History in Darkness: Seven Fragments on Siegfried Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses
This text was prepared as a talk for the Anguish Language/Literature and Crisis seminar at Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik, Berlin, 1-4 October, 2013. (This is an edited draft of the version I posted up here a few months back.)
Siegfried Kracauer’sThe Salaried Masses was written in 1929 and published in 1930. It is an unusual book, composed of a series of twelve newspaper articles, which has fallen into relative obscurity. That obscurity has its own history, beginning with the Nazi accession three years after the books’ publication. It was not until 1971, when the first signs of the next major crisis of capitalism were clearly visible, that it would finally be republished by Suhrkamp Verlag. The text was translated and published by Verso in 1998, but has received little attention in the English-speaking world. It is perhaps a result of its unusual form that it has not been canonised as a major sociological work on capitalist crisis.
Kracauer’s little book was strangely prescient in offering descriptions and arguments that precede the critiques of spectacle and the everyday made by situationists in the 1950s and 1960s as well as touching on issues that became important to Italian left-communist and workerist thought in the 1960s and 1970s regarding the questions of the labour process, immaterial labour, class composition (although in a text written forty years earlier we are spared the language which today has rigidified into jargon.) The following seven fragments are reflections on this text. They are an attempt to reanimate it in our own time of crisis, to examine the mode of writing Kracauer developed, while considering its theoretical difficulties, and the fruit that it bore.
October 1929 was the moment of the greatest economic catastrophe in the history of capitalist accumulation. It was also the month in which the text of Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses would be completed. The first stuttering of economic collapse became apparent in March that year, as the Dow Jones tumbled. A month later, Kracauer would begin three months of visits to locations of importance to a newly expanded white-collar class in the German metropolis. His investigations were not confined to offices and workplaces, but included also department stores, unemployment and benefits claims offices, and dance halls. His project could not be content with describing, in fine distinction, the latest developments of the labour process, for this process spilled out of the offices, into the street and the night. The enormous crisis of capitalism is not mentioned by name in the text, but is alluded to on a number of occasions, often haunting the book (and the people described within its pages) as the spectre of unemployment. In the opening chapter he writes,
The proletarianisation of employees is beyond dispute. At all events, similar social conditions prevail for broad layers of salary earners as for the proletariat. An industrial reserve-army of salaried employees has come into being. The view that this is a temporary phenomenon is countered by the alternative view that it could be dismantled only along with the system that conjured it up.
Elsewhere he would refer to “the overabundant supply of workers and the present-day shortage of openings,” or to the fear of redundancy in middle age, with no prospect for re-employment. By the time The Salaried Masses appeared as a book in 1930, several months after its chapters were published in the Frankfurter Zeitung, the crisis would be referred to more explicitly in a preface: “No question about it, industry and commerce find themselves in a particularly difficult situation today.” Mass unemployment created new pressures on the newly expanded salaried class at the centre of Kracauer’s study. This meant not only an economic downward pressure on wages, but also the fear of being replaced or outmoded. This existential fear was tied up not merely with employment as such, but was constellated with the particular historical situation of the culture erected by this salaried class. It is in the global economic crisis read as a crisis of this culture that the relation of literature to crisis might be explored in a different direction. As the new conditions of labour spilled out of the workplaces, a new ‘employee culture’ began to predominate in Berlin. Kracauer characterises this new culture in relation to the bourgeois culture of the nineteenth century: as that bourgeois culture declined into war and large-scale industry in which small small businesses were conglomerated, and capital came into the ownership and control of the state, the image of an already outmoded bourgeois culture became fixed in the minds of this new class, while its contents were emptied.
The position of these strata in the economic process has changed, their middle-class conception of life has remained. They nurture a false consciousness. They would like to defend differences, the acknowledgment of which obscures their situation; they devote themselves to an individualism that would be justified only if they could shape their fate as individuals. Even where they struggle as wage-earners in and with their unions for better conditions of existence, their real existence is often conditioned by the better one they once had. A vanished bourgeois way of life haunts them.
The decline of bourgeois high culture into such spießig sensibilities at the end of the nineteenth century is immensely complex. Perhas its most well-known cultural consequence, though, was the end of the novel or Bildungsroman, at least in the form in which it had existed since the end of the eighteenth century, as the pre-eminent genre for the description of the transformation of inner psychological states of that bourgeois class. As Walter Benjamin noted,
The novel seems from the outset to be more evidently aimed at consumption, unproductive enjoyment than other forms of art. Elsewhere, I have explored the analogy between the novel and food in greater depth. The time when this type of food possessed any nutritional value has long since passed, and the ‘popularity’ of art, something that today is represented by popular novels, has long since ceased to have anything productive or nourishing about it – unlike the novel at the time of the incipient emancipation of the bourgeoisie. Nowadays it is rather the expression of the complete integration of this type of writing into the world of commodity circulation.
Three years later, Benjamin would write of the crisis of bourgeois culture again:
In our writing, opposites that in happier ages fertilized one another have become insoluble antinomies. Thus, science and belle lettres, criticism and literary production, culture and politics, fall apart in disorder and lose all connection with one another. The scene of this literary confusion is the newspaper.
Kracauer had been an editor of the feuilleton section of the left-leaning Frankfurter Zeitung since 1924. As a writer he produced almost 2000 articles for the paper between 1921 and 1933. As an editor he was responsible for commissioning and publishing many modernist fragments in the form that came to be known as the Denkbild (literally the thought-image), by writers such as Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno. If we are to understand The Salaried Masses as standing in the feuilleton tradition, it occupies the ground of the crossroads between these two crises – the crisis of bourgeois culture, and the economic crisis of 1929. And if this new class were attached to a set of nineteenth century ideals, however deformed those ideals had become in the process, their fantasy was sustainable as long as their employment granted a certain existential security. In the crisis of 1929, this security would begin to break down, revealing – through that spectre of unemployment – every corruption and every emptiness of the culture that had been created. The place of expression, the form that would finally at this moment overtake the novel, was the feuilleton. In 1931, Benjamin wrote,
It is poverty that compresses the creativity of our best talents today, with an enormous atmospheric pressure. In this way, talent finds its refuge in the dark belly of the feuilleton, as if in the belly of a wooden horse, from which one day this creativity will emerge and set alight the Troy of the modern press.
But the age of radical feuilletonisme was to be short-lived. That same historical movement that saw the small-time cosmopolitan bourgeoisie shunted into the world of newly proletarianised salaried employement would catch up with the newspaper too. In 1932, the Frankfurter Zeitung was bought by the huge German chemical conglomerate I. G. Farben. In 1933, Kracauer fled Berlin for Paris.
Wie herrlich leuchtet
Mir die Natur!
Wie glänzt die Sonne!
Wie lacht die Flur!
— J. W. Goethe
There is no sun. Walter Benjamin wrote in a review of Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses, that if we want to visualise the book’s author, we see,
a ragpicker, at daybreak, picking up the rags of speech and verbal scraps with his stick and tossing them, grumbling and growling, a little drunk, into his cart, not without letting one or other of those faded calicoes – ‘humanity’, ‘inner nature’, ‘absorption’ – flutter derisively in the breeze. A ragpicker, early on, at the dawn of the day of revolution.
Thirty years later, Adorno would describe Gustav Mahler, whose music preceded Kracauer’s book by thirty years in similar terms:
Free as only one can be who has not himself been entirely swallowed by culture, in his musical vagrancy he picks up the broken glass from the roadside and holds it up to the sun so that all the colours are refracted.
Benjamin, adopting imagery from Baudelaire, does a certain violence to the relentless vitriol of Kracauer’s book. There is no sun. It is not just that this day of revolution failed to dawn. In the history of those decades between the bourgeois decline within which Mahler’s music made its homeless home and the shuddering of financial capitals in 1929, those colours had been integrated, subsumed, and transformed into artifice. There was no emergent daylight, only the darkened shockwaves through the bodies of workers. Kracauer’s object is a world of rooms flooded with light, but “the light blinds more than it illuminates – and perhaps the abundance of light pouring out over our large towns serves not least to increase the darkness.” Elsewhere in The Salaried Masses, Kracauer would describe an amusement hall in Berlin:
The fact that nineteenth-century panoramas are coming back into such high regard in all these establishments is related to the monotony of work. The more monotony holds sway over the working day, the further away you must be transported once work ends – assuming that attention is to be diverted from the process of production in the background. The true counterstroke against the office machine, however, is the world of vibrant colour. The world not as it is, but as it appears in popular hits. A world every last corner of which is cleansed, as though with a vacuum cleaner, of the dust of everyday existence.
Where colour and light belong to the enemy, where they no longer offer any beautiful illumination, Kracauer’s dark diagnostic of technics and rationality examines, from within that darkness, how this world comes to appear under the artificial glare. There is no sun. In the final paragraphs of his book, Kracauer makes this explicit: “Nature”, he writes, “which is also embodied in capitalistic desire, is one of the system’s most powerful allies; and […] its perpetual glorification, moreover, conflicts with the planned organization of economic life.” The Salaried Masses is not only a sunless book, but also a type of writing, a mode of expression, that no dawning day could ever redeem.
This omnipresent darkness, this sunlessness, offers quite an unusual problem constellated between human expression, literature or the work of writing, and capitalist crisis. In essay called ‘Reflections on Class Theory’ written in 1942, but never published in his lifetime, Adorno wrote that “from the most recent form of injustice, a steady light reflects back on history as a whole. Only in this way can theory enable us to use the full weight of history to gain an insight into the present without succumbing in resignation to the burden of the past.” Adopting Kracauer’s gaze, one of steely realism, I would like to subject this figure from Adorno that looks like a metaphor, this ‘steady light’, to some scrutiny, that might help us not only to consider Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses as crisis literature, but also to think more generally about some of the difficulties and determinations of the nexus of literature and crisis. This steady light has a number of aliases in Adorno’s oeuvre. Perhaps most famously it is the ‘Messianic light’ at the end of Minima Moralia, or elsewhere in that book as ‘the holiness of life that shines forth’ that we receive only refracted. Here the echo of his writing on Mahler is clear. And when Adorno writes about Mahler, this light is almost always the sun. Under these aliases it becomes clearer that this light is neither straightforwardly a metaphor, nor is this just any light. Adorno never says anything of the quality of this light, but it seems hardly possible that this light could be much like any of those described in Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses, whether the “cupboard-like contraption studded with coloured light bulbs” in a paperless office, from which “the manager can at all times determine the state of work in individual departments” or “the beneficent influence exercised by the flood of light, not just upon the urge to buy but also upon the staff, [which] might at most consist of the staff being sufficiently duped to put up with their mean, poorly lit homes.” The strange quality of this light points strictly concerning the philosophy of history [Geschichtsphilosophie]. For Adorno’s steady light shines through those intransigent structures of the temporality of capitalist accumulation. Within the fixity and permanence of this temporality, capitalism becomes the history of accumulated injustices, of piles of bodies ground into commodities. For as long as capital continues to accumulate, this like shines steadily backwards.
But is there not another history here? Is there not a danger of a radical oversimplification of the history of capitalism in the image projected by that steady light, such that forever critique works upon those persistent elements that define capitalism’s temporal core [Zeitkern]? What Adorno’s light might fail to illuminated is something like an inner-history of capitalism, one that registers capitalism’s own moments of weakness. Most particularly, each crisis of capitalism that doesn’t emerge as its final destruction is degraded by this light into an account of those repressions and retrenchments that ensue returning capital to profit through new rationalisations and new constrictions of humanity. In that Messianic light is something like Grossmann’s old theory of the law of collapse of capitalist systems, in which each crisis is referred back, albeit distantly, to the most general tendency of the rate of profit to fall. But that which is passed over by this light are the specificities of capital’s own destructive tendencies. This distinction between Adorno and Kracauer might be seen as a critical inversion of the duet in Exodus of the God who passes over the houses and the Destroyer who goes inside to obliterate the ill-fated Egyptians. Adorno’s steady light attaches itself to the newest technics, only to forget that held within them are materially particular means of destroying old capitals, new modes of defuncting and disposal of old ways of profit and life. It misses each crisis that is not final in favour of a history whose secret intention is always that final crisis. Where capitalism becomes the perpetual ruination of human beings, all of whose life and work may one day be redeemed, the movement of capital’s inner-history lies frozen.
I want to propose, then, in dealing with the literature of crisis, and in particular Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses, that we think about a history of darknesses, of a world blinded by artificial light, of the work depicted masked from any redemptive dawn. Such a demand, such a philosophy of history, is likely to elicit two objections. The first is that the thought is, as Adorno would say, resigned. That the critic is reduced to a mere glossator of the actually existing, who ultimately, and in beautiful prose, furnishes the world of things with powerless reflections. The second charge is that such a proposition is, at its very deepest levels, nihilistic, and that under its gaze catastrophe may be met only with catastrophe. These are powerful criticisms, insofar as they suggest that we are dealing here with a text which in its very labour must sacrifice utopia. Under such criticisms, The Salaried Masses might dissolve into reformism or bitter Satanic laughter. But perhaps instead, Kracauer’s sunless study points to an idealism smuggled in the faith that the next crisis is sure to be the last, or that the dissolution of capitalism will be as unified as the unity that capitalism itself imposes so violently upon the world. What does existence look like, and what does history look like, illuminated by the newest capitalist technology? These are the questions that Kracauer’s text seeks to answer. And it is in this sense that Kracauer would endorse the explosive power of reality. Under that light of reality it seems to Kracauer that always too much has been shown, that unlike the sun, these lights illuminate too indiscriminately, revealing in this writing of reality a world of crisis.
What does it mean to imagine such a darkness stretching (or splintering) through history? It might not lend us the full weight of history to gain an insight into the present, but searching for those sunless texts might just open a space for a description of capitalism, its inner-historical shape, and the qualities of those moments of crisis before retrenchment and repression, before the return to accumulation as normal. We might find traces of this sunless history elsewhere, or begin to write it for our own time.
3. Scientific Instruments
What just was will probably soon be forgotten. Only an empty, awful memory hangs in the air. Who was defended? Foul, wretched profiteers. What was young had to fall, was forced to die for ends so alien and inimical to spirit, but the despicable ones were saved, and now they sit in their comfortable drawing rooms. Not one of them was lost, but those who waved other flags, so much bloom, so much dream, so much hope for the spirit, are dead.
Ernst Bloch’s note, composed at the end of the First World War alludes to a story about the recovery of global capitalism from the long crisis at the end of the nineteenth century: the enormous production of ever more highly technized, ever more efficacious machines for unimagined mass slaughter. Walter Benjamin would write similarly fifteen years later that,
A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds, and at its centre, in a forcefield of destructive torrents and explosions, a tiny fragile human body. With this tremendous development of technology, a completely new poverty has descended on mankind.
But this is only half of the story of an economic recovery from the long crisis at the end of the nineteenth century. The other half, one of equally technized death, is that of the development of mass production. That story began with the publication of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s book The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911, and found its actualisation in the new productive mechanisms of the Ford car plants with their conveyor belts. As Ford wrote,
The principles of assembly are these:
(1) Place the tools and the men in the sequence of operation so that each component shall travel the least possible distance while in the process of finishing.
(2) Use work slides or some other form of carrier so that when a workman completes his operation, he drops the part always in the same place – which place must always be the most convenient place to his hand – and if possible to have gravity carry the part to the next workman for his operation.
(3) Use sliding assembly lines by which the parts to be assembled are delivered at convenient distances.
By the time of Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses, he would be examining “the irruption of machine and ‘assembly-line’ methods into the clerical departments of big firms.” I want to focus for a moment, and perhaps this seems outrageous, on something in Ford’s words: that is, sliding. It might seem like an unusual claim, but part of the possibility of a return to growth after that long crisis was the result of fixed capital moving in a particular way, in the sliding of components of a commodity through a factory. This sliding is something from which political economy, and indeed the critique of political economy, has normally averted its gaze. This quality of capital seems somehow unimportant, or at least unassuming, next to the analysis of the circulation of money, the development of forms of credit, or theories of surplus value. But it is on movements like this sliding, the qualities of systems of fixed capital, that the glaring artificial light of Kracauer’s critique falls.
For a book formed out of twelve articles published in a newspaper, Kracauer offers a great deal of methodological argumentation. Reportage, the mode of this book, is as much an object to be critically studied as the labour process, class composition, and contemporary entertainment activity. The crucial term for understanding the animation of the machinery under the artificial light of Kracauer’s prose is alienation. For too long in the study of literature, the notion of alienated writing has been presumed to belong solely to a mode initiated by Brecht, under his famous concept of the Verfremdungseffekt:
A technique of taking human social incidents to be portrayed and labelling them as something striking, something that calls for explanation, is not to be taken for granted, not just natural.
Kracauer’s writing as alienated writing perhaps belongs under this general definition from Brecht, but it has a further specificity in this work. In the first chapter of The Salaried Masses Kracauer describes his work of writing as something akin to an ethnography. He is to be a foreign observer entering an ‘unknown territory’, but unlike a sojourn to some far-off land, this unknown territory is in the city in which he lives, Berlin. The figure of a territory or an alien landscape, one conditioned more by the physical movements of fixed capital than by a forcefield of destructive torrents and explosions, recurs throughout the text, reaching its highest extravagance in a passage describing this keen observer listening to the conversations of employees of a firm in which they discuss their social statuses with regard to other employees:
The unsuspecting layman observing these immense differences of importance feels as though a new cosmos full of abysses and peaks were coming into view beneath his microscope lens. A chasm of impressive depth yawns likewise between, for example, technical and commercial employees in industry. The latter, according to the report of one victim, treat the former with disdain, and like to make them wait like unimportant customers; while the former, on the other hand, nurture the prejudice that their work alone should be seen as productive.
The movement, the shifts and slides, in these few sentences requires some attention. Within this first sentence, “The unsuspecting layman observing those immense differences of importance feels as though a new cosmos full of abysses and peaks were coming into view beneath his microscope lens”, there is a faint echo of a line from the first German preface to Das Kapital. Describing his new science of the critique of political economy, Marx writes,
The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money form, is very simple and slight in content. Nevertheless, the human mind [Menschengeist] has sought in vain, for more than 2000 years to get to the bottom of it, while on the other hand there has been at least an approximation to a successful analysis of forms which are much richer in content and more complex. Why? Because the complete body is easier to study than its cells. Moreover in the analysis of economic forms, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The power of abstraction alone must replace both. But for bourgeois society, the commodity form of the product of labour, or the value-form of the commodity, is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy.
This passage from Marx has troubled me for a number of years. While the microscope, this instrument of scientific experimentation and discovery is said to be of no use, an analogy is maintained between a body composed of microscopic cells and capitalism composed of its own commodity-cells. Their investigation is to be undertaken with an instrument powered only by abstraction. My question has always been this: what kind of image appears under the lens of such an instrument? Readers of Das Kapital will be familiar with the myriad literary forms that it contains, often juxtaposed. It would probably be presumptuous to suggest, however, that such a contraption powered by abstraction generates montages. Nonetheless this image in Marx appears less as a unified whole than as a set of juxtapositions and layers that process through each other. Our ‘superficial observer’ in Marx, confused by the minutiae beneath the lens is echoed in Kracauer with an ‘unsuspecting layman’. But what is most explosive about this sentence is that the unsuspecting layman, surrounded by this strange and foreign landscape, discovers it “beneath his microscope lens.” There is no explanation as to why the layman, not an expert or scientist would have this technologized gaze. Perhaps the answer is Kracauer’s artificial light again, revealing all too many microscopic details. Here it illuminates a set of social relations between workers, each group in competition with the others to prove their true economic worth. That such an apparatus produces a foreboding foreign landscape is not insignificant. Laying these two scientific instruments side by side, we might discover their difference: while Marx’s contraption is powered by abstraction, Kracauer’s is a microscope powered by alienation.
The gaze through this instrument fixes itself to the qualities of things that would rather go unnoticed, on the sliding motion of bits of capital, on the organicism in management ideology, on the labour exchange that resembles the railway marshalling yard with the unemployed pushed along its tracks. But this micrology, this optic of the darkness of the blinding artificial glare, does not offer any pure imagistic reproduction of reality. Just as the foreign ethnographer in writing ethnography understands, ultimately, only his foreignness from the society that he observes, Kracauer’s prose understands the world alienated not so much in still reproduction but in the dynamics that confront and involve the viewer. Those qualities and movements of capital as means of alienation cannot, for Kracauer, be photographed. This would be the basis for the beginning of a radical and critical journalistic practice, standing in opposition to the reporters of his time.
A hundred reports from a factory do not add up to the reality of a factory, but remain for all eternity a hundred views of a factory. Reality is a construction. Certainly life must be observed for it to appear. Yet it is by no means contained in the more or less random observational results of reportage; rather, it is found solely in the mosaic that is assembled from single observations on the basis of comprehension of their meaning. Reportage photographs life; such a mosaic would be its image.
These images cannot be made real by photographs because, more than anything, they move and refuse to be frozen. They move both in physical reality and in history. Their construction into a radical reportage, into an alien image is a form of animation. Every moment of alienation to which this microscopic gaze is subject is determined by new movements of capital. A similar attention to these movements and qualities would be given only a year later by Dziga Vertov in his film Enthusiasm. But there the setting remained industrial. The movements of capital in a service environment show up less well on film: this microscope would produce journalism.
It would help, in order to understand these methodological claims, to examine a slightly lengthier piece of writing from The Salaried Masses. This section is from a chapter that describes the reformist, practical, everyday work of trade unionists. Kracauer describes this as ‘repair work’, which even while practiced for humanistic ends, is fully integrated into the world of 1920s capitalism.
No matter whether the employee representatives practice moderation or not, in the consolidated economy they in any case de facto have numerous repairs to carry out – sometimes despite themselves, even where they are combating the prevailing economic order. Like Hegelian reason, this order has its ruses and for the time being is strong enough to fill with ambiguity even actions that do not accept its continued existence. This does not prevent relations between works councils and employers often breaking down. Then in certain cases repairs are made, on neutral ground in public and in the light of day. Such light disenchants physiognomies. Plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses are as bare as the hearing chamber of the Labour Court in which they assemble. No make-up brings the girls’ faces into flower, and every pimple on those of the men is visible in close-up. They are like Sunday trippers in reverse: Sunday trippers torn away from their work who, rather than wandering free, and self-consciously trapped out in their best clothes, have been robbed of their finery and are far away from the glamour of the evening. While they talk, huddle, and wait, the memory awakens of those military recruitment centres in which miserable, naked men were registered as fit for war service. Just as there it revealed not so much the nakedness as the war, so here it really reveals not wretched people but the conditions that make people wretched. In its austere glow minute details emerge with unwonted clarity, which are anything but minute details: for when taken together they characterise the economic life that spawns them. We must rid ourselves of the delusion that it is major events which most determine a person. He is much more deeply and lastingly influenced by the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up, and his fate is certainly linked predominantly to the sequence of these miniature occurrences. They become apparent in the Labour Court, in front of the long raised table behind which the chairman of the court is enthroned between two assessors representing employers and employees respectively. The three judges usually reach their decision at once, after a short deliberation in the cabinet separated off from the courtroom itself. Summary jurisdiction is made possible by its wholly oral character. Use of paper is limited, only the chairman knows the documents. Thanks to the directness of the question-and-answer game to which no attorney gives a final legal polish, the chairman is more dependent on his instinct than in a regular court. The necessity of improvisation produces a kind of atmospheric tension, sometimes transmitted even to the court clerk.
The parties unpack their wares: nothing but little parcels of woe. They depict the state of affairs, reply to the chairman and his assessors, and address one another. Sometimes one party behaves as though the other were not present. As a rule the complaints are brought by people who have been sacked. For instance, dismissals without notice may be involved. That they can occur lawfully is shown by the following trifling matter. A woman buys shoes in a large store, where the plaintiff is employed – she works in the stocking department. The woman knows the plaintiff personally and would like to purchase some stockings from her to go with her shoes. The stocking sales-girl evidently subordinates commercial interest to the personal relationship, since she tells the woman that she could have bought the shoes more cheaply elsewhere. Because of her wrong-headed world-view the girl gets the sack – and her appeal is rejected. 
Despite being relatively easy to read, this is a very complex piece of text that moves in a peculiar way. I would like to suggest one way of reading it that might allow it to become at least a little more open, that might offer some explanation of the power of the critique that this text imposes on the society it examines. My claim is that the key to this passage is one of the more unassuming sentences: “No make-up brings the girls faces to flower, and every pimple on those of the men is visible in close-up.” These are the objects of a cinematic optic, of a way of seeing that had been massively popularised in the previous decade, and about which Kracauer would later write two books. This same bright light of the court projects into the senses a flashback of the military recruitment centre. But this light is just that: a projector, whose beam animates figures, not quite human. Every figure in this cinematic life is projected, made themselves of the light they so wish to escape in order that they may become human again. This is history and social actuality illuminated by the latest capitalist technology. Life, in this way, is lit up, so that the everyday appears as a series of miniature catastrophes. Every act dehumanises more, and the force of necessity demands that the “parcels of woe” that constitute a person’s existence are unpacked onto the screen. But where this critique is most radical is in the blinding light as the scenes are cut together. The viewer might just turn round and glimpse the projector and its beam, as the conditions that make people wretched. Kracauer’s text, in its own movement, encourages us to turn from life, only to find a piece of fixed capital.
The German word ‘Glanz’ has three meanings: foremost it is a shine or a shimmer, a brilliance reflected on an object, but it also means ‘glamour’, and finally like its cognate in English, ‘glance’, it is a fleeting contact with an object’s exterior. Glanz is all about surface, and is used by Kracauer to describe a certain historical transformation of culture from its bourgeois nineteenth century form.
Nothing is more characteristic of this life, which only in a restricted sense can be called a life, than its view of higher things. Not as substance, but as glamour [Glanz]. Yielded not through concentration but in distraction. ‘Why do people spend so much time in bars?’ asks one employee I know. ‘Probably because they are so miserable at home and they want to get a bit of glamour [Glanz].’ ‘Home’, by the way, should not be taken to mean just a lodging but an everyday existence outlined in advertisements in magazines for employees. These mainly concern: pens; Kohinoor pencils; haemorrhoids; hair loss; beds; crêpe soles; white teeth; rejuvenation elixirs; selling coffee to friend; dictaphones; writer’s cramp; trembling, especially when in the presence of others; quality pianos on weekly instalments; and so on.”
One of the major qualitative shifts that Kracauer identifies, one animated in this crisis optic, is a flattening of life and culture. Objects whose depths were plumbed with contemplation are now glanced at distractedly. Yet this is all that is required since they, the objects themselves, have truly lost a dimension. The division presented between ‘home’ and ‘getting a bit of glamour’ offers no real distinction: Just as the nightlife presents nothing but gleaming surfaces, even the commodities that sustain life have been transformed. They are no longer wholesome, but appear as flattened imprints on the pages of magazines. The dreams of these masses of salaried workers were not so much cornucopias, utopias of commodities piled high, but rather the endless images of commodities, the prospective purchase that might be glanced at, over one’s shoulder on the morning commute, and approved of. This new culture preserves in the ephemera of the advertising image the old objects and decayed relations of bourgeois culture.
This relation to a decayed bourgeois culture, this super-decadence, infects not only the world of entertainment but the workplace. Kracauer describes a scene from a firm’s training programme:
When the middle class girls were still in a state of prosperity, many girls who now punch cards used to stumble through etudes at home on the pianoforte. Music, at least, has not entirely vanished from a process that the National Board for Economic Viability has defined as follows: “Rationalisation is the application of all means offered by technology and systematic organisation to the raising of economic viability, and therewith increasing the production of goods, reducing their costs, and improving them.” No, it has not quite gone. I know of an industrial plant that hires girls straight from high school with a salary and lets them be trained at the typewriter by a teacher of their own. The wily teacher winds up the gramophone and the pupils have to type in time with its tunes. When merry military marches ring out, they all march ahead twice as lightly. The rotation speed of the record is gradually increased, and without the girls really noticing it they tap faster and faster. In their training years they turn into speed typists – music has wrought the cheaply purchased miracle.
The history of the piano étude, or study, is an extraordinarily interesting one. These were training pieces, most commonly associated originally with names like Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny, leading later in the nineteenth century to the production of systems for acquiring comprehensive piano technique as in Hanon. But the étude, as a form, arose in a very particular social setting: that of the early-nineteenth century bourgeois home, with its piano placed in the parlour. The étude was a form designed to train the urban bourgeoisie in being able to reproduce music in their own homes. Later, of course, in the virtuoso hands of Liszt and Chopin, the étude grew to become its own autonomous musical form. But where this need for musical reproduction in the home was technologized, first with player pianos, and later with the gramophone, the étude was made defunct. It is only where this music has become alienated through its own technical and technological means of reproduction that it may safely be reintroduced into the workplace. Where once the bourgeois reproduced music on her instrument, in the 1920s the music was to instrumentalise the human body for the service of profit. In 1942, Adorno wrote in an essay, ‘On the Problem of a New Type of Human Being’ – a text remarkably close to Kracauer’s,
The objects of action are changing. Their mechanisation means that people must ‘adapt’ in their use of everyday devices to an incomparably higher degree than ever before. The act of driving a car or repairing a radio requires an infinitely greater subordination to the nature of those objects than the work of a craftsman for example. Even during the entire era of 19th-century industrial capitalism, the functions of the individual – at least in his free time – were not remotely as dependent on technology as they are today. The game, itself, becomes governed by the technical structure of things.
Taken together, these two forms of rationalisation – the flattening of objects in the world, and the technical mastery of the human body – a new set of effects are developed. Contrary to arguments so common today, that the predominance of immaterial labour is the effect of an economic crisis in the 1970s, we discover in Kracauer a legion of examples of jobs that demand that employees are brutally flattened into attractive surfaces, and in particular surfaces that glisten with youth. We might return here to our cinematic vision of the Labour Court, in which the girls appear broken by their lack of make-up and the men’s faces exhibit pimples in close up. Humans were made cinematic, as though flattened onto a silver screen from which they had no means of escaping. The person became Glanz.
6. Used Up
In the famous ‘Fragment on Machines’ in the Grundrisse, Marx writes:
Fixed capital can enter into circulation as value, however, only to the extent that it passes away as use value in the production process. It pass, as value, into the product – i.e. as labour time worked up and stored in it – in so far as it passes away in its independent form as use value. In being used, it is used up, but in such a way that its value is carried over from its form into the form of the product. If it is not used, not consumed in the production process itself – if the machinery stands still, the iron rusts, the wood rots – then of course its value passes away together with its transitory presence as use value.
This passage might explain something about the spectre of unemployment that haunts Kracauer’s book. Unemployment was radically changed by the rationalisations of the labour process at the beginning of the twentieth century. Workers’ bodies were strained in two movements: at once they were more closely bonded to the specific movements of machines, while specific demands were made of the appearance or Glanz of the employees. For many, the great fear was old age, but this fear doubles through these two rationalising processes. The body is to be ever more finely subordinated to the machine while it must maintain the image of youth. Kracauer describes this subjection of employees to machine work in clerical labour:
The big banks and other firms in which expensive investment pays have mainly gone over to proper mechanisation. The commercial advantages of machine methods can hardly be overestimated; to take just one example, they enable the current-account departments in banks to make up accounts in the shortest possible time and update them hourly. Thanks to the intellectual labour invested in the equipment, its handmaidens are spared the possession of knowledge; if attendance at a commercial college were not compulsory they would need to know nothing at all. The mysteries of the firm are a closed book to them, since they deal only with figures. Just one thing is required of them: attention. This cannot wander free, but is under the control of the apparatus it controls.
Or more sardonically he quips,
The National Board for Economic Viability’s definition [of rationalisation] has no place for the term ‘human beings’. Perhaps it has been forgotten because it no longer plays a very important role. Yet employees are continually to be found who register its elimination as a loss.
Capitalist crises are times of great destructions of capital. Whether in the financial form of the junking of debt or in the industrial form of the mothballing or demolition of factories; either way the machine stops moving. Old age in the era of rationalisation meant being used up at the same rate at which the machine you worked at was. In the crisis, those machines were not used up, but alongside the employees were junked. The iron rusted, the wood rotted. This was a new form of unemployment borne out of a new type of mechanical specialisation: both the general destructiveness of the crisis, and its specific mode of destroying life. Kracauer quotes, at one point, from responses to a survey of unemployed members of the Gewerkschaftsbund der Angestellten conducted near the beginning of 1929:
1) Former manager with approximately 400 Reichsmark salary. Obliged to sell furniture and fur coat and let out his room. I am forty years old and married. Father of two children (boy, three and a half, girl, six months). Unemployed since April 1, 1925.
2) Thirty-nine, married, three children (fourteen, twelve, nine). Three years earning nothing. Future? Work, mad-house, or turn on the gas.
3) Male, redundant, because military candidates were taken on. I sold my furniture. Before the war several businesses of my own, which I had to give up as a result of the war and call-up. When I came home my wife died. All my savings were stolen away by the great national fraud (inflation). Now I am fifty-one, so everywhere I hear, “we don’t take people of that age”. The final step for me is suicide. The German state is our murderer.
4) I am spiritually broken and sometimes entertain thoughts of suicide. Moreover I have lost confidence in all men. Thirty-eight year old, divorced, four children.
5) Future? Hopeless, if something is not done soon for employees like me, older but fully trained, and still quite capable of working. Forty-five, married.
6) Future hopeless without prospects. Early death would be best. This is written by a 32-year old, married, and father of two children.
With the technical using up and defuncting of workers’ bodies, old age came sooner, and this was compounded by a culture of glamour and image whose artificial light was drawn to young flesh, as if it were the most sublime carrier of labour power. Kracauer writes,
'Young people are simply easier to deal with’, is an expression frequently heard. As if older people were not even easier to deal with if anyone would just employ them. The fact that they are treated more ruthlessly than is perhaps required, even in the interest of firms’ profitability, stems in the final analysis from the general abandonment of old age nowadays. Not just employers, but the whole nation has turned against it, and in a dismaying manner, glorifies youth itself. Youth is the fetish of illustrated newspapers and their public; older people court it and rejuvenating nostrums are supposed to preserve it. If growing old means going to meet death, then this idolisation of youth is a sign of flight from death.
This rationalisation of the old and defunct into powerless wandering spirits extends out of the workplace and the illustrated newspaper, and into the conditions of life in society as a whole. Kracauer describes the conditions of the older unemployed employees as they gather in the labour exchange in order to look for small jobs.
Older people, whom they want to dispose of at all costs, are treated like problem children and have to report to the labour exchange daily. In this way, at least they have some occupation. Alas, if no other turns up their existence is not full enough to be worth prolonging – and some of them do then finally turn on the gas.
The punishment of the old – those whose machinic life is now defunct, and whose appearance reflects a duller light – is identical to that announced by George Osborne for the long-term unemployed in our own crisis. For a moment something may be glimpsed: crisis austerity transforms from something austere into its full dialectical opposite of crisis elaboration or crisis baroque. Just as the smooth surfaces of youthful skin transform into the complex textures of the appearance of age, people’s lives are to be forced down ever more fine and complex paths, until they are no longer sustainable.
7. Notes to Literature and Crisis
Crises, where they are not seen as terminal, final, and universally apocalyptic, must be understood as the great moments of capitalist integration. They are moments of the reorganisation of society in favour of capitalist relations. They are moments of an intensification of capital’s destructive powers, under which are piled high new peaks and abysses of human waste, or wasted humans, created as social relations shift tectonically beneath our feet. To eschew apocalypticism in crisis is perhaps the most dangerous and interesting move of Kracauer’s book. It is a move that defines The Salaried Masses a hopeless and integrated text, a writing that uncannily illuminates Berlin with capital’s own technics. Utopia is exchanged for a text full of texture that one can touch, a writing of dark materialism that dwells in the physical movements of capital, understanding their illumination under artificial light to be the actuality of social relations.
In the Luna Park, of an evening, a fountain is sometimes displayed illuminated by Bengal Lights. Cones of red, yellow and green light, continually recreated, flee into the darkness. When the splendour is gone, it turns out to have come from the wretched cartilaginous structure of a few little pipes. The fountain resembles the life of many employees. From its wretchedness it escapes into distraction, lets itself be illuminated with Bengal lights and, unmindful of its origin, dissolves into the nocturnal void.
 Siegfried Kracauer, The Salaried Masses, Quinitin Hoare (trans.), London: Verso, 1998, p. 30.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 44.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 25.
 The Salaried Masses, pp. 81-82.
 Walter Benjamin, ‘Diary from August 7, 1931, to the Day of my Death’, Rodney Livingstone (trans.) in Michael Jennings (ed.), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 2, Harvard, MA: Belknap Press, 1999, p. 504.
 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Newspaper’, Rodney Livingstone (trans.), in Michael Jennings (ed.), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 2, Harvard, MA: Belknap Press, 1999, p. 741.
 Walter Benjamin, ‘Diary from August 7, 1931, to the Day of my Death’, Rodney Livingstone (trans.) in Michael Jennings (ed.), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 2, Harvard, MA: Belknap Press, 1999, p. 505 (translation altered.)
 Walter Benjamin, ‘An Outside Makes his Mark’, Rodney Livingstone (trans.), in Michael Jennings (ed.), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 2, Harvard, MA: Belknap Press, 1999, p. 310 (translation altered.)
 Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy, Edmund Jephcott (trans.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 36.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 90.
 The Salaried Masses, pp. 93-94.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 105.
 Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Reflections on Class Theory’, Rodney Livingstone (trans.), in Rolf Tiedemann (ed.) Can One Live After Auschwitz?, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 94.
 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, Edmund Jephcott (trans.), London: Verso, 2005, p. 247 and p. 77.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 41.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 90.
 Henryk Grossmann, Das Akkumulations- und Zusammenbruchsgesetz des kapitalistischen Systems, Leipzig: Hirschfeld, 1929.
 Exodus 12.23, “For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.”
 Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia, Anthony A. Nassar (trans.), Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000, p. 1.
 Walter Benjamin, ‘Experience and Poverty’, Rodney Livingstone (trans.) in Michael Jennings (ed.), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 2, Harvard, MA: Belknap Press, 1999, p. 732.
 Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, Norwood, MA: Plimpton Press, 1911.
 Henry Ford, My Life and Work, New York: Doubleday, 1923, p. 80.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 30.
 The following sentences are a development of an argument hinted at in Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s article ‘The Dual Economics of Transition’ in CSE Pamphlet Number 1: Labour Process and Class Strategies, London: Stage 1, 1976, pp. 26-45.
 Bertolt Brecht, ‘The Street Scene’, in Brecht on Theatre: 1933-1947, John Willet (trans.), London: Methuen, 1964), p. 125.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 83.
 Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, Ben Fowkes (trans.), London: Penguin, 1976, p. 90 (translation altered.)
 The Salaried Masses, p. 32.
 The Salaried Masses, pp. 61-62 (translation altered.)
 The Salaried Masses, p. 88.
 The Salaried Masses, pp. 42-43.
 Theodor W. Adorno, ‘The Problem of a New Type of Human Being’, in Current of Music, Robert Hullot-Kentor (trans.), Cambridge: Polity, 2009, p. 463.
 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Martin Nicolaus (trans.), London: Penguin, 1993, p. 681.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 42.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 45.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 57.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 58 (translation altered.)
 The Salaried Masses, p. 67.
 “For the first time, all long term unemployed people who are capable of work will be required to do something in return for their benefits, and to help them find work. They will do useful work putting something back into their community. Making meals for the elderly, clearing up litter, working for a local charity. Others will be made to attend the job centre every working day.” See George Osborne, ‘Speech to the 2013 Conservative Party Conference’, 30 September, 2013, http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2013/09/george-osbornes-speech-to-the-conservative-conference-full-text-and-audio/
 The Salaried Masses, p. 95.
Lolcat to end all lolcatz. Made this a couple of years ago. Thought it deserved to be displayed here.
Critique of Graeber on Bullshit Jobs
Today I was reminded of a piece of writing I did last summer. I didn’t publish it at the time, when all and sundry were facebooking and tweeting David’s piece, because it was unfinished. It’s still unfinished but I thought I’d stick it up here anyway. It tapers off towards the end. I’ve put some glosses on the final remarks for clarity but don’t have time to write them up fully.
Last week David Graeber put out an article in Strike Magazine ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’. I have to admit that I don’t think that I followed all of the arguments and how they fit together: there was something about the piece that made it feel like a loose constellation of grievances, with the author hopping from one to the next. But I do want to say something about a couple of the argument he makes. The first half of this will be a complaint about a pet hate:
MY PET HATE
Amongst those bundled arguments David invoked a little argument that is a pet hate of mine, and which I think ought to be challenged:
Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done – at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does.
The fact that David feels the need to replace the jobs that he’s referring to with cabinet-makers and fish-fryers (apparently in his eyes both jobs are for skilled workers) suggests that there might be something a little more distasteful behind this argument – or at least distasteful as long as it is made in these terms. Maybe we could re-interpolate those actual jobs to which Graeber refers:
Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent academics and researchers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time doing admin. Neither does the task really need to be done – at least, there’s only a very small amount of admin that actually needs doing. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time doing research, and not doing their fair share of the admin responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly organised paperwork piling up all over the office and it’s all that anyone really does.
It’s an argument (or rather an expression of resentment) that anyone who has spent any time around a university will be familiar with – and certainly David is right that academics tend to make fucking awful administrators. Certainly there is a great deal of entirely justified resentment amongst the UK academic community that nobody seems to get any proper time to do their research. But there is a turn in this argument that makes me at least a little uncomfortable: that university administration ought to be done by people who are good at it. I’ve worked as an administrator in a few different Higher Education institutions in London (Central St Martin’s, Institute of Education, London College of Fashion, and one of the medical royal colleges). The truth is that this work is essentially unskilled; anyone who has spent fifteen hours trying to fill out a highly detailed application form about the fact that they are “capable of working with other people”, “capable of working alone”, “able to complete tasks”, “able to manage a varied workload” (I call bullshit!), or any other generic “competency” will know this. The work is almost always boring and tiresome, offers very little in the way of rewards (pay in these positions has been pretty much frozen or tied to 1% increases over the last few years against 5% inflation), and there is very little opportunity for most people working in these roles to go and get another job which might be more stimulating. If you’re willing to demean yourself and suck up to management for several years you might get shunted over to something which requires less hours looking at a screen though. That’s if you’re lucky.
Whatever David might think about this type of work it really does keep the universities as the currently exist ticking over. Whether or not that’s a worthy cause is certainly an open question but certainly in those jobs I’ve worked in have involved doing some things that mean that students are able to take courses, and academics are able to teach them (whether that’s been sorting out placements in schools for PGCE students, or filling out paperwork so that students can get visas and financing from the government, making sure that students have housing sorted, writing course handbooks, or just booking rooms and doing huge batches of photocopying for classes.) Sure, this type of work has massively expanded, but that has happened alongside the massification of higher education over the last decades. And sure, lots of this work is entirely inefficient and needlessly bureaucratic, but almost all of it is necessary for the university to continue running as it does. Often this labour is hidden, but the notion that – at present – not very much admin needs doing in these institutions can only come from the mind of one who hasn’t had to deal with all of the demands of students (as well as those from Government, and various other agencies.)
One of the lines of argument that I’ve experienced in those jobs over and over again (although almost exclusively from older, white, male academics), mainly from academics heavily involved in their UCU branches, is that “administrators get paid to do administration, and we don’t, so they should do it and we shouldn’t.” This is usually accompanied by some spiteful abuse towards whichever underpaid underling is closest to hand. I don’t want to include David in this description – knowing him, I can’t imagine him behaving like that – but I do want to point to the fact that this is a common experience for admin staff, and that is the context into which he is offering his thoughts. The reason, ultimately, that administrators are “good at this work” is not because they have some profound affinity with it, something which these professors apparently lack, but because they have absolutely no choice in the matter: if they don’t do the work and shut up they will be fired. Very few people in this type of work are in any position whatsoever to question the duties demanded of them (more on this later!)
ADMIN AND RESEARCH
One of the arguments here is that “doing admin” is something fundamentally antithetical to getting on with research, and that the disruption that is causes means that the quality of research must be sacrificed. It’s not such a bad thought – I can’t get out of my head those sentences from the beautiful letter that Adorno wrote to Thomas Mann on his 70th birthday: “a sort of caesura might wrongly disturb the unfolding course of your spiritual experience, an experience that regards nothing as alien to itself, tolerates nothing imposed on it from without, and expresses what is most human about us through a kind of mémoire involontaire.”
But it’s worth considering the purpose of this argument, and what sort of images Graeber is wanting to support here. Perhaps more than any other profession, academics are resistant to acknowledging the complex division of labour that undergirds their productive efforts. The image of the individual scholar extemporizing on whatever topic is seductive to them for two reasons: firstly because it allows them the image of their work as non-alienated labour, as if even once externalized their intellectual productions still belong to them. Articles and books are, to them, not just like any other replaceable commodity on the marketplace that has left its producer behind, is complicit in her bondage, suffering and destruction. Secondly, the image is seductive because it maintains for them an idea of doing a “good job” (in this case a job which isn’t a “bullshit job”). It is important to understand that for this notion of a good job to be sustained the work of others needs to be detested – indeed the means by which this labour might appear as non-alienated, as good work, is through the demeaning of the work and workers that fundamentally support it. Held aloft is the image of a bourgeois individual (qua schöne Seele), for whom the work below appears as a task that doesn’t really need to be done. This is of course a thought that is only sustainable from the standpoint of a professional class.
My argument here is not that the work that administrators do is “good work” in any sense. Mostly it is boring and miserable, and it of course props up a system that is entirely destructive to humanity. But that the figure that David invokes in his argument of those who are good at it is entirely illusory. But worse than that the justification for demeaning this work is to sustain an entirely ideological notion of “good work” (as some untapped potential in the academic subject, which can never be expressed due to administrative commitments.) Instead it is necessary for us to understand that all work under capitalism is shit, but this can’t happen while those in skilled professions imagine social freedom as the happy fulfillment of their jobs.
It might be worth mentioning here that the privation goes in both directions too. Working in all of those office jobs I met a fair few people with PhDs who would rather be doing research too than mindlessly pressing numbers into computers. And I’m sure that when my own PhD is over I’ll be looking at returning to several decades of this kind of administrative work too. Perhaps to the academic doing admin really does get in the way of research, but it would certainly be healthy to remember that for plenty of administrators their day-jobs doing admin gets in the way of research too!
It’s strange also that for Graeber this difference between good jobs and bullshit jobs maps on to the notions of “productive” and “unproductive” labour. It seems that what he has in mind are jobs that produce those goods that are necessary for human reproduction and social intercourse (lol, that sounded more sexual than I expected), like food and medicine and houses and so on and so forth. He imagines that capitalism used to produce all of these things through mass employment. There is a danger here of course, which is to suggest that those commodities that were produced in this way were somehow perfect – that they were without traces of the exploitation from which they were produced. That they supported the population without problems (of course never forcing them to living in cramped conditions, suffering from malnutrition etc.), that these commodities really did serve human need rather than the profit motive, and that the population was sustained and reproduced for some reason other than their future exploitation. All of this feels unfamiliar to me – despite all the reading I have tried to do about the condition of working class existence over the last couple of centuries. But it also makes a serious mistake about the nature of human reproduction today and what all of those “bullshit jobs” in finance are about. Whether you like it or not, under contemporary conditions, the superfast trading of derivatives on some mortgage in Alabama is tied up with someone in Indonesia putting food on their table (or not). Yes it is stupid, “irrational”, unnecessary for human existence, but that is the case. What this means is that this division between good jobs and bullshit jobs really isn’t so simple: it’s not as if some workers spend all of their lives doing stuff that is truly productive for humanity and all the others do “bullshit”, but that these parts are entirely intertwined and entangled with each other. The work of critique is to address this rather than merely reaffirming the strength of division in a divided labour.
What is most worrying about the ease with which David wants to make this division is that it aligns itself rather too smoothly with the Conservative policies on “defending front-line services” - which seems to be another name for those good jobs.
Some extra points I wanted to write something about when I wrote but didn’t finish this. Comments from now in square brackets.
Why are academics not involved in the cleaners’ campaigns?
[Like seriously, of all of the people in the university, from students to manual labourers, from admin staff, to professors, to managers, academics are by far the hardest to get to come out on a protest for wages for the worst paid outsourced staff. Perhaps this is a real, material reflection on attitudes to the division of labour. Let’s change this.]
The distinction of productive/unproductive labour
[Obviously this is a facile distinction: under capitalism production is organised irrationally. It isn’t divided into neat piles of jobs where some are productive and some are unproductive. And furthermore, the assumption that the cognitions of one’s needs isn’t subject to ideology (the assumption necessary for the distinction between productive/unproductive to be recognised) is just naïve. But worse than this, the question ought to be “productive of what?” In a sense the question can be answered simply in the present order. Productive work is work that produces profits and guarantees future profits: i.e. productive work is work that produces (and reproduces) society in toto in its present form. If it doesn’t do that it is labelled unproductive. To see anything positive about this is perverse. The question ought to be, how can we produce (or non-produce) a society that is free, and how does that relate to work?]
The notion of the interest of the minority as opposed to the autonomous interests of capital
[In the world that Graeber presents us, interests are tied strangely to people. We work because it is in someone’s interest for us to. This is of course true to an extent: one does work for the possibility of the bourgeoisie to accrue profit. But the interest is there limited to an interest in profit. One doesn’t do work because some bourgeois wants one too for any other reason. Indeed, this limitation on interest is more precisely the question of objectivity in contemporary society. And interests are driven, through this objectivity, as much by impersonal forces, by impersonal interests of capital as such, as by the desires of specific individuals. The reason for making this clear is that it changes what is demanded in the transformation of society. We shouldn’t just want to be managed by people who have better, truly human interests because those people’s desires will still be mediated by the objectivity of society. Instead one must address both the objects and subjects with transformation.]
A FRAGMENT BY MAX HORKHEIMER
The Pleasure Taken in Work: If I know that someone likes or dislikes working, I don’t know anything about him. A stenographer who enthusiastically spends ten hours taking down business letters that are of no concern to her, a bookkeeper or an assembly line worker, is not a congenial individual if he does his work because he enjoys it and not for less obvious reasons. An intellectual or someone who is independent and can change around belongs to the elect. There are times when entrepreneurs spend longer hours in their offices than the greater number of their employees. This happens during particularly taxing periods, as when profits are calculated, for example. Then the boss will say: “the employees don’t enjoy their work. I can’t understand it. I could work all night long without getting tired.” As regards the entrepreneur, this attitude holds not only during exceptional periods but really all year long. The employees know what their bosses are talking about.
Note: In a socialist society, pleasure will not derive from the nature of work to be done. That is a reactionary aim. Rather, work will be done with enjoyment because it serves a solidary society.
It’s my birthday today. Mainly I have been doing long boring deadline-driven work for 12 hours. I hope that when I received this text from a number I didn’t recognise they didn’t feel too bad about my passive-aggressive response.
On naturalisation and wage struggles (towards a critique)
This is a little ramble I posted on facebook last night. Maybe it is complete bollocks, but also maybe it will help us to consider struggles over the wage and wage-form differently from how they have been considered in a lot of autonomist/left-communist thought. I’m genuinely interested in what other people think of this line of argument, so please do respond.
Ok, so I just read Jason Read’s piece on the division of labour here (people should read it, because it’s asking good questions.) And I had a question about the dialectic. I’m also going to tag Maya here because I think she’s worked on similar arguments - and if I remember rightly (through the thick smokey fog of the last three months since I read it) similar arguments come up in the Endnotes piece. [Having had a quick look back at that piece this morning, the critique there on this question is more subtle.] I should say at the outset that this isn’t an attack but more just a question, and one which I want to have a conversation about in terms of good old practical activity as much out of academic interest - and perhaps we might find big differences in the contexts of our activity that transform position on this question.
Anyhow, the question I had was about this idea of “naturalisation”. As Jason says, labour is devalued by being “naturalised” (I think at the end of your piece you say its “devalorised”, which I think is wrong - that is, it is consumed and circulates but is devalued only from the standpoint of the wage. But I could be wrong here.) Where naturalisation here exists as an ideological proposition its purpose is to allow for either a lowering of the wage, or for the wage to not be paid at all. From this point of view it becomes the work of critique to denaturalise, to show that those forms that appear as natural are in truth historical (or social). From such a critique a wage can be demanded because what is at stake is a social relation between labouring subjects rather than a relation between humans and nature (while one might pay for, say, a cow, one doesn’t pay it a wage.) So this type of argument is specific - I think historically, but do correct me because I’m ignorant as fuck - to those Marxisms that are concerned mostly with an analysis of the wage form as a revolutionary critique. So far so good. This looks a bit like the sorts of discussions one can find of “second nature” in lots of early twentieth century texts. I guess the big archetype is Lukacs’ Theory of the Novel, where he demands a “metaphysical act of reawakening” against this false naturalisation. But for that early Lukacs that reawakening is possible because there is a first nature to be awakened into. When Lukacs becomes a Bolshevik this changes quickly, although there are remnants of the argument in History and Class Consciousness - although it wasn’t until the 1960s that he would repudiate that claim as “romantic anti-capitalism” clearly the dialectic changes by the time of History and Class Consciousness away from one whose reconciliation involves a metaphysical reawakening of nature as such. I get side-tracked into Lukacs because I think there’s something useful there: in the rejection of his big thesis on reawakening of nature the radical moment in the dialectic instead becomes this moment of understanding the truth of the historical reality of the proletariat. That is, in the process of a critique of second nature one doesn’t in the revolutionary moment recognise first nature but instead historically determined class antagonism, and the history of oppression as history as such. One recognises the reality of a class antagonism. What struck me is that there was something of that second Lukacs about this argument about naturalisation.
But there’s a problem with this Lukacs, and a critique which maybe is helpful, or maybe not. The problem is that this type of critique is absolutely incapable of talking about nature, and is incapable of offering a critique adequate to the domination of nature (both internal and external nature). Perhaps the Adornian overtones of this argument are probably too clear - actually I think the argument is best made by Alfred Schmidt in his book on Marx and Nature. The way that this argument pans out is that one is left with this critique of naturalisation only with an ideologiekritik, and not with something either more forceful or revolutionary. But worse than that, this type of ideologiekritik is itself ideological. It falls into the same trap as that which Marx identifies at the very opening of the Critique of the Gotha Programme. I’ll quote:
"First part of the paragraph: "Labor is the source of all wealth and all culture."
Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. the above phrase is to be found in all children’s primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning. And insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth. The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.”
It strikes me now that the position that Marx critiques here is exceedingly hard to avoid if one takes as central the wage and the wage form. I wonder if there is any writing from this perspective that tries do deal with this type of argument. Maybe worth putting the short form of this argument that Marx makes too in his 1856 speech to the people’s paper: “At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy”.
Right, where was I other than half-baked ramblings? Ah yes, two slightly more far-out points related to this that may make answering this question either massively massively harder or much much easier.
1) Part of the question here must be to do with the historical situation of political activity. Again, please correct my ignorances. In the 1970s when the Housework argument was kicking off there was also a super-strong reaction against essentialism amongst all stripes of feminists. If anything the argument against essentialism has become even stronger post-Butler. And along with that reaction against essentialism is a strong taboo on talking about distinctions, divisions, differences in and of nature. The arguments against talking about those distinctions from the left are strong in a couple of ways. Firstly asserting a natural difference between men and women (or between people with different coloured skin) is seen as the territory of the oppressors, and as the standard justification for oppression. Therefore one needs to show somehow that those distinctions are in truth social rather than natural in order to disable the naturalist claims of racism, sexism and so forth. The second argument against this thinking is that to talk about distinction in nature is to behave as though one might have immediate access to nature whereas in truth this must be socially mediated. The problem is that social mediation is not the same as social production. And similarly, the first of these criticisms seems willing to sacrifice talking about nature at all. There is a dialectical difficulty here: the abstract negation of nature for the sake of social critique doesn’t offer a grand civilised path to the elimination of materially particular suffering (which must contain an element of nature.)
2) One of the ways of thinking about nature has been this dark mass, unified and destructive, the violence from which some hero once arose ex nihilo. But is there not a danger of projection here, that the bourgeois hero projects his own unity - the principium individuationis turned fortress - back on to nature. Isn’t this the very essence of the domination of nature - and against the law of humans, would it not be to do nature justice to treat it in its own distinctions, differences, and divisions. I’m not completely against thinking destructive nature, of pure agony and the darkness of death - that’s certainly not easy to get rid of once you have human subjects. And sure, one must critique the division of labour, but - and maybe this is a philosophical question about communism here - ought communism not just to be thought of as an integration of those divisions, but also of the freedom beyond them to divide yet again?
I’m guessing neither of you will have time nor care to answer this. Sorry for the rambling. Maybe someone will come along and read it and tell me I’m wrong or to shut up or something equally apposite.
Three questions for academics and research students
1. When was the last time you read an issue of an academic journal cover to cover? Do not include issues that you have edited.
2. If you ever have read an issue of an academic journal cover to cover, how was the experience?
3. Given your answers to the above two questions, don’t you think that maybe we should stop producing these things?