Spectres Haunting Sectors: Crypto-currencies and Immaterial Conditions in Modern Class Division

The politics of bookselling – in which some are paid below the living wage – is an important concern for Pierre Bourdieu, argues an anonymous EDA contributor.

Are we being taught to forget our Marx?

Today, the virtual is nowhere more concrete than in the real. Whilst technology blends the analogue and digital in modcon ways that blow, boggle, and beguile the mind, the Imaginary grasps hold of these coaxial signals and channels them into a unidirectional output of signifiers the materiality of which is often left eerily unquestioned in spite of their immanent ponderability. In the retail sector, staff at a high-street bookselling chain are being paid under the Real Living Wage, and a petition has arisen at organise.org.uk to address this fact; they are being told by their employer that ‘to retain the best and most talented booksellers, we have to reward them, and we reward them as well as we can with pay, but we mainly reward them with a stimulating job’. Their managing director has encouraged staff to sign the petition, which ‘preach[es] to the converted’, andto support its spirit, despite no concrete forthcoming changes being made in line with the RLW. As a former employee – writing for the Guardianputs it: ‘to say […] that a stimulating job should be a reward in itself is not simply patronising, it is exploitative.’

Indeed, the byline to his article reads: ‘a ‘stimulating job’ doesn’t pay anybody’s rent.’ ‘Job stimulation’, it would appear, is being presented as a true crypto-currency, circulable within an economic culture increasingly predicated on spectral identifiers devoid of any material basis; workers’ immaterialconditions are seemingly being accounted for to the detriment of the phenomenologically experienced grind of the day-to-day. The class bases of these disparities are worth pausing over.

A bookseller may be presented with the argument (oblivious to, if not downright dismissive of, worker organisation and unionism): ‘work for less with more job stimulation; for example, in a bookshop, or for more with less job stimulation; for example, in a supermarket.’ There are instances of overdetermination and disavowal in this statement reminiscent of the kettle logic that Freud identified (on the return of a broken kettle, the person who borrowed it claims at once: it was undamaged on return; it was damaged when they borrowed it; they never borrowed the kettle.) If this is articulated from a middleclass mindset, generally this statement will most likely hint at a misrecognition: if intended as ‘these are the options you can freely and autonomously choose from’, the position – based on the ideology of individualism and ‘entrepreneurship-of-the-self’ (and underwritten by the tenets of neoliberalism) – misrecognises what is perceivable from the workingclass perspective: ‘these are, in fact, your only options.’ The argument also – however unconsciously – motions towards further divide-and-rule, not only in rivening the retail sector on pay grounds (which could stoke up rivalries and resentments between people occupying jobs in similar working environments between different companies), but also in attempting to create a further hierarchy within the sector that suggests that job A is more stimulating than job B (surely this is subjective to the worker), that job A requires more skill than job B (surely this is subject to the particularity of the skills, and their distribution – a supermarket, like a bookshop, requires its own skillset, and it is simply snobbery to suggest otherwise – and subjective to the worker), and this then being exploited in the suggestion that it is a privilege, in itself, to have job A – supposedly requiring more skill and more effort than job B – for less pay. (And, at the same time, the statement suggests: ‘if you don’t like it, work in another retail job’, positing, whilst denying, that these jobs are all the same.)

Sadly, Pierre Bourdieu’s important category of ‘cultural capital’ is being denigrated to such an extent that it has begun to carry a discursive weight severed utterly from the economic field (whilst, of course, the concept is properly inextricably and dialectally intertwined with the question of the distribution of wealth). Whether this denigration is due to misunderstanding, laziness, or divisiveness (in the manner of ‘oh, we’re too thick to understand this theory stuff, until we can twist it out of shape and co-opt it to our class interests’) we can leave up to debate. (But the question may arise: are we being systematically taught to forget our Marx?) What seems to be happening as a result of it, though, is a new attempt at an age-old separation of spirit and letter. It is recognised that the Letter of the Law is and must be respected: wages will increase in line with the National Living Wage – George Osborne’s cosy new name (brought in in 2015) to designate the National Minimum Wage for over-25s, whilst under-25s still get paid less (still under the NMW name) – a moniker that has always seemed like a placatory simulacrum, a spectral shadow trying to cast itself over and obfuscate the Real Living Wage, calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, based on actual living costs.The separation of spirit and letter we witness here, however, enacts a reversal of the old saying that ‘the letter kills while the spirit gives life’. That is, it is a manoeuvre in support of the spirit that is killing what the letter is attempting to give life to.

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