Working for a Mistress
by Will Rees
The Last Night: Anti-Work, Atheism, Adventure,
by Federico Campagna,
Zero Books, 106 pp.
There is an oft-ignored detail about Nietzsche’s story of the madman in the marketplace: the good townspeople who aren’t ready to receive the news of God’s death aren’t Christians — they’re atheists. Today’s marketplace is no longer the town square; it’s the hyper-connected virtual world of global commerce. And yet — according to Federico Campagna’s new book, The Last Night: Anti-Work, Atheism, Adventure — its stallholders and shoppers remain largely the same; glibly complacent in their secularism while almost blind beneath by the long evening shadow cast by the deity to whom they remain bound. We will not, argues Campagna, stop being theists, until we have toppled the last edifice of theism: the belief in the redemptive power of Hard Work.
With such an exciting premise, a brilliant preface by Franco Berardi and a glowing recommendation from Simon Critchley, one’s expectations will probably be high. Unfortunately, when one starts reading the work it quickly becomes apparent that it is marred by heroism, cynicism and myopia. The opening pages are awash with brash historicising and overwrought sentences that become lost in their own metaphors. Campagna writes from a position of self-aggrandising authority, as though he is the only one to have seen through the anodyne blandishments of the matrix. Today’s theists, we read, are “[no] longer accompanied by the chanting of monks, but by the clicking march of a million ants on the keyboard of one, immense metropolitan keyboard.” This is the noise of them, always them — the mindless workers, blithely unaware of the personal, social and environmental damage their hard work wreaks, numb and entirely incapable of reflecting on their situation — not the noise of us; that is, Campagna and his readership.
At the beginning of the 21st century, we read, as “everything tilted on the verge of an epochal change, the notion of time opened itself to transformation. […] Historical time seemed to have vanished, clearing the sky above everyday life. […] In front of Westerners, the future opened like an unmapped oceanic expanse, emerging through the cracks in the earth. No routes were set for them to sail along obediently.” Politics was over, capitalism was waning, communism was constrained to humanities departments. “At last, they [we] could build for themselves communities that did not irradiate from any central totem. No longer would they have to seek the autonomy of capital, of knowledge or of the law above them, but they could assert their own autonomy above any abstraction.” Now, this doesn’t coincide entirely with my memory of the Bush/Blair years, which to my mind were defined by a disturbingly religious turn; the messianism of both men, the imperial wars in the name of Democracy and Progress, the economic boom through which capitalism seemed to most not-one-bit to be ‘shattered against its own contradictions.’ But no matter. Then, Campagna continues, Western society underwent some sort of mass existential crisis. “When the religious mist above their heads vanished, and they saw that the stars were nothing but cold lights indifferent to their fate, panic overwhelmed them. […] They needed a new, low roof above their head. They needed a new form of reassurance.”
This, he argues, was found in the notion of Work, the ‘new, true faith of the future.’
It is unclear to what extent we’re supposed to take Campagna’s brief history of the 21st Century seriously. On the one hand, we can’t. On the other, if it isn’t an actual history then it’s not clear what function it fulfils. Because of the magnitude of what Campagna is claiming — a global paradigm shift at some point in recent memory — parable and fable simply won’t do here. What results is absurdly unclear and clearly absurd; a pseudo-structuralist metanarrative that isn’t supported with a single empirically observable world event.
When Campagna drops the vague metanarratives he finds himself on more comfortable ground. We lend our lives, he writes, to “normative abstractions” — “the Nation, a Career, God, Progress, etc.” — which then drip-feed them back to us through the promise of hope. Through the creation of eternal ideas and the subsequent offering of our lives to them, we seek to overcome our fear of death by gaining access to the realm of immortality in which they reside. Of course in so doing we squander our lives. Against this paradigm, Campagna calls for a total rejection of all gods, including the secular ones at whose invisible altars we silently whisper our wordless prayers. This is radical atheism, “a tool for those who desire to exit the systems of Promise and Religion, and to escape the seductive grips of their chains.”
Campagna prescribes a regime of squandering, disrespectful opportunism, parasitism and — above all — adventure. Rather than squandering their lives ‘adventurers’ squander their hope. To start living we must stop hoping. Unlike punks — “priests in disguise” who remain negatively bound to bourgeois ideals and to that extent are still defined by them — adventurers accept the rules of the game, but cheat. They aren’t bound to bourgeois ideals, positively or negatively, because they don’t bind themselves to any ideal.
Punks feel obliged to show their disgust and disagreement. […] Squanderers dress like employees, smile to customers and bosses like employees. They perform as much as it is requested of them, or, if they are able to, they falsify the books. Always smiling, always cunning. Then, when the lights of the shop are off, when the door to the manager’s office is closed, they pillage all they can. They mix whiskey with water, fraud bank transactions, export and sell databases, use till money to bet on horses.
Is the message here not rather trite and, indeed, conservative? Don’t try to build a better world; much more comfortable to live in a bad one you don’t mind stealing from. Is it likely that the status quo lose much sleep over squandering workers turning up, wearing their uniform and smiling — ‘adventurers,’ that is — dipping their hands into the till occasionally? And worse, what of the squandering that goes on further up the economic ladder; the reckless hedge fund managers, the Libor fixers? Are these not the squanderers par excellence?
The philosophical underpinning for Campagna’s position is atheistic existentialism: “If Religion looks at death as a new beginning, radical atheism sees it as the ultimate end: not only the end of one’s world, but the end of the whole world, the end of everything.” The body and its mortality — that it is always exists in transit towards death — mark the limit of experience and meaning. For atheism to be radical, we must operate within and embrace this limit; the minimal space of a life. It’s a tiny space — almost non-existent in the face of the pomp and temptation of the infinite — and yet it’s all we have. A double-signed thought marked by hope and despair; a thought that can strike us dismally meagre and gloriously liberating (and more often some numbing combination of the two) depending on our mood.
There are points at which Campagna seems to be approaching something beautiful and quietly affirming. But when he starts to concretise his position, things have a tendency to go awry. For example, Campagna names the lucid dream as a model for behaviour. Adventurers, he writes, “live within a dream, in which they try to be the lucid dreamers.” But isn’t the lucid dream the ultimate form of narcissism, and of tyranny? One can’t encounter any form of otherness in a dream. All that is other is only apparently so — is only the distorted mirror image of the drives, desires and wishes of the only sovereign, oneself. In the lucid dream reality is just so much raw material to be bent and moulded according to the arbitrariness of one’s whims. There is no ethics of the dream. In a dream one is free, but not responsible. Thus the metaphor is at once poorly conceived, and disturbingly consistent with the work as a whole, with its emphasis on individual freedom, over and above collective emancipation. Squanderers, Campagna later writes, “live in their own world,”
Late on in the book Campagna worries that his account of adventure leaves no space for the social. So he sets about correcting this. “Adventurers’” prudence towards community-making does not mean that adventure has to be a solitary experience. […] Cooperation, within adventure, is always a slow, autonomous and negotiating process […] any union which takes place within adventure always derives from, and is aimed exclusively at, the satisfaction of the needs, desires and aims of its members.’ But this conception of the social, divorced from the political, is just too flimsy to be meaningful. And because it’s referred back to the satisfaction of the individual, it is more about overcoming the loneliness of isolation. It isn’t enough to form loose associations of friends, who I seek to please for as long as that pleases me. It shouldn’t simply be a case of fighting with the ones whose voices ring alongside and harmonise with mine in the crowd, but of fighting for the unknown one — the stranger without a voice — whose needs and demands surpass my own and have the potential to upset my egoistic enjoyment. Whether the adventurer builds his home in the desert and shuts everyone else out or gets his fellow adventurers to help out and lives there with them, sheltering the masses from the harsh desert winds is never his aim. There is nothing, other than one strangely elliptical and passing reference to “an absolute ethical responsibility” (presumably borrowed from Simon Critchley, for whom it must form the very basis of anarchism) that calls into question what is beginning to sound increasingly Darwinian; or, like if Ayn Rand wrote a picaresque novel.
For Campagna, politics is over and its corpse simply forms the backdrop against which the adventurers define themselves. They live in a post-apocalyptic world, but they’re denied them the tools to critique or question that world. The time for collective emancipation is over. Now is the time to play among the ruins and salvage what we can. Now is the time for adventure. Surely, in the face of the most aggressive regime of cuts, the victimisation of the poor and the normalisation of racist identity politics, the task of the individual should not be egoistic adventure, but using what limited power they still have to protect the most vulnerable. This requires a step back to certain normative abstractions — what Campagna might call ‘religion’ — such as equality, emancipation and even hope. We cannot relinquish hope so that we can ignore the silent call of the voiceless, who aren’t aristocratic adventurers proudly squandering by our side, but impoverished humans — workers, albeit — fighting simply to survive. Reading The Last Night I find it at once hugely disappointing and depressingly consistent with the selfishness of mainstream politics.