Work / Bad Attitude
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From its inception Processed World has sought to end the silence surrounding the underside of the Information Age. The participants' political background and detailed outlook continues to be varied, a non-doctrinaire hybrid of traditions and theories. They have in common being against capital and wage labor, nationalism and governments, and for the free association of human beings in collectively determining and satisfying their needs and desires. In short, the old loathings and the old longings, called communism by millions of workers long before Lenin and his many bureaucratic followers and descendents stole the word.
Like these nameless, original theoreticians of revolution, PW collective members developed their views by bringing their critical faculties to bear on shared experiences in the world of work. The magazine's unusual and irreverent slant on issues such as ecology and women's rights stems from this anchoring in work as the primary means by which the existing society is reproduced, and has inoculated the magazine against fashionable idiocies to the effect that workers can no longer be primary actors in social transformation.
By serving as a forum for “ordinary” workers, Processed World has reinforced the often suppressed truth that social knowledge and subversive wisdom flow from people's daily lives and not from an ideology or group of experts. By building a radical publication around art and humor, PW has reemphasized the importance of immediate enjoyment, both for surviving this insane world, and for reintroducing fun into radical attempts to change it.
Processed World magazine was founded in 1981 by a small group of dissidents, mostly in their twenties, who were then working in San Francisco's financial district. The magazine's creators found themselves using their only marketable skill after years of university education: “handling information.” In spite of being employed in offices as “temps,” few really thought of themselves as “office workers.” More common was the hopeful assertion that they were photographers, writers, artists, dancers, historians or philosophers.
Beyond these creative ambitions, the choice to work “temp” was also a refusal to join the rush toward business/yuppie professionalism. Instead of 40-70 hour weeks at thankless corporate career climbing, they sought more free time to pursue their creative instincts. Nevertheless, day after day, they found themselves cramming into public transit en route to the ever-expanding Abusement Park of the financial district. Thus, from the start, the project's expressed purpose was twofold: to serve as a contact point and forum for malcontent office workers (and wage-workers in general) and to provide a creative outlet for people whose talents were blocked by what they were doing for money.
The idea for a new magazine struck one of these people, Chris Carlsson, while he was on vacation in the summer of 1980. The sources of this brainstorm were simultaneously a certain socio-economic layer of late twentieth century U.S. society, a group of friends, and certain obscure artistic and political tendencies comprising both post-New Left, post-situationist libertarian radicalism and the dissident cultural movement whose most public expression was punk and new wave music.
In the late seventies a number of radicals around San Francisco and New York who had ridden out the decline of the social opposition with brains unscrambled, principles more or less intact and rage intensified, found themselves drawn to the punk/new wave milieu. Incoherent and often crude as it was, it looked like the only game in town-the only place where fundamentals of the ruling ideology like Work, Family, Country, Obedience, and Niceness were being challenged with real panache and real venom. Some of these people formed bands while others organized shows. And still others worked in graphic media such as posters, fanzines and comic books, or revived street theater and other kinds of political performance. Between these people, numbering at most a few thousand around the country, images, ideas, jokes, slogans and techniques circulated like amphetamines in the cultural bloodstream. Before the founding ofProcessed World, several participants had already shared in such activities. Chris Carlsson, in fact, first encountered PW co-founder Caitlin Manning and early collaborator Adam Cornford in a Bay Area agit-prop group called the Union of Concerned Commies. The UCC began in early 1979 as a left-libertarian intervention into the anti-nuke movement, then at the height of its strength and militancy.
This intervention involved a serious attempt to present radical critique with attention-grabbing style and innovative use of media. For instance, the same cartoon graphics (usually by Jay Kinney and Paul Mavrides of Anarchy Comix) appeared on leaflets, posters, and T-shirts distributed at antinuke events. Some of the UCCers settled in for a sustained effort within the movement, mostly through the Abalone Alliance newspaper It's About Times.
Others, with lower tolerance for the somewhat sanctimonious neohippie antinuker culture, looked around for more exciting terrain. A glimpse of such terrain was provided by San Francisco's notorious “White Night Riot” of May 21, 1979. That night, an angry crowd of gay men and women, quickly joined by hundreds of young workers and marginals, attacked San Francisco City Hall and the police following the announcement of a slap-on-the-wrist sentence for macho former cop and former supervisor Dan White, convicted killer of Mayor George Moscone and gay supervisor Harvey Milk. Several UCCers participated in the events, and immediately afterward mass-produced a T-shirt (designed by Paul Mavrides) showing a burning cop car, the date and place of the riot, and the words “No Apologies."
The UCC’s aim and mission became lost for some members, and many of its constituents left the group or went in a different direction. A few of the former UCC populace already had a vision for continuing the spirit of the UCC. Chris Carlsson and Caitlin Manning (two former members of UCC) produced the satirical leaflet Nasty Secretary Liberation Front. One side was a mock invoice listing the prices paid by an average office worker for her unhappy life. The other was a short analytical essay called “Rebellion Behind The Typewriter.” It referred pointedly to the collective power of information handlers to subvert the circulation of capital.
A year later, in April 1981, the first Processed World hit the streets, Carlsson and Manning having been joined by ex-UCCers Adam Cornford and Christopher Winks (and Steve Stallone as pre-press consultant and printer) in producing that first issue. Finding themselves amid the bulging supply rooms of the modern office, Processed World's friends began collecting resources for the magazine; the first two issues were printed on paper unknowingly “donated” by San Francisco's major banks. A short while later, Gidget Digit and a half dozen others, mostly already friends of the founders, joined the newborn project. The cover art for PW 2 was drawn by a woman who, with her co-worker, wrote in the first wildly enthusiastic letter received by the magazine, and helped realize PW's role as forum. Another new contact, Bonita Thoreson, frustrated with her efforts to write for the proto-union “Working Women” newspaper Downtown Women's News, became an avid participant when she discovered PW's hawkers on a busy downtown street while she was temping. Other participants came in the same way. Processed World's founders saw the importance of community—without horizontal links between people in similar predicaments, no amount of rhetoric, agitation, or sabotage would begin to change conditions. Every Friday writers and editors would head out to the streets to hawk magazines, asking a dollar donation rather than “selling” so as to avoid restrictions on street merchants and to remain protected by the First Amendment's freedom of speech provisions. Collective members would don papier-mache costumes. These, like VDT heads-masks labelled “IBM—Intensely Boring Machines” and “Data Slave,” or an enormous detergent box whose familiar red-and-yellow sides read “Bound, Gagged, & TIED to useless work, day in, day out, for the rest of your life?” attracted immediate if often puzzled attention from passersby.
As the opening editorial in the very first Processed World said “Rebellion can be fun, and humor subversive.” Every issue of the magazine has dedicated at least 33% of its space to graphics, usually satirical. As part of its goal to be fun here and now, and to be an outlet for frustrated creative abilities, PW gave lots of room to graphic artists, collagists, cartoonists, and punsters.
What humor communicates is not simply the punchline or the meaning behind the joke, but also the pleasure of laughter itself. Aside from the sheer fun of it, the magazine's humor provides a more accessible, less direct way to express the attitudes and ideas put forth in the more “serious” articles. Humor has always been used to give vent to feelings and fantasies which are socially unacceptable or offensive, since jokes are less compromising than direct statements. The jokes themselves may be offensive, but ambiguous ("Does she really mean it, or is she just kidding?” ). People who won't or can't resort to open confrontation find an outlet in humor. Besides, many people don't form their critical perceptions of the world and themselves via rational, cognitive processes. The directed ambiguity of political humor can give people room to react and respond on other levels-attitudes, feelings, instincts. In a period when Northern American radicals are hanging their heads, dizzied by the speed of negative developments, there often isn't much in which to take pleasure. Or conversely, everything is so painfully ridiculous that it inspires sardonic despair. But political humor provides an antidote to either kind of hopelessness, because it exudes a disrespect for What Is that implies people can change it. Sharing humor also reinforces the immediate subjective pleasure of life, which can occasionally be the basis for bigger, more serious collective endeavors since it solidifies a sense of community among participants.
Nevertheless, humor plays an ambiguous role at work, providing means both to reinforce and to undermine the authority of managers or routines. It can reinforce authority when it serves the purpose of laughing off real problems instead of dealing with them (e.g., the ever-present office jokes about stale and toxic air). Such cracks about occupational health parallel the common jokes about carcinogens in food. Typically, the reaction is “Oh, doesn't everything cause cancer?” The sense of hopelessness is so pervasive that most of us choose not to think about it, and when confronted, to dismiss it with a cynical half-joke. It's pretty obvious who benefits from defeated humor of that sort. Moreover, a lot of job-related humor is racist or sexist, homophobic or xenophobic, and therefore divisive.
Yet the workplace is also a natural laboratory for turning humor around and reclaiming its subversive spirit. Processed World developed a humorous discourse based on the imagery and language of the business world itself. Dozens of images were gleaned from the business and computer press (Business Week, Fortune, Modern Office Procedures, Today's Office, Food Processing News and others) and then revealingly altered, or as the French would say “detournee.” Sometimes these images and slogans are used in collage, but more often they have their overt message inverted or diverted by small additions or subtractions. A subjectively truthful caption changes the sense of a conformist image, or a bland corporate catchphrase is turned inside out by a bizarre or sinister graphic.
Processed World also used humor because it serves to distance the project from the deadly self-importance of dogmatic leftists and their boring, oppressive ideas of “socialism.” Seeking to encourage utopian thinking, to instill and legitimize aspirations for a world motivated by pleasure and desire, Processed World cultivated its sense of humor at every opportunity.
Processed World —Chris Carlsson, Adam Cornford, Greg Williamson
Useful Work Versus Useless Toil
William Morris's legacy in design, and his impact upon 'The Lesser Arts,' on socialism, and on many other areas of life, are well-known. Less often recognised is that in many of his lectures and writings, Morris defined the principles, and sketched out the details, of what today would be called an "ecological society." His ideas in this area began their development in 1877, with the lectures on the relationship between art and society which he embarked upon in that year, and were refined throughout the rest of his life. His works contain a detailed analysis of why, and how, capitalism creates environmental disruption, and also explain how a revolution in the economic basis of society would lead to major ecological, and hence landscape change, and a shift in the relationship between human beings and the rest of Nature. In this, as in many other areas of thought, Morris's contribution is all-embracing, fundamental, and unrivaled.
In 'The Lesser Arts,' Morris explains how he believes that human beings will eventually transcend capitalism's preoccupation with material values, and begin to seek a more equal society, based on a more rewarding existence. In this society, there will be scope for both Art and Science to improve the quality of life, and to get rid of what today would be called pollution. It is important here, of course, to recognize that what Morris meant by Art was all of human enterprise–the production of artifacts.
For Morris, it is one of the characteristics of humanity that we decorate, and hence 'customize,' our everyday possessions. The most beautiful of these are those which, in their simplicity and their usefulness, most closely follow Nature. At one time, before the onset of capitalism, the closer relationship of European society to Nature had produced the great Gothic cathedrals, and in England, the beautiful, pre-industrial English landscape–"measured, mingled (and) varied." Under capitalism, the debasement of Art led to the debasement of Nature, so that Morris was one of the first to realize what a careful reading of Marx would also tell us–that there is a strong relationship between economy and 'landscape'.
Morris went further, however, and realized that the same forces in society which debase Nature are also those which oppress human beings (and vice versa). Central to Morris's thought is the concept of Work, as defined in pre-capitalist society, under capitalism, and in the society that was to come. In 'Useful Work versus Useless Toil' (1885) he set out his belief that Work needs to offer us three Hopes–Hope of Rest, Hope of Product, and Hope of Pleasure. By these he meant, first, the opportunity to recover from toil, both physically and mentally; second, the production of a commodity, or the giving of a service, that is of value to the community; and finally, the need for Work to allow the expression of the human personality, and human skill and ingenuity in the production of an article which is pleasurable to make, or a service which is pleasurable to give.
Under the profit system, says Morris, all three Hopes are squeezed, in the interests of profit and of competition. Hours of work are long, and goods, though they may be thought of as being of a high standard, are turned out well short of the best possible quality, owing to the need to undercut other firms and to maintain demand (via "built-in obsolescence"). A great deal of work is therefore devoted to unproductive tasks, which do not produce real value, but instead turn out goods of shoddy quality, or provide services which fall well short of the ideal.
Morris goes further, however, and demands the third Hope, that of Pleasure. For if getting rid of all unproductive work led, in present terms, to a surplus of labor, then not only could working hours become shorter, but labor inputs to production could be increased. Work could become more diverse, and increased leisure could lead, paradoxically, not to unemployment, but to an increase in the amount of work done. This would be pleasurable work, carried out for enjoyment, and for the production of use value, performed to service Needs, not Wants.
With the removal of the need to cut all costs, workplaces could become more pleasant, and small workshops built on a human scale could replace factories for most tasks. Work would become less specialized, and could therefore be rotated. Machinery could become truly labor-saving, in that it could be used to relieve arduous work, or to increase the pleasure of a particular process, whereas at present, all that "labor-saving devices" achieve is the possibility of more work for those who have them, and less for those they replace.
Goods would be better produced, and would last longer. Food would be of a better quality–a very salutary point in the light of numerous present problems with the human food chain. The advantages of such a society would be good health (freedom from the diseases of poverty, of industry, and of excess), a good, liberal education for a diverse and flexible lifestyle (as opposed to training for a purely economic role in a conformist society, or "education for leisure" i.e. for the scrapheap), real leisure (the freedom and the ability to express oneself), a healthy, unpolluted environment of small communities, pleasant workshops, clean air and water, decent housing, gardens, fields and woods; and underlying all a sense of community, contrasting so sharply with the ethos of contemporary Britain. Like Marx, then, Morris showed how "surplus value" leads to exploitation, but the realization that this applied not just to the majority of humanity, but to the whole of Nature. Morris also stressed the importance of what we may call "surplus product”–the over-production of shoddy, trashy goods, and the over-exploitation of Nature needed to support it.
Struggle for the Vision Fair: Morris and Ecology - Paddy O'Sullivan
Excerpted from William Morris’s Useful Work versus Useless Toil, first given as a lecture in 1884:
The above title may strike some of my readers as strange. It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it—he is “employed,” as the phrase goes; and most of those who are well-to-do cheer on the happy worker with congratulations and praises, if he is only “industrious” enough and deprives himself of all pleasure and holidays in the sacred cause of labour. In short, it has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself—a convenient belief to those who live on the labour of others. But as to those on whom they live, I recommend them not to take it on trust, but to look into the matter a little deeper.
Let us grant, first, that the race of man must either labour or perish. Nature does not give us our livelihood gratis; we must win it by toil of some sort of degree. Let us see, then, if she does not give us some compensation for this compulsion to labour, since certainly in other matters she takes care to make the acts necessary to the continuance of life in the individual and the race not only endurable, but even pleasurable.
You may be sure that she does so, that it is of the nature of man, when he is not diseased, to take pleasure in his work under certain conditions. And, yet, we must say in the teeth of the hypocritical praise of all labour, whatsoever it may be, of which I have made mention, that there is some labour which is so far from being a blessing that it is a curse; that it would be better for the community and for the worker if the latter were to fold his hands and refuse to work, and either die or let us pack him off to the workhouse or prison—which you will.
Here, you see, are two kinds of work—one good, the other bad; one not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life; the other a mere curse, a burden to life.
What is the difference between them, then? This: one has hope in it, the other has not. It is manly to do the one kind of work, and manly also to refuse to do the other.
What is the nature of the hope which, when it is present in work, makes it worth doing?
It is threefold, I think—hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself; and hope of these also in some abundance and of good quality; rest enough and good enough to be worth having; product worth having by one who is neither a fool nor an ascetic; pleasure enough for all for us to be conscious of it while we are at work; not a mere habit, the loss of which we shall feel as a fidgety man feels the loss of the bit of string he fidgets with.
I have put the hope of rest first because it is the simplest and most natural part of our hope. Whatever pleasure there is in some work, there is certainly some pain in all work, the beast-like pain of stirring up our slumbering energies to action, the beast-like dread of change when things are pretty well with us; and the compensation for this animal pain is animal rest. We must feel while we are working that the time will come when we shall not have to work. Also the rest, when it comes, must be long enough to allow us to enjoy it; it must be longer than is merely necessary for us to recover the strength we have expended in working, and it must be animal rest also in this, that it must not be disturbed by anxiety, else we shall not be able to enjoy it. If we have this amount and kind of rest we shall, so far, be no worse off than the beasts.
As to the hope of product, I have said that Nature compels us to work for that. It remains for us to look to it that we do really produce something, and not nothing, or at least nothing that we want or are allowed to use. If we look to this and use our wills we shall, so far, be better than machines.
The hope of pleasure in the work itself: how strange that hope must seem to some of my readers—to most of them! Yet I think that to all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong. But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works. Not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of the men of past ages guide his hands; and, as a part of the human race, he creates. If we work thus we shall be men, and our days will be happy and eventful.
Thus worthy work carries with it the hope of pleasure in rest, the hope of pleasure in our using what it makes, and the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill.
All other work but this is worthless; it is slaves’ work—mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.
It is clear that we are in almost the same unsatisfactory situation as the one Morris so eloquently wrote about, in 1884. In many ways, our situation is even more dire and pressing than mankind’s situation was in those days. A modern interpretation of Morris’ writings demonstrates a clear need for a revival of the Arts and Crafts Movement’s ethos and a revolution in the way we work and produce. It demands political and societal change.
While the class distinctions William Morris described are, today, blurred and deemphasized, the same dynamics still apply. There is a parasitic class of people that steal from the productive. It is costing us the Earth, creating unconscionable waste and rendering people’s working lives a living misery.