Tales of the world episode 52 – Life fragments, fragments of life

Buying furniture in an IKEA shop is perhaps one of the most uncontroversially universal experiences of modern life. We know that even Syrian refugees and Indian fakirs are not spared the trials and tribulations of the products of the IKEA imperium. Much as I wanted to avoid it, I was not spared, either. To make the experience a little more bearable, and quite frankly, trying to understand what makes it so pervasive and seemingly unavoidable, I went to the store armed with the sharpest version of my sense of observation and inquiry.  I will spare you, my dear friends, the details, which it is likely, you know quite well. All details but one. It caught my imagination as I was heading towards the exit of the shop. We had stocked almost all the pieces we went to acquire, except for one which had to be paid for at the cashiers, and recuperated after that. We received a slip of paper to give to the person in charge, who recorded it on a computer. And plop, on the computer screen split into 3 colours, red-for ordering, blue – for “in process” and green – for delivery, I could follow the five minutes procedure. I knew Ikea was the epithom of labour division, but somehow, this whole operation felt wrong. Why is there a need to split a gesture in its modular components, as if it were one of the furniture pieces the store itself sells? What could be the sense and consequence of that? Of time exploded into the tiny atoms of its passing.

Later that day, in a twist of coincidence, I heard another IKEA story, from another country. A couch acquired from the store promptly returned to it, simply because those in charge of delivery did not want to make the effort to put it through the door of the residence where it was meant to be. It required a little bending of practical sense, which, seemingly, was not on the menu for the carriers. IKEA accepted the return of the couch, and its refund, saying that it outsourced its delivery service, which practically, could not care less about whether the products were actually delivered, or not. Such an attitude flying in the face of everything we consider normal commercial logic, is quite frankly, staggering. My mind flew instantly to Karl Marx and his theory of alienation. He was clever enough to predict that the endless division and fragmentation of labour would provoke in the long run, the spiritual and physical alienation of labourers, which thusly, could be easier to control. He did not insist, however, on the effects this would have in the very long run: alienation stops serving the interests of capitalism and, inadvertently, turns on it. Not because it plans to, not because it can, but rather because the shortsightedness of its condition only allows it a very limited scope of action and little or no perspective. Without a semblance of sense and identification with the aim of the operation individuals participate in, individual work becomes fragmented gestures, and fragmented gestures eventually become a series of disconnected, senseless actions, with, paradoxically, all encompassing effects: the implosion of the global articulation through the bankruptcy of individual pieces. 

Much the same happens in politics. Fragmentation causes a vacuum of responsibility and in the long run, a vacuum of autonomy. Without a certain degree of autonomy of its members, the system stops being able to adapt to changes and crumbles.  He might not have insisted on it in the very long run, but Marx did quote Ferguson, a master of Adam Smith, referring to the increasing fragmentation and specialisation of work: we make a nation of healots and have no free citizens. The problem is, most intellectuals seem to think that the loss of freedom is the end of the story. It takes poets and writers to show that is just the beginning. Of a brave new world…