Type
Essay
Category
Politics

On|Off

1 FEELING IT
I think it started when I was at school. A sense of not having anything to do with what I was supposed to be doing. It wasn’t painful. It wasn’t a hard school. I simply was not the slightest bit interested in the basic activity of being at school, being a high-school student. I concede that I enjoyed – slightly – a couple of subjects in Year 11. But maybe it was more the energy and fairness of the teachers that engaged me. Apart from that, kicking the footy during breaks and after school was the most interesting thing I did back then. I couldn’t wait for it to end.

It’s when you leave school and enter the world as a worker that you can really feel it. While I was still at school, someone older told me that he wished he was back there. He warned me not to wish for it to end too soon. Once I began work, I knew what he meant but I didn’t want to go back to school. Work was worse but it was just more of the same thing.

As for work – working – there was nothing that I wanted to do, to be. No vocational counselling or badgering could change that. So I took the easiest option. I began work as a carpenter, apprenticed to my father. I wasn’t interested in carpentry, but a few of my friends were going into trades and I thought I might get to know my dad. I lasted little more than a year.

Over the next ten years I worked in dozens of jobs. I writhed my way through and inflicted on others the angst and ennui of my twenties. Up until I was about twenty-two my father would sit me down and ask me what I was doing, what I wanted to do and, more importantly, he asked me what I was going to do. I answered over and over again, “I don’t know”.

He’d ask, “Do you wanna end up working in a factory?”

I answered “No” but actually didn’t know. I knew I wasn’t meant to want to work in a factory but couldn’t see why that was worse than any other job.

Every job had the same effect. Factory or building site or servo. I despised it. I took many, many sickies. Quite often, one sickie would turn into a week off. But I rarely got the sack because I worked hard enough while I was there, mainly because I didn’t want anyone else to have to work harder because of me. I knew that drudgery had to be shared. Generally, work made me nauseous. At that time, though, I didn’t really know why. It was strange being surrounded by people who showed up every day for decades. I couldn’t understand how they did it. As a young man who thought little of himself, with no confidence in his ability at anything, let alone the ability to make sense of the world, I could only conclude that something was wrong with me.

On one of my weeks off I decided to catch the train up to Sydney, simply because I’d never been there. I read a second-hand copy of Lawson stories on the way. I had no real political understanding of what it is to labour and I got nothing out of Lawson along those lines. But in him I found, for the first time, a portrayal of bosses and work which coincided with my experience, and that the boss to be most wary of is the one who expects loyalty. Probably more importantly, Lawson’s stories encouraged me to keep wandering. They consolidated an urge to be on the road, and to read about it. So of course I found Twain, London, Kerouac and others.

Like Lawson, these writers taught me nothing about politics. However, I began to come around to the idea that it wasn’t that something was wrong with me but there was something wrong with the ways of the world. Also, in Kerouac, I found the romanticism of the ‘being’ of the bum. I was still angsty and annoying, but I didn’t lose so much sleep over it. This was a significant early experience for me. A liberation from the mainstream of expectations and from the associated guilt. I loved it.

2 RECOGNISING IT
But I still worked most of the time, and despised it. I spent a total of three years (on and off, in between hitch-hiking trips) in a car wash, and despised it. Enjoying myself away from work just lent it some kind of utility.

Sydney again. I wasn’t working and wasn’t on the dole. I can’t remember what I was living on at the time, apart from the generosity of friends. A girl I was having a fling with drove down from Sydney, picked me up and took me back. I told her I had no money but she said it didn’t matter. She was minding a house in Woolloomooloo and I hung around there while she was at work. After I started to frequent Kings Cross she gave me books to read to keep me home. Then, when she realised that ‘no money’ meant no money, she sent me back to Melbourne. The only book I remember is the one that accompanied me on the bus.

Once again, the book itself and the writer had little to do with expanding my consciousness. It was Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines.1 I know now that the book and Chatwin’s methods during its creation have been criticised, even discredited.2 At the time though, I enjoyed reading a narrative with an element of being on the road. That always got me in. What I remember most are the sections of the book containing quotes and aphorisms of other writers and thinkers. Inspired by this, I began my own collection, which I still add to. One passage, included in the narrative of the The Songlines, is from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, on the alienation of labour.

I don’t know the passage word for word but am a carrier of its sense.

What, then, constitutes the alienation of labour? First, the fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e. it does not belong to his essential being; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. His labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labour is shunned like the plague. External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is a labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Lastly, the external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs not to himself but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates independently of the individual – that is, operates on him as an alien, divine or diabolical activity – so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of self.3

The passage is beautiful because it’s true. In arguments with friends, the idea of truth is a staple. I hold that truth isn’t something that can be sought out, discovered or proven via scientific method, but something that is recognised when it appears, or emerges or when it’s revealed. That’s how I understand Marx’s passage on the alienation of labour. I could quibble with him about terminology, but I don’t. What he wrote is simply true. It was my introduction to political thought too, strangely, via Bruce Chatwin.

Apart from being true – or maybe this is what makes them so true – Marx’s words are a phenomenological explanation of what it is to labour and why it is sickening. He evokes the despair of being split in two and stretching and straining to pull it all together. At the very least it’s a dualism that is phenomenologically real. It’s true because it can be felt in the bones. It’s not just some nerdish cognitive puzzle like Descartes’ method of doubt. When you think about the thought game that leads to Descartes’ pronouncement cogito ergo sum, it sounds like something a group of gamers would come up with in a chat room. It’s lame. And we have founded much of our philosophy on it. The contemporary cliché, the idea that our ‘minds are like computers’, is part of the nerdish legacy. Look around. Who runs this joint? Do they feel anything? They can’t. Their thoughts have no body.

3 KNOWING IT
Once you know, you know. Once you are a conscious carrier of this sense, work is never the same. It’s no longer bewildering. Knowing it, however, doesn’t help all that much. Being conscious of my being as a wage labourer, a wage slave, doesn’t make it any less nauseating. Nevertheless, knowing it made me a proselytiser. Not to tell is impossible. And once I knew, I made a more deliberate effort to not be a wage slave. I felt vindicated as one who ‘shunned it like the plague’. I still haven’t found an activity that totally escapes this way of being but I ended up going to university. In tutes I was introduced to Weber’s iron cage and Hobbes’ pallid idea that we are all just cogs in a machine society. I socialised with people who, because of their youth or class, had never seen a factory floor or a building site except on TV. I still worked in such places during uni. I’d tell them about the experience of reblocking a house and fume at their responses. For example: “It must feel good to do that kind of work. It’s good for you.” Steam would come from my ears. A lecture on the phenomenological actuality of Marx’s passage (a text they knew) would follow.

I could forget too. After an academic year of reading and essay writing came the summer holidays. In need of rent and beer money, I’d return enthusiastically to a building site. The friends I mentioned earlier were still tradesmen and I often picked up work with them. I admit that there is something about a long hot day toiling alongside a friend. The beer at knock-off time is the sweetest it ever can be. I’d go home with a contented glow. But that would be just the first day. When the alarm rang the next morning, the knowledge that the job still had two months to run shattered any romantic or wholesome notions about the nobility of hard work. The knock-off beer was always good, but never as good as that first one and all day every day a phrase would ring in my ears. Mortified body, ruined mind the loss of self.

4 CONSUMING IT
As expected, not much was changed by my university education. Like many of my friends, I ended up back in the same workplaces. With me, that was factories and building sites. I did, however, try to escape and after a couple of years and many fruitless interviews I landed a job at a student union. I reckoned that it would be a more tolerable form of wage slavery. I was right. I lasted longer at it than I’ve ever done before. (Un)Fortunately, as with the experience of every job I’ve ever had, I ended up needing four-day blocks of sickies.

I had hoped to be able to work in an ‘unalienated’ way at the union, to find that my ‘physical and mental energy’ would be ‘developed freely’ as part of my ‘essential being’. Admittedly, what I did there often coincided with my stated positions but it wasn’t long before I realised that even this labour is alienated. I won’t go into detail as to why it is alienating or why I was alienated. There is no need. Go back to the passage cited above. My work there was not my own. Despite my idealistic expectations, the effect was the same. Mortified body, ruined mind the loss of self.

There was a difference, though, between this work and all my previous jobs. The pay. It was plenty. There was more than I could ever spend. Some of my fellow ‘professionals’, however, were constantly broke. Their offices multi-tasked as storehouses for piles of clothes-shop bags, CDs and appliances. I have always been astounded by the capacity of the liberal Left to consume. I’ve worked at four student unions now. They vary but there is conspicuous consumption by some staff at every one. Though this didn’t really make its mark on me (I remained engaged in the struggle with the traditional kind), it was my introduction to another kind of alienation. The lives of many of my colleagues were immersed, subsumed, in consumption. This encompassed everything we’re familiar with. A superficial4 obsession and preoccupation with pop culture TV, clothes, movies, events and festivals. These are all things that I have enjoyed, but not that way.

As a teenager I enjoyed going to the footy. I used to stand on the beer-soaked terraces at Victoria Park watching Collingwood. It was awesome. The noise, the humour, the tribalism. There was more going on than a game of suburban football. It was like being in another world. I still have some indulgences – books, alcohol and the odd CD – but I’ve never been a big consumer. Shopping is for necessities, for food and clothes. Somewhere along the way I learned that as long as you have food and a roof over your head, you’re pretty well off. Anything extra is luxury. As a kid, I remember ours being the only house in the street that had smoke coming out the chimney. We used briquettes and timber off-cuts from dad’s building jobs. Nowadays a smoky chimney means that there’s a wood heater inside, burning up redgum forests from the other side of the Murray. You have to be well off to warm yourself with that stuff.

I’ll stop trying to explain it my way.

A writer had already recognised what I was within. This time I didn’t stumble across his path. My experience led me to him. He is Guy Debord. I found his book, The Society of the Spectacle, on the internet. When I read it I went, “Yep, that’s it”. This passage, in particular, sums up what I’ve been trying to say:

Whereas in the primitive phase of capitalist accumulation, ‘‘political economy sees in the proletarian only the worker” who must receive the minimum indispensable for the conservation of his labour power, without ever seeing him “in his leisure and humanity”, these ideas of the ruling class are reversed as soon as the production of commodities reaches a level of abundance which requires a surplus of collaboration from the worker. This worker, suddenly redeemed from the total contempt which is clearly shown him by all the varieties of organisation and supervision of production, finds himself every day, outside of production and in the guise of a consumer, seemingly treated as an adult, with zealous politeness. At this point the humanism of the commodity takes charge of the worker’s “leisure and humanity”, simply because now political economy can and must dominate these spheres as political economy. Thus the “perfected denial of man” has taken charge of the totality of human existence.5

After reading Debord, Adrian Peacock’s Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves6 and a little book of Foucault’s lectures, Fearless Speech,7 I reckon I spent my time at the student union in a relatively unalienated way. I tried to work on stuff that was ‘my own’ and on what was important to the least managerial and bureaucratic students, those I liked. Some staff stopped talking to me. Importantly, however, students continued to enjoy my participation. Eventually, inevitably, I had to leave. Since then I’ve gone from job to job, never full-time. Short of not working at all (which does not mean ‘doing nothing’), it’s the only way to stay human. Unfortunately, knowing alienation and trying to steer clear of it is just a small consolation. What about the people that pass by, with clenched brows, wandering in a multitude of isolation, loaded down with shopping bags, appointments and wallets light on cash and heavy with tickets for festivals and ‘artistic’ events, all organised by accountants? What about everyone else?

5 ON|OFF
Fifteen years ago, you could still go to Victoria Park and soak up the atmosphere. That atmosphere consisted of tribal excitement, the odour of spilt beer and poorly maintained toilet blocks, (good humoured) obscenity, marijuana smoke and swapping a couple of coins for a paper bag of peanuts from a man who inched his way through the crowd with a big sack full of them. If Collingwood was playing St Kilda, their barrackers would treat us to the best day of stand-up comedy that could be had in the open, in the rain. Victoria Park wasn’t always pleasant, even for a Collingwood fan, but it was never boring. It was a world away from work and consumption. It was very human. The same could be said for Melbourne’s band scene. There were once hundreds of places to see and hear a very good band. They could be stumbled onto. We could be lured in off the street into a dank bar by a tantalising riff, for three or four dollars at the door. Now there are fewer places and often you have to book to get in. There is no chance in this, no spontaneity, no luck, no surprise, no serendipity. We could think of other examples. Urban festivals used to be a bit ragged. What has happened to the Brunswick Street Festival? Darebin? St Kilda? What has, over time, squeezed out this kind of ‘worldly’ human activity? What do we have in their place? Grand Prix. Commonwealth Games. Aussie Rules redesigned for Kath & Kim and Lachlan Murdoch.

This isn’t a lament for traditional values. The outer of football grounds and smoky pubs have never been everyone’s cup of tea. They, their endangered (if not extinct) status, are just examples of increased control, containment of the potentials for spontaneity. The core of these activities seems the same, but the edges have been smoothed off. The fringes have become frills.

When Debord wrote The Society of the Spectacle in 1967, he didn’t live in the world we do. He wasn’t trying to be prophetic. He was writing about his world. He described a world which was having the life sucked out of it. Did he imagine that it could go this far? I imagine that in his world, people related to much of the society of the spectacle as fun distractions from daily life. Superficial fun, yes, but fun nonetheless. Debord was confronted by the novelties introduced to culture by the postwar boom in consumerism with its “expanding economy of ‘services’ and leisure”.8 For Debord the spectacular society was just beginning, even if he could see that it had been coming and increasing for some time. Nevertheless, traditional pursuits like sport and music culture, communal leisure, remained relatively intact. Their total subsumption as commodities, and their integration into the society of the spectacle for constrained and productive participation, came later, gradually. This process seems to have reached its zenith while seeming like a process that has no zenith, and everyone’s on pills to deal with it.9

What is the function of these distractions? Well, they’re no mere distractions. They’ve become more. They’re more sophisticated and controlled as ‘events’ and, I believe, people participate in them with an intensity and diligence beyond ‘fun’. As Melbourne’s Commonwealth Games experience shows, an individual’s participation in ‘the society of managed events’ is a demonstration of allegiance, of observance, loyalty, duty and solidarity. If only these were mere spectacles.

We are familiar with the circumstances in which workers have been asked to make further sacrifices, work harder for the ‘good of the state’. These circumstances arise in times of war or during periods of economic hardship. Many workers instinctively recognise this call for what it is, many don’t. We, as a ‘workforce’, are not as loyal to our employers as our parents were. We are largely casualised. Bosses find it more difficult to ask for loyalty when workers know that their conditions of employment explicitly avoid such sentiments. Capitalists themselves know that such hypocrisy will be recognised. Are we witnessing a change? Surrounded by WorkChoices, with the diminishing expectation of loyalty to a boss, we are cajoled into pledging allegiance to consumption and the spectacle – the society of the managed events.

Deleuze and Guattari, in Anti-Oedipus, discuss participation in the system of credit and debt as an alliance with capital and the (despotic) state. Is it more? An alliance is an agreement involving nominal equals. It’s what nation-states do when both recognise that they can’t order each other around. It’s not necessarily a relationship of amity. It is a pragmatic agreement to cooperate and/or a suspension or cessation of hostilities. For those who take a position in opposition to capital, an alliance, understood as suspension of hostilities, is problematic enough. I think, though, that debt should be seen as more than a simple alliance. It’s a pledge of allegiance, which is different – worse. Those involved are not equal. One is in a position of power, authority or reverence and the other makes a pledge to him, her or it (rather than with her or him) under terms and conditions set by the creditor. This relationship can only end (without impunity) if the pledge has been fulfilled by the debtor to the creditor’s complete satisfaction. Debt is a formal, legal way to extract allegiance and has been with us for a long time. With wage labour, it fills out capital’s coercive tradition. In other words, because of our need for food and housing, they’ve got us over a barrel. We can do our best to avoid it but often, despite ourselves, we submit. However, an allegiance to the society of managed events, and conscientious participation in consumption as production (often via debt ),10 is largely ‘voluntary’. We have moved from alienation from ourselves and the world via our labour – to allegiance to (total) alienation via our every waking breath and action. Fuck.

I’ve got a problem. I don’t know how this feels. I don’t have a phenomenological sense of it. I cannot carry a sense of it. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve been able to separate – alienate – myself from it, or because it’s so everywhere that there’s nothing distinct enough from it to be able to feel its shitness as alienation. How does it feel? All I can do is sit down in the main street and watch how people move, bunched in waves but separate. In purposeful transit between production and consumption. Coming on and going off. All I can say is that everyone looks ratty.

Whether we experience our society through the alienation of labour, as cogs in a machine, or as loyal, indebted, ratty consumer subjects – it is all dehumanising. The solutions of the past century, however noble, however well-meaning or mean, have been unable to people their models with humans. Fascism, liberal democracy, communism, Nazism, neoliberalism, capitalism; all require state organisation, hierarchy and the allegiance of citizen subjects. More accurately, they all require an alienated citizen subject, which necessitates a call to allegiance. On occasion, in some places, a system may work tolerably well for a good amount of people. None, however, fulfils its promise. It’s all about alienation.

Alienation is dehumanisation. For three hundred years, people have thought about dehumanisation in machine terms. “We’re all just cogs!” Now we have reached a stage where, instead of Hobbes’ machine metaphor, we can adopt one more appropriate for the digital age. Now it’s simpler. We’re just a bunch of switches. On|off.  |O Nothing more can be squeezed from the machine – from linear, causal, dependent organisation. Too many cogs were important. If they failed or wore out, the machine had to stop for a while. Not now.  |O Ones and nones. If one switch fails, it’s a ‘loser’, becomes redundant. It’s bypassed. Nothing stops. The event can go completely unnoticed. But still, the big idea is to get every switch going at once. All on. But what would happen then?

I texted a friend. “What would happen if all the circuits/switches in a computer were turned on?”

He replied, “If this is a joke, do tell. If not, you would no longer have a computer, because you would not have enough difference to have enough information, or calculation of it.”

Not enough difference to have information? Not enough difference to be able to tell what it is we are looking at, what it is we are being? Not enough left outside, to chance, to rot, left off – to feel, to recognise, to know.

Mortified body, ruined mind the loss of self.

Not that I believe us to be computers, or a computer. We’re not. But if everything went to plan, and everyone was on, what would happen? Could we only know what we are not? Will we be incapable of knowing what we are? Maybe that. But I wonder. Would it, will we, all crash?

1. Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines, Picador, London, 1988.
2. See Barry Hill, Broken Song: TGH Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession, Vintage, Sydney, 2003. Hill writes of the concept of songlines as “falsely attributed to [TGH] Strehlow” and “most glibly by Bruce Chatwin”, 5, 71. See also Nicholas Shakespeare, Bruce Chatwin, Harvill in association with Jonathan Cape, London, 1999, 409-414, 417-419, 490-491.
3. Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, International Publishers, New York, 1964, 110-111. The passage I cite here is from the Manuscripts and is longer than the condensation included on page 90 of The Songlines. Nevertheless, Chatwin’s book is where I first encountered it.
4. See Damon Young, The Silent Chorus: Culture and Superficiality, PhD thesis, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, 2003.
5. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, Detroit, 1983.
6. Adrian Peacock, Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves, Ellipsis, London, 2002.
7. Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2001.
8. Ibid.
9. Guy Debord revisited The Society of the Spectacle in the late 1980s and commented, “the spectacle has never before put its mark to such a degree on almost the full range of socially produced behaviour and objects … When the spectacle was concentrated, the greater part of surrounding society escaped it; when diffuse, a small part; today, no part.” From Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Verso, London, 1998, 9.
10. “A time will come when the creditor has not yet lent while the debtor never quits repaying, for repaying is a duty but lending is an option” (emphasis added). From Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Athlone Press, London, 1984, 197-198. See pages 187-200 for more on alliance and debt.

Terry Eyssens now does doctoral research in philosophy at the University of Ballarat. He would like to thank Simon Firth, Damon Young, Ruth Quibell, Karen Ballard, Jeroen van Veen, Alan Turner, Jane Mummery, Sally Skinner, Damien Dupuis, Bruce Lindsay and Dawn McBride for their encouragement, advice and critical responses to drafts of this essay. (And addditional thanks to Damon Young for the text message.)
© Terry Eyssens
Overland 188 – spring 2007, pp. 62-67

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