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Friday
Jul032009

industrial strength capitalism

My grandfather Colonel H. Twigger, before he joined the army, ran away from home and got a job working on an early car assembly line in Britain in the 1920s. It was not an hourly wage but piece work. Being a nascent polymath Col H saw that the eight bolts and five springs he had to fit could be added far faster if he built a series of jigs to make the process even faster. Every time he came into work he would assemble his special bolt and spring loading jigs and get to work. His Stakhnaovite output was so astonishing the other workers got nervous and told him to slow down. He was making them look bad, worse, it could mean a lowering of the amount paid per piece. Finally ‘management’ sent the time and motion study group to investigate. The word was that they would adjust downwards the piece rate for everyone if his output was really that high. Colonel H saw them coming, disassembled his jigs and allowed them to time him unassisted. A good time they concurred, but not a great one. The rate stayed the same. Then back came the jigs- and his wages at the end of the month were higher than the foreman. Finally he was rumbled. Did they ask him to design jigs for the whole factory? No. He was fired for deceitful practices and inciting worker discontent. But then Col H never was one for buttering people up.

The whole logic of industrial strength capitalism is in this little story. 1)jobs that are complex- how many people do you know who could build a car- are broken down so that anyone can do it 2)there are lots of anyones out there and you employ them 3)but only the least intelligent and least active will remain unbored by such undemanding work- work should stretch us- not dull us to yawning tedium 4)so people are paid to be bored- and paying people to do something is what Pavlov called conditioning so 5)the capitalist world is a conditioning machine producing bored people.

Boredom. Marx sort of edged around the idea by talking about alienation, but had convoluted ideas about its cause. Boredom describes it better for our time and place. And every job is always in the process of being broken down into simpler and simpler bits so that anyone can do it. Every job- even the ‘professional’ ones. Of course we still need a few specialists, a few wizards- but fewer than you might think. Industrial strength capitalism yearns for one product domination. If Hollywood could produce one film a year and make more money that way- it would. Thankfully the realer world isn’t that simple.

Caught up in the maw of industrial strength capitalism you are part of a machine designed, without malice, a side effect merely, to make people bored. That could be a terrible thing if there weren’t escape routes all around. It’s still pretty unpleasant. The escape routes are small scale capitalism, doing your own thing, lifeshifting.

The bad kids on crap estates learn young, pick it up from their surroundings. They always whinge- ‘there’s nothing to do here’- of course there are a million things to do – just go online and find out how to build a sailboat from stuff in the skip- but that rightwing-take misses the point: they are telling us  “We have been trained to be bored. We are bored. The training succeeded.”

Who wasn’t bored at school? The quick kids get bored if the teacher paces the class for the slower ones. The slower ones switch off and get bored if the pace is fast. Five years to learn how to not-order a coffee in French- that’s not teaching that’s mind boggling. Training for work though. Training to be bored.

Boring people are strangely fascinating, up to a point. They are usually thick skinned, fond of the sound of their own voices. Sometimes, if a bore is interested in the same subject as you, it can be interesting- for a while- and then you realize what is happening- a)the bore is only interested in what you say as a springboard for his next boreload and b)he does not distinguish in interest between things even in the realm under examination. Everything is equal.

The bore, lacking the fundamental human quality of discernment- ie. what to ignore and what to pay attention to- concentrates instead on a tiny field where he doesn’t need any quality control. He can abdicate responsibility, put that part of his brain to sleep and graze equally on everything.

But it’s a fundamental human quality.

What you ignore and what you pay attention to.  It has been said that the difference between high achievers and the rest is that the high achiever makes better choices about what to pay attention to. Certainly in the field of aikido the top people don’t think about ‘the right move’- which obsesses beginners,  but about something as simple as balance. They are paying attention to different things.

Boredom is one thing. Being trained to be bored is another. We learn young. My first job was washing cars at a garage. I was paid for three hours but if I finished all the cars they let me go early- but I got less money. So I always took three hours. It was mostly boring. I took to phoning in sick from time to time. Finally I was a bit surprised that they fired me. Another job I had was to input data into a computer. Instead of seeing it as a challenge I thought: screw this and walked out. Sadly that was one of the better jobs I ever had.

The fact is- for a short period or if you are really desperate for cash you can bite the bullet and really demolish any kind of job however boring. But for a longer period, boredom is a killer- literally- cancer is more likely to occur in people who describe their lives and work as ‘boring’.

Those who can deal best with a boring job are perhaps the bores. Lacking discrimination they can mechanically coast through the day. Industrial stength capitalism is a machine that favours bores and creates boredom. Wow! That’s quite an achievement!

 

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