it boils down to. Teachers – that’s the hurdle you must leap -but if you don it help, if you give up, if you betray… nothing, we won’t say a thing. Our looks will speak for us. They’re unrelenting, as you well know. You’ll be the judge of yourselves - there’s no reprieve from that.
”—From a leaflet produced by 16-18 year old apprentices who’d walked out of classes in France, winter 1986-7. Taken from here.
Dolly Parton knows good class analysis. 9 to 5 remains one of the clearest iterations of “antiwork” politics in song since “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!”: a powerful, clear expression against an ideology that labour has an inherent dignity that benefits the worker, despite almost all human experience pointing to the opposite. In a few catchy verses Parton pretty neatly encapsulates a specific relationship of white-collar and pink-collar labourers to their work which runs counter to the “American Dream” ideology – the United States’ variant on the “dignity of work” myth so beloved of the mainstream European Left throughout the 20th Century. In Pop we can always find kernels of workers’ desire; here I’m going to pull out a trio of songs from the past 30 years which interact with an antiwork tendency and engage with the changing conditions of the American workplace. These three bangers all offer some hint towards an antiwork politics generally ignored by the political mainstream, and are presented in the hope that we can perhaps think of building a future workplace politics around not Stakhanov or McDonald’s Employee of the Month, but Dolly and Shangela Laquifa.
Released in 1980 to accompany the eponymous film in which Dolly starred, 9 to 5 isn’t laced with the “fuck your boss” anarchic rebellion of much emergent hardcore punk of the time, but instead a more nuanced and thoughtful example of a class analysis of the workplace. The song comes at an interesting moment in the class struggle: 1980 was the year Ronald Reagan was elected and began his personal brand of neoliberal reform already begun by Margaret Thatcher in the UK, deregulating financial services whilst launching a concerted attack on the working class through attacks on various representative organs, such as trade unions, and the minimal workplace rights their presence protected. These reforms were yet to kick in, however, when Dolly laid down her track. Instead the workplace 9 to 5 describes is the tail-end of a working environment laid down after demobilisation in the Second World War, albeit one which had been through an enormous workplace revolution in regards to women’s rights and the feminist movement of the 1970’s.
Fundamentally, it is a steady workplace; at the top of the hierarchy sits the “boss-man” (and he is always a man), whose total control of the workplace is demonstrated through his control of workers throughout the company. Despite Dolly’s “service and devotion” to the company, a “fair promotion” is very much down to managerial discretion, and the worker feels trapped within both her workplace routine and her allotted role in the company. It’s here the divergence between the ideology of the American Dream — that due effort is rewarded with due success — and the reality — “Want to move ahead / But the boss won’t seem to let me in / I swear sometimes that man is out to get me” — reach a point of rupture.
From here on out, Dolly Parton’s analysis of the proletarian condition is sharp, concise and furious. “They let you dream / Just a watch ‘em shatter,” she rails, eviscerating the U.S. national ideology, before getting down to the brass tacks of the capitalist system “You’re just a step / On the boss man’s ladder”. Aren’t we just. 9 to 5, however, is firmly located amongst the last hurrahs of the fordist labour process, as evidenced not only in the monotony of the routine, but also in the almost casual recognition that workers’ power is still latent in the workforce in the shape of generalised employee solidarity and their attendant dream of a process of communisation:
On the same boat
With a lot of your friends
Waitin’ for the day
Your ship’ll come in
And the tide’s gonna turn
An’ it’s all gonna roll your way
Granted, what we could call ‘Partonism’ might still retain the odd whiff of historical determinism, but perhaps this is contingent on the unique, pre-Reaganite condition of the U.S. working-class. Still, it’s worth being clear here; what Dolly offers is a powerful example of a workers’ subjectivity which renounces the dominant ideology both of the bosses and the trade unions.
9 to 5, yeah, they got you where they want you
There’s a better life
And you think about it, don’t you?
It’s a rich man’s game
No matter what they call it
And you spend your life
Puttin money in his wallet
Stopping just short of calling for a ‘Worker’s Party Against Work”, Dolly nonetheless has elucidated a clear call here against both the capitalist system and the small, fragmentary and limited gains the working class have made through reformist demands for regularised, formal work patterns. What remains at the core is a rejection of the very form of work, and a desire to escape the mental, affective and physical straightjacket of the wage relation in toto. As Bifo has laid out, however, it was this very desire of workers to escape the regimented form of the fordist workplace, and the political struggle against it, that helped transform the productive regime into the precarious, post-fordist regime of totalising semio-capitalism today. So how did the antiwork ethic and the relation between boss and worker change as the organisation of production changed? Let’s look at two more examples of songs which recount this change: TGIF by Le Tigre, a NYC-based electroclash band formed in 1998, and Werqin’ Girl by Shangela Laquifa, a totally sickening drag queen (IMO) who broke through on Ru Paul’s Drag Race Season 2.
Don’t fuck with me I’m the fuckin manager!
The move from Dolly’s world to the post-fordist world is perhaps besr summed up in TGIF by Le Tigre, whose lyrics speak of trying to balance a creative practice in the arts (“some kind of underground electro feminist performance artists”) with the rapidly dwindling prospect of job security in a white collar job (I know 40 hours a week would suit you fine / but your application’s been denied, surprise! / This is how it feels to be free.) This is combined with the gendered division of labour we saw earlier with Parton’s “boss man”, this time demanding not only that the worker does the job she’s contracted for, but also that she emotionally identifies with the (heaily surveilled) role, as is clear in the intro: “You better write down everything you accomplish /And lemme see your fuckin smiles around the office”.
The 9 to 5 of the office environment is on its way out, brought about in this historical double-bind of workers’ desire to escape the routine of rigid labour, whilst being cursed by the precarity that escape from the production line brings. There’s literally no way out of this bind short of destroying wage labour, btw. But in TGIF, what still remains is solidarity, and revelling in the illicit thrill of the antiwork subjectivity which still implicitly attacks the ideological position of capitalist managers, whether bosses or union bosses: that there is dignity in labour. As Le Tigre put it:
I hope this feeling never ends
cuz you’re beautiful
And your boss is an asshole
and I don’t give a shit what the dick thinks.
We will survive as thieves, we will survive as freaks.
Nothing reveals the immense historical positivity of workers’ self-valorization more completely than sabotage, this continual activity of the sniper, the saboteur, the absentee, the deviant, the criminal that I find myself living. I immediately feel the warmth of the workers’ and proletarian community again every time I don the ski mask…
The sabotage of absenteeism and deviancy from workplace discipline evident in the intro to TGIF perhaps shows the generalisation of the antiwork tendency as Dolly’s world gives way to something akin to our world of labour; affective yet atomised, precarious and lacking basic representation of labour unions and other working-class institutions. Despite being released at the height of an unprecedented boom due to the post-79 financialisation, with house-prices at an all-time high and credit unsustainably cheap, there’s little love lost here between the white-collar NYC office worker and the world of work; a clear communist, antiwork ethic is on display which puts wage labour outside the acceptable moral boundaries of the proletarian, even if it remains our defining characteristic: “It’s okay to hate your job, after all it’s fucking wrong.”
This is hardly an innovative moral statement. However what’s interesting is how far even this act of ethical disavowal with the wage-relation has dissipated in the decade that followed. As we see in Werqin’ Girl by Shangela Laquifa, the developing post-fordist model has resulted in the creative industries in a uniquely powerful identification not just with labour, but a subsumption of the labour process into the subjectivity of the worker. In Werqin’ Girl Shangela is so desperate for a job she structures her entire performed labour around herself as product.
I came to work. I’m here to work. Didn’t you see my badge? I’m a professional.
Sometimes I feel like drag queens are the only ones who really understand the collapse of the massified workers’ subjectivity. A decade on and we see a much more developed sense of the creative worker being a full-package, with labour almost totally indistinguishable from sense of self, in Shangela Laquifa’s Werqin’ Girl. And unsurprisingly, because what a decade: between the two songs we’ve seen a techno-cultural revolution in web 2.0, combined with totally new possibilities for developing entrepreneurial forms of income. We’ve also seen the rise of the Reality TV and new forms of celebrity built almost entirely upon personal brand and affect.
To call Werqin Girl a melting-pot of representations of affective labour would be to put it mildly; gender, race and class ping from the screen within the first 30 seconds as Shangela asserts the only references she needs for her prospective job are based upon her socio-political position: “I heard you was hiring… you ain’t gotta interview any of those other chickenheads out there. I got my credentials from the street, baby”.
Like in the drag ball scene that the contemporary US drag scene pulls its cultural references from, “realness” (the ability to blend into the hegemonic cultural norms) is key to survival here: there’s a direct link between the drag and the ability to work “clock the bag, clock the shoes — now punch the clock, it’s time to work”. And work is what Shangela is advertising; the video is a constant reiteration that she’s the most employable candidate over all the other queens, priding herself on the very precarity of her working conditions, the “never-off” condition of the creative worker. As she says “No 9 to 5, round-the-clock, overtime / haters cannot touch my drive / references? I’m a pro!” Fuck, this video is amazing.
More than this, Shangela’s status as creative worker must be maintained by an attention to personal branding through identification of her personal brand with consumer brands, despite, like many women in the creative industries, not being remunerated anywhere near enough to afford those goods: “No Kardashian Kollection here! / Donna Karen, Mui Mui, Jimmy Choo rhinestone shoe / looks like a pimp-hoe got her tax return!”. All existence, all identity is the labour that reproduces Shangela’s proletarian condition. Is this not the true condition of the affective labourer? My god!
The fact that this identity is an illusion used to market the creative worker to a prospective employer – the fact that the boss/worker relation is fundamentally unchanged, that Shangela is far from a professional in turns of selling services rather than labour – becomes clear halfway through the video, when the post-production effects, the clothes, the make-up and the ideology is dropped. We all know the classic scenes from cartoons. The coyote reaches a precipice, but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is nothing beneath it. This is Shangela’s condition: the boss has stopped the music, called time on the illusion that the precarity of affective labour is some form of freedom, and brought in her heavies to remove her from the room. With all workplace solidarity removed, and the worker in the figure of Shangela isolated through the introduction of extreme competition between workers, what opposition can Shangela offer? Nothing but a plaintiff cry to continue identification with her prospective boss. “Put me on top of the pyramid!” she cries, unaware that the only thing that can put her on top of the pyramid is the real movement which abolishes the present state of things (that is to say, communism).
As the video ends we’re reminded that, despite the glamour of ideology, the affective cultural worker is not a privileged worker who has won a degree of freedom, as imagined by her predecessors fighting against work in 1970’s Italy. Instead she is a worker on the edge; her fierce makeup and sickening clothes are just workplace expenses (paid from her own pocket), and precarity remains the proletarian condition. As we fade out, what do we see of the workers’ autonomy? The continued threat of force and physical coercion (“Oh no you ain’t gotta call security on me. I came up the elevator I can go back down the elevator”), intimidation and workplace bullying (“Ok, I know she better stop rolling her eyes at me from behind that cubicle!”) and always-impending poverty (“Err, no, I have a ride home thank you - err, is the bus still running?”).
The drudgery of Dolly’s 9 to 5 routine is now a utopian pipe dream next to Shangela’s totalised, “werq, werq, werq, werq, werq, werq, werq” routine of precarious affective labour. Capital has reacted to the demands of the emergent class subjectivity in the 1960s and ’70s, for an end to the regimented boredom of the production line, for sexual autonomy and self-expression, and has transformed those demands into a new regime of labour more precarious, more profitable and more destructive than ever before. To reproduce our lives we must sell not just our labour but our humanity. And what a way to make a living.
With thanks to Richard John Jones and Seán McGovern
Not been on tumblr much lately cos of being at work all the time, but this seemed worth sharing. As it happens, I was just listening to that Le Tigre song immediately after leaving work today anyway.
Today’s Novara on Thatcher’s death was an interesting assessment of her legacy. Here are a few of my own brief theses on Thatcher’s death and celebrations, loosely based on the themes in the show.
1) “She may be dead, but her legacy continues”. No one is so stupid to believe otherwise. Ignorance of this is not the reason people celebrated her death, was never the reason people planned the celebration her death. In the conservative historian E. Kantorowicz’s tome, The King’s Two Bodies, he explores how the medieval sovereigns of Europe were invested with both a body corporeal- the shitting breathing bit- and a body mystic - the actual concept of sovereignty itself, that includes the realm and its holy order. Going much further here is going to take me off track, but my point is this: it is a long-established precedent to embody a conceptual framework in a person, with complete appreciation for the artificiality of doing so. Thatchers death is important precisely because it prefigures the death yet to come; the death of neoliberal economics itself.
2) Must we show respect for the dead?
Thatcher never afforded her enemies the same respect. Moreover, her class, her party, has never afforded the poor that respect. From Pinochet to Hillsborough, this bears repeating. Those who accuse ‘fellow leftists’ of flippancy or lack of solemnity, are themselves the least serious of all, because they are clearly incapable of taking seriously the material impact of neoliberalism, and seeing therein the cause of our rejoicing.
3) This is a moment to make a break, to disrupt the solemn atmosphere of statesmanlike economic sycophancy.We were expected to don our rictus grins for the Royal Wedding, The Olympics, and now expected to make the national switch to mourning. In a quotidian sense, we are constantly implored to produce the right affect at the right moment, in the intensively affective labour of post-industrial economy. Our affect will never be appropriate under capitalism. We should embrace the anomic qualities of this moment: ’The left’, so often accused of ‘joylessness’ is now, suddenly, too joyful.
4) ‘The left’ is not celebrating because ‘it was beaten’. We are celebrating because we are still here. We have survived. As long as we survive there is a chance for revenge, the revenge of actually building the world we want to see.
Went to a straight-edge show today. I kind of expect all hardcore gigs to have more or less the same people at them, but apparently there’s a whole secret scene of wholesome sober kids who only come out when straight-edge bands play. Was pretty weird. If you’re not so cripplingly neurotic that you need at least three pints before you can have even a minor social interaction without being gripped by intense anxiety and awkwardness, then who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my scene?