[Marxism] Youth in recession

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 27 08:00:24 MDT 2011


Youth in Recession
July 27, 2011
By Scott McLemee

Freshmen who arrived on campus as the phrase “too big to fail" was 
taking hold will, over the coming year, be working out the details 
of their post-graduation plans. At this point, finding employment 
increasingly counts as an aspiration more than a goal -- while 
continuing with graduate study must feel like buying a lottery 
ticket. Condensing a million anxious conversations into a single 
humorous/appalling graphic, Jenna Brager’s “Post-College Flow 
Chart of Misery and Pain” finds its balance on the thin line 
between satire and cold-eyed realism. It deserves its spot on the 
opening page of Share or Die: Youth in Recession, an anthology of 
essays, memoirs, and cartoons recently e-published by the online 
magazine Shareable.

Released under a Creative Commons license, Share or Die is 
available to download for free. While Brager’s cartoon embodies a 
sense of foreclosed options, the spirit of the book as a whole is 
anything but resigned. “There’s a common anxiety in the pieces in 
this collection,” Malcolm Harris, its 22-year-old editor, writes 
in his introduction. “…The promises of the '90s and the early' 
00s, that society could only be improved, that shopping was 
patriotic, that the earth knew no boundaries for the determined, 
have turned out to be worth about as much as a bunch of subprime 
mortgage-backed securities. There’s a sense of generational 
betrayal, a knowledge that those who came before weren’t planning 
for a future with consequences. In the face of the unknown, these 
writers have come to understand they’re responsible for making 
something new, even if they don’t know what it looks like yet.”

Shareable (where Harris works as a contributing editor) promotes 
an ethos of open-source cooperation and communitarian mutual aid. 
The volume includes advice on how to form work co-ops, pool goods 
and services with friends and neighbors, and otherwise strengthen 
social ties. The very notion of a commonwealth -- in which there 
are shared resources that escape the logic of possessive 
individualism – may need reinventing at this late date. But an 
ongoing economic crisis with no end in sight is the right time to 
begin trying to think and live in new ways. Intrigued by Share or 
Die, I posed a number of questions to Harris, who is also managing 
editor of the online cultural journal/open-door salon The New 
Inquiry. A transcript of our e-mail exchange follows.

Q: How did you come to do the book? Was there something in your 
own education, work history, or other interests that overlapped 
with this project?

A: I grew up in Palo Alto, California, which is sometimes 
mistakenly referred to as "Stanford University, California." After 
graduating in three years with good behavior from the University 
of Maryland with a degree in English and politics, I lucked into 
the job at Shareable (thanks Craigslist). That was about a year 
ago now. In a lot of ways it's a continuation of what I was doing 
in college, which included a lot of activism around student debt 
and a weekly column for the school paper on university politics. 
The struggles that erupted at the University of California 
campuses my last year of school over tuition hikes juxtaposed with 
the financial crisis and resulting recession had a deep effect on 
my thinking and what I wanted to do with my newly unemployed self. 
When Baby Boomers and Gen Xers write about my generation, they can 
almost never help themselves from projecting what I see as their 
own generational insecurities. We end up portrayed as lazy, 
disengaged, greedy whiners unable to endure a little hardship. 
That's not the case, and the stories in Share or Die prove it.

Q: How should people think of Share or Die -- as manifesto or 
survival handbook? There are elements of both. But did you have 
one or the other more in mind while editing it?

A: I definitely had both in mind while editing it, as well as 
about a half-dozen other forms -- the personal essay, ethnography, 
how-to's, and others. Young people face a rather total set of 
disorienting circumstances, and I think the variety of forms in 
which writers submitted to the collection indicates there's no 
solid consensus on how best to approach the situation. I think we 
could use some good manifestos right about now -- I'm a fan of the 
form -- but there's a real danger of abstracting too far away from 
concrete circumstances. The goal for the collection was to be of 
use in as many ways as possible, whether that's suggesting ways to 
think about the collective struggle for a livable environment and 
workers' dignity, or providing specific ways to start a housing 
co-op or quit your job.

Q: Some contributors express frustration at not being able to find 
interesting work. Three years into a collapsed job market, that 
complaint already sounds a bit dated. Apart from the 
much-discussed option of moving back in with one's parents, what's 
your sense of how people are getting by?

A: It is a dated frustration, and one that goes back further than 
the last three years. American capitalism has always offered 
workers a trade: your obedience in exchange for your freedom. As 
the writer John Berger put it: "selling your life piece by piece 
so as not to die." Job dissatisfaction isn't a new development, 
but this generation was promised otherwise. The historical 
narrative of steady progress and social mobility meant that each 
next generation's life could be more fulfilling -- your 
grandfather was a laborer so your father could be a professional 
so you could be an artist, etc. But it hasn't turned out that way 
at all -- the 21st-century college graduates who were supposed to 
be the teleological end of this chain are the most indebted and 
least employed in history. This has meant a vast majority moving 
back in with parents -- there's a touching essay about that in the 
collection -- and the much-discussed "extended adolescence." 
Besides that, it involves trolling Craigslist for short-term 
contract jobs, living in small spaces with lots of roommates, and 
learning to make instead of buy the things they need. We have a 
couple beautiful flow-chart cartoons by my dear friend Jenna 
Brager charting possible (and painfully realistic) post-graduation 
paths, and they're far more complex than any career ladder.

Q: Well before the recession kicked in, social critics were 
talking about the deep changes in ethos that have accompanied 
shifts in worklife in recent years. The notion of "having a 
career" makes sense if and only if someone has a reasonable 
prospect for stable, long-term employment in some field 
(professional or otherwise) covering the better part of adulthood. 
Now "careerism" seems to have given way to "flexibilism," for want 
of a better term -- the expectation that we will have constantly 
to be acquiring new sets of skills, moving frequently between 
occupations as well as between cities. Isn't it possible that the 
recession is just intensifying this? What's the difference between 
"share or die" and "be flexible or be discarded"?

A: But that's the false choice right there -- being flexible means 
being discarded all the time! The title doesn't just refer to 
material deprivation -- there are forms of social death, and the 
choice "be flexible or be discarded" is one of them. Share or Die 
is about a different choice, the choice to -- if you will -- 
discard the discarders. At the same time, flexibilism primes this 
pump. An Italian friend of mine, Gigi Roggero, has his first book 
in English coming out next month in which he makes a strong 
argument that with the decline of employer loyalty, employee 
loyalty has tanked as well. Job-searching takes up an incredible 
amount of Gen Y's time and energy -- for the employed, unemployed, 
and in-between alike. The challenge now is to take this time and 
energy and use it as a generation to build the infrastructure 
outside and beyond the market. Common resources -- both materially 
(spaces and goods) and immaterially (peer-to-peer networks and 
emotional support structures) -- have much more to offer us than a 
narrowing corporate career ladder and expensive therapists. That 
is, we have more to offer each other.

Q: The term "precariat" has emerged in Europe to name the sector 
of the labor force engaged in this sort of "flexible" work. The 
notion has not exactly caught fire here, even though we have 
precarity aplenty. I take it from your writing elsewhere that you 
have an ongoing concern with currents of social and political 
thought that helped spawn this term. How much of that interest 
informs the book, directly or indirectly?

A: Well, it certainly influenced my introduction and foreword, and 
the way I approached the collection as a whole. But it's not like 
I as an editor told writers they had to be experts on theories of 
the precariat to contribute to the collection. I think young 
people today have an intuitive understanding of a lot of the 
structures and practices of precarity, even if they don't 
necessarily have the vocabulary to describe it. Building that 
collective vocabulary is important to a sense of solidarity or 
shared experience.

I like to think of the relationship between something like Share 
or Die and so-called post-fordist theory (a strand of heterodox 
Marxism focused on terms like "multitude," "the common," and 
precarity) as neither causal nor coincidental. The understanding 
of precarity in the collection doesn't come (mostly) from reading 
about it; it comes from the writers' experience being the 
precariat. Theory coming out of the academy has played an 
important role in Europe in articulating both problems and 
solutions, but considering the degree to which the American 
university system adheres to market logic, I'm skeptical of the 
role it has to play. The best analyses don't come from cloistered 
dissertation research; in Italy, where a lot of this thought is 
coming from, the foundations were developed through workers' 
struggle in the late '70s. Speaking personally, I'd rather see an 
understanding develop outside the Ivory Tower -- practice-oriented 
groups do a much better job coming up with useful formulations and 
distributing them than any group of tenured professors.

Q: Okay, but what about the non-tenured sort? After all, there is 
a huge academic precariat -- not all of it youthful, by any means. 
Somebody entering graduate school now has a far greater chance of 
becoming an adjunct than ever reaching the starting gate for a 
tenure track.

A: Definitely. I believe the number is three out of four classes 
taught by TAs and adjuncts according to Marc Bousquet's great book 
on the topic, How The University Works. There are certainly plenty 
of aged adjuncts, but this was a very recent historical shift, 
mostly occurring within my lifetime, and it overwhelmingly targets 
young people. The academy is about as gerontocratic as it gets 
outside the U.S. Senate.

I'm glad to get the chance to set the record straight on this. 
After I wrote about student loans, I was accused of shilling for 
the professoriat, which I'm sure gave some former professors of 
mine a good laugh. You're completely right, by the numbers, grad 
school (especially, but not just in the humanities) is a con in 
which young people are suckered into doing labor and taking on 
debt to further a system that will ultimately have very little to 
offer most of them. From conversations with peers -- and Jenna has 
a very personal cartoon about this in the collection -- young 
people enroll in grad school for the same reason they join Teach 
for America: it's a predictable and explainable (if not 
comfortable) path where you might even feel a bit wanted or 
special once in a while. No one is more complicit in this 
arrangement than the faculty, who outsource their most laborious 
work to TAs, but aren't much interested in making sure they're 
acknowledged or treated as workers. Instead, junior professors are 
too busy trying to get tenure, and the tenured professors are too 
busy working on journal articles on the history of labor 
organizing that no one outside their small academic sub-clique 
(or, more likely, within it either) will read anyway. Of course 
they'd love to help, but.... The sheer mass of bad faith required 
to keep the gears turning astounds me.

Q: Suppose a baby boomer or Generation X-er reads the book and 
says, "Yeah, this reminds me of when we all tuned in, turned on, 
and dropped out to form that rural commune (vegetarian hiphop 
dumpster-diving collective, etc.) Too bad it didn't work out! But 
then I became a stockbroker (got a job with the Gates Foundation, 
etc.) and found that I preferred having my own pie, rather than 
sharing it. Just wait, the economy will pick up.... You'll see!" 
What reply comes to mind?

A: So you're the bastard who ate all the pie! The truth is, this 
is the worst prolonged employment crisis since the Great 
Depression, something no American Gen X-er or Boomer has 
experienced. And if, by the grace of global warming, we get one 
more generation of plenty (unlikely in not just my estimation), 
then we will find ourselves in the same position as our parents: 
leaving our children with even more debt and even fewer jobs. No 
society can endlessly finance prosperity with debt, no matter how 
many times you sell it back and forth. The student power slogan 
"We are the crisis" -- which has cropped up from Berkeley to Rome 
to Athens -- isn't a threat, it's a reality. A generational debt 
is due; we can pay it with our very lives, stretched across 
decades of precarious work, or find another way to be. The choice 
remains share or die.

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