Unemployment: a cognitive-Marxist explanation

This post is leavened with random pictures of Seoul, in case the relentlessly negative, slightly self-pitying cynicism is a little hard to take. See? A kitten!


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy identifies 10 major cognitive distortions, ways of thinking that distort our perception of reality and trap us into feeling less powerful than we actually are.

One of those distortions is called “all or nothing thinking”: If you don’t get what you want, then you get nothing at all. People who think this way place an enormous amount of pressure on themselves to control an uncontrollable reality. For them, there’s only one desirable outcome and anything else is failure.


The alternative, of course, is to see many pathways to many goals, and to be flexible enough to make choices that, at first glance, don’t appear to give you everything you want.

Like all bourgeois social science, this contains a kernel of truth; otherwise no one would listen. If you have your heart set on a pair of brown trainers and only white ones are available, then compromise. If you want to take a holiday in Spain, but all the flights are booked, why not go to Portugal? If your dream job is currently unavailable, why not take a job that relates to it and gets your foot in the door?


See what I did there? The limits of bourgeois social science just became apparent. What if there are no jobs that relate to your dream? Then your perceptions, compromises, and careful planning are worthless. When profit rates have to be maintained, capital has to wipe some excess productive capacity off the books. That means precarious work, if you can find it in the first place.

It turns out I’m not the first person to discover that the promises of grad school don’t match reality, and that no amount of positive thinking can change that. 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Grad School covers it very well, from a reasoned, left-wing perspective with none of the sniping between arts and sciences that can mar these discussions. There’s even data to bear this out, at least in the U.S. Here’s a chart showing post-grad trajectories for Humanities PhDs, from Jordan Weissman:

I like it as much for the labels as for the data: I’m in the +40% ‘nothing’ group.

This gets to the heart of the relationship between structure and individual agency, because the comment boxes on 100 Reasons have counter examples of successful grads who went on to fulfilling careers in academia. Others write in to say that leaving grad school was the best thing they ever did, since they launched into successful jobs in industry and have spent years earning far more, with far less stress, than their erstwhile adjunct comrades. I would take a job in industry; Paul Baran, neo-Marxist economist, worked at the Federal Reserve before getting a job in academia. I’ve often said that I’d love a chance to sell-out, but the depressed capitalist economy has forced me to stick to my pure Marxist principles.

An artist’s fantasy of what Yongsan will look like, after the US army gives up its base and moves to the suburbs. The green space would be welcome, but those towers would signal the end of cheaper rents in central Seoul. The reputation of Yongsan as sketchy and violent – largely thanks to the stories of violent US soldiers drinking in off-base bars – has artificially depressed rents in a neighbourhood close to the centre of the metropolis, and kept out some of the more egregious 20 storey tower monoculture that blights everywhere else.

I’m not recommending people drop out of grad school, but it’s certainly true that doing a PhD has to be internally motivated, not just a means to an end. If you’re studying because you’ve got a topic that you simply must know more about, then keep going. You’ll never get another chance to spend your free time reading, writing and critiquing. (Which is not to minimize the role of grad students as cheap academic labour.) If you’re studying because of the great job that waits at the end, don’t.


I spent long enough in school that I began to believe the lies about career advancement. Despite my best efforts to remain grounded about the horrible post-grad employment situation, I believed that all my effort would be worth something, that my status would be recognized by people besides my friends and comrades. I stand by my research: it has value because it’s about leftist theory and organizing, which, despite my efforts to appear well-rounded, remains my life’s work. But after enough time, conferences, writing and teaching, I moved beyond that to think that having a degree, and being flexible enough to go anywhere, would land me a job. But even the job market in South Korea has tightened considerably in the last few years: where once you could work with an MA, now you need a PhD in the field you’re applying to. And, in a country run by the daughter of a dictator, still locked in a cold and sometimes hot war with itself, the disciplinary boundaries are strict and the disciplines adhere to conservative, mainstream theory.

Orphan shredders at Dongmyo market

I grew to love the use-value of academia: the training that allows you to approach an aspect of the world, consider competing opinions about it and form your own. It’s an incredibly powerful experience, to open up a newspaper and not be overwhelmed with confusion. The ability to understand social reality at various degrees of abstraction, to slice it up into things more and less complex, is fun. I hope I can continue that process from whatever repetitive, boring job I have to take in order to climb out of the debt morass I’ve fallen into. But I know from experience that it’s hard. Academia provides you with colleagues and a self-definition that is about more than ideas: it’s an audience and dialogue that validates that critical exploration. The outside world can seem cold and small by comparison.

Cafe art. I think that was the least of his problems.

Despite all this, I remain optimistic. Not because I expect to land that dream teaching and research job, but because I’ve been unemployed and prospectless for so long that I’m tired of trying. I just want a salary and regular employment that doesn’t kill me. True, I went back to grad school because I was sick of go-nowhere desk jobs, but at this point I’ll take comfort and security over being on the outside looking in. I want new clothes, a toaster oven, a good espresso machine, and the ability to take my girlfriend out for nice dinners. Most of all I want off the treadmill of worrying whether I’m good enough for an industry that doesn’t want me. I’ve mentioned the analogy of an abusive relationship before, and it still holds. There’s something pathological about trying to reframe rejection so that I might, one day, be liked by a hiring committee that wants to exploit me for low wages and a high workload. Seeking the prestige of the academic guild-mentality isn’t so different from wanting approval from a partner who doesn’t give a fuck about me. Enough.

Here are some more photos:

Those are LEDs wrapping trees and shrubs planted in the shape of the Korean peninsula.

If this means ‘Don’t go into the women’s bathroom and spy on women’, shouldn’t there be an X through it?


Because somebody decided kids don’t have enough source material for nightmares.



Wonder Woman-endorsed restaurant in Mapo-gu.



The North Face begat The Red Face, which begat The Poloneck Face.



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