Sunday, December 4, 2016

"Do better": the ideological Taylorism of liberal activism


One of the most odious and monstrous features of capitalism is its ever-intensifying and all-consuming demand for productivity. This drive is most visible in the workplace, where scientific management - also known as Taylorism - is constantly coming up with ways to optimize the performance and efficiency of workers in order to drive up production and drive down costs. Taylorism is why offices are always experimenting with new innovations like standing desks, suggestions for how to get work done during one's commute, Inbox Zero rules, and so on; the goal is to exercise such absolute control over employees that you can squeeze as much work out of them as possible.

But as we see in Taylorism's interest in commuting, capitalism's efficiency and productivity obsessions have a way of creeping into our personal lives as well. Sometimes this is clearly a matter of taking our jobs home, as when employees are expected to be on-call; but Taylorism also infiltrates parts of our lives that have no immediate relationship to work. How many of your smartphone apps are designed to organize and manage various aspects of your life as efficiently as possible? How much of your self-image revolves around eating, exercising, dating, and even relaxing as optimally as you can?

Even our politics can become infiltrated with the ideology of Taylorism, demanding that we must constantly exercise our political agency with absolute efficacy - that we must always, as the liberal catch phrase goes, "do better". We should watch every penny we spend to make sure that it doesn't end up in the pocket of some right-wing corporate oligarch; we should refine our rhetoric so that it has a maximum consequentialist impact on The Discourse, regardless of whether what we are saying happens to be true or correct; we should personally recycle every last soda can in order to drive down our carbon footprint and save the earth through sheer popular meticulousness - you can even get a quantified score on your efforts!

Taylorism is so deeply ingrained into capitalist ideology that all of this seems obvious, even trivial, to most people: we should seek to live our lives as efficiently and productively as possible.

Return, however, to the workplace. What if, instead of exclusively valuing productivity and profits, we also valued the worker's experience of being at work? After all, adults spend an enormous percentage of their waking lives in the office, or at the cash register, or in the warehouse; so it seems like there should also be some value in making the experience as edifying, as pleasant, and yes, even as relaxing as possible. Consider for example Homer Simpson's plan to improve workplace productivity with hammocks. Even if this had no impact on productivity either way, wouldn't there still be some value in having a workplace where we could lie in hammocks? What if, in fact, there were an extremely tiny negative impact on profits; might that not, for society, still be outweighed by the sheer luxury of having hammocks in the office?

Now, extend this line of thought to the political sphere. As political scientists have long observed, being an informed voter takes effort: you have to educate yourself, you have to constantly keep up with current events, you have to study topics that you might not know much about but that can have major consequences for society, and so on. This is all labor that we do in order to exercise our political franchise as productively as possible. But obviously, no one spends all of their time watching the news, or studying policy, or researching candidates. It doesn't matter how serious the circumstances are, or how high the stakes: ultimately, no one believes that they should have to spend every waking moment of their life actively fighting political battles.

If you are a socialist, this makes perfect sense. The fight against capitalism can completely destroy your life, if you let it; we all do what we can, but ultimately, everyone also has the right to try to enjoy their brief time on earth, to try to experience something beyond the class struggle, to live not as mere foils to capitalism, but as humans. There is certainly a balance to be struck here, but it is not the socialist who argues against striking a balance - it is the totalitarian ethic of capitalist Taylorism, with its endless demand for productivity in all things, that rejects any sort of balance. That is the voice that incessantly and relentlessly asks, "Why are you doing this instead of being productive? Why must you indulge in this tactic or that rhetoric, when this thing or that approach would be marginally more efficient and effective?"

Buy into that kind of critique, without placing any value in things like "having a laugh with friends" or "being honest", and you'll have liberal scolds giving your every tweet a ruthless utilitarian score for its infinitesimal effect on the political bottom line. A totalitarian politics that exercises such ruthless control over the minutia of our lives in the name of class struggle is not one that the leftist should accept. On the contrary - we must always remember that the class struggle is itself a form of oppression, and that while socialists have taken up this fight, we did not ask for it. It has been imposed upon us by the domination of the powerful. But Emma Goldman put it best:
One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause...I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it.