In the last entry I explored the exploitative heart of our current world-system. I showed how the underbelly of capitalism is so far removed from the ordinary experiences of average citizens in developed nations that aspects of life in some less developed nations can look downright post-apocalyptic. But I also argued that these seeming disruptions or interruptions of capitalism are the ordinary functioning of the system. In so doing, I was trying to represent real or “developing-world” problems both abroad and even inside the heartland of America. In this entry, I want to expose the dystopian aspects of the first world. I want to show the end product of all that global effort and demonstrate that even this putative utopia has fissures, which expose unsustainable facets of the current world-order. In particular, in this post I want to showcase some “First-World-Problems” or micro-dystopias and explore their amplification or extrapolations.
The expression “first world problems” (#firstworldproblems) emerged in 1990s Canadian alterna-rock and was spread as an internet meme via Tumblr, Twitter, & Reddit until its eventually quasi-petrification in a Weird Al song (see Know Your Meme). The phrase is used to ironically suggest a problem produced by privilege or a bourgeois triviality that makes us sad, such as “my HD TV takes too long to turn on” or “there is too much goat cheese in my goat cheese salad.” The meme often appears with an image macro originating from a stock photo of a model looking sad as though undercutting the seriousness of the statement. So it might seem that the existence of this trope means that the first world is utopian. After all, if the only thing you have to complain about is wifi reception and finding a parking place then life must be pretty good.
But actually I’ll argue that First World Problems are just the most trivial examples of a particular form of alienation that I’ll call micro-dystopias, by which I mean the subtle structural sources of unhappiness that undermine seemingly utopian lifeworlds.[iii] Indeed one could describe a continuum of micro-dystopias starting with first world problems (like “I have too many credit cards in my wallet and it hurts my ass when I sit down”) leading to increasingly serious instances of microaggression (such as “I’m Thai-American and people keep asking me to read Chinese characters” to “I’m Sikh and so I always get extra screenings at the airport”) to occupational sexism (such as gender asymmetries in wages) and on up to the even more dangerous forms of structural racism and homophobia that can literally lead to wrongful death or imprisonment (#blacklivesmatter). Hence attaining middle class status is not in itself a panacea for minoritized groups.
To be totally clear, there is a huge distance between “My new iPhone won’t fit in my BMW cup holder” and “I keep being mistaken for a cleaning lady because I’m Latina” and an even greater distance between either of these forms of angst and excessive police violence against people of color. But my main point is that the existence of #firstworldproblems hints at the cracks in even the world of (white) privilege. It would appear paradise is not paradise at all. To put this differently, in many countries the middle class seems to be dwindling and before we eulogize this vanishing bourgeois world and invest it with nostalgia, I want to suggest that in its current form (at least) it may not be something toward which we all want to aspire. So what does middle class alienation or the world of micro-dystopia look like?
The best sources for more complete depictions of this world of banal tragedy are office comedies like Clockwatchers (1997), Office Space (1999), or Waydowntown (2000), or the television series “The Office” (UK 2001-2003 and US 2005-2013). Of these the one that probably works best is Jill Sprecher’s Clockwatchers. For those who haven’t seen it, it is a funny yet bleak depiction of the lives of temp workers at a large credit company. The film is less interested in character or even conventional plot than it is with showcasing the world of temporary employment in today’s neoliberal economy. The title already gives away its basic vision, but in summary the film’s four female protagonists are tasked with repetitive and under-explained busywork and spend most of their daylight hours watching the clock and waiting for their shifts to end. Like other representatives of this sub-genre of workplace-comedy, most of Clockwatchers focuses on the office hijinks that ensues as the women try and find distractions from their boring lives, but as women and temps we can see that their lives are much less secure than in many other versions of this setting. As temp workers they have no benefits, little respect, regular employees can’t remember their names, and they even lack desks of their own. The film’s modest narrative unfolds when an employee starts stealing office supplies. The permanent employees suspect the temps and as a further hint of their status as quasi-prison labor a security camera is installed facing the temps’ desks. Although the thief is eventually revealed to be a full-time employee, the temp worker with the most independent spirit is fired anyway. There is no real redemption in Clockwatchers and the film ends on a fairly sour-note, but it showcases a pair of fundamental observations about life in the contemporary neoliberal system.
First, most of us will spend our lives engaged in what the anthropologist David Graeber calls “Bullshit jobs,” jobs that even the employee knows are basically meaningless. Whether it is working at a call center, a law office, a bank, or managing a hedge fund, many people secretly feel their jobs are pointless and they wouldn’t do them if it weren’t for the money. It sounds obvious but this critique of capitalist employment can be stated in stronger terms. The basic argument is simple enough – life is finite. Plus, if it were fun they wouldn’t pay you to do it. So in effect, every day you work, you give your life-hours to your employer. That means the more you work, the less you live. You only live in your “off time” or in your stolen moments. Your salary is supposed to make up for this loss of life, but working a 40-hour week (usually more if you are salaried) means that most of your free time is spent sleeping or engaged in forms of capitalist consumption (buying crap) that drives the need for further work. A confounding effect is that turning an activity into a profession tends to make it unpleasant. Whatever it is we love most, say playing guitar, we don’t want to do that every minute of every day or it would become boring and disagreeable. This is because the nature of the human being is such that we want to do more than one thing with ourselves or at least maintain the freedom of choice:
“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 herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood.”[iv]
That is Marx and Engels and it is a small part of what they meant by alienation (Entfremdung). [v] But you don’t have to be a Marxian (or a Weberian) to see how professional specialization transforms potential fully-rounded people – who might want to, for instance, fish sometimes, build houses sometimes, play guitar sometimes, and maybe even write the occasional critical criticism – into specialized workers whose basic way of being and self-expression has been narrowed to a small range of activities from which they are increasingly alienated. It isn’t universally the case and there are those lucky few who find their job to be fully rewarding, but they might seem to be the exception rather than the rule. So far so good, and an older generation of Marxists and Left Weberians helped us to imagine our jobs as a kind of imprisonment or iron cage. But now things are even worse.
The second insight of films like Clockwatchers is that the era of lifetime stable employment is basically over. For the older generation, alienation might have conjured first and foremost a life on the assembly line, spending day in and day out attaching plastic straws to juice-boxes or the like. But in the first world today most manufacturing labor has been outsourced or automated, plus the decline of unions has radically undercut job security. Instead of being trapped in a particular job for life, we have entered an age of temps, freelancers, part-timers, adjuncts, and contractors. It might seem more freeing at first, but the lack of stability actually makes us more vulnerable, more fragile, and forces us to make greater compromises in order to cling to precarious contracts. This is part of what Boltanski and Chiapello describe as the Post-Fordist restructuring of capitalism in which the classical hierarchy and structure of Fordist work has been replaced by a flexible system that grants more autonomy for the individual worker at the cost of their financial security.[vi] Although there is room for debate, empirical evidence suggests that an increasing percentage of the US workforce is made up of temporary labor with some predicting (perhaps hyperbolically) that by 2020 more than 40% of the workforce will be contingent workers.[vii] Moreover, scholars have observed a general decline in employment contracts and an increase in temporary labor in the big-ten advanced industrial countries (Australia, Japan, United States, Spain, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, United Kingdom and France).[viii] I’ll explore the role that technology plays in this process in the next post, but at the moment I want to emphasize the inherent instability that underlies middle class life. In summary, I’ve been making a very basic point–that while the bourgeois world is better than poverty, it contains its own dystopian fissures or seeds of alienation. To find utopia, therefore, we need to do better than extend the sphere of Post-Fordist capitalism. Indeed, the correlation between average happiness and economic growth has been explored on an empirical level, and while not without its detractors, there is at least some serious evidence that “happiness does not increase as a country’s income rises.” Plus, it would seem that the current first world lifestyle shows signs of inherent instability and it is unclear if it can be sustained. Stay tuned for the next post when I’ll discuss the specter of automation.
Rough footnotes: [i] Free markets are often described as if they lead inexorably to the end of “repression, resentment and poverty” with the potential to usher in an age of global prosperity and freedom. President George W. Bush, quoted in Harvey, Spaces of Neoliberalization, p.8. [ii] See Robin M. Leichenko and William D. Solecki. 2005. “Exporting the American Dream: The Globalization of Suburban Consumption Landscapes.” Regional Studies 39.2: 241-253 [iii] I’m taking my inspiration for the term both from the widely discussed idea of microaggression and Nicolas Bourriaud’s “micro utopia,” understood as artistic attempts to carve out new spaces sociality as sites of resistance. [iv] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology. page [v] lit. estrangement. See the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology. [vi] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello. 2005. The New Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Verso. [vii] Linsday Wise “Temp jobs at all-time high in U.S.” (September 2, 2014) McCatchy. For the hyperbolic prediction of contingent employment see “Intuit 2020 Report,” although since the report doesn’t make its sources terribly clear, I’d take that prediction with a serious helping of salt. [viii] Stone, Katherine V.W., “The Decline in the Standard Employment Contract: Evidence from Ten Advanced Industrial Countries” (2012). After The Standard Contract Of Employment: Innovations For Regulatory Design, Katherine V.W. Stone and Harry Arthurs, eds., Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2013; UCLA School of Law, Law-Econ Research Paper No. 12-19. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2181082