When We Know More
William Blake | 2024 | Post-Left and Post-Work | Factoids
Quote of the Moment
Reason, or the ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more. | William Blake
I spent the past week, from Christmas Day to New Years, suffering a Covid episode. I now — after my second bout so far — think of the coronavirus as an interminable punctuated experience. When will I see it again?
The only good thing to say is that this episode wasn’t a tenth of the debilitating effects of last year’s model, which really smashed me hard, ending with six weeks of endless coughing. I was really a mess in January 2023. I didn’t really bounce back until March.
Now, on to all the things I had hoped to accomplish last week, and laying out some new schemes for 2024.
A Good Time to Subscribe
I will be offering new benefits to subscribers this year. I am planning to begin holding twice-monthly office hours, now planned for a March launch. Access will be open to paid subscribers, which may convince free subscribers to give it a try.
I am still at work on Paradoxes of Engagement, an ebook that I will be releasing to paid subscribers by the end of the quarter.
And, starting 1 February 2024, I will be raising the paid subscription fee to $6/mo ($60/year) from $5/mo ($50/year).
My hope is to convert more of the 3100+ subscribers to paid, obviously, but to offer more for those that do.
I will be writing the 2024 Work Futures report over the next six months, which will be free to paid subscribers and available to others for a fee. I plan to launch a survey in late January to triangulate on themes, concerns, and sources. More to follow.
As you can see, I plan to invest more of my time here, and less external research and writing. Your support is deeply appreciated.
Good time to subscribe! Paid sponsorship will be rising to $6/mo ($60/year) on 1 February 2024. Act now!
Post-Left and Post-Work
I’ve had a number of conversations with my eldest son, Keenan, in recent months, and his disillusionment with the conventional left-versus-right framing of politics led me to deep research into what many refer to as the post-left movement.
In Twilight of the American Left, Park MacDougald examines the thinking behind this growing and angry group. MacDonald characterizes post-left beliefs in this way:
The core assertion of the post-Left is relatively simple: The real ruling class in America is the progressive oligarchy represented politically by the Democratic Party. The Democrats are the party of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the Ivy League, the media, the upper layers of the national security state and federal bureaucracy, and of highly educated professionals in general. The Republicans, however loathsome, are largely a distraction — a tenuous alliance between a minority faction of the ruling class and petit bourgeois.
Effectively incapable of governing outside the bounds set by the Democrats and Democrat-aligned media, corporations, NGOs and government bureaucracies, the GOP’s real function is to serve as a sort of ideological bogeyman. By positioning itself as the last line of defence against phantasmic threats of “fascism” and “white nationalism” coming from the Right, the ruling class is able to legitimise its own power and conceal the domination on which that power rests.
Leftists, in this telling — whether Ivy League professors or Antifa militants on the streets of Portland — are thus little more than the unwitting dupes of the ruling class. However much they profess to hate the Democratic Party, they are, in practice, its running-dog lackeys. They support the party electorally, harass and cancel its designated enemies and enforce pro-Democrat ideology in the media, academia and the workplace. Crucially, they also help maintain the permanent state of moral emergency that serves as a pretext for the expansion of ruling class power, whether in the form of the increasingly direct control that tech monopolies wield over political discourse or the pursuit of Covid policies that transfer wealth upward and subject workers to a dystopian regime of medical surveillance.
This is not unlike the Marxist critique of ‘soft leftism’ in the ‘70s, a set of arguments largely forgotten outside of academic circles, where the ‘center left, and so-called ‘progressive’ were viewed by Marxists as being part of the machinery holding the working class down.
My sense is that the shenanigans in the Democratic party that led to Bernie Sangers and the 2016 progressives giving up their struggle for a clear ‘up versus down’ realignment of political action is one major break that led to the alienation of many young, ardent progressives to break with the party, and, indeed, with the institution of ‘normal’ political involvement. And, after the failure of Hilary Clinton to prevail, the progressives in Congress dropped their opposition to conventional Democrat policies. Again, MacDougald:
Socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, initially popular for their opposition to the “corporate” establishment of the Democrats, ultimately fell in line behind the party’s leadership and urged their followers to do the same.
In Coronapolitics from the Reichstag to the Capitol, William Carlson and Quinn Slobodian call this movement ‘diagonalism’:
We call the strategy behind the diverse movements “diagonal thinking” and the broader phenomenon they represent “diagonalism.” Bridging the more familiar concept Querfront and the more recent term Querdenken, the idea of “diagonalism” exceeds the German context of its coinage, where it means something like out-of-the-box thinking. Born in part from transformations in technology and communication, diagonalists tend to contest conventional monikers of left and right (while generally arcing toward far-right beliefs), to express ambivalence if not cynicism toward parliamentary politics, and to blend convictions about holism and even spirituality with a dogged discourse of individual liberties.
At the extreme end, diagonal movements share a conviction that all power is conspiracy. Public power cannot be legitimate, many believe, because the process of choosing governments is itself controlled by the powerful and is de facto illegitimate. This often comes with a dedication to disruptive decentralization, a desire for distributed knowledge and thus distributed power, and a susceptibility to rightwing radicalization. Diagonal movements trade in both familiar and novel fantasies about elite control. They attack allegedly “totalitarian” authorities, including the state, Big Tech, Big Pharma, big banks, climate science, mainstream media, and political correctness. They are, in many ways, descendants of the extra-parliamentary New Social Movements of the 1970s but with the idealism and desire for collective action or decommodification burned down to the wick of a defense of autonomous decision-making.
It would be easy to dismiss such mobilizations as manifestations of conspiratorial thinking, morbid symptoms of a morbid year with the United States acting as a “superspreader” of distrust, as one source told the Washington Post. But as the cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert recently pointed out, “conspiracy theory” has many of the failings of the earlier category of “populism”: it is too often used prematurely to foreclose a form of politics as illegitimate and, by othering it, can grant it the mark of martyrdom its followers seek.
An old axiom of political science dictates that governments rule by “carrots, sticks and sermons”—that is, coercion and incentive but also information. Diagonalism reminds us that universal Internet access, the attention-absorbing power of social media platforms, and the dynamics of “incitement capitalism” have left the state’s official script ragged with perforations and made space for hostile counterpublics, agents of “disinfotainment,” social movements of rabbit holes, gig conspiracies for the gig economy. We have no choice but to wade in.
I shared these articles with my son who said, yes, that what he has been trying to express to me and my family for the past few years. Note that he is not involved in this movement in a deep way, but he shares the sense of dislocation and ‘otherness’ that accompany these convictions.
I have strong sympathy for some of the proximate causes of post-left thinking. In particular, economic nostalgia -- a yearning for a New Deal past where people could achieve the American Dream and where economic inequality and other social ills -- housing, etc. -- were better managed by the government. And when the institution of government seems to be speaking without real connection to these issues, and Biden’s Democrats keep talking up our K-shaped recovery from inflation and Covid — where the well-off and businesses have disproportionately gained, while those at the bottom of the totem pole are left struggling — it’s no surprise that many would reject the entire set-up, and simply watch YouTube and TikTok, not CNN.
That may be an overly long lead-in to the similarities between the post-left and what might be called post-work. The institution of work is increasingly failing in its core premises.
The notion that work is in itself a noble thing to spend our time on, that Max Weber aspiration, after decades of neoliberal downsizing and the complete destruction of an imagined contract with workers, fails to convince most. The out-of-date, sugar-coated claim that work is how we find meaning and purpose as other institutions no longer occupy a central place in our lives no longer convinces, either.
Joanna Barnes wrote ‘Work is … how we give our lives meaning when religion, party politics and community fall away.’ At best, this is a subtractive formulation, asserting that the institution of work will give meaning to our lives, when others fail to do so.
But this is all an aspect of what Andy Becket called ‘workism’:
Work is the master of the modern world. For most people, it is impossible to imagine society without it. It dominates and pervades everyday life – especially in Britain and the US – more completely than at any time in recent history. An obsession with employability runs through education. Even severely disabled welfare claimants are required to be work-seekers. Corporate superstars show off their epic work schedules. “Hard-working families” are idealised by politicians. Friends pitch each other business ideas. Tech companies persuade their employees that round-the-clock work is play. Gig economy companies claim that round-the-clock work is freedom. Workers commute further, strike less, retire later. Digital technology lets work invade leisure.
And yet work is not working, for ever more people, in ever more ways. We resist acknowledging these as more than isolated problems – such is work’s centrality to our belief systems – but the evidence of its failures is all around us.
As a source of subsistence, let alone prosperity, work is now insufficient for whole social classes. In the UK, almost two-thirds of those in poverty – around 8 million people – are in working households. In the US, the average wage has stagnated for half a century.
As a source of social mobility and self-worth, work increasingly fails even the most educated people – supposedly the system’s winners. In 2017, half of recent UK graduates were officially classified as “working in a non-graduate role”. In the US, “belief in work is crumbling among people in their 20s and 30s”, says Benjamin Hunnicutt, a leading historian of work. “They are not looking to their job for satisfaction or social advancement.” (You can sense this every time a graduate with a faraway look makes you a latte.)
The housing crisis and growing financial inequality undermines the primacy of work as a central institution of society.
Work is increasingly precarious: more zero-hours or short-term contracts; more self-employed people with erratic incomes; more corporate “restructurings” for those still with actual jobs. As a source of sustainable consumer booms and mass home-ownership – for much of the 20th century, the main successes of mainstream western economic policy – work is discredited daily by our ongoing debt and housing crises.
Beckett attributes the term ‘post-work’ to a group of thinkers, but I have not been able to find the term in their writing:
[David] Graeber, [Helen] Hester, [Nick] Srnicek, [Benjamin] Hunnicutt, [Peter] Fleming and others are members of a loose, transatlantic network of thinkers who advocate a profoundly different future for western economies and societies, and also for poorer countries, where the crises of work and the threat to it from robots and climate change are, they argue, even greater. They call this future "post-work".
But the sense of post-work these folks are thinking about is a sweeping utopian vision, where people work much, much less, spending more time on other things.
But I am advancing a different take on the term altogether. We are increasingly becoming alienated from the notion that Barnes had embraced, that work is where we find central meaning in our lives, and businesses are organized — either explicitly or as a side-effect — to allow us to find ourselves through work.
I believe that a long litany of trends in work — like ‘quiet quitting’, ‘the great resignation’, ‘quitTok’, ‘lying flat’, and ‘slow work’ — are all manifestations of people no longer believing in the institution of work, other than a necessary evil.
And this is something other than disengagement, which is tightly related to worker context: the specific job, the specific boss, the specific company.
This recasting of post-work is a sense of disenfranchisement from the principles of contemporary work culture, its shifting half-promises and ongoing precarity.
We are living in a world of work that places great demands but doesn’t come through for those embedded in the strictures of work.
I will revisit this theme in the coming days. But I will leave you with one last observation: just as the post-left has stepped outside the conventional left-right dimension of the political order, we are moving forward into a time where a sizable proportion of working people don’t buy the premises of contemporary work culture. It has become a transactional relationship, built around a deep awareness that the company and the employee are in an adversarial relationship, not a mutualistic, cooperative one. One aspect of that is the rise of unions in formerly non-unionized industries and occupations. We should expect to see more of that in 2024 and beyond.
The 2016 election was the first in which a supermajority of Americans owned smartphones. Phone news push alerts gained prominence in 2015 and 2016, just in time for each turn of that unbelievable thing happening in the country. [...] The smallest percentage of households are being reached by paid, live television since 1991, according to research by MoffettNathanson. | Katherine Miller
A media shift that supports fragmentation and demagoguery.
At least divorce is down, though. But this is another sign of the aging of America.
An analysis by the architectural firm PAU concluded that New York could add more than 500,000 homes around transit stations by replacing vacant lots, parking lots and single-story retail with new housing. [...] In a country where most cities on both coasts are not building enough housing, New York still stands apart. Between 2014 and 2021, the city added about half as many homes per capita as Boston; about a third as many as Washington, D.C.; and a quarter as many as Miami. | Binyamin Appelbaum
New York is really screwed up. And even if the City and State moved at a breakneck speed it will take decades to fix.
Feb 1979 was the last month colder than the twentieth-century average. | Steve Rattner