Friday, May 01, 2015

Hooray, hooray, it՚s the first of May

It՚s the special day of the year where we honor international labor solidarity. I hereby acknowledge whatever it is I have in common with all the other people in the world who must work for a living. That՚s most of us, I guess, excluding those who have made or inherited fuck-you money. May Day is about the dream that the more lowly working stiffs, who know they will never have that degree of freedom, will at least have a small space in which they can say fuck you to those they are obligated to serve. No wonder it coincides with a pagan festival.
At my age I can՚t work up much hatred for capitalism any more. Not only am I too bought into the system, I am deeply unimpressed by all the proposed alternatives and most of the people who advocate them. Yes, there՚s something horrible about it, all the more so when you consider how capable it is of putting on a friendly face. It may be destroying the planet, it may be converting human culture into a mindless bland mass market nothing. But it՚s also feeding billions of people and producing actual life-enhancing innovations, so there՚s that. Still, just for a day, I would like to say a hearty fuck you to our economic system and all it embodies. Just for a day, then I will go back to work, and go back to giving money, the people who wield its power, and the bourgeoise virtues in general the respect they deserve.

I՚ve been part of a non-money-based world at Burning Man, but Burning Man, like May Day, lives in a special zone where dreamlike alternatives come temporarily into reality and then vanish once more into the mists. They leave us tantalized with possibility and discouraged at the default world we actually inhabit. I have a weird relationship with these sorts of collective dreams – both deeply skeptical and inexorably attracted. I think of myself as too smart or too critical to embrace these childish fantasies, but I՚m not so smart that I can live without dreams.

The dream of the labor movement and the left seems old and tired at this point. It used to offer the hope of a better world, not just materially better, but spiritually better – that is the point of solidarity, that very religious-sounding bedrock concept of leftist thought. A certain way of being among your fellow human beings – recognizing that we are all (in some sense, some of the time) working together for the same things. There՚s really nothing better than that feeling, which of course is not the exclusive property of leftist movements.

In fact the capitalists of Silicon Valley are experts at generating this feeling (or a simulacrum of it) among their employees, with team-building exercises, shared meals, and other efforts to create communal feelings. Capitalism excels in giving people what they want, and apparently people very much want something that feels like socialism.

Most people don't seem to have any problem blending this community spirit with the presence of power, money, hierarchy, and authority, but I do, and it may be one of the roots of my general difficulty with the corporate world. Oh I will take fake solidarity when I can get it, it's better than nothing, but I'll be damned if I'll confuse it with the real thing.

Or maybe working at faking solidarity is the real job we all have, maybe our greatest obligation is to do this so well that it becomes effectively real.

Previous May Day posts

2 comments:

Dain said...

I never knew disdain for Silicon Valley until I lost my SV job last year. I'm coming up on year of unemployment and now having to consider driving for Postmates. (Uber would be unbearable, shuttling around people who are like me two years ago.) It's not the most noble motivation - I don't like you because you won't have me - but at least it's honest.

Like you I'm not sure what to do about it all, other than to occasionally join in the chorus of bashing the rich Game of Thrones fans driving up rents.

Crawfurdmuir said...

You wrote: "In fact the capitalists of Silicon Valley are experts at generating this feeling (or a simulacrum of it) among their employees, with team-building exercises, shared meals, and other efforts to create communal feelings. Capitalism excels in giving people what they want, and apparently people very much want something that feels like socialism."

What you are describing is not socialism, but rather a type of benevolent paternalism on the part of business owners and managers - perhaps we could call it the management style of old Fezziwig, as opposed to that of Ebenezer Scrooge.

If you want to know what socialism feels like perhaps you ought to ask someone who fled from the old Soviet Union, or one of its satellite countries such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Poland. I've known several such people. Every one of them was glad to be here in capitalist America.

The pretense of egalitarianism implicit in addressing one's superior and being addressed by him as "comrade" serves only to accentuate how threadbare is the velvet glove that surrounds the iron fist. No matter how an economic activity be organized, in any concerted effort there will necessarily be a few who are appointed to lead, and the rest of necessity must follow.

Being an apparatchik of the state does not make a boss any the less a boss than does his being the owner of the "means of production." In practice, backed by the power of an omnipotent and omnipresent state, such a functionary is likely, if anything, to be more arbitrary and demanding than one who is merely one buyer out of many in a market for skilled labor.

Sallust long ago observed that few men desire liberty; most wish only for a just master. Private enterprise has done a better job of providing both than has socialism.