I originally set out to write a short essay about unemployment and positive psychology. It’s not as if I haven’t written about these things before (like on the eve of Occupy Wall Street), but my return to an unemployed state (“job hunter”) this summer very nearly made me forget something important: the lack of living wage jobs in this country is not a result of me exuding a negative meta-message in my cover letters or not “following my bliss”. In weeding through stories and statistics, I came across Coming Up Short: Working Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, which gave a voice and structure to a lot of the things I had been experiencing, and connected the individualistic message of positive psychology and self-help to the “go it alone” philosophy of neoliberalism. Knowing that going it alone might save your ass in the short-term, but that solidarity and collective action are considered antidotes, I started thinking about my own experiences in leftist movements (including OWS) over the last 15 years. What does it mean to be a working-class person in a movement for change, having everything to lose and only the loose bonds of ideological purity linking you to “the community”? So this is just a starting point. I am looking for collaborators to help build out some of these ideas together.
My Facebook feed is full of friends posting their personality type score and their awe at how spot-on their results were, based on this internet quiz (which is sort of based on Myers-Briggs, but run by Mentiscore Solutions Ltd., a “personality typing” company). I couldn’t sleep the other night so I took the quiz too and learned that I share a personality type with past presidents and other charismatic leaders. My report went on for pages, covering everything from relationships to career to what kind of parent I would be. While Myers-Briggs is apparently a valid and reliable tool for knowing one’s personality type (at least according to Jung’s theory), this particular report generated by Mentiscore was like getting a full astrology reading, tapping into the universal desire to be known and understood, while offering a chance at individual redemption for those suffering from fatigue, unemployment/underemployment, emotional trauma, failed relationships, alienation, etc., through the decidedly unscientific method of self-knowledge. For the low low price of $32.99, Mentiscore will send you a map.
This week I had a moment of clarity similar to that which comes from knowing ones personality type, only it came from checking out Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty by Jennifer M. Silva. Published in August 2013, Coming Up Short looks at how post-industrial working-class adults – no longer defined by the “shop floor” but by the privatized risk inherent to neoliberalism – create therapeutic narratives to give their lives structure and meaning in the absence of traditional markers of adulthood that remain out of their reach (steady job, marriage, house, kids, etc.). The “atomic individualization” of this therapeutic turn to the self only serves to reproduce neoliberalism, argues Silva, as working-class young adults draw sharp boundaries about who is deserving of help and eschew solidarity in favor of a narrative of extreme self-reliance.
I want to go back to this concept of “privatized risk inherent to neoliberalism” because it is important for differentiating the modern “working class” from the previous industrial working class, as well as to make clear the vast differences in opportunity and economic privilege subsumed under the banner of “the 99%” (ie. those who are “not the 1%”). Broadly speaking, neoliberalism is the mode of capitalism that has been dominant in most of the world since the late 20th century, whose main functional attributes are the dismantling of the social safety net, deregulation of markets, dismantling of labor unions, and the privatization of government functions. After the Great Depression, policies were enacted to pool the risk of market insecurity among millions of people by creating some basic protections (Social Security, The Wagner Act, The Glass-Steagall Act, FDIC, the US Housing Authority, etc.). Beginning in the 1980s, neoliberalism as both policy and ideology came to dominate the American psyche, replacing the New Deal social contract with “personal responsibility” (Silva 13):
Since 1973, the real wages of working-class jobs have declined by 12% for those with a high school diploma, and by 26% for those without one (Johnson 2002: 33). Fifty years ago, a third of US employees worked in factories ‘making everything from clothing to lipstick to cars’ (Hagenbaugh 2002)…Today, millions of these jobs have been shipped overseas, leaving about one-tenth of the nation’s 131 million workers employed in manufacturing firms. The American working-class man (the steelworker or the coal-miner) of the postwar generation has experienced a steep decline in employment, job security, compensation, access to pensions, and employer-subsidized health insurance (Cowie 2010; Danzinger and Ratner 2010; Wilson 1997). His twenty-first century counterparts have been displaced to the service economy –as cashiers, office clerks, cooks, retail workers, or customer service representatives– where they are poorly paid, vulnerable to layoffs, and much more likely to be female (Barich and Bielby 1996; US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010; Weis 2004).
Today, “privatized risk” means that individuals must each take personal responsibility for their economic futures or failures. While many people within “the 99%” are able to share and mitigate their own privatized risk through college funds, trust funds, cultural capital, professional networks, family support for unpaid internships and research trips, being on their parents’ health insurance plans, gifts of rent and cars, and shared knowledge of institutions and finances, these often invisible perks of growing up middle-class or better are not dished out based on individual merit. Those unlucky enough to not be born into such a situation must fund their own education without the guarantee of a job at the end, accept a variety of precarious work situations (temping, flexible scheduling, and contracting, especially in the service sector), access only short-term forms of unemployment and welfare insurance, and incur personal debt at a high rate of interest to pay for medical bills, car repairs, food, shelter, or any other such extravagant need that may arise during a lapse in employment or from simply not making a living wage. These individuals can choose to gamble on a GED or high school diploma alone, aspiring to predictably poorly-paid service or labor jobs, but no student debt. Or they can choose to double down on a degree, aspiring to an uncertain professional career while financing tens of thousands of dollars a year for at least four years. But they cannot choose to share the risk when their families are unable to do so. The degree to which an individual must privatize the risk is directly related to their class position.