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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a City merchant, Joseph Paice, concerning the boy. According to Lucas’s biography of Lamb, Coventry, a bearish plutocrat of the pure 18th century type, said to Price, ““There is a lad that I placed some years since in the Blue Coat school, now on the point of leaving it, and I know not what on earth to do with him.” “Let him have the run of the counting house till something better offers,” said Mr. Paice.” (71)

The conversation of such men was like unto the grinding mechanism of fate, and they shaped Charles Lamb’s entire professional life from that moment on. Or rather, they shaped one of the outstanding facts about Lamb: he made his money as a clerk. He was first with Mr. Paice at the South Sea House, and then went into the accounting department at India House.

Lamb is one of the exemplary clerks of literature. He wrote about it; he lived it; he chafed within it, he knew the chair, desk, and great books where the figures flowed down the page, representing empire and time. He worked in the ruins of one colonial venture – the South Sea House – and in the midst of the short flourishing of another – the India House – during a period in which the merchant class was in need of the science of political economics and was getting it from the likes of James Mill (India House) and David Ricardo (merchant/speculator). In fact, the India House and its successor, the India Colonial office, was a site associated with some of the great Victorian intellectual families – the Mills, the Stephens, the Stracheys. Under its wing, Macaulay sortied out to India and laid the foundation for the application of utilitarianism to law, a work completed by James Fitzjames Stephen.

In a footnote to H.W. Boot’s informative article, Real incomes of the British middle
class, 1760-1850: the experience of clerks at the East India Company (1999), Boot defines the term clerk like this:

“… it conjures up Dickensian images of oppressed men on meagre incomes struggling to
maintain respectability. In fact 'clerk' was a common appellation applied to a large group of
occupations ranging from the poorest menial clerk who never earned more than C100 p.a. to men
who carried the highest administrative and financial responsibilities in government, commerce,
and finance. “

Lamb’s first Elia essay is a portrait of the clerks of South Sea house. The characters are, evidently, composites, but the survey of this “Noah’s ark’ of ‘odd fishes’ catches the monumental ritual and economic importance of the desk and the counter, which become symbolic centers of the life story. What the bed is to the libertine, the desk is to the clerk. In each of his profiles, Lamb divides the life into out of office information hobbies (and eating), and in the office propinquities (and eating). As in Bartleby, one notices the strong place of food in the office. Food not only provides the energy for labor power – it provides a sensual outlet to another world, one that is not chained to the desk. In the same way, the hobbies are rather like the larger shadow the clerk casts as he makes his way out into the candlelit hours of his free time. “John Tipp”, for instance, is an amateur musician, and has a life as one, with other amateur musicians. But he also has another life: “But at his desk Tipp was quite another sort of creature,. Then all ideas tht were purely ornamental were banished. Thence all ideas, that were purely ornamental, were banished. You could not speak of any thing romantic without rebuke. Politics were excluded. A newspaper was thought too refined and abstracted.” (Vol. 2, 9)

The major portion of Lamb’s time as a clerk was spent at the India House. He was received there on April 5, 1792, in the accounting department. At that time, according to Boot, the India House was one of the biggest employers in London, paying 1,730 persons to keep the books, supervise the docks, guard the sheds, etc. In Lamb’s case, he gave a five hundred pound bond and agreed to work there for three years on probation, at the end of which he was to receive a salary, which began at 40 pounds and rose, the next year, to 70. He spent exactly thirty three years there, and was released early, with a handsome retirement, no doubt due to his writing and his celebrity. In one of the great Elia essays, The Superannuated Man, he describes the event of his retirement in terms of time. As a clerk, he had Sundays off: “but Sundays, admirable as the institution of them is for purposes of worship, are for that very
reason the very worst adapted for days of unbending and recreation. In particular, there is a gloom for me attendant upon a city Sunday, a weight in the air. I miss the cheerful cries of London, the music, and the ballad-singers—the buzz and stirring murmur of the streets.”

He also had vacation: “But besides Sundays I had a day at Easter, and a day at Christmas,
with a full week in the summer to go and air myself in my native fields of Hertfordshire.”

From his letters, one finds that Lamb had more free time than that – but as a composite portrait of the clerk’s life, this is representative.

After his retirement, Lamb describes the experience of freedom – freedom that is not political, but existential: “I was in the condition of a prisoner in the old Bastile, suddenly let loose after a forty years' confinement. I could scarce trust myself with myself. It was like passing out of Time into Eternity—for it is a sort of Eternity for a man to have his Time all to himself.
It seemed to me that I had more time on my hands than I could ever manage. From a poor man, poor in Time, I was suddenly lifted up into a vast revenue; I could see no end of my possessions; I wanted some steward, or judicious bailiff, to manage my estates in Time for me.”

Let me depart from Lamb here, and bring into the picture Karl Marx’s writing about the agent of circulation, which has given rise to a lot of controversy among Marxist economists. On the one hand, in Capital II and III, Marx develops his notion of ‘unproductive labor’, by which he simply means those activities that are defined in terms of the circulation of the commodity, bought from the producer, and put on the market to be bought either by a consumer or another merchant or refiner. Marx also throws into the definition of unproductive labor those things appertaining to surveillance, management, etc. There has been a lot of controversy because the principles of the definition of unproductive labor, in Capital, are slightly at variance with the principles laid down in the Manuscript on Surplus Value from the 1860s. I myself think that the division between unproductive and productive labor is confused by taking the static view of it – in the course of time, an unproductive branch of labor can generate a producing infrastructure, while productive labor in some branch can, of course, become extinct, due to its being made obsolete by technology.

However, the reflections on commercial capital and money – Warenhandlungskapital and Handlunggeld – are decisive, and sociologically apt. This segment can be treated as an independent unit in the collective system of circulation. Looked at in terms of social phenomenology, Marx makes this Hermes place – the place of pure metamorphoses in which what happens is, in a sense, that nothing happens. When the producer realizes his surplus value by selling to the middleman, from the proceeds of which he again purchases labor power and material to continue producing, the middleman, the Tiresias of capitalism, has only begun. He has expended his capital, either borrowed or taken from his stock, to buy products wholly for resale. There is evidently no magic in this, and yet, like the producer, in the ideal case, the successful merchant realizes a profit. As Marx likes to emphasize, while the merchant’s employees are exploited just as the factory hands are, the merchant’s employees do not create surplus value. And although they may be formally exploited just as the worker is, there is a sociological difference that does drive a real divide between them.

About this, there is much to say. But for the moment, notice that for Marx, this commercial segment is subordinate to the true producers, the manufacturers. If the commercial segment becomes too important, accrues too much economic power, the manufacturer can, theoretically, erase the middleman and encroach into the merchant’s territory.

In fact, though, the dream of getting rid of unproductive labor – dreamt most recently by the advocates of the New Economy who projected that the computer maker would simply sell the computer on the internet, the automaker would sell the auto on the internet, etc., etc. in a happy deflationary spiral satisfying both customer and producer – does not happen.

Instead, as many Marxist economists (Sweezy, Moseley, Wollf) have pointed out, on many dimensions the composition of developed capitalist economies shows that unproductive labor – both in terms of surveillance work and in terms of circulation – becomes increasingly important in developed capitalist economies on several dimensions: for instance, in the number of people employed in unproductive labor and the amount of the investment of the GDP in unproductive branches of economic activity. In 1987, Edward Wollf estimated that as much as 40 percent of employees were unproductive laborers.

The peculiar sociological characteristics of this segment impress themselves upon the dynamic of this segment – for it is from this segment that most knowledge work, most representational work, has branched out.

It is here that the economic rationality of the classical type – homo oeconomicus – emerged, and plausibly describes the kind of strategies that make up the landscape of commercial metamorphoses. At the same time, it is here, too, that the alienation from the time of one’s life has found expression in the aesthetic sphere – in fact, thematically dominates the aesthetic sphere. This is important in as much as the population of the aesthetic, or cultural industries – driven originally by the necessity of closing the discontinuities that can arise in this segment of circulation when demand lacks or there is an oversupply of goods – overlaps the population that sits at the desks of the counting houses. The media that they have produced is the semiosphere in which all are now bathed, worker, housewife and clerk.

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