File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0106, message 8

Date: Sun, 03 Jun 2001 12:15:32 -0500
Subject: Re: [Fwd: Weeping in a Rolls-Royce]

Steve and all

	I'd rather be driving in a stolen Rolls Royce
	Powered by untaxed liquor from Satan's still
	On the lam from the interplanetary work machine

Are we working more today and enjoying it less?  
Have things gotten better or worse?
Is a women beeped from work at a mall on the job or not?  
Is a man shopping at a mall on the job because he is being a good,
dutiful consumer?  
Are children in kindergarten on the job?

These are only a few of the questions the subject of work raises.

These questions are difficult to answer because they cannot be answered
in empirical ways for the simple reason that work is no longer simply
measured by the clock, but has become more seamless and pervasive
throughout the culture?  There are also the implicit questions of who,
what, where and when. So, rather than directly answer your question, I
merely want to provide some very generalized historical context.

I am struck by a reading of history for the period of the last fifty
years (and Steve, I apologize in advance for its American slant) that
sees it as composed of (very loosely speaking) two social contracts.

The first emerged during the Post-World War II era, as a response to the
crisis that had been brought about by economic failure and the rise of
Fascism and Nazism in Europe which was in turn a response to this crisis
and which the war itself had merely put on hold, but not fully resolved.

In America, national legislation was passed that tended to constrain the
right of labor to organize itself in more radical ways, but, in
exchange, management acceded to certain demands of labor for higher
wages, more vacation time, shorter work weeks and greater benefits such
as insurance and pension. 

There was also recognition of the value of education in promoting the
new society and social investments were made in education, such as the
GI loan and funding for colleges that made their tuition more

This led in the fifties to the emergence to a more expansive
middle-class.  Social critics of the time talked of a diamond shaped
society as opposed to the more traditional social pyramid.

However, this contract came at a price.  Women were seen by and large as
unpaid workers; housewives who needed to maintain workers by providing
them with a home as well as being given the task of reproducing future
workers.  African-Americans and Hispanics by and large were not included
in the contract.  They continued to work in the underbelly of the
American dream.  Youth were forced to remain in school for a longer
period and faced the paradox of being biologically adults who were now
dominated by the passive roles of an extended and enforced childhood.

Thus, the sixties brought the rupture of the contract as those who were
excluded began the assert their autonomy - the civil rights movement,
black power movement, free speech movement, student rights movement, the
protest over Vietnam and the rise of feminism and the women's movement. 
Their demands for inclusion and refusal of authority tested the limits
of capital's hegemony.  Unchecked, their forces threatened social,
political and economic revolution.

Thus, in the early seventies the foundations for a new social contract
were laid. A number of factors emerged to make it possible.  First, the
oil crisis created upheaval and the rise of "stagflation".  Next,
animosities emerged between men and women, whites and black, workers and
students etc. that allowed these groups to be co-opted against one
another.  Finally, space-time compression made a global market fueled by
cheap labor a realistic possibility.

This led in the eighties and nineties to a new social contract, one that
has been termed Neo-Liberalism, the New Enclosures and various other

Here, the role of the state is strengthened in its militaristic and
policing aspects in order to become more effective at social and
economic domination.  Social programs such as those in education,
health, welfare and the environment are greatly curtailed and now seen
increasingly as matters of private consumption.  Through the IMF and
other financial institutions, these standards have been imposed in turn
upon developing nations in order to receive loans and economic

The curious paradox of this emerging situation is that many people do
extremely well, (knowledge workers, senior management, celebrities, the
ruling class of small nations and the assorted pimps and whores who have
pandered themselves around these economic elites) but at the cost of
moving the world towards greater division and greater hardship for those
others who cannot crash the party.

The specter that emerges from this is that of a new social contract in
which a certain standard is maintained so that politically enforced
poverty is no longer perpetuated in order to maintain elite privilege. 
The job economy as the pious and sacred means of economic legitimization
would then be eliminated.  Instead work could be radically reduced and
concrete freedom could become an actuality.  The demands of a job need
no longer define one's existence. The fetishism of commodification
(which perversely mirrors the job economy) would also be undone as a
result of the same process.

That seems to be the real question.  Not whether I work less today than
my dad, but whether enough people can join together to resist this
imposition of work as a form of social and economic domination and
create a social and political movement that will make manifest what in
the sixties was only a vague promise, an opium pipe dream. 

In order to accomplish this feat, the Protestant work ethic would need
to be replaced by a new ethic, a new social contract, one for which
Michel Serres among others has eloquently argued.  Perhaps, it would
also require a new religious understanding such as that provided by the
Epicurean ideal of ataraxia. (but that is a topic for another time.)


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