And I Thought Scrivener Meant Scrooge
“I would prefer not to.” Such a seemingly powerless phrase; it is wishy-washy, indicating a dislike for something but not such an overwhelming dislike that one would not do the task if it was required. So why is this turn of words so powerfully potent when coming from Bartleby the Scrivener in Melville's short story of the same name?
Entire books have been written on the topic of Melville's likely personal outlook based on his stories and his personal writings. He has been called a racist, a radical leftist and a cultural imperialist. But it seems, as with books like Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, that the academic consensus has shifted to understanding Melville in less ad hom terms and more in terms of his actual writing. From this broadened history, it becomes fairly clear that Melville harbored an anti-capitalist sentimentality, if not an explicit commitment.
It is key to understand that Bartleby is not an underskilled bum. At the end, the lawyer discovers that, “...Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in administration.” Melville may even be criticizing bureaucracy here with the description of the suddenness of change in his life. Bartleby then moved on to work for a prestigious Wall Street law firm, and it is clear that the lawyer views Bartleby as somewhat indispensable in terms of skill; after all, expert copyists and manuscripters are somewhat difficult to find. He is clearly skillful and intelligent, yet something in him has rejected the situations he is put into.
Classic libertarian thought, from Humboldt to Rousseau, is well known for having opposed the state and the church. But, as Chomsky has pointed out repeatedly, the Enlightenment sensibility has a positive commitment, not merely negative adversaries. The positive commitment is to a concept of human creative freedom, of the natural desire of every person to achieve a fuller understanding of their skills through work and thought outside of the framework of coercive power. It is relatively clear, then, that Enlightenment thought should at least have anti-capitalist tendencies if not be stridently anti-capitalist, which is why the early Marx echoes the Enlightenment tradition when he discusses the effect of the commodity character of labor. “Wage slavery” was commonly discussed as being parallel to chattel slavery, as both make people slaves to others who own the productive means; the only difference being that chattel slaves are supported and taken care of but cannot choose their master, while wage slaves are left to their own devices but can choose their master if they can beg and cajole a job. Dinesh D'Souza, a conservative luminary, has pointed out something known by historians: that slaves were so expensive that slaveowners were loath to have them be killed or damaged without need, so they would try to get “some paddy from Boston” to do dangerous and deadly work, a good example of the truly disgusting nature of commodity labor. Slave owners even defended their slavery because they would take care of their workers, whereas the Northern capitalists would horrendously mistreat them.
Bartleby has decided that he will not be made into a productive machine for someone else's desires. It is key to note that he never says “No.” His activity is not revolutionary in the sense that it is actively opposed to institutions and seeks an alternative, but it does have a revolutionary tint of a non-confrontrational type. Some people have interpreted Jesus' comments on “Give your last robe” and “Turn the other cheek” as not being simple pacifism but rather being a type of resistance. Loaners in those days would take away everything but a robe, so the debtor was encouraged by Jesus to give the robe as well, to go an extra mile to show the disgusting nature of the system for what it is. When Bartleby tells his employer, “I would prefer not to do any of the things you're offering me. I'd like to work for you, but if you're my boss, you should tell me what to do.”, he exposes the class relation for what it is. His boss has a moral sense, but he prefers to be able to have his employees actively leap to his commands. Bartleby's comment is a challenge for him to drop the pretense and give Bartleby a task to actually do, instead of beat around the bush.
Bartleby's usage of the concept of preference is also revolutionary because it induces the idea of very human desires back into the workplace. Capitalism, in the end, is an anti-human institution: it views people and processes as reductive singularities, and people in particular as atoms of consumption and production, all fighting each other tooth and nail to extract as much from the market as they can. Bartleby's act introduces back the idea of something beyond simply working for money, the concept that the lawyer seems to show. Bartleby hearkens back to an idea of work being about spontaneous and creative fulfillment, and he thus seems inscrutable to the rest of his co-workers who are focused on the money they will get. To him, the intangibles of life, such as liberty, are more important than money.
Bartleby never says “No”, and he never demands to be paid. He instead honestly says that he hates every job that could be offered him, but he has no problem with doing any of them if he is but told to. He takes a gamble and wins it. As compared to Peter Gibbons from Office Space, he is at once more and less plausible. He is more plausible because his promotion comes from the lawyer's desire to appeal and be humanitarian, but he is less plausible because Peter's promotions come from his sincere statement of a need for an incentive to work in the office that the capitalist can understand.
The unfortunate part of Bartleby's insurrection is that it is ultimately a failed one: he dies because of his commitment. And this is where Office Space and Bartleby the Scrivener have parallel endings. Office Space ends with a failed insurrection, with the virus failing to accumulate the necessary money, and a lucky escape from the authorities. Peter finds happiness within the framework of the current system, doing physical labor and feeling empowered by it. Bartleby dies because he cannot find such satisfaction. Both fail, because both are operating against massive institutions: markets, corporations, the commodity structure of labor, etc. The answer is key: For those who identify, as I do, with Peter and with Bartleby, even if I may disagree with them on some issues, there must be a revolutionary movement that changes those unjust and dignity-destroying institutions, a movement that allows the means of production to be shared democratically among the workers. This is a matter of critiques as varied as libertarian municipalism, centrally planned state socialism, green bio-regionaliam, primitivism, and my personal advocacy, parecon. Without movements principally committed to a change in structures, people like Peter and Bartleby are likely doomed to failure, acquiesence or hermitage.