I've got rhythm

Karl Bücher is a not very well remembered economist. His ghost comes up, faintly, in the literature about Karl Polanyi. He was an economist of the ‘historical school’ back in the early twentieth century. The ‘historical school’ and the marginalists were pitted against each other, and each also pitted itself against Marx. Institutional economics owes the historical school – although it is commonly thought that the historicists were creamed when the marginalists began to produce groovy, mathematical models. 

Bücher’s ghost also sometimes haunts … musicology. Of all things. This is because of a little book entitled Work and Rhythm. We all know about Taylor, and the making of work efficiency – at least those of us who remember the way the Soviet Union in Stalin’s time fell in love with Taylorism. Bücher, in 1894, worked along other lines. He listened to labor with that German metaphysician’s ear. He listened to the sound made by the shovel going into a sandpile. He listened to the smith hammering out hot iron. He listened to carpenters hammering, noticing how, if two carpenters are nailing near each other, they fall into a syncopated rhythm – the one striking a blow while the other’s hammer is raised to the midpoint, and then coming down and striking a blow. He noticed that a loom makes a sound. He thought about the muscular movements of non-skilled labor, and how they set up a sort of systole-diastole pattern. 

Bücher thought that the spirit of music did not arise out of Dionysian ecstasy, but out of the tedium and rhythm of milling, hoeing, reaping. Although to speak of a ‘rising out of’ here is a bit of a mistake. Rather, the rhythms were intrinsic to the labor. If they were made into music, that music was not detached from work.

If we ever write a history of alienation – or rather, a geneology of alienation in modernity – one of the most important everyday break point would concern the disjunction between labor and rhythm. At the center of our Weberian interpretation of Marx is our translation of what Marx says about commodities into Weber-speak: commodities, for us, equals bundles of routines. There are advantages and disadvantages to our variation of Marx – one advantage, which we are willing to give up a lot for, is that the idea of routinization being at the center of industrial societies puts alienation back in the center of the critical study of capitalism. It is impossible to understand changes in the emotional customs wrought by modernization without having some good notion of alienation, not as an abstract thing, but operating to, for instance, create noisy work – in which all rhythms get muddied and shredded - and silent work – which has a sound profile we all know all too well. It is the clicking of many keys. I’m doing it now.


isomorphismes said…



However I don't agree with your last paragraph. Alienation in the factory sense is gone in post-industrial America. For example type designers or waiters in L.A. or NYC bear little resemblance to 100 years ago. This overindulgence of Marx decades beyond his usefulness is too typical and undermines what are usually relevant insights from the left.

Btw Howard Gillette wrote a good book about Camden. Well contrasts 100 years ago NYC working poverty with today's.