Labor

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Featured Image: “Work Horse”, from Eadweard Muybridge’s animal locomotion chronophotography (1877-1878)

by Jennifer Hamilton (New York University)

This reconsideration of labor follows Life in the Age of Biotechnology,” Chapter 5 of The Multispecies Salon. Here Kirksey, Costelloe-Kuehn and Sagan identify the hidden laborers that support life today. They argue that “unloved others already live with us in common worlds” and that recognising this reality opens up the opportunity to “reimagine the divisions of power and labor that underpin multispecies spectacles” (2014: 212). So here I frame my redefinition of labor by asking what possible worlds emerge when we include more-than-human labor in the political economy?

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Some of you probably read David Graeber’s “On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs” originally published in Strike! Magazine. He calls it a “rant”, but the article went viral, in so far as a left-wing opinion piece can go viral, and was republished hundreds of times in both the blogosphere and mainstream media. In the short and sweet polemic, Graeber interrogates why we are seeing “ballooning” administrative, financial services, telemarketing, academic administration and human resources sectors, among others, when technological advances should have liberated us from the 40-hour week. Graeber argues, such a job market can only really exist within a very specific political and economic context, that of neo-liberal finance capitalism. Indeed, he contends that, “the ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on its hands is a mortal danger”  to this system (2013: 10). The widespread interest in this article reveals a collective questioning of what humans are working towards as a species and, potentially, a desire to change direction.

Our ecological and economic systems run on more than just human labor. Indeed, the global regime of what Donna Haraway calls “lively capital” is a necessarily multispecies project (2008: 45). In spite of the variety of workers required for such a system, these labors are geared towards producing surplus value for “the 1%” to skim off the top. Given the mass extinction event that is concomitant with (if not caused by) industrialised capitalism, the orientation of the labor force is clearly not amenable to a multispecies vision of the world. For the Multispecies ABCs I want to take the opportunity to embark on some speculative criticism and radically redefine “labor” for a multispecies future.

Where Haraway suspects that “plumbing the category of labor more than the category of rights” could lead to more responsible relations with animals, my sense is that we can dive even deeper into the category of labor for an even broader purpose (2008: 73). Eugene Thacker offers some hope in this regard. “Living labor” he contends, “is defined precisely by the degree to which it cannot help but to escape, evade or sidestep altogether the labor-capital relation” (2005: 103-104). Although it naturalizes itself under capitalism, the relationship between labor and capital is arbitrary and breakable. Indeed, there are likely many critters sneakily laboring without regard to capitalist accumulation right now. Thus, redefining labor distinct from capital is a revolutionary pursuit.

But first, how to value the manifold labors of the more-than-human critters within a capitalist paradigm? For Marx, value emerges under capitalism when human labor transforms raw materials into commodities and the commodities encounter each other in the market place (2004: 125-137). Although I agree with John Bellamy Foster’s argument there is a lively ecology in Marx’s work, value under capitalism emerges in the split between nature and culture: what Bellamy Foster calls “the metabolic rift” (2000: ix). The labors of the flax plant in the creation of linen have no bearing on the value of the linen itself, for example.

Haraway makes good headway into rethinking value without the nature/culture split, via Marx, in When Species Meet. Not wanting to overlook the subjective experience of companion species by seeing their labors as only producing surplus value, exploited by wantonly instrumentalist human capitalists, Haraway offers the term “encounter value” to work with “use” and “exchange” to recognize multispecies work in itself (2008: 46) . For Haraway, the “encounter” offers a way of considering “how something more than the reproduction of the same and its deadly logics-in-the-flesh of exploitation might be going on in what I call ‘making companions’” (2008: 65). While thinking multispecies labor within capitalism is important for the present, how can we decouple labor and capital for a multispecies future? Briefly, I want to suggest that the work of Thom van Dooren on “care”, Deborah Bird Rose on “knots of ethical time” and David Schlosberg on emerging models of environmental activism offer three possible strategies.

In his piece for the ABCs, van Dooren argues that caring for other species is “a practical labor” that “requires more from us than abstract well wishing, it requires that we get involved in some concrete way, that we do something (wherever possible) to take care of another” (2014a). This care, according to van Dooren, has the potential to remake “ourselves, our practices and our world.” Why? One reason such a practice can remake the world is that to care for a living critter of another species does not necessarily have a use or exchange value; thus actually engaging in the labor of care can be a form of labor decoupled from capital.

Secondly, Deborah Bird Rose asks us to radically expand the way we understand the relationship between time and ethics in a multispecies ecology in her article “Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time”. The idea of a knot of time provides a way out of the individualistic temporal model that dictates value under capitalism; wherein an individual’s labor and the unit of the hour, day or week determine value. She contends that “life depends both on the sequential processes of generational time … and on the synchronous processes of multispecies nourishment. These processes intersect to form dense knots of embodied time” (2012:131). The multispecies work that goes into making the world, both as it is and as we might like it to be, requires valuable labor to occur on both smaller and much larger units of time. Radically refiguring the timescale on which we value work might be another way to decouple labor and capital.

Finally, the “bullshit” job market that keeps finance capital alive has to change. The work of David Schlosberg considers new strategies deployed by environmental activists to actively redefine the human labor market (2012). The examples he uses are the food justice, community energy and crafting and mending movements. His work is revealing an emerging political economy that is attempting – with varying degrees of success and failure – to decouple labor from capital and establish anew the relationships between labor, community and the more-than-human world. In other words, activists are creating ways out of the bullshit job market and redefining labor for a multispecies world in the process.

To engage in the actual work of care for another critter, to value temporalities of deep time and the moment and to find ways to create new economic communities offer three strategies for decoupling labor and capital. Together they begin to redefine labor for a multispecies future.

 

References

Bellamy Foster, John (2006) Marx’s Ecology. New York: The Monthly Review Press.

Bird Rose, Deborah (2012) Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time. Environmental Philosophy, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp.127-140.

van Dooren, Thom (2014a) Care. In: The ABCs of Multispecies Studies. Retrieved from http://www.multispecies-salon.org/care/.

van Dooren, Thom (2014b) Flight Ways: Life and Loss on the Edge of Extinction. New York: Colombia UP.

Graeber, David (2013) On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. In Strike! Magazine, Summer 2013. Retrieved from http://issuu.com/strikemagyo/docs/strike_3_forissu.

Haraway, Donna (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kirskey, Eben, Costelloe-Kuehn, Brandon and Sagan, Dorion (2014) Life in the Age of Biotechnology. In Kirksey, Eben (ed.) The Multispecies Salon. Durham: Duke University Press. Marx, Karl (2004) Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin.

Schlosberg, David (2012) Sustainable Materialism. The Environmentalism of Everyday Life. Sydney Ideas Lecture. Retrieved from http://blip.tv/slowtv/sustainable-materialism-an-environmentalism-of-everyday-life-6480269

Thacker, Eugene (2005) The Global Genome. Cambridge & London: The MIT Press.

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a companion to the book