Tatamagouche Summer Free School

Friday, August 18, 2006

Interview: Thom Workman (Working Life in the Belly of the Empire)

An interview with Thom Workman, who gave a keynote address today entitled "Working Life in the Belly of the Empire". Questions by Dru Oja Jay.

You spoke about political science being a discipline that actively seeks to obfuscate the experience of reality. Can you refer us to a specific example of that phenomenon?

For example, the notion that democracies "matter" -- when they don't. The general discussion of forms of the state irrespective of the social relations of power contributes to the failure to relate "democracy" to the truth of societies riven with racial, class and gender divisions.


So do you think that electoral systems do not afford a degree of accountability that is not present in other political systems?

Only if by accountability we mean the possibility of being removed for lesser evils -- like lying and getting caught. If, however, we mean accountable for the utter misery inflicated on working people and the poor around the world then the answer is no. Political parameters do not permit politicos to change the terms of their society even if they were so inclined. Moreover, the question itself has the effect of buying into the apologetic rhetoric of contemporary democractic societies. It is helpful to remember: "If democracies could change anything, they would be outlawed".

It sounds like you're ultimately pessimistic about the possibility for fundamental changes. Is it possible to have Capitalism without inflicting "utter misery"?

No. It is a system prone to immanent crises and the deliberate driving down of wages and discharging of the workforce. Nobody wants it to collapse in a heap, since Hobbes' state of nature would come to look attractive, but it can and must evolve into something that will be more truthful to the "human" part of our "human beingness".

With Social Torment, it seems like you're advancing a political agenda, or at trying to establish a basic truth that could have a political effect. I'm curious about your more philosophical work: do think that philosophical work can also have concrete political effects to the same extent that a more journalistic book can have?


In the post-Nietzschian world social thinkers have abandoned the notion of transcendent truth in favour of a unidimensional notion of sociological life. The "death of god" has meant the death of notions like necessity, truth, essence and so forth. This general intellectual trend makes it much harder to speak of inauthentic existence, or the truths of life, or the essence of "our world". I suspect that this has dampened general the critical atmosphere in this hyper-imperial era. The atrophy of critique, indeed, the very right to be critical in the sense of our ability to stand up and say that "what is true is false" has suffered. Probably not a good thing to abandon more robust notions of criticism as we witness the ravages of capitalism around the world.

So you see criticism and intellectual work are central, in your view, to the political battles you describe? If so, is there not a tension between that idea and your comment that democracy doesn't matter?

Not central, but they do provide and direct intellectual climates, and this plays itself out in the concrete world. Simple insights into the oppressive nature of social life get lost all to often, and general intellectual life tends to do little to recover them then gather them into coherent, meaningful pictures or theories about the general character of capitalist society -- that is, its class oppression, its demand that one sell one's labour power, its precarious feeling "on the ground" and so forth. By the way, democracy doesn't matter.

In Social Torment, you said that international capital is running out of places to "run" in order to find sources of cheaper labour. How you see that playing out, and has your understanding of it been changed by the events of recent years?

Recent years remind us more that ever that capital will fight its wage struggle on every conceivable political, social and military front. Part of this struggle to lower wages remains "capital mobility", that is, the corporate flight to regions of cheaper labour to drive down wages. This is what the FTAA is about, about preparing to leave Mexico and go further south, especially Brazil, where poverty is high.


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