Work it

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“So isn’t that what we’re all asking in our own lives — ‘where’s my elephant?’ I know that’s what I’ve been asking.”

The ending of political commitment is often termed a retreat from the public sphere. Left or right, activists give up on mobilizing people through various methods – party organizing, public speaking, union agitation, etc – and turn inwards, to the private sphere of work and family.

I first encountered this in a novel when I was 14. A lord is offered the chance of political office and influence, but prefers his castle and the company of his doe-eyed mistress. I instantly identified with him, despite the novel painting him as a failure and minor character, because I wanted a castle too. (My feminist consciousness was too embryonic to wonder why the mistress only got one sentence, and that one devoted to her doe eyes.) I sensed that the preconditions for politics were not just passion but security. Unless you’re a fulltime activist, or lucky enough to have activist opportunities at your workplace, activism is volunteer work that demands huge investments of time and interpersonal skills. You need to not have to worry about your pay cheque, health, retirement, and terrible job in order to do something about the world. Thee Faction are correct: time is better is than wages. But it’s not a choice for most workers. Activism needs time and distance from the capital-labour relationship.

This does not mean workers are ignorant of how capitalist society treats them. On the contrary, workers experience it more acutely than anyone else. Speaking personally, I care more than ever about the injustices of capitalism, because I have to experience them daily. I may not have the physical or mental energy to strategize or philosophize when I’m working full time, looking for work, etc. But I feel the need for revolution most deeply when I’m on the morning bus, stuck in Seoul’s perpetual heavy traffic that dims the horizon with fumes. It’s the experience of work that both makes politics necessary and very difficult to engage in.

Poverty frightens me (Rome Open City)

My music at work

To cope with this post-graduation narrowing of political horizons, I’ve been listening to music constantly at work. I’ve looked for songs about the deadly sameness of work. Here are a few:

Notice they’re all dad-rock. Is there a reason there aren’t any contemporary pop songs that speak to working class alienation? Is it because of the neoliberalization of the music industry? In other words, are there no working class musicians, or have working class musicians become wholly aspirational? The Guardian’s songs about work series was by and large a majority of old songs, or songs from niche genres. It’s been decades since pop songs could say terrible, accurate things about how most people spend their days.

Maybe the explosion of nostalgia for past genres by younger generations, isn’t just due to the rise of technology. Maybe it’s because contemporary music doesn’t speak to people’s experiences. There was always formulaic shit music, but the bands that came from working class backgrounds, and sang about working class lives, also got exposure. Where are those voices now? Where’s The Jam, The Smiths, innumerable funk bands?

You have something that belongs to us (Masters of the Universe)
A future, some reflection of our collective experiences, creativity and autonomy…

I was your teacha

These questions have been sparked by my continuing failing attempts to get into academia. At this point, after months of fruitless trying, when I could’ve taught myself Korean, learned how to program or acquainted myself with the history of experimental film in the time spent applying for jobs, it’s a reasonable question to ask: why bother? If the working conditions and future prospects are so dismal in academia, why do I keep trying, like so many others? Post-grads are smart people, surely we can figure out the odds. Our enthusiasm can’t all be professional snobbery or being misled by department heads. The answer, I’d suggest, is that anyone who’s ever had a ‘real job’ knows that academia is an escape from the drudgery. It’s that hope that keeps a million adjuncts holding on in vain.


However, it’s the lack of that knowledge that keeps the Human Resource industry churning out vague affirmations like:

recognize and remember that you are the final arbiter of any job offer. If you want to remain in academia, that is your choice. Similarly, if you want to leave academia, that is your choice. Whatever choice you decide to make is the right choice.

Like all falsehoods, this has a grain of truth. Sometimes you can leave, but then you face the reality that no HR guru will ever, ever acknowledge: being a professor is a good job, not just because of the money (though that’s not bad), but because it gives you creativity and control.

I’m shocked by how nobody ever says this. Being a professor means hundreds of people hang on your every word, and those words are topics you’ve studied and are interested in – or at least, topics that you can give an interesting take on. Sure, they’re often not listening for the right reasons: the students want the grade, not your wisdom. But there are always a few in each class you can reach. Your job is to convince people of something, and to judge how well they understand you. However much the students might resent being there, they need you. That’s an incredibly powerful position.


Let’s not pretend most jobs are equivalent to this. I’d imagine senior management positions in the private or NGO sector have similar levels of autonomy, but to prosper in these jobs you need to buy into a mission that’s not your own. As a professor, a large part of your job is to design courses: shape a debate on an important issue and present that to students. As an executive, a large part of your job is to make the company profitable. I don’t believe it’s possible to feel as part of that process compared to making money off your opinions. It’s part of the reason why academia pays less: doing something that you get to believe in is part of the deal.

As for the vast majority of other jobs, explain to me how serving muffins or making coffee or filing or filling insurance claims or a million other socially useless jobs come close in terms of satisfaction. I’ve worked many of them, and they don’t. To claim they do is not only patronizing and classist: it proves that HR professionals are blinkered ideologues.

Letting me work (Billy Liar)

Proof of how terrible most jobs are isn’t necessary for most workers. Proof of the shocking ignorance of HR professionals comes further down the paragraph:

it is common for PhDs, especially those in the humanities, to maintain that they are “over-qualified for the typing pool and under-qualified for a real job,” this is patently untrue (we also find it a stunning and very sad comment on how academics view their education).

She’s lying. This is patently true: I’ve been told to my face by employers that I’m overqualified. I lie to them, not because I like the typing pool but because I need to pay my rent. Is this a stunning and sad form of elitism? Having spent the last year feeling stunned and sad every day on my way to work, I’d like the HR professional to step in my shoes. Say goodbye to the speaking engagements, comped breakfasts and conference per diems. No more concerned VP Admins or minor Department of Education bureaucrats trying to solve the supply-side of the labour market by paying you $1000 a day. No newspaper calling you up for a column. Say hello to repetitive rote tasks, to which your labour contributes an infinitesimal part; sitting at a desk and typing until your wrist hurts because you have daily deadlines; and the firm knowledge that nobody knows or cares what you do, because it has no impact on politics, economics or social policy. That is real work: dispensing career advice is precious, dilettantish fantasy whose main purpose is to transfer blame for alienation from the ruling class to workers themselves.

You can't change (Billy Liar)
Otherwise, how would we maintain the uninterrupted accumulation of capital?

The best way to identify this class bias is to see its opposite. I was dumbfounded to read that tenured professors are the most unhappy members of academia (“Why are associate professors so unhappy?”) Listen to their explanation of why a $70K job for life is difficult:

I’ve looked behind the curtain, and Oz just isn’t all that great. Everybody is asked to do a whole bunch of stuff we didn’t sign on for, like sitting on an admissions committee debating whether someone with a 15 ACT score should be admitted. It all feels so much more plebeian and mundane.

You have to sit on a committee? Imagine how mundane it feels to be the person with the score whose future depends on whether you’re in a good mood because you’ve drunk enough coffee today? Think about the billions of people who ‘didn’t sign on for’ sublimating all their creative energy into creating forms or gadget parts, whose ability to express themselves is not just truncated but smashed. It’s the expectations of this pampered professional layer that expresses the pre-existing class position of academics. They are workers, but their origins lie elsewhere.

Grateful for office job (Billy Liar)

This is the secret of the lengthening queue for academic jobs. Being a professional is wonderful compared to the other options. Yes, of course we have to unionize academia and erase the divisions between professions. The first step is organizing campus-wide unions that include faculty and cafeteria workers. But you don’t get there by denying those divisions exist. Even paying a cleaner the wages of a tenured faculty member wouldn’t make those jobs equivalent. The prof would still have it a thousand times better.

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5 thoughts on “Work it

  1. “I’ve known poverty it frightens me”…this sums it up well how the corporate-capitalists keep us in our place. As long as we fear becoming “lower” in class we won’t stand up to the forces that control our movements in the first place. This whole article is an outstanding treatise on class consciousness.

    • Thanks Jeff, your wise words are always welcome. The ‘poverty’ screenshot is from Rome Open City, and the character is a fascist – good spot! Unfortunately, I think that most people are so ground down by everyday life that keeping your head down and just getting on is the default position. One of the ways capitalism keeps people in line is by removing the possibility of security and showing real examples of those who’ve fallen through the cracks. As Consolidated said in the 90s, “Being an activist doesn’t pay / Still gotta pay the rent and utilities”.

      I think part of the circumstances that foment mass rebellion are when people who’ve done everything they’re told – kept quiet, gone to work, and not even considered let alone articulated their desire for a better life – don’t get the payoff they’ve been promised. In short, expectations have to rise and remain unmet. Otherwise, bucking the innate consciousness of your class, that’s handed down through a lifetime of socialization and fear, is very difficult.

  2. Pingback: Jeffster Awards #26 | Deconstructing Myths

  3. “Dispensing career advice is precious, dilettantish fantasy whose main purpose is to transfer blame for alienation from the ruling class to workers themselves.”

    Alas, human resources people (indeed among the most delusional people out there) are but one cog in a vast capitalist wheel that expends enormous effort effecting that transfer. The very fact that the propaganda machine necessary to keep the class system in place is so gigantic speaks for itself. But nothing lasts forever. We can never know when the spark will come, which is why we have to keep organizing and resisting.

    • Absolutely. I agree, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of the forces arrayed against the left/people’s movements/humanity, but we have to remember that even the most brutal accumulation system has to be regulated and reinforced. The capitalists may have passive consent for want of a better alternative, but they certainly don’t have the active consent of the governed.

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