Nerds, Max Weber’s work ethic and New Work

Nerds, Max Weber’s work ethic and New Work

Two articles from Jungle World, which is committed to the Frankfurt School and its criticism of the culture industry, are recommended as reading tips. The first a review of Annekathrin Kohout’s book: “Nerds. Eine Popkulturgechichte” and the concept of the nerd, its meaning and role change in view of the emergence of the new economy, digitialzed high technology and IT world up to an allegedly coming loss of meaning, because today everyone wants to be a nerd in some way, the term has become inflationary used in all areas:

 “From the basement to the top of the group

Annekathrin Kohout takes a stroll through the history of the nerd Philistine and nerd, conservative and careerist: In her history of pop culture, Annekathrin Kohout shows the nerd’s transformation from marginal figure to an idol. And announces his imminent disappearance. (…)

 Gradually, the nerd became a kind of role model for indulging in his inclinations and successfully marketing them. He embodies the capitalist promise: Live your whimsy, it will pay off. The nerd was once laughed at, nowadays everyone who pursues a hobby calls themselves that, observes Kohout. The term covers much more than the unsociable computer freak, there are now nerds in all kinds of areas, there are even self-declared sports nerds – which was once impossible. „The nerds are taking over the world right now,“ wrote Stern magazine in 1996. That was meant as a warning against unattractive office workers and unimaginative numbers players. There is no German-speaking counterpart to the nerd, who is somewhere between oddball, spectacled snake, technical idiot and egghead.

For a long time he embodied the outsider. The derogatory term was gradually reinterpreted in a positive light, a trend that started in the USA and arrived in Germany in the noughties. The nerd boom was an aftermath of the dot-com bubble, which, although it burst, left a lasting mark on the belief in the triumph of digital technology as the basis of everyday life. The Pirate Party experienced its heyday and series such as »The Big Bang Theory« shaped the new image of the IT expert with the world at his feet. The suspected »computer freak« became the admired nerd.

The nerd is rooted in the figure of the square. This term for stuffy, conventional, over-conformist types came up in the 1950s. The beatniks use the term to distinguish themselves as experimental and urbane, just as the nerd later served as an antidote to womanizers and muscle men. In numerous films he appears as an antihero and pure loser and makes the actual hero appear all the more attractive. The nerd appears as a crazy professor or as a genius who fails hopelessly due to social contacts and all interpersonal relationships. In high school and college films, but also in television series such as „Happy Days“ (1974-1984), the nerd then appears more often in terms of himself and his name. Here he becomes the counter-figure to the successful athlete, which is acted out in countless cinematic variants.

 In the late 1980s, the change that Kohout calls »The Nerd’s Revenge« after a film title takes place. Although he initially remains an uncool youth and a target for humiliation, after school and university he becomes a high-flyer. As a programmer, hacker or developer, he later gets the money, the women and the status that he was previously denied – that is the moral of the new nerd production.”

Secondly, an article about the changing work ethic, in the past one would have said: a change in values, which in a modern, urban, new middle class replaces the old Puritan, Protestant and Prussian or Confucian work ethic of Max Weber’s religious sociology and internalizes and accepts earlier left-wing work criticism. In addition, this phenomenon also appears among young people in assumedly workaholic Confucian-Asian societies. Work-life balance, quiet quitting as new buzzwords. Which is also a product of the change to the service society and leap to the New Economy , whereby the demographics and the shortage of skilled workers and the resulting better negotiating position between workers and capital are unfortunately somewhat neglected in the article, as well as the ideological influence of neoliberalism, whereby the author concedes that the old work ethic is still continues to existand that  in the „lifestyle left“ and „biodebourgeoisie“ criticized by Wagenknecht, perhaps under different circumstances it could become more dominant again and the question arises as to whether „comfortable sleeping in the home office“ really exists like this.

Especially since that can look different again under authoritarian dictatorships and in their labour camps, gulags or concentration camps with their slogan “Work makes you free” (Arbeit macht frei) and which uses more military and openly repressive barracks yard drills and Prussian. The concepts of the New Economy and New Work also remain somewhat blurred, as is the case with the nerds. It was often said by people from the IT industry that these are people “who do something with computers”. But there is a difference between being a programmer or an algorithm designer, start-up entrepreneurs, most of whom fail, but others just manage to climb the ladder ala Bill Gates from their garage, repair computers as small craftsmen or give courses at adult education centres, data processors, data collectors, maybe also in the home office, especially since often also in “freelance” and precarious circumstances, employees of a computer company who cannot afford the rent and therefore live in a van or spends the night in the car, digital nomads, one of the numerous app developers or video game and virtual reality developers – a whole range and new hierarchy and layer and class structure, whereby there are now also the first attempts to organize Silicon Valley into unions – but the myth of rags to riches and the rise from a dishwasher to a millionaire still works today – from nerd to billionaire, as a few make it and many believe when if you rent a garage, you also become a Bill Gates or if you do “something” with social media you become a Zuckerberg or an influencer worth millions or you tuber like before with the bloggers. Especially since there are also armies of millions of coaches, motivational trainers and self-optimizers who strongly catalyze this New Work ideology and see themselves already as part of the success story.

“The so-called New Economy has long integrated criticism of the old work ethos The misery of work criticism

 The so-called new middle class has long since integrated criticism of the work ethic into its flexible and precarious life plan. Up-to-date work criticism should also attack the New Work ideology.

Disco by Stephan Maßdorf

The current debate about work criticism is an impressive demonstration of the radical left’s inability to take notice of societal changes. Instead of unthinkingly rehashing the legitimate work criticism of past decades, one would have to relate it to the current state of social conditions. As if nothing had changed since the 1960s or even since the 19th century, the Jungle World disco series cheerfully quotes Marx, investigates anti-Semitism in the 1920s concept of work, or the situationists and youth rebellions of the 1950s and 1960s years without applying a critical thought to the present.

The economic and political conditions under which the work ideals of the time actually supported the existing conditions and were accordingly criticized no longer exist in this form. The Situationists and young rebels, for example, were still dealing with the working conditions of the industrial affluent society of the 1950s and 1980s. Today’s dominant form of work is completely different. While 50 percent of the working population in Germany was still employed in the industrial sector in 1970, this proportion has fallen continuously to 27 percent today, and the proportion of those employed in agriculture from twelve to one percent. The proportion of those employed in the service sector, on the other hand, rose from just over 40 percent (1970) to over 70 percent today. In the USA it is currently over 80 percent.(…)

The alternative movements‘ critique of alienation has given rise to the imperative to become absorbed in one’s work, to understand it as meaningful self-realization. In view of all this, not much is left of the old working ideals, to which left-wing work criticism refers negatively. Like the gesture of adventure and experiment left over from the youth culture rebellion of the sixties and seventies, it threatens to become the accompaniment to the leap from the service society to the new economy, with which the new middle class identifies and which is represented in the parties of the governing coalition finds.

Admittedly, the old work ethic hasn’t completely disappeared, it can still be found among the remaining industrial workers and also new precarious service employees. In other words, for those who know that they have little to expect from the work attitude of the high earners or the hobby-turned-professional and home office enthusiasts with flexible working hours who are content with their self-precarization and who, precisely for this reason, enter the image of the honest and productive escape work. Which is one of the reasons why the AfD and the Wagenknecht wing of the Left Party resonate there.

Conversely, hatred of the monotony and boredom that industrial work and simple services still bring with them has long since turned into social contempt for industrial workers and simple service providers among the new climbers. In the new middle class, criticism of the traditional work ethos is used to either sell the precariousness of the temporary part-time job as a price for self-fulfilment at work or to legitimize courageously and with reference to their own creativity and flexibility why one should get a bigger piece of the pie.

In this way, work criticism degenerates into an individualistic justification to stay out of the dirty work, not to demand the good life for everyone, but only to assert it for oneself. A reasonable position here would be to show the connections between political economy and ideology again and thus to make the social totality recognizable, instead of positioning oneself in the culture war between the old and new concept of work as a representative of the latter. In such a situation, radical left-wing social criticism should neither take one side nor the other, but denounce the overall context, in which the traditional work ethic and a new work attitude are two sides of the same coin.”

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