I wrote this article at the height of the ‘Occupy’ protests around the world – for some reason I never posted it – the other day I found it and I believe the majority of it is still relevant some months down the line, so here it is:
The end of drudgery and the start of doing some real work.
When I was in my early 20s, and searching around in some kind of depressed fug for ‘a job’, I had a memorable dream. A brass band was marching around inside a large open-plan office, several floors up, followed by the employees of that office. At one end of the room there was a large floor-to ceiling glass window which had been opened – the whole party simply marched out of the window to their deaths. Somehow at the time, I failed to recognise the significance of the dream, although I did write it down so I must have known it was important in some way. The meaning now couldn’t be clearer.
It is noticeable that one of the main ‘heckles’ towards Occupy protesters from passers-by in the street seems to be ‘Get a job!’. There is a whole bundle of assumptions and judgments tied into this statement and I think it might be instructive to unpack them and see where that leads us.
Before we do that though, I would just like to mention something which happened to me about a decade ago, back when I lived in the UK. A friend and I were out for the evening, and as it was not drizzling with rain (unusually for Britain), we cycled into town together. As we passed a pub, a group of half a dozen or so lads who were drinking in the street, seized on our appearance with relish, and almost as one, they started to chant: ‘You ain’t, got no car, you ain’t got no car! You ain’t, got no car, you ain’t got no car!!’
Of course the assumption was, if you are not traveling in a car, then you can’t afford one, thus you must be poor, must be a loser, must be inferior to me, and, if I have had more than one pint of beer, you must be informed of the fact immediately. In fact I probably couldn’t have afforded a car at that point in my life, but previously I had had a car but had sold it because I never used it. Parking in the city where I lived, Brighton, on the south coast of England, was nigh-on impossible, and it was much easier to take the bus into town if it was raining, the bicycle if it was not, and if one was traveling out of town, to take the train.
On hearing the lads’ chants, my friend and I looked at each other with something approaching wonder… could they really be mocking us for using bicycles…? In an instant we understood their entire worldview and far from feeling belittled, we were simply bemused, that someone could think that way.
The same applies to the ‘Get a job’ taunt; what is it really saying? Firstly, that the subject is lazy: that they are choosing to live in a tent in, or next to, the street because they are avoiding work. Or that their inherent laziness has brought them to a state where they would rather live in a tent than seek employment: that they are too lazy to work and so have no money, and so have to live in a tent. Why does this matter? Because laziness is bad, the person is not ‘pulling their weight’, and is a burden on society.
Secondly, it is a comment which may be acknowledging their protest: you are protesting because you are trying to force the government to increase unemployment benefit, so that you can continue not to work but have an increased standard of living, which I will be subsiding via the tax I pay from my own job (of course the implication is that the heckler already has a job). This seems to be the view encouraged by tabloid newspapers in the UK: everyone who is not working hard at something they probably do not enjoy is a ‘scrounger’, a ‘benefit cheat’, or a ‘waster’.
Thirdly, it is an admonishment to join mainstream society: I have to work every day at a job I hate, or at best tolerate: this is a sacrifice I make either for other people (e.g. partner and children), or because I believe there is no other alternative – therefore why are you not making the same sacrifice? There is no other option in society than to have ‘a job’, therefore the protester is merely postponing the day when they must face reality and put their hands out to be chained to the rest of the herd. The protester may also look different to the heckler, possibly wearing clothing or having a hairstyle outside of what would be considered suitable for a ‘work environment’, thus confirming the prejudice that they have no intention of ever ‘getting a job’.
Fourthly, it may be a criticism of the protest’s perceived futility: nothing can be changed by protests such as this, therefore it is better to give up. As George Carlin noted, “Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist”. The heckler may be someone who once had hopes for a better world, and for whatever reason, these have been dashed, and they now espose a philosophy of ‘just getting on with it’. As the song says ‘hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way’, and it appears to also apply to industrialised society as a whole.
This last point is really the core of the issue – the ‘just get on with it’ attitude. In Spanish, the typical phrase is ‘es lo que hay’ – ‘it’s what there is’, and the implication is that this cannot be changed, so must necessarily be accepted, however unjust or wrong it may be.
We have to ask ourselves, what kind of attitude would large corporations like us to have in order that we wage-slave for them, either directly: for wages, or indirectly: to pay off debts they have run up – day-in-day-out, without it coming to pass that one day we just don’t bother to get out of bed anymore and to hell with the lot of them? The desired attitude is: ‘just get on with it’, don’t question, don’t agitate, don’t rock the boat, and at the end of thirty or forty years of, yes, let’s use the word: drudgery, we get a pension, gold watch, whatever.
Hard, menial, or dull work.
toil – slavery – hackwork (source: reference.com)
The very fact of ‘having a job’ means that we are too busy, and then too tired, to do anything about things we may feel are unjust. It is those people who are unemployed who have time to protest, to think about how the world could be made into a better place, to stand outside armaments factories in the pissing rain and remind those within that their actions have consequences. This is why we are so heavily programmed to believe that being employed is good and being unemployed is worse than the Nazis. An employed populace is a compliant populace.
I am aware that none of this is new, revolutionary thought; this is nothing that has not been said many times before, but I believe it is worth re-iterating, in the sense that if the alarm clock goes off and you don’t wake up and switch it off, it continues to sound until you do. We have patently not woken up from the trance of ‘work’ yet, and it occurs to me to ask why. It must fulfill some deep need in the psyche that we cling on so fiercely to doing something which we apparently do not enjoy, and in fact in many cases appear to resent deeply.
I find it interesting that a recent cultural meme in Britain has been the revival of the old ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster – this popped up again just after the riots in major cities and whether by coincidence or ‘manufactured consent’, it is doing its intended job once more of subduing the population and invoking images of a Britain where things were more certain, where people were more inclined to buy into the ethos of ‘work hard and the rewards will come’, than is the current generation.
So, why is the protester in their tent by the side of the road, in the middle of the city? Are they really on a last-gasp mission to avoid ‘the demon: Work’? Possibly, but then looked at in the cold light of day, who could blame them? Ask any ten random people if they enjoy their job, and I predict that a majority of them will admit that if given the choice of staying in with their family or going to work, they will pick the family every time.
Also, leaving aside the question of whether the job is enjoyable, how many jobs are actually beneficial to society? A great many people work for corporations which are employing thousands of people, but the net effect of their work (which may in many cases be quite fulfilling on a personal level) is actually severely detrimental to society and the planet as a whole. It is conceivable that someone employed to create complex financial derivatives enjoys their labour immensely, and they will certainly enjoy the substantial compensation they receive for it, but it is much more debatable whether the fruits of their labour are beneficial to society.
Getting to the point now: who is the real ‘burden on society’? The person who unquestioningly puts their shoulder to the wheel of the cart which is heading off the edge of a cliff, or the person who sits down by the side of the road and shouts at the others to stop because the direction they are heading in is dangerous? Have we got to the point where ‘laziness’ is a revolutionary act?
Of course, in the present system, some of us do have to do things we don’t want to do, maybe even for extended periods of time. It is the identification with this way of life which I am seeking to highlight; the entrenched belief that it could somehow never be any different, that we all have to accept it as a fait accompli rather than a human-made state of affairs which is open to revision.
Please note that I am not suggesting we ‘do nothing’, become ‘wasters’ or ‘spongers from society’, in fact I am suggesting we get out from behind the desk of our job and do some real work – the stuff we really want to do, the stuff which is burning a hole in our heart because we are doing a ‘job’ instead of our real work, the work we were put here to do. If you are one of those fortunate people for whom your ‘job’ and your real work is the same thing, please consider the fact that you may be in a minority, and that those people in the tents are striving for a world where we all get to do the thing which really fulfils us, and not just a lucky or privileged minority. And yes, there will still be food on the table, water in the pipes and a roof over your head. ‘The economy’ may go down, the ‘markets’ may not be happy, but ask yourself: where has doing their bidding got us so far?
As Douglas Rushkoff has pointed out, if we all get cancer it’s good for our nation’s GDP – we will all need expensive healthcare and either we, or our government (depending on where we are in the world), is going to have to take out loans to pay for it – this is ‘good’ for the economy, yet of course it is ‘bad’ for us. We need to find some measure of success which is not merely the total of things bought and sold. Or maybe we should just give up and privatise the whole planet; there may be some extra-terrestrial corporations out there who would see it as a useful and cheap place to base a call-centre. All we would have to do is learn Alpha-Centaurian or whatever it happens to be…
So the questions are now: do we ‘just get on with it’? Is there really ‘no other way’ than trudging off on the daily commute? Is an abstract concept such as ‘the economy’ really worth making sacrifices for? Is what is good for ‘the markets’ really good for humanity (the assumption is that it is). Should we sacrifice our present wellbeing for a promised improved future? Is the deadness we call ‘security’ really that safe?
We are in a moment now where many people have nothing much left to lose: they are working harder than ever before for ever-diminishing returns while they see the fruits of their labour being enjoyed not by themselves and their families, or even society as a whole, but a tiny elite, utterly disconnected from the majority of humanity by the very wealth ‘the 99%’ are working to create.
Maybe those who bemoan the unemployment figures and wage cuts could look at this in a new light – every person who is unable to ‘get a job’ or find satisfaction in the one they have is a potential reformer, a person who may decide to put their efforts into something other than our society’s unceasing and obedient march ‘out of the window’.
Photo by Lukas from Pexels