Thursday, December 30, 2010


Keith Richards wrote a book. A month ago, at least, you could find it on the front shelf of the Barnes & Noble, next to the Glenn Beck.
I haven't read the book, but I did read David Remnick's review in The New Yorker. I was struck by this bit:
In the teen-aged imagination, the virtue of being a member of the band is that you end the day in the sack with the partner, or partners, of your choice. Not so, Richards says: "You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of the mind, you're thinking about this chord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell's going on."
One could preach a whole sermon on that text. To begin with, that's what it is to be an artist, isn't it? It's work, hard work, and you're always working. Or as the man says:
Labour time cannot remain the abstract antithesis to free time in which it appears from the perspective of bourgeois economy. ... Labour becomes the individual's self-realization, [but this] in no way means that it becomes mere fun, mere amusement, as Fourier with grisette-like naivete, conceives it. Really free working, e.g. composing, is at the same time precisely the most damned serious, the most intense exertion.

And there's nothing more satisfying than that exertion. That's what Keith Richards says, anyway. All the varieties of consumption the world can offer -- and it offers them all to the rock star -- can't compete with the need to produce, in this case to produce music. The development of capitalism has certainly increased the number of of people who can get some of the satisfactions of consuming like Keith Richards, but has it increased the number who get the satisfaction of producing like him, freely and creatively?

This need to be doing productive work, and to do one's work well, what Michelet called "the professional conscience" is, it seems to me, one of the most fundamental but one of the most neglected human drives. You can hear it from Richards. You can hear it from people like the stonemason interviewed in Studs Terkel's Working:
There's not a house in this country that I built that I don't look at every time I go by. I can set here now and actually in my mind see so many you wouldn't believe. If there's one stone in there crooked, I know where it's at and I never forget it. Maybe 30 years, I'll know a place where I should have took that stone out and redone it but I didn't. I still notice it. The people who live there might not notice it, but I notice it. I never pass that house that I don't think of it …. My work, I can see what I did the first day I started. All my work is set right out there in the open and I can look at it as I go by. It's something I can see the rest of my life. Forty years ago, the first blocks I ever laid in my life, when I was 17 years old. I never go through Eureka that I don't look thataway. It's always there. Immortality as far as we're concerned
Or you can hear it from the sailor Stanislav in B. Traven's The Death Ship, explaining why he took a grueling, barely-paid job as a stoker on the titular vessel when he was living comfortably as a petty criminal on land:
You get awfully tired and bored of that kind of business. There is something which is not true about the whole thing. And you feel it, see? ... You want to do something. You wish to be useful. I do not mean that silly stuff about man's duty. That's bunk. There is in yourself that which is driving you on to do something worth while. Not all the time hanging on like a bum... It is that you want to create something, to help things going.
This is what liberals, who think that human wellbeing consists in the consumption of goods and services, cannot understand. Capitalism piles up consumer goods but deprives more and more of us of the satisfaction of genuine work. A good trade, when it's a question of meeting basic needs. But once they are met -- and they are met; they are finite, tho liberals, from Mill to DeLong, deny it -- all the bacchanals in the world are no substitute for the knowledge that one has produced something worthwhile by one's own free efforts. Or as that other guy said, It's not that which goes into the mouth, but that which comes out of it, that defiles people. Or that exalts them.

EDIT: Thanks to (I think) Chris Mealy, this has quickly become the most-read ever post on Slackwire. If you like it, you might also appreciate this one and this one.


  1. "all the bacchanals in the world are no substitute for the knowledge that one has produced something worthwhile by one's own free efforts."

    One could preach a sermon (or write a dissertation) based on that bit of text...

  2. I have some misgivings about citing Keith Richards on the glamour of unalienated labor. I'm sure he often did hear a nagging voice at the back of his head telling him to knuckle down and work on his music, before the inevitable surge of heroin quieted all such anxieties. But is there any record of him actually passing up a drug-fueled three-way in order to polish his chord changes? Richards's comment strikes me as merely the autumnal revisionism of someone who has finally realized that sex is boring. And despite Marx's hymn to the seriousness of composing, I think we should admit that most of Richards's work-product, like that of any rock star, is trivial and just plain bad. (The Stones are celebrated because only 95% of their songs are bad, instead of the usual 99-100%.)

    Your broader defense of authentic producerism is well-spoken and psychologically perceptive, but it is a Marxian will-o-the-wisp. Mass production--machine processes and mindless-cog specialization ruled by bureaucracy and scientific design--has long since achieved a craftsmanship and efficiency that "meaningful" artisan labor can't rival. Does that mean that liberal capitalism leaves us no escape from a bifurcated, spiritually meaningless life of work-time alienation and leisure-time bacchanal? Well, no, actually; if people want the satisfying experience of tangible, creative, self-directed labor, liberal capitalism is happy to sell it to them. Such jobs are called "hobbies" and there is a vast industry--hardware and gardening stores, art-supply shops, cookbooks, blog-hosting websites--devoted to marketing them to consumers.

  3. Rob-

    Sounds like the voice of experience there.


    I think we've been having this same debate for over 15 years now. You may be right. I can't prove that commercialized hobbies aren't a sufficient to satisfy the professional conscience. And I certainly can't make my case as artfully as you (which makes your comment a bit self-refuting, in a way, if you think about it.)

    But let's try. Re Richards, I think there is a record in one sense, namely that he kept writing and performing music long after he had accumulated enough money and celebrity to guarantee a lifetime of coke-fueled threeways, if that's what he wanted. I'm not going to speak to the quality of the music -- the Stones aren't really my thing -- but it does seem clear experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain wasn't enough for him to be happy, which I think is a real problem for the liberal view of human wellbeing. This is true of successful people in general. Forget about Keith Richards; it's hard to square the idea that the only purpose of productive activity is consumption with the choices made by someone like Bill Gates.

    As for whether Taylorism is unambiguously successful on its own terms -- that's a hard question. But let's say you're right. People still feel the need to be useful. Isn't there a point where satisfying that need is more important than efficient production, once material needs have been sufficiently met? Kurt Vonnegut says somewhere (Google isn't helping) that in the old days every village needed a storyteller. Now with mass entertainment, the lcoal storyteller is obsolete, but still one out of every 100 or 200 people still feels their role in life is to tell stories. (I know more than one successful academic whose real calling is to be a village storyteller.) Shouldn't we at least weigh allowing them to fulfill that role -- and allowing the full development of human capacities in general -- against the endlessly more efficient production of goods and services?

  4. The opposition you draw between economic efficiency and "the need to be useful" is not quite apt. Mass-production workers are way more “useful” than low-productivity artisans: an assembly-line worker produces a lot of stuff, and a McDonalds burger-flipper feeds a lot of people very quickly. They may not "feel" their usefulness because the work process, rational and creative when viewed from on high, seems incoherent, fragmentary, regimented, stultifying and distant from tangible end uses, from their perspective. But how terrible is that? Here I think you fall into the Marxian habit of mystifying economic abstractions--in this case, "alienation," the loss of autonomy and holism in work processes because of mass production--while losing sight of the substantive material and social conditions of labor. If the pay is good, the hours reasonable and the pace humane, if co-workers are friendly and the boss not too tyrannical, then workers tolerate the opacity and apparent meaninglessness of their work. Nor are they incapable of associating cog-work with the sublime end-product as a source of professional conscience. To quote another rock star, Bob Seeger, "We were making Thunderbirds. They were long and low and sleek and fast, they were all you ever heard."

    Instead of a realistic appraisal of workplace alienation, you have, like Marx, advanced a caricature of musical celebrity as your approved model of labor. This seems like another mystification. Surely Keith Richards is just a glittering cog in the Rolling Stones combine, one whose particular, limited job—the rote cobbling of salacious lyrics to hackneyed blues riffs—strikes me as degraded and unfulfilling. I don’t know, maybe it makes him feel exalted, the master of artistic wholes, but so what? You can’t run an economy on rock concerts. That you hold up the Richards figment, a cooler update of Marx’s composer sweating and straining with genius, shows me once again how deeply imbued Marxism is, for all its pretensions to a collectivist critique of society, with a romantic individualism that it insists must somehow undergird a mass economy.

    Alas, that's not possible: a return to artisanal autonomy and holism would spell economic collapse and die-off. Given that reality, I think the liberal dispensation holds up rather well, if fully realized. Jobs may be--usually, must be--uninspiring, but with high pay and short hours they leave workers with money and time to draw satisfaction from family life, civil society and unalienated hobby labor. I guess that does mean we lose our authenticity, and maybe our village story-tellers. (If your Vonnegut paraphrase is accurate, it is rich indeed coming from a man who made a fortune off of the mass story-telling market.)But let's not forget that the village story-teller of old was an amateur--a peasant who, like everyone else, spent most of his time plucking weeds and shoveling manure. Nowadays we would call him a blogger. Last I checked, we were in no danger of running out.

  5. Josh,

    congrats on getting some attention on this great piece and I would add that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one and would add it to the list of your previous writings in the flavor of the above:

  6. For what I can see in my expirience, most people who like their jobs usually have good jobs or jobs that, for some reason, have some sort of social "charme". In my opinion, this is what happens:
    a) In a society some jobs are well payng and, hence respected;
    b) People who perform those respected jobs build their self image at least in part on the respectedness of their jobs, hence to some level enjoy working;
    c) People who perform less respected, "sucker" jobs would prefer not to build their self image about their jobs, hence to some level dislike working more than necessary and maybe take some hobby;
    d) Some jobs that were well paying and respected become less well paying but the "respectedness" fades later, whereas some jobs that became well paid recently are still increasing their "respectedness", so that there is some disconnect between "respectedness" and actual pay (a la Burdieau).
    If this is what happens, then there is no easy solution since, by definition, respected jobs will always be "elite" jobs (that is, "respectedness" is a positional good).

    1. I think I know what you're saying about pay maybe causing the respect. But I also wonder if the different elements of work being enjoyable aren't additive. I say this just because I used to deliver sandwiches by bicycle. I experienced psychological stress because of the low respect and physical stress during bad weather, but the merits of the job (getting paid to bike) seemed to add to my enjoyment of life independently of pay, respect, or other conditions.

  7. Labour time cannot remain the abstract antithesis to free time in which it appears from the perspective of bourgeois economy.

    No idea what this means.

    ... Labour becomes the individual's self-realization

    This is hard to interpret ananachronistically only because it sounds so contemporary.

  8. The development of capitalism has certainly increased the number of of people who can get some of the satisfactions of consuming like Keith Richards, but has it increased the number who get the satisfaction of producing like him, freely and creatively?

    Surely yes, right? If the cost of goods decreases then it becomes more possible to get by earning less. So then an artist who receives $0 for her creative output can get by on few enough hours that she still has enough daylight to shop, cavort, mindlessly stare off into space, and avoid creating in all ways as well as, finally, put brush to canvas. The alternative being a grueling, endless day of tilling the fields perhaps supplemented with a productivity-free winter where boredom again leads to creativity.

    I suppose the counter-argument would be that more of the middle class (let's not call them bourgeoisie in the USA unless they earn at least $100,000, maybe $200,000 being a better boundary--so I mean $20k-$80k set) are drawn into work that appears to be "knowledge work" but is actually soulless or at least, not artistically fulfilling. But it carries the banner or appearance of coolness or requirement of intellect.

    My personal experience/opinion is that having a completely mindless job is more helpful to creative output. If I were a lawyer I don't think I'd have enough brain juice left at the end of the workday to do much creative--whereas as a dishwasher you need to create--"to escape from Hell".

    (Just spitballing here.)