Half Past Horizons of post-capitalism

LACE up your boots August 5, 2021

People who work for non-profits (and some care professions, education work or some creative or knowledge-oriented jobs) form a distinct political and economic orbital within the larger class system.

They are distinguished from the rest of the workforce by two key experiences: partial relief from being alienated from their labour, and the commodification of their compassion as a key component of their exploitation.

They are also distinguished, I would add, by the strategic value (for capital) of their separation from the broader workforce, and the harnessing of their capacities for its own ends.

Alienation is the loss of control of the fruits of one labour, and the far-reaching physical, social and psychological results of that loss.

Broadly, these results can be understood as a separation from the fulcrum of what makes us human: relating to others through our physical and mental contributions.

Alienation happens to varying degrees, ranging from imperceptible existential itchiness to psycho-physiological meatgrinder. Depends on the gig.

(Alienation tends to become more acute as an experience when the forces controlling the results of one's work are part of a technological death cult that no one seems to have the ability to control.)

I'm going to call these the Low-Accumulation, Commodified Empathy (LACE) sectors. They are funded by large institutions – philanthropists, governments or both – but the funding is produced as artificially scarce through the proliferation of many organizations who compete for their favour (and money).

Because LACE jobs usually involve helping people, and because they are artificially scarce, a few assumptions tend to undergird the relationships people have to their work:

• the people in these jobs are lucky to have them,

• aren't doing it for the money, and

• can be easily replaced.

LACE workers _are_ willing to take a pay cut for these positions. This is because they strongly prefer to do work that avoids violating their conscience too explicitly (e.g. not ruthlessly exploiting or polluting) or aligns with their empathetic function (helping people or the environment).

One result is that the people who end up in these positions tend to be people with enough privilege to act on their desire to escape the implications of that privilege.

Because believing in your work (as opposed to merely collecting a paycheque and finding meaning outside of work) means identifying with your employer, and because the demand for the artificially scarce positions is high, there's not a lot of opportunity to organize.

At the level of funders, organizations can come and go, and getting rid of one that is causing trouble is as easy as not renewing a few grants.

To organize LACE worker power properly would require some kind of sector-wide union. It would have to find ways to bypass the organization layer _and_ the foundation and agency layers to confront the philanthropists and governments directly.

This feat has not even been attempted, as far as I know – though there are some interesting efforts in the US to counter the crab-in-barrel non-profit mentality through horizontal coordination.

Public sector LACE workers have a bit more leverage, but a level of precarity is creeping in through similar mechanisms – abstraction layers of budgeting bureaucracy, artificial scarcity, multi-tier wage structures, intentionally burnout-inducing workloads to increase turnover, and so on.

LACE workers are largely denied a lived experience of solidarity. They might go to demonstrations or even walk picket lines, but in their economic lives, they are more likely to be navigating small cliques of people who amass personal or micro-collective power by controlling access to relationships or knowledge.

There can be exceptions, but the clique is the basic unit of political organization in LACE, as it is in any actively dis-organized workforce. The idea that a greater common interest could transcend clique-level politics is acknowledged and affirmed in the abstract, but often viewed with fear and suspicion in practical terms.

Cognitive dissonance plays a huge role in maintaining the structural integrity of LACE. Since a core reason for its attractiveness lies in not being mercenary in pursuit of profits, there is an incentive to believe that that is the case.

The deeply ironic corollary is that success is measured by the approval of funders. Which means that validation from government agencies and billionaire philanthropists is always implicitly accepted as a proxy for merit to some extent!

It's difficult to unpack the level at which the exploitation is taking place. LACE funders are interested in a bunch of things.

Control – over the work, how it is done, and in which parameters, by theoretically benevolent priority-setters – is the through-line.

But whether individual administrators are aware of it or not, there is a greater ruling-class project that is being carried out.

For capitalism to function, you can't have LACE people scattered through the entire workforce. Their empathy and sense of outrage primes them to become the connective tissue through which broader working class power is built. And their activist energies would be directed into independent, member-based or grassroots organizations instead of their jobs.

So their activities have to be limited, the scope of their work amputated and their imagination cauterized. Their energetic output must be dialed up and down at will, like a thermostat.

As a result of this complex disciplining process, LACE structures can be – and constantly are – wielded as a weapon by the ruling class, diverting energies and blunting efforts to change structures.

One of the few things that can undermine this pattern is consciousness of LACE workers themselves, which can only be created through struggle grown from a seed of situational awareness.

To confront the climate crisis and rectify deepening inequality, LACE workers will need to become self-aware. There are many nascent efforts underway, and those will have to spread more widely and increase their depth and sophistication.

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