August 11, 2008

From Tewkesbury To A Stakhanovism of Immaterial Labour


As No Leniency suggests, James Meek's piece on water privatisation in the LRB confirms much of what Owen claimed in this post. What's clear from Meek's article is the essential libidinal function that government plays in capitalist realism. It is there to be blamed precisely for its failure to act as a centralising power, the anger directed at it much like the fury Thomas Hardy supposedly spat at God for not existing. "Time and again, Conservative and Labour governments have discovered that when they give powers to private companies, and those private companies screw up, voters blame the government for giving the powers away, rather than the companies for misusing them. And it is much easier for governments to give powers away than to get them back."


    In Tewkesbury in general there is more hostility towards the government, the council and the Environment Agency for not stopping housebuilders than there is towards housebuilders for building houses, or buyers for buying them. When insurers raise their premiums, more blame is directed at the government for not spending enough on flood defences than at insurers for raising the premiums, or at people who choose to live in a flood-prone valley but don’t like paying extra for it.

It was the same with Northern Rock of course - the media focus quickly fell upon the way that the government handled the crisis, rather than the bank's behaviour in the first place, the way in which the catastrophe was connected to wider banking practice, the role of deregulated finance etc.

I don't for a moment want to excuse New Labour for its part in such fiascos, but it has to be recognised that this is an act of deflection. Scapegoating an impotent government (running around to clean up the messes made by its business friends) arises from bad faith, from a continuing hostility to the 'nanny state' that nevertheless goes alongside a refusal to accept the consequences of the sidelining of government in global capitalism - a sign, perhaps, that, at the level of the political unconscious, it is impossible to accept that there are no overall controllers, that the closest thing we have to ruling powers now are nebulous, unaccountable interests exercising corporate irresponsibility. A case of fetishist disavowal, perhaps - "we know perfectly well that the government is not pulling the strings, but nevertheless..."

The perception that the problem with former nationalised industries lies with government, rather than private companies who actually now run them, is as tenacious as it is widespread. Anecdotal case in point: an incident that happened when the train was stuck somewhere between Suffolk and London last year. Two old ladies were sympathising with poor private rail companies for all the money they were selflessly and generously pumping into the railways, while castigating the government for starving the railways of resources. (When I interjected to point out that the railways cost taxpayers more now than they did when they were in public ownership, there was an enormously gratifying 'McLuhan in Annie Hall' moment when a railway worker who happened to me nearby weighed in on my side.)

Meek's article also shows how this connects with a sinister race narrative, also depressingly widespread in New Labour Britain.

    [Someone affected by the flood] believes the government has starved Tewkesbury of money for flood protection, while encouraging development in flood-prone areas. The government, he pointed out, was planning to build three million houses by 2020. And why, he asked, did they want so many? ‘If you believe the Daily Express,’ he said, with a look that suggested he was being bold to raise the idea that I might not, ‘we’re going to have 600,000 immigrants a year from now on.’

A neoliberal disaster is somehow the fault of immigrants; mysteriously, however, there are few if any concerns when money from water rates is diverted to overseas companies, as Meek, piling on the irony, notes:

    One positive side of water privatisation is that it has shown a surprising degree of international generosity on the part of the English public. Popular fury at the impositions of Brussels may be mainstream, but it isn’t reflected in the calmness with which English water customers hand billions of pounds over to their monopoly water providers each year, only to see them transmit large chunks of it overseas. Anglian Water, for instance, is owned by a company called Osprey, much of which, in turn, belongs to the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. It’s impressive how little troubled the captive customers of Anglian are that whenever they turn on the tap they are, in a small way, helping to ‘sustain the future pensions of 17 million Canadians’, as the CPPIB puts it.


Just as "New Labour has managed to claim for itself the worst elements of bureaucratism - meaningless targets, idiot optimism, a contempt for privacy and an obsession with surveillance and control - without a hint of the benevolent despotism of [bodies like the London Transport Board]" (Owen), so former nationalised companies betray all the worst traits attributed to publicly owned bodies - arrogance, intransigence and a monopolistic domination of markets - but none of the public accountability. Water companies answer first to their shareholders, never to the public (the public having been liquidated/transformed/fragmented into a mass of consumers with privatization). Such companies seem peculiarly ill-prepared for when things go wrong, and, as a consumer in late, late capitalism, you increasingly exist in two, distinct realities: the one in which the services are provided without hitch, and another reality entirely, the crazed Kafka labyrinth of call centres, a world without memory, where cause and effect connect together in mysterious, unfathomable ways, where it is miracle that anything ever happens, and you lose hope of ever passing back over to the other side, where things seem to function smoothly. (Cf my recent dealings with BT... fill in your own examples...)

One of the most interesting things in Owen's post, of course, is the audacious bid to revalorise bureaucracy itself. But I wonder if it isn't planning rather than bureaucracy which is the term that ought to be valorised. The difference between the LTB programmes that Owen celebrates and New Labour/ neoliberal "administration" is that, in the former case, planning was conceived of as the origin/support for actual architectural projects; whereas, in the latter case, bureaucracy is the end goal itself, the beginning and teleological endpoint of the initiatives. (That is partly why I believe it is tactically important to retain bureaucracy as a pejorative - to argue that, far from having rid us of bureaucracy, as promised, neoliberalism has produced this bureaucracy-in-itself.) New Labour initiatives are designed to generate PR and statistics, not real world effects - or rather, real world effects matter only insofar as they register at the level of (PR) appearance. Needless to say, this is directly homologous with the way value is generated on the stock exchange, which depends of course not on what a company "really does", but on perceptions of, and beliefs about, its performance.


Which brings us to Savonarola's analysis of academic curriculum mortis. The ways in which academic work is evaluated shows that bureaucracy is not a force "out there", but something inherent to this mode of immaterial labour. The bureaucratic apparatus and its "aims and objectives" have to be internalised and incorporated into an ongoing process, an assessment without end:

    the passage from the RAE to the REF, from periodic and measured measurement (however skewed, prejudiced and instrumental to various hierarchies and supremacies) to permanent and ubiquitous measurement cannot but result in a kind of Stakhanovism of immaterial labour, which like its Stalinist forebear exceeds all rationales of instrumentality, and cannot but generate a permanent undercurrent of debilitating anxiety (since there is no standard, no amount of work will ever make you safe).
Posted by mark at August 11, 2008 04:43 PM | TrackBack