Alienation in the gig economy

Alienation in the gig economy; or how professionalization ruined everything.

‘ . . . as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.’
– Karl Marx, The German Ideology, 1845 

As the head of a freelancers’ organization puts it, we’re no longer just lawyers, or photographers, or writers. Instead, we’re part-time lawyers-cum-amateur photographers who write on the side.
-Geoff Nunberg, Goodbye Jobs, Hello ‘Gigs’: How One Word Sums Up a New Economic Reality, 2016 

Both these guys are wrong.

In the midst of my employment crisis last winter in America, I tried applying for F***bucks (they didn’t pay me, so why should I advertise their name?). It was a fairly straightforward online application form connected to all the F***bucks across the country; I could apply to all the ones in NYC in a go. And thus get rejected from all the ones in NYC in a go. Why? In a list of banal yes or no questions, one asked something along the lines if I *aspired* to a managerial position. Well of course not, I just wanted to be a barista to pay the rent for the sofa in half a bedroom I was sleeping on in Bed-Stuy: so I clicked ‘no’. Application automatically rejected.

F***bucks only wants to hire you if you openly obey their ideals. At the one fast-food joint where I did get a job, F***bellys (they didn’t pay me enough to advertise them), obeisance to the regime of the Brand was constantly tested. Did you memorize the Brand’s core values? You must smile, the Brand likes it when you smile. Treat the customer as community, since the Brand is about community. Do you not adhere to these ideals? Fired. Now that I’ve been studying coercion under Hafez al-Assad through the lenses of Foucault, the employment culture of America suddenly makes sense.  True obeisance is not about true belief in the ideals: it is about public display of them. As Lisa Wedeen writes on regime cult in Syria: ‘…[the regime] is unconcerned with whether anyone believes the irrational claims of the cult. The cult precludes belief… the Syrian soldiers [/fast-food workers] are being coerced to say something manifestly spurious, which they otherwise would not say. By complying, each soldier demonstrates the regime’s power to dominate him.” Hence, when F***bellys tells me to smile, I smile not because I’ve actually internalized the system; I smile in display of my open obeisance to the system.

When I tried complaining about this to my compatriots, they saw my ramblings as elitist. ‘Of course, that’s work! You can’t have a bad attitude. Then no-one will hire you.’ The fact this is accepted as a given is terrifying. What happened to the good old days of the cranky lady I get my cigarettes from, the angry Jew selling me bagels and complaining about the goat in his living room, the lazy construction workers taking a beer break and cat-calling women? These people are all professionals, are all making an honest living, and most importantly are still human beings who can be themselves in all their humanity at work. This is where I say that refusing to smile to pay the rent is not an elitist opinion. The elimination of personality at work is a recent phenomenon. It is in fact the height of economic alienation.  

Alienation is no longer merely a working class phenomenon. It has reached the highest echelons of traditional intelligentsia employment.

Intern at an artist’s studio! Degree in Art or Art History required [meaning if I do art on the side or if I studied ancient art under a different degree name, I’m disqualified]

Intern at a publishing company! Degree in Publishing, English, or Communications required [meaning if I didn’t study English because I spend 90% of my time reading anyway, I’m disqualified]

Intern at UNHCR! Degree in Journalism or Law required. [how can these two completely different subjects be useful for the same job, yet everything in between useless?]

Volunteer at a film festival! Students in film studies preferred. [what about people who just love film?]

So, as expected, I got none of those unpaid positions for which I spent hours writing cover letters. I apparently don’t have the right qualifications. Nor was an Archaeology degree useful for museum jobs: ‘we’re looking for an applicant with a Museums Studies MA, or an undergrad in Curation’; ‘You can’t just expect to get a job in archiving [which is literally data-basing] without an archiving degree.’ None of these degrees actually prepares anyone for any of these jobs; writing a paper on the Philosophy of Archiving does not make you any better at typing information into a computer.

Yet, increasingly, you are seen as a weirdo for not believing in this system. Many ascribe it to degree inflation. It is in fact much more pernicious that that. As David Graeber theorized with the phenomenon of bullshit jobs, increased professionalization is a systematic way of controlling the population. Individuals can no longer ‘try a little bit here’, ‘a little bit there’; when I tell Americans that’s my plan, they see me as delusional. ‘You have to build up your career, gaining cumulative experience in the same field, without any odd gaps in employment history’.

Whenever I hear a friend who happens hiring manager say ‘we don’t want anyone with a gaps in their cv’, I just burst out: ‘WHY DO YOU WANT A CONFORMIST??’ No gaps means they never went off to go learn a language, live with some tribe, had any psychological breakdown. It means they’re basically a robot. My friend and I might have a discussion, but they’ll end up hiring the conformist, since they make the best employee.

Well have a look at Ernest Hemmingway’s employment history. James Joyce didn’t get a freaking TOEFL certificate to teach English in Zurich. Flinders Petrie revolutionized archaeology by actually being scientific about it, and he didn’t have the PhD all the antiquarians who liked ripping shit out of the ground had.

The new CV system is detrimental to creativity. If Kurt Vonnegut tried to get a job as a car dealer today to sustain his writing, uh-uh, where’s your ten years of uninterrupted retail experience? The ethos is: be a professional writer and make your living off it, or be a professional car dealer. Why in the world would you work in a car dealership if that’s not your profession? I foresee BAs in car dealership in the coming years…

There is much talk of the advent of the ‘gig economy and the freedom it gives for people to explore different avenues of employment whilst pursuing their passions. Indeed, more and more people are taking part time jobs, statistically speaking. This, however, is due to the refusal of big corporations like F***bucks or F***mart to take on full-time employees who would receive benefits. And as I showed above, F***bucks doesn’t want to hire someone who’s just taking this as a ‘gig’. No: it wants someone who aspires to work up the ladder within F***bucks. Somebody who won’t leave F***bucks. Ever. The gig economy exists, but it comes with a prison economy. In Germany, there are already waiter vocational schools. The ethos is supposedly anti-classist: being a waiter is just as noble a profession as being an engineer, and should thus be treated ‘as a profession’. It is this professionalization of gigs that takes away the freedom of the gig, which was its whole point. You can’t be a waiter without a waiting degree. What’s a better way of trapping people in the gig? And what a more classist form of alienation? Waiters will remain waiters, archivists will remain archivists, starving artists will just starve.


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