Public intellectualism has its own rhythms. This week’s special guest on Things Alix Mortimer Has Been Saying in the Pub Since 2007 is David Graeber, who asked, here first and then more recently and I think forcefully here, why we are so culturally attached to the idea of work as a virtue, and by extension why jobs for all is still considered a respectable goal of economic policy, or indeed of politics at all. He has his own answer – capitalist conspiracy – but that’s not why I liked reading the pieces. One of the most interesting passages in the interview, for a liberal, is this:
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal—that we work more and more for more and more stuff—is rotten from the get-go.
I.e. my pub-bound discoveries were of course not original either. Anarchists and their intellectual descendents, left-wing libertarians, fans of Citizens’ Basic Income and the like have been saying this kind of thing since, well, the 1880s. Graeber relates the history without noting the corollary – certain groups of people have never forgotten these aspirations, and they have continued to nurture them in small-scale and heavily pub-centric political movements while mainstream conservatives and socialists, or variants thereof, have spent the latter half of the twentieth century re-arranging deckchairs on the head of a pin. Inside a box.
And it strikes me that all this is the kind of thing you really couldn’t discuss in the heated atmosphere of 2009 through 2011ish without being easily confused with a bastard, exactly the sort of bastard that you were in fact determined to bring down with nets. Taking 2,000 words to suggest that we need to shake all the pieces off the current board and set it up like this and like that is basically the sport of the comfortable, and it doesn’t play so well when your audience is caught up in a collective sense that there are truly pressing human problems to solve. It’s not that they mind public intellectuals pitching in on national crises with 2,000 word articles – they’re reading the damn things after all – but when things are fraught your politicised internet-consumer does like to feel a sense of immediacy, familiarity and pragmatism come off the screen. If you’ve ever watched a land taxer argue with that particularly keen-as-mustard type of social democrat you’ll know the sort of mismatch I mean. The social democrat usually has trouble accepting that someone who isn’t discussing housing policy as it currently stands could possibly have the interests of those being royally shat upon by it at heart, and s/he will quickly fall to watching the land taxer’s words for tells of conservatism, and no-one learns anything.
That’s where we’ve been for the last few years. And as such I see it as an interesting bellwether that Graeber is raising the bullshit jobs thing now. It no longer feels quite so much like a kick in the face to people who can’t get jobs and very much want them – not because those people don’t still exist, albeit in lesser numbers, but because the national narrative has moved on from “people like me are being shafted, burn an effigy at once” to “people about whom I care are being shafted, let’s have a full and frank exchange of views on what to do about it”. Not fair, not logical, highly human. Anarchist approaches to work, life and liberty are perhaps part of a suite of ideas – like land tax, like CBI – that people will start to discuss again.
(NB I’m not sure how much he talks about this in Debt, published 2011, because I still haven’t finished it and I can’t handle the emotional wear and tear of using the search function on the Kindle which has seemingly been designed by NASA to respond to every particle of matter that touches its screen except the collection of atoms that make up my finger. I read everything in order, only the once, like an ancient unrolling a scroll. I presume everybody else’s is the same and we are all just too damn embarrassed to mention it.)