Thursday, March 19, 2009

Not Working is Another Subject

by the Sandwichman
Every signifying system, so Zizek claims, contains a kind of super-signifier whose function is just to point to the fact that the system can't be totalized. It is that system's point of internal fracture, marking the point where it doesn't quite gel. -- Terry Eagleton
The point where economics doesn't quite gel is work. Attempts to quantify work fall back inevitably on the mysterious category of hours of labor, an input whose variation is demonstrably not proportional to the resulting output of goods or services.

The point where the human individual doesn't quite gel is the Subject itself. "[W]hat we know as reality is, in Lacan's view, simply the set of fantasies with which we fill in this constitutive hole at the heart of being."

Wrapping the former enigma in the latter riddle, the Subject of economics, homo economicus, 'works' only in the sense of foregoing leisure at some exogenously-determined opportunity cost whose variation studiously disregards the disproportion between productive inputs and outputs.

Clearly this homo economicus cypher is a some sort of bad joke. Political economy, Walter Bagehot argued,
...assumes a sort of human nature such as we see everywhere around us, and again it simplifies that human nature; it looks at one part of it only. Dealing with matters of 'business,' it assumes that man is actuated only by motives of business. It assumes that every man who makes anything, makes it for money, that he always makes that which brings him in most at least cost, and that he will make it in the way that will produce most and spend least; it assumes that every man who buys, buys with his whole heart, and that he who sells, sells with his whole heart, each wanting to gain all possible advantage. Of course we know that this is not so, that men are not like this; but we assume it for simplicity’s sake, as an hypothesis.
The knowledge that "this is not so" has long ago been concealed behind the technical screen of mathematical models. Rather than a "hypothesis," assumed for "simplicity's sake," homo economicus, along with the rest of those fellows -- like Descartes's cogito, Marx's proletariat or the 19th century anthropologists' primitive man -- would be better appreciated as fantasies in the Lacanian sense. They are fantasies because the Real there is unnameable -- it doesn't quite gel -- not merely because the Real is too complex.

Fantasies perform a kind of magic. They authorize a sort of amnesia about matters so fearful and chaotic they would otherwise paralyze us from taking action. But...
The effects of magic must be to weaken intellectual inquisitiveness, to encourage the indulgence in vain procedures for controlling the universe, instead of the profitable application of developing a technique for specific ends; to substitute unreal for real achievement, imagination for action, and to breed an easy fatalism which will prevent the building of fences to keep off crocodiles, or the taking of suitable measures to prevent disease. . . . Magic is indeed a parasitic adjunct to technique which sometimes completely immobilizes it.
Which is to say that sometimes we have to free ourselves from the very same magic that previously may have set us free. So how do we do that if it was the magic of a fantasy that enabled us to overcome the paralyzing void in the first place? The not-so of economic man is hardly a revelation. But one cannot oppose something with nothing, even if that something is somewhat of a nullity. Nemo contra deum nisi deus ipse. No one can stand against a universal Subject unless it is a universal Subject itself.

I stumbled across another Subject a few weeks ago while drafting a short essay for a guest post on another blog. In making "the case for shorter hours," it became obvious to me that the case for shorter hours had been made many, many times before but that it wasn't a single case. The key to understanding the case for shorter working time is to step back from the multitude of objective claims and consider the nature of the Subject implied or constituted by the totality of those claims.

That Subject -- who I will call the historical economic social colllective individual, or Hesci (pronounced he-she, the -sci as in Gramsci) is not the utility-maximizing, extrinsically-motivated rational actor of economic textbook lore. The subject posed by the case is human, acting, as circumstances require and/or permit, either collectively or as a social individual. Hesci is both producer and consumer wrapped into one, not exclusively one or the other. And Hesci simultaneously performs various reproductive roles as citizen, family member, etc.

What I will provisionally call the "working time literature" is an enduring counterstory to political economy and economics. Sometimes it appears within economic analysis but when it does it gets banished because, as a counterstory, it resists and thus cannot be subsumed by the dominant story.

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