“Men don’t get knocked out, or I mean they can fight back against big things. What kills them is erosion; they get nudged into failure. They get slowly scared. I’m scared. Long Island Lightning Company might turn off the lights. My wife needs clothes. My children – shoes and fun. And suppose they don’t get an education? And the monthly bills and the doctor and teeth and a tonsillectomy, and beyond that suppose I get sick and can’t sweep this goddam sidewalk? Course you don’t understand. It’s slow. It rots out your guts. I can’t think beyond next month’s payment on the refrigerator. I hate my job and I’m scared I’ll lose it. How could you understand that?” John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent, p. 14, Penguin Books, 1961.
I started reading again; luckily I’m not a man to keep with any plan. This is great. Steinbeck is great. American lit is great. As if it feels a responsibility to make up for the lack of American history. When I read this in context I thought this is the kind of stuff capitalism generates. I was wrong: this is the human condition. The problem is not hope but the lack of it. Or, seen from the other angle, the problem is not hope but the omnipresent all-pervasive fear of losing it.
The key word in the above, for me, is ‘refrigerator’.Refrigerators are useful things; useful in a life-enhancing kind of way. They are such that a lot of time that was previously lost in getting the right food is gained and free to do other stuff in. Basically, refrigerators and alike are time machines that convert time needed to survive in time available to aspire to things that are of a higher nature than survival. Let’s call these things culture.
But what happens is that whereas the machines generate time humans destroy it the minute it becomes available. Every minute gained is a minute that should not be lost again. The refrigerator becomes indispensable. Its absence becomes life- threatening. The leisure created by it is annulled by a twofold pressure: to keep the refrigerator and to do something with the time it generated for you. Keeping it requires work and that work fills the time with which you wanted to something more.
Life, in this sense, is a tragedy. Whatever is gained is lost again but in the process of gaining and losing it again there is a continuous production of original guilt in wasting the promise of what was gained.
Opting out is not an option. We don’t get closer to the promise by refusing time gained. Opting out is just a passive-aggressive way of blaming others for luxury, and their addiction to it. The blame is false because it’s not – generally speaking – an addiction to luxury but an addiction to a promise of culture. Taking the moral high road always is the basest thing one can do. It is a morally filthy position to put yourself above things. It’s arrogant. It’s impolite. It’s literally hypocritical.
No, we need our refrigerators and those who don’t have them need them too. To go back to a more innocent lifestyle is a crime against your own humanity. What is needed is not avoiding time gained. Rather, it is to muster the courage to make good on the promise.
And that’s the point where capitalism comes in. Capitalism has no objective and therefore merely does what it is good at doing: gaining time that subsequently is lost again in the collective endeavor of gaining more time and protecting against the feeling of the time gained being lost again. Social security is a truly capitalist notion: it protects the time spiral but does not generate anything else except the desire for more security.
Social security should not be a concept that comes up at all. Security should be a given and being lazy should not be a threat but the real opportunity. Those of us opposing capitalism should not oppose it for its time-gaining consumerist part as that is the part that it gets right. We should oppose it for a cannibalistic tendency it has to destroy what it creates. If we really want something new (instead of the mere melancholy for old times that have never been) we need to put an objective outside of capitalism which is such that capitalism can be oriented towards it.
This is what we do already but do not realize. This what we call the notion of the well-fare state where it’s no longer a question of more (and, by the way, not even a question of “more well-fare” because the tendency to quantify and measure is a basic wrong turn when dealing with time gained) but an altogether different sort of question. A question that cannot be put in comparative terms and therefore is unable to support the cannibalistic tendency inherent in capitalist progress.
Let’s keep our refrigerators and eat from them too.
[Whilst writing this I was listening to George Clinton & The P-Funk All Stars, Take it to The Stage & Live … And Kickin’]