Just finished Mark Fisher’s entertaining polemic “Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?” There were certainly some useful ideas in there. The notion of the non-existent “Big Other” to justify the use of surveillance and control technologies, which include processes like auditing as well as more obvious physical technologies such as CCTV and keystroke logging was particularly interesting. Big Other was and is as prevalent in autocratic societies like Stalin’s Russia, as it is in the ostensibly democratic societies of today. Of course Stalin, (or News Corporation) isn’t watching everything we do. It’s just that we readily believe that they are. Perhaps the really radical position to adopt is that none of it matters very much.
Now, following a technique used by Fisher himself, I’m going to make a popular culture reference. So, in fairness to anyone who has not yet seen the last episode of the BBC series Ashes to Ashes I’m going to warn of what I believe is known as a Massive Spoiler Alert. If you don’t want me to spoil the plot for you stop reading now.
OK? Right. Well, if you did see it, you’ll have picked up on the eschatological bent in the story line. (You couldn’t really have missed it.) What I think was very telling was that the Hell that the characters nearly ended up in was a police station. That is in their terms, a place of work. And a place of work is a place where you have to portray yourself as something other than you actually are. In contrast the Heaven was a pub, where there is no real surveillance (other than the internal surveillance provided by the landlord), and there is a license to be yourself. (Admittedly the consumption of alchohol helps!). I don’t know if that’s what the writers had in mind, but the phrase “In your face, Protestant work ethic” did rather spring to mind.
Which brings me back to Fisher. I did rather like his suggestion that industrial action might usefully take the form of refusing to co-operate with those forms of labour that promote surveillance. (e.g teachers could refuse to co-operate with Ofsted inspections.) It would be interesting to see how the media reacted to this approach. Such action wouldn’t hurt the community that the service is provided for, and it would be very hard for employers to reduce wage bills (He claims at one point that colleges welcomed one day strikes, because they cause minimal disruption and significantly reduced costs.) But there’s that Big Other again, and it makes me wonder whether the answer to Fisher’s question is actually “No”. If no-one is actually listening, (at least for very long, ) does anything we do matter very much. Perhaps if we all thought that… Actually, time for another cultural reference (and a bit more eschatology). In the 1960s John Wyndham wrote a short story “Confidence Trick” about a tube train crash. After the accident the train continued underground with a few passengers until it got to Hell. One of the characters looked about him, with growing disbelief and shouted that “I don’t believe any of this”. Whereupon the scene dissolved and they all found themselves back on the street outside the Bank of England, under which the accident had evidently occurred. Whereupon the same character looked at the bank, drew in his breath, and began to shout “I don’t bel…” only to find himself pushed into the path of a speeding bus. In his subsequent explanation to the police the character who did the pushing said something like “Well, I couldn’t let him destroy civilisation. We have to have something to believe in”.
Maybe we don’t.