Wednesday, May 2, 2012

For What We Will: Echoes of May Day

“Do we who are to come have an ear for the resonance of the echo, which has to be made to resonate in the preparation for the other beginning?” So asks Heidegger in Contributions to Philosophy. Heidegger tells us that we must attune ourselves to this “echo”—a vague resonance of sound that does not simply emerge from a single identifiable source but that metaleptically produces a new origin, a “new beginning” from which it emanates. What echoes is an alternative past that generates a future collectivity “to come.” Should we not make ourselves resonate with this other-sound, we will simply hear what we have always heard, accessing the history we’ve always known. We can take Heidegger’s challenge as a means of rethinking the relationship between Occupy’s May Day and the whole host of May Days past that resonated through it. Echoed through it.

An echo, then. Let’s listen, and try to be affected by the tonalities of an other beginning as they emerge in and through slogans that seem to have no future. Let’s listen to Robert Owen, and see if his slogan resounds from an other beginning: “Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest.” Circulating throughout the Atlantic world, Owen’s somewhat moralistic division of the day would be transformed in the 1860s, when I.G. Blanchard penned the lyrics to “Eight Hours,” a labor song that would be set to music in the 1880s by Jesse Jones. Note the difference: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” The time of “recreation” mutates into a period in which laborers’ wills are asserted; it is formally structured as a time of self-activation. In the U.S., we tend to think of this time “for what we will” as having been earned in the latter part of the 19th century following a series of mass marches and brutal repressions (e.g., Haymarket). Whether this in fact happened, whether we earned our eight hours for self-valorization, the demand is still with us; it echoes, faintly, up until today, May Day. And the echo changes—its intensity, its meaning—as it is received within different conjunctures. Even as recently as last year, this echo was heard in the mode of memorialization—a past with assignable limits and no future. (I had the fantastic fortune to be present for the re-dedication of the Haymarket memorial in Chicago.) Today it seems as if we are hearing this echo as a call to arms, Occupy answering the demand of those who struggled, and died, for something that many of us take for granted. Eight hours for what we will.

How to hear this echo? Is it enough for Occupy to inscribe itself within this history of listeners and actors? Or might we not have to develop new ears to hear how we might push this slogan in the direction of new beginnings, and thus futures to come? Let’s be clear: In choosing May Day as a kickoff date for a spring offensive, Occupy has situated itself within this ongoing history of labor, within the space opened by the demand that workers have eight hours “for what we will.” And, in no small way, the slogan retains a radical force. “Eight hours for work,” for instance, might be a useful slogan for both affective/cognitive laborers, those whose jobs—like mine—seep into their lives, into the other sixteen hours, transforming all of life into a modality of labor. It might also be a useful slogan for those without work, or those whose work is not understood as susceptible to remuneration: the out-of-work, on one hand, and domestic labor, on the other. “Eight hours for rest,” similarly, might not only partition time, keeping sleep free from the demands of labor—it might also articulate a demand for a place to rest, for housing security. And so on.

On its own, the utility of the slogan is inexhaustible. But it seems unclear if we today inhabit the same social ontology of labor that made this call radical. As a transnationally-minded movement that—at least rhetorically—situates itself between Wall Street and the Global South, it seems to me that Occupy is situated between two new modalities of social being that are irreducible to a laborist ontology. On one hand, finance capital, as we know, has little to do with the form of capitalism enshrined in the process of valorization discussed in Capital vol. 1—one that we can figure in terms of its juridical, social, and political dynamics through the apparently voluntary contract between labor and owner. Finance is simply the agglomeration of the power to command that is indifferent to the wills of those whom it commands; finance does not need to simulate the voluntary conformation of wills of those whom it effects, be these wills those of individual people or entire states. We’re talking, quite simply, about a rent-seeking mode of accumulation articulated to an increasingly feudal power dynamic. On the other hand, the neoliberalization of the world has resulted, as Mike Davis puts it, in a billion people being expelled from productive participation (even exploitative participation) in the world-system. In this emergent planet of slums, the meaning of labor will alter beyond recognition as we try to get a read on the new forms of life being produced (or being survived). Labor, indeed, probably won’t serve as a meaningful category of being-in-the-world. This is because the Hegelian ontology of labor that programs the social consists in our ability to separate it from other modalities of being even as we might recognize the ontological priority of labor as such. Labor, as we know it, is a term that produces a set (the world) in which it is itself a member (just as, for Marx, production is a moment incorporated into the movement production-exchange-circulation-consumption even as it stands outside of it). Labor, as we knew it, thus engendered modes of being (resting, recreating, being-for-what-we-will) that are irreducible to it—ending with freedom. But none of that remains for the world’s abandoned, insofar as labor can’t engender the separations that made it, for Marx, a technology of becoming-free. Life doesn’t separate into ontologically thick regions when a survivalist battle with necropolitical accumulation is the law of the land. Labor no longer matters, because labor is embedded within a neo-feudal structure of command that, via structural abandonment, has commanded a billion people to die. We can get a sense of Occupy’s sense of this dual positioning in the rhetorical structure of Occupation. Just think: a tent city, a kind of village outside the castle, forms around Wall Street, and what this village manifests to Wall Street is nothing but the precarity of life exposed to pure heteronomy, lacking even the time-honored tool (i.e., labor) to transform this heteronomous condition into the substrate of a freedom to come.

If this slogan is to mean anything to us, if the location of ourselves in a history of May Days past is to do anything more than simply frighten wealthy folks by our deployment of Red signifiers, we need to become resonant in such a way that the alternative origins intimated in these slogans and signs echoes through us. And I think, to an extent, that Occupy has done a fantastic job in keeping the ontology of labor at arms length and in attempting to develop new modalities of being in the world. Note that, despite the verbal link, the practice of occupying is discontinuous with having an occupation. (No one in the future will mark down, under “Previous Employment,” “I occupied!”) And most of us don’t occupy to gain occupations, either—the social ontology Occupy thinks, materializes, and materialized from, is post-labor, post-work. For better or worse, we’re outside of the parameters that made “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will” a meaningful slogan. So what remains of it, what echoes? That last bit, that last prepositional clause—provided that we rip it from its temporal partitions and provided that we attempt determining relations of work and rest from the perspective of this last eight hours. An other beginning echoes here, the foundationless beginning of a self-constituting collectivity that aims only at constituting itself. The irreducible, aimless circularity of democratic self-production.
What, we will be asked, we have been asked, we will be asked, are we after? What is Occupy working for?
            For all time to be a period of self-activation. For all time to be for what we will.

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