Nothing to Say

by zunguzungu

Books, like newspapers, are an essentially middle-class phenomenon whose market is the self-improving professional. As a bourgeois medium, books and their authors depend on the cash nexus. Johnson went straight to the point with: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Johnson was right. Words that get written for money are likely to be superior to words spun out for nothing, on a whim.

writes for money a man whose market is the self-improving professional, a rat on a sinking ship trying to forget that (a) those who live by the market deserve no sympathy when they die by it, and (b) assertion is not the same thing as argument. There is nothing magical about words written for money, as his own triflingly insubstantial (and utterly overdetermined) train of thought nicely demonstrates. And professional writers are so dependent on a “cash nexus” that seems to prevent them from having anything but self-interested thoughts about its disappearance that it’s hard to argue their irrelevance is undeserved.

I’d like to be paid to write, too, but I’d also like a pony. Print journalism is dying because the writing being produced by amateurs has enough use-value to show how over-valued in market terms professional writing has become or perhaps always been, and while professional writers quite naturally hate the fact that they now have to actually demonstrate what makes professional writing worth paying for, the fact that they’re failing simply shows how artificially shielded from competition the market in writing used to be. When the only writing you could get was the same tasteless pablum produced by this professional class of mutually sustaining echo chambers for the status quo, it’s not surprising that people were accustomed to buy it. But the emergence of real competition has punctured the bubble. When people don‘t want to pay for something, its exchange-value plummets because that‘s how markets work.

Now, if you wanted to imagine that maybe the market might not be the best way of determining value, then Professor Harvey would like to have a (freely distributed) word or two with you. If you want to argue that we should shield writers from market pressure because there’s a social good in doing so, be my guest. But if you lack that imagination and instead demonize google and the tragedy of the commons, it is your insistence that market values and use values are and always will be the same that dooms you, for you’ve just doubled down in unthinking principled support of the system whose principles have determined you unnecessary, and so you will never understand why. McCrum writes that a “healthy market [is] the key to a vital culture and vigorous democracy” and believes that that’s what we’ve lost, but he’s got it precisely backwards: what the internet has done is break the guild monopoly of a few publishers and allowed the market to “correct an inefficiency,” as the bloodless language of economics has it. When people make the choice not to pay for your labor, that’s the voice of the market telling you to “re-train and re-skill,” a market that has just figured out that it can do without you. And because that’s something people like McCrum never imagined could be said to them, they will just keep on having nothing to say in response.