Friday, May 01, 2015

Leisure Day!

"Nineteenth-century capitalism exhausted the life of millions of workers; twentieth-century capitalism can well end by destroying the mind of civilized man." (Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, p. 355-6)

In a recent column, Steve Fuller argues that "'privacy invasion' has become the new 'worker exploitation' in our era of informational capitalism." So we need what he calls "Marx 2.0" to mobilise an effective resistance. But, as I argued on Wednesday, Marx's original focus on the exploitation of workers missed the underlying or pre-requisite exploitation of nature's bounty. It's not the worker's labour that is exploited, but the worker's leisure. Capital does not really need workers to achieve its goals; machines and natural processes do most of the actual work. Capital needs mainly to prevent Diggers: people who "work the lands in common and ... make the waste grounds grow". Capital needs to get us to rely on work for purchasing power, and on purchasing power to satisfy our needs. Capitalism needs consumers, not workers.

Interestingly, Norman Mailer made this argument for a kind of Marx 2.0 way back in the late 1950s. In a short piece called "From Surplus Value to the Mass-media", he analysed mass consumerism as an exploitation of the "personal leisure" that is needed for us to repair the damage inflicted on us by "a war-and-pleasure economy". What is so appalling about surveillance, if you ask me, is that it invades a privacy that has already been exploited. After all, our privacy is, let's say, that secret part of our leisure that has not already been discovered by the State and the Corporation and tapped for profit.

Mailer was very concerned about the consequences of this on "the mind of civilised man". Indeed, the full quote from which the epigraph is taken runs as follows:

It is likely that the survival of capitalism is no longer possible without the creation in the consumer of a series of psychically disruptive needs which circle about such wants and emotions as the desire for excessive security, the alleviation of guilt, the lust for comfort and new commodity, and the consequent allegiance to the vast lie about the essential health of the State and the economy, an elaborated fiction whose bewildering interplay of real and false detail must devil the mass into a progressively more imperfect apperception of reality and thus drive them closer to apathy, psychosis, and violence. Nineteenth-century capitalism exhausted the life of millions of workers; twentieth-century capitalism can well end by destroying the mind of civilized man. (Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, p. 355-6)

What does all this have to do with academic writing? you might ask. Well, let's remember the original Greek meaning of "school", namely, "spare time, leisure, rest, ease; idleness". Our schools are precisely what should prevent the destruction of the mind of humankind by providing at least some people (and all people until a certain age) with means for "the adequate exercise of personal leisure" to recover from the "psychic havoc" of capitalism. As one might expect, however, they are all too often just another site of exploitation.

Since this is the International Workers' Day, also sometimes called Labour Day, I'd like to end this post by joining those who are calling for its reframing as Basic Income Day or what I would call Leisure Day. What we really need is not "coveillance" to push back against state and corporate surveillance by redefining "intellectual property", as Steve argues. What we need is a direct and adequate compensation for the hoarding of the earth's natural productivity by capitalist rent seekers. Our privacy means very little without leisure. We don't need to own our private thoughts. We need, first and foremost, time to think them!

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