Alienating Labour III: The Better Way to Free Yourself, Research Time, 24/08/2015

So getting back to this question of labour, and what it means to be alienated from it. There have been a couple of tangents, one circumstantial, which was that I had to answer Steve’s question about my thoughts on protest politics. The other tangent, about shitty instruction in humanities, was organic to my writing, if aided by circumstance. 

And once again, Zeppo is erased. Still, it was basically
Zeppo's joke to be eraseable. I'm convinced that Zeppo
Marx was the most revolutionary comic genius
of his era. That's a blog post for another day, I think.
I realized that while I was discussing the mediocre accounts of Karl Marx’s philosophy that I learned as an undergraduate, two friends in the international Doctor Who community were having a ridiculous conversation with a Gamergater troll who, in a fit of misplaced spite, wrote them an incoherent account of Hegel’s philosophy, and why that made all left-wing politics idiotic and stupid.

You see, another thing I don’t like about the dumbed-down content of too many undergraduate courses and textbooks in the humanities is that a student doesn’t have room to experiment with the ideas. They have no opportunities to pull something strange from the text, only learn a standard, simplified reading that they can easily recall in a few sentences.

Humanities education is meant to confuse you, and its core skills should be techniques of thought and analysis to understand your way through confusion. 

So a good humanities education will expose you, not just to a single standardized reading of a historically remarkable work, but an idea that emerges from your thinking on it that will, in turn, make you think in a different way.

Frederic Jameson finds one such idea in the work of another Fred, Friedrich Schiller. In particular, Schiller developed a concept of play, from his reading of the major Critique works of Immanuel Kant. Kant developed a very regimented conception of how human faculties of reasoning were divided: there was the cognitive, the moral, and the aesthetic, which was its own category as well as a function which blurred the division of the other two.

Schiller took this a step farther, and conceived of the power of judgment as a kind of creative play. In Kant’s thinking, the cognitive is our power of recognizing the world around us, the moral is our power of knowing what’s right and acting according to it. The aesthetic is our creative faculty, how we’re able to understand the assembly of the world and change how things fit together. 

I haven't really read much of him myself,
but I do get the distinct feeling that
Friedrich Schiller was an extremely
intense person.
Jameson takes this idea as his template for what non-alienated labour would be. The standard textbook version of non-alienated labour remains reactive: workers instead of an investor class in control of production, working conditions that let people relax and breathe instead of working them to death. These are improvements, but they’re essentially the same economic structures as before, just with the beneficiaries flipped.

Instead, Jameson runs with Schiller’s idea: labour that doesn’t alienate us is creative labour, fun labour. Labour that we can own as a singular product unique to ourselves. It’s the labour of art and artisans. 

It’s a brilliant idea. It’s survived in innovative philosophical systems for the next two hundred years. Friedrich Nietzsche’s figure of the creator as a society’s genuinely revolutionary character. Frantz Fanon’s concept of the creative, multifaceted culture as the one that truly overcomes colonialism. Henri Bergson and and Gilles Deleuze’s concept of creativity and the new as progress. 

The idea that progress isn’t about perfecting some program and living in that social template forever, but about constant reinvention, and flexibility of thought and action to become wholly new kinds of being if the world demands it. 

This is the political centrepiece of my own work too, Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. If we have to answer a problem whose causes and conditions lie in our fundamental nature, then the occasion demands that we change our natures, literally change human nature, a directed, creative act of adaptation that practically amounts to revolution.

Jameson, from his Marxist orientation and intellectual history, considers different images of industry transformed into artisanal work, images that depict such a world as perfect, utopian. 

It’s not just some intellectual distraction, the idea does move people in politics. It lies under the environmentalist movement, as I mentioned, as well as Italy’s Autonomia movement, and Occupy. The idea that we could solve many of the world’s problems by reorienting our industrial processes along a model of artisanship.

Well, I’ve heard worse.


  1. I was just watching a David Graeber talk about bureaucratization which he referred to as utopian (in a negative sense) quite a lot. His views about "bullshit jobs" and his concern with releasing human creativity resonate with the possibility of labour as artisanship. This is the talk:

    I personally don't mind doing boring work as long as I know it's necessary and valuable in some way (and I get paid for it... and I don't have to do it for more than 20 hours a week) Well, I have difficulty staying on task if I'm bored but that's another issue.

    1. I've been intrigued watching the popular debate over full employment and the guaranteed basic income grow in the culture. What I think are really radical are questions of whether it's moral to expect everyone to have to work for their living, given the period of worldwide economic stagnation we're entering.

      It's immensely hypocritical to malign people for not having a job or for losing their job when unemployment rates hit 15-20%. That's not quite how bad things are where I write in Canada, but major European nations have been dealing with this or worse for nearly a decade.

    2. Van Parijs talks about it as a "job lottery". We should treat jobs as assets like land and other resources and so the "winners" can be thought of as renting those opportunities from the "losers". He uses land as an example to flesh out why it make a kind of micro-economic argument about why it's better to let people free-ride. Say we have two individuals, crazy and lazy, and they get assigned an equal plot of land (equality of opportunity). Lazy only works his land as much as he is required to meet his needs, and the land gets underutilized. Crazy, however, really likes working her land and wants to work as much as possible to reap maximum gains and is eying of Lazy's land. It makes economic sense to allow Lazy to give up a share of his land, but only if there's something in it for him, that being, a share of Crazy's overproductivity. The equality of opportunity premise can then be extended to the job market, where if we're fair about this (liberal, I guess), we should assign every member with an equal share of the job pool. Those who win out or are "crazy" should then be required to compensate those who miss out for their lost opportunity. And you would then decide on a tax rate that accords with Rawls' maximin principle.

      But yeah, it's utopian because we potentially don't know how this will affect incentives to work at all or whether or not such an arrangement could ever yield the kind of surplus that would keep the UBI above the poverty line. I'm sure people have done macroeconomic studies on it, but I haven't gone looking. But I'm a bit utopian here in looking to things like open source software development to think that we don't need the constant threat of poverty as incentive to do creative and productive things.