How to Master Not Feeling So Bad About Your Employment Prospects in Two Weeks
Chavs by Owen Jones, Verso, 2011, 304 p.
Intern Nation by Ross Perlin, Verso, 2011, 288 p.
Non-Stop Inertia by Ivor Southwood, O Books, 2011, 106 p.
In part two of our end of summer series “How to Master X in Two Weeks,” Michael Schapira discusses three books addressing what many of you may have been doing this summer: trying to figure out why good work is so hard to come by. You can find part one, a breakdown of the culture wars, here.
One feature of the modern globalized economy that has emerged with great clarity over the past few years is its capacity to generate strange articles. Back in 2007, during the early moments of the most recent economic crisis, we would read stories like the following: Narvick, Norway, a small town located north of the Arctic Circle, saw its city coffers quickly emptied of at least $65 million when an overheated housing market in Florida and California began to collapse. Or just this month: students from China, Nigeria, and the Ukraine protest unfair labor practices outside of a Hershey packing plant in Palmyra, PA. Their grievance? Coming to the US on a J-1 Summer Visa in order to improve their English and experience American culture, only to end up working the night shift packing chocolates under the merciless directives of line managers and taking home less than $200 a week after deductions for rent. And when Hershey is asked to comment on the matter they invoke an increasingly familiar form of plausible deniability: “We contract with a staffing agency to provide temporary employees, some from the local work force and some J-1 visa holders. We don’t have a lot of influence over some of those issues that they’ve raised.”
Stories like the above are not hard to come by (just read Michael Lewis’ disaster journalism dispatches from Iceland, Greece, or Ireland), and the strongest links between three recent publications on an increasingly troubling labor market are the kinds of personal narratives that allow the authors to treat broad, systemic problems. As Ivor Southwood writes in Non-Stop Inertia, “[This book] is written from within the debt-driven jobseeking subjectivity which it describes,” – a subjectivity which is punished by an employment agency for not taking a cell phone on a 10 minute run to Tesco. Owen Jones opens Chavs by recounting a dinner party at which an otherwise good liberal jokes, “It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” Ross Perlin is also quick to situate himself as one of the invisible workers he studies in Intern Nation, crystallizing his experience as an intern by telling us about a Christmas party in which the interns were thanked for their valuable service, but were not recognized by any of the permanent staff. In all three cases there is a strong impulse to bear witness to what neoliberalism has bequeathed to a generation of highly educated, debt saddled young workers.
I’ll come back to their points of overlap, but the three books under review differ in how they approach the nature of work today. Intern Nation is primarily concerned with a segment of the labor force that remains frustratingly invisible despite their growing influence in seats of power – government, finance, and media (or what we could more broadly call the culture industry if we include fashion, entertainment, and advertising). In Chavs Owen Jones deals with the opposite problem, where the caricatured “chav” remains so visible in public consciousness that it obscures broader reflections on the working class’ role in the new economy. (Non-UK readers may not be familiar with “the chav,” which has several variations on the European Continent. The defining features of the “chavs,” as described by Jones, is being a member of the underclass often having grown up in public housing (think David Beckham), adopting a crude and crass style and speech (think Ali G), and being viewed as a broad drain on society’s social and economic recourses. To get an idea of the sentiment that Jones is interested in, see the entry for Chav on Urban Dictionary. Non-Stop Inertia sits somewhere between the two, demonstrating what class warfare or the struggle to ascend the ladder of influential sectors looks like from a standpoint oscillating between employee and “unemployee” (i.e. the jobseeker or legitimate seeker of social benefits submitted to new regimes of performance and self-surveillance by employment and government agencies). To get a broader picture of where these analyses eventually converge, it’s helpful to take them in turn.
At several points in Intern Nation Ross Perlin reminds us that there has been little systematic study of internships, which have increased sharply in the past few decades and have “been thoroughly naturalized” by a generation of young people trying to figure out how to break into meaningful and lucrative jobs. So while his avowed intent in writing the book is to “take a step towards sanity and justice” in this poorly understood world, his primary concern is one of consciousness raising, which he pursues on several fronts: describing in detail the variety of tasks falling under the title of internship, interrogating their questionable legality, situating these “jobs” in larger economic trends, exploring the complex economics of internships from the perspective of employers and aspiring young people, questioning the role of universities in the internship explosion, and trying to figure out why this issue isn’t garnering more sustained attention. With a somewhat uneven effect he does this through a mixture of interviews, anecdotal evidence, polemics (e.g. that directed against Disney’s broad and exploitative intern program or universities’ complicity in illegal work schemes), citing relevant legal precedent, and marshaling a wide range of facts about the new economy. Perlin asks to be forgiven for gaps in his study (hence the many calls for further research and overreliance on anecdotes), but still reaches the strong conclusion that it is all of us – not just entrepreneurial middle class youths – that must take note of internships, which he argues are “symptomatic of a drastically unequal, hypercompetitive world in the making – one in which, as so many Americans rightly fear, succeeding generations will work harder for less reward, for a lower quality of life with fewer avenues for getting ahead.” And this is not just a matter of decreased opportunity, but one of economic justice, on which Perlin rings the following cautionary note: “And so it always goes with injustices faced by the young – you forget about them as you grow older, then you perpetuate them, and the cycle repeats…”
Readers can legitimately question the scope of the particular injustices documented in Intern Nation (more egregious examples could probably be found in Fast Food Nation), but Perlin is right to see where these trends are heading – the further depreciation of wages, the spread of various forms of contingent and precarious labor, the disproportionate allocation of risk away from the company (and the government) onto the worker or jobseeker, and the exacerbation of social inequalities. While these conclusions are certainly not new (especially for readers of Verso), Perlin’s book is helpful because of its focus on the liminal space at the edge of meaningful work – a zone which is largely occupied by youths which Intern Nation argues are too insufficiently organized to effect any meaningful political change.
In Chavs Owen Jones paints a much darker picture of this generations’ work prospects by placing his narrative in a more explicit historical arc of class warfare begun during the Thatcherite revolution in the 1970s and 80s and carried into the present by New Labour. The recent riots in London have brought back to the fore talk of the “feral underclass” and the unskilled, benefit addicted “rump” of the working class sapping Britain’s generous welfare system (think of Reagan’s attack on Cadillac driving “welfare queens” and the subsequent conservative denigrations of hip hop). In contrast to this, Jones “proposes to show some of the reality of the working class majority that has been airbrushed out of existence in favour of the ‘chav’ caricature.”
The major facets of this reality congeal into what Jones calls a “toxic brew.” First, with the movement towards a service economy many working class jobs have simply disappeared. This has been devastating to one-industry towns (e.g. mining villages around Newcastle) as well as workers’ self-conceptions because solidarity is not a feature of the jobs that have replaced those that were lost. Second, politicians have engaged in the practice of touting the promise of the service economy, but systematically disinvesting in the social programs that might make the fruits of this economic reorganization a reality to the devastated working class. Jones is very effective at documenting cases where an impossible number of new jobs were offered to communities racked by high unemployment (e.g. calls to put 4 million people back to work when there may be at most 500,000 available jobs). As a consequence of this systematic failure to fulfill their economic promises, politicians have been able to successfully individualize the failures of the chronically unemployed, which is more or less the painful social and economic reality that the caricatured ‘chav’ obscures. And finally, the working class in a service economy looks much different than the working class in a manufacturing economy, which has reanimated Victorian levels of class hatred from the ruling elite and encouraged misrecognition amongst the working class (which Jones most effectively captures in a chapter discussing the ultra-nationalist British National Party’s attempts to make inroads into working class voters).
What Chavs is not is a piece of cultural criticism that defends the ‘chav’ aesthetic as a legitimate response to class hatred. Indeed, there is little positive to say about ‘chavs’ because Jones notes that this caricature is not representative of the working class and thus should not be used as a vehicle of further disempowerment (despite the marginal cases that the media tends to fix upon). A deep study of the ‘chav’ aesthetic would actually be a very interesting book, but Jones is much more concerned with raising the issue of class antagonism that has come back into public life with renewed vigor in the past 30 years. Thus the book ends with a series of calls for working class solidarity in the wake of broad economic shifts and years of organized “demonization” from politicians and the media.
Non-Stop Inertia also focuses on the British context and on the inability to look at a difficult social reality clearly. For Southwood it is not a caricature that allows us to misplace our anxieties, but rather a social mood (and existential situation) of restlessness that precludes us from fixing our attention on any object in particular for too long. Through personal narratives and effective forays into social theory he depicts a “state of insecurity – which taps into our deepest fears and desires, much as neurosis draws on and distorts the unconscious…A continual restless movement towards the next job, commodity or identity means that this reality never really comes into focus: our vision is always too blurred to orientate ourselves or see how things might be changed.” The depressing aesthetics of this condition take up a large part of the book, with humorous instances of empty business speak and absurd performative gestures making up the bulk of Southwood’s interactions with potential employers and government agencies. The rest cashes out these examples to cast light on the deeper consequences on character (following sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s concept of “emotional labor” and Angela Mitropolous and Paolo Virno’s writings on “precarity”) and the ability for workers to bring about positive change in their employment prospects.
The point at which the three books most forcefully converge is in their conclusions, all of which call for renewed forms of solidarity. For many the current economy is best explained through a fragmentation of the workforce which has proceeded on two fronts: the decline of traditional working class industries or the privatization of once steady public sector jobs, and the rise of new forms of casual, contingent, and precarious forms of work. The root causes of these lay at the feet of a consolidated political movement that often goes under the banner of neoliberalism. The biggest lesson to take from these three books is that a greater degree of consolidation is also necessary for those hoping to resist the most damaging effects of these changes. Practically, this means organizing across sectors that have remained stubbornly separated: interns, temporary workers, graduate students, the chronically unemployed, non-unionized service industry workers, and undocumented workers. Any such movement will benefit tremendously from reading these perceptive and richly detailed analyses on a topic that is only likely to grow in importance and immediacy. More importantly, they will allow young workers to process the kinds of stories that our economic crisis produces without detachment or cynicism, hopefully breaking the cycle that Perlin worries we otherwise are condemned perpetuate.