True independence: going back to the future | Bleader

True independence: going back to the future

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We can make it if we try.
  • We can make it if we try.
Over the weekend, two articles were floating around my online universe—two separate groups of people basically talking about the same thing—both of which are coincidentally related to notions of "independence."

The first is an essay by Tim Kreider entitled "The Busy Trap," written for the New York Times's typically thoughtful Opinionator section (specifically, under the topic of "Anxiety"). Kreider, an essayist and cartoonist, criticizes the excuse "I'm so busy" or "I've been so busy" when used to explain why a person hasn't seen you or can't see you. Like a brilliant stand-up routine, I chuckled because it's true and winced because there's a bit of self-recognition in there—this is one of my reflexive responses and I am frequently called out for it (one of my friends asks me how I'm doing just so that he can make fun of me when I say that I'm "busy"). Kreider nails it when he says, "It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint" (though his example for the default response, "'That’s a good problem to have,' or 'Better than the opposite,'" is bizarre—thankfully, most of my friends speak English, not smarmy dipshit).

Kreider even has me going with what appears to be an anecdotal nut graf:

The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Not long ago I  Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college — she has a big circle of friends who all go out to the cafe together every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

There's a lot of truth to the last line, the idea that we make a lot of our professional and financial decisions based on societal pressure. I've had to take certain jobs that I loathed because I needed money or my roommates would have kicked me out if I hadn't taken them.

But then Kreider turns it into a personal essay about his own habits, drops another nut graf, and loses me a little. Because he's a writer, he gets to work from home, and only has to write four or five hours a day! Then he gets to ride his bike, run errands, read, see movies, and hang with his friends. According to him, "this . . . is a sane and pleasant pace for a day." Kreider's conclusion:

Perhaps the world would soon slide to ruin if everyone behaved as I do. But I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle. My role is just to be a bad influence, the kid standing outside the classroom window making faces at you at your desk, urging you to just this once make some excuse and get out of there, come outside and play. My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love. I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.

The "perhaps" is a bit understated. You mean that the world might fall apart if everyone was a writer? Huh.

Kreider's proposition that a reduced work schedule is its own kind of progress is one I admire and support, but it looks over the unfortunate reality that in order for society to flourish, not everyone can just have whatever job they want. A society that lacks any sort of system is one that becomes chaotic. And how would Kreider begin to run his errands when the people who don't really want to work at the grocery store aren't there? What about the post office that only works part-time? A society that works on a reduced schedule also means a society that produces and services less; in order for people to have independence they have to be dependent on other people. Kreider may have a great life, but framing his tremendous luxury as a means of altruism is delusional.

And if I'm going to be delusional, it might as well be toward something more fantastical. That brings me to the other article floating around Facebook, an essay written for the Comment is Free section of the Guardian by Owen Hatherley titled "It's the 21st century—why are we working so much?" Referencing such works as Paul Lafargue's brilliantly titled "The Right to Be Lazy" and such thinkers as Oscar Wilde, Hatherley proposes that 19th century intellectuals believed the future was going to involve less physical work and more mental effort. Wilde himself said, in his characteristically pompous and badass way, "Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing."

So what happened? Why am I not spending the day reading in my autopilot flying car, taking a day trip to Paris on the skyroad? Well, Russia, of course.

After the Russian revolution, one of the great advocates of the cult of work was Aleksei Gastev, a former metalworker and trade union leader who became a poet, publishing anthologies with titles like Poetry of the Factory Floor. He became the USSR's leading enthusiast for Taylorism, the American management technique usually criticised by the left for reducing the worker to a mere cog in a machine, running the state-sponsored Central Institute of Labour. When asked about this in 1926 by the German leftist Ernst Toller, Gastev replied: "We hope by our discoveries to arrive at a stage when a worker who formerly worked eight hours on a particular job will only have to work two or three". Somewhere along the line, this was forgotten, in favour of musclebound Stakhanovites performing superhuman feats of coal-hewing.

Why are Stakhanovites doing all the coal hewing? It's humans, not hewmans, Stakhanovites.

Perhaps the solution to all our problems is a return to Wilde's approach: we're spending too much time doing work, and not enough time thinking of machines to do all the useless work for us. But Hatherley is wise to point out the real problem, the one for which we still don't seem to have a solution:

Over the past decade Sheffield steelworks produced more steel than ever before, with a tiny fraction of their former workforce; and the container ports of Avonmouth, Tilbury, Teesport and Southampton got rid of most of the dockers, but not the tonnage.

The result was not that dockers or steelworkers were free to, as Marx once put it, "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and criticise after dinner." Instead, they were subjected to shame, poverty, and the endless worry over finding another job, which, if it arrived, might be insecure, poorly paid, un-unionised work in the service industry.

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