It is a commonly held truism that sports and politics should never mix. Sport is an oasis, untouched by the mundanities of life. But to watch a game of football is to break apart this illusion. Representatives of two nations clash in a contest of strength and skill. A referee enforces strict conformance with arbitrary rules. The crowd’s passions are subsumed in the game. How could this be apolitical?
Surveillance is a powerful tool to discipline a subject’s actions. Jeremy Bentham recognised this when he proposed a new type of prison in the 18th century. The panopticon design would provide complete visibility of all inmates at all times to a centrally located warden. But Bentham’s real breakthrough wasn’t the importance of surveillance. No, what made Bentham’s idea unique was recognition that actual surveillance wasn’t necessary. The prisoners just needed to think they were being monitored. So long as they couldn’t see whether the warden was watching, they had to assume he was. Though Bentham never managed to get a panopticon built, his ideas remained and have resurfaced in modern times.
Ideas are one driver of our society, along with material conditions, power dynamics, great men and a swathe of smaller influences. But are they the central pillars, or just of tangential importance? John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization posits that a corporatist ideology is responsible for the ills of society, and that throwing off those intellectual shackles will resolve them.
We spend our days endlessly repeating simple tasks, and even outside of work we refuse to grapple with higher order ideas and concepts. Politics has been reduced to squabbling over petty resentments, a kind of spectator sport. Even our art has given up on the profound, simply packaging up nostalgia and spectacle to be sold back to us. We cannot call ourselves grown men if we act like infants.
At the core of the liberal philosophy which guides our modern societies are two principles – free people and free markets. It has generally been assumed that these are in harmony. But as the populist consequences of the GFC continue to reverberate through our world, establishment liberals are being forced to choose between the two. Time after time, unelected officials have chosen to protect the markets against the consequences of democracy in a way that lays bare their true priorities.
The top university in Australia recently announced a new scheme for assessing undergraduate applicants. The ANU’s new policy will substantially loosen the requirements for academic results and add a new requirement for extra-curricular activities. This acts to screen out those from working class backgrounds and ensure those from the upper class take their ordained place, regardless of talent.
The self-immolation of Tunisian vegetable seller Mohammed Bouazizi in late 2010 set off a wave of protest and revolution against stagnant dictatorships across the Arab world. Ordinary citizens stood up against their tyrants and forced them out with people power. Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren’s The Battle for the Arab Spring tells the story of these rebellions – a tale which should be heeded by those who seek a better world.
In the classic form of capitalism, companies competed to sell their products to customers with the aim of producing profits to fuel further expansion. Today, companies no longer need to make profits in order to command massive valuations – Elon Musk‘s Tesla is worth $US 48 billion despite accelerating losses to $2B last year. Making money is no longer a prerequisite for business success. Instead, these companies serve as stock market vehicles, catering to the whims of investors rather than customers. This serves to remove any measure of control ordinary people might have been able to impose upon corporations through their choices in the market.
Back in the bad old days of slavery and serfdom, there was a class of people who weren’t quite slaves, but weren’t free either. These indentured servants were tied by contract to serve a particular master as slaves, but only for a specified period (typically 3-7 years). Folks who were desperate for passage to the Americas or who had accumulated debts beyond their ability to pay would sell themselves into virtual slavery with the hope of a better life after their period of bondage ended. South Sea Islanders were coerced into similar contracts to labour in Queensland in the late 1800s, long after such arrangements were outlawed for white folks. But were they actually outlawed, or just transferred into another form?
The Employee does hereby agree to faithfully serve the Company for three years from the date of his landing in the land of Virginia, there to be employed in the lawful and reasonable works and labors of the Company and their executives, and to be obedient to such managers as the Company shall from time to time appoint and set over him.
– From the indentured servitude contract of Robert Coopy, 1619, edited to modernise
The life of an indentured servant was nasty, brutish and short. Despite the incentives present at the end of their contract (the transfer of land and often supplies for a year), these folks had no freedom, being tied to the whims and punishments of their masters. It may have been a better life than that of a slave (who gradually replaced them in the 1700s), but indentured servants were forced to work from dawn to dusk and could be sold between masters like commodities.
Whilst employed by the Company, the Employee must devote his or her whole time and attention to the business of the Company as required and must not, without the prior consent of the Company, engage in any other activity or employment.
The owner had complete control of a servant’s life and the backing of the state to ensure compliance against any runaways. Servants internalised the virtues of the Protestant work ethic to justify their own bondage, but masters also provided plenty of extrinsic motivation through harsh discipline.
The Company may use surveillance personnel in strategically located internal and external areas of the plantation to monitor movements. Guards will operate continuously and surveillance will be ongoing.
Under this strict surveillance, servants toiled from dusk until dawn for the benefit of their owners. Everything that a servant created would be the property of their owners, as was the servant themselves. The ultimate alienation.
The Employee acknowledges and agrees that the Company is the sole and exclusive owner of all rights including without limitation copyright throughout the world and all journalistic, literary and artistic work created, conceived, developed or acquired, in whole or in part, by the Employee, in the course of the Employee’s employment with the Company, however and whenever created or conceived, whether solely or jointly with others and whether during work hours or otherwise.
Even once freed, indentured servants often found that their supposed rewards were dependent on the whims of their owners. Their parcels of land might be subject to extortionate rents, the supplies provided were often minimal, and their low status and injuries suffered during their servitude restricted their opportunities.
For the duration of the Employee’s employment with the Company and for 6 months thereafter, the Employee must not on his or her own account, or on behalf of any other person in whatever capacity (without the prior written consent of the Company in its absolute discretion) participate in any business similar to the business of the Company or any Related Company.
But apart from our dear friend Robert Coopy up the top, these quotes are not from the contracts of indentured servants. They are from an employment contract which crossed my desk today (and have been lightly edited so as not to give the trick away with modern boondoggles). I am to be paid much better than poor Robert was for my services, but the conditions of servitude never went away.
A forcing-up of wages would therefore be nothing but better payment for the slave, and would not conquer either for the worker or their labour their human status and dignity.
– Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
Whether I sell myself for a million dollars or a loaf of bread, I am still selling myself. A modern salaried worker has no right to an 8 hour day, no right to the fruits of their own labour, limited rights even to sell their services elsewhere. No doubt we have better material conditions than the indentured servants of the 1600s, but on a philosophical level the conditions remain the same. The employing class still own the working class. Our labour is not ours. The products of our labour are not ours. We are not ours.
In our market society, every thing is transformed into a commodity to be bought and sold. Buyers and sellers meet to trade not only petrol, but also fine art and literature. We also sell ourselves on the market, renting out our lives to employers. In our current epoch these commodities are not just sold, but actively moulded to better suit the demands of the market. Not only do brewers adjust their formulations based on sales, but we shape ourselves to better fit our perceptions of what the market demands.
Who are you? You are your self – the central tenets of your own identity. But your self is not set in stone, it is shaped by your choices and experiences. You aren’t the same person you were at age 18.
There are some aspects of your self that you share freely with the world and others which you keep close to your chest. This is normal, humans are naturally duplicitous creatures. The self you show to the world exerts a pressure on your core self, refining your values and choices through reflection. In the age of social media, our selves have been opened up to the world in unprecedented ways. Every post, every interaction is subject to public scrutiny. This scrutiny is not just from our peers, but also from the myriad of market actors which can have profound impacts upon our lives.
On social media or in life, every interaction may be the start of a path to that elusive good job. Advertising your capabilities as a worker could lead to that opportunity, but conversely displaying unsuitable traits may freeze you out. So a pressure is exerted on what you say, the company you keep and the activities you undertake. Do you attend the gig or the seminar; talk about work or politics? The invisible hand of the market directs you towards those activities which enhance your personal brand and thus market value.
Your work doesn’t finish when you leave the office, but instead becomes a filter through which you mediate your life. You worry about whether a particular education makes you employable, about whether a gap in your resume will prove insurmountable. Instead of drinking with friends, you network with professional colleagues.
Your performed self is alienated from your actual self, driven by the need to hustle for every opportunity and avoid anything which might cast you in a negative light next time you make an application. As you continue to perform, your internal self moves away from that actual model, warped by the demands of the market. In this grim late capitalist world, your self is increasingly concerned with maximising its worth to employers rather than with self-actualisation.
By this point, you have completed the transition from person to commodity. You are no longer defined by your individual character or values, but instead are simply interchangable wage labour, another bottle of cola trying to appeal to a customer with snazzy branding or a low price. What is LinkedIn but a human supermarket where recruiters can choose among millions of wage labourers?
In the Soviet supermarket, there were only two kinds of worker available, peasants and bureaucrats moulded by the police state. In the neoliberal supermarket, there exists a rainbow of worker brands. But they all taste the same, all shaped by the market towards a kind of dull positivity and competence with spreadsheets.
The power of the market is in shaping people and their actions with incentives rather than gulags. The prospect of material riches is a powerful motivator. The market does not force you, but rather encourages you to turn yourself into a commodity. But you do not have to accept this. Even without abolishing markets, a skilled worker can still hold true to their values.