A Vote for the Fire

Malcolm Harris, the author of the new essay collection Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit, reflects on a long, dystopian decade.

Joshua Simon
March 27, 2020
Photo credit Julia Burke, used with permission from Malcolm Harris

Malcolm Harris’s first book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of the Millennials (2017)—the first serious analysis of the socioeconomic conditions that produced the millennial generation—earned critical raves. It could have been a ticket into the lucrative world of consumer consultancy, but Harris, an outspoken communist, has stayed true to his principles. His new book, Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit: History Since the End of History, collects essays he published since 2011, when he first gained notoriety through his participation in Occupy Wall Street. These essays treat subjects like the “sharing economy” and the housing crisis, which he reads as symptoms of accelerating economic devastation and climate catastrophe. Under these circumstances, “Life becomes a question of what kind of risk we’d rather take: the frying pan or the fire,” Harris writes in an introduction. “Count my vote for the fire.” 

One of Harris’s major themes is internet culture and its relationship to class conflict. In these essays—most of which themselves first appeared in online publications—he rejects the idea, much hyped by the tech industry, that internet technology has already brought about a progressive revolution. His work does suggest, however, that the internet is rife with potential for counter-revolution. We spoke just as the coronavirus pandemic had begun to overturn life in the United States. As schools shut down across the country, Harris launched a digital platform that can be used to organize childcare co-ops. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Joshua Simon: Coronavirus is a sudden disaster that has arrived in the midst of a long-standing social and economic catastrophe. How do you see this moment, in which the political horizon is changing rapidly?

Malcolm Harris: It’s certainly a scary moment. We’re about to see some pretty brutal tragedy, and I’m afraid Americans looking for glimmers of hope this early in the game need to pace themselves. At the same time, it’s a moment of possibility. We’ve already seen policymakers rewriting the rules for the spectrum of solutions we’re allowed to consider, and I see mutual aid efforts popping up all over. I’m a big believer in what Rebecca Solnit found in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, which is that people tend to be very caring and responsible during disasters. I hope I’m right, because we’re going to need it.

JS: The book is informed by the long second decade of the millennium, starting with the 2008 financial crisis. In your introduction you write that most of the essays that follow were written for money, and most of that money was spent on rent. You describe a professor who laughed when you told him you wanted to live off your writing. How do you see the role of the public intellectual in a time that does not allow for its material existence? 

MH: I like that “long second decade” formulation. I think that’s right, and we feel it drawing to a close right now and something new emerging. When I started at The New Inquiry in 2011, the premise for that project was that market circumstances were creating a new cohort of internet intellectuals who could make homes for themselves online. But the blogging era turned out to be pretty short, and a lot of those writers ended up employed by big global capital one way or another, especially after Gawker.

Even if it didn’t create a whole new kind of intellectual, though, the situation over the past decade has led to what I see as an increase in the level of critical analysis we get in some mainstream writing. I’m not sure whether that has to do with the rise of critical theory in universities or the generational circumstances I talk about in my first book, but I definitely see it. 

JS: In your opening essay, you describe the cheapening of life in the last decade, writing that “instead of providing a higher standard of living to everyone for less work, we saw technology and the market generating unimaginable profits for a tiny ruling class, while everyone else struggled a bit harder every year.” How do you see this in the context of the ongoing environmental catastrophe? 

MH: In the current ecological crisis, we see capital’s vast destruction in literal, undeniable terms. There’s no way to look at the fires in Australia or California and think we can continue producing and accumulating value in the ways we have been. By extracting resources, we may intuit that we’ve incurred a debt we’ll have to pay somehow, but the American slogan is “Not now, not in cash.” Zero down, you know? Well, for a lot of Australians, their whole world just got repo’d. 

There’s a productivist democratic socialism that finds its clearest expression in calls for a Green New Deal, and I think its exponents have a more optimistic view of technology under a capitalist system than I do. They say we need to spend tens of trillions to develop technologies that will ameliorate, and even reverse, the effects of atmosphere carbonization. But if we try to tackle the ecological crisis with the capitalist mode of value production, we’re just going to end up shifting the costs to the world’s most vulnerable populations. We see something similar with Covid-19, where there are all sorts of useful measures we could take, but they’re incompatible with an economy based on forcing people to go to work if they want to eat. 

JS: Your essay “Turn Down for What” mentions Marx’s Fragment on Machines, which has become an influential reference since it was translated into English in 1973. How do you see the question of technology within the framework of that book?

MH: My first job after I graduated from college was editing and writing for a site called Shareable.net. This was 2010, and at that time it was possible to imagine a “sharing economy” that put technological developments to work in order to reduce consumption and make life easier and cheaper for all of us. People thought that Uber was going to lead to a reduction in the number of cars on the road. It made a certain amount of sense: if you don’t need to own a car, maybe you won’t buy one.

But the opposite has happened. Ride-sharing platforms led to a surge in the number of cars, and we’ve seen the predictable consequences: increased road fatalities, wages collapsing for drivers, more pollution and emissions. It turns out that companies based on “sharing,” whether it’s social media or Uber or Airbnb or whatever, look really good to capitalists because they’re so efficient on paper. They don’t have a lot of employees or fixed capital. So capitalists have pumped a bunch of money into these companies, and they’ve been able to transform our world in big ways despite most of them not actually being profitable.

At the same time, there was this intellectual digesting of the Grundrisse [Marx’s unfinished work that includes the “Fragment on Machines”] going on in US Marxist circles. The Grundrisse suggested that fixed capital—value objectified in productive machinery rather than living labor—would play an increasingly central role in the production process. As fixed capital grows, it turns workers from the users of tools into the servants of machines. Pretty good insight for the 1840s! Some Marxists got optimistic about the potential for appropriating the general intellect [the store of collective knowledge held in our technology]. We could take Uber and use it to share all the cars! But in retrospect, we didn’t pay enough attention to the third volume of Capital, where Marx explains the devious ways that companies drive labor costs down when their rate of profit begins to fall. That is the agenda technology ends up serving.

JS: We were promised that the internet would enable us to thrive. But then you see how Amazon wanted to open its new headquarters in New York and Washington, DC, not in, say, Idaho. We have experienced an intensification of inequality and an affordability crisis, especially in the big coastal cities, precisely because of the internet. How do you see the relation between the digital and the urban playing out? 

MH: It’s that “thrive” that’s the tricky part! Rents have exploded. Capital has further concentrated in the cities—another outcome of the same process Marx was talking about. There was a good article in The New York Times Magazine recently about hedge funds getting into single-family rentals, and the effects on people’s lives are brutal. I’m not sure that happens without the internet, which makes it easier to aggregate small investments into something that’s worth capital’s time. Rent is great for capitalists as a class because they’ve been able to drive down our living standards—Live in a dorm! Live in a tiny house!—without actually lowering our costs. 

JS: While worker struggles over production have declined in the industrialized world over the past four decades, we have seen an increase in local struggles over realization and circulation. In other words, fewer factory workers on strike, more consumer boycotts to anti-gentrification movements, from rent-control demands and living-wages campaigns. How do you see this formulation from “strike to riot,” as Joshua Clover calls it?

MH: We’ve definitely seen that shift from struggles at the point of production to the points of circulation (and reproduction as well, including the recent teachers’ strikes). Part of that has to do with the offshoring of production and global overproduction in general.

I think the Blackjewel coal action is illustrative: You have a mine that’s getting shut down, and workers haven’t been paid. There’s no point in striking; capital is already done with them as coal miners, that’s the premise here. So instead, they block the train that’s going to take the coal they mined to the market, the coal that still has their money/time/value embedded in it, and that’s just sitting there. They knew that the coal on the train is worth more than the backpay they wanted, and the workers were right that their bosses would have to pay them eventually, which they did.

But there are also signs that what we used to call the “official labor movement” is headed in some new and interesting directions. Some white-collar jobs have been so proletarianized that we even see some tech workers unionizing. As in many parts of our society, there’s a large generational divide, not so much pro- or anti-union, but in terms of what they see unions as being for. I’m optimistic about Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants and one of the most prominent and most radical voices in organized labor. We’ve also seen the lines between legal and illegal strikes dissolve under pressure from teachers.

JS: In “Working Beauty” and other essays, you speak of the double exploitation of women, at home and in the workplace, that becomes the model for our social structures. Could we see something like #MeToo or the Chilean anti-rape song and choreography answering to this feminization of labor as intensified exploitation?

MH: A lot of recent feminist activism has been centered on the waged workplace; not all of it, but maybe most. As capital has driven the cost of labor down, owners have become more reliant on women’s waged labor for a few reasons: the so-called “soft skills” in which patriarchy trains young women are more important in a service economy; (white) women have entered the US waged labor market at an increased rate; and, not least of all, capitalists can pay women less for equal work. That’s the definition of efficiency! We talk about these among other trends (including the decline of highly paid “male” production jobs) as making up a “feminization of labor,” and what that means in aggregate is that jobs are getting worse. It’s a tricky move, and one of the most important ones that the ruling class has used over the past 50 or so years to maintain its dominance.

One thing we’ve seen through these cycles of struggle is the power of testimony as a tactic. There are limits, obviously, and we hit on a very public one during the rapist Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination hearings. But since I wrote that piece, women’s outcry about gendered sexual violence has transformed the country and the world in ways that I don’t think many of us thought were possible.

JS: After neoliberalism’s decade-long implosion, how do you see our klepto-fascisms evolving?

MH: Quickly! But not for long if we can help it. I have a hard time seeing Donald Trump leaving the presidency voluntarily. Our best hope may be that he doesn’t steal the election because he just can’t be bothered—if there is an election. And we’re just one of many instances in this global trend; it’s definitely another case of chickens coming home to roost. The US-led global order has resulted in an unprecedented concentration of the world’s wealth, to the point where “fair” elections seem implausible. There is a real global fascist axis on the rise—maybe even further along its arc than “on the rise” implies—and I hope we’re able to recognize it for what it is.

It’s hard to know what that means for our lives in a practical sense, but we’re not starting from scratch. The only thing worse than being in the middle of this fucked-up history would be being stuck with the way things are now forever. At least we know it’s moving. 

Joshua Simon is a writer and curator based in Philadelphia. Currently he is a visiting critic at the Graduate Fine Arts program, University of Pennsylvania.