We are living through Burning Times, and there’s a comfortable section of society that refuses to acknowledge this.
Their politics are a reflection of the “ideological discipline” their middle-class jobs expect from them.
We need to do much better.
Last week I spent a few hours with the book “Disciplined Minds”, by Jeff Schmidt. I listened to it, read by Lyn Gerry, on the radio show “Unwelcome Guests”, back in 2009.
The book, published in the year 2000, examines how professionals come to think the way they do, and the ideology they perpetuate while carrying out their jobs. (see quote at the end of this post)
When I first encountered the book, I had recently graduated from University, and was working at a cafe in order to support myself while I figured out my life.
The “figuring out of life” never happened, so today, nearly 10 years later, I am still working at a cafe, once again reaching for the book for comfort and reassurance, a means to explain to my rational mind why I fail so utterly and completely at “fitting in” the world of salaried professionals.
I’m reading the book because I am growing increasingly worried at the pattern I see emerging across the mainstream “Left”, especially those who oppose the new iteration of the Labour Party, and show violent opposition to its leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The phrase popped up from the recesses of my memory, describing the comfortable professionals who oppose the merest suggestion of radical change. “Disciplined minds”.
David Graeber refers to this class “managerial feudalism”, and his book explaining the theory about the origins of what he calls “Bullshit Jobs” hasn’t been published yet, so I am forced to fill in the blanks left by these two authors and come up with my own narrative.
They Have Been Letting Me Live Here
My friend invited me to a small lunch gathering today, and I swear I tried to keep my mouth shut. I am always trying to keep my mouth shut, and always failing to do so.
There was this guy, a twenty four year old working for the government, and the issue of Brexit came up, in relation to the status of EU nationals like me. He was trying to explain that the government will be asking all EU nationals to register, and pay for the privilege. I fought back. I reminded him that this was precisely how Nazi Germany behaved with Jews at first. “Why should I have to register for anything”, I said. “I came to this country legally and have been living and working here, legally, for almost 10 years”. I got mad. He got mad. “We have been letting you live here for all this time, now you have to register or be an illegal immigrant”.
There you have it. The “Second Class Citizen” status of people like me. They have been “letting me” live here for all that time. “Letting me”.
Not 2 years ago all members of the EU were supposed to be equals, even though we weren’t. Now we truly aren’t. British people have been “letting me” live here.
For 10 years I’ve been making their coffee, cleaning their plates, serving their tables. All while they secretly and actively turn me down for every job demanding any level of intellectual skill, from the mildest form of “administrator” to fully unpaid internships. Operating by the tacit truth that those of us with a Spanish sounding surname are only good to make their coffee, clean their plates, serve their tables.
They’ve been “letting me” live here, and work as their servant, for my privilege. All while my mother wonders how is it possible that her daughter, fluent in 2 languages, with an undergraduate degree in Astrophysics and an A level in English Literature, cannot find a job better than “waitress” or “barista”.
They’ve been letting me.
The Point Past Which They Will Not Go
I’ve been noticing this pattern of behaviour from people I know “in real life”, there is a point past which their minds will not go. They are happy to talk about “bigger picture”, until the conclusions get too uncomfortable. Until we start talking about how corporations are the problem, how the banks ran the economy, how all the wealth in the rich countries is a direct result of the impoverishment of poor countries, how there is no free speech, how people who ask uncomfortable questions do not get “good jobs” in this culture. Etc.
The point past which they will not go.
This pattern that they have of simply “accepting” ideas, without questioning their foundations. Of repeating what everyone else is repeating without actually pausing to think. This being satisfied with a surface explanation.
Like how last year people kept on saying that Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t a leader, without explaining what a leader actually is, or how exactly Corbyn failed to meet those standards.
Disciplined Minds, all.
I have learned when to stop arguing with British people. And it’s at that point where their “mental wall” shows up, that point past which they will not go, least they see too much, understand too much, come to realise that the world isn’t what they think it is. Inconvenient truths, uncomfortable narratives.
I have learned when to stop arguing with British people. So I stopped.
Later on, he said that he was grateful for having had that interaction with me because he realised that he had come to agree with the government, in the short time he’s been working there. He could tell that he didn’t use to, but now he did.
I told him what I knew from having read “Disciplined Minds”. That in 10 years time he would be agreeing with the government completely, and he would not remember a time when he didn’t.
I probably shouldn’t have said that. It’s true, but I shouldn’t have said it, because it’s not good to “lock people” into a particular future, especially if that future is… “undesirable”. But I couldn’t help it, I was angry.
This modern world of ours, complete with liberal progressive politics and smartphones, is just like Orwell’s “1984”. People emerge from high school more or less “free”, but by the time they have made inroads into the “establishment”, they are docile, well trained thinkers, and come to accept the “Official” narratives as emerging solely from their own mind.
This system produces “people who are useful to hierarchies, and only to hierarchies: uncritical employees ready and able to extend the reach of their employers’ will“.
Living without a Narrative
We are witnessing the outcome of living outside of a consistent narrative for 40 years, while pretending to have one. When I say “narrative” I mean “a story we all believe in, all of us, from the top to the bottom, from the whitest to the darkest”. Wars are good for creating such a narrative, unfortunately. All of us united for “The Cause”.
What we are witnessing right now is the cumulative, drip drip effect of lying to the people for 4 decades.
“Everything is fine”, they said. “The best of all possible systems has won. And besides, there is no alternative”.
But this is not a a narrative, it’s the absence of one. It’s the purposeful dismissal of dissenting voices. It is the active erasure of different, better narratives.
This “pretending” to have a solid, consistent narrative has been getting more and more extreme, because the system is working less and less, and so there are fewer and fewer people who actually believe in it.
My friends, who are employed in much nicer, safer, more important middle class jobs, all admit to having to pretend to “care” about the organisation’s rules, its “ethos”, its goals. Everyone is pretending to care, everyone is pretending to “agree” with whatever insanity the organisation throws at them.
The modern world is an exercise in performance. Pretending to care will get you far… at least, down the well trodden path.
So, if everyone is pretending… who’s actually in charge?
The collective agreement to live without coherent narrative is not the same as actually living with a coherent narrative.
There are real life effects for those who don’t fit into a “zombie” narrative that no longer works.
These people will effectively go towards anyone who dares to put into words what they know from direct experience: that the system isn’t working.
Unfortunately those saying so are on the extreme far-right.
And we should be worried.
Middle Class Politics
Let’s just come out and say it. The middle class is not interested in radical change. It just wants to “tinker around the edges”, to improve things only so much, up until the point they derive no more benefit.
The narrative said “everything is fine now, Capitalism has won”. But everything wasn’t fine, of course. There was still sexism and racism and other isms to “smooth out”. And so, little by little, the core of the “Left” was hollowed out, to be replaced by an ungrounded “feminism” and “anti-racism” and “LGBTetc rights”. “Why should my liberation have to wait for yours?”, feminists asked, as if the worker’s revolution did nothing for women, most of whom, ehm… work for a living.
The implied assumption being that we can indeed achieve “liberation” without worker’s rights.
Out went workers’ rights, and in came empty, hollow attempts at “smoothing out” the only things that were wrong with the system, while pretending that everything else was fine. The focus was “identity”, and everything became “Identity Politics”. Intersectionality. Privilege.
How are these ideas working out, by the way?
And why am I the only one willing to point out that whatever it is we are doing, it cannot possibly be right if we end up with Mr Strumpet in the White House?
The Revenge of the Underclass
Contrast the concerns of this “identity politics” to the needs of the underclass, the “precariat”, the “unnecessariat”, people forgotten by the political class for 4 decades, left to rot under mounting deprivation, dysfunction, stagnant wages that cannot cover the basic cost of living. And think how alien the concerns about “identity” will seem to those on the old rust belt in the US, or long forgotten industrial regions in the UK.
These people are angry, and they have no means to express their anger, other than lash out at those who appear to be the winners in this unfair game we call the status quo. They lash out at their politics, their “hobby concerns”, because they don’t know how to talk about this “thing” we are not supposed to talk about, because we have reached the end of history and everything is fine now.
We are living through Burning Times, and there’s a comfortable section of society that refuses to acknowledge this.
To a certain extent we are all guilty of indifference to the burning truth of environmental collapse. It’s a reality as vast as it is uncomfortable, putting paid to our personal precious dreams of status and grandeur.
But complete environmental collapse has not happened yet, and some people enjoy more status than others. And this stings, as it has always done.
There are parts of the rich West where people cannot wait a second longer for well paid jobs and affordable houses. And they have been waiting for decades, while the conversation revolves around stopping racism, or sexism.
I understand them, which is not to say that I agree with them.
How do the rest of us manage?
Everything is spinning so fast out of control. I struggle with finding any cause not just to feel hopeful, but to keep going.
We are sleepwalking into more tragedy than any one of us can imagine, and the people in comfortable jobs, the “professional class”, the “managerial feudalism”, the very people whose job is to think critically, ask questions, demand answers, those people who are given the status and the wealth in accordance with the effort they must put in to make the world a better place, those very people are failing humanity on every level imaginable. They are failing to take a stand for anything, to believe in better, to question the authority careening us all over the cliff of viable human existence.
And all because it is just so much nicer, so much more “convenient”, to have a “good job”, a mortgage, and the little comforts and luxuries that make life under Capitalism feel bearable.
Which begs the question, how do the rest of us manage it? People like me, assuming others exist, how do they manage to live without the convenience of a “good” professional job, and the perks that come with it?
How do I manage on 12K on a GOOD year, living in London? How do I manage, being rejected from every job that pays barely more than the minimum wage, because employers, managers, professionals can apparently guess, from the text of my CV alone, that I am someone who will question “management”?
How do I manage to live without the perks that come from doing an ideological job, aiding in the justification of a moral order so repugnant, so against anything good, noble, true, that is causing the largest human-made extinction on planet Earth?
I manage. Somehow.
Even though it would pay more to be one of the “assessors” working for Atos, getting paid by the number of disabled people I declare “fit for work” and send to the bureaucratic gallows, the full-body terror of seeing their subsistence welfare money stopped, sometimes directly causing the already physically frail to die from the fear alone.
Even though it would pay considerably more to be one of the police officers currently implementing the new policy designed to fine homeless people for being homeless, for existing on public space, or for begging passersby for change.
Not that I would be considered for such jobs anyway. They could tell my heart wouldn’t be in it. I would be likely to “challenge management”.
See I failed, utterly and completely, in becoming what my parents wanted me to be, probably never holding a job of less importance than them.
I don’t know what it must be like to turn out gay when your parents expected you to be straight, but I do know what it’s like to turn out a “waitress” when your parents expected a lot better for you.
But of course I’m not supposed to say this. I’m not supposed to say anything.
I’m supposed to cry quietly in a corner, in the shadows, out of public life, and emerge back only when I have “made something of myself”.
It’s like a condition with no name.
I do wish I had “made something of myself”. I do wish I could have made my parents proud. I wish it like nothing else.
It’s just that a part of me insists I follow a different path. Even though I have no idea what this path is, or whom it could possibly benefit. I’m still on it. I walk in the dark, and all I know is that I keep walking. I walk in empty space, and sometimes I get so lost I stand still, true, but even in that stillness, there is movement.
Perhaps a part of me hopes that by walking I make that path I am meant to follow.
As Antonio Machado said:
Walker, there is no path. You make the path as you walk.
I don’t know how to finish this post. We are living through the burning times; everything “official” is dysfunctional. And this is the challenge, the conversation we have to live. Not the world that follows. The question isn’t how do we get “there”, but how do we live “here”.
“There” might take a long time to come.
I don’t want to give “advice”. Who would listen to me, anyway?
Here’s what I have to say: this is the time to stay alert, not to fall asleep amidst the comfort of conforming to a dysfunctional and destructive status quo.
Everything is dysfunctional, and everything dysfunctional is falling apart, which is to say everything we know is falling apart. And at a time when everything is falling apart, holding on to false security can be really dangerous.
We all want comfort, that’s understandable. But we can’t cling to it, or we will be dragged away when it disintegrates, the way everything else in our culture is disintegrating right now.
We need to stay awake the most precisely where we wish we could fall asleep.
The good thing is, we are all in this together.
And it’s time we came to see it that way.
Quote from Disciplined Minds:
Work in general is becoming more and more ideological, and so is the workforce that does it. As technology has made production easier, employment has shifted from factories to offices, where work revolves around inherently ideological activities, such as design, analysis, writing, accounting, marketing and other creative tasks. Of course, ideology has been a workplace issue all along: Employers have always scrutinized the attitudes and values of the people they hire, to protect themselves from unionists, radicals and others whose “bad attitude” would undermine workplace discipline. Today, however, for a relatively small but rapidly growing fraction of jobs, employers will carefully assess your attitude for an additional reason: its crucial role in the work itself. On these jobs, which are in every field, from journalism and architecture to education and commercial art, your view of the world threatens to affect not only the quantity and quality of what you produce, but also the very nature of the product. These jobs require strict adherence to an assigned point of view, and so a prerequisite for employment is the willingness and ability to exercise what I call ideological discipline.