Our New Economy Of Guard Labor


Via the Baffler, David Graeber on the possibilities of revolution and the increase in “guard labor”:

Under no conditions can alternatives, or anyone proposing alternatives, be seen to experience success. This helps explain the almost unimaginable investment in “security systems” of one sort or another: military…intelligence agencies, militarized police…a massive media industry. Mostly these systems do not so much attack dissidents directly as contribute to a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, life insecurity, and simple despair that makes any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy.

Yet these security systems are also extremely expensive. Some economists estimate that a quarter of the American population is now engaged in “guard labor” of one sort or another—defending property, supervising work, or otherwise keeping their fellow Americans in line. Economically, most of this disciplinary apparatus is pure deadweight.

In fact, most of the economic innovations of the last thirty years make more sense politically than economically. Eliminating guaranteed life employment for precarious contracts doesn’t really create a more effective workforce, but it is extraordinarily effective in destroying unions and otherwise depoliticizing labor. The same can be said of endlessly increasing working hours. No one has much time for political activity if they’re working sixty-hour weeks.

It does often seem that, whenever there is a choice between one option that makes capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and another that would actually make capitalism a more viable economic system, neoliberalism means always choosing the former. To be more precise: imagination, desire, individual creativity were to be contained strictly in the domain of consumerism, or perhaps in the virtual realities of the Internet. In all other realms they were to be strictly banished.

We are talking about the imposition of an apparatus of hopelessness, designed to squelch any sense of an alternative future. Yet as a result of putting virtually all their efforts in one political basket, we are left in the bizarre situation of watching the capitalist system crumbling before our very eyes, at just the moment everyone had finally concluded no other system would be possible.

11 Comments on "Our New Economy Of Guard Labor"

  1. Rhoid Rager | May 20, 2013 at 12:23 pm |

    Graeber’s analysis has always impressed me. He consistently writes about the importance of social possibilities. I highly recommend his lesser known work ‘Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion and Desire’. If you want to have a clearer picture of Anarchism without reading the classical authors, that’s your book.

    We are being farmed; the barn is coming apart, the shit lagoons are starting to overflow, and the fodder is slowly being substituted with poison. Most of the animals believe there is nowhere else to go, and feel it’s better to squawk at each other rather than the farmer who comes to slaughter them. Still other animals want the barn repainted and that will make everything OK. There are some empathetic and clever animals that know the fence doesn’t hold when enough of them push, and try to rally others to their cause. Other more clever and solace-seeking animals find holes in the fence and wander off somewhere else abandoning their herd. There are still other wise animals that know that the farmer is also an animal himself, and that they will all die in the end anyways, so they just enjoy rolling in the mud on the farm until their time comes.

    Whatever your role is, when you finally realize that you’re being farmed you’ll never live the same again.

    • Bluebird_of_Fastidiousness | May 20, 2013 at 4:23 pm |

      I believe you’ve hit the nail on the head. I think about that kind of farming metaphor a lot.

      • Rhoid Rager | May 20, 2013 at 5:27 pm |

        All credit to Orwell. And the farming metaphor can be conveniently tweaked to match the times.

        • Calypso_1 | May 20, 2013 at 5:31 pm |

          Speaking of said metaphor – have you ever read Wendell Berry’s ‘Mad Farmer Poems”?

          • Rhoid Rager | May 20, 2013 at 10:54 pm |

            I haven’t but now you’ve piqued my interest. I’ll be reading his work now. Thank you for the cite.

            My bank-stolen house (which I have about 2-3 weeks left in) is surrounded by an industrial dairy farm. It’s family run, and it goes back several generations in their family. Each generation becomes further entrenched in the complexities of technology and further alienated from the land. The young son, who often visits us, has never made butter despite having over 150 head of cattle giving milk everyday. I told him that it is as simple as putting the raw milk in a mason jar and shaking for 15 minutes. He seemed ashamed at having never tried it. Their family is installing robotic milkers at the end of the summer. They just expanded their barn to accommodate more cows, but at the expense of an adjacent pasture they let their cows graze on. They have 1500 acres and are constantly looking to expand. Despite being their neighbour, I probably speak to them once a month.

            I have 4 acres and tried my best during the 4 years I was here to build a permaculture-inspired organic system. We aimed for self-sufficiency using as little fossil fuels as possible. My attempts to reduce our burden on society was reciprocated with the burdens of society being placed further on us. It’s ironic, but very instructive. North America is a very sick society (I say that with more pity than disdain). I shall start over again in Japan with the hope that sanity prevails more in Japanese society than here.

          • Ted Heistman | May 21, 2013 at 12:56 am |

            I did, he’s great!

    • “Farming the masses” was the old elite steady-state wealth extraction model.

      The new model is mining the assets of the 99% via banks and mining the 99% itself by demanding more and more from them for less and less money.

      When there’s not enough to extract for the system to keep working, everything comes apart.

      Looting one’s own society for profit is a recurring historic theme. However, the only successes to come from that are the ones who move their wealth and themselves out of that society in time so the crash happens to somebody else.

      In a world run by a single transnational elite, where does one bug out to?

  2. Simon Valentine | May 20, 2013 at 1:38 pm |

    never myself thought to connect the incessant “ideas get shot down and there’s this ridiculous way you have to follow that’s almost impossible but California did it once and it was kind of a big thing but only kind of okay and shit got crazy” with “security, security, security”. always knewknow they wereare both in the BULLSHIT! pile though.

    now my mind wants to make a leap to the story of a woman buying in to a psychic’s readings upwards of like $73k? yeah somehow it’s the system of Word Masters or Charisma Cheaters or … well i swear i read Ancient Egypt had this magic word thing that got shot up by ol’Ak’Aten and Moses … buuuut … yes. disciplinary apparatus dead weight! bad algorithm! it’s all fake. fake words, fake validity, fake promises, fake documents, fake work, fake reasons, fake intelligence, fake leaders, fake charges, fake emotions, fake shame, fake losing, fake winning, fake politics, fake economy, fake opinions, fake anti-opinion opinions, fake anti-anti-opinion opinions, … , so here is what a capitalist leader does and is (cookbook style):

    [insert ante {‘capital’}] i claim (fake) that only i am allowed (fake) to do [this] (fake)
    *doesn’t do it* instead, “you can’t do that.” “you’re wrong.” “no.” (in response to question or request), etc.
    *makes up (additional) stupid illegal ways to profit (fake) from the afore mentioned proceedings*
    (continues ‘profit’ until no one can match [ante] at which point the fish is big enough to fry, but no one kills the mother fucker)

    someone consults a cookbook

  3. BuzzCoastin | May 20, 2013 at 6:58 pm |

    since before 911
    I’ve watched Der Homeland become a parody of it’s Commie enemies
    with Gestapo agents at every turn checking Homeland ID
    when I left in 07 I thought it was pretty bad
    and each visit back to the Land of the Free
    indicates the frog is almost boiled and it’s too late for most
    Heil Homeland! The Land of the Flee

  4. Monkey See Monkey Do | May 21, 2013 at 5:11 am |

    Great post!

  5. A familiar message:

    When the choice becomes freedom or power, power will almost always win…even when it results in less freedom for the chooser.

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