In Which We Get Depressed By Looking at Graphs

I had a shitty day at work. Now you're gonna hear about it.

Work is always shitty because it's not what I want to do. What I want to do I can't get paid for, and anorexic bohemians and dharma bums aside, it means I have a day job. My day job could be worse, in fact, its probably the best job I've ever had. But this doesn't change the fact that it is not what I want to.

And what I want to do does not include selling my hand-blown glass bongs, or visiting monasteries, or anything like that.

What I want to do has changed a bit over the years, but it has always involved producing.

At first I wanted to teach philosophy, and I went to school for this. I finished school for this. I didn't earn a PhD, so now I can't teach for this, but I did get a Master's Degree, which means absolutely shit.

Here's a graph of median incomes and employment rate against education level, from BLS. I cribbed it from Calculated Risk, my #1 source for graphs.

Well, that's depressing. I have the third highest grossing education level, but my average weekly pay is less than the median for high school graduates. Furthermore, I write two checks a month to banks, because I went and got educated. Goddamn, when I think what I could do with $1200 a week. I could buy a house. I could get a new car. I could work half the year. I could save money. For what? I don't know. Something really good. I could even afford to have a kid if I wanted to.

I stopped moving down the "teach philosophy" road, because I had idiotically entered grad school under the assumption that unlike undergrad, grad students would actually be interested in the material for reasons bigger than the "I own this knowledge" possessive approach, or the "I want to succeed for succeeding sake" professional approach. Maybe, like me, they would think the critical power of philosophy should be turned into a massive engine, swinging around the direction of education and the human species in general, and maybe even breaking a few chains while we were at it.

Actually, most of them weren't even very good at drinking, though this was something they claimed they really were good at.

Not that I am opposed to a little hard work. I've always been ready to take up a challenge, argue the underdog position, etc. And since I decided to quit academia and fight it out on my own, I think maybe I am a bit too interested in hard work. What I really dislike is willful lack of desire to make a difference. This is all over the academy. Education is a sinking, sinking ship, and nobody cares. Activism is for causes only--and higher education can't fathom causality any further than what it takes to gain acceptance.

So now I'm off, writing on my own. When I got here, I was wondering if I should even go for it. But now as I see all these other people out doing it on their own, I'm more motivated. I guess I'm not the only one, right? I'm not totally crazy to want to do what I want to do--to make high quality material, and maybe earn a living doing so.

I guess. Until it seems "earning a living" is itself crashing.

Perhaps it's still my fault, for some sort of optimist's idiocy, thinking that some sort of labor conditions might be possible under which those of us who are actually willing and able band together, and make something under our own control, and distribute it to interested and thankful folks. It's starting to look like the only people who can actually get this together are Food Not Bombs. Food Not Bombs may not be able to cook too well, but every time I've ever been told they were going to be somewhere, they were, with absolutely free, and often hot food. Delivering on the promise, every time.

I was reading this book review in BookForum about Andrew Ross' new book about the failures of neoliberalism in the work world. This part caught me:

"Under neoliberal economic rule, Ross maintains, a perverse trickle-up dynamic has taken hold: Contingency and upheaval have spread upward from low-skill, low-wage labor sectors in the global economy. The condition he describes as “precarity” now cuts widely across class, occupational, and geographic divides. What differs is how it is experienced: as freedom and autonomy in a subcontracting biotechnology lab or as “flexploitation” in a sneaker factory. In this new set of labor arrangements, Ross argues, the artists, designers, writers, and performers of the “creative class” occupy a “key evolutionary niche on the business landscape.” Casual labor is now commonplace in glamorous or highly paid creative fields, from filmmaking to software design. Such well-rewarded occupational niches have doubled as virtual infomercials for the cool, humane, and service-driven appeal of neoliberal economies as industrial capital has continued to take flight. “Cultural work was nominated as the new face of neoliberal entrepreneurship,” Ross notes, “and its practitioners were cited as the hit-making models for the intellectual property jackpot economy.”

Oddly enough, Ross points out, “the demand for flexibility originated not on the managerial side but from the laboring ranks themselves,” most notably as part of the “revolt against work” that plagued managers in the early ’70s. To alleviate workforce anomie, managers drew employees into the decision-making process, made work schedules more flexible, and sought to liven up alienating workplaces with a range of feel-good activities. But these came at a price, Ross notes, as managers introduced greater job risk while casualizing the basic terms of work.

As industrial employment continued to hightail it to points south of the developed Western world, this “two-handed tendency” remained in place, Ross writes, reaching its “apotheosis in the New Economy profile of the free agent, when the youthful . . . were urged to break out of the cage of organizational work and go it alone as self-fashioning operatives, outside the HR umbrella of benefits, pensions and steady merit increases.” Risk aversion had been the old economy’s fatal flaw. Risk appetite was the new economy’s badge of virtue."

And you know, it's true. Reading about the graphic arts industry, or the writing industry, or any other "creative" industry, you get all these people talking (and no doubt, blogging) about how it's hard to "go it alone" as a freelancer, but in the end, "totally worth it." Of course, they can do it, no problem. Because they were so creative in the first place.

This is the thing--we think we've let the air out of the oneupmanship, the individualist corporate hierarchy, the big mountain of caterpillars climbing other caterpillars. But really, its been so solidified, nobody even realizes it. Why are you a "creative"? Because YOU are so creative. Why are you making it? Because YOU are making it. Because YOU know the secret to viral literature, design, or whatever your creative skill set happens to me. Everybody is just so damn creative, all the time. And they are fighting each other for the freelance money thrown out like corn to chickens.

I often find myself refusing to take part. I'm not one to stand in lines. I wait until everyone else has gone in, and then I go. If there is limited admission, then I get there early enough to beat the line. If I can't get there early enough, then fuck it.

Why is this the way it is? Are there really already so many people on earth that talented people can't make a living at what their talent? Or is our system of making a living totally fucked? Whatever happen to the unions? Say what you want about technology, the definition of a living wage, strikebreaking, or the five day work week, but what ever happened to the spirit of collectivity? They used to break unions on race and nationality, because it took deep-seated self hatred to break the collectivity. Now they just tell you you're an individual.

You're so talented, you are better than all the rest.
You're work is so much better, you have nothing in common with them.
You're creative, you're different than the workers who are guaranteed payment for time and effort.
You're unique, and don't need a union.
You have potential, and you could get rich, so don't worry about heath care or retirement.

People always think unions are for the lowest, the greatest common denominator. The people who break rocks with their hands are the ones who need unions. The anybody and everybody who can't get anything better, who need to be protected just like the old need medicare.

Well, they do need unions. But unions are for talented people too. Skilled laborers, they used to call them. People who work, but work creatively.

I've been watching the second season of The Wire, and it has got me wanting to be a longshoreman. Those guys, they are in a dying industry, feeling the push of technology on one shoulder, and condo developers on the other. But despite that, they never think about deserting the collectivity of the union.

It's not even about the union itself, or the bargaining, or the organization (though benefits would be nice). It's about the work itself. It's about working on something and putting real effort into something and know it's not all for nothing. It's about knowing you have a place to work every morning, and a supply chain into which to put your product. It's about knowing quality is appreciated, and not just tolerated. Maybe you can get these things on your own. But most likely, you don't.

I wish there was a local writer's union. I wish I could apply for membership, show them what I've got, and then they could say, "You're in. Here's your card, and we'll call when we've got work." Or they might say "Beat it, pal. And don't let us catch you scabbing, neither." That's fine. Then I'd amble on down to the next union I've got some skills for, and see if I can earn a living at that. Instead, I feel like one of the horde of potential miners standing outside the gate, wondering if chance will let my family eat or not. Everyone's so supportive of everyone trying to be creative, but they're only going to give you a little bit of generalized "support", not anything that will really help. Because after all, this is a competition. Any maybe, when it comes down to it, they can't really give it anyway.

I put my work on the Internet, and at least a few people look at it, so thank goodness for that. Kind of like digging a bit of coal out of my own backyard. Otherwise I might be holding people at knife point in the park and forcing them to read my essays, which is probably not the best place to win readership.

That's for free, of course. I don't have a problem with that. Many people don't. Maybe everything will be free, eventually, and business will become a niche at best. I can dig it. But I hope real estate, food, and medicine hurry up and catch up with the creative industries. I'm hungry.

The union better call soon, or I'm never going to finish this goddamn novel.

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