Coming of Age

They all want the impossible, namely, the conditions of bourgeois existence without the necessary consequences of those conditions. None of them understands that the bourgeois form of production is historical and transitory, just as the feudal form was. This mistake arises from the fact that the bourgeois man is to them the only possible basis of every society; they cannot imagine a society in which men have ceased to be bourgeois.

    Karl Marx


It is a trying experience to hear my coworkers on the line grumble about ‘what’s wrong with the world.’ There’s a vague sense that the present organization of society is headed for catastrophe, but the accompanying assumption is that we’ll be reduced “to eating acorns” (a favorite scenario), as if the collapse of the fetish forms meant the evaporation of material wealth, as if the vegetables we’re packing would be inedible (and ungrowable) without their price tags.

The fetishes of money and the nation-state appear so total, even the wildest desires and demands my coworkers voice fall neatly within their horizon. They want more money for themselves, for ‘the people’ who ‘deserve’ it (with no talk of how they’d like to live — the need for money being the only true need produced by the economic system, and its quantity its only effective quality). And they want the government to ‘do useful things’ for this deserving ‘people’ (a nationally-bounded people, presumably), rather than serve the interests of ‘corporate greed.’

The unquestioned assumptions that no matter what, we necessarily have to ‘work for a living’ (even if for the dreamed-of higher wage), and that there must always be a ‘they’ who ought to provide ‘us’ with services and rule us ‘in our interest’ exemplify the strange mix of unthought hyperactivism (the ‘work ethic’) and narrow passivity that constitutes the anthropological type of bourgeois man, all the more strikingly in the era of its long, agonizing decomposition.

I don’t know how to say to my fellow workers: I don’t want more money, I want unqualified access to the means of life with no relation to labor time or exchange, and, I don’t want a better ‘government’ standing over us, I want everyone to have control over and responsibility for the context and content of her own life. I may hint at such things, if I can bear to take part in such conversations at all, but I’m reluctant to say them outright: I fear I’d be told I’m crazy, and that’s impossible, ‘utopian.’ And I suppose it is, for bourgeois man.

The dream of better-paying wage labor and a better state suggests that one is willing to keep doing tedious, often obviously pointless toil for 40+ hours a week (and be grateful for it — the really unfortunate ones can’t even find an exploiter), but not willing to participate in making and executing important decisions about the life and functioning of society. Communism — that is, freedom — simultaneously asks less and more of human beings, that is why they are afraid of it, so much so that they can scarcely think of it. Those of us who do think of it are more than a little uneasy at the prospect. Honestly, having been unsocially socialized, I take comfort in the fact that my only real bond with society sits silently in my wallet; that as long as I pay my rent and bills and taxes, when I get off work (the only time I absolutely have to interact with people), I can lay on the couch and not speak to a soul and no one will ask anything of me.

Capital’s reward for our labor is comfortable relief from freedom — once off the clock, having played out the role of the ‘well-integrated working adult’ for the requisite length of time, we can largely regress to the infantile, dependent state of the spectator. The end of labor is frightening because it also means the end of leisure (at least in its present ‘mindless’ form as abstract antithesis of labor). The worry ‘but what would we do with all that free time?’ stares down the worry ‘but who would take care of everything?’ across the uncomfortable silence of the unspeakably obvious answer. Communism would mean emerging from man’s self-incurred immaturity... and no one wants to grow up.

A New Institute for Social Research