Rebel Sell 2009: Christopher Dombres
Stephen Henighan argues that efficiency has become a core value that heightens social divisions.
Like many yuppies, I’m proud of being efficient. I write from six to nine every morning. Between nine and ten-thirty I have breakfast and commute to work. From ten-thirty until six or seven in the evening I’m in the office. At night I read, prepare manuscripts for submission and work on projects for a small publisher whom I help out on a volunteer basis. Everything, even art, is precisely scheduled. In my writing I take aim at the conformism of contemporary society, yet my life exemplifies, if not conformism, then a certain worshipping at the altar of middle-class values such as diligence and productivity. “Live like the bourgeois,” Gustave Flaubert counselled writers tempted by the Romantic image of the artist as dissolute vagabond and eternal outsider. The advice has some merit. As Gabriel García Márquez, having starved in Paris as a young man, told fellow writers in later years: “You write better when you’ve had a meal.”
The problem is that the cost of the meal keeps rising. The bourgeoisie that Flaubert knew was a more leisured class than are harried twenty-first century yuppies, who are dependent for employment on institutions that face constant compression before the demands of efficiency, or companies straining to maximize profits. In my office, sixteen full-time employees now deliver the same programs, plus a couple of new ones, that were delivered by twenty-four full-time employees four years ago. This means that my efficient daily schedule now applies not only to weekdays but also, during much of the year, to at least one day during the weekend. This crunch is impossible to avoid because, as those who promote these ideologies keep telling us, it does not originate in a particular office or institution, but in the structures of globalized finance.
The changes wrought by these structures have replaced that comfortable, easy-to-despise clique, “the bourgeoisie,” with the frenetic, scrambling professional, who works in a company that must be lean and mean, or a public institution that is subject to perpetual budget cuts; who must demonstrate that she is a model of efficiency in order to retain the middle-class salary required to pay an urban or suburban mortgage that has been inflated to staggering proportions by the real estate speculation of the same transnational forces that promote “efficiency.” In this context, “efficiency,” no longer a term of approbation, has become an expression of exigency: a first principle against which no argument can be brooked because, like such sacrosanct, if fading, values as democracy or freedom of information and expression, it is deemed to be one of the cornerstones of our society. The rise of efficiency as society’s fundamental moral value hastens the waning of democratic institutions. Its elevation to a universal pursuit rules the welfare state out of order. Reducing daily life to a succession of tasks to be performed, efficiency seeps into our veins like a sedative that distorts our notion of time and dulls our capacity for enjoyment.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of “efficiency” occurred in 1593, in the work of Richard Hooker, a theologian whose statue stands in Exeter, in the south of England. Efficiency did not enter our language as the bully it is today, but rather as a philosophical term to describe “an operative agent or efficient cause.” Hooker, now admiring the world from his plinth in front of Exeter Cathedral, marvelled at “divine efficiency.” His expression spawned half a dozen meanings of the word. It is telling that when most of us speak of efficiency today, the sense that we invoke is one that was developed in the nineteenth century by the fathers of liberal thought, such as John Stuart Mill, who supported “the greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency.” This, in turn, morphed into a banner of liberal economics in 1906 when Arthur Shadwell published a book called Industrial Efficiency. At this point, “efficiency” began its inexorable transformation from description to prescription, from a compliment one could make to an imposition one cannot refuse. In the twentieth century, “efficiency” became a core value that justified program cuts and demanded ever longer working hours.
I travel to work on the municipal bus system in Guelph, Ontario. On January 1, 2012, the city scrapped bus routes which, according to transit veterans, had existed for a quarter of a century, and brought in new routes. These routes, the head of Guelph Transit announced, promoted “greater efficiency.” Dozens of neighbourhood bus stops were removed (including the stop in front of my house, which was one of the reasons I chose to live there). Major routes, such as the trip between the main suburban mall and downtown, were cut back. Before, there were nine buses an hour between downtown and the university during the hours when most students travel to campus; now there are four. The new system resulted in buses streaming past the ever scarcer bus stops with Sorry—Bus Full announcements on the front. Like any measure driven by efficiency, the new routes heightened social divisions. Travel to the factories in the city’s north end became more restricted and circuitous. In mixed-income districts such as mine, where over a six-block stretch housing ranges from low-rent low-rise apartment blocks to bungalows to three-storey red-brick Victorian homes that overlook the nearby park, people with lower incomes and no cars, now unable to commute to their places of work, began to move out. People complained furiously about the many drawbacks of the new system, but the authorities, convinced of their mission, refused to budge. In the midst of this upheaval, I spotted a uniformed transit supervisor downtown and gave him an earful. Other irate commuters joined me. We harangued the man with our complaints. The supervisor listened and shook his head. “Yup. The new system’s crazy, everybody hates it… but it’s efficient!”
I knew we could say nothing in reply.