Circle-A Deceit: A Review of Processed World

Processed World is a well-produced, sometimes funny, mostly jargon-free 1 anti-authoritarian San Francisco magazine focused on the information workers who toil in the Financial District and other citadels of capitalism. After six issues of several thousand copies each, PW has picked up a certain cult following downtown and can claim to be the most radical publication in the area for its scale of operations. It’s good to see a 60-70 page left publication which dispenses with the usual anti-Reaganist banalities and tries to deal with wage-labor, industrial technology and the repressive reality of everyday experience.

Granting all that, however, my considered opinion of PW is mainly critical. Its “line” — despite disclaimers, there is a definite though dissimulated PW ideology — is more conservative than it looks. That would not be so bad if PW openly avowed its politics and fairly debated it with dissident dissidents, but that’s just what PW does not permit. Bad faith permeates the publication, and the carefully-contrived image it presents to its readers is fundamentally dishonest. If there’s anything worse than overt Leninist vanguardism, it’s subliminal, anarcho-Necheyevist vanguardism. This I propose to expose.

PW purports to be the work of “dissident office workers” who are forever reiterating their nonsectarian, open-minded, common-sense qualities: just folks, not another gang of ideologues. Their come-on is to alleviate ordinary workers’ natural suspicion of organizer-types by saying, “Heck, we’re white-collar commuter working stiffs just like you, only we happen to write, design, publish and distribute a slick magazine every three months.”

That’s all false pretenses. 2 Office workers don’t and probably never did make up a majority of the collective. The exact census figures are in any case iess important than the implication that PW’s antiestablishmentarian ideas arose spontaneously in the minds of hitherto-innocent Financial District drones whose workplace experience, in the best economistic Marxist tradition, mechanically engendered their “anti-authoritarianism.” The latter buzzword, by the way, is itself part of the cover-up. It’s a euphemism for a word often on the lips of PWs but rarely seen in the magazine: (horrors!) anarchism. 3 Don’t go frightening the secretaries now! Maybe later, after we’ve organized the working class... but not now.

The truth is that the dominant faction of PW —including the ruling troika of “Maxine Holz,” “Lucius Cabins” and “Louis ~Michaelson” — is the pro-tech wing of the now defunct Union of Concerned Commies, which regrouped a number of refugees from situationist grouplets and other libertarian and left communists at the end of the 1970’s. Almost all PWs have long political pedigrees, with many involved in concurrent projects ranging from the anarchosyndicalist magazine Ideas & Action to Anomie’s nihilist collages. Whether or not these people work in offices, they are political activists essentially, as regards their personal priorities and self-concepts, and workers only incidentally. (Holz, for instance, from time to time does office work, but she learned her councilism as a Berkeley student from her then teacher Michaelson.) 4

Ever since discontented staffer “Gidget Digit” let the (black) cat partway out of the bag in PW #5, the troika has tried to put it back in by a combination of vague acknowledgement of prior political involvements and vehement insistence that PW, in Michaelson’s words (#6), “was not conceived by professional leftists, ‘professional revolutionaries’ who marched into the Financial District to educate the white-collar masses.” This from the same guy who borrowed an idea from the Progressive Labor Party by proposing that unemployed PW’s infiltrate a selected business and foment revolution there! Che lives! 5 But I wouldn’t want to be one of the real workers entrapped by hit-and-run leftist provocateurs. Fortunately other PWs vetoed the scheme.

A subtler manipulation is concealed in the very definition of the PW project, which is really extraordinarily narrow. Who would have thought that San Francisco office workers, especially those in the information industry, are so important or distinctive as to justify 20 or more radicals producing a regular magazine addressed to them specifically? Humiliation by bosses, the speed-up, ass-kissing, discrimination, makework and overwork—all occur as much in the factory or the store as in the office, as often in the sticks as in the hip metropolis. If there is something special about these workers, why don’t the PWs disclose what it is? Or are they targeting a market by pandering to San Francisco solipsism?

For that matter, there’s nothing new about the council communism which, with the scary political words airbrushed out, is touted once or twice in a pseudo-offhand way in every issue. Why not acquaint the unwashed masses with the high points of the dissident tradition? I think some of PW’s readers would attend to such subjects with interest and intelligence. The notion that PW’s readers are too dumb or too delicate for some history or rigorous analysis bespeaks a deep contempt for the manipulated on the part of their manipulators. If PW can articulate its real message without resort to the old jargon, great! But if it can’t tell the truth without using a tendentious terminology, it is better to use it than to conceal what’s going on. If the wooden shoe fits, wear it!

We are told that PWs are diverse in their views. This is true. However, the ordinary reader has to take PW’s word for it, since the various definite tendencies represented, from anarchosyndicalism on the right to pro-situ autonomism on the left, are never set forth. The actual editorial process at PW reduces its proclaimed pluralism to a sham. For instance, the author of a piece of fiction was twice required to rewrite the ending to make it ideologically correct. Letters undergo unacknowledged editing, and while there is always space for a couple of contentfree “oh wow!” fan letters, criticism is suppressed unless it is so stupid that the writer can be set up for a crushing refutation. Indeed much of the letters column is pre-empted by PW staff.

If there is a novelty in the PW house ideology, it lies in the contention that computers and information tech have made possible global participation in production planning. The fetishistic fantasies sometimes printed—hinting of unnatural relations between secretaries and their calculators, etc. — suggest that some PWs have a suspect psychic stake in the dream of a pushbutton paradise. But the prospect is only asserted, not argued or analysed. Considering that the tech issue was salient in the founding of PW, it’s crass that no critique of the idea that “there is nothing inherently bad about computer technology” (#1) is allowed in its pages. For one thing, it would embarrass the pro-techs to reveal that they have critics more radical than they are. 6

Similarly, PW’s animadversions on work are always qualified by “as we know it” or some such, or replaced by some safe phrase like “wage-labor.” The implication is that some sort of forced labor is to continue. Some people, including myself, deny the necessity of this, but our views cannot appear in PW despite their relevance to its announced concerns. Maybe revolution does not depend upon even a rationalized, participatory-democratic economy which still subordinates human life to the production of commodities. Maybe it refers to a new way of life, to social relations among creative convivial players. Some of PW’s client base of “nasty secretaries” and “dissident office workers” might rather fondle each other than their calculators. PW will spare them the confusion such notions might inspire among the theoretically unlettered.

Timidity about work tends to trivialize the strain of humor which ls one of the magazine’s best features. The American office has long sustained a mild, harmlessly insubordinate culture of anti-boss humor and griping. But as humor goes, the antics of Dagwood and Mr. Dithers are pretty low in destabilizing capacity. Items which might take on a harder edge in an explicit antiwork context — such as Tom Ward’s song Iyrics, graphics by Greg Jamrock and Freddie Baer among others, Melinda Gebbie’s hilarious account of temp work at a pet hospital — don’t work as well as they might elsewhere. 7 PW may reinforce the tradition of grousing by which American workers blow off steam instead of getting steamed and blowing off work.

Even aside from recent leaks, it could not have much longer escaped attention how an ostensibly eclectic collocation of office malcontents lines up along a well-defined spectrum of leftist opinion. Quite the coincidence that this aleatory antiauthoritarian combine has reproduced in fine detail the significant ideologies of the anarchist left! For a long time, though with increasing misgivings, I was inclined to excuse PW’s little prevarications because, after all, frozen dogma and rhetoric do put people off who might find some validity in the same ideas encountered without preconceptions. But at some point the veil should have been stripped away: better to put people off than put people on. PW treats its audience as a mass to be flattered and fooled. Do sheep dream of electric androids? They do if they read Processed World.

read the whole story: The Baby and the Bathwater by Bob Black

Part III: Appeal To Treason