An entrepreneur once found himself in a state of despair
at the lack of commitment shown by his workers – only
he called them his "co-workers." He had tried
everything to boost their enthusiasm, to encourage inventiveness
and creativity. He had traveled all the way to Japan
to learn the secrets of the chauvinistic business policies
there. He had hired the most expensive motivational
consultants; the staff was treated to elaborate shows
fervently preaching the virtues of team spirit; role-playing
games and Buddhist seminars were offered, the entrepreneur
didn’t even balk at the expense of a company retreat
at the North Pole, complete with a festive banquet on
arctic pack ice – but it was all for naught. The more
money he threw at trying to inspire enthusiasm in his
staff, the more sluggish and indifferent they seemed
to become. It’s true that he not only tried the carrot,
but also applied the stick – the most obvious slackers
were fired and replaced with younger candidates – but
this only made matters worse. Out of fear of losing
their jobs, the remaining employees took pains to avoid
attracting any negative attention, but they didn’t try
to stand out in a positive way either. Strikes and demands
were not an issue, but neither were any suggestions
for improvement or productive decisions forthcoming.
It appeared as if everyone had conspired to simply work
to rule, doing just the minimum amount possible to get
by. And yet, particularly in this industry, the active
participation and creative power of each and every staff
member was vital to survival. The supreme law of business
is: innovation or death. Whoever does merely a run-of-the-mill
job is an agent serving to bring on destruction and
doom. But how was one to spark these people’s passion?
One day the entrepreneur took a vacation back in the
place where he was born. In the village where his forefathers
had led their backward, unremarkable existence, he suddenly
remembered an old man who was still alive, whom everyone
regarded as particularly wise. He decided to ask him
for advice. At least this consultant’s suggestions were
available for free.
When the entrepreneur told him of his problems, the old
man answered: "No wonder all these false prophets
have failed. You can’t train a person to be motivated
any more than you can teach him to be free. In both
cases the training process itself eliminates any possible
free will. Whoever is forced to *act*
motivated cannot possibly *feel*
"But then what am I to do?" asked the entrepreneur.
"You can inspire respect and emulation by setting
a good example, by demonstrating your own model behavior.
You should treat your co-workers as you wish them to
treat you. They should enjoy the same affluence as you
do, rely on the same security in sickness and old age,
have sufficient time for leisure and socializing and
above all: they must find fulfillment in what they do.
Then you won’t have any need for motivational trainers
and your people will remain loyal to you."
"But that’s impossible," the entrepreneur replied.
"All these things would substantially raise payroll,
weaken management, waste time and make investors nervous,
and then how would I ever be able to keep up with the
"Excuse me, said the old man, but you asked me how
to make people loyal to you, and that’s the answer I
gave you. You didn’t ask me to tell you how to be financially
successful, something I know nothing about and which,
by the way, doesn’t interest me in the slightest."
"But it’s a question of both things: a healthy working
environment and competitiveness!"
"Now I think I finally understand what your problem
is. You’re trying to find a virginal whore." With
that, the old man burst out laughing and the entrepreneur
slunk away, gloomier than ever. In the village square
the witty remark was soon on everyone’s tongue, and
as the entrepreneur walked by, they all turned to ask
him: "Well, have you found your chaste hooker yet?"
On the flight back the entrepreneur ruminated on the
situation. Could it be, he asked himself, that global
capital, now that it had conquered all exterior obstacles,
had finally come up against an internal limit, namely:
the tendency for motivation levels to plummet?
The senselessness of work – in quantitative terms
The most common work-related illness in all industrialized
nations is referred to as "musculoskeletal disorder",
also known as RSI (repetitive strain injury) syndrome.
The symptoms are severe chronic joint -- and especially
back -- pain, often in connection with depression or
stress. Every year this syndrome shows a general increase
of 20 per cent; in the service industries a rise as
high as 50 per cent has been recorded. Although women
as well as people who work at computers are more often
affected, no occupational group is spared entirely.
And there is as yet no effective treatment available.
That’s why the German Federal Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health advises doctors to "inform their
patients that back pain is 'normal'." The primary
goal of treatment should be "minimal utilization
of the medical care system and the return to the workplace."
In short: employees should suffer in silence. All of
the studies conducted on this phenomenon have come to
the same conclusion: that the cause of the pain can
be attributed to psychosocial factors in the workplace,
for example "subjectively perceived occupational
demands and controls." The French National Agency
for the Improvement of Working Conditions, ANACT, puts
it even more bluntly: joints become ill when "the
meaning of certain movements is no longer sensed."
The disorder of the musculoskeletal system is thus an
actions that are emptied of sense.* Launching preventive
measures would thus mean questioning how work is organized
and above all whether doing the work makes any sense
at all, something the responsible authorities are naturally
not about to do. Instead, pharmaceutical companies are
now at work coming up with the ultimate drug to help
workers subjectively deal better with damaging on-the-job
conditions. The environment is not to be adapted to
fit the human beings, but the human beings adjusted
to fit their environment. Along the same lines, the
German Association of Company Doctors has now drafted
a fitting program to accompany pension reform: "After
12 weeks of endurance training, 60-year-old men can
achieve the same stamina level as 40-year-olds who have
not undertaken training." The breeding of new workhorses
is no longer limited by age.
What, then, is productive work? Symbolically speaking,
our concept of work is still colored by the biblical
curse that impresses upon us the necessity to sow and
to harvest if we want to eat. We have to "plough
through" in order to "earn our daily bread."
Even as late as the 18th century the physiocrats still
considered agriculture to be the only productive work.
The tradesman did not perform productive work but rather
"hired" work, since he depended on surpluses
supplied by the primary work carried out by the farmer.
The problem is, according to this definition not even
three percent of Europeans today are doing productive
work! Although the majority of the earth’s inhabitants
are still occupied with agriculture, this line of work
has sunk beneath the horizon of the market society.
The dominant production model has long since detached
itself from the cultivation of the earth for food. Even
if you don’t plough your acre, you can still harvest
your frozen pizza and catch the chicken flu.
With the general spread of manufacturing and the political
economy, the concept of production was extended to cover
all tasks related to the "natural metabolism."
Whatever that is actually supposed to mean is wide open
to interpretation. After all, dropping an atom bomb
is also a powerful metabolic exchange with nature. And
it’s not only in this extreme case that the question
arises of whether it might be appropriate to replace
the word "production" with "destruction"
instead – in order, for example, to be able to speak
of a fundamental contradiction between destructive forces
and the means of destruction. It is easy to forget that
the unlimited reproducibility of goods is based on the
outright looting of non-renewable resources. Nonetheless,
a consensus prevailed for two hundred years: production
encompassed all fabricated commodities and thus stood
as the fixed and uncontestable center of society.
Today, the production of goods, just like agriculture,
has disappeared into the invisible hells of Asia and
South America. The western intelligentsia rejoices in
having done away with the working class. At the same
time, in Shanghai alone over two billion pairs of shoes
are being manufactured each year. Should we take this
to mean that the inhabitants of the centers of capitalism
are now freed from productive work? No, because a third
production model has been invented for them: "immaterial"
production. Not a trace remains anymore of the natural
metabolism – unless one conceives of neurons and bytes
as part of nature. And yet, just as the transformation
of gold coins into electronic funds did not touch the
true nature of money, dematerialization has changed
nothing of the compulsive character of work – even the
element of bodily exertion remains.
As Slavoj Zizek remarked, it’s not so much objects that
are being marketed here, but rather prefabricated phases
of life. I buy my physical activity at the gym, my need
to express myself from my psychotherapist, my access
to information through the Internet, my image in prestigious
clubs and restaurants. That which is produced in this
sector – i.e. both reproduced and modified – are clearly
the social conditions themselves. The individual products
and services are mere milestones marking a uniform life
pathway, signs of belonging to a universal market. This
is why the willingness of each person to equate his
own life with the constant flow of goods is of such
central significance. If this identification with the
logic of the market were to be broken, then the productive
straightjacket would be drained of its entire legitimation.
Anticapitalism begins directly with the question: Do
I really want to live this way? And what am I willing
to sacrifice for it?
Addiction and breaking the habit
The "strange delusion" against which Paul Lafargue
launched a polemical attack in the first lines of his
*The Right to Be Lazy*: "the love of work, the
furious passion for work," is today a scientifically
proven fact. There’s no denying anymore that he was
a visionary, even more so than even he himself was aware.
Workaholism is now recognized by mainstream medicine,
if only because it gives rise to higher and higher costs
each year. It is an addiction that is also acknowledged
by those affected. In 32 cities throughout Germany,
local "Workaholics Anonymous" groups hold
regular meetings. These were studied in depth by Bremen
socio-economist Holger Heide. Over the course of twenty
years Heide analyzed the destructive effects of overwork,
until he came to the conclusion that the blame could
not be placed only on exterior coercion. There is a
relationship between financial and social pressure and
an "inner compulsion," an inner irresistibility.
There are many people who are "successful"
in the business sense but still seem to be constantly
frustrated, embittered and exhausted. The times when
Lafargue could attribute to the bourgeoisie "unbounded
luxury, spicy indigestibles and syphilitic debauches"
are long over. Only Hollywood stars can still afford
such pleasures these days. Instead, it’s the abstract
character of wealth to which the business elite becomes
addicted. You eventually have your fill of caviar and
womanizing, but never, ever of stocks and Swiss bank
Of course, there are much greater numbers of people whose
careers are not so successful and for whom work is linked
exclusively with fear. Fear of their boss’s demands,
of mobbing by their colleagues (workaholics are apparently
the most asocial people there are), of their own failure
to achieve, of a possible dismissal, yes, even fear
of fear itself. And they try to escape from this unbearable
reality through work, of all things. According to Heide,
they succumb to a kind of "overexploitation of
their own life energy."
And finally there are those who have been kicked out
of the working world, and have fallen into a deep hole.
Their whole lives once revolved around work, and now,
either unemployed or retired, they have no idea what
to do with themselves. They feel superfluous. Time,
which they now have plenty of, mutates into hour after
hour of agonizing boredom. On top of it all, the message
they keep hearing again and again is that what they
really need is a job. Yes, all they need is work – just
like a junkie needs heroin! And yet no one puts on demonstrations
demanding "Heroin for everyone!"
Recently Oskar Negt remarked: "Half of the population
is working themselves to death, while the other half
is bored to death." In other words: the first half
needs an ever-increasing dose of the drug work to keep
pace with their addiction, while the second half is
suffering from withdrawal symptoms. They are two sides
of the same coin. And we won’t make any progress if
we demand that everyone should get the same dose, ideally
accompanied by an ecological replacement therapy.
Are we over-generalizing here about a mere marginal phenomenon?
How many workaholics are out there anyway? This question
– and here’s the crux -- cannot be answered. And the
reason is because workaholism does not represent a disturbance
in the economic landscape, but rather the normal state
of things, at least as long as the addicted are still
able to work. They only impinge on our consciousness
when their case becomes pathologically acute, i.e. when
they are forced to call in sick. Much more attention
is paid instead to the non-addicted or less addicted,
who are decried as idlers, layabouts and freeloaders.
What relationship do the phenomena of addiction have
to labor and market processes? This is the where the
psychological converges with the sociopolitical plane.
I again quote Heide: "The capitalist system not
only fosters addiction, it 'lives' from addiction, and
it is essentially a system of addiction. Capitalism
as a system of addiction generates and reproduces neediness
and does this without limit, because boundlessness is
the essence of capitalism." Work in capitalism
knows no end, no Thanksgiving. Constantly and at an
ever-increasing pace, new products must be put on the
market, regardless of whether they are actually useful
or better than those that already exist. The only function
is the multiplication of capital. Achieving this end,
so vital for capital users, requires an increasingly
intensified mobilization of human resources. But this
cannot be achieved through sheer exterior force; the
boundless neediness must also be internalized by those
who are doing the work. Addictive behavior is thus promoted
Naturally, all of the new products flooding the market
must not only be marketed, but also sold. Here is where
the wage earner’s neurotic search for compensation comes
in again, this time in the form of addiction to consumption.
We all know the vicious circle: "Why am I earning
money, if not to be able to afford to buy myself a new
digital camera, vacation home and racehorse? How can
I work less? I have to pay off my digital camera, vacation
home and racehorse!"
One of the main features of addiction is insatiability.
In order to achieve the same high with greater frequency,
the dose must be continually increased. When we’re ravenous
for something, all the well-meant diet tips or culinary
pleasures in the world can’t help us, so long as we
are unaware of our addiction. There is never a fixed
level that spells satisfaction. What the society of
work actually creates is deficiency.
Once we have comprehended the prevailing conditions as
an every-spiraling cycle of addiction, we realize that
the battle against this situation must be fought not
only on the economic and political planes, but also
psychologically and culturally. This, incidentally,
is something the dealers in the drug of work know all
too well, as they try through costly motivational strategies
to secure the loyalty of the work junkies. We’re willing
to wager that they won’t succeed.
Fallow land as spatial metaphor
Where a center emerges, a periphery is also created.
As traffic in goods intensifies in the shopping malls,
the surrounding area becomes fallow land. Formerly busy
streets lie deserted and desolate. But as soon as one
turns away from the blinding light of commerce, one
can discern quite a bit in this seeming nothingness.
The free space describes the possibility of that which
is missing in relation to reality. Empty storefronts
and industrial ruins are both evidence of the past and
omens of something that’s beyond the market. They are
often converted for purposes not quite clear by so-called
interim users. Rooms thus temporarily freed from the
claws of their market value gain a kind of aesthetic
ambivalence. Against a backdrop of minimalist decor
there develops an inscrutable sociotope, which harbors
much more diversity than does the predictable monotony
of the flow of goods.
Land lying fallow is not only an intermediary space,
but first and foremost an intermediary time. Originally
fallow land referred to "land at rest in the crop
rotation system." Seen in this light, fallow land
is also a spatial metaphor for the new working world.
Concentrated nodes of intensive exploitation leave more
and more people lying fallow. The re-establishment of
full employment is just as realistic or desirable as
the notion that all empty houses could be converted
into shopping centers. We know, however, that fallow
land requires a certain amount of protection against
overexploitation and monoculture. If this is neglected,
then a hard crust forms on the surface and the soil
quality diminishes. The necessity of letting a field
grow wild for a time corresponds to the need to be able
to think and act beyond the constraints of the market.
Allowance must be made for moments to breathe deeply,
for stillness and aimlessness, both in our personal
biographies and in the urban organization. This paradox
was already pointed out by Georges Bataille: that useless
also has its uses. Periphery and center depend on one’s
point of view. If the periphery sees itself as the main
setting for possibilities, then it stops being peripheral.
There are more things on heaven and earth than all the
supermarkets in the world will ever offer.
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida
Open House. Kunst und Öffentlichkeit
/ Art and the Public Sphere,
o.k books 3/04, Wien, Bozen: Folio 2004]