Thursday, November 10, 2005

Free Time! Ludicity and the Anti-work Ethic

By Laura Martz

To sustain itself, consumer capitalism relies on (1) the maintenance of an outdated survival imperative and work ethic, and (2) a totalizing commodification and consumerism, which necessitates work beyond perceived survival needs. Play has been diametrically opposed to work (defined as wage labor), coded as decadent within the sphere of rationality and radically excised. One's time off the clock is allegedly the proper realm of play. Yet under consumer capitalism this time is cleverly commandeered for other means as intrinsic to keeping the machine running as the activities engaged in under the watchful eye of the clock.

Play will be defined here only loosely, as all that which is diametrically opposed to and excluded by work (its elements of delight, surprise and affect will be preserved). Bataille conceives of a general economy of global energy flows which inevitably generates a surplus of energy which must be expended. Under capitalism, excess (human energy not necessary to survival) is diverted into accumulation and endlessly-climbing profits for the ruling class. Yet for Bataille the proper object of the expenditure of this energy is dissipation, "nonproductive expenditure": "into the effervescence of life." Play is a fitting expediture; put another way, this nonproductive expenditure defines another aspect of play crucial to the following argument. Play is the refusal of regimentation, supervision and clocks. In this sense, play is a precondition for resistance, which demands time and energy for spontaneity, contemplation, communication, and unity. Play must be recovered.

Reintroducing play into adult life would necessitate the rupture of what Debord called the spectacle (so as to open the way for other species of meaning besides exchange value) and the recovery of some unity for life against the separateness of present conditions, especially the effacement of the boundary between art and life (in order to despecialize and render accessible more forms of activity). Both of these aims were part of the project of the Situationist International. I will attempt to reexamine the ideology which keeps time divided between producing and consuming in a situationist light, chipping away at it in the process, and begin to suggest some possibilities for reclaiming time from work.

"Never Work!"

The survival imperative in the technologized world as a rationale for wage labor is an alibi used to legitimate capitalist profit and thus domination and alienation. That the worker does excess work (more than demanded by her own, or anyone's, necessity, and more than she is paid for) is a law of capitalism. Capitalist profit is the reification of this excess labor, which is either channelled into the reinforcement of the status of the ruling class or redirected into capital accumulation. The worker will never be paid more than she or he needs to survive and remain fit to work. This axiom was altered slightly with the need to metamorphose the worker-producer into a consumer when off the clock. Henry Ford introduced the five-dollar day in the recognition that with the surplus being produced as a result of increased efficiency under industrialization and Taylorization, the consumer market needed to be "vertically expanded": workers, most of the population and thus putatively the predominant buyers of products, needed excess income with which to absorb the system's waste output. (Workers also needed incentive to stick with Ford at first, when other employers did not yet enforce his scientific management principles, which the workers found demeaning and tiresome. They were forced into step, nevertheless, as scientific management rapidly took hold everywhere.) The purpose of the "consumer wage" is thus to keep the machinery of capitalist overproduction in motion.

The consumer must be conditioned from birth to hand over the "excess" wage in exchange for the excesses of capitalist production. In the early twentieth century the new requirement of capitalism became the total cultural control of workers outside the workplace (when their role changed to that of consumers), through the new advertising industry, as well as in it. Advertising is perhaps the most obvious mode of spectacular ideology. The spectacle holds workers in thrall, teaching them in what is called their "free" time that their desires can be satisfied through consumption. The upkeep of the capitalist economic system thus finally encroaches on all our waking hours.

Half a century after the development of advertising and consumerist ideology, the situationists held that the "society of the spectacle" (commodities, art-as-commodity, the mass media, the entertainment industry) alienates its "spectators," who are condemned to do nothing more than watch themselves, experiencing satisfaction (but not really) only through the mediation of the commodity. The spectacle steals every experience and sells it back to us, but only symbolically, so that we are never satisfied: via this mechanism we support the machine of endless consumption over and over.

Play is thought of as the opposite of "work." Yet under the existing order play is officially allowed only children and the workers of play-as-spectacle, which is not play. It is reified through the professionalization of select people as "athletes," "artists" or "entertainers." These physical, creative activities are reserved for "professionals," who must sell the product of their "play" as spectacle. As observed by the Bureau of Control (pamphleteers from Houston, Texas), in the realm of "art" behavior is tolerated that would not be in the "real world." Play in the "working world" is diverted, channeled off as "art," contained as decadent behavior in the mainstream of life. Children are punished in school for playing except at scheduled break time, as training for the radical split between what one is ordered to do and what one might like to do.

Furthermore, to play professionally today and live off it, one must be able to command a mass audience and license the spectacle-commodity to a hierarchy of managers and owners, each of whom creams off an ascending percentage of profit from the "work" (for that is what this "play" has been converted or inverted into). "Performance" is now also always subject to endless monitoring and control by the professional judges and censors.

According to the situationists, the desire for experience is "continually commodified and in turn wrenched free from spectacular relations in a perpetual struggle for its realisation." This axiom is beautifully manifest in the US in 1993 in a Nike commercial. A young, white actor boasts, "My name is Fletcher and I work as little as possible." The company slogan "Just Do It" appears on the screen in wavy acid-green letters on a hot-pink background. We have here the co-option and price-tagging by the spectacle of the anti-work, pro-play ethic of the situationists' American brethren, the hippies; presented simultaneously with the suggestive phrase: just do it! (Just try LSD! Just blow up that military installation!) But in this case, "just do it" is only supposed to mean "just buy this hundred-dollar pair of shoes."

The supreme irony of capitalism might be that an anti-production and anti-capitalist ethic can be used to promote capitalist interests, by inducing people to consume through teasing them with oppositional desires. In the operation of the Nike ad, giving in to anticapitalist desires ("working as little as possible") is OK, and what's more, it's achievable through consumption (which is to say, not at all, except through a commodity fantasy). But someone who understands how advertising works will be able to separate the commodity from the impulse the ad attempts to link with it and examine that impulse for the symptom it is.

Only those who do work can afford to buy products like this. Nike obviously perceives a grain of dissatisfaction with the capitalist system and channels it into support of that system. But we can be sure dissatisfaction with the status quo is alive and well when the status quo has to commandeer it. I see this ad as targeting that US media-generated grouping called "Generation X" or "slackers." They are constructed as an un- or under-employed, downwardly-mobile group of recent college graduates. As the mass media have it, the state of the economy, US politics in the 1980s, the condition of the ecosystem, and growing up in suburbia have made them skeptical of capitalism's lures and promises, its ideology of bourgeois ambition. Made aware of their status as a demographic category through advertising and its supporting media, they have been co-opted by the spectacle and used to sell upscale goods like cars, though it is unclear to whom--those more ambivalent "cynics" of the same age and class grouping, one suspects.

These people are would-have-been-desirable consumers (and employees) gone bad. They're not suitably ambitious (sometimes they almost resemble their European counterparts, the "unemployed generation"--who, because they could, founded autonomist scenes) to make capitalism comfortable, and allegedly cannot get and/or do not want the lucrative jobs that are their inheritance. They are interesting because they seem so skeptical about capitalism as the promised road to happiness, so uninvested in the ideology that keeps it going.

Laura Martz is a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University in Literary and Cultural Theory. You can read this article in its entirety at Cultronix.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

How Ethical Is The Work 'Ethic'?

Reconsidering work and 'leisure time'

Did you ever wonder why your parents act so disoriented when it comes to 'leisure' activities? Why they start one little hobby, and either fail to follow through with it or become pathologically obsessed with it...even though it doesn't seem to have anything to do with their lives? Maybe they seek to lose themselves in gardening or following the exploits of some basketball team. Maybe your father buys all sorts of fancy tools (the kind of tools many men his age have), but only uses them for a few days before setting them aside--and then buys a lot of skiing equipment the next month. Or perhaps they just spend their time trying figure out how to pay off the debt they owe for that wide screen television they spend the rest of their time watching.

And--have they ever been honest with you about their jobs? Do they enjoy them? Is their work the most fulfilling thing they could be doing, are they able to achieve every goal they always wanted to? Do they feel heroic or proud every day as they return home--or are they exhausted? Do they turn that wide screen television on as soon as they come in the door? Do they have the energy to do anything else?

Did you ever wonder if there might be a better way for them, for you?


Because of the 'division of labor', most jobs today consist of doing very specific tasks, over and over, with very little variety. If you are a dishwasher, you wash dishes: you don't get to interact with people or solve complicated problems very often, and you never get to leave the dishroom to run around in the sunlight. If you are a real estate agent, you never use your hands to make anything, and you spend most of your time thinking about market value and selling points. Even jobs that include a certain amount of variety can only remain interesting and challenging up to a point: for we work forty hours a week on average, and at least five out of the seven days. That's a lot of our lives to spend working. Work is the first thing we do on most of the days of our lives, and we don't get to do anything else until we've been at work for quite a while. When we spend most of our time and energy working on one task, or even ten different tasks, eventually we will feel bored and desperate for variety... even if we are conditioned not to realize this.

On top of this, because of the spread of large businesses and the consequent decrease in self-employment and small businesses, most of us do not have much voice in what our responsibilities at work will be. It is hard to start your own business or even find a friend or neighbor to work for. We often must get a job to survive in which we follow the instructions of a manager who probably doesn't have much more control over his job than we have over ours. Since we don't get to decide what we are doing, chances are that we will feel alienated from our work, disinterested in the quality of our labor; we may even feel that the projects we are working upon are unimportant.

Indeed it is easy to feel that most of the jobs available today are unimportant--for in a certain sense, many of them are. In a purely capitalist economy, the jobs that are available will be determined by which products are in the most demand; and often the products that are in demand (military technology, fast food, Pepsi, fashionable clothes) are not products that really make people happy. It's easy to feel like all your labor is wasted when the products you work so hard to sell just to survive seem to do nothing for the people you sell them to. How many people really are cheered up by the soggy french fries at McDonalds? Would they perhaps be happier eating a meal prepared by a friend of theirs or a chef they knew who owned his own cafe?

In short, 'work' as we know it tends to make us unhappy because we do so much of it, because it is so repetitive, because we don't get to choose what we do, and because what we are doing is often not in the best interest of our fellow human beings.


We come home from these jobs exhausted from having invested all our time and energy in a project we may not have even been free to choose, and what we need most is to recover. We are emotionally and physically worn out, and nothing seems more natural than to sit down quietly for a while and watch television or read the daily paper, while we try to gather our strength for the next day's labor. Perhaps we try to leave behind our exhaustion and frustration by concentrating on some hobby or another; but as we are not very used to directing ourselves in the workplace during the day, we often don't know what we really want to do when we are free at home.

Certainly some company or another will have some suggestions for us, whether we receive them from advertising or watching our neighbors; but chances are that this company has their profits in mind at least as much as our satisfaction, and we may discover that playing miniature golf is strangely unfulfilling.

Similarly, of course, we don't have much time or energy left over from work to consider our situation or participate in any rewarding activity which requires much time and energy. We don't like to think too much about whether we enjoy our jobs or our lives--besides, that might be depressing, and what can we do if we don't enjoy them, anyway? We don't have the energy left to enjoy art or music or books that are really challenging; we need our music to be soothing, our art nonthreatening, our books merely entertaining.

In fact, we come to associate having to expend effort and do things with our work, and associate relaxing and not doing anything with leisure time. So, because many of us don't like our jobs, we tend to associate having to do things with being unhappy, while happiness, as far as we ever know it, means... not doing anything. We never act for ourselves, because we spend our whole days acting for other people, and we think that acting and working hard always leads to unhappiness; our idea of happiness is not having to act, being on permanent vacation.

And this is ultimately why so many of us are so unhappy: because happiness is not doing nothing, happiness is acting creatively, doing things, working hard on things you care about. Happiness is becoming an excellent long-distance runner, falling in love, cooking an original recipe for people you care about, building a bookshelf, writing a song. There is no happiness to be found in merely lying on a couch--happiness is something that we must pursue. We are not unhappy because we have to do things, we are unhappy because all the things we do are things we don't care about. And because our jobs exhaust us and mislead us about what we want, they are the source of much of our unhappiness.


You don't have to work at those jobs, you know. It is possible to get by without all the Pepsi, all the expensive clothes, the wide screen television and the expensive interior decorating that all those paychecks go to pay for. You can try to start your own business doing something you care about (although this still involves the danger of having too little variety in your work), or you can try to find a job in today's marketplace (good luck!) that you actually enjoy... and that leaves you enough time and energy to do other things in your life that you also enjoy. The most important thing is to arrange your life so that you are doing things because you want to do them, not because they are profitable--otherwise, no matter how much money you make, you will be selling your happiness for money. Remember that the less money you spend, the less you will have to worry about getting money in the first place... and the less you will have to work at those dehumanizing jobs. Learn to use all your 'free' time, not to vegetate or spend money on entertainment, but to create things and accomplish things--things that no one would pay you to make or do, but that make your life (and perhaps the lives of others) better anyway.

Some will argue that the system we live within would break down if we all were to walk away from our jobs--so much the better. Haven't we built enough automobiles, enough shopping malls, enough televisions and golf clubs, enough fucking nuclear weapons already? Wouldn't we all be better off if there was a shortage of fast food and a surplus of unique home-cooked meals? If playing music is more rewarding than working in an assembly line, why do we have so few good bands and so many transistor radios? Of course a 'work-free' world is a dream we will probably never see come true; but as always, the challenge is to make this dream a part of your world, as much as you can--to liberate yourself from the chains of mindless consumerism and mind-melting employment and live a more meaningful life.
This piece originally appeared in the book "Days of War Nights of Love," published by CrimethInc.