Archive for September, 2010

Economic Weather Report from the Dentist’s Chair

September 10, 2010

This morning as the dentist and I waited for the freezing to take effect on the left side of my mouth, wherein two small cavities needed to be repaired, we had a short conversation about the skateboarding project I am working on, the life of a graduate student, and other related matters. As the hygienist and and dentist hovered over my reclined chair, waiting for telltale signs of speech slurring that would indicate that the local anesthetic was taking effect, I had a chance to ramble on about topics that are of interest to me. We came, eventually to the issue of dental benefits for graduate students, and mention was made of the teaching assistant’s strike that went on for about ten days last year at my university. Gladness was expressed by all that the strike hadn’t run on as long as the one at York University in Toronto, which caused great setbacks in the educational process of so many undergraduate students, and, in the end, accomplished very little in terms of improving the deal for the teachers and grad students who were on strike. This sentiment in itself is an indication of the manner in which education has come to be seen more akin to job training, to a regimented, goal-oriented set of proceedures, the slightest interruption of which is cause for serious alarm, even if it is an interruption designed to draw attention to issues which effect the very quality and nature of the education being provided.

But the lack of public sympathy and support for the York strike, as well as for labour movement actions in other sectors such as the recent miner’s strike in Sudbury, Ontario, was encapsulated by my dentist, who in the most inoffensive manner possible, pointed out that it is particularly difficult to elicit support for strike actions in the current economic hard times, where most people feel lucky for just having a job. This tack on the part of my dentist was an attempt to turn the conversation away from the political territory into which it had ventured, to preempt my getting too excited over an issue for which I showed clear bias and interest, and to keep to the primary goal of the conversation, which was to provide a relaxing distraction while we waited for the anesthetic to take effect.

And so the old chestnut of “economic hard times” was evoked, a trope which, like the weather, is designed to set the mind at ease by gesturing toward a larger, all-encompassing and autonomous system to which we puny humans must submit in resignation and humility. Yes, it would be nice if collective labour movements could convince capitalists to share more of their profits with the workers, to provide them with the minimal requirements to ensure their material comfort and survival, but, unfortunately, the economy just won’t permit those kinds of sentiments to sway public opinion into upholding any significant solidarity for striking workers. We’re all suffering, and we all have to accept cutbacks and reductions in our expectations and standards of living. Maybe eventually, things will get better, and we will be able to petition for the reinstatement of the amenities that have been dismantled and denies us, but until then we will just have to grin and bear it, much as one does the Canadian winter (and summer, for that matter).

Luckily, the second round of freezing that the doctor was obliged to administer started to kick in just as we got to this point of the conversation, and the benumbing of my tongue preventing my launching into a deconstruction of the alleged naturalness of the mythological entity known as “the economy”. But the operant metaphor of this exchange, that the economy is a natural system akin to the weather, is one of the central ideological tools by which capitalist structures of domination are implemented on a population that is tricked into the resigned acceptance of their own powerlessness in the face of a mechanism that is actually created for, and by, human beings. However, because the means by which wealth is generated in global capitalism are privatized, it is possible for the minority interests who have a controlling share in wealth production to generate the illusion that our prosperity, or lack thereof, is dependent of factors that are beyond anyone’s control.

Despite the dramatic examples recent history has supplied of actual natural systems wreaking havoc with human societies, the modern age has developed the means for providing the necessities of human life to the extent that, at least in the prosperous Western nations, the adverse effects of “untamed nature” on human life have been mitigated to a degree unprecedented in human history. In place of the old tyranny of the seasons and the weather, of droughts, disease, plagues and disasters, we have a new tyranny of the human economic system itself, a system whose determinate coordinates are not the whimsy of unpredictable environmental factors (though these do play a role), but the actions of private individuals and corporations which have the ability to shape the destiny of entire nations and continents. As we saw with the global financial crisis of 2008, the actions of these people and institutions can have a dramatic effect on the lives of millions, displacing people from their homes and lives with the efficiency of the most violent natural disaster. The difference is, of course, that this economic disaster was the result of the conscious decisions and actions of actual people, and not some unaccountable “act of God” or perfect storm.

The fact remains that the people who work to produce the illusion that the economy is a natural system are not the same ones who suffer from the alleged “downturns” of this same system. The economy-as-weather metaphor is useful to these parties because it undermines belief in our collective ability to determine our own lives and destinies, and so produces a gereralized psycho-social “climate” (if I may indulge in my own meteorological metaphor) of anxiety which further individualizes and personalizes what are actually collective problems regarding the distribution of wealth and resources.

The social reality of contemporary life in the developed world I would characterize as a mixture of fear and guilt. We feel vaguely guilty for whatever affluence we do enjoy–an affect fed, I would surmise, by a unspecific background awareness that our prosperity here is bought at the expense of someone else’s unpaid or barely paid labour over there–while we feel, at the same time, fear about losing what comforts and necessities we do possess. It is this latter which, sharpened to a point by the recent spectre of economic depression, effectively punctures the sails of collective labour movements that would attempt to assert worker’s rights by temporarily shutting down the mechanisms of production. How dare workers petition for better pay or benefits, or for more job security when so many of us are in a state of what is neologistically called “underemployment”! The destabilization of national economies that has occurred even in the most prosperous nations in the wake of the globalization of capital has undermined the old models of disenfranchisement and entitlement, but the representation of the fallout from this process as akin to a natural weather system is just the product of a centuries-old campaign of ideological warfare involving debates over the innate nature of what it means to be human and to live in society.

To counter this tendency I would argue for a rejection of the dialectical and mutually supportive categories of nature/artifice themselves. I would even go so far as to agree with the liberal economists: the economy is indeed natural, just so long as we recognize that so is every other product of human activity–including alternative economic structures like socialism or communism. Nature, far from being subsumed or “colonized” by modern culture as some critics would hold, has always been, and still is, everywhere. Human beings and human practices are natural, just as the weather and oceans are, and the nature that is the weather is effected by the nature that is human society just as much as the inverse is true. The human economy is a natural system, a subset of a larger totality of nature that interacts with this larger whole in complex and often unpredictable ways, but this is no excuse for relinquishing all efforts to be responsible for that part of nature which is human economy. If anything, as the realm of activity that can be defined as the product of the interaction of human practices with larger nature, the economy is the primary realm where we should take care to ensure that the forces of production, distribution and consumption are managed in a fair and equitable way.

I would like to say that I contemplated these issues as a form of distraction while the dentist drilled away at my now insensate tooth, but my attention was firmly focused on keeping my numb jaw open as wide as possible to prevent the buzzing metal implement from rubbing up against the glob of inert rubber my tongue had become. The mysteries of the weather is indeed a pleasant source of distraction in such situations, and I was comforted during the operation by a not bad oil painting of purplish rain clouds advancing across a northern lake, which the artist had perhaps unintentionally painted at ever so slight an angle so that it appeared the entire lake might eventually leak out the left corner of the frame. But whereas the quirky particularities of our generalized environment (and our quirky misrepresentations of the same) might provide welcome distractions to ease a trip to the dentist or an awkward moment in an elevator, the same trope should not be used as a means for disavowing our collective responsibility for the shape and direction our societal activities take. Until it starts raining money, the economy is not the weather, and (to borrow from a famous song) you can’t trust an economist to tell you which way the wind blows. (more…)

Take this Overdetermination and Shove it!

September 2, 2010

While struggling through Althusser’s “Contradiction and Overderemination”, I was trying to come up with an actual example the illustrate the idea that a single event can focus and filter the energy of a host of complex “secondary contradictions” inherent, but not immediately visible in the larger cultural and economic structure. Then former flight attendant Steven Slater got hit in the head by one too many pieces of overhead luggage, grabbed a couple of beers from the galley fridge, deployed the inflatable emergency chute, and slid his way to freedom and unemployment. Heralded almost immediately as a folk hero whose spontaneous act of resistance spoke to the secret pain of service industry employees everywhere, Slater became a minor celebrity, and was even given the VIP treatment at a Barry Manilow concert he attended the next weekend. CBC called the episode “one of the most awe-inspiring and cathartic resignations in labour history“, while the National Post pointed out that his reckless deploying of the chute could have injured workers on the ground.

What gets left out of most of the available media coverage is that, according to Mr. Slater, the woman who had attempted to retrieve her overhead luggage before the plane landed had fought with another passenger over use of the space at the beginning of the flight. On the other side, there are accounts from passengers claiming that Slater had been short with them over trivial matters, as well as insinuations that he may have been drinking before the flight. For the most part thought, Slater’s exchange with the irate passenger is presented as the “final straw”, the factor that tipped a background sense of alienation, exploitation and abuse over into the realm of demonstrative action. His protest was rendered all the more effective by the smooth, cavalier manner in which he pulled it off, skipping past airport security to his car which got him home before the police had even been notified. He even had enough presence of mind to collect his own carry on baggage.

The media response to this event is instructive in itself, producing a blogosphere debate over whether Slater should be considered a hero or felon. But the either/or construction of this discourse acts as a mythologizing screen for the complexities of actual social contradictions and relations which can be seen as overdeterming this event. For instance, the focus on the potentially harmful or emancipatory effects of Slater’s actions, the debate on whether Slater or the passenger was ultimately at fault, distracts from the fact that both the passengers and employees on airlines are placed in a position of discomfort and possible peril by an industry that packages the need for dangerously overcrowded flights as a response to consumer market demand.

As one might expect, an ad hominem attack has been launched by the press against Slater, but his request to have his job back is the appropriately political response to his action. By registering what was the hidden reality of his actual employment situation and making it visible in an immediately understandable way, Slater entered into what Ranciere calls the realm of properly political thought and action. Due to structural but largely invisible factors, Slater the airline employee was already excluded (along with the passengers themselves, and the pilots and ground staff) from the systems that would secure and maintain his well being (a properly historical understanding of this state of affairs would have to look at the massive deregulation that restructured the aviation industry in the late seventies and early eighties, with this development itself being placed in context of the state-corporate-union perpetuated monopoly that developed prior to this). His flamboyant gesture simply made this concealed estrangement a reality with mass-media visibility. His request to be reinstated in the airline industry is not a concession, but the proper culmination of this political act: by seeking to be included within the given social field as a radically excluded individual, Slater becomes a concrete figure for a universal situation of disenfranchisement produced by modern service industry (for both its employees and consumers in this case).

The wrong thing to do would be accept the offer to host a reality TV show based on the whole experience.