Some of our readers may have noticed that Mark has been bearing the lion’s share of work with posts on our blog. He covered Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize, posted a review of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, and more recently gave us a multi-viewed perspective on the Rob Ford debacle (some of his best stuff, yet!). I think the last thing I posted was an article on Egypt and the fall of Morsi… has it been that long?
The thing is, I got a job. After finishing my doctoral degree, I became part of that 96% of candidates from Canadian doctoral programs who couldn’t find permanent work in Academia. Yes, you read that right. 96% of Canadian doctoral candidates are unable to turn their degree into a position in a Canadian post-secondary institution. I don’t want to dwell too much on this, because there have been a billion posts around the interweb bemoaning the state of the job market for academics. It sucks. It really does. “nuff said.
What I have found more fascinating with my shift to the private sphere has been the quality of changes that took place in my thinking as I moved from the protected walls of the university to the harsh realities of the post-2008 job market. I gotta say, I hit that job market with all the idealism of a country bumpkin newly dumped from the turnip truck. I was armed with a strong set of values, and a deep suspicion of the market and anything that stank of capital. You have to understand, I came out of Japanese studies which has has been strongly influenced by Marxist intellectuals over the past few decades. I was happy to follow everyone’s lead. The thing is no one ever asked me if I believed in the things Marx was saying. It was just assumed that he was right, and I took up the assumption, because I respected the hell out of my professors. I mean, these were some sharp thinkers. And so I had my love affair with Marx. I think I even announced at one point, I would become an orthodox Marxist! I look back at this moment and cringe.
I still love Marx, but now he sits in my head like the memories of past lovers, and I was a serial monogamist. I had my time with Marx. I had a brief fling with Michel Foucault. A tryst with Kant. A relationship that went bad with Jean Baudrillard, and a one night stand with Slavoj Zizek. I even did some casual dating with Alain Badiou, but he kept talking about himself, and that got old quick. My longest relationship was with Gilles Deleuze – such a tempestuous philosophical amour. We still keep in touch, but I’m married now. I found my true love, and it was the world itself, a world that told me if I’m going to make my way, I’m going to have to rely on my own thoughts and experiences, and not strictly on what others have to say about them.
The thing is, the moment I stepped into the world, I found myself confronted with one horrifying fact that I tried deny my entire time as a grad student: when it comes to capitalism, there really is no outside.
This is a relatively old nugget put forward in 2000 by two contemporary theorists, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. In a nutshell they argued that since the collapse of the Eastern Block in 1989 capitalism has coded itself over all past political and economic forms. It has become the monarch of reality itself, and has latched itself onto all our desires, our perceptions, or ways of thinking until it has become impossible to think an alternative to capitalism, because all our assumptions are predicated on its logic. I used to think this wasn’t true. I used to think this was horribly reductive.
Then I stepped out into the job market, and discovered I was the thing being overcoded and I had no choice. Not if I wanted to eat, and live, and breathe. Goodbye, Lenin. Hello monthly salary.
Yup, I’m in the private sector now, because there really aren’t any other options. The public sector is almost wholly privatized, and those parts that are still holding onto their socialist ideals, are being squeezed dry (libraries, schools, government administration). There is no money to go round for them anymore. It’s been eaten up by the lords of austerity. Now, I work as a director of a relatively small tutoring firm, and my day involves trying to convince parents to invest in our programming because we will take care of the education of their child. Luckily, our center houses an astounding teaching staff, and the owner of the center is not a money grubbing Gordon Gekko wannabe spouting “greed is good.” He actually believes in what we’re doing, and is happy to share the wealth.
Yet, I still remember my conversations with Marx while we were together. I can hear him inside me screaming his criticisms. “This is pure exploitation,” he tells me scratching his scraggly beard. “You are taking advantage of a compromised education system, and making money off of its failures. You are a vampire sucking profit from the real fears of parents.” Every time a kid fails his algebra test and goes home with his head hanging low, his confidence shot, we’re there. Every time some young girl gets pulled out of class to join the “dumb kids” in LAC (Learning Assistance Classes), we get a boost in sales. We are predators on the worried and the weak in the field of education.
These are the criticisms that run daily in my head, but I have learned to dissolve their power by considering one single question that I and my website colleagues, Mark and James, asked ad nauseum while we were in the midst of our doctoral degrees. It was a question to which we never received a satisfactory answer. It was a question that punctured the blustering and posturing of intellectuals on both sides of the political spectrum. It was the question that got us to put together this website, and it is the question that plagues me now more than ever.
So what’s the alternative?
I think it has taken a step away from academics into the private sphere for me to develop the beginnings of an answer. In the post-89 world, there is no outside to capital. We just have to accept this. Fine. But! There are small variations that can be worked within the confines of its mechanisms. One of these has to do with the nature of the market. I have discovered that the market can be excessively useful in promoting services that wouldn’t exist otherwise (no big surprise there). The reason our small, but successful tutoring center can pull the parents in is because we actually do help kids in ways that a public system simply can’t. Classrooms are too huge to allow for individualized teaching. We can provide this because we get paid per student. The market provides its solution. Teachers in the public system don’t have the time or resources to invest in pedagogical research to determine the best models for addressing the needs of kids (though most teachers know their shit backwards and forwards because they tend to work above and beyond the call of duty). We can, because the market gives us the time and resources to pay people to do this work. Plus,there is a market incentive. Investing in research makes us better at what we do, and that means more referrals. In the end, the market provides where the public system fails. The thing is, though, the two systems have to be working in conjunction with each other. It’s not an either/or scenario. Here is where I stick to my socialist guns.
But I’m thinking we should take this relationship and push it one step further.
Looked at from another perspective we could say that market logic is not monolithic. There is not one all seeing market with its invisible hand and uniform reasoning. There are a variety of market logics out there, and a variety of worlds they create. Like Rob Ford, the market is multi-valent. The trick, as I see it now, is to bend those valences to create another world.
At work I have noticed at least two different markets that are operative. There is the market that can work to manage public services (and what service isn’t in the end a public one?). It requires we use it as a system to organize our desire to work and contribute to the society around us. The ideal is that if we work hard, and try to provide the best services possible, then the market will return the favor by granting us a growing clientele. The moment I start pushing product for the sake of maximizing profits is the moment the whole market transforms. It becomes another system altogether. The moment I start preying on parental fears, looking to maximize their anxiety to increase their investments, is the moment we stop being an effective educational institution. Because when profits become the only focus, product becomes a hindrance. When product becomes a hindrance, we become a detriment and not a benefit to the community around us.
We have to begin thinking these two markets as two completely different systems. In doing so, we can begin cultivating the aesthetic and subjective material needed to put the market reality we want into place. We need to begin building the subjectivities that will people the market we want rather than assuming the market will create the subjective material that will best suit our reality. Here is where I sound my most Maoist. “How do we do so?” someone might ask, “through state centralization?” Do we create training camps for the bourgeoisie? Do we get them in touch with ‘the people’ by sending them down to work in labor camps? I would answer by putting it this way: I can’t run my center properly and effectively if I’m not in the trenches with my teachers. The teaching floor is my work camp, and I willingly go there, because I will not understand the real quality of teacher complaints and suggestions if I don’t have an equivalent experience inside me helping to act as frame of reference. This isn’t Maoist ideology. This is just what good managers and administrators do. If I don’t do this, my teachers will resent me, because my adjustments will not be informed by their experience. Our students will suffer, because at some point my disjunction with the ground level workings of my center will create chaos. Eventually, that disjunction will grow until it becomes a dialectical relationship of managers vs. workers. We end up fighting each other based on the subjective roles that our differences have created. In this I disagree with most Marxists (or those that follow too closely to Jean-Paul Sartre’s “dialectical reason”) – the dialectic comes after our actions. It is not the logic upon which action is based.
At the same time, I would make a distinction between discord and the dialectic (most obviously expressed through class antagonism). Discord and disagreement are the life-source of a healthy economic and political system. A good democracy is one in which people shout at each other until they are red in the face, because they care. A good economy is one in which people fight to make the best world possible. Class antagonism is that which emerges when discord is turned into resentment. When I get into the trenches with my teachers, our mutually informed experiences will create discord for the simple reason that everyone’s experiences will be different. We will argue and fight about the best possible practice to suit the students. But it will be a creative discord. The center becomes better as a whole. Antagonism, on the other hand, emerges when we stop regarding ourselves as players in the same game. When our titles become the stamp of our opinion, and I become a “Manager,” and they become “Teachers,” is the moment when we begin playing our arguments out based on our roles rather than our intentions.
Let me make myself clear, when I say we all have our differing experiences, I am not promoting a social system based on values around liberal individualism. I am talking about the continual promise that abides in the heart of the radical element we all are. There will be no resolution to our discord, because we are all radicals in spite of ourselves. This is just who we are. That radicality is as permanent as death, because its discord is the voice of death. Our job is to listen, react, and act. How we act, and who we become in that action is perfectly up to us. We can turn inward in acts of narcissism to create a marketized reality in which everyone fights for their own benefit and our reality comes crashing down on top of us. We can turn discord into resentment that justifies the creation of categories used to justify the mass isolation (and sometimes violent obliteration) of large segments of a population. Or we can displace ourselves, abandon narcissism and violent categories of class, race, or gender to turn the market into a tool to create reality itself – the best form of that reality. I join my workers not because I want to bridge a terrible gap between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. I join my workers, because I don’t care about myself or my place in the world. I am not a category or identity. I work. And in my work I care more about the cultivation and creation of this thing that is outside of myself that is the world. My lifelong lover – the world itself!
I join my workers, because the world is the thing we all have in common, and it is an infinitely malleable thing. We create parts of it when we listen to each other. Creation is the thing that happens between people, not in spite of them. My hope is that a world will emerge from this space of conflict in-between. I look forward to the day when I will come upon the world as an old friend, my old lover, and see myself in its eyes. I will hardly recognize myself, not because my love will have transformed me, but because my love of work, of creating, of collaborating with others, and my refusal to back down from a good fight amidst that collaboration – was the thing that changed the world itself.
I will hardly know myself in this world, because it will be beyond anything I know now. It will be, finally, an outside beyond the horizon of all my known possibilities.
One thought on “What Happened When I Got a Job.”
Some wonderful insight in this post, I really appreciated it. It’s far too complex a work to be responded to in one comment, but I wanted to just throw out a couple of points to further the conversation. This is precisely the kind of thinking that this website was designed to promote and further, so I really appreciated it.
First, I read this post as your attempt to come to terms with some of the basic realities that structure our world- realities that we are by and large immune to when we are still in school, especially PhD studies with its interminable end dates. The most glaring and iron-clad of those realities is, of course, the pervasiveness of the market as a force in our lives. As you so eloquently put it:
“The thing is, the moment I stepped into the world, I found myself confronted with one horrifying fact that I tried deny my entire time as a grad student: when it comes to capitalism, there really is no outside.
This is a relatively old nugget put forward in 2000 by two contemporary theorists, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. In a nutshell they argued that since the collapse of the Eastern Block in 1989 capitalism has coded itself over all past political and economic forms. It has become the monarch of reality itself, and has latched itself onto all our desires, our perceptions, or ways of thinking until it has become impossible to think an alternative to capitalism, because all our assumptions are predicated on its logic. I used to think this wasn’t true. I used to think this was horribly reductive.”
And this really is the core reality that we need to confront. Our frustration with “Marxist” academics is predicated on the inherent hypocrisy of their own lives. It’s easy to critique the capitalist system as fundamentally destructive when you have life-time job security at 140k a year in the last bastion of publicly-funded social democracy available in society: the university.
The Marxist academic critique loses its meaning for two reasons. One, there is nothing at stake here for these academics. They critique the system and then go back to taking their iron-clad salaries from the very states they claim are supporting the system they are against. If you really think revolution is the best path forward, then go enact it. Otherwise, stop telling all of us to enact it when you don’t have the political commitment or knowledge to do so.
Second, there is never ever an alternative that is presented. Where is the actual political plan that people are supposed to get behind that will lead to a society that is both qualitatively better for all and non-capitalist? Even Zizek, at the end of his “First time Tragedy, Second time Farce…” ends his work with mutterings about a politics of radical equality, but it’s never outlined how such a politics could be brought into being, or what concrete policy steps the state or its people should take in order to enact it.
You can’t make a systemic critique without a systemic solution. And if you can’t explain, clearly, why communism would be better than what we have now, then you have to come to terms with the fact that, despite its inequalities and its cyclical crises, the market-world is all we have. And then the task becomes to create a more equal, just, humane society out of that market-world. In a sense, we then become reformist, social-democrats: i.e. we try to find ways to make a human and decent society whose mode of economic production is a capitalist one.
Which brings me to the heart of your post, which is how we can build a better world by working within the market, finding those grooves and contours within it that will complement public (i.e. social democratic) institutions. Your warning to us that the market is not monolithic is an important one. For example, the educational services you provide are an inherently good product- one on one educational support for students is a great thing. It’s something that even the most sophisticated and well-funded of public education systems couldn’t come close to providing.
Yet of course there are arguably far more destructive, exploitative parts of market reality- the fashion industry and its sweat-shopped labor, real-estate development and its systematic pricing out of the non-rich from urban areas- that are much harder to see the public benefits of.
And amidst all of this there is always the profit-motive that needs to be kept in check, unless it veers out of control and starts producing predatory practices. As you put it:
“The ideal is that if we work hard, and try to provide the best services possible, then the market will return the favor by granting us a growing clientele. The moment I start pushing product for the sake of maximizing profits is the moment the whole market transforms. It becomes another system altogether. The moment I start preying on parental fears, looking to maximize their anxiety to increase their investments, is the moment we stop being an effective educational institution”
Unfortunately, as we know, it is in the very nature of for-profit companies to “start pushing product for the sake of maximizing profits.” And this is where Marx is still relevant- you can almost hear him say that the logic of capital (the profit motive) is such that it will always produce predatory practices that will, in the end, create bubbles and lead to crises of great social damage.
So even though we can create a more benign market, the underlying logic on which it is predicated is such that it is always at risk of turning over into the predatory and the unjust in the name of profit.
So how do we manage that structural problem? The only thing we really have is the regulatory power of the state, whose juridical arms can be used to (hopefully) keep the worst excesses of capitalist greed in check (i.e. by demanding minimum wage, unemployment insurance, minimum capital requirements for too big to fail banks).
But there’s no magic bullet answer here. And given the absence of an alternative- i.e. a road to communism from the late-capitalist “paradise” we find ourselves in today- we all have to content ourselves with social-democratic vigilance.
Finally, your emphasis on building new subjectivities is absolutely correct. How can we get people to not indulge in predatory lending practices, in exploitative attitudes to their workers, in tax evasion and a refusal to support social programs? We need to fashion subjects in our society that would never ever consent to such violence. We need to create people who will reign in the worst excesses of market-life as a matter of course, as a part of the human nature they have internalized. As you so eloquently put it:
“We need to begin building the subjectivities that will people the market we want rather than assuming the market will create the subjective material that will best suit our reality”
We can change people’s views, their values, their entire modes of being. Aesthetics is one way. Public discourse and the media are another. So is academia and teaching (which is the good part of the academy, the one that still gives it a political edge). And finally public policy can help.
The task of building progressive subjectivities is perhaps the great, unfulfilled work of the 21st century. So how can we go about doing so? Let’s think on that.
Great post Sean. Write me back with more and let’s continue the conversation.