The Right to be Lazy (On this Site): Chapter III, The Consequences of Over-Production

While I was planning to finish this series in a week things got in the way…okay mostly laziness and shitty internet. 

We are off to a good start with LaFargue considering promises of the Greek poet Antiparos who more or less claimed that new technology would liberate us from work. That it would give us much more leisure time and free up time even for the slaves (how nice!). But LaFargue’s response is definitely on point here:

The blind, perverse and murderous passion for work transforms the liberating machine into an instrument for the enslavement of free men. Its productiveness impoverishes them.

The confusion I see in some people these days with some people being put out of their jobs by new technology is that in the short term is certainly is awful. I am not going to pretend that any sort of progress (whether desirable or not) is going to be pretty. But in the long run this means more leisure time or at least work that will hopefully be done in less awful places and more just meh places. So that people don’t need to work at Burger King or McDonald’s as much but maybe they still need to work at a retail store or your local mom and pop’s store.

I don’t think that should be our end goal by any means but to some extent I do hope for things like that to happen so people can be in environments where at least the possibility of better conditions or more adequate relations between others are possible.

But none of this will ever be the case so long as we enslave ourselves to the work ethic. To me it is not necessarily the machines that are a tool of enslavement (though they certainly can be if wielded that way!) but the way we interact with them. Do we view our smartphones as labor saving devices or devices that can just help us do more work because of that extra time? For me I try to use it mainly as a means to connect to those I value and love easier as well as entertaining myself and making my day to day life more fun and easily accessible. I don’t do it just so I can make a certain task easier but just to also enjoy my day.

For instance yesterday when I could have been writing this post I was too busy with the marvel of Youtube…

Moving on…

In proportion as the machine is improved and performs man’s work with an ever increasing rapidity and exactness, the laborer, instead of prolonging his former rest times, redoubles his ardor, as if he wished to rival the machine. O, absurd and murderous competition!

And just as if I am basically speaking for LaFargue himself he basically reinforces my point!

Well…except that last part.

I would argue this isn’t the fault of competition but the fault of the work ethic. Wanting to be better than someone else and the work ethic can certainly co-exist and make truly awful conditions for individuals. But by itself with a more free and leisurely society I don’t think there’s anything per se’ wrong with competing with others. Whether it is in a sport or for a better machine or shop or something. As long as mutual aid networks and markets are always shifting and accommodating I don’t think competition becomes as much of a problem.

That isn’t to say that anti-capitalist markets can’t ever not have problems or be problematic or shouldn’t be open to change. I am just talking about possibilities and having a better set of mechanisms to deal with those possibilities.

The next paragraph is just all about how economists are wrong that those who did not labor for another two days survived on only air and water and in fact had many feasts as told be the novelists and writers of those ages.

The next short section begins with more cringe-worthy elitism from LaFargue:

Because the working class, with its simple good faith, has allowed itself to be thus indoctrinated, because with its native impetuosity it has blindly hurled itself into work and abstinence…

So first the proles are stupid and don’t know what they are doing and now the working class has “simple” good faith and is naive does things blindly?

I don’t really want to go over what I said before bur man does this not help LaFargue one bit for me. If anything it weakens his case if he is going to be so elitist about this stuff. No individual cases, no good examples, no historical figures or specific articles, creeds or institutions, nothing. Just awful and pretentious blanket statements.

Most of the next paragraph doesn’t really catch me either but this part does:

At the beginning of capitalist production a century or two ago, the capitalist was a steady man of reasonable and peaceable habits. He contented himself with one wife or thereabouts. He drank only when he was thirsty and ate only when he was hungry. He left to the lords and ladies of the court the noble virtues of debauchery.

There is a bit of social conservatism here (at least for me) that I see as sort of weird. For someone who really doesn’t like the Puritans he certainly seems to be pretty Puritanesque by acting as if what is “reasonable” in terms of love or how much one drinks or eats is actually some sort of basic fact.

I don’t meant to imply that one should just drink until their dead or eat until they die of gluttony. But I also don’t get why, for example, one cannot have more than one romantic partner or have a snack every now and then or drink a bit of wine or beer if they’re not thirsty and want to be lightly buzzed. Basically: What’s wrong with a little bit of over-consumption? I’m of the mind that carefully controlled extremes (perhaps that isn’t a thing but it is right now) can work in small amounts.

And really, what LaFargue is talking about isn’t even that extreme.

LaFargue continues with this contradiction that unnerves him:

To fulfill his double social function of non-producer and over-consumer, the capitalist was not only obliged to violate his modest taste, to lose his laborious habits of two centuries ago and to give himself up to unbounded luxury, spicy indigestibles and syphilitic debauches, but also to withdraw from productive labor an enormous mass of men in order to enlist them as his assistants.

It is certainly good that LaFargue is calling out the capitalist class in some sense for being a lot less productive in total than the working class is. I mean, that is sort of a no-brainer yet a lot of capitalism’s apologists will try to argue that the capitalist’ “risk” that they take and initial effort is somehow worth way more than the workers perpetual improvements and often times superior knowledge of their local surroundings.

Then again I can’t say from my experience that all of my bosses (sometimes even the big ones) weren’t doing a lot. In some cases they were. But at least in one of the cases I am thinking of the store was and is pretty much dying a slow death. So they are gonna be working harder in that situation. In another situation it was a small store and while the manager often “shared” the work for me I usually got the “lower” tasks (which ironically I sometimes enjoyed like being in the cooler by myself because it meant I could listen to music and talk to myself…yup) and obviously the power disparity was there too.

Next…well LaFargue has a graph and a chart and a lot of numbers and basic additions and subtraction and…well to be honest I don’t do well with this sort of information. I think he is trying to make a point about capitalist exploitation given the percentage of the population that is engaged in certain trades? But I honestly couldn’t tell you. I read and re-read this and I still don’t get it.

LaFargue now decides to impart some historical wisdom on us about both the capitalist and working class:

Once settled down into absolute laziness and demoralized by enforced enjoyment, the capitalist class in spite of the injury involved in its new kind of life, adapted itself to it. Soon it began to look upon any change with horror. The sight of the miserable conditions of life resignedly accepted by the working class and the sight of the organic degradation engendered by the depraved passion for work increased its aversion for all compulsory labor and all restrictions of its pleasures.

It is precisely at that time that, without taking into account the demoralization which the capitalist class had imposed upon itself as a social duty, the proletarians took it into their heads to inflict work on the capitalists Artless as they were, they took seriously the theories of work proclaimed by the economists and moralists, and girded up their loins to inflict the practice of these theories upon the capitalists. The proletariat hoisted the banner, “He who will not work Neither shall he Eat”. Lyons in 1831 rose up for bullets or work. The federated laborers of March 1871 called their uprising “The Revolution of Work”.

I have mixed thoughts on these sorts of “revolts”.

On one hand I don’t feel it is the best tactic or expressing of our goals. I don’t think we should demand work in the same sense that Emma Goldman wanted us to demand bread if they do not give it to us. We shouldn’t be fighting for more equal enslavement but the abolition or at least the perpetual undermining of such an enslavement to begin with.

And yes, I know it’s easy to some extent for me to say this. But I think collective direct action could’ve really got the goods here. And make no mistake that when capitalist repression via either private agencies or bringing the state in happens it isn’t always because the social threat that is occurring is a particularly good one. Just that it may threaten their existence in some way. Maybe monetarily or class wise itself or perhaps physically.

In any case going further down in the paragraph we are told that the armies are only good for silencing and suppressing rebellions. No arguments here. Or at least this is one main function of a state army.

I’ll skip the next paragraph as it is just reiterating previously stated things and head straight to this:

Confronted with this double madness of the laborers killing themselves with over-production and vegetating in abstinence, the great problem of capitalist production is no longer to find producers and to multiply their powers but to discover consumers, to excite their appetites and create in them fictitious needs

Although I am sort of sympathetic to such an argument (and the examples that LaFargue gives in the footnotes are not half bad either) I think defining for other people what they need is a really unhelpful way to go about this. Perhaps someone who is living off of rice and wheat and grains and whatever else doesn’t need bananas for example. But who gets to decide this? Is just making the suggestion bad in of itself? Is the offer itself a form of capitalism? I wouldn’t think many people would go this far with this claim but sometimes I wonder just how broadly capitalism or cultural imperialism are being defined.

I am certainly against:

The English government to satisfy the peasants of India, who in spite of the periodical famines desolating their country insist on cultivating poppies instead of rice or wheat, has been obliged to undertake bloody wars in order to impose upon the Chinese Government the free entry of Indian opium. 

But that’s for a pretty basic reason: They’re using violence to compel this cultural attitude.

If they were simply trading goods or making suggestions and so on I probably would have much less of a problem with it. But if the culture does not want it then to some extent that should be respected. I mean you can keep pressuring them to some extent I guess but if they draw a line in the sand then you better be ready to pay the consequences when they finally snap at you.

In general though I do think LaFargue and I would both agree that viewing people merely as consumers or things to be fed or for needs to be created isn’t a very healthy way of viewing people at all. I don’t think it does us justice on an individual or generally human level to view us as just some sort of consumption robot that will just take in whatever it needs and always give us back what we need. People are not that simple and should not be treated or viewed like such.

A lot of what LaFargue is talking about in the next few paragraphs is just the problems of planned obsolescence and the effects this has on capitalism as a whole. Nothing too interesting to me there.

Another complain that LaFargue has is that despite all of these awful things the poor will still demand work:

Let a chance for work present itself, thither they rush; then they demand twelve, fourteen hours to glut their appetite for work, and the next day they are again thrown out on the pavement with no more food for their vice. Every year in all industries lockouts occur with the regularity of the seasons. Over-work, destructive of the organism, is succeeded by absolute rest during two or four months, and when work ceases the pittance ceases. 

I certainly agree with the fact that this is lamentable and objectionable. But to a certain degree can you blame them? It’s all they may know to some extent and to another extent it certainly seems like capitalism perpetuates itself by revering itself as the only option (though of course it is not the only social system that does or has done this of course) and so it really shouldn’t be too surprising that people have slogans like, “jobs not jails” even today (more on that some other time…).

Next, he mentions laws restricting the amount of labor one can do in a given day as a certain way that even some manufacturers come down on the side of laziness albeit still using capitalist logic. Which means that they are only reducing the hours so they can squeeze more value out of the workers. It isn’t really because they want or value the workers time in any real sense.

As we know of course eventually both slackers and drunks (and past that unions) eventually made it nearly impossible for capitalists not to grant the fabled eight hour day. So discussing any of these reformist ideas doesn’t sound particularly interesting to me.

And that is pretty much where LaFargue stops. He talks about how certain businesses and places have increased production by letting their workers be lazy more (a good use of the capitalist logic against the capitalists). He also laments at the workers who keep working harder for the nation even though it is precisely their over-work that makes things worse.

This chapter was pretty good but towards the end I sort of lost interest in what LaFargue was talking about. I think part of it is because a lot of this has been historically resolved in terms of just general hours that people tend to work. And the critiques that LaFargue makes aren’t anything really new or too interesting. Planned obsolescence still happens and is certainly a problem as is cultural imperalism and overwork.

So it’s not to say that most of his critiques and logic isn’t sound, they are and it tends to be. But paradoxically I guess that makes it lose a bit of its interest to me for all I can do in the end is lazily nod my head and smile.

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