Wednesday, December 11, 2013

2H2K - June 2050 - Bohème Rule: An Introduction

Luke Wilson in Idiocracy (2006) 

Last Monday I was getting on the elevator with my neighbor (an older artist), her daughter (a ballet dancer), and her grandson (a toddler). I asked after their Thanks Giving holiday, and my neighbor said it was great, that because her daughter took charge of cooking she had time to relax and "get some work done." It made me laugh, and I told her that she sounded like every artist I've ever met - a joke she and her daughter both understood. Unlike most worker who, Marx rightly pointed out, are "alienate from their labor" - who work in order to afford time to do things other than work -  artists work to afford to work. Marx argued that "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” But I am not concerned with what artists make as individuals, but how and why they work as a class. And what it would mean if the Bohème became societies new Middle Class.

The question remains, can we get there from here? Marx summed up his dismissal of the Lumpenproletariat, by denouncing them as that "which the French call la bohème"; artists have never been anyones idea of good citizens, but that has to be a historical low. The challenge, therefor, is not only to imagine the Bohème, not as Marx did (as a "class fraction" lacking revolutionary potential), but rather as a the Sixties radical, Huey P Newton imagined them: "As the ruling circle continue to build their technocracy, more and more of the proletariat will become unemployable, become lumpen, until they have become the popular class, the revolutionary class." Or perhaps, less radically, as Teddy Roosevelt imagined the swelling class of his times; as a third party, along side Capital, Labor. Teddy and his Progressive contemporaries were the first to imagine Consumers as deserving an equal place at the political table.

A Bohème class would be empowered, bot by revolution, by virtue of the swelling numbers Huey Newton predicted. To imagine this new lumpen-class of unemployed and unemployable doesn't take much of a stretch of the imagination. In addition to the homeless, grifters, intellectuals and artists that Marx pointed to, the so called "precariat" or "freeters" are now hiving off the upper reaches of the working classes and the lower strata of the professions in alarmingly high and growing numbers. Before too long, it is this new Lumpen class that politicians will need to address as the "general public."

The American Civil War was what the language scholar and fantasy novelist J. R. R. Tolkien dubbed a "eucatastrophe." Tolkien's neologism takes the Greek prefix εὖ, which means "good," and modifies catastrophe, a term that originally came from classical literary criticism, and referred to the tragic turn of events at the end of a story. Tolkien coined the word to refer to "the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce)."

Tolkien believed that "the Resurrection was the greatest 'eucatastrophe' possible in the greatest Fairy Story." I recently called the zombie apocalypse a Eucatrophia. War, assassination, economic panic, and war shaped our responses to the social shocks of Industrial Revolution - and that is the context in which we should understand the Civil War, industrialization. And like the crucifixion, the outcome was more than an aftermath; there were opportunities (taken and squandered) to change course, right wrongs. Opportunities for redemption - the full extent of which would take a full century to actually achieve.

The "End of Work/End of Jobs" is a social shock on par with the end of slavery. According to the historian David Blight, the largest slave economy in the history of the world was the American South. The second largest slave economy in the history of the world, according to Blight was the Antebellum South's contemporary, Czarist Russia. The American Civil War ended the former (1860), The Russian Revolution the latter (1917).

Marx believed the Civil war was a victory of the Capitalist Bourgeoisie over the Aristocratic slave holders, and that it presaged the victory of the Proletariat over the Capitalists - as happened in Russia (where Marx never expected a revolution). But Blight argues that the Civil War was more complicated than Marx imagined; that it was a battle between two equally virulent forms capitalism.

Countering the idea that the slave economy of the Antebellum South was economically unsustainable, Blight points to recent scholarship that show that it was an extremely profitable system. And, Blight walks through the fact that the 3 million African Americans held in bondage were treated as capital investments - used as collateral for loans from London bankers and sold to pay debts. Calculated as such the Southern slaves were worth as much, if not more than, all the factories and rail roads of the North. But Blight also reminds us that the great majority of Southerners owned no slaves. Just like the  in the North, that the vast majority of the "means of production" were owned by a very small elite.

One likes to think that at least a portion of this distribution must have been due to moral disgust. That the ethical blinders needed to own a human being - or a factory or a tenement in an age of Laissez-faire capitalism - marked the soul. But owning a robot has no moral cost. And while it is easy to imagine a DRM dystopia - of centralized ownership of robots by a later-day Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates - one does not imagine that social order as stable over the long term. Once the software and needed mechanisms are developed pirating would be too easy.

And more crucially, owning a robot would too quickly become a necessity. The situation would be akin to Teddy Roosevelt's, who had to contend with the absolutist property right claims of mine owners in 1902. "Of course we have nothing whatever to do with this coal strike and no earthly responsibility for it," Roosevelt wrote to the powerful conservative Senator Mark Hanna. "But the public at large will tend to visit upon our heads responsibility for the shortage in coal precisely as Kansas and Nebraska visited upon our heads their failure to raise good crops in the arid belt, eight, ten, or a dozen years ago."

As Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us in her book Bully Pulpit, the political elite of Roosevelt's time was deeply under the sway of a laissez-faire capitalist ideology - a set of ideas that had lead to great concentrations of wealth, as well as profoundly corrupt political and economic systems. In our age of robust regulation, Civil Rights, Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, it is easy to imagine the US - moved by an ideology of "ownership" & "entrepreneurship" as self determination - tilting the field in order to make the barrier to free and fair access to robots as low as possible.

Marx was almost certainly right to dismiss the Lumpenproletariat as having no revolutionary potential. But Marx grossly underestimated the power of Progressive reformers. It may be that the consumers of the 20th Century were the "decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie" - but swollen to numbers Marx could have never imagined possible. Although perhaps less adventurous than Marx imagine, the prudishness, conformity, and quiet desperation of the Eisenhower age certainly fits within the frame of the Bourgeoisie.

With the End of Jobs is is the other end of Marx's rogue's gallery that will mount the apex of the social bell curve: "vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars." This is an ugly snapshot of the Bohème. But one could just as easily update that list with Williamsburg careerlets - trustifarians, designer druggists, DJs, bloggers, pencil sharpener, rooftop farmer, information visualizer, app designer... - and the seedbed of a very strange, but really interesting, political class begins to take shape in the mind's eye.

The movie Idiocracy imagines the Bohème rule as an unalloyed catastrophe; a dystopia of nose pickers and big box stores. The assumption is that vulgarity is a form of degeneration. That our debased social mores are a symptom of our moral and intellectual debasement. But the opposite is true. As the middle of society - that portion with middling authority, but also that portion that occupies the middle of the social bell curve - as that middle follows the trajectory of increasingly informality, taking on the crude character of the Lumpen classes, society has become more stable, not less.

While today's US is undeniably more vulgar than the Petite Bourgeoisie consumers that emerged under Roosevelt and peaked in influence under Eisenhower, we are also less violent, less racist, less misogynistic, less homophobic, better informed, more open, and innovative. That goes even more so for the aristocratic society that gave way to the Bourgeoisie in America's Civil War. It is not a huge stretch to imagine the next class to rise will be an improvement on our own. That the Lumpen - as Marx summed them up: "the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème" will be a vulgar class like artists; a class of producers who look forward to having some time to relax and get some work done.

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