Why we need to be wary of capitalism's take-over of all things transformational (but not too wary)


Time and time again, as we move around the country swapping stories with others about all the good initiatives we see occurring, we are stopped in our tracks with a warning.

Can’t you see, we are alerted, that the very thing you are promoting here – whether it be a personal, social or planetary initiative– has already been commodified or harnessed by capitalism? And in that case, can no longer do the job you are hoping it will do?

What follows are three examples of where we acknowledge the dangers of that. First A/UK co-initiator Pat Kane’s column for Scotland’s daily newspaper The National, on how co-working is being monopolised by American firm We Work (PDF copy):

It’s a strange experience: to see your own, somewhat stubborn character traits slowly become a whole new social norm. Thus it is with “co-working”. 

The term describes the rise of comfortable, convivial spaces where freelancers can do their gigs and tasks, without the sense of being chained to a particular desk or organisation (or its culture). 

This week we heard that one of the rising vendors of these spaces, WeWork, hires nearly as much office space in London as the UK government. Whitehall has just asked the US company to redeploy offices emptied by Brexit (meaning the European Medicines Agency’s recent move across the channel to Amsterdam). 

More on the terrifying, totalistic ambitions of WeWork later. A few months ago, I met a friend and colleague in one of these WeWork warrens. Big tables, free coffee, large windows, vast sofas, hipster and motivational art everywhere. 

Yet with everyone sat in a devotional posture before their laptops, and secluded from interaction by their ear buds, I couldn’t see much ‘co-‘ going on. More like ‘working apart together’.

My friend - an elegant, ex-diplomat anarchist - wasn’t impressed with the community spirit of these stacks of solopreneurs. “Everyone just has their head down, pounding away,” he lamented…

Yet today’s young workers have known nothing much other than precarity. It’s all temporary contracts, performance-based payments, the need to cultivate your charisma, connections and various forms of capital. 

..They seem to be actively looking for some kind of solidarity or commonality. But one that recognises the Sisyphean struggles of their gig-centric, incessantly on-demand lives. 

WeWork is completely (if chillingly) fascinating, as you observe their massive ambitions to cater for this generation.

Just like Steve Jobs with his “i” appellation - iPhone, iMac, iPod - these people want to smear their definition of “We” across more and more areas of our lives. 

Their opening gambit “WeWork” is ambitious enough, with its slogans “create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living” and “do what you love”.

“Our valuation and size today are much more based on our energy and spirituality than on a multiple of revenue,” its co-founder, Adam Neumann, told Forbes magazine. The Isreali newspaper Haaretz reported Neumann as saying “what we are doing is making a capitalist kibbutz” (the enterpreneur was partly brought up in one). 

The old egalitarian dream of kibbutzim was that the working and non-working life could be fused together. WeWork turns that promise into a honeytrap for insecuritized freelancers. 

Many wellbeing services are bundled into a WeWork monthly subscription (incidentally, the Edinburgh prices start from £350 a month). A London branch recently offered guided meditation, a “boxbiz” session, a candlelight yoga class, even a “jar and fern terrarium” workshop. 

Thus it makes sense that the companies next projects are called “WeLive” and “WeGrow”. The first adds residences next to the workspaces; the second integrates an advanced kindergarten into the previous two. “If you really want to change the world, change kids when they’re two”, Neumann quips. Eeek.”

Is there any way to honour the original need for this service, without falling into WeWork’s expensive lifestyle trap? Where you can explore your boundaries as a freelance, without being told what to feel about it? Yes – although it could be noted that the more commodified, the easier it is to keep yourself to yourself.

Hence the disconnectedness of WeWork, despite their heavy-handed attempts to connect. Smaller, more authentic co-working spaces – such as Psychedelic Society’s space in Homerton – design for collaboration.

The second example of a fine line between real and assumed connections was brought up by Ronan Harrington. In the video above, he discusses whether the experience of deep connection offered by ‘transformational festivals’ – from Burning Man to Noisily – is real or just an ambition?

Using himself as an example, Ronan describes how easy it is to replicate old behaviours, in the Arizona desert or the Nottingham woods.

As the very active commentary that follows begins to illustrate (link here), the dangers are real, for some, less so for others. However, without a place to rehearse these ambitions – successfully or not – would change ever happen? Prefiguring the future has to be allowed to fail as well as inspire. Aren’t we all on a steep learning curve to reach something genuinely transformative?

Finally, what about the mainstreaming of mindfulness ?– an issue we have looked at before here. We recently met Daniel Simpson, who is doing interesting work on the ethics of yoga who also alerted us to a discussion he is having with Ronald E. Purser, author of McMindfulness on August 6th in London. Here is a snippet of what you can expect:

From celebrity endorsements to monks, neuroscientists and meditation coaches rubbing shoulders with CEOs at the World Economic Forum in Davos, it is clear that mindfulness has gone mainstream. Some have even called it a revolution. But what if, instead of changing the world, mindfulness has become a banal form of capitalist spirituality that mindlessly avoids social and political transformation, reinforcing the neoliberal status quo?

In McMindfulness, Ronald Purser debunks the so-called “mindfulness revolution”, exposing how corporations, schools, governments and the military have co-opted it as technique for social control and self-pacification.”

As we are still in the early stages of any transition that may be possible for society, all the doubts expressed here are surely signs of a degree of vital wariness. If we need a radically alternative set of options – politics included - to deliver a healthy future, they have to stand up against the test of the most determined cynics.