2007/09/25

Arbeit Macht Frei

That phrase, a Nazi slogan that means "Work will set you free", was placed over the entrances of many concentration camps. Whether the Nazis knew the cruel irony inherent in this phrase, or whether they only used it because it was a common Nazi slogan and the irony was only apparent after the fact or to the victims, is not exactly something I am knowledgeable enough about to comment on. What I do know is that this meme, and the cruel irony contained wherein, is commonly found even now in Western democracies, known under other words: the work ethic or the American Dream. And that as revolutionaries, we are not very interested in whether our elites and the intellectuals that serve them and shape our culture are aware of the cruelty in this concept, or if they simply are parroting it because they truly believe in it.

The irony is, for sure, less cruel, or at least less directly so, to the international working class than it was to the victims of the Holocaust. The Jews were being deliberatly, systematically and immediatly slaughtered by the Nazis, so the responsability was stark, clear and undeniable. The members of the international working class are sometimes directly slaughtered, more often indirectly, and mostly in ways where the responsability is diffused, muddled, and indirect. And responsability is often shared, widely, by people who are both executioners and victims. But a miner who dies of a work-related illness that would have been preventable if it wasn't for cost-cutting and the profit motive is still as dead. A child that dies of malnutrition is still as dead. A single mother who kills herself out of despair because she can't pay the bills is still as dead. A union member in a Latin American country that gets beaten to death by police during a strike is still as dead.

"Work will set you free". It is a common belief in the West that if you work hard, save up, do as you're told by the boss, are a good person, that you will be rewarded. The American and Canadian middle class is full of people who worked hard to be where they are, so it is full of people who feel entitled to have what they have. But American and Canadian society is also full of plenty of people who worked hard and got nothing. It is full of people who were born to wealth. It seems to me that being deserving is not enough, or necessary, to have a good life. The primary thing to have is luck. Luck to be born in the right family, to have access to the right ressources, the right connections. Luck not to get a life-altering illness at the wrong moment. Luck to not get killed on the job because of cost-cutting on security.

"Work will set you free". Except we work 40-plus hours on the job, in an environment that is usually the farthest away from freedom that you can find. Most workplaces are regimented, bureaucratic private fiefs. Some people work freelance, which basically means that they work with multiple regimented, bureaucratic private fiefs and on top of that don't know if they're going to get work next week. Some people run other people. They tend to have a tad more freedom, though as Jack London once wrote "they are so tied up to the machine that they sit on top of it". A boss, a foreman who shows compassion and humanity, who doesn't obey market imperatives, will be crushed and replaced by someone more willing to do anything to make a buck. One can hate the boss but one cannot deny this simple fact. It is not the Man that one hates but the Position. The same man in any other environment might have been likable, a friend even. But dog-eat-dog capitalism, as a system, does not foster this. Class war isn't something that we radicals invented. We just named it. It existed prior.

"Work will set you free". Except for the number of people, like both my parents, who fall to depression, burn-outs, stress or other work-related mental and physical illnesses. Some, lucky them, have health benefits and sick leaves. Some don't.

"Work will set you free". In a way, some of the more individualistic of the anarchist tendencies might accuse us "workerist" anarchocommunists and anarchosyndicalists of falling prey to the same mythology. But it would be, of course, a misunderstanding. If that which imprisons us the most is work, then the leverage point of society is the working place. It is where the struggle is the most intense. It is where we must go to do battle. It is where we build the barricades.

Struggle will make you free. Not work. At least, not until our workplaces are free.

3 comments:

Nicolas said...

Wow.

Maracuja said...

How would you suggest to make the workplace free?
From an African perspective, simply to have a job can be a struggle.
While I enjoyed your post I have to tell you there are people willing to kill and die to be able to have an opportunity to have some hope of freedom...
"Arbeit Macht Frei" I believe was sign of hope. That someday perhaps you might be free.

BlackBloc said...

First thank you for visiting and for your thoughtful comment.

I'd like first to clear up a potential misconception about the West that might arise in the minds of our African comrades. It's true that the West is on average much richer than Africa, but there is still people who struggle to get a job. I have known people who have been unemployed their entire lives in America. One online friend in Seattle had been out of work for over 12 years because he had overspecialized in a technological field that was obsoleted, for example. It is also true in North America that many would kill to get a job.

This is not to minimize the problems that are present in Africa, only to correct the image of America as a land of opportunity for all. There is opportunity for some but not all, just like any other part of the world.

One thing though is that even our poor are often better off than the poor in other regions of the world. Part of it is due to the struggles of the labor movement in the 19th and 20th century to secure a safety net to help the unemployed and working poor. Part of it is undoubtly due to colonialism. Africa had its own socialist movement, but (correct me if I'm wrong) it did not seem to have as much success as the socialists in the West. Part of the reason might rest in the fact that the West pillaged Africa and that colonial regimes received help from the Western powers to repress their own nascent labor movement. Part of it might be due to the fact that African socialist movements were sometimes wings of international, but European, socialist movements and that colonial attitudes resulted in the European base of the movement to neglect its wings in Africa. I am not an expert on African history, unfortunatly...

My proposal to free the workplace is not exactly my proposal. It is the proposal of the anarchist movement, whose ideology arose out of the struggle of the masses and not fully formed within the mind of a theorician, whether me or someone else. Our proposal is to organize as a class, as workers, within our workplaces. The ultimate aim is to radically reorganize the workplace by seizing the means of production as a class, and organizing the workplace from below upward instead of top down. Democratize the workplace, have decisions made by all workers involved in the productive process.

I won't say it's going to be easy.