In the two days of the conference we have had so far, I have already heard 5 times the extraordinarily stupid idea that the concept of hurry was invented by capitalism to make people work harder, faster, and squeeze every ounce of productivity from them. Apparently, some critic said it, and now everybody has to repeat this piece of arrant idiocy.
Here is why this idea is painfully stupid.
In the USSR, the concept of rushed productivity was elevated to the level of religious worship. The Stakhanovite movement was created. Stakhanov was a coal miner who somehow managed to mine over a 100 tons of coal in 6 hours. This was 14 (yes, fourteen) times his assigned daily quota. Immediately, every worker in the USSR had to imitate Stakhanov. People lost their limbs and suffered other terrible injuries trying to work as fast as Stakhanov. Everybody was forced to make a pledge to set their own Stakhanovite record. And this was Stalinism, so by “forced” I mean people were really terrified not to break these ridiculous records.
Of course, Stakhanov’s achievement was fake. The Soviet authorities faked it on purpose. On the one hand, the myth of Stakhanov helped drive workers beyond their breaking point, forcing them to work extraordinarily fast and assist in their own exploitation. On the other hand, the Stakhanovite phenomenon was very useful for the purges. The equipment broke, people suffered injuries, and the authorities explained it by suggesting that the engineers and the highly qualified mechanics who serviced the equipment were Japanese or American spies. This made it easy to whip up a frenzy of hatred for the “evil engineers” and have them executed. This has all been massively studied, so there’s really no excuse for people who want to do scholarship to chirp like dumb sparrows about these things.
The USSR was created in agrarian, semi-feudal countries that had never industrialized and who were about 150 years behind Great Britain and the US in terms of creating a capitalist system. The USSR was a socialist country. This means that referring to rushed labor as particularly capitalist is like criticizing Uruguayans for only having one head. Everybody has only one head but it does sound eerie when you single out Uruguayans as particularly weird in their one-headedness.
As academics, we get paid to read, educate ourselves, and then share knowledge with others. Instead, we often memorize a bunch of idiotic slogans and spend the rest of our lives repeating them like stupid parrots. Then we come to the classroom and deliver these half-baked, shallow pseudo-insights to the young people who pay us to be duped like this. For shame!
OK, rant over. I will now be able to express this idea at the conference without using the word “stupid” in every sentence. I honestly don’t know what I would do without this blog. I get very worked up about this kind of thing and I need to let off steam before I start jumping at people’s throats. Thank you, everybody, for putting up with my periodic rants.
18 thoughts on “Stupid in Academia”
I can now hear Merle Travis in my head, singing “16 Tons”…
“16 Tons” was written by Tennessee Earnie Ford. Did Merle Travis cover it?
Merle Travis was first, Ernie Ford made the big hit later.
“Merle Travis was first”
If I had about 76 times more free time than I do… I’d love to take a really deep dive into the cultural background of Appalachian labor organization, especially the music -some of the most powerful songs in English in the 20th century and who remembers it now?
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This whole thread is very mysterious to me but I’m glad people are having fun. 🙂
16 Tons is a popular song about coal mining, that includes the chorus:
“You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’t you call me, ‘cos I can’t go:
I owe my soul to the company store.”
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“whole thread is very mysterious to me ”
You don’t know anything about the history of coal mining and union activism in Appalachia? It’s very worth learning about (at least the basics).
Grossly simplified version: Appalachians (usually derided as ‘hillbillies’) were actually in the forefront of the organized labor movement due to horrible conditions in the mines and the resistance of the owners to unionization.
Appalachian coal miners until the 1970s were essentially indentured servants, living in company housing and often paid only in “scrip” (pseudo-currency only usable in company owned stores). Debt was passed down from generation to generation.
The drive for unionization was fierce and one component of it was an amazing collection of songs, many/most sung by women. For native speakers of American English many of these are intensely moving.
Merle Travis was a country singer who also sung about the mines, often mixing in elements of wry humor, protesting against the dysfunction of the situation and recognizing the attraction of mining to those who experience it:
“It’s many a man I’ve known in my day
Who lives just to labor his whole life away.
Like a fiend with his dope and a drunkard his wine
A man will have lust for the lure of the mines”
Apparently the the residents of Appalachia don’t meet the exacting standards of stern taskmasters like Bill Kristol and Bret Stephens and so (it seems from what I can discern from Europe) they’re essentially being ethnically cleansed. Presumably this is to make way for more docile Latin American laborers who won’t bother anybody about dangerous working conditions.
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Wow, this explains so much about things happening today. I knew little bits of this from JD Vance’s book but there’s clearly a lot more to know.
Were there any novels about it, does anybody know?
^^ What David said. Merle wrote it, recorded it, and it sort of flew under the radar for years, before Ford covered it and made it a huge hit. Merle even did a recording of it, after, where he ended the song with: “I owe my soul… to Tennessee Earnie Ford” 🙂
Personally, I like Ford’s version, LOVE Johnny Cash’s rendition (that voice!), but always come back around to Merle Travis’ performances of it, because of his sly, jovial humor.
Oooh! Here’s the one where he acknowledges Ford:
“In the USSR”
Criticizing the USSR is not going to convince anybody… they’ll just say it was ‘internalized capitalistic norms’ or something dumb and vacuous like that…
But how would the USSR internalize capitalistic norms if these countries never experienced capitalism? This doesn’t make any sense. Not that these people have bothered about making sense in a long time.
“how would the USSR internalize capitalistic norms”
Questioning my lived experience of thinking that up is… Literal… Violence…
Now I’m forced to expend vast amounts of emotional labor. …. “aspirational” they were aspirational norms. If anything the masses were leading Stalin on the Stakhanovite issue to his dismay. The few excesses that did happen were due to peasant over-enthusiasm and literalness and were in direct violation of Stalin’s own, far more realistic and nuanced take on the need for rapid industrialization…..
and I’m a little horrified that I can come up with that so quickly…
“every worker in the USSR had to imitate Stakhanov”
Not to get stuck on this topic (fascinating ot me, but….) after Stalin it was pretty clear that there was not much of anything in the way of pressure to do much of any work quickly or well… so lazy half-assing everything would be a core Soviet value after 1955 or so…
Of course the results of that kind of policy were…. what they were (and not anything that would come close to satisfying the minimum demands of your average academic prima donna…).
But who needs consistency?
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No, I love this topic.
It’s true, after the insane pressure to produce, it took several generations to start getting over the idea that doing any amount of work is unacceptable. We do lazy half-assing like a form of art.
The consequences of these experiments last a very long time.
“Were there any novels about it (ie: coal mining in Appalachia, does anybody know?”
A few minutes of googling found: (FYI only I have no idea bout the merits of any of them)
Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina
Blair Mountain by Jonathan Lynn
Carla Rising by Topper Sherwood
There’s also King Coal by Upton Sinclair about coal mining in southern Colorado (very different cultural background)
For movies there’s Matewan (1987, directed by John Sayles, not a success at the time but now regarded as a great movie)
Harlan County, USA (1976) a documentary on a 1973 struggle between miners and labor.
Here’s the trailer (the whole thing is on youtube at present though the video quality is not the highest)
Oh, that’s great! Thank you so much!