Recently, I’ve been perplexed with what I might call the ‘morality of play’. By this I mean to ask: how can a politically committed subject living in a capitalist society experience pleasure or play that is not already co-opted or incorporated into relations of power? Or, more simply, is it possible to imagine a Marxist form of ‘play’ or recreation in a capitalist society?
Let me start with a simple, personal example: football (soccer) is one of the few enduring passions in my life. I play weekly, but more importantly I am a supporter of Arsenal Football Club, whose matches I follow keenly and attend whenever I am in London. As a cultural critic, I am intellectually aware of the problems of supporting/paying what is now more a company than a club; of being transformed from a supporter into a consumer; of, as a result of the creation of the Premier League and its lucrative global satellite TV deals, becoming a distant supporter of a remote club thousands of miles away; and of yielding to the ‘cult of personality’ of the club’s superstars, who I’ve never even met, yet feel like family to me. I have read, with a painful, knowing grimace, Terry Eagleton’s cutting critique of football as the opium of the people (although I think he underestimates the potential for revolutionary organization by local, fan-owned clubs like FC United of Manchester or AFC Wimbledon, among others). And yet, like a physician who - knowing all the health risks - continues to smoke, I cannot help but remain glued to the Arsenal, looking forward with such joy and pleasure to matches, around which I carefully plan other events in my life. Is such pleasure immoral?
The short answer is, of course, yes. Orthodox Marxist perspectives explain how cultural elements like sports, music, and so forth – especially in their mass produced forms – constitute a superstructure determined by the economic base of the capitalist mode of production. In their Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which they write about the deceptive techniques of the ‘culture industry’, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argue that in pleasure, human beings divest themselves of thought. Although inherently free of domination and discipline, pleasure in the hands of rulers is a rational measure of manipulation, administered to subjects in controlled doses. In this sense, football is not the only form of pleasure already ‘poisoned’ by power. One could think of any number of forms of play that are, in the ‘soft’ sense of ideology or the ‘hard’ sense of hegemony, already constitutive of, or at least linked to, techniques of manipulative domination – like going to the movies (cf. Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle) or enjoying a post-dinner dessert (cf. Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power).
Of course, these forms of play are all practices that continually re-constitute us as capitalist consumers, conditioned to find pleasure (and our own postmodern identities) in a way that reproduces the existing mode of production. Even where we might have options to resist – e.g. via a boycott of a particular product – such resistance is merely a choice already constrained. If you refuse to buy non-organic milk because of the way in which the drive for profit-maximization has led to the ill-treatment of cows, you have the option of buying organic milk, a purchase that – however moral it may seem – is still a purchase from a profit-making company within a system that exploits labor power (cf. Slavoj Žižek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce).
But what about non-consumptive forms of play? What are, in this particular historical moment, or conjuncture, the moral stakes of going to a dinner party? Of having sex? Of playing pick-up football? Here, the problem of play arises in a different form, and requires us to think more deeply about the opposite of play or pleasure today: work. Raymond Williams, in his excellent Keywords, traces the etymology of work before it acquired new connotations under industrial capitalism. Today, of course, ‘work’ signifies ‘paid employment’, but it used to merely signify ‘activity’. As a graduate student, when I say, “I need to get to work,” I’m often mistaken to mean that I am employed as an alienated wage laborer, when I simply mean I would like to read or write as part of an activity-process very much my own (one in which I feel I become more rather than less human, and thus ‘need to’ in the Foucaultian ethical sense of self-betterment rather than the sense of labor discipline). My sense of work, I would like to think, is one that connotes its earlier meaning – merely a form of activity, rather than work in the sense of ‘labor’ that has become a commodity and a class. And yet my sense of work is by no means dominant. For the capitalist subject (which I certainly am, in spite of the less alienating form of my labor), all forms of play – even the non-consumptive – are inextricably bound to the dominant sense of work, as a counter-alienating practice prepared precisely to balance the alienation of capitalist work. Who doesn’t at times long to come home from work to enjoy a TV show, to make love to a partner, to have a family dinner? For most of us, these are what we see as our ‘real’ lives, what we do outside of work.
This work-play complex is connoted best in that heinous expression (unfortunately, too commonly heard in medical school), “Work hard, play hard.” This mode of life creates the perfect circle to maximize productivity – one must do one’s best while at work, and then do one’s best while at play, only in order to be able to perform better at work. If ‘play’, in the form of religion, sports, music, and so forth, is not taken as a way to rejuvenate our bodies and minds from the labor we perform for others, it at the very least orients us towards searching for life in our limited time off from work, preventing us from organizing work (in the sense of activity) such as the occupy movement (which is itself sustained by economic crisis, unemployment, and lack of opportunity for educated young people). In Wage Labour and Capital, Marx writes of industrial labor:
[The worker] works in order to live. He does not even reckon labour as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life…What he produces for himself is not the silk that he weaves, not the gold that he draws from the mine, not the palace that he builds. What he produces for himself is wages, and silk, gold, palace resolve themselves for him into a definite quantity of the means of subsistence…And the worker, who for twelve hours weaves, spins, drills, turns, builds, shovels, breaks stones, carries loads, etc. – does he consider this twelve hours’ weaving, spinning, drilling, turning, building, shoveling, stone breaking as a manifestation of his life, as life? On the contrary, life begins for him where this activity ceases, at table, in the public house, in bed.
[I should mention that today, capitalism operates largely through flexible accumulation, and actively promotes worker autonomy and creativity in some lines of work as a counter-measure against alienation. (cf. Luc Boltanksi and Eve Chiapello's The New Spirit of Capitalism)]
In this notion of ‘play’, even non-consumptive forms of pleasure exist ideologically, as though coming up to gasp for breath in a pool from which there is no escape or exit. Dinner parties, sexual activity, and all other forms of non-consumptive play remain – to the extent that they do not offer an alternative Marxist hegemony – ways in which the capitalist division of work and life becomes self-affirmed. They are means of adapting ourselves to a common sense that is not only non-sensical, but immoral within Marxist ethics. (I should say that this type of Marxist asceticism, however similar, should not be confused with the Protestant ethic of capitalism that Max Weber once wrote about. Indeed, as E.P. Thompson describes in The Making of the English Working Class, trade unionism arose with similar asceticism and self-discipline, which I take to be necessary in any radical political struggle.)
What would moral ‘play’ then look like for both an anti- or post-capitalist subject? For an anti-capitalist subject, how can we begin to think of ‘revolutionary’ play in everyday life? Can we think of ‘revolutionary’ dinner parties, ‘revolutionary’ sex, or ‘revolutionary’ football? For a post-capitalist subject, for whom that negative connotation of ‘work’ associated with capitalism falls away in place of joy, what happens to ‘play’ altogether? When labor becomes pleasure, what constitutes play, and what purpose does it serve?