Saturday, December 3, 2016

Killing You Softly With Her Dreams

Arianna Huffington wants to put you to sleep.

In her new book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, Huffington dramatically announces that we are in the middle of an unacknowledged sleep crisis. There is a problem in our society, Huffington tells us: we have forgotten how to sleep. Fortunately, sleepless readers need not fear: Huffington’s handy little book is here to show you how to combat sleeplessness.

Sleep Revolution is written in classic Huffington style: part Deepak Chopra, part Oprah, and strung together with quotes from everyone from Persian poet Rumi to art critic Jonathan Crary to even (bafflingly for a self-described progressive), the anti-immigrant, Brexit-enabling, racist former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

The writing, it should go without saying, is bad. A chapter begins: “From the beginning of time, people have struggled with sleep.” In fact, from the beginning of time, sophomore English teachers have been taking red pen to any essay that starts with “from the beginning of time.” Her phrasing is often corny and uses too many exclamation points.

Sleep Revolution is less a book than a business plan, a typical product of the can-do inspiration industry made popular by the likes of Andrew Weil and Suzie Orman, the snake oil salespeople of the 21st century. Like them, Huffington first tells you that you have a problem, one you were unaware you had. She then generously reveals the many products that can help alleviate your symptoms, suggesting plenty of expensive solutions. Huffington has learnt her trade from the best hucksters. She absorbs the techniques of assorted rich people’s gurus, like cult leaders Bhagwan Rajneesh and John-Roger, combining new age verbiage with sly admonitions to give up one’s material wealth (into their outstretched hands, of course).

Huffington undoubtedly possesses a kind of brilliance. It lies not in the quality of her thought or writing, but in her ability to understand and exploit the zeitgeist. The ideas in Sleep Revolution, such as they are, are mostly bits and pieces about sleep deprivation and the problems thereof cribbed and culled from a range of sources (likely the product of several intensive hours of Googling). To be sure, they are banal. And yet Huffington’s book is perfect for our moment in time: it arrives just as capitalism is making many of us more sleepless than ever.

Huffington is never so impolite as to mention that capitalism, which has done well by her and made her a multimillionaire, may be to blame for keeping people working long, sleepless hours. She prefers proposing solutions to diagnosing causes. She tells you to leave your smartphone outside your bedroom, to have warm baths, to disengage. Don’t tackle work emails after a certain time.

Her solutions have the convenient consequence of making you a better worker for your employers, without actually raising your material standard of living. After all, she writes, “it would actually be better for business if employees called in tired, got a little more sleep, and then came in a bit late, rather than call in sick a few days later or, worse, show up sick, dragging themselves through the day while infecting others.” Her advice to her fellow bosses is purely expedient: if the worker drones rest, more labor can be wrung out of them.

This approach to sleep is common in the discourse of “self-care,” in which people are constantly admonished to heal themselves with candles, self-affirmation, and long baths but not told that they can actually revolt against the systems that create their exhaustion in the first place. According to a massive amount of sleep literature, the worst thing we do is not sleep enough, yet that same literature never bothers to wonder what might be keeping us up at night.

Yet many people know full well why they can’t sleep. Many of us juggle multiple jobs to cobble together our livings, and the problem of sleeplessness cuts across class barriers. While those with little or no money battle exhaustion as they travel from job to job, even wealthier people are frequently like hamsters in their wheels, constantly working against the clock to hold on to and add to their fortunes. No matter who you are, under competitive capitalism the rule is the same: You sleep, you lose. Marx once pointed out that capital is vampire-like and feeds on dead labor. But that’s somewhat unfair to vampires. After all, unlike vampires, capital never sleeps.

Capitalism has never slept much, and has always relied on the lack of sleep of millions of workers to be as efficient as possible. In fact, until the invention of the eight-hour day and the weekend (both startlingly new ideas, for which workers had to fight hard) “work” as such simply carried on day by draining day. Even the idea of a legally mandated lunch break is astonishingly recent. (...)

The great irony of Huffington’s new enterprises, which promise both sleep and thriving, is that the Huffington Post itself feeds off the sleeplessness of its writers, people who are compelled to stay up all night in order to read and repost pieces about how sleeplessness is ruining their lives. The Huffington Post is notorious for paying not a single cent for most of its contributions, paying writers solely in illusory “publicity.” By building a hugely popular website on unpaid labor, HuffPo played a major role in establishing the pitiful compensation structure currently faced by online writers. If writers can’t sleep, it’s because they make HuffPo rates, i.e. nothing.

The Sleep Revolution is therefore a work of extraordinary gall. There is no consideration of the structural problems with sleeplessness, no critique of the systems which drive people from their beds toward jobs where they nod off to sleep in exhaustion. Arianna Huffington did not invent the web, but she is among those who created the news that never sleeps, in turn created by aggregators working around the clock, so that you might wake up at midnight or 3 or 4 in the morning, entertained by yet another set of links about Kate Middleton in a red dress or a hammock for your head so you can sleep on the train on the way to work.

by Yasmin Nair, Current Affairs | Read more:
Image:Chris Matthews