Alienation and Me

Mankind’s capacity for creative work is what distinguishes us from the animals. People through history have created great works of art, literature and technological achievements as a means of self-actualisation. But what is labour without self-expression?


While we may aspire to create art or technology as expressions of ourselves, most of us are stuck earning a wage in the market. This places us in not just a contractual relationship with an employer, but also in one of power. Our work cannot be our own self-expression, but is instead dictated by the demands of our bosses and those of the market society in which we live. An artist may aspire to create abstract paintings, but be forced by the demands of the market and his employer to create Minions memes. This power relationship causes all of us workers to be alienated from the products of our labour.


What we produce is not an affirming expression of ourselves, but instead is some cruel twisted bastard, dictated to us by outside forces. By extension, the very process of working to create these bastard products is itself alienating. We cannot decide where, when and how we wish to work, as our bosses and the market society dictate terms. The products of our work are alien from us, as they are not ours to enjoy, but instead sold to the highest bidder. In the case of the worker building luxury cars or palatial houses, we may not even be able to experience what we produce.


The true, creative form of labour is everywhere run down and derided as amateur, a mere hobby. Indeed, the worker is forced by both the extraction of rents and the enforcement of societal norms to spend the bulk of his waking hours in alienated work, and so cannot devote much time or effort to their hobby. Those owners of private property use their power to sideline the amateur who works merely for the joy of creative labour, disclaiming their credentials or experience. If this fails they attempt to commodify the amateur’s work to turn self-expression into mere artisanal craft.


Everybody who works for a wage or salary, or who sells their products on the market is alienated in some respect from the products of their labour. While some vocations allow for more self-expression than others (a writer compared with a factory worker for instance), we are all trapped together under this yoke. Bullshit jobs shuffling paperwork are but a post-modern expression of a classic form, labour power thrown to the wind instead of serving a useful purpose.


In this alienation from our essence as creators, we dull our own capabilities. We are restricted to the particular forms which the market and our employers demand. We produce copies of the same product for mass consumption rather than expressing ourselves in each one. The alienation beats us down as we struggle to inject a forbidden touch of personality.


It is true that labor produces for the rich wonderful things – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker, deformity. It replaces labor by machines, but it throws one section of the workers back into barbarous types of labor and it turns the other section into a machine. It produces intelligence – but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism.

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844


We tell ourselves stories about the purposefulness of our work, just as we strive to better contort our essences to the roles inflicted upon us. But the soul resists. The bastard is not our creation.


I’ve come to realise that these bonds chafe particularly tightly on me. The signs can be seen back to my university days, where I couldn’t wait to get out and do real concrete work after years of scribbling on paper under the direction of professors. In the dissatisfaction I felt with profit-centric management in the building services industry. As a captive to the whims of the market in software development. And now the alienation is blatant as a consultant whose only labour product is digital drawings and specifications in a field that I care nothing for.


What is to be done about it? I’ll keep scribbling and shooting here, as a proud amateur. But beyond that, there is no simple cure.

Book Nook – Descent by Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod’s strength as a sci-fi writer is his inventive world building. He pulls together elements from history and social theory to create future societies which are unexpected yet plausible. Descent serves primarily as a tableau which Ken paints with echoes of the New Deal, as the reader follows Ryan’s coming of age journey and those of his close friends who share a tight bond. The bond of an alien abduction. This is still sci-fi, after all.


While the story is nominally powered by the mystery of the aforementioned abduction, I found myself drawn more to the way the world developed around it. MacLeod paints a world where following a series of crises, capitalism had to be saved from its own contradictions through a social democratic Big Deal that may have only papered over these contradictions but certainly improved the conditions of life for Ryan and his friends.


The Big Deal provides the conditions necessary for ramjets, drones and all sorts of technological maguffins which our sci-fi novel needs. But the real story is not rockets and space travel, but Ryan’s personal journey, as he falls into and out of love, distorted by jealousy into a twisted individual who spends his days stalking his ex-fiancee through the obiquious surveilance drones present in this world.


Ken draws some excellent parallels around our own presentation and self-censorship in a future society where surveillance is commonplace. Between the conspiracy theories which Ryan is drawn to after his abduction, the revolutionaries who hide in the business world, the public or private spooks and the scientists protecting their research from public eyes, this becomes the central pivot about which the story swings.


This book retains faith in the intelligence and engagement of its readers, with a resolution which doesn’t spell out answers to all the questions posed earlier. I’m a sucker for this kind of storytelling which leaves the reader to infer their own answers, but when combined with a rapidly paced conclusion this could leave some readers unfulfilled.


The characterisation is better than you might expect from a genre renowned for cardboard cutouts, and MacLeod peppers the dialogue with Scottishisms to breathe an earthy charm into them. The prose reads well, establishing fearful scenes on the foggy moors while keeping the story moving along at a steady clip.


On the whole, Descent is an enjoyable romp through the lives of well-developed characters which touches on science and society and raises questions without getting bogged down in treatises.


Descent was published by Orbit Books in 2013. My copy was purchased 2nd hand from a Lifeline Bookfair.

Beneath the Corporate Mask

Companies deploy elegant public relations masks in order to appear a positive influence on our society and lives. BP claims to deliver services that “help drive the transition to a low carbon future“. Northrop Grumman are “committed to maintaining the highest of ethical standards, embracing diversity and inclusion, protecting the environment, and striving to be an ideal corporate citizen in the community and in the world.” But beneath the hollow sheen of advertisements and corporate branding is an ugly demonstration of what is really important to the corporations who run our lives.


The infamous vampire squid – Goldman Sachs – released a report to investors on gene therapy developments a few days ago. In it, their analysts raised concerns with the profit potential of such companies, asking “is curing patients a sustainable business model?” Treatments like gene therapy do not offer the recurring revenues of the pharmaceuticals currently used, and “could represent a challenge for genome medicine developers looking for sustained cash flow.”


Those investors who can afford the fees of Goldman Sachs don’t want platitudes about corporate responsibility. The lives of those who might be saved with new innovations have no importance when there are profits to be made. These ghouls can extract more money from a patient who needs to take a pill every day for the rest of their lives than from one who can be fixed with a single treatment. The patient’s entire future earnings are available to pilfer, rather than just the savings they may have accrued to date.


This rigid focus on money and profits regardless of the consequences is not merely confined to corporate investors but has spread throughout our society. While public relations departments might paint a different picture, those who wield corporate power continue this rigid focus on economics. Petrochemical giant BP’s submission to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight was recently unearthed, in which their real vision of the world was laid bare.


BP claimed that in the event of an oil spill, “in most instances, the increased activity associated with cleanup operations will be a welcome boost to local economies” with no social impacts. This displays the very same worldview as the Goldman Sachs report – that the only consideration is monetary. The massive environmental degradation which would result from any oil spill is of no importance, except that the locals might be benefit from temporary jobs cleaning the slick from their once pristine beaches.


Within the ideology embedded in our society, life is simply a game where each player’s score is measured in dollars. Profit isn’t just the most important thing. It is the only thing.

Book Nook – All Your Friends Like This: How Social Networks Took Over News by Hal Crawford, Andrew Hunter & Domagoj Filipovic

All Your Friends Like This: How Social Networks Took Over News provides a great demonstration of how the short staffing and search for impressions over substance has crippled modern journalism. Unfortunately, this book is an example rather than an explanation.

Continue reading “Book Nook – All Your Friends Like This: How Social Networks Took Over News by Hal Crawford, Andrew Hunter & Domagoj Filipovic”

Book Nook – An Incredible Race of People: A Passionate History of Australia by Bob Katter

Bob Katter Jr is a riddle wrapped in an enigma topped with a cowboy hat. A man renowned for the social conservatism which led him to claim there were no gay people in his electorate, and yet who also criticises the Rudd/Gillard industrial relations reforms as not going nearly far enough in favour of workers. A man who lists as paragons ‘Red Ted’ Theodore and Ben Chifley but who served in the cabinet of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The best way to understand a man is to listen to what he has to say, so I’m reading An Incredible Race of People to see if this enigma can be unravelled.


This is Bob’s history of Bob’s Australia, and he deploys a narrow but deep gaze upon the elements and characters which have crafted his vision of Australia. The informality of his writing style fits the oafish hick persona which Bob is happy to play up to the media, but the depth and range of references demonstrate a far wider range of scholarship than would be expected, and certainly more than that presented by Tony Abbott, by way of comparison. Nonetheless, this is a tale full of tough blokey men from the Queensland outback who weren’t afraid to ruffle the feathers of those ivory tower dwelling city-slickers.


Katter eschews the classical first fleet narrative and heads straight to Cloncurry’s founding and Queensland’s development in the late 1800s. Curiously for a man who served 26 years in parliaments for the National Party before splitting away, the story of early life in Australia is seen almost entirely through the lense of unions and the Labor Party fight for worker conditions. Bob lays down the depth of deprivation for regular workers in early 1900s Queensland, as large corporations like CSR applied their monopsony power to place workers in what he deems “almost like a master-servant relationship”. Against this corporate tyranny, ‘Red Ted’ Theodore and the AWU rose up to struggle for workers rights. We can begin to see the genesis of Bob’s political vision as he cheers on the actions of the Labor government to establish binding wage arbitration, redistribute land from big corporations to ordinary workers, establish a series of government owned abbotoirs and abolish the upper house of parliament.


Bob wants government to be an active participant in society, rather than a bystander and facilitator. Whether this is through direct public intervention like the Theodore government or through subsidy of private corporations as in the Bjelke-Petersen government is not important. He has no faith in the market sorting itself out. But along with this, he also has no care or conception for conflicts of interest or abuse of power. Aggressive and flagrant ethical violations are continually justified as the required actions of these great men of history. As Bob puts it, “the propriety of their methods was of little concern to a Bjelke-Petersen or a Theodore, men who had a nation to build.”


This talk of aggressive government intervention might bring to mind Fred Paterson and the communist presence in North Queensland at this time, but Bob is keen to draw a line between his heroes and the hard-left. Katter decries the “anti-win mentality of the left” who were “more interested in class warfare than development and prosperity.” In practice, this appears to be primarily a matter of mentality rather than policy for Bob, who happily cheers on Theodore’s vision of “an owner-operator society where men sold their labour through collectively owned means of production” and union direct action against scabbing as “a rallying point of victory and success by the Australian people”.


The Australian people’s fight in New Guinea is the subject of a fairly routine retelling, which tells us more around its edges and absences than in the bog-standard story. He dedicates a fifth of the book to this fight in World War Two, but mentions WW1 only in passing through the fight against conscription, and completely ignores any wars since. Again, this is Bob’s history of Bob’s Australia, an idiosyncratic tale. His nationalism comes through in his condemnation of the leaders who were subservient to Britain and whose actions which were more concerned with the protection of the motherland than Australia. But in the consideration given to Japanese anti-colonialist objectives he demonstrates a wider perspective than would be expected, especially from a book titled An Incredible Race Of People.


The core of Bob’s philosophy is best distilled through his lionisation of the Bjelke-Petersen government and what he calls Developmentalism. The environment exists to be exploited by man, and government’s job is to facilitate that. His heroes here shift to men like Les Theiss, Laurence Harnett and Essington Lewis (who was also raised as an exemplar by Andrew Leigh, subject of my last Book Nook), those who rose from working class origins to build companies associated with production and retained that connection with their workers. Government should be actively involved in building these companies, with tariffs, contracts and subsidy all considered.


These blokes are seen as underdogs fighting against the evils of foreign corporations, and are encouraged by government in order to ensure these industries are Australian owned. But with such a focus on development over other considerations, Katter is quite willing to let graft and insider trading slide as long as it is in the service of this ideology. The same Russell Hinze who resigned from parliament after damning reports of corruption to Bob “represented what Australian politicians should be.”


In Katter’s telling, Australia’s decline started with the ascent of Gough Whitlam. But this was not for the issues you might expect a conservative to take with the great reformer – Bob sees Whitlam as starting the rise of the ‘educrat’, politicians who were university educated bureaucrats rather than the traditional working class with “dirt under their fingernails”. The great issue which Katter takes with the Whitlam government is the unilateral slashing of tariffs. The protectionism implicit in these tariffs is core to the developmentalist philosophy which Katter espouses. So rather than my view of Whitlam as the last great social democrat, Katter considers Gough as the first neoliberal (which he terms Marketism, but is better known by the common term).


Since Whitlam, Bob traces the gradual growth of neoliberalism and free trade, demonstrating how these policies have hurt primary producers and the rural areas. He sees Keating and Costello as ideologues responsible for aggressive free trade policies and the National Party abandoning the party’s values in favour of this market-centred ideology. The willingness of these politicians to drop our trade barriers without corresponding reductions in subsidy from our partners comes in for particular opprobrium. Bob’s country focus delivers a perspective on these policies which city-slickers in the service industries like myself often fail to consider. In outback North Queensland where 25% of the population are employed in mining and agriculture is clearly the 2nd biggest employer, the impacts on these industries are critical to the survival and success of regional communities.


However, this focus also flows through into a complete ignorance of environmental issues. Although Bob is happy to stop importation of foreign foods to prevent the spread of disease, he sees these concerns only through the realm of production and development. He deems the World Heritage declaration of the Daintree Rainforest “an economic iron curtain”, blaming it for the suicide of former timber mill workers. When he puts forth his vision for the future, he suggests that rather than reducing irrigator water allocations to ensure flow through the Murray-Darling Basin, he would rather reduce the size of the Alexandrina and Menindee Lakes.


This future vision lays the environmental devastation which Katter supports clear. He sees massive geoengineering schemes, from a seawater canal between the Spencer Gulf and Lake Eyre to massive damming in Queensland and WA to create the conditions for massive sugar cane fields. Bob sees an Australia with a rapidly increasing immigration program, in order to build a country of 55 million people by 2037. He wants to be one of the great men he depicts, building Australia through massive infrastructure schemes.


But Bob’s history is also notable in what he chooses not to include. There are hardly any woman in his story, nor any mention of the vast change in womens’ status in Australian society. Social issues in general are scarce, as he focuses entirely on these great men of business and politics. This fits entirely with his political focus, but allows some of his more loathsome personal opinions to avoid scrutiny.


Fundamentally, Bob Katter’s vision of the world is rooted in the past. He is best seen as a pure conservative, looking to take us back to the days of his childhood in the 1950s, a world of big men with big egos building the nation on the sheep’s back. But unlike those who wear the trappings of social conservatism in order to camouflage an aggressive dedication to markets, the past Bob wants to return to includes strong unions, worker protections, government investment and acceptance of immigrants. With his prediliction for development regardless of the consequences, he certainly shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the levers of power. But nonetheless, city folks should pay heed to the opinions of those like Bob who understand the impact of policy on regional areas. The National Party could stand to be closer to Katter’s prescriptions rather than those of Barnaby Joyce.


An Incredible Race of People: A Passionate History of Australia by Bob Katter was published by Murdoch Books in 2012. My copy was purchased 2nd hand at a Lifeline Bookfair.