Revenge of the Thanatoids

None of this is particularly new…

— Work, CrimethInc.

One of the first questions that comes to mind in reading CrimethInc.’s recent Work is “Whom is it for?” CrimethInc. — or CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective — if you haven’t already heard of them, first surfaced with the ’90s anarcho-punk zine Inside Front. From early on, the group insisted on being seen not as an organization in the usual sense — in which deciding who belongs is the monopoly of some official authority — but merely as speaking and acting from a particular social position, that of the worker of late capitalism. It’s a position of alienation so acute, it threatens the system itself, through what they slyly refer to as “crime” — meaning all the stealthy ways individual workers now rebel: slacking, pilfering, etc. — and finally in more collective, revolutionary action. Thus far though, the collective is best known for its publications on capitalism and the state, anarchism, and direct action. In Work, the most recent of these, we’re offered a couple dozen or so two- and three-page entries on socioeconomic topics, whose range, almost certainly as a function of the book’s collective authorship, provokes that mix of feelings one has regarding most kinds of surplus. It includes all the classic recettes of Marxist thought (“Production,” “Finance,” “Unemployment”) together with a great paella of contemporary theory (“Bodies and Simulacra,” “Precarity and Vertigo,” “Gentrification”). The central idea, it should be said, couldn’t be more sound: that from top to bottom, late capitalism demands a life of work from almost all of us, and work here is very specifically identified as an activity whose essential purpose is to rob workers of part of the value of their labor.

The trouble, if it isn’t plain enough from this summary, is we’ve all already read it before, all of it. Or to put it a bit less crudely, it’s difficult to imagine this book’s circulating outside one or two of the subcultures that consume theory, and most such readers are already acquainted with its analyses at much greater length and depth. In the end, Work may be a great wonder of a thing, but one’s wondering begins with the odd sense of having been served a dish of leftovers.

Where the book speaks a little for itself about its aims, things are again more symptomatic than illuminating. The preface tells us Work is “about work, but it’s also more than that. It complements a diagram. …Together, the book and diagram outline an analysis of capitalism: what it is, how it works, how we might dismantle it.” It certainly seems that the aim here is to inform, but given what I’ve already said about the book’s analyses and actual audience, the invocation makes sense only as subjunctive: If only abstract thought were not now the currency of just the knowledge elite; if only in its late phase, capitalism had not with its terrible ubiquity foreclosed on our capacity to imagine social change. And what more proof could we want that it is frustrated desire we are dealing with here than for the preface to foreswear informing us for something like its opposite.

What qualifies us to write this: Some of us used to be students or pizza deliverers or dishwashers; others still are construction workers or graphic designers or civic-minded criminals. But all of us have lived under capitalism since we were born, and that makes us experts on it. The same goes for you. No one has to have a degree in economics to understand what’s happening: it’s enough to get a paycheck or a pink slip and pay attention. We’re suspicious of the experts who get their credentials from on high, who have the incentives to minimize things that are obvious to everyone else.

The passage is remarkable in at least two ways. We are now told none of us need informing. First, it’s enough just to have lived under capitalism. Work then is something like mere testimony to common knowledge, and here even the wish to inform blinks out. Second, the question of whether the critical social theory that subtends virtually the whole of Work could exist without its close association with credentialed elites is simply passed over here. A little further on, the preface expresses a rather different aim. Work, we’re told, “isn’t just an attempt to describe reality but also a tool with which to change it.”

If any of the words or illustrations resonate with you, don’t leave them trapped on these pages — write them on the wall, shout them over the intercom at your former workplace, change them as you see fit and release them into the world…. What we offer here is simply one perspective from our side of the counter and our side of the barricades. If it lines up with yours, let’s do something about it.

Resonate, to sound again. So the impression I described at the outset — of having heard it all before — was roughly the desired effect, the final aim being not information but incitement, moving the already perfectly well informed to action. If it were not for the strange feint toward informing, it would all be so simple — Work as anticapitalist rallying cry. Can I get an amen?

Where these very different impulses — roughly, the theoretical and the active — begin to seem much less conflicted and perhaps even mutually necessary are those passages, including the whole of the third and concluding section, that speak a little more expansively about we are rallied for, about the something in “let’s do something about it.” Work, it won’t surprise, eschews utopian scheming. The book’s premise is that late capitalism is everywhere; it’s both global and insinuating itself into the heart of what was once private life, deforming our desires. Which is to say, we simply can’t imagine a radically different world, or what we can imagine must be deeply suspect. So Work risks an image only of a beginning, and throughout the metaphor is the martial. Again and again the word is “fight.”

There is a rebel army out in the bush plotting the abolition of wage slavery, as sure as there are employees in every workplace waging guerrilla war with loafing, pilfering and disobedience — and you can join up, too, if you haven’t already.

No question, the idea of combat grows daily more appealing. We have a social system that went off the rails in the fall of 2008, and we’ve got nothing since but rescue for the plutocracy. The martial metaphor is just one element of the more general libidinal weather of Work, and taken as a whole, it’s pretty gloomy stuff. There is, for example, the strong inclination to imagine revolutionary transformation as apocalypse, as if Molotov street fighting in paralyzed cities were, like socialism in earlier formulations, a necessary transitional stage. There is also the matter of the diagram above, Packard Jennings’s schematic of contemporary capitalism. It’s brilliant stuff, Jennings’s update of the old Wobblies’ cartoon, but as David Foster Wallace points out, such things are deeply anhedonic.

One kind [of depression] is low-grade and sometimes gets called anhedonia or simple melancholy…. a kind of radical abstracting of everything, a hollowing out of stuff that used to have affective content….The anhedonic can still speak about happiness and meaning et al., but she has become incapable of feeling anything in them, of understanding anything about them, of hoping anything about them, or believing them to exist as anything more than concepts. Everything becomes an outline of the thing. Objects become schemata. The world becomes a map of the world.

One can’t help thinking in the face of all these things that Work is more thanatos than eros. Recall the libidinal wavelength of another anticapitalist collective, the Situationist International, with its techniques of dérive and détournement, where the imagination was anything but enfeebled and utopia a sort of fourth dimension of the present itself. Sous les pavés, la plage! But one ought to see such things in historical context. We’ve traveled a long way from the 1960s and the SI. At a moment like this, when capitalism is everywhere in profound crisis and all of our governing institutions plainly incapable of addressing the problem, it’s not just the invitation to combat that enjoys special appeal. The death instinct is ascendant all around us — from reality TV’s image of the social as machine of extinction to the highbrow apocalyptic ecstasies of works like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.

Still, there are historical conditions and there are historical conditions, both then and now. So to say this CrimethInc. fantasy, this zombie dream where we’re all just one street fight away from letting the whole thing burn down just to make an end, is imposed by history isn’t to say it’s imposed in the same way on all of us.We ought first to ask exactly whose history we’re dealing with here. The Thanatoids of this essay’s title are the sad ghost tribe that haunts Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, which can now be seen as the historical novel of the shift we are tracing, from the rebellion of eros to that of thanatos. Here’s how Pynchon paints them:

[The Thanatoids] long ago learned … to limit themselves … to emotions helpful in setting right whatever was keeping them from advancing further into the condition of death. Among these the most common by far was resentment, constrained as Thanatoids were by history and by rules of imbalance and restoration to feel little else beyond their needs for revenge.

Pynchon’s focus on resentment is the most striking thing in this passage. As Nietzsche unfolds it in On the Genealogy of Morals, resentment has its roots always in some ambivalence about class, and so we come full circle to Work‘s preface and the unmistakable embarrassment about theory as luxury of the knowledge elite. To understand this complex of feelings, we have to consider what happened to the university during the period Vineland recreates, including the marginalization of the humanities and social sciences, disciplines where the kind of theory we’re talking about has had its home, along with the ever more exclusive character of the university as a whole after years of defunding. To put it more concretely, the subject here is a class fraction that sees itself on the brink of annihilation and at the moment its only weapon — theory — has never seemed more starkly the indulgence of an elite. Of course, the American middle class is caught in an analogous double bind, as the liberal ideal goes by the board in late capitalism. So what ails the knowledge elite ails us all in some sense, though finally it would seem the elite are at an advantage here, all the ambivalence notwithstanding, in having theory, even if only for themselves.

One might on the principle of diversity of tactics allow CrimethInc. their thanatotic disposition — whatever floats (or sinks!) your boat! — but it’s just as tempting to borrow another old anarchist saw and urge, Physician, heal thyself. No question, there’s a little something for all of us in the game of gloom and doom, but one can’t help thinking a little more eros would help the cause. At the very least we’d have a bit more fun.

At the risk of it seeming backhanded, I’d like to conclude on a decidedly friendly note. Even as it is, Work is a terrific little book, and by little I don’t mean trivial but rather the quality admired in, say, a Swiss Army knife — so much, so ready to hand. Yes, we’ve all already read it all before, but how good to have it handed to us like this, virtually every sound argument that’s been made against capitalism since Marx. And it’s just as CrimethInc. seems to imagine: As with any multipurpose tool, the best pleasure may be in sharing the thing. It’s not for everybody, but somewhere, sometime soon, someone will need some part of this book. We needn’t be so awkward about offering what we can.