Who gets to make art?

Play this in the background while you read. You know you want to.
She studied sculpture at St. Martin’s College
That’s where I caught her eye
She told me that her dad was loaded
I said, “In that case I’ll have a rum and coca cola.”

Last Christmas, a friend got me a subscription to the London Review of Books, the purveyor of all things middlebrow to the chattering elites. It’s been a welcome salve to the indignities of the daily grind: on lunchhours I can escape from my desk and delve into a world of parlours, salons and galleries.
Marge and Homer at the art gallery

However, after months of reading, the reviews are starting to congeal into an overarching pattern that can be summed up in two words: class privilege. The literary and artistic worlds are full of people rich enough to have leisure time to be creative. And more importantly, they have the confidence to believe that their vision of the world is worth expressing. Here are some examples:

Born in 1844 as the eldest of nine children to a well-off Anglican family, he grew up surrounded by music and art: his father was a marine adjuster who wrote a book about shipwrecks (as well as a book of poems). Hopkins went up to Balliol to do Greats(1)

Does it help to know that she was the eldest of five children born to bourgeois parents in Gotha, Thuringia, or to learn that she left school at 15 because her insurance agent father and amateur painter mother decided she was needed at home? Perhaps not, until one discovers that it was only in 1912, at the age of 21, that she moved to Berlin to pursue her studies(2)

The simplest starting point – and also the ultimate answer – is to say what Bagehot undoubtedly was, thoroughly, professionally and ancestrally: a banker.(3)

Dreams vs Reality (Father Ted)

This world is not mine. Successful artists are scions of bankers, the bourgeois and the well-off. This isn’t a judgment on the quality of their work (not yet anyways), just the circumstances that allowed them to create it.

In 1954, the sculptor Phyllis Lambert was living in Paris when her father, Samuel Bronfman, sent her pictures of the 34-storey skyscraper he planned to build on Park Avenue in New York. Bronfman, the Canadian ‘whisky king’ who owned Seagram distillers … Bronfman, [was] keen to have his strong-willed daughter back from Paris, where she had gone looking for a fresh start after a short-lived marriage to a Belgian banker, [and] gave her the job of choosing an alternative [architect].(4)

‘How did you get to Berlin?’ I asked Francis [Bacon]…. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘my father found me wearing my mother’s underclothes, and to put me right he sent me to a friend – like my father, a horse trainer…. who took me to Berlin. He was very rich and we stayed in a grand hotel. That was the first time I had sex with anyone. From there, I went to Paris. My mother sent me three pounds a week. I never really went back to Ireland.’(5)

The material of the chronicles seems like Howard’s natural and inevitable subject: the tangled but ordinary enough private lives of a fairly undistinguished upper-middle-class family, loosely based on her own, between the 1930s and 1950s.(6)

Why should anyone other than the upper-middle-class want to read about these lives? Is it a case of aspirational entertainment?

But this isn’t TV, and I doubt millions of harassed secretaries and fast food workers are rushing home to read about the drugs Christopher Isherwood took in Berlin. These quotes aren’t plucked selectively from reviews of worker-poets, either; they’re representative samples. I’m also leaving out stories of monarchs, generals and capitalist art collectors, frequent topics of LRB biography but for whom a wealthy background is to be expected. And if our cultural reference-points are made by and about rich people, how much of a leap is it to assume they’re for rich people too?
Homer billionaire

he is undoubtedly a fascinating figure in his own right; one of those English (or in his case Anglo-Irish-Scottish) upperish-class oddballs who enliven Our Island Story… His family had come down in the world, mainly because of his father’s goings-on, which is why he didn’t attend a convention public school”(7)

From the start, she was the beneficiary of her parents’ middle-class smarts. A precociously dreamy, sky-eyed teen daughter, she was wisely shepherded. Family and management were merged”(8)

Antoni Tàpies was born into a cultured Catalan family in Barcelona in 1923. His great-grandfather had been deputy mayor of the city in 1888, … Tàpies’s grandfather was one of the founders of the Lliga Regionalista, the political party that represented Catalan interests.(9)

In Mumbai, Hodgkin has a studio in his hotel. He has another studio in the grounds of his house in Normandy. Paintings are often started in one place and finished elsewhere. The ‘elsewhere’ is an important part of the painting process. Because some of them take years to complete, this is a matter of necessity; time is also a medium for Hodgkin, through the processes of deliberation and detachment.(10)

Ah yes, deliberation and detachment: you can be sure that art made under those circumstances will speak to the world at large.
So bourgeois (Matrix II)

It’s impossible for the class background of these artists not to seep into the art itself:

Mr. X, a bureaucrat at the UN Secretariat, who, with his wife and child,
Lived in a collapsing Gatsby mansion in Oyster Bayt
My wife and I rented half of for that summer, depended for everything
On Shantilal, the sweet houseboy with a shy moustache
Who did everything with a smile…

I glance out the window at the apartment building across Broadway
And see someone looking at me from exactly my floor.(11)

For the record, a studio apartment on Broadway starts at $2,600/month. It makes sense that the only place you’ll see someone else earning that kind of income is from the window of the building opposite. Ever lived in a mansion or had a houseboy? You’re more likely to have been a houseboy.

If her new collection had a motto it might be the title of a characteristic piece, ‘I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable’. Here the sections bathed in white space are single short sentences, a litany of trivial complaints: ‘The cat has ringworm’, say, or ‘This pesto is hard to blend.’… it seems wrong to detect any satirical intent in the whole. These aren’t being offered as shameful examples of what are disparagingly called ‘First World problems’ but as a piecemeal portrait of a real state of mind, a place that most people visit often enough.(12)

The last sentence is the clue – not just to the poetry, the LRB, or even the class of people allowed to make art, but to the ideology their privileged lives create. To assume that lumpy pesto can stand in for all of life’s ills betrays what Bourdieu called the distance from necessity. It gives a universal voice to a lifestyle enjoyed by a tiny sliver of the world’s population.
Poor to rich (JCVD)

With respect to the poet and reviewer, a state of bored frustration is not “a place that most people visit often”: that place is reserved for having to pay the rent, evade collection agencies, work meaningless jobs to pay off debt or just scramble desperately to find those jobs. If having to pry a cat’s jaw open and drop a pill down its throat (I’ve done that, it’s an art) was a mirror that accurately reflected my reality, I’d be an artist.
Office work (The Matrix)
Where is the art that reflects this reality?

What emerges from these dozens of snapshots are thoughtful, intelligent, troubled, observant, deeply creative figures who reproduce the pleasures and blindspots of their class. This is clear by how they snap back to form when confronted with real life for the working classes. Here’s a painterly couple:

When Ben Nicholson and Winifred Roberts got married, in 1920, they had everything they wanted: time and leisure to paint in, and enough of Winifred’s family money to travel wherever they liked. … They rented – and later, with the help of Winifred’s father, a former undersecretary of state for India, bought – a house above Lake Lugano in Switzerland, near the Italian border. ‘We do absolutely nothing,’ Winifred wrote in a letter home, ‘but paint all day, eat supper and tea at 6.30 wash brushes and prepare canvases, go to bed and dream painting. Sometimes we go for a walk to look for new painty things.’

But sensing that muses need to be fed on sterner stuff, they go back to the UK and find poorer artists to associate with, including Alfred Wallis, a Cornwall fisherman:

He used boat paint, which was easily found in St Ives… Wallis himself, explaining his work, wrote: ‘What I do mosley is what use To Bee out of my own memery what we may never see again.’ Ben became Wallis’s champion … and his unofficial dealer, showing his work to all his friends in London:… For his part, Wallis went on painting as he always had, despite his new celebrity. He spent his last years in the Madron Institute, a workhouse in Penzance; Ben would occasionally visit with supplies of boat paint.(13)

So, Ben Nicholson was champion enough to sell on his works in his wealthy circles, and to keep supplying the outsider artist with paint. But a house in Switzerland is only for those who deserve it: Wallis stays in the workhouse.
Alfred Wallis’ substitute Swiss chalet in Cornwall.

The contempt for the poor occasionally surfaces:

As a child [author] Henry Rider Haggard was believed to be stupid: his father told him he was destined to become a greengrocer. The books aren’t proof that he wasn’t stupid.(14)

But at least he was saved from dispensing groceries, the fate of the truly stupid. Self-awareness, the defensive shield of the privileged, does get hoisted occasionally. From an academic’s description that compares being a British professor in America with Edward Said’s forced exile of the migrant Palestinian:

there’s probably something a bit ridiculous in these privileged laments – oh, sing ’dem Harvard blues, white boy! But I am trying to describe some kind of loss, some kind of falling away.(15)

In what universe is “My town was the university and the cathedral: it seemed that almost everyone who lived on our street was an academic” equatable with getting shot in the back? It would be unfair to ignore the exceptions that prove the rule, so here are two.

Gazdanov was born in 1903 in St Petersburg, to an upper-middle-class family that was Ossetian in origin but Russian-speaking and Orthodox. At 16, he joined the White Army…

Gazdanov’s first job was lugging 36-pound sacks on and off the barges of the Seine; when he couldn’t stand it any longer, he got work washing locomotives. He was homeless for a winter, sleeping on pavements and in Metro stations, until he was taken on at the Citroën factory; he gave that up when he was almost killed by an oncoming lorry, and realised he was going deaf. He got a desk job at Hachette, but found it too difficult to pretend to work for eight hours a day, and soon left that too. Then he settled on the profession that he would stick with for twenty years: driving a taxi at night.(16)

Hard work (Anna)

Willeford was born in 1919 in Little Rock, Arkansas. By the time he was eight, both his parents had died of TB and he was living in Los Angeles with his grandmother, at least on weekends. Monday to Friday, he was sent to live in a boys’ home…

At the age of 13, at the peak of the Great Depression, Willeford ran away from home, boarded a freight train and spent the next year as a hobo, riding the rails like an extra from The Grapes of Wrath…

He would be in and out of the military for the next two decades. He spent two years in the Philippines as a driver of fire engines and petrol tankers, and as a chef.(17)

Willeford, the crime author, is described as being “in a category all of his own in the annals of American crime writing. He is neither glamorous nor pulpy… He simply wrote crime fiction as though reporting real life.” I’d suggest that’s because the space needed to create art is rarely granted to those too busy living, and those poor people, who through skill or luck manage to create that space, reflect their own real lives.

But is it true that whose privilege enables them abstraction and contemplation create art, while those driving petrol tankers are reporters? I’d argue that both are reporters. The wealthy artists are ‘reporting’ the rarefied obsessions and neuroses of the leisured classes, while the worker-artists are reporting on the lives of the world’s majority. Which is the real art?
Thumbs up (Brush with Greatness)
Working class artists do exist.

Not making this up
(1) Vendler, Helen. “I have not lived up to it.” Rev. of The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins Vols I-II: Correspondence, edited by R. K. R. Thorton and Catherine Phillips. London Review of Books 36.7 (2014): 13-18. 25 May 2014.
(2) Wagner, Anne. “At the Whitechapel.” London Review of Books 36.4 (2014): 26. 25 May 2014.
(3) Mount, Ferdinand. “All the Sad Sages.” Rev. of Memoirs of Walter Bagehot, by Frank Prochaska. London Review of Books 36.3 (2014): 9-11. 25 May 2014.
(4) Turner, Christopher. “I am not a world improver.” Rev. of Building Seagram, by Phyllis Lambert and Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, by Franz Schulze and Edward Windhorst. London Review of Books 36.3 (2014): 19-20. 25 May 2014.
(5) O’Hagan, Andrew. “Kitty still pines for his dearest Dub.” Rev. of Becoming a Londoner: A Diary, by David Plante and The Animals: Love Letters between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, edited by Katherine Bucknell. London Review of Books 36.3 (2014): 21-23. 25 May 2014 .
(6) Hadley, Tessa. “Pour a stiff drink.” Rev. of All Change, by Elizabeth Jane Howard. London Review of Books 36.3 (2014): 31-32. 25 May 2014.
(7) Porter, Bernard. “Too Glorious for Words.” Rev. of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson. London Review of Books 36.7 (2014): 23-24. 25 May 2014.
(8) Penman, Ian. “Sonic Foam.” London Review of Books 36.8 (2014): 11-12. 25 May 2014.
(9) Tóibín, Colm. “Notes from the Land of the Dead.” Rev. of A Personal Memoir: Fragments for an Autobiography, by Antoni Tàpies, translated by Josep Miquel Sobrer and Complete Writings Volume II: Collected Essays, by Antoni Tàpies, translated by Josep Miquel Sobrer. London Review of Books 36.6 (2014): 15-20. 25 May 2014.
(10) Stonard, John-Paul. “In the Studio.” London Review of Books 36.2 (2014): 37. 25 May 2014 .
(11) Seidel, Frederick. “Morning and Melancholia.” London Review of Books 36.8 (2014): 16. 25 May 2014.
(12) Mars-Jones, Adam. “Reality Is Worse.” Rev. of Can’t and Won’t, by Lydia Davis. London Review of Books 36.8 (2014): 15-16. 25 May 2014.
(13) Birne, Eleanor. “At Kettle’s Yard.” London Review of Books 36.8 (2014): 18. 25 May 2014.
(14) Rundell, Katherine. “Fashionable Gore.” Rev. of King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard and She, by H. Rider Haggard. London Review of Books 36.7 (2014): 33-34. 25 May 2014.
(15) Wood, James. “On Not Going Home.” London Review of Books 36.4 (2014): 3-8. 25 May 2014.
(16) Pinkham, Sophie. “Waiting for Something Unexpected.” Rev. of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, by Gaito Gazdanov, translated by Bryan Karetnyk. London Review of Books 36.5 (2014): 36-37. 25 May 2014.
(17) Frears, Will. “Futzing Around.” Rev. of Miami Blues, by Charles Willeford. London Review of Books 36.6 (2014): 39-41. 25 May 2014.


Work it

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“So isn’t that what we’re all asking in our own lives — ‘where’s my elephant?’ I know that’s what I’ve been asking.”

The ending of political commitment is often termed a retreat from the public sphere. Left or right, activists give up on mobilizing people through various methods – party organizing, public speaking, union agitation, etc – and turn inwards, to the private sphere of work and family.

I first encountered this in a novel when I was 14. A lord is offered the chance of political office and influence, but prefers his castle and the company of his doe-eyed mistress. I instantly identified with him, despite the novel painting him as a failure and minor character, because I wanted a castle too. (My feminist consciousness was too embryonic to wonder why the mistress only got one sentence, and that one devoted to her doe eyes.) I sensed that the preconditions for politics were not just passion but security. Unless you’re a fulltime activist, or lucky enough to have activist opportunities at your workplace, activism is volunteer work that demands huge investments of time and interpersonal skills. You need to not have to worry about your pay cheque, health, retirement, and terrible job in order to do something about the world. Thee Faction are correct: time is better is than wages. But it’s not a choice for most workers. Activism needs time and distance from the capital-labour relationship.

This does not mean workers are ignorant of how capitalist society treats them. On the contrary, workers experience it more acutely than anyone else. Speaking personally, I care more than ever about the injustices of capitalism, because I have to experience them daily. I may not have the physical or mental energy to strategize or philosophize when I’m working full time, looking for work, etc. But I feel the need for revolution most deeply when I’m on the morning bus, stuck in Seoul’s perpetual heavy traffic that dims the horizon with fumes. It’s the experience of work that both makes politics necessary and very difficult to engage in.

Poverty frightens me (Rome Open City)

My music at work

To cope with this post-graduation narrowing of political horizons, I’ve been listening to music constantly at work. I’ve looked for songs about the deadly sameness of work. Here are a few:

Notice they’re all dad-rock. Is there a reason there aren’t any contemporary pop songs that speak to working class alienation? Is it because of the neoliberalization of the music industry? In other words, are there no working class musicians, or have working class musicians become wholly aspirational? The Guardian’s songs about work series was by and large a majority of old songs, or songs from niche genres. It’s been decades since pop songs could say terrible, accurate things about how most people spend their days.

Maybe the explosion of nostalgia for past genres by younger generations, isn’t just due to the rise of technology. Maybe it’s because contemporary music doesn’t speak to people’s experiences. There was always formulaic shit music, but the bands that came from working class backgrounds, and sang about working class lives, also got exposure. Where are those voices now? Where’s The Jam, The Smiths, innumerable funk bands?

You have something that belongs to us (Masters of the Universe)
A future, some reflection of our collective experiences, creativity and autonomy…

I was your teacha

These questions have been sparked by my continuing failing attempts to get into academia. At this point, after months of fruitless trying, when I could’ve taught myself Korean, learned how to program or acquainted myself with the history of experimental film in the time spent applying for jobs, it’s a reasonable question to ask: why bother? If the working conditions and future prospects are so dismal in academia, why do I keep trying, like so many others? Post-grads are smart people, surely we can figure out the odds. Our enthusiasm can’t all be professional snobbery or being misled by department heads. The answer, I’d suggest, is that anyone who’s ever had a ‘real job’ knows that academia is an escape from the drudgery. It’s that hope that keeps a million adjuncts holding on in vain.


However, it’s the lack of that knowledge that keeps the Human Resource industry churning out vague affirmations like:

recognize and remember that you are the final arbiter of any job offer. If you want to remain in academia, that is your choice. Similarly, if you want to leave academia, that is your choice. Whatever choice you decide to make is the right choice.

Like all falsehoods, this has a grain of truth. Sometimes you can leave, but then you face the reality that no HR guru will ever, ever acknowledge: being a professor is a good job, not just because of the money (though that’s not bad), but because it gives you creativity and control.

I’m shocked by how nobody ever says this. Being a professor means hundreds of people hang on your every word, and those words are topics you’ve studied and are interested in – or at least, topics that you can give an interesting take on. Sure, they’re often not listening for the right reasons: the students want the grade, not your wisdom. But there are always a few in each class you can reach. Your job is to convince people of something, and to judge how well they understand you. However much the students might resent being there, they need you. That’s an incredibly powerful position.


Let’s not pretend most jobs are equivalent to this. I’d imagine senior management positions in the private or NGO sector have similar levels of autonomy, but to prosper in these jobs you need to buy into a mission that’s not your own. As a professor, a large part of your job is to design courses: shape a debate on an important issue and present that to students. As an executive, a large part of your job is to make the company profitable. I don’t believe it’s possible to feel as part of that process compared to making money off your opinions. It’s part of the reason why academia pays less: doing something that you get to believe in is part of the deal.

As for the vast majority of other jobs, explain to me how serving muffins or making coffee or filing or filling insurance claims or a million other socially useless jobs come close in terms of satisfaction. I’ve worked many of them, and they don’t. To claim they do is not only patronizing and classist: it proves that HR professionals are blinkered ideologues.

Letting me work (Billy Liar)

Proof of how terrible most jobs are isn’t necessary for most workers. Proof of the shocking ignorance of HR professionals comes further down the paragraph:

it is common for PhDs, especially those in the humanities, to maintain that they are “over-qualified for the typing pool and under-qualified for a real job,” this is patently untrue (we also find it a stunning and very sad comment on how academics view their education).

She’s lying. This is patently true: I’ve been told to my face by employers that I’m overqualified. I lie to them, not because I like the typing pool but because I need to pay my rent. Is this a stunning and sad form of elitism? Having spent the last year feeling stunned and sad every day on my way to work, I’d like the HR professional to step in my shoes. Say goodbye to the speaking engagements, comped breakfasts and conference per diems. No more concerned VP Admins or minor Department of Education bureaucrats trying to solve the supply-side of the labour market by paying you $1000 a day. No newspaper calling you up for a column. Say hello to repetitive rote tasks, to which your labour contributes an infinitesimal part; sitting at a desk and typing until your wrist hurts because you have daily deadlines; and the firm knowledge that nobody knows or cares what you do, because it has no impact on politics, economics or social policy. That is real work: dispensing career advice is precious, dilettantish fantasy whose main purpose is to transfer blame for alienation from the ruling class to workers themselves.

You can't change (Billy Liar)
Otherwise, how would we maintain the uninterrupted accumulation of capital?

The best way to identify this class bias is to see its opposite. I was dumbfounded to read that tenured professors are the most unhappy members of academia (“Why are associate professors so unhappy?”) Listen to their explanation of why a $70K job for life is difficult:

I’ve looked behind the curtain, and Oz just isn’t all that great. Everybody is asked to do a whole bunch of stuff we didn’t sign on for, like sitting on an admissions committee debating whether someone with a 15 ACT score should be admitted. It all feels so much more plebeian and mundane.

You have to sit on a committee? Imagine how mundane it feels to be the person with the score whose future depends on whether you’re in a good mood because you’ve drunk enough coffee today? Think about the billions of people who ‘didn’t sign on for’ sublimating all their creative energy into creating forms or gadget parts, whose ability to express themselves is not just truncated but smashed. It’s the expectations of this pampered professional layer that expresses the pre-existing class position of academics. They are workers, but their origins lie elsewhere.

Grateful for office job (Billy Liar)

This is the secret of the lengthening queue for academic jobs. Being a professional is wonderful compared to the other options. Yes, of course we have to unionize academia and erase the divisions between professions. The first step is organizing campus-wide unions that include faculty and cafeteria workers. But you don’t get there by denying those divisions exist. Even paying a cleaner the wages of a tenured faculty member wouldn’t make those jobs equivalent. The prof would still have it a thousand times better.

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Trigger Warning

A trigger warning is material that can cause distress to traumatized people. Trauma happens when you receive a mental shock so threatening to your safety – say, getting shot – that you can’t store it as memory. You get blocked and the memory remains present, as if it’s happening now. Any feature that reminds you of that trauma brings it back: a sight, sound, smell, it doesn’t matter. It’s no accident that PTSD was first identified in American veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, and that some radical treatments for it have come out of treating victims of terrorist bombings.

War: an accepted source of trauma

It’s become common to write ‘trigger warning’ before an article or picture that deals with violent imagery. However, arguments against trigger warnings have also appeared and become mainstream after Oberlin College, a small liberal arts institution, advised instructors to avoid presenting material that would remind sexual assault survivors of their trauma. Numerous editorials appeared about those crazy liberals and their thin skins, but there were two counter-arguments worth taking seriously.

1) Well-meaning liberals warned of the dangers of censorship:

Students should be pushed to defend their ideas and to see the world from a variety of perspectives. Trigger warnings don’t just warn students of potentially triggering material; they effectively shut down particular lines of discussion with “that’s triggering”.

I usually care about censorship when governments censor radical ideas. But that’s not really necessary these days: the weight of new material published daily smothers radical or controversial material, and the liberal fiction of ‘giving equal weight to all sides’ simply ensures that the powerful can create new sides when necessary. Censoring harmful material is a different, more complex issue, and I don’t think people should get carte blanche to try and hurt or trigger others.

suffering 2
But if it’s too intense, it doesn’t contribute much of anything

2) This is the more serious critique that some leftists have advanced. Triggers are not just seeing something you don’t like, but come out of trauma, or more specifically, Post-Traumatic Distress Syndrome. If the problem is just trigger warnings, that’s another way of saying “Violence exists but let’s not talk about it.” In fact, media triggers are the tip of the iceberg. War, gendered sexual violence and disasters are the real traumas of capitalism and patriarchy. Trigger warnings are just a way to trivialize real trauma.

What is trauma?

The problem with this argument is that it assumes trauma is acute: a single big event. But trauma is also chronic: a slow accumulation of humiliations can also become trauma and leave someone just as PTSDed – and open to triggers – as a survivor of a drone attack. Humans are complex because their environments are complex, and there’s no way to codify the point at which something becomes a trigger. Some people go through bombings and make art; others get bullied and become shrinking wrecks.

Bart shocked

Chronic trauma

Does acknowledging chronic trauma diminish the real suffering of those who went through acute events? I don’t think so. With research showing that the impact of bullying lasts your whole life, I think chronic trauma’s impact is real and quantifiable. [Edit: See The Guardian‘s harrowing account of boarding school abuse:

Psychiatrists I have spoken to agree that, yes, while sexual and physical abuse is the headline grabber (and what makes criminal cases), real damage is done to children and adults by long-term psychological abuse. A child may recover from a blow, but not from the withdrawal of love and the denial of safety – the “complex trauma” child psychologists talk of.


Chronic trauma is a thing, and it’s equatable to acute trauma in the long term. Real violence, however slight, can accumulate. However, this doesn’t mean acute pain hurts less. It clearly hurts a lot more in the moment. It’s telling that the symptoms of PTSD are equally available for victims of terrorism and victims of loveless childhoods. We’re all individuals: there is no way to equate differing sufferings, which is a morally odious exercise anyway.

Bart anxious

And this is my problem with the calls to prioritize acute trauma over other varieties: it ranks suffering, and who gets to suffer the most? For example, I volunteered teaching English to Somali women refugees who left their countries fleeing violence. They were some of the most upbeat people I’d ever been around, constantly joking; only once did a grandma tell me that she had to leave when unnamed assailants seized her property, and the inference was clear that she was next. If I had to pick a group of most-traumatized, they’d get the medal. But there was no way to decide if they had suffered more than, say, the Chilean refugees from the Pinochet regime, or the Iranian refugees from the Ayatollah’s regime that I’ve met, worked and joked with.

Instead of ranking – which is endemic to language politics for some reason – we need to recognize how harmful all violence is: physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and their social subtext. And given the breathtaking sweep of daily violence committed against and by so many, that can lead to a sense of despair. I think that’s a deeper source of the reaction against trigger warnings. They raise another, equally frightening prospect: that daily life in capitalism is so difficult that we’re all traumatized.

Homer traumatized (The Blunder Years)

The wilting class

Earning my bread (Le Mepris)

My new job is, in fact, as bad as I expected it. Actually worse, because I didn’t anticipate the crushing effect of lack of sleep on my ability to think clearly and work creatively. It’s partly because I live in an older house, which effectively transmits the footsteps of my upstairs neighbour every morning at 6am. It’s also because my efforts to cope properly – cook, exercise, socialize, meditate – take time that eight hours in an office and two hours’ commute have already spoken for. But it’s mainly the mental energy of a demanding job that leaves me a stooped-over, bleary shell by Wednesday’s end. Which still leaves two more days to shuffle through.

Working life (Masculin Feminin)

I turn 40 in a month. The fact that I’ve achieved such an advanced age is a victory in itself, because I’m still 22 in my head. But that’s also part of the problem. If I imagined myself at 40 at that age at all, it was a dim, fuzzy outline of someone with a home and a job that built on years of experience. (For some reason I also had a white clapboard house and dark hair – no idea which sitcom rerun that came from.) It was certainly not as part of the precariat.

Let’s get the self-pity stuff out of the way. I know other people have it worse off than I do. I know. The problem with capitalism is that a few people have it much, much better and refuse to share their ill-gotten gains with the rest of us. I write this in the expectation of empathy, not sympathy. If you can’t identify with what I’m faced with, you are very lucky. But chances are that you can.

Rich vs poor (Hitchhikers)

I’m highly skeptical of the capitalist/Protestant work ethic – most work in capitalism is a waste of time, hence the appeal of unalienated labour through hobbies and sport. But as someone from a petty bourgeois background, since fallen into the working class, I did not sit on my hands for the last 10 years. I got a PhD, wrote academic and popular publications, edited, networked and poured hours into self-improvement and skills development. I lived on well-below poverty line wages, put up with substandard housing, didn’t take holidays or buy myself nice gadgets. I did so to discount my present into the future. Now I’ve been out of school for a year, and the payoff has yet to arrive. Like everyone else searching for that mythical meritocracy, I believed that if only I could get the qualifications, it would pay off in job satisfaction and savings. But millions of other people have tried this path, and now we’re all competing with each other for jobs that don’t exist, realising that we were actually just products for our schools’ own quest for profit.

Student (The Young Ones)

This could go two ways. I can internalize it, blaming myself for not being saleable enough, not making the right decisions about career paths. Or I can get mad at a system that wastes the talents of most of humanity to keep a few multi-billionaires getting rich faster than a few other multi-billionaires. In typically measured fashion, I’m doing both.

I was asking my – quite sweet and gentle – coworker what’s his motivation for our job, and he said that was personal. So, let’s pull back the curtain on the hidden abode of production that no one ever talks about. The ‘problem’ is that the discipline of the work day has little to do with my internal life. I want time to think about life and politics; even accepting the reality that I have to be in an office for eight hours a day, I want time to calm myself down, to reflect on where I’ve been and convince myself this is temporary. I don’t have that time. Instead, nearly every minute of my day is geared towards reproducing my labour power: cooking, cleaning, sleeping.

Not interested (Big Man Japan)

What’s my motivation?

For workers, hard work is something to escape from. Workers experience work as awful, so they imagine being rich means not working. But rich people ‘work’ very hard. CEOs are happy to advertise their four hours’ a night sleep schedule as proof that they deserve their success. I don’t buy the biological explanation: I think they’re sleepless because they have meaningful work, and their decisions instantly set in motion hundreds of people. That power is addictive and fulfilling. Anyone with it would naturally love work. When rich people say the poor are lazy, they’re transposing their class experience onto another class. The poor experience work as more control, and the effects of constant alienation are exhausting. It’s why workers view wealth as a means to get nice things – holidays, houses, and cars, and most importantly to stop working – rather than as capital, a chance to re-enter the competitive accumulation process with a leg up.

Office robot (Love & Hate)

This is best expressed in the subjective experience of work time. As a student, I would ease myself into blocks of writing and, as I warmed to the subject, lose track of time. At the office, I am time’s carcase, as Marx so aptly put it. I subdivide my time into smaller and smaller segments: the time till I can escape. 20 minutes till break, 45 minutes to lunch, 1.5 hours till 5pm. The worst is after lunch when I have 3-4 hours still to go, and the time just drags. Yet at the end of the week, the time seems to have flown and the days have bled into one another.

What is an adult?

I used to think that the main reason people have children is for company. Now I think it’s also an accomplishment outside of the work process. It holds out the promise of a non-commodified relationship that, like everything else, is commodified from the moment of conception. And even more importantly, they embody the frustrated hopes of their parents for escape from the ravages of time-discipline they were subjected to. Yet because children are the next generation of workers, they fail to escape capitalist discipline and invest their hopes in their children, over and over again so that a few people can enjoy a life of meaning and control.

Funny dog to make life worthwhile (The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show)

The discourse of responsibility, maturity and adulthood needs unpacking. On the surface, it simply means delayed gratification: putting off your immediate needs to achieve a greater goal in the future. This is basic Self development. But like everything, capitalism has colonised it, so that being responsible now means ignoring your own needs in favour of the company’s. It means channeling your creativity towards an alien goal: creating something that the company ‘wants’ because it makes a profit, not something you want because it expresses and develops your inner drives and capacities. This is why capitalism has to keep people in a constant haze of distraction: too much knowledge of one’s potential wasted on rote tasks with no point to them, and you grind to a halt. It’s inefficient to have workers who read. And it’s why workers who have trouble conforming to the work process are considered churlish, or even childish.

Office Lounge (Smoking Room)

Childish is a good adjective, because children are not yet assimilated to capitalist discipline. So in a sense, when worker daydream or make mistakes, they are repeating unalienated behaviour from their past, when activity was play and not work. As adults, that potential for creativity is sublimated and expressed in drinking, sabotage, lateness – all the things workers do to make the day go by. And in the heightened stress and tension of managers, as they make themselves believe that the company’s goals are their own, channelling their anger at not being able to express their unspoken, inchoate desires into the minutiae of meeting deadlines and enforcing discipline. That creativity never goes away, of course. Personally, I’m interested to see my tastes in film veering towards the absurd and apocalyptic, like the scene in Brazil where Sam Lowry destroys the pneumatic tube system in his office. My music at work now includes the different themes from LocoRoco. Somehow they capture perfectly the insanity of what I’m doing.

I’m tired of living perpetually in the future, waiting for a career that brings a glimmer of meaning and stability. I’m a trained educator and researcher and writer who’s never had a job teaching or researching or writing. Although I work with words, I won’t dignify what I do now with the moniker ‘writing’. As Hollywood screenwriters never cease to remind us, a midlife crisis is when you realize all your efforts to build a comfortable life haven’t made you happy. Agreed – not that we couldn’t see far fewer white male professionals finding themselves on screen. But I’ve reached that magical age and have never had a career to get tired of.

My circumstances are nothing special or remarkable. To reiterate, many people have it harder than I do. But somehow that makes it worse, because this doesn’t feel reasonable or middling at all.

Life is worthwhile. Love is beautiful. Friends are incredibly valuable. All these things remain true. For most of us, work remains something we have to eke out meaning in spite of. For those of us who manage to be at the center of capitalism and the margins of our own lives simultaneously, keep strong. We have to create our own meanings.
Jeon Tae-Il, martyr and founder of the modern Korean labour movement

The problem with open source, Part II

To continue from yesterday, where we were discussing how corporations benefit from Linux:

Q: So, if I understand you correctly, Linux is a tool for battling the monopoly power of the big players – at least, the failed monopolists hope so? That’s really interesting, and a breath of fresh air after so much utopian Linux-promotion (or just plain old libertarian ‘no corporation will tell me what to do’ Linux-promotion.)

A: Yeah, the perception that ‘free software’ is the preserve of brilliant but withdrawn twenty-somethings working in their mother’s basement is quite mistaken. A high proportion of Linux kernel developers, for instance, are employed by large commercial concerns, and I think this is down to a recognition that completely closed standards (such as the old MS Office file formats) but also conflicting-if-otherwise-open technical standards (such as were manifest during the ‘UNIX wars’ of the mid-1980s onwards) led, in one way or another, to Microsoft’s de facto software monopoly.

I love machines (Ghost in the Shell)

Free software is politically interesting in that it isn’t reducible to a mere ethic of almsgiving (or a socialism of consumption alone), since it permits (or in the case of copyleft licences, semi-compels) code to be redistributed in a form that allows anyone to modify and incorporate it for their own ends. Undoubtedly, it’s fostered the adoption of open, non-patented technical standards to an extent that would have seemed unthinkable twenty years ago, and in consequence Microsoft, which had hitherto dubbed copylefted free software a ‘cancer’ and ‘communism’, now offers users of its Windows Server software – under a comprehensive system of technical support – the possibility of running virtualised versions of Linux.

The political price of having so much code held in common in this way, however, is that while HP and IBM might not directly control the direction of the development of, say, the Linux kernel project, the software developers employed by HP and IBM to work on Linux are ultimately beholden to their employer’s strategic interests, so in a roundabout way Linux development ultimately serves commercial rather than technical ends (a point sometimes made by OpenBSD developers concerning the quality of Linux code in general, and the Linux project’s relatively lax attitude toward security matters in particular). Perhaps we could say – although this should hardly come as news – that the importance of free software lies in the politically instructive nature of its failure: where for Richard Stallman in the ’80s free software seemed to promise something akin to the free development of each through the free development of all (albeit strictly within the sphere of software-coding), today it’s recognised by industry analysts as an integral part of the corporate IT ecosystem.

That notwithstanding, the history of free software remains almost completely unexplored by researchers of a Marxist bent, perhaps intimidated by some of the technical and legal aspects, or bemused by the sometimes seemingly right-libertarian, sometimes utopian-socialist political stance of Richard Stallman. There are exceptions, though: for some years Toni Prug has been applying Žižekian considerations to the question of intellectual property.

Corporate competition (Ghost in the Shell)

Q: Did you ever publish anything on this? I’d be interested in reading it.

A: I’ve occasionally pointed out the incoherencies of free software ideology on the relevant websites and mailing lists (leading on one occasion to a summary ban from a self-styled ‘benevolent dictator for life’) but haven’t written about ‘FLOSS’ at any length. The story of how the movement for code held and maintained in common impinged on the IT industry while ultimately proving of limited political consequence is a cautionary tale worth telling, however, and I think its outline is something like the following:

(i) IT multinationals (HP, IBM, SGI and DEC, for instance), with a huge strategic investment in developing their own versions of the UNIX operating system, find that the mutual incompatibilities these introduce is at odds with UNIX’s rationale, i.e. the benefits to gained through a common software-development interface;

(ii) Microsoft steps into the breach with its own, de facto common programming- and user interface and achieves a relative monopoly both on the desktop and in ‘backroom’, IT-infrastructure operating systems;

(iii) thus partially edged out of the server operating-system market, and realising that competition in the field of their key software products is actually bad for (their) overall business, vendors of proprietary UNIX, while not exactly relinquishing those products, nevertheless invest resources in the development of the Linux operating system, development which they can influence (through the code they are willing to donate) but not fully control;

(iv) in the field of server operating systems (although not on the desktop, where Microsoft still retains its OEM monopoly) Linux encroaches on areas where MS Windows had hitherto been strong, to such an extent that Microsoft recognises the challenge by entering into a pact with the second-largest Linux vendor, Novell, in 2006.

Spectre of capitalism (Ghost in the Shell)

I haven’t been able to research these things at the same level of depth as your own work on use-value oriented agriculture, and wonder whether I might have underestimated some of the complexities – such as failing to distinguish largesse on the part of groups of individuals within a corporation (for example DEC’s Jon Hall, who facilitated Torvalds’s use of the resources that allowed Linux to be ported to Digital’s Alpha hardware) from a strategic commitment to the development of Linux on the part of entire corporations (such as IBM’s decision to donate millions of lines of pre-existing code to the Linux 2.6 kernel, contributions which definitively consolidated Linux’s reputation as a world-class ‘enterprise-grade’ operating system).

To anyone interested in researching these questions, though, a useful place to begin might be The Daemon, the GNU & the Penguin (serialised in an earlier draft here) by Peter Salus.

The Tokyo subway and its posters


I came to Tokyo expecting to be impressed by its subway. I love public transit, particularly subways, as they solve so many problems all at once: not just travelling long distances in congested areas, but removing cars from the road, lowering the cost of commuting, and most of all, they’re an example of massive social coordination, showing how people can muster tremendous technical skills to create a service that everyone can use.

But not Tokyo’s. Instead, the Tokyo subway is an example of what happens if you let capitalists build and run your public services. The result is expensive chaos. The best way to demonstrate this is by comparison. In Seoul, you put cash on a debit card that gets deducted at every subway entrance. You can transfer to the bus or another line using the same card; it deducts or adds extra fees as needed.


In Tokyo, you can transfer between lines if you buy a transfer ticket and use the orange transfer gate. But only on lines owned by the two big subway companies, Toei and Tokyu. Who owns which line isn’t marked on the map – not in English and apparently not in Japanese, otherwise they’d use an identifying logo. You’re just expected to know – local knowledge not helped by each company printing different maps that don’t show competitors’ lines. Also, many smaller lines are owned by different companies, so you can’t transfer onto them even if they connect to the same station – or, equally likely, the same-named station that’s actually a few hundred meters away. This turns station staff from advisors into salespeople; once I asked how to get to a stop and the guy told me a route that would be “cheapest”. I shouldn’t have to calculate costs every trip I make in a city.


This is poorly managed capitalism, Marx’s ‘warring band of brothers’ writ in concrete and steel. It’s what happens when you let corporations compete with one another, without any oversight. Korea, a firmly capitalist nation, still has the temerity to publicly own its subways, and establish a single card payment system that can also be used as a cash card at convenience stores. Where it’s experimented with the market and allowed private lines to be built, those lines still must be integrated with the public system, both physically and financially. Plus even though the private lines in Seoul are twice as expensive as the public ones, they’re still significantly cheaper than Tokyo.

You figure it out.

Seoul charges by zone, rather than number of stops. So, when I visit my girlfriend’s neighbourhood 45 minutes from me, south of the river, it costs an extra 20 cents. In Tokyo, prices start to rise after two stops. And a ride of five stops will cost 60 cents more than the longest possible ride in Seoul. Every day in Tokyo, I spent a minimum of $6 just on travel, and often over $10. Having a travel pass wouldn’t help: since they’re issued by private companies, they’re not valid on all lines, and although they give discounts when transferring, they still charge for the transfers just like ordinary tickets.


I don’t think the private sector should build or manage anything, for the simple reason that they need to make a profit, which means underbidding, cutting corners, corruption,higher operating costs and, most importantly, lower wages. Of course, the public sector’s job is to manage capitalism, so it can also suffer from similar problems, but it doesn’t have to make a profit, which is a crucial difference. It also is highly unionized and pays better. But even accepting capitalist realism, Seoul does a much cheaper, comprehensible and faster service than Tokyo.

On that note, here is another example of what the Japanese excel in: design. These are subway posters I snapped in my expensive daily meanderings underground:

IMG_2672 IMG_2681 IMG_2682 IMG_2734



Despite all this, I was ready to pay top dollar for subway souvenirs, like this stapler.


But I couldn’t find the souvenir store, and the subway museum was way out in the suburbs. I also wanted to see examples of subway posters from the best of all possible design decades, the 1960s-early 1980s. But no such luck. I was really happy to get back to the air-conditioned, easy-to-use, inexpensive Seoul metro.

All they taught you at school was how to be a good worker

After being turned down on my 50th job application since I came to Korea, I’m starting to get a little disheartened. I’ve held off writing more about looking for work, because it feels like there’s so much to say, and yet it’s redundant: anyone who’s been unemployed knows what it feels like. As a good Marxist I’d like to provide some insight, some social analysis that’s lacking from mainstream accounts. But I can’t improve on the raw emotion that being on the scrapheap provokes:

I long, desperately, to fall asleep with the contentment and exhaustion of a full and productive day.

My time is spent writing application after application, repeating the same information in different words. A wearisome and unproductive task: it is rare to receive an acknowledgment, let alone an invite to interview.

I lead a life without achievement. In fact my life is quite the opposite: a life waiting to begin again – a waste.

Watching tv (Royle Family)

Like the author says, I was grateful to be turned down for that 50th application, because the employer actually took the time to write me. He said I wasn’t the candidate they were looking for, which I think was code for “we don’t want any radicals sullying our spotless department” but the personal touch showed he was a decent individual.

There are so many ways to talk about unemployment: statistics, loss of self-worth, or the paradox that The Smiths neatly encapsulated: knowing in advance that the solution to your problems is a job that will leave you bored, irritated and exhausted. Unemployment is a rich vein of inquiry, all the more so because capitalist economics can’t admit it exists. According to the economists, unemployment is just a temporary aberration until supply and demand corrects itself. I’d like to study this further, but I need to work on job applications, so I’ll limit myself to two observations, specific and general.

A criminal mind

To work in South Korea, you need to prove that you’re not a criminal. This has provoked an unreasoned amount of anger in me, and today I figured out why. It’s not just the paperwork, although that in itself is formidable: a fingerprint check against national police records of your home country, every six months. The check itself takes 5 months when you live overseas, which means I couldn’t take a job even if one was offered. I face returning home, where a check takes 3 days, because the police have a digital fingerprint machine you can use. But for some reason, these machines aren’t in embassies abroad.

Things will get difficult (Kurde)

No, what really bothers me is the jurisprudence. In Korea, you’re guilty until proven innocent. Here are the application requirements from a random ESL teaching job:

– Copies of diploma(s)
– Copies of certificate(s)
– Copies of transcripts
– Copy of the front page of your passport
– Copy of the alien registration card (if currently employed in Korea)
– Scanned photo
– Apostilled criminal background check and Apostilled copy of diploma will be needed after acceptance later.

They don’t want this information so you can brag about your credentials; they want you to show that you’re not a criminal. “Apostilled” means that a letter from the police isn’t enough: that letter has to be stamped by the embassy. An apostilled degree means it must be notarized by a lawyer before being stamped by the embassy.

Civil servant madness (Dream City)

Now, you might ask, what’s wrong with asking employees to prove they’re above-board? Don’t employers have the right not to hire criminals? Leaving aside the individualist bias of this question – the criminals who run businesses face no such sanction – let’s assume that yes, we all have to cope with unemployment and poverty on our own, without violating the property rights of the rich. In which case, why not just do this?


These are screenshots from two British universities; if you aren’t a criminal, you click ‘no’ and move on. If later on they find that you lied, they get to fire you. Simple. Work is bad enough: to spend quite a lot of cash to prove you’re a good worker is rubbing salt in the wounds.

Be flexible

In academia, your studies are only valuable to the extent they’re marketable. If no one wants English literature or sociology, don’t waste your time studying it, the logic goes. But take heart: if your thesis work on cheeses of the French Renaissance can’t get you a job, you can change.

working for the exploiters

In the fantasy-world of my 50+ applications, I’ve pretended to be a geographer, historian, English teacher, NGO worker, publisher, editor, etc., even though I went to school for none of those things. So I found this discussion refreshing, and in particular this contribution:

Academic work is one of the most specialised forms of labour that exist. You train for upwards of ten years to develop a very specific form of expertise in a particular part of an academic discipline. Now you are expected to do that, but be entirely flexible as to what research you do, what you teach, where you work..?

That’s it exactly. We’re told from the moment we enter school that we need to specialize, and from the moment we leave school, to generalize. The contradiction results from research contracts being available for whatever a professor has got funding for – a range of diverse, specific topics. And although society might desperately need to know about Trapped Ion Frequency Metrology, if you’ve studied the ions that were set free then you’re out of luck.

The implication is that the only purpose of education is to service capital (‘something people actually need’ is how it’s usually phrased.) The needs of the people actually doing the work don’t matter. The kicker is that I accept this logic: I am prepared to work at something tangentially related to my field, if I can just get my foot in the door. But being flexible doesn’t help: employers want to see that your life has been leading up to the point where you come to meet their needs.

We are products (Big Man Japan)

I’m prepared to hear that this is the way the world works, but my point is that it doesn’t have to be. A common response to abuse is to identify with the oppressor, and that’s what the experts of Human Resources encourage: if you don’t like being exploited, you just haven’t been exploited enough yet.

As to what we might do about this, I’m positive there are some good suggestions floating in the ether. Most involve a lot of swearing.
Sod off (Fry & Laurie)