Of work and related civilisational nightmares

This storm is what we call progress -- Walter Benjamin

The history of the world as we know it is also the history of work, the distribution of the products of work, and the surplus value generated by work. According to John Zerzan, the primitive non-agrarian (or pre-agrarian -- if one can avoid the teleological bias inherent in such a prefix) world was free of hierarchical structures. But for Simone de Beauvoir, the original hierarchy, the hierarchy between the two genders, emerged in the difference of their productivity.

Primitive women, because of the burden of maternity, theorises Beauvoir, could not accumulate as much as men who could continue to hunt: "in maternity woman remained closely bound to her body, like an animal." Thus emerged the first hierarchy in the forests populated by hunters and gatherers. The production of a new life became inferior ‘labour’ and the accumulation of hunted meat, the taking of life, as superior ‘work’. This is the main problem with which anarcho-primitivists are still trying to grapple.

The link between sovereignty and the work of imposing death still haunts the world: the larger the arsenal of killing machines, the more industrially advanced is the civilisation. The sovereign is someone who interrupts life.

Once a hierarchical habit is introduced in the species, it transforms into other hierarchical structures almost magically. Work was originally supposed to make human beings realise their potential, the liberation from the vicissitudes of nature. It did not turn out that way. Human beings who produced value in the original economies shared their products as gifts or bartered them for goods and services that they themselves could not produce. They did not sell their labour to others but the products of their labour as proto-entrepreneurs.

The capacity to work, called labour-power by Karl Marx, was not a commodity yet. In Marxist literature, the capacity to work becomes a commodity when money is invented. Money, a supreme expression of value, can buy anything valuable, including the capacity to work. By investing in the labour of others, the capitalist turns money into capital. Thus, the labourer/worker turns into a commodity himself/herself.

Read also: Unregulated hours

This is the classical Marxist interpretation and it was theoretically sufficient for the era in which it was produced -- the Industrial Age. The nature of work has changed in postmodern times. Take the example of Facebook. It sells user data to advertisers. The users willingly provide information about themselves to Facebook, willingly handing over their information about their lifework and letting a company turn it into a commodity. This process is achieved by making the users desire this commodification of their lives.

This desire in postmodern human beings is what Michel Foucault’s scholarly work was about. He tried to understand how explicit oppression has given way to implicit consent through a process of seduction. Now the worker is seduced to turn himself into a commodity for free and hand over the value for free.

This desire in postmodern human beings is what Michel Foucault’s scholarly work was about. He tried to understand how explicit oppression has given way to implicit consent through a process of seduction. Now the worker is seduced to turn himself into a commodity for free and hand over the value for free to Facebook.

In 2015, Facebook had a net income (after deducting the operational costs) of 3.6 billion dollars. In 2015, it had 1.59 billion users. It means every user has contributed 2.26 dollars of profit to Facebook plus the operational costs and tangible assets. The user in return does not get anything. This form of free labour is provided by willing labourers who demand nothing in return while being commodified.

This provides a valuable insight into the nature of modern work and why workers are not revolting en masse the way they used to revolt in the past. The seduced worker now wants to simulate the lifestyle of his/her exploiter and happily gets transformed into a commodity in the process.

The intensity of the seduction can be gauged by one curious incident that took place in South Korea in 2014. The police arrested a couple because they had let their "real daughter" die while they were busy playing a game in which they were raising a virtual baby. In 2012, a Chinese man sold one of his kidneys to buy an iPad. The process of seduction of modern human beings is so complete that reality might be only a discursive effect. This is the main argument of Jean Baudrillard in his book, Simulacra and Simulation. The computer chip may be the hardest worker in the world now and has replaced the original flesh-and-bone worker. It is possible to generate value without hiring a single worker if a computer algorithm can work for your business.

The process of the control of nature which began millennia ago is now almost complete. Human beings themselves may become redundant remnants of useless nature. The sovereign is probably going to be a code that can simulate and replace everything we know. On September 16, 2016, the Bank of America has reported that "there is a 20 to 50 per cent chance our world is a Matrix-style virtual reality and everything we experience is just a simulation." This percentage is likely to increase as machines decode the DNA and 3-D printers print surplus human organs.

The logic inherent in the invention of money, which is a symbolic representation of value, will come to its logical conclusion when even the capitalist (the mythical exploiter of all value) is rendered into a commodity used by symbolic codes running through a global network of exploitative chips. The clone of the employer will be as important as the lab that owns his or her DNA. A human being producing life or value will be a thing of the past if and when the symbolic violence is complete.


Published on September 25, 2016

Source: http://tns.thenews.com.pk/work-civilisational-nightmares/#.WoHZelT1Xow