When we limit ourselves to reasoned critique we cut ourselves off from the everyday experiences of life under capitalism from which any revolutionary rupture must grow.
David Graeber's article on 'bullshit jobs' seems to have struck a chord, being widely republished and discussed, as well as inspiring numerous responses. One of these in particular, which takes on the slightly broader theme of ‘zombie social democracy’, is very much worth reading. However, I think this debate raises a broader political question that's possibly more significant than the contested specifics here.
Graeber's style is very much that of the anthropologist - where the truth of a narrative isn't so much in its literal veracity as in its resonance and affective power, its meaning in a given context. This understandably infuriates Marxists, whose approach is one of critique, and who, intent on dispelling mystifications, set about pointing out all the errors. Father Xmas isn't even real! Read some value theory!
The result of this seems to be a split between emotion and reason. On the one hand, a 'wrong' analysis which resonates widely, on the other hand 'correct' critiques that seem only to circulate amongst the already-convinced.1 This seems symptomatic of a wider problem: we can have the sharpest, most erudite and incisive critiques going, but movements run on affect, so we're stuck talking amongst ourselves.
This is not to argue in favour of sloppy theorising and hasty generalisations, but to make the case for an affective politics which resonates in a way which links everyday life to the critique of capitalism. Graeber's choice of work, and mobilisation of anti-work affect, seems promising in this respect.
In general, I think there's a wariness amongst libertarian communists towards emotive politics. All too often, they're seen as inherently reactionary, or even deceitful or manipulative. Maurice Brinton's The irrational in politics is a classic text in this vein. From the Home Office and street racist refrain of 'go home' to the moralised trope of defending 'women and children', affectively charged slogans do seem to have an affinity with reactionary politics. Right-wing affective politics are also often downright counterfactual. See for example the fears of Sharia Law in the UK, or the weird and wonderful paranoias of the US Christian right and the likes of Glenn Beck. Libertarian communists understandably tend to prefer reasoned and empirically grounded analysis. Even to the point of packing 1,000 tightly argued words into a double-sided A5 leaflet (a pet-hate of mine).
The historian EP Thompson's work on the 18th century English bread riots is instructive here. He found that hunger alone couldn't account for the riots. Rather, it was the violation of collective norms - typically merchants seen to be exploiting food shortages to hike prices - which led to bread riots. Thompson writes that "an outrage to these moral assumptions, quite as much as actual deprivation; was the usual occasion for direct action." Collective norms are part of the material conditions of the class struggle. That said, the norms Thompson identified could be seen as fundamentally conservative, in the sense of defending already-established patterns of life and seeking to restore the status quo ante.2
However, in Joe Burns' book Reviving the strike, he shows that the historic US labour movement, even its right-wing bureaucrats, accepted the slogan 'labour is not a commodity'. It's not hard to draw anti-capitalist conclusions from such a normative statement.3 For Burns, the violation of this norm everywhere in capitalism was the affect that fuelled the wild strikes in defiance of the cops, courts and the Pinkertons up until the 1930s. This suggests that moral or normative politics need not be conservative. Even if we rely on already-existing norms, those norms could be in conflict with the prevailing capitalist order.
Therefore I'd argue there's nothing inherently reactionary or manipulative about normative politics and the mobilisation of affect. The point is to resonate with everyday experiences in a way that's compatible with the critique of capitalism, rather than watering down the critique to appeal to the (imagined) popular audience. Such watering down is common on the left. Graeber's bullshit jobs piece is certainly guilty, singling out finance capital for criticism rather than capitalism itself. But while Marxists are right to reject such 'truncated critiques', it often comes at the cost of underestimating the moral or normative dimension of the class struggle.
It shouldn't be too hard to articulate an affective politics compatible with anti-capitalist critique. Anti-work seems like a good place to start. A recent Gallup poll found that 70% of American workers hate their jobs, 50% are just going through the motions to collect a paycheck and 20% are actively disengaged, putting energy into undermining their workplace. The situation is horrible of course, but it's a maelstrom of anti-work affect which goes some way to explaining the resonance of the 'bullshit jobs' piece.
Work is for the most part shit. It dominates our lives. Even potentially fulfilling roles are rendered dull and repetitive by compulsion - the horizontal compulsion to seek a wage and the hierarchical compulsion of managerial power. Work chews us up and spits us out. Work stresses us to breaking point that tosses us aside for fresh meat when we finally break down. Work's a vampire sucking on our lives and on our loved ones. It's miserable. Fuck work.
Recomposition's work stories are one of the few examples I've seen that really work to link the affective everyday experiences of work to both a (self-)organising practice and an anti-capitalist critique. I think we need more of this, not as an alternative to rigorous theoretical work but as a gateway and a complement. At one end of the spectrum short slogans summarise or even help enact collective norms, and work on a logic of affective resonance. At the other, detailed, reasoned, theoretical and analytical tomes make sense of the situation and work on a logic of reasoned persuasion and empirical rigour. These in turn help reinforce and validate the resonating affects.4
We neglect the normative and affective dimensions of the class struggle at our peril: these are the stuff movements are made of. We aren't alone in our feelings of boredom, misery, and rage. The affective resonance that comes from talking about them helps establish the collectivity that is the basis for any movement to against the present conditions.
- 1We could say the truth of 'bullshit jobs' lies in this resonance not in its specific theoretical and empirical claims, which have been debunked by Kliman and others.
- 2This is also a charge that can be aimed at Graeber's politics of debt jubillee, i.e. forgiveness of debts in order to preserve the established order.
- 3For any Marxists itching to point out that, actually, labour is not a commodity, labour power is, this is exactly the pedantic preference for theoretical correctness over affective resonance that I'm talking about!
- 4For example most anti-work or anti-cop feeling arises from experience, but analyses showing the structural and social relational logics of work or policing help validate those feelings and furnish them with theoretical and analytical tools to make sense of them.