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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Monday, April 18, 2005

Commodified Rebellion for the Wage-Slave

Via Ross Heckmann on the Distributism yahoogroup. A quote from the Agrarian Wendell Berry's book What Are People For?

Women have complained, justly, about the behavior of "macho" men. But despite their he-man pretensions and their captivation by masculine heroes of sports, war, and the Old West, most men are now entirely accustomed to obeying and currying the favor of their bosses. Because of this, of course, they hate their jobs--they mutter, "Thank God it's Friday" and "Pretty Good for Monday"--but they do as they are told. They are more compliant than most housewives have been. Their characters combine feudal submissiveness with modern helplessness. They have accepted almost without protest, and often with relief, their dispossession of any usable property and, with that, their loss of economic independence and their consequent subordination to bosses. They have submitted to the destruction of the household economy and thus of the household, to the loss of home employment and self-employment, to the disintegration of their families and communities, to the desecration and pillage of their country, and they have continued abjectly to believe, obey, and vote for the people who have most eagerly abetted this ruin and who have most profited from it. These men, moreover, are helpless to do anything for themselves or anyone else without money, and so for money they do whatever they are told. They know that their ability to be useful is precisely defined by their willingness to be somebody else's tool. Is it any wonder that they talk tough and worship athletes and cowboys? Is it any wonder that some of them are violent?

A related phenomenon is the manufactured "rebellion" of teens in high school and college, who know that forty or fifty years as docile "human resources" looms ahead, as surely as Thanksgiving looms for the condemned turkey. How many frat boys pose as Blutto Blutarsky as a way of pretending they won't be a brown-nose Darren Stevens in five years? Likewise the "alternative" culture adopted by young adults as an over-compensation for their working life as white collar drones.

This insistent denial, this clutching at any psychological defense against the sheer repugnance of a "job," this desperate need to believe that "this is not really us, this is not what we really do," is quite understandable. We don't cut loose our values, our priorities, our judgment, and our dignity, and leave them at the door when we enter our homes; but that's exactly what we do in our existence on the job. For the majority of people throughout history, for the majority of Americans until around a hundred years ago, "work" was something we did on our own turf: the farmer or tradesman planned the order of his tasks as he saw fit, and carried them out from beginning to end in accordance with his own judgment and sense of workmanship. A "job," on the other hand, amounts (as Berry said) to being somebody else's tool. And the main reason for the change, a dead horse I've spent a considerable amount of time beating in this blog, is: We Was Robbed!

What's more, it's utterly unnatural. As a commentator on the local public access channel recently pointed out, we're biologically designed to respond, when somebody won't stop following us around and bugging us, by either kicking the crap out of them or getting away from them. But for eight hours or more at a time, we're put into a situation where we're expected to smile and nod, instead. No wonder so many people who get tired of smiling and nodding show up on the six o'clock news.

But less dramatically, it's no wonder so many people drag themselves to their jobs every day with a sense of dread, and spend their lives in the real world attempting to prove that those jobs have nothing to do with who they really are.

It's not by accident that the main lesson taught in the publik skools is the skills necessary to survive and advance in a hierarchy: to identify the person in a position to benefit us, identify what that authority figure expects and then do it, to feel a temporary easing-up of our permanent state of unfocused anxiety whenever that gold star is stuck on our paper or that extra item is added to our resume. Those are exactly the skills a job calls for. A job, as opposed to work, involves infantilization: a man with a job is, while on his employer's turf, a glorified third-grader trying to win Teacher's approval.

The sooner we restore a society where work is something we do, and not something we're "given," a society where we're in control of our working lives, the sooner we can do away with fake machismo, commodified rebellion, and going postal.


Blogger The Continental Op said...

Tom Frank, of Baffler and What's the Matter With Kansas? fame, penned a terrific critique of commodified rebellion several years ago, entitled "Why Johnny Can't Rebel". That and other related pieces are collected in Commodify Your Dissent.

April 19, 2005 8:49 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Edgar Friedenberg (Disposal of Liberty and Other Industrial Wastes) analyzes it in terms of "ressentiment"; the oppressed see themselves as utterly powerless against their oppressors, so on some level they unconsciously choose to obtain a feeling of power by siding with the oppressor against the "trouble-makers" who challenge their rule. Such worship of authority and hatred for scapegoated out-groups is one of the main forces behind authoritarian movements.

Solution? Just off the top of my head, it might possibly lie in showing how vulnerable the ruling class really is, and how much more powerful the oppressed are than they really think. As people participate in ever-greater empowerment projects (counter-institutions like LETS, etc.) they might gain in self-confidence and turn against the oppressor.

I remember seeing Studs Terkel talk about an ex-Klansman he'd met in the South. The guy was a janitor who felt like a big shot because of the local plutes he associated with in the Klan, despite being near-destitute himself. According to Turkel, he had a sort of epiphany when he looked at a black man and realized "He's more raggedy than I am--how can he be the big threat to me that those rich people say he is?" Before long, he was involved in organizing efforts with the black janitorial staff, and cooperating with his old enemies in fighting his old "friends."


I've got a copy of that Frank collection lying around somewhere; I'll have to check out the article you mention.

April 20, 2005 10:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think the rebellion of teenagers has anything to do with the prospect of work ahead. There's never been anything life-affirming about work, and it's a stupid myth that there ever was. The rebellion of teenagers is recent.

Teenage rebellion is due to teenagers being adults without responsibility. Throughout human history, someone who was 14 or older was an adult, with all adult responsibilities. Now largely infantilised and insulated from responsibility, they do whatever. It's life without consequence. You can see the same problem in the welfare leeches and the stupid rich Ivy fratboy set. The solution isn't some life-affirming concept of work (it doesn't exist, work sucks), it's restoring the legal responsibility of adults.

- Josh

April 20, 2005 7:04 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Work carries some inherent disutility, just because it's undertaken at the expense of leisure, which we desire for its own sake. But the disutility of work does not change the fact that work can carry some inherent satisfactions. I've worked for a boss, and worked for myself, and when I did the latter I didn't have to drag myself to it, muttering all the while "Oh, God, another day in this fucking shithole." If I could figure out how to support myself entirely through self-employment, I'd jump at the chance.

The fact that it was so difficult to get wage laborers until the possibility of a subsistence lifestyle on the common was eliminated through enclosure, should tell us that some work is better than other work.

Being sick sucks, too. But I'd much rather have a minor head cold than, say, an abcessed wisdom tooth or the ebola virus.

As for frat boys, I think their infantilization and irresponsibility are probably connected to the docility and passive obedience that employers look for. It's all part of the same culture--something I discuss in the latest post today.

April 20, 2005 9:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, just found you through Harry at Scratchings.

I kept thinking of this post (with lots of resonance for me, btw) while reading Dave Pollard's discussion of the gift economy, and while mulling the whole work/abuse/money thing over in the context of my own work/nonwork history.

I'd never thought of the way they processed us at school as an intentional training for the abuse that would come at work.* I've perceived the two more as responses to the same problem: too many people/obligations to process, not enough time/resources/expertise. At work, they're trying to get us to do an inhuman amount of work and not be too much of an inconvenience as we react to the demand. At school, they're struggling with their charge of educating more kids than can be handled well/effectively/respectfully. Both scenarios lead to treating us as inconvenient objects, but I always thought of it as two similar responses to a world in a handbasket.

*Then again, I've never thought of alot of things;)

April 22, 2005 6:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fact that it was so difficult to get wage laborers until the possibility of a subsistence lifestyle on the common was eliminated through enclosure, should tell us that some work is better than other work.

IIRC, the labourers were legally tied to the land; they were serfs. Also, I was under the impression that working in factories was a wildly popular option as opposed to subsistence farming. That's certainly apparent in Third World countries, at least.

As for frat boys, I think their infantilization and irresponsibility are probably connected to the docility and passive obedience that employers look for. It's all part of the same culture--something I discuss in the latest post today.

Doubtful. They're the future bosses of the world, not the future hourly workers.

I'm not sure where you went to school, but being an Ivy graduate, I can tell you that frat boy Ivy culture isn't passive. It's aggressive, often marked by destructive use of alcohol and drugs, as well as violence, sexual aggression, misogyny, and borderline occult practices.

- Josh

April 22, 2005 5:11 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Thanks. You're right--there's probably some common element in the professional culture of teachers and bosses that causes them to treat people the same.


On the frat boy thing, we probably just interpreted things differently.

On the historical issue of land expropriation, though, the employing classes of the 18th and 19th centuries were pretty clear at the time on how hard it was to hire help at an acceptably low wage, when they had direct access to subsistence on the land. The literature of the time is full of such complaints. You can find a lot of them quoted if you click the link at "We Was Robbed."

One of the main motives behind enclosure was that anyone with access to a piece of land they could live off of would only work periodically to meet their occasional need for cash, and then go back to working the land as soon as they had enough. Wage labor was only a last resort to supplement subsistence farming. The only way to get people to work 70-80 hr. weeks year round was to deprive them of all other options. Wakefield wrote a book on colonies arguing that the mother country should restrict access to vacant land, because it was almost impossible to get people to work steadily for low wages as long as they could work for themselves. And serfdom was abolished in England, for the most part, at least a couple of centuries before the big land expropriations of the 17th and 18th cent.

April 22, 2005 5:20 PM  

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