They had frankly stated something which he as a judge had to admit: that in a matter of this kind there was no such thing as justice, nor did they, the accused expect it. – Heinrich Boll
Waiting time had been transformed into an economic agent and source of profits. – Benoît Duteurtre
This past week I was reading two short novels, one by Benoît Duteurtre and the other by Heinrich Boll. While both are satires, it is interesting to note how much the horizons of the peoples living in Europe has changed over the years.
Duteurtre’s Customer Service, published in 2008, problematizes the relationship between the individual consumer and the globalized capitalist economy. Boll’s The End of a Mission, published in 1968, tackles the relationship between the individual citizen and the modern state.
In Boll’s 1970s West Germany, the overwhelming concern of the intellectual class was the struggle against so-called “totalitarianism.” In this story about the trial of a man in military service and his father who burned an army jeep, we get hints of the prevailing discourse at the time of writing against the domination of the state as represented by the Nazi heritage and the threat of the eastern Soviet bloc.
Consider the following dialogue: “‘The Minister of Defence has no authority over my private parts,’ but the lieutenant disputed this, saying that the Bundeswehr needed the whole man…”
In another instance, the district attorney howled in protest when one of the witnesses praised the elder suspect’s profession as a carpenter by “pointing out that in the course of the last forty-five years of German history several carpenters had risen to the highest positions in the land, one even becoming head of state” – the witness, of course, wrongly alluding to Hitler who was in fact a painter.
The same attorney also vehemently objected to the same witness’ description of the accused as being “in a natural state of self-defence” against the state because this sounds “particularly subversive” in the sense that “no citizen, if he obeyed the law, could ever find himself in a condition of self-defense against the state.”
Meanwhile, another witness describes the younger of the accused as having “suffered from this ‘quaternity of the absurd’ – pointlessness, unproductiveness, boredom, laziness – while he, Kuttke, actually considered these to be the sole aim and object of any army.”
Strangely enough, unlike the dystopic aura of novels dealing with the same topic such as Orwell’s 1984, what we have in Boll is a very light, even comic treatment. This is no “Stalinist” show-trial as it is kept very low-profile nor is there the shadowy Abu Ghraib-type of brutality that the United States government tried to hide from public view. The prospective punishment is light (six weeks detention) and the two accused are not even concerned with the charges at all.
Fast forward four decades into Duteurtre’s 21st Century France and the focus of ire shifts from the state to the omnipresent and seemingly faceless global capitalism. This can be explained by the advent of neoliberal doctrine which reduced the function of the state from providing social welfare and regulating the economy to simply ensuring the smooth functioning of the global market.
Industries are deregulated while public services are sold by private companies as expensive commodities. The advent of new technologies accelerate the pace in which business and pretty much everything else is done while intensifying the alienation of individuals from each other and from the products of their labor. This is the world described by Duteurtre’s Customer Service.
It begins with our middle-aged narrator losing a “smartphone” given by his parents in a taxi. Things quickly turn awry as he seeks redress through the agency of the consumer service. He goes through several pre-recorded messages on the phone that is paid by the second before being told by a human operator that he must continue to pay for the lost phone’s subscription even if he gets a new phone.
Duteurtre wittily interjects: “This was the kind of highway robbery that the press, when writing about the economy, suavely refers to as a growth in the telecommunications sector.” And indeed, he eventually gets difficulties using his bank card, changing his flight, logging into the internet, entering his home, and getting access to a bunch of other basic needs. Things seem simpler without all the technological hassle of passwords and pin codes.
But instead of proposing the common Luddite solution to this problem, Duteurtre’s short novel understands that there is a deeper explanation for his frustrations: the monopoly capitalist drive for profit.
On the one hand, these companies lure the public with cut-rate prices, enticing offers, publicity brochures, rock-bottom fees, and months of free service… On the other hand, once the consumer signs up, he must obey the draconian rules and pay penalties if he commits the slightest infraction… For the most minor complaint, the wait time is infinite and the billing for that wait period itself contributes to increased profit.
Here’s Duteurtre explaining our usual problems at the airport:
All the planes were cancelled one after another for technical reasons… Actually, these planes were almost empty, which allowed the companies to fill to bursting a single plane, at the end of the afternoon. Of course, when he’s making reservations, the consumer has a choice… But once the tickets have been paid for, a hidden distribution operation seems to make sure of maximum occupancy.
He notes the irony of the myth of capitalist efficiency as opposed to socialist bureaucratic claptrap. The logic of the market is supposed to eliminate long waiting lines. But it would seem the opposite is the case:
Since the widespread victory of capitalism – focused only on relentless competition, the continual growth of profit, a nonstop reduction of costs and personnel, a fanaticism for mergers – the consumer was becoming obligated… unless you belong to a well-to-do nomenklatura who could pay through the roof, delegate the tiresome steps, buy business class or get their complaints to the top of the pyramid.
This realization is capped by the revelation of the ideal of our monopoly capitalists: “to eliminate personnel totally and to perfect a system in which the customers did everything themselves from a computer terminal.” Indeed, the drive to maximize profit lends to the most absurd propositions. Yet, this is how today’s high-tech world of flexible labor, contractualization, and globalized production works to the detriment of the majority.
The only problem with Customer Service is its nostalgia for the bygone days of the social welfare state that supposedly balanced the interests of big business and the needs of the people. But as Boll already recognized in The End of a Mission: “Those ridiculous Social Democrats, those hypocritical crooks, they’re more capitalist now than the capitalist!”