victorian virtues

dagNotes: A note about cooperation and work

I’m often asked about why I consider myself an anarchist by baffled colleagues and friends. I’m sure some of you can relate. Most people don’t really know what anarchism is, and I can’t really talk about theory because they won’t know any but the most famous names. That said, what I always end up talking about is labor, work, cooperation, and the rotten notions about work and business ethics in capitalist culture. If you read dagSeoul, you know I’m no individualist. I think the worst part of capitalist culture is its ability to convince members of society that they are free spirits who are embodied with specific skills that can be exploited for profit and social mobility as individuals better than in collaboration with others. I hate it when anarchists import this ethics of individuality into their politics.

We need a good critique of work–one that is not relegated to anarchist internet forums. Cooperation is a necessary part of work. We exchange our labor for much less than its worth. The exchange should provide benefits for less pay and increased production. Ideally, it does provide such benefits. I don’t need to explain what everyone knows: production has increased and continues to increase and workers are paid less, far less than they were, forty years ago, for doing the more work in, often, the same conditions. And the benefits? They’re now costs to be externalized as business owners make far more profits than they did decades ago.

Why work, why cooperate with employers and owners, when cooperation is a one-way street? We are taught, from childhood, that we must work. So, a vocal and forceful critique of work is necessary. It’s simple. We might wonder why no discourse, no conversation, no books are written about this. We have to know where to go to participate in the debate, and, to be frank, the pamphlets and theory is stale, and much of what is written about in online forums is shit.

I used to teach ethics for business majors as an adjunct in a philosophy department. It helped pay the bills and I got to lecture in philosophy, use that degree. BE USEFUL. It’s fucking everywhere, isn’t it? Anyway, I structured my course around the developing notions of the free market and ethics in capitalist society. Most people teach ethics for business majors by looking at ethical problems like the famous Ford Pintos that exploded when hit from behind case. I find that to be a silly way to teach ethics when the students, business majors though they are, don’t actually know what a market is and how it came to be defined the way it popularly is defined.

We read important texts about the nature of markets; we read philosophers, like Kant, who are responsible for framing Nature as an entity that has a special destiny for humans and our cities; we read about what it means to define business and how it’s different from work. We also read in the source material for what has become the common understanding of the individual. It will surprise many of you to learn that this did not mean reaching back to pre-modern philosophy and reading through The Enlightenment™. I spent a lot of time with students talking about Samuel Smiles and the formation of what we now refer to as family values and what were in the Victorian era called perennial virtues.

We must remember that the notions about self-help began as a public education about emerging bourgeois virtues about moderation that were meant to organize the working and middle classes–and get the working classes to struggle for sober and Christian upward mobility and the middle classes to participate in charity and public work for free as they struggle to become members of the employing classes. Thatcher and Reagan are important. They took the bourgeois virtues, with help from conservative intellectuals in the UK and US, and transformed them into transcendant values. They took ethics education about moderation and commonality, found in much Protestant culture, and bleached from it the commonality.

This is supposed to be a quick note, so I’ll just leave it at this. It’s ridiculous to continue to work for something–in this case, an ideal–we know is a fiction. It’s irrational to support an employment culture that insists the powerful employing classes are permitted to externalize the costs of cooperation by insisting, via contracts, that the employed classes bear the burden of externalization. It’s irrational to support this culture and call it a culture of cooperation. Upward mobility no longer exists.

If you have inherited your wealth, and many of you reading this are going to inherit, you need to think about this. Especially, all you bloggers who like to write about oppression. We don’t get to pick and choose the oppressions we focus on. We live in market societies. Proper intersectionality will always demand that class be a primary part of any discussion about anything else because under capitalist culture, we are first and formally organized into employing and employed classes under a system of formerly bourgeois virtues that have been fully institutionalized as pragmatic and universal values. It’s white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism. All three together. And its values are the bedrock of your inheritances.  However, I’m also annoyed at all the anarchist insistence that we can maintain an individualist approach to struggle and succeed. What we need is class struggle and revolution. I’m firm about this.