I’ve had all this common/commons stuff on my mind lately (I got some links to toss in here later, they’re on another computer). A while back when I was doing a bit of reading on slavery in the US it struck me that slave labor at least some of the time involved an ongoing use by slaveholders of land which slaves held in common, in a sense. That is, slave owners could offload reproductive costs and so forth onto slaves, cheapening the cost of maintaining slaves. (In my opinion one of the many things that’s interesting about the history of slavery – really, the history of any forms of exploitation – is how it can clarify one’s marxism.) At this level of generality, this is what goes on with waged labor as well – we reproduce ourselves day to day and year to year and many of us reproduce in the sense of having children, thus making more workers. We don’t do so in order to enrich anyone monetarily, but we still produce life and lives appropriated under capitalism.

This isn’t the same thing, but a post at JCD’s blog about work made me think about this again, prompting this post. The above is about the bosses appropriating us. There’s another different but (dialectically?) related dynamic, of how we live on the job, despite the job. This varies tremendously of course, but I think it’s reasonable to characterize this stuff in general terms. I’ve made scattered remarks on this before using Ella Baker’s formulation on the differences between making a living (ie, earning a paycheck) and making a life. I like those terms.

This is incredibly general and vague but among other things it seems to me that everyone who works for a living and who ever has faces a difficulty in trying to balance these two things. (And in some respects ideas of communism are about either unifying the two or about getting read of the need to make a living at all so that one can just make a life. I heard once that Adorno somewhere says that the desire to be wealthy in some ways expresses a desire to escape the power of money over us.)

It feels a bit funny and arrogant to do this, but I’m gonna quote myself, a comment on JCD’s post, stuff that he made me think of – “I used to work in the “nonprofit” “social justice” industry. The hours were long and the bosses were often assholes and the pay was mediocre. But I also got a nonmonetary wage in kind, in the form of satisfaction/self-righteousness because of the importance of the endeavor and my role in it (not unlike some ideologies about and within academia). What I did was a huge part of my sense of self. And because the hours were long and the environment so corrosive of the rest of my life, a huge proportion of the relationships I had and the time I had for human contact came via the job. That meant among other things that my bosses had their hands on the shut off valve for a lot that mattered to me in addition to my paychecks, which made the firings and layoffs a hit with additional ramifications along with financial concerns.”

Here’s another thought I had on this issue of nonmonetary things people lose when we lose jobs. It seems to me that this kind of thing is at least possible for any job anyone has had ever in history (it’s an empirical question, I mean, whether there’s other/nonmonetary investments people in keeping jobs, though I’m sure there are common elements we could find in the contexts). (These past two sentences were the start of another comment at JCD’s, which I then realized ought to be a blog post instead.)

Like I said, it seems to me that everyone ever living under/through exploitation faces the prospects of living through that and trying to make the best of it, making a life while/through/despite making a living. There’s as many ways to do that as there are individuals’ experiences of various forms of exploitation, and there are common elements or consistencies across them.

This is relevant to the silly fantasies about the novelty and hegemony of immaterial labor in people like Negri. Silvia Federici eloquently criticizes the parts of this conversation about so-called precarious labor noting that at least some of the precarity-talk universalizes the experiences of certain sectors in an illegitimate and obscured fashion. There’s a piece by the Precarias a la Deriva that I like quite a bit that argues for important differences across experiences (strata, positions in hierarchies) of work. The Precarias use the phrase “subjective implication” to talk about a tendency among some strata to be invested in a strong way in their work. (I used this to criticize the edu-factory project in this post.) The Precarias suggest that people who are heavily invested in their work tend to express their responses to problems at work “as critique: of the organization of labor, of the logic that articulates it, of the ends toward which it is structured.” I think one version of this is the idea of separating the labor process from the valorization process, along the lines of “we’d do this anyway, and do it better… if only we didn’t have to do this in its capitalist form…!”

I’m wandering from my topic. Subjective implication, one version of the term that I want to suggest here is when people make a life to a large extent by the way they make a living. To embarassingly quote myself again (comment #8 here), “I think of the term as meaning the same thing as identity or sense of self. I’d like to know how much that is deliberately cultivated and how much of it just sort of happens. A friend passed on a story once of another friend in nursing school – in some class there was a discussion of budget cuts and nursing shortages and so on, and now nursing is a calling not a job. The teacher set the discussion up to push people to be like “oh yeah I’d totally work for free as a nurse if I had to.” That’s what the Precarias quote makes me think of. I think this is at least in part a psychological wage like Roediger and Fortunati talk about. Same thing was all over the place in the NGOs I worked at – “it’s not a job it’s a movement, we’re making a difference,” etc, a payment in satisfaction and (in part derived from) the ability to be condescending to/about others who don’t do that sort of work.”

So – incredibly general… everyone has to and tries to make a life despite having to make a living. For many people this means trying to make a life during making a living (relationships with co-workers, drinking on the job, etc). For some people this means trying to make a life *through* the ways or some of the ways one makes a living. The last in particular is what I had in mind in response to JCD’s post that I linked to, but I don’t think it’s the only aspect of this stuff. I want to say that this is analogous to or is a different form of the common/commons, an element of our reproduction that is offloaded to us and which some of the time our employers have great power over. The more one makes one’s life by how one makes a living, the more that one’s employer gains a specific type of power over one. I don’t want to overemphasize this, it seems to me that it would be a mistake (an offensive one) to pretend that somehow this is worse than or even as bad as other forms of power over people, forms which are more obvious and directly violent. But it would also be a mistake to pretend that this stuff doesn’t exist at all.

Back to the common/commons. There are levels of/forms of common(s) that capitalism as such depends on (in historically variable and specific forms), including some which are eroded and others which are reproduced and some of which are produced in/through/at the sites of exploitation. The latter forms offer employers particular forms of power over us (even if they don’t recognize them) and specific sorts of losses/damage/alienation which we endure by exploitation.

Advertisements