Nothing threatens capitalism’s best excuse for itself — that it is the economic system best suited to individual liberty and human flourishing — more than unemployment. Unemployed people don’t flourish; they stagnate. Typically, no one seems to particularly care about these superfluous people. Because they often disproportionately come from society’s marginal or minority groups, they are more easily scapegoated as lazy and/or ignorant and thus ultimately incapable of really flourishing anyway. Policy elites get away with blaming joblessness on the jobless even as those surplus workers compose a strategically useful “reserve army of the unemployed” to maintain workforce discipline and keep wages down.
Apologists for neoliberalism, the regime of deregulation and corporate globalization that has been ascendant since the 1980s and has transformed relations between employers and employees, have long prescribed the acquisition of “skills” in higher education to solve stubborn unemployment: Get an education and you won’t end up on society’s trash heap. But the recent recession has broadened unemployment beyond its usual blue-collar confines. The overall unemployment rate is holding steady despite the recovery in corporate profits and equity markets, and more and more college graduates are getting to experience the joys of joblessness, many of them saddled with student-loan debt from the ever more exorbitant cost of that requisite degree. As Mike Konczal has pointed out,from December 2007 to September 2010, the unemployment rate for college-educated 20- to 24-year-olds went from 3.4 percent to 9.6 percent, the largest ratio increase during the recession. In Britain, the figures are worse: unemployment for recent graduates reached 20 percent in the third quarter of 2010, more than twice as high as the rate for the U.K. as a whole.
Ivor Southwood has experienced that nightmare personally and has chronicled his postgraduate serial-temping limbo in Non-Stop Inertia, an attempt to theorize the usefulness of unemployment to the existing order and the social ramifications of the omnipresent threat of joblessness. During the recession, some Pollyannas went so far as to deny the very possibility that the young and educated can reallybe unemployed — remember “funemployment”? Southwood offers a stark corrective to that view, detailing the series of demoralizing encounters he has with human-resources departments and callous temp-agency functionaries who make his irrelevance palpable. Without the routines of regular work, he becomes plagued with self-doubt and feels ordinary human hopefulness slip away from him. Under neoliberalism, he argues,
Work is no longer a secure base, but rather a source of anxiety and indignity, both a matter of life and death and utterly meaningless, overwhelming and yet so insubstantial it could run through our fingers. It is normal to feel under threat and undervalued, to feel snivellingly grateful to have a job, any job. We must be sure not to take work for granted and yet be willing to be taken for granted ourselves.
As always, capitalism offers workers an unpalatable if not impossible choice: They need socially useful work to fulfill their capabilities as human beings, but the terms offered by capitalist firms are often intolerable. The current form this intolerableness takes is what some left labor theorists have labeled precarity, a miasmic awareness of one’s economic vulnerability that is “artificially maintained, while being presented as inevitable, just a fact of life.” Southwood ably delineates the concept in Non-Stop Inertia’s succinct and accessible theoretical chapters. Under the pretense that insecurity is in fact a form of freedom, neoliberal policies of deregulation and trade liberalization have made it easier for employers to make employees carry more of the burden of enterprise risk.
Management discourse attempts to pass this off as beneficial dynamism, mobility, even liberation for workers — we are free to be our own bosses and run our lives like a small business, becoming a boot-strapping entrepreneurial hero. But as Southwood points out, it’s more like an endless audition for a bit part. This is not merely a matter of employee competence; often the requisite skills are easily acquired and demonstrated. Instead, it means showing a knack for winning bosses’ approval and seeming like a “team player” by being pleasant and reflexively cooperative, suppressing one’s natural character in order to appear unremittingly congenial. After all, when a boss can tell you, at any point and for no apparent reason, “This isn’t working out,” you must be extra careful not to attract unwanted attention by having too strong a personality.
Insecure work, by embodying post-Fordist immiseration in concentrated form, reveals the impossible things capitalism requires of all of us, and the new problems it confronts in reproducing itself ideologically. With sustenance-level existence and unemployment insurance grudgingly guaranteed (at least in principle) for most people in prosperous nations, the threat of starvation, once capitalism’s stand-by goad, is no longer as powerful a coercive threat. Thus Britain’s system for providing unemployment benefits, in Southwood’s analysis, mandates a series of humiliating bureaucratic hoops and retraining workshops that try to warp the unemployed into craven “jobseekers.” Unemployed graduates find themselves in the baffling and disheartening position of being “overeducated,” having committed the wasteful indulgence of seeking learning for personal enrichment rather than exploitable skills. Describing his own dealings with temp services, Southwood explains how for recruiters, “skills are valued over knowledge. Non-vocational qualifications are almost a liability, unless they are emptied of content; a degree in literature is valued not for its evidence of critical thought but because it shows that the applicant has word processing experience.” Such experiences with bureaucracy eventually wear your resistance down, he argues, and eventually you come to conform with the assumptions it makes about you: that unemployment is your own fault, and until you jettison the self-sabotaging pretenses to dignity, you will continue to be a failure.
The increasing mediation of everyday life has also supplied new levers with which to motivate workers, offering fresh ways to create shame and fear of social exclusion. As more economic production has become “immaterial” — that is, manufacturing experiences, entertainment, status symbols, brands, etc., as well as the tangible goods themselves — scarcity has become immaterial as well, turning into a vague yet unshakable sense that one could always be more well-liked, could garner more attention, could have more influence, could be cooler, healthier, better. This sort of anxiety can be used to help rationalize precarity as a form of opportunity, as the solution to problems of self-actualization: The new world of work lets people participate in more proactive and “creative” ways that showcase their individuality rather than their ability to perform a job function. But as Southwood points out, this ceaseless self-presentation takes a psychological toll. Having to enact a falsely tolerant self that placidly absorbs the indignities of precarity means we live out the system’s contradictions and transmute them internally, taking on all the stress of the cognitive dissonance that entails.
Drawing on the work of sociologist Arlie Hochschild, Southwood highlights the emotional labor, “the daily tasks of emotional fission” that current job-market conditions prompt us to perform, “the ambivalence … piercing our most mundane gestures with ridiculous unspoken fear, and the immense energy involved in splitting our real selves off from our work identities.” This, above and beyond any stultifying and menial tasks workers are assigned, is what renders the contemporary workplace so corrosive. It constitutes the “non-stop inertia” of Southwood’s title, the “frenetic inactivity” of “continual anxious self-surveillance” that keeps us too preoccupied to develop wider political or social concerns.
Social media manages to launder some of that self-scrutiny so that we experience it as narcissistic identity play. But that only partially disguises how much of our “sharing” and “liking” is obliquely implicated in the now perpetual process of résumé burnishing and interviewing, which warrants an ongoing “micromanagement of feeling,” as Southwood puts it. The self-employed and the on-demand temp can’t afford to wall off the search for work from their social life. Southwood depicts a world in which “self-marketing is just another administrative task, employment involves fitting multiple differently shaped assignments into every available gap, and there is no real beginning or end to the working day.”
The need to be constantly grooming oneself, for instance, undergirds the popularity of online social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook, which allow us to demonstrate a willingness to play the game of maintaining connections and dutifully performing the supportive gestures of linking and liking without posting anything insensitive, politically egregious, or remotely controversial. Crafting ourselves within the networks’ confines helps equip us to be suitably quiescent and cooperative employees in any office, able to fit in without becoming a distraction. The offices themselves, Southwood notes, have become as featureless and provisional as the jobs. They are, he argues, nonplaces akin to airports and shopping malls — institutional spaces designed to reinforce the contrived affect employers now require: superficial, opportunistic, distracted, and quietly desperate.
Southwood’s account of precarity is vivid and well theorized, pinning a name on a familiar condition that can easily elude clear definition. But having painted the emotional ramifications of precarity so grimly, he offers remedies that seem inadequate, well out of proportion with the magnitude of the problem. Seeking a way “to articulate negation in a culture from which negativity itself has been banished,” he argues that we should disrupt workplace virtuosity by giving our acting a Brechtian turn, making our adherence to employers’ expectations strange, hypercorrect. Noting Hochschild’s example of stewardesses who try to protect their inner emotional integrity by “separating public image from private identity while trying to avoid guilt at feeling insincere,” Southwood suggests workers take this approach a step further and make it a “form of oppositional communication.” In the “ideological theatre of employment” we can orchestrate aVerfremdungseffekt that calls attention to the “economic and cultural construction” of workplace roles. In other words, we can try to fight alienation with more alienation, deploying inscrutable sarcasm to conform to expectations and mock them at the same time. Instead of frenetic non-stop inertia, try absent presence, passive negation, camp authenticity or some other semi-oxymoronic tactic.
Southwood concedes that these suggestions are less than revolutionary. But the paltriness of “finding a language of opposition” in the face of the institutional and global economic forces shaping neoliberalism serves only to make the oppressive system seem even more monolithic and insurmountable, virtually unopposeable on any but symbolic grounds. And it’s not entirely clear whether we would better off with more pseudo-selves to juggle. There’s some danger that the ironic subjectivity we adopt to nettle our bosses could spill over into our private life, which, after all, is already increasingly inseparable from work life. Southwood concludes by urging us to “resist the pressure to go with the flow,” but it’s possible that flow is precisely what we lack, that neoliberalist subjectivity forces on us too much reflexivity, self-consciousness, and role playing. By seizing opportunities to estrange ourselves from our work roles, we may find ourselves archly going through the motions in all aspects of our everyday life, at a contemplative distance from our friends, lovers, and even our own talents, all the passions in which we would ideally lose ourselves.