Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Three Day Workweek

Although it's the norm throughout much of the world, the seven day week is a completely arbitrary entity. Indeed, it is even more arbitrary than the time-unit of the week itself. Days and months, of course, correspond to natural chronological cycles - and that there would be an intermediate unit between the day and the lunar month is entirely understandable. That it happens to be seven days, instead of six or eight, or five or ten, however, doesn't really seem to make very much sense. It is a custom; one extending into the earliest days of civilization, to be sure, but it is nevertheless merely a custom. And even while the ancient Hebrews, and the ancient Babylonians, and the Sumerians before them, shared this custom, the seven-day week was not always the supreme time-unit acting as the intermediary between the day and the month in the ancient world.

Among the most influential civilizations of human history, the ancient Egyptians had a ten-day week. The Celts, it is believed, had a nine-day week. And until the third century of the common era, the Romans enjoyed an eight-day week. Over on the other side of the planet, the Mayans and the Aztecs each had a thirteen-day week. And examples of shorter weeks are not difficult to come by.

Modernly, the French instituted a ten-day week - the decade - in the years following the French Revolution. And in the twentieth century, shortly after seizing power in 1917, the Bolsheviks instituted a five-day week. In 1931, this five-day week (which repeated 72 times throughout the calendar year) was lengthened by one day into a six-day week. But then in June of 1940, less than a year after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union returned to a seven-day week.

Of course, the length of the week and the number of days one is expected to work (and just what one is working for in the first place) during that week are two altogether different things. One could have a four day week, for example, but get only one day off. And, then again, one could imagine a five day week that has two days off, or even three. And while it goes without saying, it nevertheless ought to be pointed out that the whole notion of getting days off in the first place implies relations of coercion. For in many respects the one who decides that one can have a day off is the same one who decides that one must have a day on.

On Monday mornings, returning to my place of work from an insufficiently restful two-day break, I find it difficult to not reflect upon the arbitrariness of not only the length of the workweek, but of the things produced during the course of these workweeks. As far as the former is concerned, my colleagues do, too; for again and again, in response to still other colleagues' questions concerning how their weekends were, they express my very feelings. Too short, they reply. And it's not just at my work site that I hear these two words. I hear them all over the place. On the train, at the cafe, in the elevator, everyone seems to be using them.

How was your weekend?
Too short. How was yours?
Mine was too short, too.

At this point it might do us well to recall that the very word calendar is derived from the Latin calendarium - which designates a banker's account book. And, in light of this, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to see that domination (domingo) is never too far removed from time-keeping in the first place. Indeed, demarcated units of time function in a manner roughly analogous to how walls function in the physical world, cutting off access to units of space (and lending to their respective commodifications). Of course, beyond their problematic functions, walls offer support and structure vital for people's health - reflecting the very ambiguity of health as, on the one hand, the security of ease and, on the other, the security of prisons and coercion.

And while many might argue that the most hygiecratic thing would be to get rid of all mandatory temporal designations, along with their attendant expectations, in the short term a variation on the week - e.g. a shortened workweek - would be politically expedient. To be sure, it is a testament to the backwardness of the present political situation that the very notion of a three or four-day workweek, which was a standard facet of political discourse in the 1920s and 1930s, is not discussed at all - excepting some of the discussions stemming from the subject of the too-short weekend. If this issue were resuscitated, however, and a three-day workweek were brought about, it would be a considerable step toward a more hygiecratic world.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Wade Page and Rage

published on counterpunch as Mass Murders and the New Economy

While it may appear to be the case, it is not a coincidence that only two weeks and two days after James Holmes committed mass murder in Aurora, Colorado, another mass murder erupted in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Police investigating the crime have remarked that the death of the killer, Wade Page, will very likely prevent them from discovering his motive. But would learning Page's Nazi-inspired motive really shed much light on the incident? Even if it somehow did, though, it is unlikely that the discovery of Page's motive would contribute to our understanding of the wider phenomenon of mass murders. Because mass murders are not strictly individual but social problems, an individual's motives are not adequate to explain them. Rather, one must consider the larger social picture.

Two days after this most recent mass murder in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, another mass murderer, Jared Loughner, who killed six people and wounded 13 in Tucson, Arizona, last year, was back in the news when it was learned that a plea arrangement had been reached in his prosecution. This group of events - attributed by some to mere chance - may reasonably lead others to wonder whether we are seeing more mass murders than we usually see. That is, are we seeing more mass murders than normal?  And, if so, how many mass-murders is normal?

Because other countries - like Canada and Switzerland - have comparable levels of gun ownership, but nothing close to the rates of gun-related murders, it seems unlikely that chance explains the prevalence of gun violence in the U.S. But even if, for the sake of argument, these mass murders simply were the random acts of maniacs, one must give a little thought to the conditions which produce so many murderous random acts of maniacs. What seems to be a more persuasive explanation is that these murders are symptomatic of systematic pressures and forces and the damage they wield. Although obvious, it nevertheless ought to be pointed out that as living organisms people can only handle so much pressure, or stress, before they break down in some way. Also well known is the fact that the economic and technological pressures and stresses people are experiencing today, among others, are historically unprecedented both in their intensities and in their pervasiveness. Indeed, the intensification of these social pressures and forces is indistinct from the transformation of diffused forms of violence into concentrated violence.

Among the most persistent of these pressures are those attending work. Exacerbating the pressures and forces attending the widespread unemployment that is part of the new economy - compromising the stability of even those who have jobs - people across the job spectrum are working significantly more hours for considerably less pay. Factoring in rising costs of housing, education, transportation, etc., we see that people are experiencing far more pressures compared to the recent past, while at the same time seeing the reduction of those supports (income, rest, etc.) that allowed them to sustain these pressures. As a result, these pressures become more intense, concentrated, and destructive.

To understand the dynamic at play, it is important to mention that for its entire history (excepting economic slumps) until the mid-1970s the United States experienced a labor shortage. As such, throughout U.S. history wages for workers generally steadily increased. One result of this was that people began to believe that ever-rising wages were just part of the deal that working people in America enjoyed. Beginning in the 1970s, however, four significant socio-historical shifts led to the end of these rising incomes. In addition to the rise of automated production, the introduction of computers, and the entry of women into the workforce, much of the European and Asian world became economic competitors. As such, beginning in the mid-1970s, the United States' historic labor shortage finally came to an end. Consequently, the perennially rising incomes that U.S. workers enjoyed flat-lined. The costs of living - and their attendant pressures - however, only continued to rise. Finance and credit ballooned to cover this gap. Recently, however, this bubble burst, leaving all but the wealthy with even less support than before while exposed to considerably more pressures.

It ought to be noted that not all workers in the U.S. enjoyed this privileged rising income equally. In many respects these incomes were contingent on income inequality, imperialism, and the ideologies that help reproduce these. People of color and women, for example, historically experienced regular discrimination, and grew more or less accustomed to this unfair treatment - not to mention people abroad, toiling under merciless conditions for corporate profit (from which the US working class directly benefited). For many white men, however, who as children were taught the story of the U.S. as the land of opportunity, the recent switch to this new economic reality of having little, if any, future came less as an already well-established fact of life than as an enraging novelty.

In addition to attributing this most recent mass murder in Wisconsin to mere chance, people will point out that Wade Page was a racist. And though he undoubtedly was, this still explains little, for racists are very common, but very few commit even regular murder, let alone mass murder. Although the FBI is classifying the murders as an act of terrorism, this classification also does little to explain what unfolded. It's classification as a hate crime, however, may bring more light to the analysis, as the categories of hate and rage enjoy a considerable degree of overlap. Indeed, when the phenomenon of decreasing incomes and unemployment is coupled with the fact that white men, whatever their income, historically received a supplement, or bonus, accorded in the form of white supremacist ideologies (the value of which, in the age of Obama, is also perceived to be depreciatory), it is not that surprising to see that virtually all mass murderers are young, white men.

And while it is relevant that Wade Page was unemployed and had recently lost his home, it must be noted that the economic pressures discussed above comprise only one part of the picture. The forces and pressures attending a sped-up, high-tech world of instantaneous communications, as well as the pressures accompanying an increasingly polluted ecosystem - one that is taxing, more and more, people's immunological resistances - not to mention the pressures of never-ending wars, are stressing our collective psyche to its breaking point. Indeed, it is a tragic irony that while Jared Loughner sits in a courthouse in Arizona, confessing his guilt for his own mass murder, that very same court is administering the persecution of scapegoated immigrants - that is, it is distributing/concentrating pressures according to the same scapegoating, racist logic that the killer Wade Page employed.

Of course, most people do not crack from these pressures; most react to the pressures of work, etc., by getting more and more depressed. Indeed, it is not just another coincidence that the little relief people find from these pressures - which shouldn't be confused with support - is derived from pharmaceuticals. Nor is it a coincidence that anti-depressants are the most highly prescribed drugs in the country. Unsurprisingly, in other fully industrialized countries, where people enjoy between six and eight weeks of vacation annually as a matter of law, there is less stress, less depression, and less murder. In the U.S., by contrast, people are getting less and less rest. Consequently, the pressures increase. That these destructive forces and pressures are systematic, and are integral to the process of profit and wealth extraction and concentration, is not discussed by those who seek to explain these mass murders through appeals to chance, or to morality. Whether this is intentional or not is open to conjecture. What is beyond doubt, however, is the fact that we are living in a world of increasing pressures and diminishing supports - of the increasing concentration of diffused forms of violence. What is also beyond dispute is the fact that more and more people are growing depressed in this country - and, as our economic model spreads, throughout the world. Not all become merely depressed, however. More and more are being driven into murderous rage.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Hygiecratization of New York

As global warming accelerates, and more and more of the hydrosphere melts from ice into its liquid and vaporous forms, winter snow packs increasingly disappear well before the beginning of summer. Not only does this result in an increase in droughts and desertification, it also leads to massive flooding.

Beyond drought caused by diminishing snow packs, ancient aquifers (whose volumes accumulated over the course of millennia) are being pumped dry across the globe. Moreover, waterways and other water sources are being polluted at unprecedented rates. Because of these conditions, conservative projections estimate that within the next 13 years half of the planet's population will have severely restricted access to water. Because water is absolutely vital for life, protecting this resource ought to be our most urgent political and economic priority. In spite of this, it is increasingly apparent that the political-economy presently reigning across the globe is neither capable nor very much interested in handling this unfolding situation. What is less clear, but no less the case, is that the capitalistic political-economic system - which in many respects created the present crisis - is by its very design bound to pursue monetary profit over any other goal. As such, even were the capitalist political-economic system capable of handling the present water catastrophe, its operation would still be structurally opposed to the general health of people and the world, for a fundamental conflict of interest exists between health and profit. The hygiecratic political-economy, on the other hand, which sees the health of the people of the world and justice as homologous, subordinates the economy to the requirements of actual health.

Among the engineering and design projects developed to ameliorate some of the consequences of this water crisis are several coming out of hygiecratic discussions that involve rooftop funnels. Covered with photovoltaic paneling and aerodynamically designed to withstand the winds which often accompany rainfall, these large rooftop funnels would be built out of appropriate materials on the tops of most buildings. With their edges extending up to, or beyond, the perimeters of each funnel's respective roof, these funnels would collect rainwater, funneling the water into pipes which in turn would lead to subterranean cisterns. Filled with various filters, these pipes would purify the rainwater before storing it underground. Another set of pipes, leading to rooftop water towers situated inside the funnels, would further filter the water. That is, when the solar powered engine would pump the stored water to the rooftop water tower for distribution, the water would pass through further filters. Of course, the solar energy collected by the photovoltaic paneling would not be limited to pumping water; it could be applied to a variety of uses.

Another design suggestion emerging from discussions concerning the hygiecratization of New York involves the hygiecratization of the city's bridges. For a host of reasons cars are anti-hygiecratic and, as such, ought to be removed from the city. This would open up and quiet the streets, clean the air, and hygiecratize the city in many respects. In addition to walking and utilizing the city's hygiecratized (that is, free and cooperative) public transportation system, bicycles, and open-sided solar-powered street cars could convey people from place to place. Beyond the streets, however, the bridges would also be freed from cars. Consequently, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, the 59th Street Bridge, and the Macombs Dam Bridge, among others, could be transformed into flying parks, and hanging gardens. Because the hygiecratic political-economic system requires that people work no more than ten hours per week (unless voluntarily), people would have plenty of time to enjoy the hygiecratized city's spaces.

Further ideas for hygiecratization involve food production. Since the food needs of the city would likely surpass the production levels of the new agricultural spaces opened up by the hygiecratization of streets (street and lot gardens) and real estate (warehouses and high-rises converted into greenhouses), a new take on the Aztec agricultural method of the chinampa has been proposed.

A chinampa is more or less a small plot of land built on top of a lake and used to grow crops. Often referred to as 'floating gardens,' chinampas do not actually float on the water. Rather, they are more like artificial islands rising from shallow lakes. And though this is highly effective for agricultural uses on bodies of fresh water, difficulties arise when transposing this system onto the East River and the mouth of the Hudson River, which are saltwater. To accommodate this, the following solution has been proposed: Though anchored to obviate their floating away, unlike their Aztec progenitors the hygiecratic chinampas would truly float on the water. The crops would not, though, float directly on the water. Rather, a space would separate the soil in which the crops would grow from the saltwater. Placed between the crops would be various lenses. Magnifying and directing sunlight through the chinampa to the surface of the water, these lenses would heat the surface of the water. The steam produced thereby would rise, moistening the soil in which the crops would grow. Not only would this method open up a great deal of space on the surface of the East and Hudson Rivers for agricultural production by way of hygiecratic chinampas, it would contribute significantly to the hygiecratization of New York City.