When I opened the curtains on August 10, 2022, I saw paper wasps had established a nest in the gutter below my window. They were flying in and flying out of a hole I could not see. So many of them. So busy. And rising to the blue sky of another hot day with the ease and speed of spaceships in sci-fi films. I even thought of the two-seat ornithopter in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune—futurism as biomimicry.
I also thought I had to destroy the pests. They were, after all, in my house, and now and then a lost one would foolishly and fatally find its way into my bedroom. I would hear it buzz and hit the curtained window as I tried read in bed. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap was its sound as it tried to make sense of why it could see the great outside but not reach it. What kind of force was this? This, I thought, is how the idea of magic is born. I know it’s glass; the little wasp does not.
Online, I ordered a respected wasp killer: Terro Wash & Hornet Killer Foam. Two spray cans arrived the following day. Their makers instructed me to spray the nest’s entrance only at dusk or dawn—they are less busy then. I was also told never to stand beneath the nest when spraying the poison on it. The following day, I missed dusk but could see how busy the nest already was. I decided to initiate the nest’s apocalypse at dusk. But when the time came, I noticed they were still working. Still flying in and out. Still gathering food and energy to keep themselves and others in the hole going. I was so impressed by all of this work—a whole day’s worth—that I returned inside with an unsprayed can and devoted my thoughts to the matter.
— 鶴娘-ϊҡѧ (@CamRanh_Ika) August 19, 2022
Why did I fail to pull, or—more properly speaking—press the trigger? The same thing happened again the following dawn and dusk. I was frozen in their too-warm twilights. Had I become something of a Jainist in my middle years? Certainly, the feeling (loving life to the max) hadn’t been there in my youth. Now, recall that Jains (pronounced “Janes”) operate a hospital in New Delhi, India that accepts only birds (the limit is 60 a day). It opens roughly between 8 am and 8 pm. The hospital has an intensive-care unit, an operating room, and a general ward. On Saturdays, its roof is opened and recovered birds (usually pigeons) fly out and back into the dangerous “urban jungle.” Though all birds are welcome, “the hospital reluctantly [treats] non-vegetarian birds.” (A bird doctor treating an injured hawk is much like a human doctor treating a gangster on the run from the law.) My point: For Jain monks and nuns, life, no matter what form it takes, is of the greatest importance, and they do their best not to harm, hurt, or kill a single thing. Their commitment to this high standard is so resolved, so extreme, that they travel with brushes and brooms to carefully remove insects from spots they might sit on.
Was this Jainist feeling filling my being with the increasing departure of my youth? No, it wasn’t. The moment a wasp was in my room, I would kill it without a second thought. So why not the nest? The answer, it turned out, was my instinctive Marxist essentializing of labor. I admired all of the work the paper wasps were doing. It was all day: flying here and there for flesh from fruit, the flesh of other insects, and trash from humans. Sunrise to sun down, they returned to the nest, deposited forms of energy, and went back to work. I had an automatic reverence for this work. And this was not a good thing. Indeed, it went against the philosophy of my political economy.
One of the most curious Marxist book projects of the 20th century is certainly The Ontology of Social Being: Labor. György Lukács, who is famous for his overly Hegelian 1923 book History and Class Consciousness, wrote The Ontology, an incomplete work containing over 1000 pages, late in his life (the 1960s). What the work wanted to determine was nothing less than what made humans human. His answer? Labor. Work was the root of our form of sociality, which defined our mode of consciousness. Of course, I do not agree with this way of thinking at all. From my position, the emphasis on labor, or an ontology determined by labor, tells us less about humans and more about humans in a historical movement directed by private and state market forces. An anthropology of labor is, in a word, specific to capitalism, which makes life dependent on what Marx described as indirect labor. (The labor of wasps or the vast majority of humans before the 16th century was direct.)
I’m of the opinion that the apotheosis of the work ethic in our society oppresses more than it liberates. I feel the enemy of labor is, as Moishe Postone concluded in 1993, labor itself. We live in a society with only two economic goals: the management of interest rates and full employment. As I wrote in 2016:
In 1975, Hyman Minsky, the under-appreciated American economist, wrote in the last chapter of a book, John Maynard Keynes… : “It is clear that if reasonably full employment is the dominant goal, then the scheme of perpetual waste and want has to date succeeded. The combination of investment that leads to no, or minimal, net increment to useful capital, perennial war preparations, and consumption fads has succeeded in maintaining employment. But such a resolution of the problem of employment and depression does not lead to a corresponding increase in felt well-being. It rather seems to put all—the affluent, the poor, and those in between—on a fruitless inflationary treadmill, accompanied by what is taken to be deterioration in the biological and social environment.”
This is why full employment can be the goal of a Trump as much as a Biden. Its content is empty. In fact, its content must stay empty to maintain mass political viability. In fact, the goal of full employment can lead to fascism as well as socialism because both owe their conditioning to capitalism. This is why the task of a post-Marxist, or, closer yet, an open Marxist (and post-Keynesian), must do the most anti-Marxist thing, which is to remove labor from the core of democratic activism and politics.
But the wasps. What was I to do with them? From dusk to dawn, they work all day.