With COVID-19 and its consequences still unfolding at the time of writing it is tempting to speculate what the future may hold. That current social and economic arrangements need to adapt seems self-evident. Yet to speak of a pre-pandemic and post-pandemic world is a trivial observation. As Alain Baudiou argued in an op-ed, there is no inherent property of an epidemic that carries a revolutionary potential within. Any social unrest occurring is based on the fragility of current arrangements, not on a biological phenomenon. What’s truly exceptional about this pandemic is how unexceptional the reaction of the technical system is.
Just because something never or rarely happened before does not make it a novel situation. Rather, the current pandemic illuminates the existing conditions of life within technical society. The muddiness of talks about returns to ‘normality’ lies in the opaqueness of what a speaker means with normality. Therefore instead of making a leap into the future when much about the virus is still unknown it is preferable to shed light on the technical system’s particular reaction to COVID-19. The framing of activity as work and the concurrent preservation of labor power are the key points underpinning this reaction. Technical society is a labor camp, but to recast activity as play would forgo the crucial role that the survival instinct plays. Since something should be at stake activity is better recast as a game, one where the passions and survival are realigned. Instead of normality we need to talk about the morality of work.
One recurrent distinction made between workers in this pandemic is that between the essential and non-essential worker. Beyond specific discussions on whether some profession is or is not essential, the main consideration seems to be one of maintaining the infrastructure necessary for the technical system to function. In practice this hinges around the question whether a physical presence is required for the task at hand. The essential worker needs to be present for the infrastructure to function. The ensuing risk of infection is accepted for the alternative – shutting down the infrastructure – is seen as undesirable.
The distinction roughly corresponds to the separation of work into physical and mental exertion. The latter typically is deemed non-essential or rather, capable of working from home. This leads to the compelling argument that the essential worker (often unwillingly) sacrifices themselves so that all non-essential workers stay safe inside. The non-essence of some work plays into David Graeber’s notion of bullshit jobs, defined as a job which the worker themselves regards as unnecessary. Examples range from corporate law to secretaries hired for the sake of having a secretary. For Graeber, the existence of these jobs are a form of subjugation. For instance, the busywork prevents workers from addressing issues of economic inequality.
This notion of bullshit jobs seems right in a material sense, but it downplays that the technical system is supported by both physical and mental infrastructure. To maintain the technical system an extensive bureaucracy is required to regulate aggregate behavior. In particular, a certain state of mind is needed to uphold compliance and optimize organization. This state of mind is one of practicality, decision-making consisting solely of calculating optimal means towards desired ends in a world recast into the mold of production. In other words, it’s an instru-mentality.
The handling of the pandemic by governments worldwide is through this instru-mental lens of cost-benefit analysis. Regardless of the specific applications (and the false dichotomy of economy versus public health), the main motivation seems to be the continued exertion of labor power. Whether one country from that consideration decides on draconian measures whereas another strives to reopen as soon as possible is rather irrelevant. Spaces demarcated by physical distancing and requirements to stay at home as much as possible exist for work to continue. The gross neglect of elderly care homes in for instance the Netherlands is telling in that regard, for the elderly are not contributing to production anymore. This pandemic shows the world to be one giant labor camp. And much of this is driven by a survival instinct.
The classic graphical representation of human needs is the pyramid of Maslow, showing food and other physical needs at the base and self-actualization as a cherry on top. The basic contention is that a person will first secure themselves of needs lower on the pyramid before concerning themselves with the needs of a higher level. This proves a useful image to explicate the survival instinct at the heart of contemporary notions of work. The sequential nature of this hierarchy can be empirically questioned, but it would nonetheless still show the significance of survival.
Life in contemporary society is bare according to the philosopher Byung-Chul Han. The worker nowadays sees themselves as a project and internalizes the goal of productivity. This leads to self-exploitation. Instead of others having to discipline the worker, they discipline themselves. The survival instinct plays a large role now that productivity has become internalized in such a way. This is because the instru-mentality state of mind comes forth from practices of self-preservation – to survive means to tinker with the world.
To return to the pyramid, Byung-Chul Han shows how the base has infused the whole structure. Albeit his notion of self-exploitation seems more readily applicable to the mental worker, within the more exploitative physical occupations the tight control of workers can get internalized as well. With the survival instinct reigning over all activity a particular emotional disposition reduces the richness of mental life, a form of alienation.
But it is a mistake to rid society of this survival instinct wholesale. A certain strand of work critiques often dismiss it entirely when pointing out this alienation. For instance, Melville’s story of Bartleby the Scrivener who answers every demand by his employer with “I’d prefer not to” can be seen as a sort of great refusal to have anything to do with productivity at all. As if the story posits apathy as the alternative. But laziness may be a pathology emergent in a society hellbent on repetitive work, as argued by the psychologist Erich Fromm. Indeed, Byung-Chul Han shows that Melville’s story is actually about depression. Bartleby has a psychological reaction to the way work is framed instead of exhibiting some sort of exemplary resistance.
Another popular idea, sometimes wittily called fully automated luxury communism, is the idea that technology is a force of liberation from work rather than the cause of subjugation. It’s a dream of eradicating the base of Maslow’s pyramid for machinery takes care of that. One of the inspirations is Paul Lafargues essay on the right to be lazy where he argues convincingly against the productivity mindset that besets the work-ethic and contrasts it with a feasting mindset. It’s similar to the idea of re-framing activity as play instead of work, as proposed by anti-work activist Bob Black.
In both ideas work and with it the survival instinct is seen as something to be laid aside, because real activity should be free of drudgery. Rather than the base taking over the whole pyramid these ideas strive for the top to infuse the rest. Crucial is the notion inherent in play: that of disinterest. Playful activity is activity where pay-off is irrelevant. Although Black acknowledges that play should come with consequences, he regards those of play as gratuitous. His point of abolishing work in favor of play is borne from a keen critique of instu-mentality, but misses they key role that the survival instinct could still play.
Something at stake
At the heart of survival lies the idea that something is at stake – action is necessary for preservation. Video game designer Sid Meier once defined a game as a series of interesting choices. For a choice to be interesting, it should matter to the decision maker. In other words, incentives do need to be present.
In the case of fully automated luxury communism, disinterested behavior is incompatible with the requirement to maintain the physical and mental infrastructure of a technical system. To keep an infrastructure means to keep productivity as a goal and with it the interest of optimizing the processes. The incentives stay the same. On the other hand, the transformation of work into play tries to remove incentives as a whole. Equating the whole of activity with disinterest entails that the base on which one thing is preferred over another is absent. No choice would matter anymore. Thus, such a transformation cannot take place without stakes.
So rather than play life could itself be like a game if it would be a series of interesting choices per Sid Meier. In technical society that what makes decisions interesting has been diminished by framing activity as purely a productive endeavor. On the other hand, neglecting the importance of the base of Maslow’s pyramid as anti-work critiques often do, what is at stake is denied. A restructuring of society boils down to a redesign of incentives such that survival cannot dominate. All parts of the pyramid should continually infuse each other. Neither should a society’s supporting infrastructure solidify. Rigid institutions turn activity inevitably into a matter of calculation – in other words, lead to an instru-mentality. The survival instinct can only adequately thrive in fluid circumstances.
Erich Fromm argued that repetitive tasks in a factory can become enjoyable for the workers. He distinguished between the social and technical aspects of a task. According to him, drudgery in the technical system came about because the social aspects had been missing. By giving the workers control over the process these social aspects would bring about the joy in work. It’s something that Black hints at as well. This idea hinges on the notion of ownership, which means that one has a stake in the outcome of one’s activity. Ownership means to act as if one is the benefactor of the result of an action – in other words, that the goal of an action is internalized.
Technical society provides a false sense of ownership through its mental infrastructure. The properly schooled individual identifies themselves with the goals of impersonal institutions serving the singular goal of production. Their instru-mentality makes them think alike. Underneath it is the illusion that something is at stake, as if the institution does not lead a life of its own but is solely comprised of the individuals taking part in it. It’s this false ownership that Graeber identified with his notion of the bullshit job, when people realize that nothing really is at stake.
The rigidity of calculative thinking present in instru-mentality creates an alternate mechanical reality instead of acknowledging the messy variety of life itself. The alienation of limiting the richness of mental life consists in this elevation of the mechanical point of view even though that’s but one of the many emotions present in one’s disposition. If everyone then has a similar emotional disposition this means conformism.
Fromm criticized contemporary society on that ground but his solution of reincorporating social aspects into work ultimately proposes a new form of conformism. Workers identifying themselves with the goals of the machine they operate still boils down to thinking in terms of productivity and efficiency. Thus it’s merely another form of false ownership. The Utopian Charles Fourier did more adequately intuit how a technical society stifles and perverts the passions. Although his blueprints for a commune might to be built on shaky grounds, his idea that an individual’s passions should direct their activity still stands firm. Ownership arises organically from the passions – something will be at stake. On a societal level a move from the labor camp of the technical system towards a jamboree of games is necessary.
Jamboree & Victory
A jamboree is a festive gathering of survivalists. To gather is to come up with a spontaneous order through communication, organically directed by groups and individuals. This is necessary to realign the passions with survival. This realignment cannot be planned, since planning is a form of instru-mentality. Instead of imposing a blueprint which institutions should from here on out follow the restructuring of society should start at the communal level following the principle of infusing all parts of Maslow’s pyramid with each other. People will then be able to create the right stakes for themselves to play the game of life.
Contrary to institutions bonds forged through hardship are fine when solidified since it’s based on the choice of two individuals. Due to the shared impetus of survival and the consequent collective overcoming of obstacles, there is ample opportunity to incorporate a festive stance. A celebration of cooperatively reached goals highlights the spontaneity of the gathering and what is truly at stake.
During the COVID-19 pandemic an oft repeated phrase is that we are all in this together, which rings hollow considering the differing fates of people due to economic inequality. There will however be opportunities to let it come true. The pressure on the global food supply chain mounts, which makes preparations like the victory garden a prudent choice. This idea comes from the Second World War, when people turned any plot of land they could into a garden for food production. Done on a large communal or local scale people may come into positive contact with each other, spurred on by the instinct of survival. These gardens would then make a necessity a pleasure as well and give expression to the celebratory aspect in the definition of victory. And present the opportunity to show that we truly are in this together.
Baudiou, A. (2020, March 23). On the epidemic situation. Verso. https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4608-on-the-epidemic-situation
Black, B. (1985/2009). The abolition of work. The Anarchist Library. https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/bob-black-the-abolition-of-work/
Fourier, C. (1808/1996). The theory of the four movements. Cambridge University Press.
Fromm, E. (1955/1991). The sane society (2nd edition). Routledge.
Graeber, D. (2013, August). On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs. Strike! Magazine. https://www.strike.coop/bullshit-jobs/
Han, B.C. (2015). The burnout society. Stanford University Press.
Lafargue, P. (1883/2000). The right to be lazy. Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lafargue/1883/lazy/index.htm
Melville, H. (1853). Bartleby the scrivener: A story of wall street.