The Divine Transcendence of Slacking Off

John Ohno on 2020-02-16

Debt, Sin, and Exploration in the Marketplace of Signs

When considering economics and politics, it’s important to be cosmopolitan. The worse the box, the more vital it is to think outside of it. One alien angle from which to approach economics is theology — and alien theologies provide especially interesting angles.

Religious conceptions of sin have their origin in extrapolations of debt. As Graeber Notes:

In Athens […] [t]he language of money, debt, and finance provided powerful — and ultimately irresistible — ways to think about moral problems. Much as in Vedic India, people started talking about life as a debt to the gods, of obligation as debts, about literal debts of honor, of debt as sin and of vengeance as debt collection.

- David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, page 195

As slack is an escape from strict economic accounting of interpersonal debts, and since debt maps pretty well onto moral and ethical concerns, it’s natural to extend one’s idea of slack into all domains of interpersonal interaction. We can argue that the reason why parents do not, on their childrens’ 18th birthdays, present them with a bill for the cost of being born is that birth and childhood is a zone of slack. Likewise, an anecdote in Thinking Fast and Slow, wherein the owners of a day care are surprised to find that a fine for late pick-ups actually increased late pick-ups, can be attributed to differences in how people treat slack-oriented informal areas of interchange versus more formal economic arrangements.

It should not then be surprising that at least one religious tradition took slack as its transcendental value. The Church of the Subgenius, while remaining a parody religion, nevertheless (like most parody religions with fifty year staying power) presents an interesting and more-or-less coherent moral philosophy, and it is a useful foil for more conventional religious conceptions of moral obligation.

The Church of the Subgenius venerates “BOB”, an obvious con-artist, and consciously mirrors pyramid schemes and cults with graded initiations (like Scientology); its $35 bible promises “eternal salvation or triple your money back” through the accumulation of SLACK, but this book does not clearly indicate what SLACK is (other than “something for nothing”) or how to get it. The implication is that, like a pyramid scheme or one of the content marketing scams that proliferate on the web, the way to get SLACK is to sell promises of it to your friends and family — for $35, eternal salvation or triple your money back.

This is not merely a gag. Instead, it illustrates something important about the conception of slack familiar to office workers: it cannot be substituted for leisure, because unlike leisure, it offers a promise of illegibility.

My colleague, in his essay Seize the Means of Non-Production, suggests that efficiency optimization is just as important in a post-capitalist post-state society, and I partially agree. Nevertheless, I think we have something to learn from comparing the Subgenius model of a SLACK-based sin economy to more familiar alternatives — and that we can apply those lessons further to the economics of imagination.

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In a perverted twist of the Catholic doctrine of the ransom of Christ, Zizek considers the Christian sin economy as one dominated by jubilee.

He sees much of Christian theology as concerned with ways to escape from this debt of sin, from mutual aid:

How, then, are we to break out of the deadlock of thrifty consumption, if these two exits are false? Perhaps it is the Christian notion of agape that shows us the way out: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3: 16).

- Slavoj Zizek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, page 45

to paternalism:

[T]he idea of God , the absolutely innocent Being, sacrificing himself for our sins out of infinite love for us, and thus relieving us of our guilt , serves as proof that we are not alone, that we matter to God, that he cares for us, that we are protected by the Creator’s infinite Love, while at the same time infinitely indebted to him.

- Slavoj Zizek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, page 47

Even as a non-religious person, I found this entire section thought-provoking and worth reading, but ultimately the most relevant interpretation here is jubilee — in other words, the action in which a creditor absolves all their debtors of their debts. Zizek sees the logic of jubilee reflected not merely in the church hierarchy (in which priests forgive on behalf of God — a pyramid scheme of sin and redemption in which grace flows upward & is expected to trickle down) but also in what adherents themselves are expected to do:

The only way to achieve this suspension, to break the chain of crime and punishment/retribution, is to assume an utter readiness for self-erasure. And love, at its most elementary, is nothing but such a paradoxical gesture of breaking the chain of retribution.

- Slavoj Zizek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, page 50

Photo by Sacha Styles on Unsplash

Zizek vitally contrasts this with a similar kind of self-erasure in Buddhism. Both Christians and Buddhists are expected to turn the other cheek, but Christians are expected to only hold no sin-debt in order to get into heaven (subject to complications like purgatory and caveats like predestination) while for a Buddhist to attain permanent freedom from the cycle of rebirth, they are expected to also hold no sin-credit.

Part of this is because Buddhism is very much aware of the hedonic treadmill. “Life is suffering” because no matter how good something feels in the moment, it can never provide permanent bliss, and nothing (when observed sufficiently carefully) is actually as good as you would expect it to be. In other words, the difference between a karmic credit and a karmic debt is fuzzy, even on the level of an individual person; to eliminate karmic debts involves opting out of the entire system.

The Christian sin economy is a neoliberal one: ride the bubble, and hope that Lord State will forgive your debts when you crash. (Theological complications exist, and actually-existing Christians do not necessarily follow this logic.) The Buddhist sin economy is mercantile: isolate yourself from outside trade because being prosperous isn’t worth becoming a target. (Again, theological complications exist, neither I nor Zizek are authorities on Buddhism, and I know from experience that most Buddhists do not follow this logic.) Both are attempts to exit from the ramifications of transactionality without abandoning the logic of transactionality.

The SLACK economy is different — more akin to book-hoarding or insider-trading, but ultimately (and critically for its popularity) most similar to hiding your activities from your boss at work. Obtaining SLACK is not engaging in leisure activities (which, ideally, are divorced from productive concerns) but engaging in activities whose productive status cannot yet be measured. Bullshit jobs are high-slack, but because they are structurally incapable of holding meaning, the possible future productivity produced by slack cannot benefit the employers of people who are in bullshit jobs; instead, the possibilities explode out in other, unexpected directions (such as the invention of the constructed languages Ithkuil and Ilakash by a New Mexico DMV employee).

The productivity of slack is unknown, because slack cannot be itemized. This protects slack from distortion: since the labor encapsulated in slack cannot have its utility measured, it cannot be made a proxy for some other goal, and therefore it can neither be incentivized nor disincentivized directly (except in the original management context, wherein the entire pool of slack is minimized).

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The edge of the pool of slack is, therefore, the event horizon of protean and unimaginable future labor-forms. Slack is the skunk-works of society. Slack is the garden in which we grow living bridges to the outside. The Subgenius conception of slack makes this clear: slack provides access to the ‘luck plane’, where the unimaginable becomes imaginable, and slack provides resources to navigate this plane, such as to make the imaginable possible. This reverse-exploitation of the capitalist class forms the emancipatory force of slack under capitalism, but after capitalism it allows resources to be siphoned off from the past into possible — but never inevitable — futures.

Paul Laffoley imagined a living bridge to the moon, but settled for designing living houses

Promoting slack can be done through some of the same mechanisms as promoting (genuine, as opposed to forced) leisure: unconditional forms of income (or unconditional support through other means); lack of top-down authority; strict limits on maximum demand. But slack can also be promoted through other means.

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Slack has a lot in common with the ‘Red Queen’s Wall’ — it is a domain in which being useless is acceptable; and, indeed, slack (even productive slack) can come from mere privilege (as in the era of the gentleman-scientist). Nevertheless, unlike a jubilee, it is a freedom that can be easily and immediately seized.

Not all forms of protective information asymmetry are slack. Economic financialization — the domain of speculation & other kinds of secondary markets around information — has a lot of attributes in common with slack. It protects against demand through layers of information fog, and this protection can sometimes support risky exploration. Nevertheless, financialization’s recursive nature produces strange incentive loops, inevitably resulting in a hallucinated fantasy-economy of its own.

In the marketplace of signs, gambles about bets about wagers affect the imagined probabilities of the projected future events they theoretically are meant to predict. While it is possible to construct a market structure that distills truth out of the collective expectations of large groups of people by cancelling out random bias (such as a delphic pool), most possible structures will amplify certain kinds of random bias and cancel out truth, creating fantasy bubbles for profit.

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

In the past, the most visible example of a place dominated by the logic of financialization was Hollywood (wherein the personal reputation of a handful of stars and the strange misapprehensions of a handful of powerful producers, each grappling for the black cat of market success in the dark room of costume budgets and opening weekends), and the dream logic dominating that industry has been the subject of depictions of it since at least the 1950s.

Since the end of the star system in the 1990s, the locus of fantasy has moved north to Silicon Valley, where another kind of starry-eyed naif pitches new tall tales to a different group of old, rich, white men — who can afford to pay indefinitely for the privilege of believing they are important figures in shaping the future of invention, and do not mind that nobody involved has a plan for how to make something useful or profitable because they can launder the fantasy to other investors. In both of these cases, because PR (amplified by existing resources like studio ownership or teams of yes-men) is the ultimate product, the underlying reality doesn’t matter much, and the general consensus is merely a warped projection of the uninformed gut feelings of the most powerful figures.

Unlike PR, slack is not the domain of existing powers, nor does it amplify existing power the way financialization does. Slack may be backed by BS, but slack is the birthright of all workers because it does not have a secondary economy: it hides its own production and replaces it not with a fantasy but with nothing specific at all.

Slack maximization is uniquely well-suited to the needs of insurrectionary anarchism: we can starve the state-capitalist complex of productive labor while using our liberated time to imagine how to live beyond capitalist realism.

Slack is different things to different people. For 3/4 of the world’s population, Slack is a good meal. And if things keep getting worse, someday Slack for ANYBODY could be just one more breath of REAL AIR.

For you, at this point in the 20th Century, Slack is probably tied very closely to MONEY. This is because the Conspiracy has made it seem NATURAL that you have to “work” to “buy Slack.” It’s mindboggling how completely They have reversed the natural order of things, and how easily we all fell for it. Although SubGenii by definition are never Conspiracy dupes, most of them are Conspiracy SLAVES.

The reason They have been so successful these last 10,000 years is that — ironically — at any given time you actually have more Slack than you can possibly appreciate until it is taken away. You are HALF ASLEEP until that happens — and after it does happen, you’ll never again have a chance to be fully awake. - Subgenius Pamphlet #2, page 7

A post-capitalist post-state society built solely around maximizing productivity is not substantially better than a capitalist state. A post-capitalist post-state society built around maximizing productivity and access to leisure becomes crystallized at the point of inception: it is the best we can come up with at the time, but has no capacity for growth. Only a slack-maximizing society can support radical, directed, bottom-up change, because only a slack-maximizing society allows everyone time and incentive to imagine and plan for unlikely futures.

A revolution without slack is not worth having.