No hope; no release

Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming, Dead Man Working

Zero Books, 76pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781780991566

reviewed by Steffen Böhm

The economic, social and political crisis the world currently faces is not only to do with debt (public or private) but also work. While left- and right-wing politics and entire countries seem to be engaged in a battle of words over how to deal with the fact that there is literally no more money in the public coffers (bearing in mind that the elites have never been richer), what has always united the political centre-ground is an ideology of work.

In Cameron’s austerity Britain people have amongst the longest working hours in Europe, a fact that has not changed over the last three decades. Germany’s new-found richness is based on a draconian ‘new deal’, which requires people to work longer for less. US workers have been ‘enjoying’ the least amount of statutory holidays of all industrialised countries. Modern Japan has always had a problem of institutionalised self-exploitation, leading to widespread karōshi, death-by-overwork. Not to speak of the Chinese farmers who immigrate to the coastal cities in their millions to work in Foxconn’s gadget-producing mega-factories and other sweatshops.

In Britain, David Cameron’s government is continuing the path paved by Blair’s New Labour, which connects any sort of social progress to the category of work. If you want to succeed in life, work. If we want to deal with the austerity crisis, we need to work ourselves out of the current mess. If we want to succeed globally, we must become more creative, more innovative, as we can’t compete with the Chinese on labour costs. Work harder, work longer, work more creatively. This is the mantra we hear everywhere. Work, work, work! Cederström & Fleming’s contention is that this much-celebrated ethic is literally lethal; hence their gloomy title, Dead Man Working.

The authors paint a picture of post-millennial hyper-hopelessness that would even make Lars von Trier blush, whose 2011 film Melancholia – surprisingly not mentioned by them – I was reminded of when reading the book. The film is all about depression. Depression about marriage, life and the end of the world. Where Melancholia ends, Dead Man Working begins. Cederström & Fleming’s opening scene paints a picture of an oncoming tsunami, taken from a YouTube video by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, the celebrated spokesperson of the post-workerist (Autonomist Marxist) movement. The ‘hope’ of the tsunami is that it, finally, eradicates all work. In a deeply existentialist and self-destructive move, Cederström & Fleming hope that they can already make out an oncoming tsunami at the horizon – Von Trier’s rogue planet – which will finally do away with the depressing realities of contemporary work, albeit by eradicating life as such.

But that would be too simple. Capitalism is much crueler than this. It gives us the impression that the end is nigh – a serious economic, social, environmental, cultural crisis is always around the corner – yet, the waiting is endless. In a truly Beckettian move, Cederström & Fleming confront us with the possibility that the Messiah will never come to release us from our pain. ‘There is no alternative to capitalism’, they approvingly quote Bifo. ‘I can’t go on like this’, says Estragon. Vladimir replies: ‘That’s what you think’. There is no hope; there is no release; there is no redemption; only more pain and more depression.

According to Cederström & Fleming, it all started to go wrong for capitalism ‘sometime in the 1970s’. Here they repeat the Autonomist argument that sometime during that period we moved into a new socio-economic paradigm, which Hardt & Negri, Lazzarato and Virno, amongst others, have called ‘cognitive capitalism’, a so-called post-Fordist system in which immaterial labour rules over material labour, leading to the hegemony of cognitive work done by ‘creatives’, such as those designers and advertising professionals working for Apple. Cederström & Fleming are at their best when providing examples of the actual realities of this ‘cognitive capitalism’, or what has also been called ‘social factory’ – the idea that the factory is now everywhere; literally the whole of life has been subsumed under the capitalist logic of production.

While working as a ‘creative’ for Apple might sound appealing to many, Cederström & Fleming unmask this brave new world of immateriality, a world where everything literally has become work. We ‘creatives’ – apparently enjoying great flexibility in our working lives (we can work from anywhere, at any time) – are trapped in a ghetto of work; our horizon has shrunk so much that we think that searching Google is potentially a window to all knowledge of the world. In a way, Dead Man Working can be read as a realist critique of contemporary life, showing literally how shit that very life has become, precisely because it has become dominated by (capitalist logics of) work. I very much subscribe to the main thrust of this Autonomist Marxist argument put forward by Cederström & Fleming, and I have used this quite extensively in my own work. However, there are some aspects of the post-workerist oeuvre that I find troubling, or at least open to some critical questions, which I’d like to pose in the remainder of this review.

Although Cederström & Fleming thankfully don’t quite repeat Autonomist Marxists’ celebration of ‘cognitive capitalism’ being a step towards the realisation of a kind of communism, they would do well to historically position post-Fordism within a process of financialisation of contemporary (Western) capitalism. It is not really the ‘creatives’ that Hardt, Negri, Lazzarato and others celebrate who are in charge. It is the bankers and other ‘financials’ who dominate contemporary political economy – and it is not the first time in the history of capitalism they do so. Giovanni Arrighi’s life work was to show how capitalist development can be categorised into several so-called ‘long centuries’, cycles of accumulation and financialisation that have been dominated by hegemonic states. He argued that precisely at the time when trade and commodity production is not enough to sustain hegemony, financialisation kicks in, which must be seen as the desperate attempt of a hegemon to cling onto power through a massive expansion of credit. In one of his last writing projects, Adam Smith in Beijing (Verso, 2009), Arrighi argued that the current phase of financialisation, which started in the 1970s, is a sign of the start of the end of the American cycle, and the start of the switch over to the Chinese cycle. The fact that the majority of American debt is held by China fits well into this scenario. Without the Chinese, the US would be bankrupt!

This domination of finance has two main effects on work. First, as finance has taken over the world of private and public management of organisations, its logic of efficiency through numbers has created a crisis of work with severe implications for people (and the environment): privatisation of hitherto public services, often leading to many job losses; stress and other mental health issues faced by many workers as they struggle to cope with ever increasing demands; the rapid increase of the number of workers living in poverty; sweatshops in many so-called developing countries, in which people work under often extremely poor working conditions and for little money; not to mention the manifold environmental implications of what the maximisation of shareholder value has done to our planet. A second, related effect is debt. As Arrighi and other Marxists have argued, debt is clearly a response to over-accumulation and under-consumption. A new car, a new house, a new iPad – everything can be bought on credit. The recent ‘credit crisis’ was essentially caused by the system becoming so desperate to offer credit to those who cannot afford new houses, cars and other big ticket items, that at some point (when the economy nose-dived and some people lost their jobs) the house of cards collapsed at an instant. So, finance, debt and work are inherently linked together, engaged with each other in a vicious cycle. In this way, Cederström & Fleming’s apocalyptic view of the dead end of work is thus, more than anything, the socio-economic and cultural expression of the death of the American century and the rise of finance capitalism. Their melancholia – as well as von Trier’s – is a very Western phenomenon. Living in the end times, as Slavoj Žižek calls it.

What is needed, perhaps, is less focus on bankers, managers, advertisers and consultants, or even call centre workers, and greater attention to the realities of work for what the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado has called ‘the majority world’. In his distinct black & white photography, Salgado often depicts the masses of the Global South at work. Many of his books are full of images of the hard, inhuman and even deadly realities of work: miners in India, landless peasants in Brazil, shipbreakers in Bangladesh, coffee pickers in Central America, oil workers in Kuwait. These images are conspicuously absent from Cederström & Fleming’s account. I wished they would refer more to work tragedies in the Global South, such as the recent fire in a Karachi garment factory, in which about 300 people died, partly because they could not escape. The factory doors were locked to prevent workers from leaving their shifts early.

Cederström & Fleming do, once, refer to the sweatshop labour in the vast Foxconn factories in China that produce the electronic gadgets the creative workers of the West do their work with – the iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, and Samsungs without which contemporary post-Fordism would not be possible. But this is the only non-Western anecdote they produce in their indictment of ‘real existing capitalism’. It is somewhat surprising that they haven’t found space to talk about the working conditions of ‘the majority world’: those living in the shanty towns of the big cities in the South; the street sellers; the coltan miners risking their lives in the Congo; the Chinese coal miners hundreds of which die every year; the modern day slavery work going on, for example, in many ‘special economic zones’. The tragedy of work existing on this planet today goes well beyond what Cederström & Fleming problematise and discuss in this short volume.

Is there any sense of hope in Cederström & Fleming’s book? Very little, but they do finish their treatise with the image of the girl hero in the Hollywood movie Firestarter (1984). For them, the girl is a kind of pure, un-socialised force who literally sets the current world on fire, burning the evil system. The difference that Cederström & Fleming see emerging ‘involves a process of de-working our bodies and social relations, separating life from that which has now colonized it.’ While I agree that that a massive amount of unlearning has to take place everywhere, I wonder whether, amidst our despondency, we miss the manifold alternative modes of work that are everywhere, if only one dares to see them.

Take, for example, the peasantry: subsistence farming communities (also called family farming), although often living below the poverty line (bearing in mind that this very line has been drawn by liberal capitalism), are often much more resilient and sustainable than consumption-driven communities. In a world of peak oil, rapidly growing food prices and rising fears over resource wars, we would all do well to unlearn consumption and office/factory work, relearning how to live off and with the land. Take La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement. For decades it has been struggling against neo-liberal restructurings of the land, which has included: the widespread introduction of industrial GMO food production, which now dominates large parts of Southern agriculture; land grabbing on a massive scale, often turning the most fertile land into monoculture (soya, maize, etc.) agriculture, often geared towards biofuel production; the violent eviction of peasants and indigenous communities from the land they have been working and living on for many hundreds of years. What is at stake here is ‘food sovereignty’, with La Via Campesina arguing that local agricultural production, controlled by families and small-scale cooperatives, needs to be prioritised in order to feed the people who are most in need.

What I hint at here is a whole world of alternatives that are worth struggling for. Whenever I go to the Global South, to places like Brazil and Argentina, I never detect the type of hyper-hopelessness and pessimism that pervades so much of contemporary critical discourse in the Global North. The spirit of hope is not so easily extinguished.