Digital Taylorism: Labour Between Passion & Serendipity
Attack of the Big Yawn
In his fascinating historical study of the rise of happiness to the highly valued commodity it has become in our time, the British sociologist William Davies offers a brief yet intriguing meditation on the end of capitalism. In the past, he says, the collapse of our current mode of production has usually been imagined to occur as the result of economic crisis, political revolution, ecological disaster, or, in the best of cases, through technological innovation. However, since the end of the cold war, Davies muses, there seems to be another, “more lacklustre” option on the horizon:
What if the greatest threat to capitalism, at least in the liberal West, is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity? What if, rather than inciting violence or explicit refusal, contemporary capitalism is simply met with a yawn?
Williams’ remarks are far less tongue-in-cheek than they may appear. There is indeed a rather telling sign of – if we were to put it in Marxist terms – capital’s lack of motivational pull with regard to labour that over the last two decades has developed into a management obsession: the theory and practice of “employee engagement”. Gallup started measuring employee engagement in the Eighties, its popularity as an indicator of the ‘health’ of a company surged in the 1990s, and today there is a plethora of refined engagement surveys and training programs available from dozens of providers. While the popularity of employee engagement is in itself suggestive of a motivational problem among the workforce – why else would one want to measure engagement? – the actual numbers these surveys regularly produce are truly disheartening for the managerial class. Gallup’s last Global Workplace Report of 142 countries has found that only 13% of employees are properly “engaged”, with those “actively disengaged” among the European and North American workforce figuring around 24%. Often, though, it’s not just the ubiquitous ‘yawn’ ruling our corporate and public offices that is the problem. Stress-related illnesses, burnout, and similar work-induced forms of psychological and physical paralysis have joined forces to become the 21st century workspace epidemic throughout the developed world. In this sense, lack of enthusiasm or activity indeed presents a formidable challenge to our economic order, in spite of the cynical strategy to commercialise the collective disengagement by repackaging it as independent symptoms of individual psychological pathology.
What interests me in the anti-capitalist attack of the collective yawn and its pathological companions – beautifully captured by the philosopher Byung-Chul Han in the notion of the “fatigue society” (Müdigkeitsgesellschaft) – is that it can help us to come to terms with some of the current transformations in our understanding of labour as productive activity. In this chapter, I would like to concentrate on two developments that can be seen as attempts to respond to the challenge of the big yawn: on the one hand, the quasi-eroticisation of labour articulated in the notion of passionate work, and, on the other hand, the mobilisation of the social dimension of labour expressed in the celebration of entrepreneurial serendipity.
The Passion of the Work
While the fateful alliance between passion and labour had been anticipated by a number of visionary sociologists around the turn of the century, it is only recently that work is almost everywhere turning into a passionate project. Over the past few years, passion has become a basic requirement for employees of all stripes. Regardless of the mundane nature of the job at hand, today it is almost impossible to get anywhere near work without the invocation of one’s passion for it.
As with so many of the ideological tropes discussed in this book, the connection of work and passion makes quite a bit of intuitive sense. What could be wrong with ‘loving what you’re doing’? If employees and entrepreneurs could be truly passionate about their work, it would turn their daily toil into a much more fun and fulfilling activity. Employers and clients, on the other hand, would profit from increased productivity and generally from a better job being done. Take, for example, one of the more authoritative publications on the topic, The Power of Pull, written by business consultants and management scholars John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison. Under the heading “Make Your Passion Your Profession” they inform their readership about the new logic of passionate work:
Those of us who continue to toil at jobs we don’t love will find ourselves nonetheless toiling harder as our competition continues to intensify. We’ll find it increasingly difficult to cope with the mounting stress or to put in the effort required to raise our performance. We need to marry our passions with our professions in order to reach our potential… Passion in this context refers to a sustained and deep commitment to achieving our full potential and greater capacity for self-expression in a domain that engages us on a personal level. We often develop and explore our passions in areas such as sports or the arts outside of work, but we rarely integrate our passions with our professions.
The funny thing about the logic of the argument here – and this really is a staple of the management ideology of passionate work – is that the necessity of throwing yourself passionately into the game is sold to the reader as a result of everyone being just about to do it. Maybe not today but certainly tomorrow, there will be so much passion going on in corporate and public organisations that competition becomes a question of being even more passionate than everyone else. Stress, lack of performance and cynicism are caused by insufficient alignment of one’s passion to one’s work. Hence, the suggested solution: get aligned, fall in love with your work already; passion is the key ingredient to professional success. While this makes for a fascinating story, it is exactly the opposite of what a dispassionate view of reality (a.k.a. empirical data) suggests. The wave of passion that supposedly is just about to sweep through contemporary capitalism shows neither in employee engagement surveys nor in health statistics, business indicators, or macro-economic data. Nor, in fact, does it show in the great product and service innovations that surely would be the outcome of a passion-driven economy. No, the reason why passionate work has emerged as one of the great ideologies of our time is the fact that the big yawn is becoming deafening, that the neoliberal mutation of capitalism has turned the economy into a self-sabotaging system, systematically destroying its most important source of value: labour.
In order to make sense of the rise of passion to a workplace requirement within corporate and public organisations, it helps to first consider an interesting historical coincidence. The emergence of debates around employee (dis-)engagement was contemporaneous with the beginning of the systematic digitisation and automation of the workplace. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, a new breed of professional service providers revolutionised the management consulting sector. What they offered had very little to do with traditional board level advice. Rather, they were selling large scale IT-systems able to automate management processes throughout the entire organisation. The first wave of digitisation and automation of business came for the most part with the label of reengineering. The grandiose claims with which reengineering firms pushed their way into corporate and public boardrooms have largely been erased from managerial memory. Suffice to say that alongside predictions of increased efficiency and massively lowered costs came the promise of a workforce liberated from repetitive bureaucratic chore. Reengineering the organisation was supposed to lead to the creation of professional environments in which creativity was finally allowed to thrive.
This, of course, is not what happened. The former Financial Times correspondent Simon Head is one of the few scholars who have systematically traced the automation of the workplace from the reengineering wave of the Eighties to the current almost universal use of so-called Computer Business Systems (CBSs; previously known as Enterprise Systems [ES] or Enterprise Resource and Planning Systems [EPS]). His reports from the battlefield of digital armament for the sake of creatively liberated workforces paint a picture of the contemporary workplace all too familiar to many of us who spend their lives within corporate and public organisations. According to Head, digitisation and automation have spread the logic of industrialism far beyond their conventional jurisdiction: to wholesale and retail, financial services, higher education, health care, public administration, and corporate management. In addition, they have also introduced the neo-disciplines of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Human Resource Management (HRM).
What’s going on here has nothing to do with the future visions of digital machines working merrily side by side with humans. The computer systems that have been implemented throughout the economy form the technological backbone of a massive neo-bureaucratisation of corporate and public organisations. In order for the digital industrialisation of the workplace to function across different sectors, a veritable army of techno-bureaucrats has invaded corporate and public institutions whose mere task is the streamlining of employee behaviour according to the requirements of algorithmic performance indicators and the like. And it is not just the infamous call centres and Amazon warehouses we are talking about here. Highly trained professionals such as doctors and professors have been pressed into preformatted work processes, effectively losing the sovereignty over their own crafts(wo)manship, expertise and knowledge. There is a systematic annihilation of professional creativity at work here, nullifying, as Head puts it, “the employee’s accumulated skill, knowledge and experience which, applied to the daily problems of the workplace, enable employees to do their jobs well”.
Faking It: Passion as Simulation
The reason why this is crucial for the present discussion is that the massive destruction of professional skill and quality by the logic of office automation was accompanied by the emergence of a new kind of competence. Arlie Hochschild famously began to describe this development in the Eighties in terms of the appearance of what she called “emotional labour”. In her pioneering study of flight attendants, The Managed Heart, Hochschild defined emotional labour as requiring the employee “to induce or supress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others”. It is obvious that thirty years ago, flight attendants’ requirement to serve with a smile didn’t have much to do with automation. And also today, emotional labour is not necessary directly related to CBSs and the like although it can be if we think of the emotional stress caused by counterproductive office IT-systems. The point where digital office automation and emotional labour intersect is that of simulation. CBSs and their administrators are not for one bit interested in the inherent professional value of performance simply because they have not got the means to understand what this would actually be. They simulate performance by way of algorithmic indicators and matrices whose abstract universality – the fact that they need to be applicable across diverse sectors in order to be economically viable – ensures their radical decoupling from the particular professional reality (epitomised, perhaps, by the infamous star ratings for hospitals, universities and so on).
The flipside of this kind of performance simulation can be found in the rise emotional labour, and indeed, passion. For HRM-professionals, emotional labour is not the ‘labour of care’ that comes with a specific professional territory – think, for instance of physicians and nurses – but the universal mobilisation of individual sources of empathy and enthusiasm for the most profane ends. The creation of experience as a service is an important reference here, albeit in a much more skewed sense than was intended by the gurus of the experience economy, Joe Pine and James Gilmore. In an economy where the most exciting new consumer products are digitally pimped wristwatches (first developed almost fifty years ago) and cars that actually rob you of the experience of driving, experience is something that increasingly has to be provided as a product or service veneer by the employee. The logic of the emotional template that is spreading throughout corporate and public management culture by way of HRM has been famously captured by Mike Judge’s 1999 movie Office Space. In the film, Joanna works as a waitress in a fast food chain called Chotchkie’s. An integral part of her work there is to wear idiotic buttons with slogans and symbols on them. They are referred to as “flair”. At a certain point in the film, Stan, Chotchkie’s manager and Joanna’s boss, takes her aside in order to express his dissatisfaction with the way she’s handling her “flair”:
Stan: We need to talk about your flair.
Joanna: Really? I… I have fifteen pieces on. I, also…
Stan: Well, okay. Fifteen is the minimum, OK?
Stan: Now, you know it’s up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum. Or… well, like Brian, for example, has thirty-seven pieces of flair, okay. And a terrific smile.
Joanna: OK. So you… you want me to wear more?
Stan: Look. Joanna.
Stan: People can get a cheeseburger anywhere, okay? They come to Chotchkie’s for the atmosphere and the attitude. OK? That’s what the flair’s about. It’s about fun.
Joanna: Yeah. OK. So more then, yeah?
Stan: Look, we want you to express yourself, okay? Now if you feel that the bare minimum is enough, then okay. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, OK? You do want to express yourself, don’t you?
Joanna: Yeah, yeah.
Stan: OK. Great. Great. That’s all I ask.
In 1999 the scathing humour of the Judge’s film was somewhat lost in the peak of the dotcom boom, but a few years later it became a commercial success on the small screen (VHS and DVD sales) as a cult comment on the corporate re-entrenchment of the post-crash years. Today, it serves as a reminder that the idiocy expressed in the notion of “flair” has become almost universal workplace policy. In the contemporary workplace, flair in its many disguises has been integrated in the strange virtuosity of emotional labour. This goes for all layers of management, save the highest, as well. Those of us who are lucky enough to be uninitiated into the circuits of managerial emotional labour can begin to bring themselves up to speed on the issue through the work of the young German director Carmen Losmann. In her brilliant 2011 documentary Work Hard, Play Hard, Losmann follows a number of so-called change management trajectories in German corporations. In one of the sequences, the viewer witnesses a series of assessment interviews for potential junior managers who are confronted with the most insipid questions about their emotional ‘leadership qualities’. Interestingly, the candidates who do well in the interviews are those who respond by shooting back the prefab-slogans found on the pages of contemporary management and coaching literature. One gets the impression that what unfolds in front of one’s eyes is a grand simulation, a mutual game of Munchausen, where everyone knows that this is essentially nonsense but equally knows that as an employee – regardless whether shop floor or management – one simply has to show the readiness to go the emotional extra mile. What makes this viewing experience so excruciating is the effortlessness with which the camera is able to reveal the absurdity of the change trajectories followed by Losmann’s documentary. We are observers of an exercise in pointless emotional gymnastics motivated by the illusion that this will somehow vitalise corporate culture. The flair of the burger waitress returns, this time packaged in an HRM-fabricated company culture that in its ideological wackiness is easily on par with the obligatory party-gibberish that pervaded the Kombinate (state-owned corporations) of real existing socialism.
The obvious difference to the time of the politburo is that today, there is no central authority determining and emitting the correct world-view and watching over its implementation. Proud to be ideology-free, the neoliberal state has outsourced its ideological function – at least when it comes to labour – to the consulting industry. This is not meant as a rhetorical pun at all. If one looks at the process by which the consulting industry rose to its current dimensions, one cannot escape the realisation that it is heavily invested in the rise of neoliberal politics. The shrinking of state bureaucracy that started in the 1980s coincided with the expansion of the consulting sector that stepped in to provide the services previously run by the state itself. The reason why this worked quite beautifully was that at the same time the consulting industry underwent quite a drastic transformation – from traditional board level advice to the provision of in- or outsourced IT-systems covering the entire business process. Governments – particularly in the UK and the US – were among the first clients, providing an industry in transformation a field of large-scale experimentation by handing out consulting contracts of unprecedented financial value. The governments’ benefit for subsidising and in fact growing the consulting industry was that they got the argument of technological progress to support their own ideological agenda. In other words, both the massive growth of the consulting industry in the 1980s and 1990s and the history of office digitisation and automation are intimately linked to the rise of neoliberalism.
Of course, the consulting sector is a notoriously secretive industry so much of its machinations – including the often catastrophic failures of the 1980s and 1990s IT-contracts – remain largely in the dark. It is thanks to another German documentary maker that we are able to look behind the screens of today’s distributed production of ideology. In Ein neues Produkt, Harun Farocki follows the directors of the Quickborner Team, a Hamburg consulting firm that was once famous for the invention of the Bürolandschaft. Today, they design corporate environments for the so-called ‘new way of working’, which is a big theme for corporations. In the ‘new way of working’, the digital automation of work processes discussed above meets the appropriation of cultural practices that independent creative producers have experimented with over the last decade or so in order to update the industrial configurations of corporate work space.
With his characteristically calm and discreet concentration, Farocki films the strategy workshops and client meetings of the Quickborner Team, capturing the semiotic dynamics at work in the development of radically innovative workplace cultures. The consultants develop the cultural tapestry for office architectures that are supposed to make employees faster, smarter, more effective and so on. The goal is flexible workspaces able to facilitate more self-determined, independent employees who, through all kinds of serendipitous interaction, contribute to the innovative capability of the company. Nothing wrong with this, let’s make these environments less depressing and more interactive, if people become more productive and innovative in the process because the new environments cater more appropriately to their professional needs, that’s fine as well. Yet, what the semiotic dynamics of the meetings portrayed by Farocki reveal goes in a rather different direction. It transpires quickly that the protagonists of the film have very limited interest in understanding the needs of the ‘modern employee’. The purpose of these workshops and client meetings appears to be limited to the generation of a vocabulary able to catch a managerial zeitgeist that is totally unencumbered by any substantial reflection on what flexibility, collaboration, or, indeed, self-determination might entail from an employee’s point of view. Instead, the Quickborner space-gurus combine design thinking fragments, systems theory sound bites and kitchen psychology in order to produce a rhetorical vacuum that is supposed to fill their clients’ workspace with what John Hagel and his colleagues call the “power of pull”, attracting the passion of the employee. “It’s emotionality where we can score with our clients”, one of the directors of the Quickborner Team says at a decisive moment in the film, and, as silly as this may sound, he is spot on. The general ideological task of these consultants is to find the passionate antidote to the big yawn his peers have caused by implementing digital managerial industrialism.
Abstract Passion, Concrete Bullshit
It is obvious that nothing of this kind will ever be achieved by simply encouraging the workforce to ‘fake it’. Interventions by culture consultants of the above kind are not just economically nonsensical but counterproductive. For companies that understand themselves as economic entities existing for the purpose of creating products and services that people need, they have no value whatsoever. They do, however, make perfect sense for corporations whose purpose is first and foremost to cater to the interests of financial markets. This might sound slightly vulgar (“Oh, they just want to make money!”), but it is in fact a vital distinction. One of the main reasons for the absence of exciting innovation today – increasingly even at the level of technology – has to do with what economists call “the financialisation of the economy”, i.e., the fact that economic performance is increasingly measured on financial return on investment (shareholders, etc.) rather than on successful products and services. Clayton Christensen, perhaps the most influential management and innovation guru of our time, denounces this tendency in Harvard Business Review as “The Capitalist’s Dilemma”. Where real economic output becomes secondary, it gets difficult to form a company culture based on the collective pride of being part of an organisation that makes great stuff. Hence the false belief in the snake oil salesmen who claim to be able to create your company/product/ service culture based on hot air.
This innovation predicament is related to the neoliberal transformation of capitalism understood as the streamlining of economic production according to the needs of financial capital. The flexibility inherent to financial capital has to be reproduced at the level of the employment relation. And this is exactly the reason for the shift from professional skill to emotion and affect: the abstract liquidity of financial capital requires a corresponding liquidation of professional skill into the desires and emotional dispositions of the workforce. Today’s intensified competition and chronic market instability have at least as much to do with financialisation as they do with the transformative power of digital technology. Think, for instance, of the way in which the so-called sharing economy is organised. Many of the platform business models we find there are able to disrupt existing markets in spite of being economically dysfunctional. They can do this because they are highly subsidised by financial speculators whose treasure chambers are filled with capital that can’t find economically sensible investment. Financial abstraction thus leads to pseudo-economic (yet very lucrative) investment games, erratic markets environments, and the need for hyperflexible employees for whom the emotional labour of passion replaces professional skill.
In such an economic environment, one can expect to find an organisational landscape that is increasingly unprepared to treat its employees like grownup professionals. There is clear evidence that working conditions have been deteriorating for years across a wide range of industries – particularly in the US and the UK. This list, provided by Simon Head, is quite comprehensive:
[They] include increased working hours for individuals and family units; increased inequality of income and stagnant or declining real wages for a majority of the workforce; the break in the historical relationship between profits, productivity and real wage growth; loss of retirement income and shifts in the pension risk to employees, declining health care coverage and shifts of cost to employees; loss of employee voice at work as labour-movement members decline to pre-1930 levels; and increased layoffs not as a last resort but as a routine aspect of corporate restructuring. To the list should be added the increased pace of work dictated by CBSs, its intensive targeting and monitoring by ‘performance evaluation’ systems, and its deskilling of employees with expert systems.
Now this is not a list cooked up by some lefty curmudgeon whose only pleasure is to critique ‘the system’. It’s simply a reading of mainstream statistical data on labour. Thomas Piketty, of course, wrote a bestseller based on this data, it is there for anyone who reads the newspapers, mainstream economists discuss it frequently, and anyway, we also experience these conditions on a daily basis. True, in some parts of continental Europe things are considerably less bad than elsewhere, but the tendency is a global one: there is a systematic assault on employees’ ability to simply do a good job. If we correlate this development with the equally systematic requirement of employees to provide not just services but great experiences vis-à-vis clients and customers, a blatant contradiction comes into view. Actually, it’s a double contradiction: underwhelming products and services and deteriorating work conditions are supposed to be balanced out by the employees’ emotional labour. Time and again, they try to achieve this Sisyphean task by reaching deep into the magic box of affective human integrity in order to mobilise their emotional and communicative faculties. And if one is particularly unlucky, then one might find that all this affective energy is going into what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”, i.e., the growing number of pseudo-professional activities that do not make a sensible contribution to society by any stretch of the imagination. No wonder everyone is yawning. Welcome to the fatigue society!
Exodus into Serendipity?
Given the inhospitality of office environments corporate and public, it is not very surprising that an increasing number of professionals opt out of the institutional context in order to become entrepreneurs on their own account. One form of entrepreneurial exodus, already discussed in Chapter 1, is the so-called coworking movement. When the first proper coworking spaces popped up in San Francisco, New York, Berlin and London in the early years of the new Millennium, they were born out of frustration with the confined office environment and reflected the growth of an increasingly independent workforce trying to turn their economic precarity into a neo-Bohemian entrepreneurialism. Instead of the prefabricated passion of the big organisation, they were trying to get truly passionate about their profession by becoming entrepreneurs.
From the start, serendipity was an important reference for the coworking multitude: coworking spaces needed to provide their users with an environment offering a high probability of serendipitous encounters as a way of compensating for the freelancers’ lack of organisational support structure. The groups and communities spurring the first generation coworking spaces intended to generate imperfect yet more exciting replacements for the conventional organisation. They were supposed to generate ideas and opportunities for business, but also had a political ambition in the sense of strengthening the position of the precarious entrepreneur, vis-à-vis potential clients, through an exchange of knowledge and skills and a general practice of mutual generosity. It is easy, too easy perhaps, to dismiss the alter-entrepreneurial euphoria of the early Millennium as a pale copy of the Californian Ideology that is now holding the start-up scene firmly in its grip. It is certainly true that the West Coast form of expression, with its endemic combination of infantile pathos and cliché, was an early visitor to the coworking community as well. Yet, underneath the silly awesomeness of everything, there was indeed awareness that it wasn’t all fun and games. One of the key concerns of the early coworking movement was to help prevent the multitude of independent producers from sinking into what Byung-Chul Han calls the “solitude” of self-exploiting neoliberal subjects. Here, serendipity, i.e., the accidental sagacity that emerges when people with different minds and skill sets encounter each other, was really part and parcel of the story. It turned these coworking spaces into third spaces that seemed to enable an ambivalent kind of social innovation: one that was necessary for the functioning of neoliberal capitalism but also had the ambition of going beyond it. One of the ‘values’ the early coworkers were passionate about was ‘community’, and back then this meant something more than the marketing catchphrase it has become of late. The coworking movement – or at least a substantial part of it – really thought it was possible to rewrite the rules of the neoliberal economy.
Today, coworking as a politically, culturally and even economically innovative phenomenon is all but history. The formidable spread of flex-work spaces around the globe is driven by motivations radically different from those of the early activists. Coworking has mutated into the massive provision of infrastructure for start-up entrepreneurs, independent professionals and freelancers and as such, it has become big business. Operations, such as the New York based start-up WeWork, are bent on turning the coworking model into a real estate version of the platform business model (see Chapter 6). Its aggressive global expansion is based on an incredible market valuation of US$10 Billion. While the rhetoric of ‘community’ and ‘values’ persists as marketing strategy toward the growing client-base of independent workers and entrepreneurs in need of affordable workspace, its practical articulation has been taken over by professional hosts and community managers. There is, of course, nothing wrong per se with such a professionalisation of coworking. People still need affordable workspace and flex-workspaces tend to provide exactly that. Sure, in the hands of the likes of WeWork, Regus, Liquid Spaces or indeed Marriott, coworking has lost its utopian impetus. However, if this would be all there was to it, one might bemoan it as a lost opportunity for the much-vaunted ‘change’, or simply write it off as the usual course of a fringe phenomenon maturing into business, and losing its more exciting, socially progressive elements along the way.
Yet, something is happening to the coworking movement that is rather unsettling. Driven by the managerial hype around serendipity – i.e., the realisation that in order to fully mobilise the workforce, individual passion needs to be complemented by the generative and, hopefully, innovative effects of social promiscuity – a growing number of smart organisation consultants have discovered coworking as a template upon which they can market their services to corporations as the new generation of change management. Again, nothing would be wrong in trying to inject the treadmill of the office with some of the serendipitous energy one sometimes encounters in coworking spaces. In fact, one would welcome this effort if it was intended as a way of humanising the corporate workspace. However, one of the obvious problems here is that coworking culture – or whatever is left of the libertarian spirit of the early digital bohemians – is very hard to decree into being in a corporate context. What is distressing about the most recent wave of coworking-inspired office reform is that its proponents seem to have something in mind that goes way beyond the superficial change gymnastics highlighted in the work of Losmann and Farocki…
In the middle of the night the telephone rang. Lior Tirosh picked up the phone and a voice said, “Run.”
Tirosh stared blearily at the ceiling. A black cloud of mould had spread gradually over one corner of the room. It had began as a mere speck of dirt, some long while back, but now it had extruded aggressively outwards, had colonised and settled and stayed. The last time he’d spoken to his landlord, Yossi, the man had told him to use hot soapy water to gently wash off the mould. But Tirosh never did. In many ways he was a lazy man, not given to undue intervention in the little injustices of life. It was easier to let the mould grow than to try and combat its spread, knowing that anyway it would just come back, that one day, whatever he did, the mould would grow to cover the entire flat and, later, extrude farther, until first the city and then the entire Syrian-African Rift Valley would come under its sway. In such a world, Tirosh thought, still, perhaps, in that uncanny valley between wakefulness and dream (for he was usually a deep, if late, sleeper), the mould would eventually develop intelligence, and with it a sort of symbiotic relationship with the humans, whom it would enslave. In such a world (now so vivid in Tirosh’s mind that, for a moment, he all but forgot the strange telephone call he was in the midst of), a person would be marked from birth with the Black Sign of the fungus, perhaps on the forehead or – like the small round scar of a smallpox vaccine – on the arm, close to the shoulder. The Pax Fungi would then herald a never-before-seen era of peace and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond, until it extended across the entire planet. It would be a golden age never before seen in human history, and would – “Are you listening to me, Tirosh?” the voice demanded.
Outside, Tirosh could hear the creaking, halting sounds of a street sweeper as it crept along Hatkuma Street, which is to say, the Resurrection, right up to the intersection with Hatchiya, which is to say, Rebirth Street.
This was not out of the ordinary. Tirosh had first moved to Tel Aviv from the periphery. He had grown up on a kibbutz up north, a lonely child immersed in books for too long a time for his own benefit, like a Catholic child baptised forever in cold, if holy, water. Back then, he lived for a time in an apartment which sat on a confluence of streets all named for ancient pogroms. Blood libels and dead Jews haunted him on trips to the greengrocers and the local kiosk until, at last, he’d fled, past countless peeling Bauhaus contraptions that littered the sandy grounds of Tel Aviv like candy wrappers or empty, discarded packs of cigarettes, south to Jaffa.
“Who is this?” he said, sleepily.
“You have to leave,” the voice said. “They’re coming for you now.”
Tirosh sat up, suddenly awake.
“It is no longer safe for you there,” the voice said. “Go. Take nothing with you.”
“Not even poems?” Tirosh said.
“You don’t understand,” the voice said. “They are coming for all the poets.”
He – it was a man, with the slightly hoarse voice of a smoker – halted on the line. Behind him Tirosh heard the screeching of police sirens passing nearby, and a man shouting, and the sudden, startling sound of breaking glass.
“Run,” the voice said, again, and then the line died and took him with it.
Tirosh stared into the darkness. So it had come to this, he thought, chilled. He got up without turning on the lights. He dressed quickly, in dark jeans, and running shoes, and a faded, ancient T-shirt from the Witches concert at the Arad Festival in ’94, which was a year before the festival was shut down following the death of two girls and a boy, who were crushed to death in the crowd during a Mashina concert, and three years before the death of the Witches singer herself, Inbal Perlmuter, in a car accident. Tirosh had been mildly in love with Perlmuter at the time, though from a safe, platonic distance. Now he picked up the bag he had had waiting, prepared, by the bedside. It contained what little cash he had, a change of clothes, phone tokens, a copy of his first published collection of poetry, Remnants of God, and a copy of the single issue of the magazine he’d edited with Shimon Adaf, Echo, before Adaf was taken to one of the concentration camps they had built in the Galilee to house writers of the fantastic. He also packed three pens, a blank notebook, and the completed manuscript of the book he’d been working on for the past two and a half years, The Death of Hebrew Poetry.
When he peered out through the blinds he saw an unmarked car slide silently into a parking bay across the street and three men come out. They wore civilian clothes and moved swiftly and efficiently across the road, not hurrying, and he even thought he recognised one of them, a minor literary critic, or so he had styled himself back in the day, a mevaker, which could mean critic or visitor, and Tirosh would say, savagely, that the man was only a visitor to literature, not even that, someone who stood far away and looked out to literature and did not know it, like Moses at the summit of Mount Nevo, looking over the promised land which had been denied him. Now the man worked for the internal security service, the Shin-Bet, in their new Fourth Directorate. The other two men Tirosh did not know.
He left the flat and took the time to lock the door behind him. He used the back exit and, like a pencilled line of poetry on a scrap of paper, rubbed off yet still faintly visible, he slipped into the night.
In The Death of Hebrew Poetry, Tirosh makes several assertions that are now considered treason. In the manuscript, he asserts that the history of modern Israel is a fiction, “an elegantly wrought, collaborative narrative,” and calls it “a post-Holocaust novel in which the Nouveau Juif, nicknamed the Sabra as if he were a superhero who always keeps his mask on, is a liberator, the Thulian reincarnation of one of King David’s Gibborim, that is to say, heroes, brought forth to the present day.”
This literature, in what Tirosh identifies as a masterstroke of Hebrewized Newspeak, is adamantly referred to as Realist fiction by its collaborators, and its purpose is to negate the existence of a competing narrative called Palestine. It is for this reason, Tirosh argues, that so-called fantasy fiction never took hold in Hebrew. For if Realist fiction is fantastical, what use is fantasy?
And it is for this reason, indeed, that the first to go were, like Adaf, the fantasists. They were too suspect. Too out of touch with the ruling narrative. They worked alone and often in isolation, communicating with each other furtively, publishing in little magazines of no significance, to a small community of readers who saw in their writing nothing but mindless escapism. They were the first to go, Adaf and Keret and the others, to the new camps in the Galilee, but not Tirosh. Tirosh had always used a pseudonym for his stories. He had thought himself safe.
“A poem,” he says elsewhere in the manuscript, “is a terrorist attack.”
“Eastman,” he said. He was standing in a public phone booth on the Charles Clore promenade, which had once, long ago, been an Arab village called Menashiya, now itself, like Tirosh, just the faint outline of an erased inscription. Tirosh was feeding the phone tokens. It was not yet sunrise but the sky was lightening over the sea, and he could see a lone seagull swoop, then dive sharply towards the waves. “Eastman, it’s me.”
“Tirosh?” the publisher spoke in a whisper down the phone, and Tirosh pictured him hunched over his desk, in the cubby-hole that passed for his office, which was crammed every which way with books and magazines whose cheap pulp paper smelled like wet dog and whose pages whispered with fluttering moth wings. “You can’t – I mean, you’re at large? – I mean, they’ve just been here, Lior. They were asking about you!”
The words chilled Tirosh. “What did you tell them?” he whispered.
“What could I tell them?” the publisher said. “I don’t know where you are!”
“Listen, Eastman,” Tirosh said. “I’m calling about the money you owe me. I need the money, Eastman. I need the money to buy a way out of here.”
“Are you crazy, Lior? The borders are closed! The airport is watched! There is no way out!”
“There’s always a way out,” Tirosh said, darkly. “Listen, Eastman. About the money you owe me. The last book I did for you. The Vampire Hunters of Venus Alpha. I need it.”
“Are you crazy, Tirosh? What money? What book? I don’t do this kind of thing anymore! Do you think I want to end up in the camps like your friend, what’s his name? The book was pulped! Destroyed! I only do government-approved publications now, no fantasy, no mention of Arabs, no nothing! Don’t you understand, Tirosh, they’re – they’re —”
The publisher made a gurgled sound. His heavy breathing filled the white static noise of the telephone.
“. . . here.” The line went dead with a soft, terminal click.
Tirosh’s targets in The Death of Hebrew Poetry are manifold. He calls Amos Oz “the prissy Madame of the whole damn brothel”, Yehoshua “a writer with both the face and talent of a prune, and the historical comprehension of the parrot in a Monty Python sketch”, and says of Amichai, in reference to his most famous poem, that “God may feel mercy for the kindergarten children but he does not extend that same compassion to Amichai’s poor, hapless readers.” He is dismissive of Zach (“I am not sure which scent is worse,” he wrote, “the fumes of cheap wine or the desperation”), and he is mostly indifferent to Alterman.
“Between every line they ever wrote,” Tirosh said, “there is a deafening silence.” Tirosh skulked. He walked away from Jaffa along the promenade, passing the grand hotels and the Hassan Bek mosque, which stood forlorn against the gathering daylight, a sole testament to the area’s previous Arab inhabitants. Everything else had been razed, erased. Tended grass grew where once houses met. What had Mahmoud Darwish written, back when there were still Palestinians? Something about a country where one saw only the invisible.
Tirosh came up the incline towards the Carmel Market. Already at this early hour stalls were set up with fruit and vegetables from the Galilee and the Golan Heights and the shining new agricultural super-farms of the Jordan’s west bank. A Home for Every Family, posters proclaimed, showing the virginal, unspoiled fields, workers saluting stiffly into the rising sun, their rosy-cheeked children running, laughing, in fields of wheat. New cities being built across the horizon, high-rises reaching for the perfect blue sky. I would escape to the West Bank, Tirosh thought, I would marry and have two children, a boy and a girl, and go to synagogue every Friday and bless the Shabbat, and work in something obscure to do with electronics, and tend to my garden in my spare time. I would grow cabbages and carrots and celery, I would only grow vegetables beginning with a C. And I would never write another line of poetry, because poetry is dead. I would stop fantasising, because fantasy, I finally understand, is for children and the intellectually challenged. And I would change my name, to something silly and meaningless like Tidhar, which is a sort of Biblical tree.
He walked along the stalls when a man bumped into him carrying a crate of kohlrabi and jumped back, startled.
“Oh!” The man looked at him nervously and something in his face niggled at Tirosh’s memory. Then it came to him and he said, “Samir!” in a rush.
“I’m sorry,” the man said. “You must be mistaken.”
“Samir, it’s me, Tirosh! Don’t you remember me! What are doing here? I thought you were all…?” then he stopped, embarrassed.
“My name’s Zamir,” the man said. “I am a porter in the market. You don’t know what you’re talking about, mister.” And he patted the yarmulke he wore on his head. The gesture was protective.
“I’m sure it’s you,” Tirosh said. “You used to live next door, your dad ran the kiosk, you never celebrated with the rest of us on Independence Day.” And he looked at the man curiously.
“Tirosh?” the man – Samir, Zamir – said. “The poet?”
“So you do remember!” Tirosh said, delighted. It was always an intense joy for him to be recognised.
The man shied back. He put down the crate of kohlrabi and pointed a thin brown finger at Tirosh.
“A poet!” he shouted. “A poet! Get him! Get him, Jews!”
Tirosh saw heads turn, look over, slowly, sleepily. The reality of the situation suddenly settled upon him, like dust, making him choke.
“A poet!” Tirosh cried, wildly, pointing, along with the porter, in the direction of the car park and the sea. “A poet, he went that way! Get him!”
A slow-burning roar built up around them as porters put down boxes and sellers fine-tuned their pitch into barks of outrage and hatred. The assembled individuals were forming into a mob, and as a mob they began to stream down the market pathway, in what in Hebrew is called an alyehum, a communal uprising of indignation and rage.
Tirosh and Samir pressed into the shadows as the horde stormed down the hill in search of a poet, and Tirosh thought, shaken, if only poetry books ever garnered such an enthusiastic response, poetry might have still been alive.
He glared at Samir and the man shied from him and then, shaking his head slowly, with frightened eyes, the porter ran from Tirosh as fast as his legs would carry him. Tirosh, seeing the path clear, ambled up the road until he was free of the market and onto the intersection of Allenby and King George. He felt safer here, with the dead king and his general. He fled down the street, as the sun rose and his shadow fell longer and thinner, like a blade.
“Our heroes are dead,” wrote Tirosh. “We celebrate suicide by worshipping the dead of Masada: in the shadow of their mass grave we swear in our soldier-poets, even as we pretend that human life – by which we mean of course only our life – is sacred. We have lied to ourselves so much that we are lost, like the Hebrews in the desert. Poetry, seeking truth, cannot flourish here.”
He closes the book with an epitaph.
“Hebrew poetry is dead,” Tirosh wrote. “It died a long time ago and didn’t know it.”
As Tirosh wandered towards Dizengoff he realised how childish his manuscript was. Words changed nothing. They were like the cockroaches that cohabited his flat with him. They came out at night, through the cracks in the walls, and he, Tirosh, killed them, with thick heavy volumes of the Bible or Adaf’s Sunburnt Faces or Shimon Peres’ The New Middle East, smashing the hard covers on the black carapace of the insects until they died. But there were always more, and all the words and all the books in the world could not make a difference. “Fuck words!” he shouted, suddenly joyous with the realisation. “I renounce! I renounce!’ He opened his bag with fingers shaking with hunger and excitement. “Burn them!” he cried. “Burn them all!” His fingers found the thick wad of manuscript pages and he pulled it and tossed it in the air. The pages flew high and then fell everywhere, a flurry of meaningless words on a page. “Burn them!”
Passersby turned and stared. Then a manic joy took hold of the crowd, and by ones and twos, some pulling along their children, some on their bikes, others with prams or shopping bags, they came, congregating around the fallen pages. A stone arced through the air and smashed the window of a bookshop. In moments the crowd turned and the looting began. The riot spread and shops were pelted and destroyed. Where Tirosh stood a vast edifice grew by degrees: books piled high and kindled with chair legs and broken sofas, beach tennis rackets and wooden dolls. Policemen came and stood, watching. Then someone doused the pile with gasoline and tossed a match.
Tirosh watched the fire burn. The flames billowed upwards as though they could devour the sky. In the black smoke that rose from the funeral pyre Tirosh imagined he could discern words, good words and bad. Like black butterflies they rose out of the hissing sputtering ink and faded, slowly, in the air. Tirosh stood, sweating, and watched the flames reflect in the policemen’s mirrored sunglasses. He felt a giddy excitement.
He was free.
From somewhere on Gordon a group of men approached pulling a struggling youth between them, beating him savagely with their fists when he fought back. He was really not much more than a boy. “A poet, a poet!” they cried, and the mob said, “Burn him, let him burn!”
“No!” the boy cried, “No!” but the word had no meaning. Tirosh knew him slightly, from another time.
“Let him burn!” he said.
The boy, crying, was dragged to the funeral pyre. His screams turned into a single word, repeated over and over, and it took Tirosh a moment to discern it, to taste its shape.
“Tutim!” the boy cried. “Tutim, tutim!”
Tirosh sighed, for even with approaching death the boy could merely repeat the words of another. Strawberries, he kept shouting, strawberries, quoting the late poet Yona Wallach’s most famous poem.
“Tutim, tutim!” Tirosh said. The crowd took up the meaningless sound like a holy chant. Their roar was deafening. “Tutim, tutim, tutim!”
Tirosh watched as the boy was carried to the flames.
This is an extract from Art & War: Poetry, Pulp & Politics in Israeli Fiction by Lavie Tidhar and Shimon Adaf. The second part of the book contains two short stories, one by each author. Both were written in the summer of 2014. Following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in June, a Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped in retaliation and set on fire; two of his murderers were similarly underage. On the 8th of June the Israeli army began an intense rocket bombardment of Gaza, followed by a ground assault, in response to Palestinian rockets fired towards Israel. The operation led to the death of over 2000 Palestinians, and 72 Israelis.
Both stories are haunted by the image of the burning boy; both struggle with the futility of poetry. They represent a conversation; and each author appears as an aside in the other’s story.
This is an edited extract from Johanna Issacsson’s The Ballerina and the Bull: Anarchist Utopias in the Age of Finance (out now).
By 1986 punk was not just a battle cry, it was a scene that required institutions like show spaces and record labels. In this context we see the rise of the Gilman Street Project, an all-ages punk musical venue in Berkeley. The club opened soon after the closing of Mabuhay Gardens and The Farm, two important punk venues in the area. You could join as a member by paying $2 per year, and membership came with rights to participate in decision making. The rules included: no drugs, alcohol, violence, misogyny, homophobia or racism, and no major label bands were permitted to perform there. Says Zarah of her introduction to Gilman at 14 years old:
Gilman was dirty, it was small, but it was impressive because of how many people were there. I was meeting lot of people right away (people my age). I was in love with the place form the first time I saw it, even though it was, you know, gross.
For Eighties teenage Bay Area punks, Gilman was a semi-utopia: a creative, social space where they could come-of-age in ways not permitted in family and school institutions.
Alexander Kluge calls this kind of DiY institution a “counterpublic sphere,” a place that redefines spatial, territorial, and geopolitical parameters, reflecting new transnational boundaries while remaining subject to the constraints and logic of dominant post-Fordist forms of production. In this counterpublic sphere, the Gilman punk could experiment with residual temporalities, such as DiY artisanal production, without ever leaving the home of modernity — the sphere of universal, fungible commodity production. In this elastic sphere, people like Robert Eggplant, creator and primary writer of Absolutely Zippo, could find a viable way of life that was social and at times ecstatically political:
When I first came to Gilman (yes shortly after I came to punk) I was faced with something that I never encountered in my previous subculture groups, (that being rap and metal). There was more in the atmosphere than music. (Yes even more than liquor and sex). It was politics.
Eggplant describes himself as a somewhat lost soul until attendance at the “new world” of Gilman made him into a punk convert, speaking to his hunger for openness and community, totally immersing him in its culture and social scene.
Gilman materializes and spatializes this feeling of community, fortifying a subculture that could once only be described as an impulse or a feeling with a layer of solidity and permanence. The club has the appearance of spontaneity and haphazardness, but it represents years of concrete work that were put into finding, funding, and creating the space. The space supersedes the temporary squats and show spaces that preceded it. Most of the organizers developed their skills by organizing illegal shows, gradually building up to getting a permitted, legal establishment. The group that had been organizing underground shows collaborated with Maximum Rocknroll to find a location and to acquire the appropriate funding and permits. After lengthy attempts to get the city to approve, Gilman Street was born as a self-regulating institution. This permanence is an important asset to the scene and yet with every step away from the fleeting and ephemeral Gilman approaches punk’s dreaded nemeses: hierarchy, bureaucracy, reification.
Despite these threats, Gilman served as a punk haven and base from which to build a radical community. In the Eighties Gilman provided a home base for anti-racist punks to fight off skinheads. In this moment, racist skinheads were a strong, insidious presence in Northern California. Because of overlapping musical tastes, the Gilman staff had to drive off Nazis from hardcore shows and in some instances the punks of Gilman rallied to fight Nazis at racist demonstrations. In the Nineties Gilman became a center for punk protest against the Gulf War and the Rodney King decision. For Ben Sizemore, of the Bay Area anti-capitalist band Econochrist, these politics were inextricable from hardcore aesthetics. Radical politics were a bodily and totalizing power:
Bands like those got my heart pumping and my spine tingling. I could feel the chords hit me in the gut. I felt like they were singing directly to me. The music moved me, but it was more than music, it was something else, a more powerful feeling and it ran deep.
These were the politics of musical ecstasy and at the same time the politics of the mundane everyday, quotidian survival and mutual aid:
Hell, people I’ve met at Gilman have become some of my closest friends. I’ve met people at Gilman who hooked me up with work, housing, and have just helped me out with my problems. More importantly they’ve helped me realize I’m not alone and that there are alternatives to this fucking competitive, dog eat dog, oppressive, materialistic, earth raping, dominant culture that we find ourselves in.
In this milieu mutual aid extended from attending and supporting Gilman shows to all realms of the everyday — dumpster diving, parties, and communal living.
Gilman’s everyday politics provided a social and political world for young punks stranded in an atomized world where, as in Karl Marx’s prognosis, “all that is solid melts into air.” But with the anchorage of Gilman as an institution came what Econochrist calls “the same damn old circle game”:
we scream fight the system’s schemes/but we still work for the machine/so safe in our social clique/time to part this sea of shit
With the materialization of Gilman as an institution comes a creeping entrepreneurial ethic, an urge to codify and market the punk convergence of art and life. As one of the many who came of age at Gilman, Mike Stand lived this ambivalence. He was a high school kid in Berkeley in 1986, at the birth of Gilman, and clung to its “all-ages” ethos, which defied the strange age segregation of the suburbs. Before he went to the club, Mike hadn’t met anyone between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. This age segregation belies the myth that a wholesome suburban life is the proper path to maturity. Suburban life actually prevented teenagers from meeting young adults, carefully cordoning them off from any adults who hadn’t already settled into the suburban norm. Slipping into the role of Gilman’s coordinator and manager, Mike matured quickly, but this led to his tacit disavowal of the youthful spontaneity that is the core of the punk aesthetic. Mike framed himself as the resident “pragmatist” who learned skills that would help him in the business world. He kept Gilman afloat, calling for membership fees and making it fiscally sustainable, but, as Erick Lyle points out in his account of the punk role in the San Francisco Mission District’s gentrification, contrary to the boosterish slogans of urban development, a rising tide does not lift all boats.
Chris Appelgreen also “matured” quickly in the nurturing countersphere of Gilman, inheriting Lookout! Records from Larry Livermore at the age of twenty-three. Drawn to punk for its social space more than its musical qualities, he describes coming from a small town and immediately becoming absorbed in the club and Lookout!
I couldn’t really differentiate what made punk rock better than say Depeche Mode or other mainstream bands that were on the radio. Then I started seeing this humanity and personality and connection you just couldn’t have if you were a fan of Tina Turner or Bruce Springsteen, for instance, also the band members were people my age. I felt really empowered. (Edge 152)
He notes that this was a first step in taking himself more seriously and led to his quick ascension to heading Lookout! At the same time he recognizes that his involvement with Lookout! complicates his relationship to Gilman:
It was also a difficult place to come into things from, since I had to maintain somewhat of a business relationship with the people in the bands on the label, people who I was friends with. It was different than I think most people’s experiences were with Gilman. (Edge 153-154)
The permanence of Gilman and Appelgreen’s position in it came at the price of a certain degree of specialization and alienation.
The paradox of the punk entrepreneur or manager is not a stark problem of choice. Rather, it’s a necessary consequence of what Guy Debord called the culture industry’s “rigged game” in which there is no possible autonomy from entrenched systems of production and private property. The punk anti-corporate myth faced new challenges in the late Eighties when this independence moved from the realm of the aesthetic to the realm of commerce. Independent labels were never as pure as their mythic status. For instance, the Bay Area band Dead Kennedys has been held up as a pure signifier of this form of delinking, but in 1980 the Dead Kennedys signed to IRS records which had a distribution deal with the major label A and M, the third largest label in the US (O’Connor 3). It was not the Dead Kennedys who rejected this label, but A and M who dismissed the Dead Kennedys because of their offensive name, precipitating the advent of the Dead Kennedys’ label, Alternative Tentacles. It was only well into the Eighties that punks began to distribute and produce most of their own records. This coincided with punk becoming more niche oriented. For example, in 1980 the Dead Kennedys could sell 150,000 copies of the album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, but by the mid-Eighties it was rarely heard of for even the most popular punk band to sell 40,000 albums (O’Connor 3).
The widely published punk music zine Maximum Rocknroll was central to what can be called punk’s “economic turn.” At the same time the zine was widely distributed, its editors and writers, especially central editor Tim Yohannan, were deeply committed to notions of authenticity and independence. Maximum Rocknroll is at the hub of many of the debates about the management and goals of Bay Area punk institutions. It began in the 1980s and went on to become a central site of punk scene interaction nationally and internationally, facilitating growth through its ever-expanding letters column and involvement in many areas of Bay Area punk music, venues, and labels. It was also an ideological hub of punk, featuring debates and manifestos about the meaning, politics, and goals of punk music along with interviews with bands and global scene reports. Although the zine was profitable, it donated these profits to DiY projects such as Gilman. Maximum Rocknroll was passionately committed to the ethos of autonomy and would only carry ads and review records from independent labels. This was important, because Maximum Rocknroll was a central source of information about bands.
Maximum Rocknroll functioned as a global hub that launched punk culture into small towns and other countries, serving as what Andy Asp of the Oakland punk band The Pattern calls the “internet of its times,” allowing punks to connect to Mexico City, Croatia, and other global punk communities. Maximum Rocknroll’s power and influence, along with the strong opinions about politics and culture in its pages, made it a global center, but also launched debates about whether the zine’s centrality served to standardize punk. Tim Yo was seen by many to be morally rigid and authoritarian, a complaint voiced by Tim Tonooka:
He was deeply concerned that kids might think incorrect thoughts unless they were provided with carefully selected correct info… Because left to their own those people might come to the wrong conclusions. The mentality is elitist and condescending.
To the annoyance of many, Tim Yo served as the superego in the Bay Area quest for punk authenticity. He attempted to run Maximum Rocknroll as a prefigurative anti-capitalist project. It was produced in the house where the staff lived and everyone worked for free. Even though the zine passionately defended hardcore music, in private Yohannan expressed less interest in the music than the hope that it would provide youth with collective revolutionary identity.
DiY’s incursion into the economic everyday required great organization and collaboration. Maximum Rocknroll’s powerful place in the Bay Area punk scene was based on reciprocity with other institutions, such as the distributor Mordam Records, which was dependent on the business brought in through Maximum Rocknroll’s wide distribution and therefore also upon the involvement of Tim Yohannan and other Maximum Rocknroll editors. Because of Mordam’s scale and ambiguous place as an autonomous/profit-driven punk institution, the label makes clear the tensions between punk aspirations and material realities. Mordam attempted to remain autonomous by refusing to sell through major labels or to distribute any zine that accepted major label advertising. Paradoxically, they were largely able to maintain this independence because of the great success and commercialization of the Bay Area band Green Day. When Green Day signed onto a major label, their earlier releases became popular, eventually selling over a million copies through Mordam.
While Mordam grew and expanded due to this boom, the intransigent nature of real estate in the Bay Area simultaneously curtailed this expansion. With the dot com boom, real estate prices soared and Mordam could no longer afford their large warehouse once their lease expired. These vicissitudes cannot be explained through a reductive binary that pits authenticity against selling out. Rather, the context of a post-Fordist economy must be taken into account. This can be seen in the class position of DiY entrepreneurs, which reflected the emerging occupational structure of the US, the shift to services, and the importance of what Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural capital.” Punk culture participants, musicians and workers are emblematic of a new kind of precarity. They often come from middle class homes, but do not inherit stability from their parents. In some senses, then, these institutions present a limit case of neoliberal entrepreneurialism.
These experimental forms of DiY institutions and collectivities are impassioned but equivocal responses to a period dominated by precarity and impasse. Lauren Berlant argues that the fantasy of the good life characterized by economic success has been disrupted by contemporary crisis and the “fraying” of fantasies such as meritocracy, upward mobility, job security, intimacy, and political and social equality. In place of these hopes, individuals and groups form optimistic stances in relation to jerry-rigged, DiY, forms of habituation and precarious public spheres, acting as “an intimate public of subjects who circulate scenarios of economic and intimate contingency”. Impasse is for Berlant both a temporal crisis and opportunity:
a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hypervigilance that collects material that might help to clarify things, maintain one’s sea legs, and coordinate the standard melodramatic desires.
Punk’s teetering and inquisitive dialectical position between active resistance and passive style embodies this experience of crisis.
In this precarious and crisis-ridden era, punk arguably ceases to be a genre, transforming into a more nebulous modality. Fredric Jameson sees the postmodern as a post-genre moment marked by pastiche and the death of referentiality. However, punk’s aesthetic can be seen as the flip side of pastiche. It has no pretension to originality, but rather takes up the detritus of meaning and referentiality, cutting and pasting these shards to negate their original meanings in an intentional way, a process formulated by Guy Debord as détournement. As Dick Hebdige argues, punk’s cut n’ paste aesthetic can allow a critical incursion “through perturbation and deformation to disrupt and reorganize meaning”. This counters what Benjamin Noys sees as an “affirmationist” trend in contemporary literary and theoretical formations, which imagine an autonomous aesthetic “site of creativity and play detached from the forms of capitalist economy and value” (“Recirculation”).
Lauren Berlant’s notion of cruel optimism can help with the investigation of punk’s role in spheres outside of the purview of subcultural theory. Berlant’s formation of “cruel optimism” develops the critique of affirmationism and positive representation, by bringing it into the field of everyday life, extending an analysis of détournement and hacking, as analyzed by McKenzie Wark, into the arena of jerry-rigged counterpublic spheres. The optimism in these moments of the “crisis ordinary” can be seen in the vibrancy of these social experiments, but the “cruelty” of this situation is that the attachment it allows is to a problematic and precarious object or situation.
Within this “crisis ordinary,” DiY projects like Mordam, Maximum Rocknroll, Lookout! Records and Fat Wreck Chords optimistically create new forms of social and spatial practice. However, because of the “cruel” circumstances of these formations, these desires end in what I want to call, following Stacy Thompson, productive failure, with “failure” operating as a troubled category. This is echoed in a lyric from Echonochrist’s song “Bled Dry”: “What you call success I call failure.” Jameson points to failure or impasse as a possible means to cognitive mapping in which “a narrative of defeat” can cause “the whole architectonic of postmodern global space to rise up in ghostly profile behind itself, as some ultimate dialectical barrier or invisible limit”. The trajectory of Bay Area label Lookout!, headed by Larry Livermore and later Chris Appelgreen, maps this contradictory form of failure. One of the early utopian stances that the label took was that it initially did not sign contracts with its bands, which allowed bands to come and go as they pleased without tying them down to requirements to tour or sell a quota. They also gave bands a significantly higher percentage of profits: 60% as opposed to the average of 12-15% in commercial labels. In 1998 Livermore sold Lookout! to Appelgreen, who changed these policies to be more commercial. As Stacy Thompson points out, this transformation was not simply a selling out, but a productive failure that highlights larger structural contradictions and the impossibility of true independence from the system.
Here “failure” is a complex term. Punk productions “fail” in selling on a scale that would register in the commercial sphere. The DiY approach doesn’t pose any significant economic threat to the music industry, representing only a tiny sector of the indie market. This failure, however, is a success in that it allows these labels to avoid being controlled by economic logic. A second productive failure is the inability of punk to supply a living income to musicians, condemning them to supplement their income by working in the commercial sphere. This, however, is “an inverted form of success,” prohibiting music from becoming merely a means to an economic end. In zines such as Maximum Rocknroll the volunteer aspect is philosophically central; each issue notes that all the work is donated and all proceeds are invested in nonprofit projects. The smaller scale of Lookout! is a “partial failure that renders visible the problem inherent in punk’s attempt to free itself from the sphere of commodity exchange”. Punk records cannot fully escape the need to make capital available and to purchase the means of music production, and bands themselves must do some alienated labor, such as touring and repeating sets. However the work done is considered less alienated than other forms and much of it is unwaged. The implicit logic of the ongoing passionate argument about selling out in the punk world is an interpretation of winning as the true loss. Maximum Rocknroll becomes the arbiter of this failure, refusing to review, interview, write articles, or allow advertisements by bands that appear on major labels or that appear on indie labels but are distributed by major labels or their affiliates. In the face of the impossibility of creating a totally new community, punk’s idealistic failures “preserve the possibility of a potential social organization that did not yet exist.” Unable to overturn the current system it “rendered its logic visible and suspect”.
This “failure,” is often framed as “the death of punk,” but can be seen as rather the mark of punk’s deepened incursion into the everyday, in a period that coincides with the Bay Area replacing New York as the capital of DiY. The post-Seventies phase of DiY culture has become self-reflexive, bringing its own foundations and discursive assumptions into question and developing a more sophisticated critique of the culture industry as “a skilled predator on the prowl for fresh young subcultures”. Punks saw that the general speed-up in absorption of stylistic innovation in modernity meant that grassroots culture could become commercialized in a matter of months. An aesthetically fragmented punk could partially evade this cooptation of what Dylan Clark calls “market democracy”. This phase of punk is already post-punk in that early punk relied on shocking a confused mainstream. As Fredric Jameson often notes, the postmodern mainstream becomes more and more adaptive to experimental forms. Because of this, late punk’s strategy had to be an evasion of spectacle and a deepened critical anarchism. This phase draws on the stripped down ideology of earlier punk and its dedication to experience in place of symbolic encounters. Punks refer to the scene in which they hang out rather than calling themselves punk, and evade concrete descriptions of themselves but rather participate in political projects such as anti-corporate movements, Earth First!, and Reclaim the Streets. In this way, “punk faked its own death,” decentralizing and losing its markings, becoming instead “a loose assemblage of guerilla militias”. As it enters this phase, the punk aesthetic becomes inextricable from anarchism. Jeff Ferrell notes that while some participants may draw their practice from an overt understanding of anarchism,
this isn’t a necessary prerequisite, appropriately enough for an orientation founded on direct action, many seem to find their anarchist politics right there in the experience of everyday life.
In a moment where, as the situationists argue, the everyday is fully colonized by capitalist logic, it is also, conversely, permeated by the political in all its mundane forms.
Bay Area institutions such as 924 Gilman and Lookout! point to what John Charles Goshert refers to as the “pervasive economic and social attitude in the Bay Area punk scene”, with Gilman providing a political meeting space, local collectivity, and creativity. San Francisco becomes the capital of punk modernity as these institutions become the models for other labels, bands, and venues throughout the country. With the rise of punk as an economic and institutional force and the gathering of political and other communities around these institutions, punk had the opportunity to become more diverse. So in the early Nineties, Gilman hosted diverse genres such as performance art, funk, jazz, heavy metal, and country alongside the predominant punk shows. The explicit anarchism and collective running of Gilman allowed for this collaboration, and freed punk from rigid aesthetic requirements. Instead, it was understood that punk’s survival was becoming dependent on “constant mutation and unrecognizability”.
Larry Livermore describes this phenomenon in the zine Absolutely Zippo, in a discussion of the play of a high school student (although she is not named, it turns out that it’s Miranda July who went on to be a well-known performance artist and film maker) at Gilman as embodying the spirit of punk by avoiding punk clichés and avoiding reification, rather stressing what he sees as innovation and independence. His description of July gets at a core punk value of refusing punk clichés:
I also have to tell you that even though I’ve never seen her at a show and she doesn’t have any piercings or tattoos (not that I saw, anyway) she’s more punk than 95 percent of you reading this mag. Why? Because she does something, she takes her vision and makes it your reality, she takes imagination and shapes it into something we all must contend with… Because she’s not waiting for the next edition of the punk handbook to tell her the appropriate ways to rebel and be creative.
This constant evolution of punk as a logic rather than a set of encoded practices is central to its capacity for expressive negation as subcultures struggle against increasingly adaptive forms of capitalist logic.
This understanding of the relationship of subcultural music to a transformed everyday helps to explain how punk music can be simultaneously popular and difficult. Fantasies of punk authenticity are belied by the fact that markets themselves are parasitic on grassroots taste. This push and pull of resistance and complicity forms the core contradiction of the punk approach to everyday life. These marginal phenomena: DiY musical, entrepreneurial, and everyday production thus navigate success and failure, high and low, inside and outside, rebellion from and absorption in everyday life. Because of the complexity, diversity and centrality of the contemporary city, the everyday merges with high, experimental art, “the avant-garde project of purposefully mismatching perception and the taken-for granted in order to release perspectives from the fetish of common sense tends to find a contemporary realization in the daily culture of the metropolis” (Chambers). This relationship to capitalist temporality, ratiocination and ambition in the ghostly “25th hour” of a counterculture temporality does not constitute a clear political program or a full utopian transformation. Instead, Bay Area DiY is a flexible form of utopian negation that necessarily fails, and in doing so succeeds in mapping the impasses that must be known in order to one day be surmounted.
The Ballerina and the Bull is out now, available from all good bookshops and online.
What are the dwelling-places of the human? Are not our houses and huts, our tents and caves, our urban and rural environments alike, spaces of nonlife that give forth life? In particular, the urban domain which so many people now inhabit reveals itself to us as a vastly complex ecosystem of life and death, one in which the extension of the organism occurs in the most varied, layered and complex ways—in the flowing of the sewers, the surging of electricity, the streams of traffic and tributaries of streets and roads, the transmissions and circulation of information and symbolisation, the capture, release and manipulation of vast libidinal currents. “Urban space gathers crowds, products in the markets, acts and symbols. It concentrates all of these, and accumulates them.” And in this gathering, this accumulation, we can identify the coming-together, the becoming-with, of life and death, the tendential connectivity of both.
However, the urban space in particular, in its position as a space of the absorption of excess and the eruption of endless accumulation, has so often become a space in which the tendential connectivity, this commoning between the living and the dead, has been concealed and marginalised under the figures of finalist-death, under the logics of opposition, rationalisation and fatalism. The continual purging of life, that is the absolute exclusion of the living, from the rationalism of nonlife appears as the impossible dream of modernism. The grand structures of the modernist dream stand within the urban as spaces of nonlife that attempt a violent silencing of the tendential interplay between life and death. As an architecture modelled on the opposition of the living and the dead, that is moulded in the image of finalist-death, the vast towers of modernism with their proud, tall straight lines and gleaming pristine surfaces deny the efficacy of nonlife other than as a rationally manipulated backdrop for life. The processes of decay and dirt are excluded from them, and every morning and evening people across the cities come to these spaces tasked specifically with cleaning away any remnants of life that might cling to these structures, with the attempted absolute annihilation of any nonhuman life form, microbial or otherwise, that might seek to dwell within these domains of finalist-death.
Of course this annihilation is never final or absolute, for no number of attempts could entirely remove the tendential connectivity of the living and the dead. The marginalisation of microbial life that manifests itself so clearly on the immaculate glass surfaces of the looming urban towers can never be total, and the continual reassertion of life within even those spaces so closely modelled on the notion of a finalist-death reveals the inescapability of the cohabitation of life and death. And what is more, the emergence of life upon these planes that sought to exclude them need not be the object of a collective neurosis of cleanliness in which life, to its own destruction, seeks to impinge upon itself. Rather, these processes of decay and degradation, of life standing forth from its attempted exclusion, can become a matter of joy and affirmation as in the Mouldiness Manifesto of Hundertwasser.
When rust sets in on a razor blade, when a wall starts to get mouldy, when moss grows in a corner of a room, rounding its geometric angles, we should be glad because, together with the microbes and fungi, life is moving into the house and through this process we can more consciously become witnesses of architectural changes from which we have much to learn.[ii]
The urban domain, rather than being built to exclude life—that is, built in the image of a finalist-death of rationalism and opposition—is inescapably decaying, and it is this very decay that is an unfolding unto death that is also the springing forth of li
fe. This springing forth of life is that of which the finalist tendencies of modernist architecture remains in denial, and which it seeks to continually exclude under the banner of rationalism. But this exclusion can never occur or find its absolute realisation, for the architectural domains from which exclusion is attempted already form elements of a vast ecology of extended organisms, that is they are already and inescapably continuous with life, as elements of an organology by which life faces death and death faces life; the living dwell and become-with the dead.
It is hoped that it is clear that in all these instances what is important is not that one builds in order then to dwell—that the spider constructs its web in order to dwell within it, that the termites build their mound in order to live inside, that the humans construct the urban domain only then to later inhabit it—it is not that building has dwelling as its goal.[iii] Dwelling, that is becoming in life and death, existing as a durative-soul in continual becoming, connection and swelling, is anterior to building. To build we must dwell with the living and the dead, and we must share our becoming with them. To build we must, so to speak, inhabit the commons of life and death, as entities that appear delimited, but are in fact spread more and more thinly across a vast expansive domain of connection, collision and association. Dwelling does not come after building, for in building we dwell. We dwell with the so-called dead entities that we assign to the realm of technics and tools, and we cannot think of these apparently dead entities without thinking of their other side, that is their life and the life with which they are continuous. We cannot think the tool and yet ignore the hand just as we cannot think the hand and seek to ignore the tool. And tool and hand cannot oppose one another as exclusory opposites, just as the living and the dead cannot stand opposed to one another each as the principle of utter exclusion of the other.
Toby Austin Locke—The Living and the Dead
[ii] Hundertwasser, Friedensreich (1964) Mouldiness Manifesto
[iii] Heidegger, Martin (n.d.) Building Dwelling Thinking
In an extract from her recent book Lean Out, Dawn Foster explores the limits of self-proclaimed feminist Theresa May’s solidarity with women.
The notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre was opened in 2001, under the last Labour government, and management was outsourced to private company Serco in 2007. Poor conditions in the centre and protests against the 400-capacity facility have intensified in recent years, coming to a head in 2015. Reports of sexual abuse and mistreatment in the compound became increasingly common, and self-harm was rife among the women, who comprised of failed asylum seekers awaiting deportation, imprisoned despite committing no crime. A Channel 4 investigation obtained footage of the systemic mistreatment of women detained in the centre, included a guard shouting “Headbutt the bitch. I’d beat her up.”
Rashida Manjoo, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on violence against women, was barred from Yarl’s Wood by the Home Office in April 2014 when she tried to investigate complaints as part of her fact-finding mission into violence against women in the UK. Cameras have never been allowed in. In April 2015, in the same week as a woman died in Yarl’s Wood and a guard with a history of sexually inappropriate behaviour was￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ suspended pending investigation for a revenge assault, Cristel Amiss, of the Black Women’s Rape Action Project, told The Guardian: “We’ve been supporting women in Yarl’s Wood for over a decade and have heard consistent reports from brave whistleblowers exposing abusive treatment and sexually predatory behaviour by guards.”
After the Channel 4 investigation, Theresa May refused to come to the House of Commons to answer an urgent question from the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, on the treatment of detainees, called amongst other abusive names “black bitch”, “animals”, “beasties”, and “evil”. Cooper said, “There is no point in ministers pretending to be shocked at news of abuse. This is not news. Even now, the ministers have not set up an independent inquiry. This is state-sanctioned abuse of women on the Home Secretary’s watch and it needs to end now.”
Despite May’s assertions that she believes in women’s empowerment, there is a distinct limit to her solidarity, which depends on how your race, country of birth, and economic wealth intersect. As Home Secretary, May is in a position rarely occupied by women, and rarely occupied by anyone for so long. Home Secretaries tend to be hit by scandals and forced to resign with wearying regularity. But whilst in office, May has overseen some of the most draconian immigration legislation for decades, defending immigration detention, renewing contracts with Serco despite sexual violence reports, and introducing rules that mean low income families are split up and British people split up from their partners and children if they don’t earn over a soon-to-be-raised income threshold.
May sits in a cabinet with many other powerful women, especially after criticism of Cameron’s disproportionately male and Etonian cabinet refused to die down until a reshuffle. The policies that trickle down from that cabinet harm women disproportionately. Despite launching a campaign titled “Theresa May for Equal Pay” in 2008, May has endorsed an austerity regime ￼￼￼￼that saw the gender pay-gap increase, and been a stalwart of a government that introduced cuts that affected four times as many women as men.
Meanwhile, there is a burgeoning crisis in the women’s sector: provision of domestic violence services and rape crisis centres and helplines has been reduced due to austerity cuts. Headline figures on cuts to UK domestic violence services often mask the full impact of government cuts on people fleeing abuse at home. Women across the UK have been hardest hit by austerity and attendant spending cuts. Charities in the sector speak out about the problems they’re seeing: Women’s Aid has warned that services are “at breaking point”, with a third of women turned away from refuges due to lack of space, and the total number of refuges falling from 187 to 155 between 2010 and 2014. But for many of the women escaping violence, moving to a refuge is only the first step on the journey to safe, independent living.
The housing crisis, especially in the south east and London, is one of the biggest factors affecting women trying to move on. Most women spend between six to nine months in refuges, where they’re assigned a support worker who offers counselling, signposts services and advocates for the women, helping them build independent living skills, and getting them into education and training. The move to independence after surviving violence is crucial, as without support and safeguards put in place, the risk of returning home to violence and abuse is heightened.
At one refuge in London last year, run by the charity Hestia, the service manager Louise Dickerson told me: “It’s really difficult in the climate now. Because social housing is pretty much abolished, local authorities discharge their duty through private rented accommodation now most often, which is maybe on a yearly license or tenancy.” Housing waiting lists in the UK’s local councils, who have a legal duty to help homeless and vulnerable people, are at an all-time high. With so much pressure on counc￼￼￼￼￼ils, domestic violence survivors can struggle to convince council employees they are a priority. Women have even spoken of being disbelieved when they disclose their need to flee because of violence. Moving to privately rented flats means the women and families are offered less security and are liable for far higher rents: most private housing offers tenancy agreements of no longer than a year, and Hestia report more women are being asked to have a financial guarantor, who agrees to be financially liable for rent arrears. For women fleeing violence, who’ve often cut all ties to their wider family and friendship groups, this is an impossibility and an insult after their ordeal.
Even when women do find a home to move on to, the cuts mean they face even more hardship. In the raft of public-spending cuts in the last few years, many of the financial assistance schemes councils offered have been slashed. The crisis loan fund, which provided a total of £180m in hardship loans to people in extreme financial need, has now been scrapped. Economic control is a commonly used tool of domestic violence perpetrators when preventing women from leaving: removing financial help for such vulnerable women and children puts lives at risk. This money was previously a lifeline for people in extreme distress and very vulnerable situations, and losing it puts even more pressure on domestic violence services. As Dickerson explains:
They’ve taken away the crisis loan, and women relied on that for resettlement. So women will leave without a mattress to sleep on, and some of them have young families. One woman was self-harming recently, living in a shelter that was not homely. It’s very challenging for our workers. We work really hard just to make sure the women can survive.
Other lifelines of financial support are also being slowly eroded. The Discretionary Housing Payment funding, which provide payments of up to a year for people facing difficulty paying their accommodation costs, is to be slashed by 24% from 2015.
In a speech to Women’s Aid’s annual conference in 2010 in the early days of the coalition, May told the audience that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would reverse the decline in rape crisis centres, but tentatively refused to make any funding commitments to the women’s sector in the face of looming local authority cuts. “Your problem is my problem”, May said, adding, “Success for us will not mean we’ve spent more of the money we don’t have. It will mean more women have been helped, more abusers have been brought to justice and more attitudes have been changed.”
It’s not precisely clear how May and the government expect rape crisis centres to continue to provide an identical service with less money, which perhaps explains why she is not chancellor, but does little to comfort the women in need who find their service threatened with closure. Violence against women is a problem for all of society, and without accepting that all services must be welcoming and accessible for women fleeing violence and crucially that they must be adequately funded, more women will find their lives in danger.
The benefit of having women in the cabinet remains to be seen for migrant, low-paid, or abused women. For now, it seems as though there is no difference: the powerful look after the powerful, with gender as an afterthought, or a bargaining chip when trying to deflect criticism for cuts that harm women.
Graeme has a place waiting in the recently requisitioned Walpole Bay Hotel and Nick puts him in a USG minivan with a few other recent arrivals. The rooms are all full and so a series of bunk beds and spaces for sleeping bags have been set up in the downstairs lounge. He sits in the corner feeling vulnerable, his bag held tight, wishing he hadn’t flushed that spliff away; he could do with a smoke, calm his nerves.
How much will his records get sold for? They must be worth six, seven grand if he could get full price for them, probably they will go up for auction on one of the Government’s Clawback sites and be sold for whatever anyone bids for them, anything that isn’t sold after a certain point goes to charity shops for free. He thinks maybe he can sell the records he has in the bag to pay off his debts and buy back his own stock.
The room is filling up now. A dazed looking group in black hoodies is being processed at the doorway and let into the room one by one, activists, he thinks he recognises a few. He doesn’t want to hug the bag of records too close for fear of alerting someone to their value or loosen his hold on them for fear they might be taken. If he loses this he loses everything. He can’t seem to get any kind of signal on his phone down here and needs to get online, to contact his buyer and arrange something. Money no object, they said. He’s seen tape collections go for ten, twelve grand, getting bid up on ExecutiveCollector. This is all a mistake he can rectify if he can just get online.
On the other side of the room he spots another couple of familiar faces, Giveback Partners from one of the refit jobs they did in Elephant and Castle six months ago, a horrible experience that got Graeme ever more frantically pursuing his record trading afterwards in order to stave off ever having to do it again. A group of ten of them in Giveback Boilersuits jogging in lockstep from the branded Giveback van, the team leader, ex-Army, barking instructions at them, the public spectacle of it as much a part of the exercise as anything, letting the poor know, this is what’s waiting, allowing the rich to savour the discipline.
He approaches tentatively, knows faces but not names, they all seemed alright even though they hadn’t communicated much, each one locked away in a pocket of anger and shame that seems here in the light and space of the temporary encampment to have been broken open.#
Alright boss, Graeme says. I know you mate, from Giveback up in Elephant. We did that housing estate, ripping all the old carpets up and that. For a second they look blankly at him then one of them nods, yeah, yeah, bruv. Yeah that’s right. They got you too.
What’s going on? I need to get back up to London. He’s here coincidentally, accidentally he explains, came down on some business and can’t get back up there now, hasn’t had time to sell or stash his stuff, nothing more than the shirt on his back and the phone in his hand. Can anyone get a signal? He needs to ring Matty, he’ll come and get him, ring his contact, let him know he’s got stuff, start negotiating a price. Ring Joolzy, ring the OkupaUK crew, anyone, just to let them know he’s here, that there’s been some mistake. They all shake their heads. Signal’s been jammed, something’s going on. You could try the internet café down on the front but you are not supposed to go more than quarter of a mile from your centre. How can there be no wireless, he asks, no phone signal? They’ve turned it all off. Simple as that. Plus, one of them says we know you yeah, but don’t talk to anyone you don’t know. Lot of undercover narcs about.
One of the group is telling them a story about how he had to go and work for Pret A Manger making sandwiches on a Giveback placement in a big, cold warehouse up the river, standing at a long line of other workers in white coats and hairnets at scratched silver trestle tables. He is tall, six foot three and the bench was little too low. He asked the supervisor if there was any way they could raise the table but he looked at him blankly. That’s the table we use here, he said. Then could he have a chair to sit on? We don’t have chairs, they told him. No one else is sitting down. Yeah, but I am taller than they are. The supervisor smiled. Find a solution, he said. Don’t mention it to me again.
An older guy, maybe early fifties, with a beer belly and glasses has drifted over to join them. Find a solution to being tall? Every day the pain in his back started a little earlier in the shift, until even after a weekend of lying in bed just trying to recover, using the muscles as little as possible, on the following Monday morning the pain was instantaneous, adjusting his posture slightly to pull the first two slices of bread out of the box a strap of raw muscle started heating up until after thirty minutes it was burning and making him nauseous. Every time he finished a sandwich it was pulled across the table cut and boxed then sealed. He began to slow down dramatically, shifting his weight from side to side bending and stretching, pausing as his teammate scowled impatiently at him from across the other side of the table. Each pair was assessed for productivity, each team competing with other teams, each section with others and each individual performance logged, someone would lose out, the least productive pair in each team put the whole table in danger of being deemed to be showing insufficient enthusiasm, efficiency, motivation and penalised, benefits cut, more Giveback hours extended, or worse, both. You could find yourself working more hours for free, racking up Giveback hours for a bare subsistence in terms of on-the-job food allocations. He tried to keep going he said but by the afternoon the pain was unbearable and in the half hour break he sat and wept in the company toilet wondering what the fuck he was going to do, whether they would even let him leave and dreading the sanctions they would apply, the medical tests he would have to go through, which would find him fit to work and give him pain-killers, a privilege he would have to pay for with more Giveback hours. In the end he couldn’t take it any more. And so.
Yeah. Yeah. Everyone nods.
How come you are down here? They ask a guy in his early thirties. Hi alright, he says, I am Charlie. Charlie sounds a little bit posh. He said had been stopped at the turnstile at Charing Cross by some private security guards asking him why he wanted to come into Zone 1, what the purpose of his visit was, asking why a Claimant would have any need to leave his particular, they used the word designated, Zone to come down here. I want to go to the library. You are not a student though, are you? You can do all that online. I want to go to the library, the museum, a gallery, window shopping whatever, what’s the problem with that? Loitering with no clear purpose then. Looking at your Viability Index you have got no money to spend and I am refusing you entry on reasonable suspicion of attempted non-authorised financial solicitation. ITB. Intent to Beg. After some protesting and refusal in which he was very careful not to lose his temper he was eventually escorted into a side office while his details were checked, then he was taken away and kept in police custody for 24 hours as they went round and trashed his flat looking for suspicious or subversive material. Lucky for you we didn’t find anything, they said, though we could have done if we had wanted to. Two days later he received notice that the Giveback hours incurred through the time being held in the police cell had pushed him over some preprescribed limit and that he was to report to the office down here.
They are getting serious; they are cracking the fuck down. Another guy on one of the camp beds at the back chipped in that he had been refused entry to a pub in Blackheath after his Claimant Card set off some kind of alarm behind the bar. He refused to leave and a group of big guys in rugby shirts made the fact that he was not welcome clear to him: fuck off out of here or you’ll be claiming disability from now on, one told him, to raucous laughter.
Well, she said, I was coming back home on the bus one day and I just decided, fuck it, I am going to go full default. I was working in Rootz making £6.37 an hour and I had debts, you know? There was no way I could pay it back, no way, and the interest was accumulating all the time so, I mean it was scary to do it but I’d just got paid and I knew I was going to see all of that money disappear, go to the landlord, on transport, to pay back student loans, to cover credit card bills. Already I was living in a shared house, right, in the cheapest room and every month I am just digging myself in deeper paying bills and expenses. So I ended up looking around for a cheaper place to live but they were all even further away from work so then there was extra transport costs. What can I do, right? I’m not going into one of the Beehives. I can’t live. I am working all week and I can’t live. Do more hours, work two jobs maybe but I am already doing an extra ten to twenty hours a week overtime just to show willing and keep my job at Root and Branch, so about two months ago I thought, well, I can either go back and live with my Mum and Dad or I can go full default, in which case I have got about a two week head start before the bailiffs are on to me. So that means no phone, nothing, you’re looking at five years for some of the debts to be cancelled, some of them never, always trying to stay ahead of the bailiffs, always having to find work from someone who won’t ask questions, no benefits, people always ready to grass you up, you know? The only thing worse than being a Claimant is being a defaulter as far as some people are concerned, but me, I had no choice. I couldn’t see any way out. My Mum and Dad don’t have any money to give me a leg up, you know. I worked through University, I got a good grade, I wanted to keep studying but then the prices went up, the credit dried up, the only jobs I could get were minimum wage, I didn’t know if I would be working from one week to the next. And nearly everyone I knew was the same, some of them had help but I didn’t have any lifelines, you know. So I just had to leave.
How long did you manage?
Six weeks. Immigration raided this meat packing plant I was working in up near York. There were three Brits in there; everyone else was foreign, y’know, from all over. I got shipped back down here.
How much have they got you for?
Giveback? She swallows.
Fucking years and years and years.
Who dares dissent from the gospel according to Silicon Valley? There is – we are insistently told – no alternative to the invasion of capitalist cyberspace into all areas of consciousness and culture. Anyone who expresses even the mildest scepticism about social media and smartphones is roundly denounced as nostalgic. The old, desperate not to seem out of touch, rarely dare question the young’s compulsive attachment to their smartphones. Anti-capitalists join with
tycoons to celebrate the potentials of network society. In article after article, conference after conference, the “new” is routinely equated with “the digital”, to such an extent that is now difficult to remember a time when “technology” wasn’t a shorthand for communicative software. When mobile phones entered the marketplace, they were the object of mockery: who could be so self-important as to believe that they needed to be contactable everywhere and anywhere? Now, everyone is required to act like some cross between a hustler always on the make and an addict jonesing for contact.
But how has this model of progress, in which history culminates in the glorious invention of iPhones and apps, become so uncontested? And, if we attend closely, isn’t there a desperate quality to all this cheerleading? Addicts always rationalise their compulsions, but the desperation here belongs to capital itself, which has thrown everything at the great digital swindle. Capital might still swagger like some data cowboy, but iPhones plus Victorian values can only be a steampunk throwback. The return to centuries’ old forms of exploitation is obfuscated by the distracting urgencies of digital communication.
What if Silicon Valley was not – as we are relentlessly hectored to believe – a stupendous success story but a massive monument to failure? In Defence of Serendipity encourages us to pose this counter-intuitive question. Sebastian Olma demonstrates that neoliberal capitalism has systematically destroyed the conditions which allowed Silicon Valley to emerge, at the very same time as it pimps 70s California as the definitive model for all cultural as well as business innovation. In Olma’s narrative, Steve Jobs and the other Californian oligarchs come to seem like the hapless figures from a fairy tale. They wished to totally transform the world, but instead they received unimaginable wealth. Their devices only led to more of the same: the ‘changeless change’ of a capitalism that endlessly crows about innovation in a manic attempt to cover over the glacial monotony of its homogeneity and repetitiveness. The Silicon Valley princes provided capital with new tools of capture and captivation. More than that, they gave capital a new hymn sheet, a way to sell drudgery as creativity and hyper-exploitation as sharing, so that we are all expected to be “passionate” about our cyber-serfery.
It is by now screamingly clear that innovation does not spontaneously effloresce when capital dominates society and culture. Generalised insecurity leads to sterility and repetition, not surprise and innovation. The conditions in which the new can appear have to be produced and nurtured. This, Sebastian Olma demonstrates, is the real import of the concept of serendipity when it is properly understood. The irony of Silicon Valley is that its very hegemonic dominion has contributed to the disappearance of such conditions in the capitalist world. Silicon Valley emerged from the serendipitious synthesis of the counterculture and state-sponsored cybernetics, but neoliberal capital has destroyed the possibility of a counterculture even as it has annexed and subdued the state. In Defence of Serendipity shows that that the real future is building itself beyond the instrumentalising urgencies of business, in the spaces between a new bohemia and a revived public sphere.
“There’s no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced and the preferably unheard.”—Arundhati Roy
Post-crash, countless studies have shown that the impact of cuts and austerity has been borne predominately by women. A Fawcett Society study on the impact of cuts doled out by the coalition government in the UK stated that 75% of all cuts hit women. Women with disabilities, black women, working-class women, and single mothers were the hardest hit.
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission warn that 2010–2020 will be the first decade since records began that sees a rise in absolute poverty in the UK, with the gulf between the rich and poor as irreparable. When the economy tanks, it is predictably women who suffer. The fight for women’s rights is less a long, slow march, and more like a climbing wall: it is possible to climb as well as fall, so vigilance is essential at all times. The clawing back of the welfare state is a direct attack on women’s rights, but boardroom quotas make a tidier headline, based on the assumption that certain rights have already been won.
In reaction to the argument that “there is no alternative” to cuts and austerity, with Labour and the Conservatives in the UK singing from the same hymn sheets, women’s grassroots groups have started to fight back. The Focus E15 campaign grew in Newham in response initially to Newham’s “social cleansing” of the poorest households in the borough, targeting single mothers and forcing them to relocate to cities and towns hundreds of miles away from their children’s schools, families and support networks. In 2013, a group of 29 young single mothers, many of whom were teenagers, were served with eviction notices from their specialist hostel in east London. The Focus E15 foyer provided one-bedroom apartments for the women to live in with their children, or whilst pregnant, after being made homeless, and provided targeted skills training, literacy teaching, and specialist support to help the women back into work or training. Many of the women in the £125-a-week rooms were studying, or in part-time work in the area, and one mother said she was applying for universities in London.
The funding of Supporting People, designed to help vulnerable people live independently, was slashed in England and the foyer said that without funding for specialist support, the hostel would cease to be an appropriate environment for young mothers and children. Newham Council, tasked with rehousing the women, told them they should expect to be placed outside the borough and city. A change to Newham’s housing policy meant working families and people who had served in the armed forces received priority over single mothers like the Focus E15 residents.
Rather than accept their fate, the women took action. Starting from a weekly street stall in Stratford city centre, the women explained their predicament and soon rallied around supporters and other activists. This culminated in September 2014 with an attention-grabbing protest a few minutes’ walk away next to Stratford station. Coinciding with London’s Open House weekend, where iconic and listed buildings are opened to public tours, the Focus E15 campaigners, now comprising the mothers, locals, and seasoned campaigners, broke into two empty flats.
The flats, in the Carpenters Estate, had lain empty for years. Walking around the estate, it was remarkable how many windows were boarded up, so close to the 2012 Olympic site, which had promised regeneration and wealth for a poor area. Members of the Tenant Management Organisation, responsible for managing the site, told me Newham Council had refused to allow them to let properties that became empty if families moved out, slowly turning the red-brick estate into a ghost town.
Once in, the campaigners decorated the properties with toys, soft furnishings, banners and posters and declared their own Open House. Outside, green fabric banners decorated with the slogans “These Homes Need People: These People Need Homes” were unfurled, a simple message underlining the absurdity of the situation the mothers and other homeless families in the borough were faced with. On a sunny Saturday, the flats were thronged with visitors. One room I went into was being used as an impromptu crèche: babies were happily being entertained by two locals in a former bedroom. The living room was a campaign centre, with media phone numbers tacked to the wall, alongside lists of what was needed to make the occupation work.
What was striking about the flats was their state of repair. Curious visitors who popped in after hearing of the occupation via social media and news coverage were genuinely shocked at how immaculate the decor and fittings were. Wandering around, I noticed the wallpaper looked as good as new, and the kitchen was far better than many I had seen in my own rented flats over the years. The TMO said most flats were the same: perfectly liveable, but empty by command of the council. The campaigners pointed out that it would be far easier to move women into these small family homes than ship them miles from their own families, disrupting young children’s lives.
The campaign garnered a huge amount of media and local attention, initially through social media, before being picked up by The Guardian and The Financial Times. In The Guardian, one of the mothers, Jasmin Stone, wrote:
“We wanted to participate in Open House to show how many houses sit empty in London and what an easy solution there is to the housing crisis. This crisis, as it is usually covered in the newspapers, is one experienced by the middle classes, whose steady march from private renting to home ownership has been stopped in its tracks by the hugely inflated market. For members of the working class, however, the crisis is much more virulent. It involves not only the prospect of annual rent increases, the impossibility of home ownership and poor-quality housing, but also removal and displacement from the place in which you were born, leading to isolation in a place where you know nobody and opportunities for jobs are non-existent.”
The campaign, built up over years and still fighting homelessness and gentrification in Newham, meant that a process that usually happens to women silently was brought to public attention. Individually, families facing homelessness, often single mothers because they comprise the lowest-paid and most vulnerable households, are turned away from council housing offices and left to fend for themselves, or placed in unsuitable hostels miles away from their home. Focus E15 challenged this silencing and directly linked it to the rapid development of London due to unsustainably fast house-price growth tempting investors in to make a quick buck. Councils, with slashed budgets from central government, abdicate responsibility to vulnerable residents in lieu of making some quick cash from land sales, in the process (they hope) tempting in more financially flush tenants.
This exact scenario was relayed to me in 2010, when a Newham councillor asked me what I thought the biggest problem facing Newham was (I worked as a student welfare advisor in a university in the Borough). With students, predominantly women, coming in every day complaining about homelessness, poor conditions, or that they were experiencing domes- tic violence but couldn’t afford to move out, I replied that the biggest issue was the need for more social housing. “Oh no”, he said. “That just encourages undesirables.” Instead, they needed to build more new, metropolitan flats, the kind springing up around Stratford Station and the under-development Westfield Shopping Centre. The kind that attracted bankers from nearby Canary Wharf, not the sort of people who lived and worked in Newham already.
But “undesirables” have to live somewhere, and it sticks in the craw of the rich when these “undesirables” live in an area deemed desirable by the wealthy. The New Era estate in Hoxton was bought out in May 2014 by American property develop- ment company Westbrook Partners. Letters sent following the takeover informed the 93 families living on the estate that they faced a four-fold increase in rent. For the majority of the residents, this amounted to an eviction notice: few residents, some who had lived on the estate for as many as 70 years, could afford to pay those sums even if their only outgoing was rent.
Three women took charge of the fight to keep the residents in their homes: Lindsey Garrett, Danielle Molinari and Lynsay Spiteri rallied tenants and got word out about the conditions of the takeover. That the Benyon Estate, the family business of the country’s richest MP, Richard Benyon, had a 10% stake in the estate made it easier to argue their case. The women contacted The Daily Mirror, then other papers, organised a demonstration outside Westbrook Partners’ UK offices, and presented a 300,000-signature petition to Downing St.
After months of work, the campaign had won vocal and public support from politicians across the political divide, including the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and the Mayor of Hackney, the borough the estate resides in. For the investors, the level of attention and the volume of bad publicity made their plans untenable: shortly before Christmas, the Benyon Estate pulled out, quickly followed by Westbrook Partners. The estate was sold to Dolphin Square, a charity that is committed to providing low-cost homes to people on low incomes, and ten- ants were told not to expect rent increases.
Recovering from celebrations, Molinari told the BBC: “They underestimated us three women, but also all the residents on the estate, the community spirit and what Hoxton is all about”. Garrett, currently an NHS worker, is now planning to run for London Mayor in the 2016 elections, and has been elected chair of the New Era Tenants’ Association.
The 3Cosas campaign have campaigned for better rights for cleaners (predominantly women) and fought gender discrimination and unfair dismissal cases when Unite the Union refused to recognise casual staff.
In 2013, the Home Office introduced a billboard van that drove around with the message “Here illegally? GO HOME” with a number listed for undocumented migrants to call. What the government termed the “Immigration Enforcement Campaign” quickly gained a new, more commonly used name: the “racist van”. The glory of social media is that, as with the bedroom tax, you have little control over what people describe campaigns and policies as. Once the general public insists, by virtue of sheer wilful numbers, that they are going to use one term, your more strategic title is binned by most media outlets. One young woman, who writes pseudonymously as “Pukkah Punjabi”, called the number, left a voicemail, then toyed with the Home Office operator who called her back, saying she was just after a lift back to Willesden, as that was her home. Social-media agitators continued to deluge the hotline with similar calls, until the campaign looked less Judge Dredd, more Benny Hill. Southall Black Sisters have campaigned for women for years and again hit the headlines on August 1st 2013, when they were holding a women’s advice centre. Word reached the group of an immigration raid happening close by: the women gathered and drove the van away from their centre, before intercepting and surrounding the vans with supporters and megaphones as they attempted to carry out an immigration raid. “We were all so enraged by it that we emerged from our building and followed the vehicles around Southall
shouting ‘this is racist’,” Southall Black Sisters wrote on their site. “Many of the women have escaped domestic violence and have felt trapped by their immigration status to stay in abusive marriages.” Other groups have also worked to stop raids, notably the Anti-Raids Network, and often local communities act organically to attempt to stop raids, such as in south London in June 2015, when a UKBA van was surrounded, rocked, and had its tyres slashed by locals outraged at the attack on their community and neighbours.
These groups have secured victories and publicity, not by leaning in, behaving and striving individually, but by adopting very specific strategies. Direct action is key to each movement: while petitions and lobbying of local and national politicians have complemented each campaign, it is direct action that has put the cat amongst the pigeons, and allowed the women to fully expose the horror and unfairness of the causes they are highlighting and fighting for. If housing is your issue, why not occupy empty homes to show the claim there is nowhere for vulnerable women to go is a lie? If your community is being raided and your neighbours are being bundled into a van for deportation by state thugs, why let the UK Border Agency do so quietly? Show the world what is going on every day under their noses.
Social media has been a huge force in both mobilising and publicising campaigns and injustices. While a lot has been said about the abuse prominent women receive on the internet, the ability to get online and connect with potentially millions of people who would care about your cause if they heard about it is revolutionary. For women, the democratising potential of social media networks has helped bring attention to campaigns and causes that previously would have buckled without press attention. People speaking in real time, and consistently shar- ing information, has sustained and bolstered many campaigns. Politicians are still wary of social media: some have lost jobs over unwise outbursts, but there’s also a fear of the unpredict- able networks revealing actions (such as in Newham) that tradi- tionally would have passed without outside notice or comment.
Mutual support and solidarity between neighbours and networks have been integral to many of these campaigns. Housing activists in different boroughs in London regularly disseminate email call-outs for more bodies and supplies for ongoing occupations around the capital. Actions against the UK Border Agency’s immigration raids are only made possible by communities fighting back and refusing to see someone who lives or works alongside them dragged into a van only to disappear once deported. Again, social media allows bedroom-tax campaigners to discuss tactics and loopholes nationally and provide emotional support throughout fights to keep their home.
Media attention is still integral to a successful campaign, but has changed tack in recent years. Social media now drives much news —I’ve sat in many commissioning meetings where editors have been unenthused by a story, but journalists have pointed out it’s all anyone is really discussing on social media, so choosing not to cover it looks politically motivated. A successful campaign thereby forces coverage, and coverage is the final stage in cementing victory. Politicians and forces will push not to recog- nise campaigns even when they’re attracting mass attention, but the esteem for traditional media is still far higher, and often once newspapers or TV channels get involved, victory is not far away, as the New Era Estate campaign showed.
Sisters Uncut, Southall Black Sisters, and the bulk of housing and bedroom-tax campaigners are now women, and usually working-class women, often on benefits. They are at the van- guard of anti-austerity campaigning, refusing to accept the cuts that affect women disproportionately. While austerity may be temporary (though the Conservatives and Labour seem happy to accept that it is now ideologically permanent), the effect of austerity on women and children lasts a lifetime.
In her book on class and music culture in the Nineties, Clampdown, Rhian E Jones notes that class is an endemic problem in contemporary feminism:
In mainstream politics and media, there remains a tendency for working-class women themselves to appear in feminist discourse as objects to be seen rather than heard, expected to rely on middle-class activists to articulate demands in their behalf but considered too inarticulate or otherwise “rough” to be directly engaged with.
Will that change? Who knows. But the drive towards direct action by many groups run by women should be recognised as a constructive feminist movement, and will be by anyone sensible who recognises that gender is but one part of oppression.
By occupying, withdrawing labour, and refusing to be complicit in the state’s violence against the most vulnerable in society, they show that “leaning out” of the capitalist model is far more effective at securing attention, provoking change, and ensuring demands are met than “leaning in”. Few people ever get anything radical accomplished by continuing to play the game. The women on the frontline of the new feminist campaigning accept that capitalism and the political and power elites are no friend of women, and that to have a stab at a life that can support you and your children, the answer isn’t to internalise the hatred society casts your way, but to fight to reveal injustice and refuse to participate.
Lean Out is out now, available from all good bookshops & online.
….the shabby houses of La Villette and Bercy, where famous poets spilled wine across their tattered and eternally unfinished manuscripts while dashing to the floor the inmates’ tiaras and robes de chambre in acts of romantic debauchery that, when publicized, bred ratlike sycophants, who, in seeking to nest in the shadows of the poets’ fame, infested these humble brothels and brought such demand for their women and the taste of the authentic poetic life they bestowed that the poets could no longer afford to frequent them and left behind nothing more than illicit tourist traps with re-creations of famous liaisons that had supposedly taken place there, to be viewed for ten sous through peepholes beneath bronze plaques from the Historical Society on the walls reminding visitors of whatever had taken place there during the Revolution as the proprietor shoved at them oversized coffee mugs printed with crude snapshots of their women as souvenirs, keychains with the professionally-designed logo of the brothel and its slogan in English, and oversized fanny-packs that were made in China with a secret compartment for coins, the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower stitched to the front, and an X-tra Fit elastic waistband that could stretch around the tourists to secure this distended artificial gut to the tourists’ cargo shorts, stained with McDonald’s condiments and sweat, on which they wiped their fingers after shoving a cheeseburger into their cola-scented mouths and, while chewing, bellowed their disdain for whatever painting they had, out of a sense of duty, left their Holiday Inn to see as their slimy tongues flicked little specks of mashed-up meat and bread onto the work in question to, when the accumulated cheeseburger residue came to obscure a certain percentage of the painting’s surface, be cleaned by professional art restorers, lamenting, as they delicately applied their vacuums and steam-brushes, the disrespect for the museum exhibited by the tourists, of whom few were half as destructive as one notorious visitor to France named Baruch Khazâd, future Lord Minimus, of the Isle of Minimus, a dwarf no elderly restorationist or museum owner could mention without a shudder as they warned their younger colleagues to beware tourists from the Isle, especially the male dwarfs on their plastronnage, as had been Lord Khazâd when, in 1934, having learned of the tradition when he immigrated to the Isle several months earlier from Ukraine, he rampaged through Paris in a drunken frenzy, attacking with a hammer ancient sculptures from Egypt and Greece, setting fire to paintings by Titian and Manet, and committing a lewd act upon the Arc de Triomphe, by which he claimed to be symbolically defiling all of French history as the police dragged him to the commissariat, where, as he peeked over the sill of the barred window at the city, chalk-colored under the lightly-clouded afternoon sun, they threatened him with all manner of brutality should he ever return to France, then beat him with their well-worn truncheons for a few minutes before shackling him naked to the roof of a prisoner train bound for Le Havre, as was the standard punishment in France for defacing artwork, with a ticket for a cargo ship back to the Isle, to be used should he survive the inclement weather, the storm that blew in that evening and drenched him while lightning crashed all around and filled the midnight countryside with a constant, flickering illumination that gave these fields and villages the look of the land of the dead and the two other art defacers shackled to the roof with him the look of crazed skeletons that had somehow come to life and sat themselves down on a train to terrify the clochards riding the rails in the other direction, inspiring tales of the “Vagabond-Fantôme”, who, after his myth reached the locomotive vagrants of the United States, slowly acquired the accoutrements by which this sinister figure is known today, including the tall, red top hat, the shredded tuxedo, stained with the blood of his victims, the monocle that reveals to him the sins of those he sees, the black velvet gloves over his six-fingered hands, the pair of neutered jackals named Dimnah and Kalilah on silver leashes named Rhaff and Rheffyn (fashioned by the finest craftsman of Surat and a nimble-fingered prophetess of Benares), the unspayed Tasmanian she-wolf named Amazon (left to wander freely and sniff out those guilty of committing any injustice against a vagrant or other downtrodden unfortunate), and the ivory cane, shaped into a tight spiral by the bonsai-master Prysgliach Gwrachell through binding, with a modified bonsai harness for twenty years, the living tusk of an enraged bull elephant in perpetual musth out there on the rainy northwestern peninsula of the Isle of Minimus, where, after the removal of this tusk late in its life by the Isle’s sole Nazi occupier for his own collection in 1940, the elephant ceased to patrol the peninsula as its territory and disappeared into the highlands to trample sheep, terrorize milkmaids, and evade the traps of Baruch Khazâd, still as stooped as a Béraud woman from his forced train ride six years earlier but determined to capture the legendary rogue elephant and thereby impress the young women of the Isle, who were ignoring him in favor of those dashing Resistance men fighting the Occupation from the seaside caves of the west coast and the forests of the central plateau, raiding the cities with their guns and homemade bombs to blow up a statue of Adolf Hitler in Dverberg or steal a jeep and drive it into the ocean, much to the delight of the women staring at them from the windows as they marched into town and occasionally running off to join them in their camps and cook for them or even accompany them on their attacks, as most of the Isle’s women despised the Isle’s Nazi for helping himself to food from their kitchens and groping them and their sisters or daughters in front of their subservient husbands and fathers, though not all these women shied away from his advances, and some actually made a great deal of money entertaining the Nazi in his private villa atop Bach Hill, overlooking the derelict Nouvelle-Chomedey harbor, sent there each night through the intervention of Khazâd, who used his familiarity with the Isle’s major brothel in Dverberg to secretly act as the Nazi’s “intermediary” in these matters in exchange for permission to hunt the rogue elephant, which he knew would give him the prestige to turn a few admiring eyes away from the Resistance godelureaux and toward himself, securing, through his marriage to one of the wealthier girls of the capital city, the necessary support to be named the next Lord Minimus once the Nazis, having completed their invasion of Britain and, succeeding in delivering peace to all Europe, sufficiently confident in their authority to allow the return of certain local customs they had felt it necessary to suppress during the conflict, reinstated that ancient title, which had languished, dormant, ever since the previous Lord Minimus, Carolino Gogoni, died under mysterious circumstances the day after the Nazi parachuted onto the Isle and received, despite the protestations of the Seneschal and part of the Minimal Council, Lord Gogoni’s immediate surrender, shocking this rookie paratrooper, who had undergone six months of training in anti-dwarf combat techniques in preparation for this invasion, expecting to meet heavy resistance from the famously nationalistic inhabitants, many of whom, instead, flocked to greet him and carry his luggage to the Bach Hill estate, where, after tea and boules infestées with the friendlier elders of the Council, he was led down to Lord Gogoni’s barely-seaworthy houseboat, moored in the harbor, and was formally presented, at high tide, with the Instrument of Surrender, signed by Lord Gogoni with one hundred different pens at a table set up on the houseboat’s roof, sheltered from the dismal weather by two menservants holding vast umbrella-lamps, which were printed in elaborate floral designs that threw spidery shadows across the Nazi’s face and made him appear far older when he stuck his pen in the mouth of one of the potted Venus flytraps that lined the roof and leaned back in his chair to brood on the sound of the foghorns guiding out of the harbor the boat evacuating to England a handful of families who had decided against the exercise of their patriotic duty to remain on the Isle during the Occupation while Lord Gogoni continued to pick out his name one penstroke at a time and hand off each pen as it was used to one of the many supporters filling the lower decks and spilling up the stairs, reaching out their hands as Lord Gogoni distractedly held out to them each used pen, each piece of history that would find an honored place in the home of every lucky recipient, who, years later, would, presumably, gesture to the pen on its marble dais in each of their heirloom salons and tell their grandchildren about that beautiful, sunny day they were there on Lord Gogoni’s houseboat to witness the Isle become one of the first members of the glorious Nazi empire that had now raised the swastika over every country and struck Communism, Jewery, and all other depravities from the face of the Earth, clearing the way for the Isle of Minimus to take its place at the head of human achievement, first among all nations in the eternal Reich promised by this Nazi, who sighed with boredom as he provoked the aloof flytraps and shifted uncomfortably in his tiny chair, shivering in the cold mist that blew up off the water and slowly soaked everyone on the roof, including the menservants with their umbrella-lamps, which had begun to leak water into their light bulbs and flicker ominously overhead, the dwarf octet that had, in lieu of their traditional Minimal instruments, taken up, out of respect for their German visitor, gigantic sousaphones, from which they struggled to force some semblance of Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, and the excited crowd on the stairs, who jostled and tittered with looks of dumb joy on faces dripping with rain and seawater, then gave a raucous cheer as the Nazi was at last handed the document and welcomed by Lord Gogoni to accompany him to a celebration that night in the ancient Roman fortifications overlooking the heavily polluted Dormitory Fjord on the north end of the Isle, where, in the first century AD, the Roman tactician Flavius Phallosius Maximus had drowned after his banishment from Rome for his shocking habit of wearing embroidered sleeves and a primitive wool cravat known as a polemical, which, according to dwarf legend, when it washed ashore some time later near the dwarf settlement now known as Hudson-sur-la-Manche, was interpreted to be a message from the Gods, its ornate floral pattern a strange foreign language that only the mad shaman who then ruled over the western coast of the Isle claimed to be able to decipher, the same mad shaman many dwarf historians believe to be the basis for the myth of the Nain Rouge, but who is, otherwise, poorly remembered (since he almost certainly did not exist), known mainly for sequestering himself for one month in an unidentified cave in the central hills to translate this mysterious text, which, when he at last read it aloud in translation to an assembly of dwarfs from all over the Isle, was found to be a hymn to this shaman’s greatness, a prophecy revealing that, once he, in all his magnificence, had impregnated every woman on the Isle, giants would be forever barred from approaching its shores, and the dwarfs would at last have a homeland free of foreign domination, fulfilling the dream they all shared, even on the northeast coast, among the pirate dwarfs who had supposedly rejected the culture of the western half of the Isle, though few, according to the legend, even in the shaman’s own village of Dverberg, went so far as to allow him to impregnate their wives and daughters, adopting the view, instead, that this mysterious text should be read as an allegory expressing the gods’ wish that the Isle be united under a single ruler, that dwarfs should procreate as often as possible in order to give the Isle a greater number of soldiers to defend its shores, and that giants defiled the land with their presence, brought to it a curse through the stamping of their heavy feet and the bellowing of their brutish voices, the establishment of alien customs unsuited to dwarf life, and the worship of tall gods that held dwarfs in contempt and would never answer their prayers, never accept their sacrificed goats and lambs, and never cease to help giants oppress dwarfs everywhere, which constituted a worldview that served to guide the Resistance in their five years of struggle against the Nazis, to support them in their darkest hours, forming the infrastructure of their faith that to expel this invader would bring the Isle peace, comforting them there in those frigid little rooms somewhere up in the hills as, each evening, the setting sun seemed to drag down with it all their hopes for the future, as the earth cast skyward its limitless shadow and vague shouts from the Marcellaville concentration camp echoed over the land to mix with the sound of the bombs exploding in the cafés and the wail of emergency sirens of ambulances carrying the collaborators and other victims off to the hospital where, when the Isle was at last liberated in October of 1945, the procuretrix of the Dverberg brothel, the only person, besides the Nazi, who could identify Baruch Khazâd as the one arranging the Nazi’s entertainments, as Khazâd never spoke directly to the inmates themselves face-to-face when dealing with these matters, was brought with a gunshot wound to the head and expired immediately upon arrival, prompting the Nazi, as he shared one last dinner on the veranda of his Bach Hill estate alone with young Khazâd, to joke coarsely about the “skilled aim” of this future Lord Minimus, a joke Khazâd seemed to find in poor taste, surprising the Nazi, as he had never found Khazâd to take exception to any joke, no matter how vile, no matter how scatological, racist, misogynistic, blasphemous, or antinanoidic, not even the one about the young female dwarf whose nymphomania leads her to embark on an expedition into the heart of darkest Africa, where she meets a dissolute priest whose priapismic escapades have convinced the local populace of his godhood, a witticism with a punchline so revolting that it caused Serge Gainsbourg to double over in helpless laughter when Lord Khazâd shared it with him between takes during the filming of the scene in which Anna Karina hops from petal to petal on a giant cannabis leaf painted across an empty concrete lot with Gainsbourg in the center while chanting “il m’aime, un peu, beaucoup, à la folie, pas du tout”, changing her expression drastically on each petal representing each bit of amatory prognostication from the universe, cheering on the “beaucoup” petal, waving her arms and shouting with joy on the “à la folie” petal, and finally collapsing with despair on the “pas du tout” petal, causing Karina to narrowly escape the assassin’s bullet, which zips past harmlessly into the ground, and Gainsbourg to look up from his copy of Prophetic Dreams of Abraham Lincoln 1850–1860, part of a one-hundred-volume series entitled Prophetic Dreams of the American Presidents by Sigmund Freud, and shout with annoyance at Alec Guinness, revealed (with a gong sound) as the camera pans to the right to be standing nearby with, in his leather-gloved hands, an enormous gun Gainsbourg takes from him in a choppily-edited martial arts sequence, followed by a scene in which Gainsbourg ties this inscrutable Japanese agent to the statue of the Coq Gaulois standing in front of the French pavilion and pummels him in the rain in the foreground, out of focus on the left half of the frame while, in focus on the right, Karina and Bardot dance beneath their parapluies in their cuissardes à talons hauts to the rhythm of Gainsbourg’s hit song “Bondage spécial” (he also composed the film’s main theme, “Soixante-Neuf, agent provocatif”, which he famously sang with Bardot in what some called an “obscene spectacle” at the 1968 Venice Film Festival, where the film tied for the Leone d’oro) until Guinness admits that he is in league with a sinister alliance consisting of Anglophone Canadian Peter Sellers, Soviet Commissar Marcello Mastroianni, CIA spy Lee Hazlewood, MI6 agent Michael Caine, turncoat agent of the Office québécois de la langue française Steve McQueen, and the evil supercomputer voiced by Marlon Brando, assembled together by an unknown puppet master for the purpose of exterminating the French language, a revelation that so outrages Gainsbourg that, when, in the next scene, he makes his videophone report to le général de Gaulle from his place in Habitat 67, he implores le Général to grant him authorization for Method Extreme Hostility, authorization to openly wage a campaign of total obliteration with a maximum of violence against any and every opponent of the French language encountered by the agent without making the slightest effort to disguise his actions and without any concern for the diplomatic repercussions, something, le Général tells him, a regretful look on his face on the black-and-white telescreen, he could never do, since approval for Method Extreme Hostility could only come from a unanimous vote of the Académie française, and they had not granted such approval since the conflict in Algérie ended five years earlier…
There was a point about four or five years ago, a point I’m not bothered about confirming archivally but which nonetheless definitely occurred, at which football clubs almost uniformly, if you’ll allow the pun, changed the way that they marketed their new kits. Not so long ago, you’d have found a posed shot of a star player rehearsing some fabulous piece of technique or even, where the club had a meagre branding budget, a simple team photograph which could create other revenue streams from calendars and similar items. What superseded these more traditional forms of marketing was a style of image which offers the contemporary student of semiotics much to consider. Now, the background will be an electrolysed Blade Runner gloom, perhaps with little serifs of smoke indicating some recent conflagration or catastrophe. Against this will stand three to five players, one of whom will be a goalkeeper, another a winger or attacking midfielder, and yet another a looming centre half with a backwoodsman’s beard and sleeve tattoos. Their arms are crossed and resolute; they are indomitable. The language used to sell the kits will be pared down to abstraction: ‘[Club Name] 2015 Home Kit: We Are One.’ The general tone is a seriousness so ascetic it detonates into camp, unable to withstand the internal stresses on its structure of plausibility.
Nevertheless, for some it must have the appeal of gravitas or it would simply not work as an incentive to purchase. How, then, can it be explained? First, perhaps, with recourse to a certain type of pop-cultural hetero-masculinity which (re-) emerged in the early twenty-first century, initially – if I had to pick a particular moment – with the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, but more lately underwritten and refocused with HBO’s preternaturally successful Game of Thrones. In these programmes’ fantasy second worlds
, manhood, if done properly and honourably, is a matter of disenchanted seriousness, a saddened and reluctant understanding of the inherently conflictual nature of existence. Any levity here can only manifest itself as grim irony – one does not simply walk into Mordor, remember – and all time between battles must be occupied with sorrowful renditions of stories of the travails of Good. The bearded, tattooed centre-half on the kit advert, then, is supposed to connote the fantasy version of ordeal, the effect of which is not limited to football’s contemporary image-system. Think, for example, of how car advertising has departed from its nineties staple of secure glamour to its present mood of quasi-military exertion, its stubbled protagonists surging through sodden Scandinavian or Scottish gloom in order not, as the case would once have been, to seduce, but to be reunited with family.
The last item in this chain of images is, of course, the military recruitment film, which has become, after a fashion, more honest and explicit about the danger and brutality of conflict in the period that I’m describing. In Britain, the army are no longer particularly reticent about depicting ‘live’ skirmishes in their propaganda, in part because they suspect that computer games are not far from offering a comparable intensity of experience anyway, but also because of a gathering idea which automatically associates soldiering with virtuousness. Ideally, the film prompting its audience to enlist in the Marines or for the Territorial Army shows a gunfight in Helmand, or on a generically be-jungled ‘African’ coastline populated by similarly generic ‘rebels’, before portraying the hero returning to the family that his actions have (somehow) safeguarded.
What I’m trying to get at here is how advertising aimed at men has undergone an elemental shift in how it desires, and in how it seeks to channel desire. The old, but not really that old, male utopia was one of ease, of frictionless libido cruising through a collage of Eurocentric sophistication, waking in Venice amidst the accoutrements of one erotic encounter and falling asleep in Monte Carlo amidst another’s. This no longer holds: it is perceived, understandably, as inauthentic and insufficiently austere for our times. Instead, the dream-work is of extended periods of sexual and romantic isolation in the still largely homosocial realms of military conflict or extreme exploration, interspersed with brief unifications with family. This is the logic to which football advertising in Britain increasingly appeals.
Clearly, nobody seriously thinks that the players of, say, Scunthorpe United visiting, say, Leyton Orient for an awayday is remotely comparable to a six-month tour of Helmand. Nevertheless, enough sticks from this metaphorical equivalence to make us think that footballers fulfil some kind of existential duty, something which exceeds the rubric of paid work, when they play for a team. It has long been the case that disloyalty has been the most atrocious crime a footballer can commit, but the economic insecurity of the historical moment seems to have amplified the notion that we have particular responsibilities to increasingly local social units. There is something especially interesting here in the way that football clubs now seem to be regarded as ends in themselves on this front, as entities more demanding and deserving of loyalty than the broad communities which they inhabit. One concrete example of the contrasting fortunes of club and community is Liverpool fans’ continuing failure to resist the acts of social cleansing taking place on behalf of the club in the vicinity of Anfield: evidence that This Football Club is regarded as a point of social allegiance in almost direct tension with its area. The player, in this case, is asked to behave as an avatar of that unit’s struggle in an increasingly atomised, conflictual world, and asked to buy wholesale into the ‘values’ of the ‘project’ even when those values and that project are things that have been conjured ad hoc by recently installed owners and managers whose heads have been turned by the jargon of ‘smart thinking’ books and TED talks.
‘Sport is a battle’, then, is the metaphor we are now required to live by as football fans. It came to light in a peculiarly candid way during the predictable period of recrimination following England’s equally predictable early exit from the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Even before the players had set off for home Harry Redknapp, the geezerish and journalist-friendly cockney who had been passed over for the England manager’s job in 2012 because of a pending court case, turned up in the press claiming that a number of English internationals were in the habit of begging their club managers to withdraw them from the national squad for friendly games. The allegation was stark: that some English players regard playing for their country not as an honour, but as an annoyance. England coach Roy Hodgson and his outgoing captain Steven Gerrard cannily took the sting out of Redknapp’s comments by asking him to name names, but the matter did not drop entirely. Former England striker and current light-entertainment go-to Ian Wright wrote in his column in the Sun newspaper that any player found to have shirked international ‘duty’ without good reason should be required to phone the parents of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to explain their decision to drop out.
This was imagined on Twitter in plenty of bleakly funny versions of how the transcript of such a call might read. Palpably, the suggestion was a piece of attention-seeking on the part of Wright, who has never, it seems, got over his early-career rejections or his marginalisation in the 1990s England team by more rounded strikers such as Alan Shearer. However, it spoke to something in England’s present-day ideological make-up, namely a resurgent patriotism of symbols which regards Englishness, whatever that might mean, as somehow under threat. The role the football player takes in this set of beliefs is intriguing. Wright was playing to the idea that the default setting for footballers is a patriotic one, that they feel a sense of pride in national symbols which extends beyond their utilitarian, team-bonding value. By linking this version of patriotic obligation to that of the soldier’s, he insisted tacitly on the relative unanimity of nationalistic sentiment amongst the working-class communities that both footballers and the rank-and-file military are drawn from.