Excerpt from Hamilton Nolan, In These Times, June 2021
There is much hand-wringing today over the idea that misinformation and conspiracy theories and omnipresent propaganda have created a situation in which Americans don’t seem to have a single set of mutually agreed upon facts. That is true. But it does not capture an even more elementary flaw in what we are doing. We allow entire “issues” to be created and to be talked about endlessly in the national political media without ever determining what those issues mean.
The absurd effect of this failure is twofold. First, it allows bad faith political actors to purposely exploit this rhetorical vulnerability in order to smear the other side by inflating the definition of bad things to include whatever the other side is doing. This is standard issue political scumbag behavior, and is to be expected. Worse, though, it creates a self-reinforcing cycle in which widespread use of some vague, ill-defined term convinces the public that this term is something important, driving media coverage and creating impenetrable towers of meaninglessness that come to dominate our partisan political landscape.
If you can push a bullshit issue into “everybody knows” territory, you can get away with never having to define it at all. What does it mean? Stupid question. Everybody knows this is an issue.
What does “cancel culture” mean? Does it mean “Being fired from your job for being racist or sexist?” Does it mean “Being criticized in public for saying racist or sexist things?” Does it mean “Things that used to be seen as okay for white people to say now are seen as not okay and I am upset about that because I like to say those things?” It is easy to see how at one end of the spectrum of definitions, “cancel culture” is an extremely narrow, niche problem without any major impact on the general public — and at the other extreme, it is a pernicious force that might come for anyone. If I were making an honest attempt to offer the definition of this term as it is most often used, it would be: “People suffering consequences for things they said, with an overwhelming emphasis on the most goofy or misguided examples that we can find.” By this definition, “cancel culture” is just a rebranding of the ordinary human foibles that accompany the slowly evolving standards of society. Engaging in any debate at all about “cancel culture” without a meticulous definition of terms is to fall into a trap before you have even begun.
What does “woke” mean? Does it mean “Aware of racism and sexism and other forms of discrimination and committed to working to eradicate them?” Does it mean “Khmer Rouge-style fanatics coming to seize and indoctrinate your white babies into their vicious cult?” Its genuine operational definition is probably something like “Anything that makes white people feel guilty.” It is a term that means nothing, and it is a term that can instantly serve as a slur to discredit anything — an empty bucket into which people can dump every uncomfortable thing in order to invalidate it. The fact that major media figures allow debates about “wokeness” to happen with a straight face, and without a written definition, is ridiculous. It is a perfect political black hole, a magic wand that can tarnish whatever anyone dislikes and be said not to apply to anything that they like. It means everything, which means that it means nothing.
This same dynamic applies to terms that may have once had a legitimate definition, but which become definition-less by the time they have been elevated into the popular mind, laden with propaganda. Do any of the politicians or commentators decrying “critical race theory” have a precise working definition for this academic term? Of course not. It now means “Anything that talks about white people’s racism.”
And what does “socialism” mean, exactly? A political scientist (or, you know, an In These Times reader) could tell you the textbook definition, but that does not matter one bit in the context of the term’s actual use in America. Here, “socialism” is used as shorthand to mean anything and everything from “a more democratic and egalitarian alternative economic system to capitalism” to “Social Security and Medicaid” to “Kim Jong Un executing his own top officials with anti-aircraft guns.” To stand up and argue “Hey, many broadly popular government programs could be considered socialist…” is to miss the point that the other side is not and will never be arguing against anything that is broadly popular; they will always redraw the definition of “socialism” at will to suit their purpose of making it unpopular.
To attempt to have any kind of good faith debate on any of these topics is the political equivalent of trying to hold back an ocean wave with your hands. It’s just going to go around you. We can’t expect politicians to stop creating these sorts of terms. After all, undefined words that serve to make the other side look bad and can never be pinned down enough to make your side look like hypocrites are the pinnacle of real world political speech. What we can expect, though, is for the media not to get sucked into this stupid and meaningless game, to serve as a mechanism that reinforces the idea that unreal things are real. None of these pseudo-issues should be written about in respectable publications or spoken about on the airwaves until they have been subjected to a relentless and scrupulous defining of what they do and do not mean. I don’t care if the attempt to define “woke” in a meaningful way takes the entire length of a cable news segment, leaving no time for the ensuing talking points. The fact that coming to a realistic, mutually agreed upon definition sounds so daunting and time consuming is a sign that the underlying “issue” does not, necessarily, exist.
Meanwhile, things like poverty and inequality and death and disease and climate change and war can all be easily quantified, defined and debated in a meaningful way. When someone instead spends all their time talking about things that seem undefinable, it is probably because they find reality to be an uncomfortable topic.
HAMILTON NOLAN is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.
May 26, 2021 | EDUCATE!
Above Photo: Tim Gouw / Unsplash.
Long Working Hours Led To 745,000 Deaths Worldwide In 2016.
As we emerge from the pandemic, we urgently need to reclaim our free time – but the only way to do it is through worker organising.
This week, the World Health Organisation published analysis from across the globe revealing that long working hours lead to deaths from heart attacks and strokes – 745,000 in 2016, to be precise. In the middle of a pandemic, when we are reeling from the millions of deaths as a result of a ruthless virus, and when we have begun to recognise the precious gift of health, it seems absurd that the hours we are forced to work are making us unnecessarily sick.
Perhaps this analysis isn’t as surprising as some have suggested – most of us have direct experience of the toll which work takes on our mental as well as physical health. But the pandemic has given us a renewed focus on how fragile both our health and our health systems are – especially after decades of underfunding by the government here in Britain.
It seems preposterous to have to explain why damage to our health is a bad thing, but even if we put the human toll aside, it comes at a cost. Squandering the scant healthcare resources we have on treating completely avoidable illnesses wastes money that could be spent on other kinds of preventative care, which can save lives. It also puts an unbearable strain on the workers within the health service, two thirds of whom are overworked themselves in Britain. Businesses also sustain losses when their employees need to take days off sick.
We should be cautious of using these kinds of arguments to push back against overwork, though. Capitalist logic forces us to see leisure as something to feel guilty about – even our hobbies are expected to be productive, professionalised, and marketable. Often when we try to rest and do other ‘non-productive’ activities, we’re bothered by a sense that we should be doing something more worthwhile – whether that’s working, ‘life admin’, or activities that supposedly make us more resilient workers, such as mindfulness. Labour is imbued with a sense of moral superiority. We’re all internalising this, and it’s making us sick.
We see the perfidious effects of this demonisation of leisure across society, with the most marginalised suffering some of the worst consequences. Edanur Yazici’s upcoming study of life in the asylum system shows how leisure time for those seeking asylum—and thus unable to work—is judged through this moral framework of productivity. Migrants who are not legally able to work are encouraged to volunteer in order to not ‘waste’ the chasm of spare time spent awaiting decisions about their immigration status. This, as Yazici argues, denies the self-actualising, self-expressive, and restorative effects of non-productive time – while demonising migrants and asylum-seekers as ‘lazy scroungers’.
We see the same counterintuitive narrative which compels us to feel guilty about ‘non-productive’ leisure in the story surrounding the unfolding effects of automation. These technological developments should free us from mind-numbing, repetitive tasks, and reduce working time for people across the entire workforce. Instead, since the ownership of the digital economy is concentrated into the hands of the very few, we see a handful of tech bros get obscenely rich, while an increasingly casualised workforce must accept precarity and the threat of unemployment as the ‘inevitable’ impacts of automation.
The Communication Workers Union (CWU) recently won a campaign to secure a four-day week for postal workers who have had significant parts of their role replaced by machines. This should be a model for the future: automation should come with a gift of free time – but we need to make the case for this more forcefully across the economy.
The ability to meet the demands of excessively long hours, which increase as union power weakens, is not equal. Women, who disproportionately bear the responsibility of care and child-rearing, must balance this work with paid employment, limiting their earnings which in turn can make them more vulnerable to gender-based violence and constrain their ability to participate in public life.
Those with physical disabilities and mental health problems that limit their ability to work the same hours as their able-bodied, neurotypical counterparts also face reduced power earnings, compounding the social and economic inequalities they already face. And mental health problems in turn aren’t equally distributed. Black people are more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Racialised groups in general have higher rates of depression and face multiple barriers in access to mental health services. A Stonewall report found that half of LGBT people are reported to have experienced depression. That’s not to mention the compound impact of discrimination based on both ethnicity and sexuality. Inequalities in the ability to meet the ever-increasing demands of working time simply entrench existing social and economic injustice.
It’s worth also considering wider factors in our ability to lead healthy, happy lives. Much has been written of the devastating health impacts of environmental degradation. As the Four Day Week campaign argues, excessive working hours preclude us from making individual choices that could have a positive impact on both the environment and our health, such as walking rather than driving, reducing carbon emissions, and cutting consumption of disposable, unsustainable goods, like a packaged sandwich to go.
The cruel double-bind of our contemporary working culture limits the time we have to give to democratic participation – and therefore our ability to resist the pressures of overwork. But reclaiming our time is our only hope for fighting a life cut short by preventable deaths, and lived beset by depression and anxiety. As our work at the New Economics Foundation has shown, working conditions—including how much time we spend at work—have worsened as union density has declined. Organising won us back our free time before – and it can again.