Saturday, 28 December 2013

1914 and 2014

There is beginning to be a large amount of media attention given to the approaching centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. This led me over the Christmas holidays to re-read Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth where she recounts her experience as a volunteer nurse in that war, during which her fiancé, her beloved brother, and many of her friends were killed. One of the striking things in her account is how readily those men went to their fates. Indeed not just readily but happily, relishing their chance to serve. A hundred years ago, in Britain and many other places, it was self-evident that the verities of Church, Nation and Empire were immutable. Now that seems, to most of us, not just misguided and wrong, but silly and absurd – and deadly. It is hard, now, to see the First World War as anything but a pointless slaughter.

That’s not so surprising. In the past they thought their realities solid. Now we see that they were not. So what, then, of those things that we ourselves take as being solid reality? Isn’t one lesson of history to be sceptical about these? It may seem bathetic to shift from talking of war and death to talking about work organizations, but death is present in these, too, sometimes literally as I wrote about in my post on suicide. An excellent new book by Nancy Harding – On Being at Work – talks about how “organizations … murder the selves that might have been” (p.175), meaning that they seek to make us into “zombie-machines” who are less than human, negating our potentials. If that sounds bleak, then read Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming’s recent book Dead Man Working for a real New Year boost. What both of these books have in common is an understanding of the way that even – no, not even, especially – the kind of humanized, fun workplaces of modern capitalism suck the life out of us by demanding not just our labour but the commitment of our very selves. Something similar, though less nihilistically expressed, is present in the discussion in my book of the post-bureaucratic workplace.

What’s the link with 1914? It’s two-fold. Firstly, in both cases there is a willing embrace of the sacrificing our literal or metaphorical lives. In the workplaces described by Harding and by Cederström and Fleming the tragedy is not that we are forced to be zombies, it is that we accept and welcome it, just like Vera Brittain’s contemporaries accepted and welcomed their assigned fate. Secondly, this is orchestrated through a set of supposedly immutable verities – in the case of the contemporary workplace these might include ideas of the necessity of a ‘global competitive race’, of the implacable reality of ‘the market’, and that ‘change is the only constant’ and so on.
But if we can accept that the solid realities of the past were not what they seemed, then we must accept that the same applies to the solid realities of the present.  We do not need to wait for historians to pass judgment.

Happy New Year!

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