With the World Trade Organization's ultra-global, capitalist hootenanny starting today in that hotbed of anarchism, Seattle, a single question rumbles awake in my usually foggy consciousness, and doesn't seem to want to go back to sleep: What if we all decided to just relax, sit back, and do nothing?
OK, many would say they can't afford to do that; they've got a family, bills to pay, responsibilities, blah blah blah.
It's true, those people who have a family to support, or are locked into some really "important" career track, or have mondo debt to pay down, are pretty much screwed. But what about the rest -- the ones who are single and living in big cities with jobs that they have no emotional allegiance to, who still don't know what they want to be when they grow up or grow old, and who spend most of their disposable income on all-night weekend benders?
What if they just said, "Fuck it -- I'm cashing in my IRA/401k and buying some of my time back"?
It's a difficult thing to do, for many reasons. One is that, well, no one else is doing it really, making it one of those scary "marginal" lifestyles. Sure, people take vacations. They "get permission" from their employers to take two to four weeks and try to ram a year's worth of recreation into a tiny, hectic window of time -- a window framed on all edges by the ultimate demands of the return to responsibility -- as though it were nothing more than an oversized weekend.
But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about owning our time, not begging for the right to use it. I'm talking about an "efficiency dividend," dammit.
The ongoing promise of the Information Age, and the big platonic ideal of Progress itself, is that we will become more efficient, able to accomplish the same amount in less time, and therefore gain leisure time. Every major advance in technology has been hailed as a way to boost productivity and efficiency, to save time and money, and to free people up to pursue the things they really want, as opposed to carrying out duties and "making ends meet."
But that never fucking happens, does it? Instead, what do we do? We channel all of our extra time and money back into the machine. We work harder and buy more. We go into debt, thereby investing in the expansion of the banking system, which in turn devises ever-more insightful ways, via the funding of new business ventures and their advertising campaigns, of convincing us that the only road to personal satisfaction and happiness is through consumption, which gets us further into debt, which...
You get the picture. It is the West's only universal theology. It's a myth that has held power over the culture since, well, for a really long time. And it's a myth that even Hollywood can see through.
Recent films such as American Beauty, The Matrix, and Fight Club express an alienated vision of America's infinite economic boom, and question the inevitability of workism, consumerism, and familyism. Some of us have responded to, "You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake," and, "There is no spoon." But these are easy attitudes to adopt without much real commitment; and besides, this has happened before.
In the past, such shifts in sentiment -- by the Dadaists and the Beats, for example -- have ultimately failed, and it's likely this one will pass as well. Why? Because deep down, the huge majority of people tie their "sense of worth" to their productiveness, and would feel guilty about not working as much as their siblings, or spouses, or friends. We are True Believers in the Big Fat Capitalist Myth. Can't blame us, really. Like any self-organizing, self-replicating set of ideas, capitalism seeks at every turn to perpetuate itself and stamp out all opposition. Imagining something other than The Way Things Are is almost as implausible as your basic science fiction flick.
Plus, there's reason for fear. A large number of people deciding to work and consume less would mean a shrinking of the economy, a clear threat to those invested in the system. Many people who don't want to lose their jobs, would.
There are plenty of utopian-minded strategies a person could lay out for this work-less, consume-less, enjoy-more vision, in an attempt to get people all tingly about a better future -- but in the end that's just utopianism. Oh, the government could stop taxing us and instead send us our efficiency dividend; let us fund our own creative projects, whether they be traveling the world or donating to charities, or both. We could change what children are taught in schools, re-orient education away from the manufacturing of good workers, and towards, I don't know, whatever else they want to be.
But I'm not going to get preachy because I have no plausible reward to offer people for adopting my viewpoint. More than likely, it would lead directly to pain and hardship. Maybe it's the acceptance of one type of pain and hardship over another that's important at this point, and maybe we're (even my use of the collective personal pronoun is a bit sanctimonious, isn't it?) on the road to understanding this. Have you ever tried calculating the sum of pain and hardship your job causes you? Many of us are beginning to see that what we've been told is salvation is more like slavery.
To read the propaganda of the World Trade Organization, one would think that the capitalists have won out over the socialists and the earth is now in Adam Smith's invisible hand. But Marx loved work as much as capitalists do, and so the struggle has historically been a false one. In reality, "workism" won out over "leisurism." The earth is actually in the callused hands of the Protestant work ethic, wringing out piety from toil.
It may sound elitist to offer lifestyle tips to those who can afford to "opt out," in the process forgetting all the indentured servants who remain tied to the necessity of work. And the "fuck work" attitude is indeed one that only successful capitalists (people who have retirement wealth sitting around accruing interest) could afford to live by. But only someone who has a choice can make a choice; to suggest that those living paycheck to paycheck "opt out" of their jobs is absurd. A trail needs to be blazed by those who have the means. Later, after the capitalists have been converted into slackers, the rest of us will be able to relax a little due to all our wonderful technology that is just waiting to promote our laziness.
By now, with all the fabulous success of Microsoft, and Bill's Benevolent Monopoly, we should be able to get by with ten-hour work weeks and still live a life where the basics are available. And with all the extra time, we'd be doing absolutely nothing, alone or with friends, indoors or outdoors -- and loving every minute of it.
Jeff Diehl is director of GettingIt. This article doesn't apply to GI staff.