imagination is in short supply these days

Imagination is in short supply these days.

Reality may be more wide open to possibilities we never imagined – a bumbling reality television star is President! – but it feels more constrained than ever.

Which isn’t to say I’m calling for the left to create a blueprint of what the vision we’re fighting for will look like. Marx hardly ever went much further than the following:

“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, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, with­out ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”

That’s about as far as I dare to dream too, and it’s not a bad foundation.

But I’ve been reading Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams, and it’s brought into focus how threadbare our current visions are by contrast. Kelley recounts the dreams of black radicals throughout history, detailing their visions even while acknowledging their flaws. Marcus Garvey dreamed of an Africa that had never existed, but it pushed himself and his peers forward into improvements in the here and now. Askia Muhammed Toure spoke of black R&B artists as “poet philosophers,” their music a weapon in the struggle for black freedom. Aimé Césaire, too, spoke of “poetic knowledge,” which accesses truths otherwise obscured by the grinding oppression of our daily lives.

So maybe those of us without creative talents have always had trouble holding to the utopian visions that drive our daily efforts.  But these days, it feels as if more and more of us are allowing our view of the possible to become unduly narrow. Women’s liberation becomes individual empowerment. Radical debate becomes making fun of the columnist dunces of mainstream liberalism.

I fall victim to it too. As we come up against an increasingly powerful right-wing – one aided and abetted by the center, a Democratic Party that can only ever be structurally responsive to its donor class – the impulse to restrict our horizons is strong. We can barely access reproductive rights in the country’s middle, but we can embarrass the hell out of people online for being sexist. We can’t reverse the trend of ballooning police department budgets, but we can get Good Allies to donate to our pet projects. And so our goals narrow, allowing us to feel victorious without achieving anything.

And I don’t mean to single out the easiest targets among the left. I write mostly about labor, and there’s a dire scarcity of imagination there too. Unions face existential threats: federal right-to-work laws, for instance. But instead of changing their approach: moving to democratize their unions, aid in the sustainability of locals by transferring organizing skills from staffers to the rank-and-file and increasing their organizing budgets for new campaigns, most unions are doing the opposite. They’re slashing their budgets, firing young staffers, tailing Trump’s xenophobic and anti-environment rhetoric, or even worse, endorsing it entirely.

This is how a movement shrivels and dies. Not just the labor movement (although definitely the labor movement) but the left as a whole, all our movements that share an interest in improving the lot of the majority. We reduce socialism to ‘populism.’ We reduce liberation to equality. We trade-in redistribution for equity. Just as the Democrats fail to achieve their political aims by tacking to the right from the start, “negotiating” by ceding ground to their purported conservative opponents, the left undermines ourselves by lowering our horizons. If we allow ourselves to get sucked into what those at the top deem acceptable over what we know is necessary, be it when it comes to taking action on climate change, unions, or fighting racism, we resign ourselves to failure from the start.

More than anyone else, we know we can’t afford that. Carbon taxes aren’t enough to resuscitate our dying planet. Body cameras won’t prevent the police from killing our neighbors. The ACA isn’t adequate to the task of getting millions of the uninsured poor access to health care.

I don’t have answers, and this is not an argument against fighting for reforms. But what I do have is the experience of what it feels like to witness what you thought only the day before was impossible, and how important it is to help people experience that for themselves if we want to keep radical imagination alive.

It’s what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor describes in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. She writes,

“It is impossible to answer, and perhaps futile to ask, the question “why Ferguson?” just as it’s impossible to ever accurately calculate when “enough is enough.” The transformation of Mike Brown’s murder from a police killing certainly tipped the scales.”

When Ferguson police officers left Mike Brown’s body on the street for four hours, they pushed the city’s residents over the edge and into an uprising. While that uprising didn’t achieve all its aims, many of the people who participated in it were transformed. The streets became theirs, their friends became comrades, and their dreams of freedom broadened as they experienced what it is to demand change.

The journalist Ryszard Kapuściński describes this process as so powerful that it can set off a revolution. Describing a police officer shouting at a protester to disperse in revolutionary Tehran at the start of the Iranian Revolution, he writes:

“The policeman shouts, but the man doesn’t run. He just stands there, looking at the policeman. It’s a cautious look, still tinged with fear, but at the same time tough and insolent. So that’s the way it is! The man on the edge of the crowd is looking insolently at uniformed authority. He doesn’t budge. He glances around and sees the same look on other faces. Like his, their faces are watchful, still a bit fearful, but already firm and unrelenting. Nobody runs though the policeman has gone on shouting; at last he stops. There is a moment of silence.

We don’t know whether the policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd already realize what has happened. The man has stopped being afraid – and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution. Here it starts.”

This is what happened in Ferguson, and in so many other cities across the country where we refused to follow orders from police forces that are fundamentally unjust. It’s what I felt during Occupy Wall Street, when ordinary people decided for ourselves what justice meant and in doing so, set ourselves on a path that permanently reoriented our lives toward achieving those aims.

It’s hard to access such visions without involvement in a movement or campaign. To paraphrase poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, it’s only when the clouds clear that we can know the color of the sky, and it’s only by achieving collective gains that we learn what power feels like. But we need not be in Kapuściński’s revolutionary moment to glimpse the possibilities we’re fighting for.

Take the following story of a union victory recounted by R.L. Stephens:

In the end, the workers won. As the campaign victories were listed, the excitement in the room was overwhelming, a type of energy that I’d only ever felt at a particularly intense church service or while attending a high-stakes game in a packed stadium. The organizer announced that healthcare had been won. We clapped. We celebrated as the wage increases were added up. But when the organizer revealed that the contract guaranteed the right to speak non-English languages in the workplace, the room erupted. The Black workers were palpably just as invested as the Chinese workers, and everyone was ecstatic.

That feeling of winning against the boss, of wresting power from those you previously thought invulnerable? That’s how our vision for the future stays alive. Become too removed from day-to-day struggles and it’s easy to  retreat into a pessimism that takes reality as it exists and reifies it into the only possible reality that could exist, seeing racism, sexism, homophobia, inequality as inexorable, without an alternative.

It’s why I tell people to get involved in organizing, even in a minor way. It’s through the experience of power, not just by talking and writing about it, that we gain access to the knowledge Cesaire thought might be restricted to poets. It’s why radicals celebrated the mass Women’s March, the airport protests, the BLM rallies. Feeling power in a collective, experiencing the moment of refusal in the face of police orders, demanding a fair share in the face of the boss? That’s the basis for radical imagination.

It’s hard – impossible, even – to hold onto that from behind a computer screen. But we shouldn’t let our visions narrow just because events of the day feel so bleak. Odds have always been against us on the left: that doesn’t mean we should restrict our visions to the possible, rather than the necessary. Don’t forget that, no matter how many people try to tell you otherwise.

The Boston Globe Defends the Harvard Administration’s Class War

globes

Three writers at the Boston Globe signed their name to an article that ran in Tuesday’s edition of the paper, coinciding with the start of a strike by the dining hall workers at Harvard University, represented by UNITE HERE Local 26. The headline reads, “Harvard strike could be seen as a battle against the 1 percent. It’s not.”

It is. These writers don’t substantiate this argument in the body of the piece. Because they can’t. Harvard University is one of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions in the Boston area, the United States, and the world. The authors even do the math for us, writing “Harvard’s $35.7 billion endowment is bigger than the economies of nearly 100 countries.”

That’s right: Harvard’s endowment is big enough to give it the economic power of a major player in the global economy, and that’s without accounting for the social and political elites who would hold citizenship in such a gold-plated country, with alumni status presumably the passport needed for entry. One-percenter status – no, 0.01% status – has never been so obvious.

Rather than dispute this, the authors focus on the conditions of the dining hall workers who are striking for better compensation and working conditions. Citing arguments put forward by the university administration – the boss in this labor dispute – they note that “its average dining hall worker makes nearly $22 an hour,” translating to $30,000 per year.

As one of their demands, the workers are arguing that any worker able to work year-round deserves $35,000 a year (again, this is at an institution with a $36 billion endowment).

This demand is excessive in the eyes of our dear frugal journalists.

Never mind that Vaccaro and Woolhouse, the first two names on the byline, regularly write for the Business section of the Globe, making it hard to believe they don’t make more than $30k a year. While Yoo, the third name on the article, appears to be a co-op student, her LinkedIn shows an impressive array of prestigious internship, including her current one at the Globe, suggesting she’ll also wind up making above $30k a year straight out of college.

But bringing up such vulgar details about the article’s writers is rude. “It’s beside the point to mention what Globe staff make!” we can imagine the editors crying indignantly, “This is about dining hall workers!” they insist.

So what if we know how hard it is to live in Boston, one of the most expensive cities in the country, on $30,000 a year, much less raise a family on that. “These are unskilled workers, they’re supposed to suffer!” respond the authors. “It’s the way of the world! Fuck ’em!”

At least, that’s what the Globe means to say. But a newspaper doesn’t achieve its status as the Paper of Record in the city by writing so crudely – that’s for the Herald, not the well-mannered diplomats of the Globe. Just as Harvard accrued its $36 billion endowment by exploiting the labor of first, slaves, then low-wage workers like those on strike today, so the Globe maintains its status by legitimizing such exploitation, and insisting those at the bottom thank the bosses for whatever crumbs they receive.

People can’t live on crumbs, especially not in this city. Dining hall workers need more than that, and eventually, we – working class people in this city – are coming for the whole fucking endowment. Support the striking workers, and argue with, isolate, and ridicule anyone who advocates anything less.

A Spectre is Haunting College Campuses

A recent piece about trigger warnings is making the rounds online.

The article, written by Rani Neutill, details the escalating requests for trigger warnings she faced while teaching a college course on sex and film. She starts the semester providing trigger warnings before each film she shows in the classroom, but it isn’t long before two students leave in tears after a screening. They hadn’t done the readings for that day, leaving them unaware of the film’s content. After class, Neutill has a particularly odious encounter with one of the teary-eyed students, a white female African American studies minor. This student is a Good White Ally,™ scolding our author, a woman of color, about the importance of showing diverse representations of African Americans. It’s indisputable: this student is the worst.

At this point, we can see where the story is going: Neutill’s students request ever more contrived warnings about the course content, and she complies with their requests. This dynamic stifles the course, with Neutill eventually sending “a meticulous email detailing which scene I was showing, where in the film the scene was, and what the content of the scene included” each night before class. While she began the semester a proponent of trigger warnings, by the end, she’s had enough: these students refuse to engage positions they disagree with, using trigger warnings to foreclose any chance of their grappling with difficult ideas. Instead of developing analytical skills, Neutill’s students opt for coddling. The state of campus political culture continues to spiral downward and the front of the classroom is further lined with eggshells.

Now, the most important kernel in the article can go almost unnoticed – Neutill’s job security, or lack thereof. A “wandering postdoc” and “not so young woman of color,” Neutill is presumably under close scrutiny from her department. In her account, she’s challenged more often in the classroom and given more critical teaching evaluations from her students than her white male colleagues. These higher standards matter for her job prospects. While I won’t speculate on Neutill’s reasons for accommodating her students’ increasingly ludicrous requests, I can imagine myself swallowing the urge to abandon trigger warnings if it meant keeping my job. If I wasn’t confident that the university would back me up should these coddled activists file complaints against me, I might cede the ground to them, choosing the course of action that helps me keep food on the table.

And that’s the issue: I wouldn’t bet my paycheck on the university’s support. Workplace insecurity makes it hard for non-tenured professors, adjuncts, and graduate students to set boundaries in the classroom or challenge students on contentious subjects. The backdrop of eroding work conditions that disproportionately impact workers of color, women, and queer employees is central to Neutill’s story.

Articles like Neutill’s get a lot of play these days, not only from conservatives, but on the left as well. The question of whether there’s an instinct toward censorship among left-leaning campus activists has come up in conversations I’ve had with left-wing political organizers, journalists, progressive faculty, and campus activists themselves — and invariably, these discussions turn upon the spectre of an elite (nearly always female) social justice activist threatening our intellectual and political freedoms.

Now look, I’m a twenty-something who’s got a B.A. from one liberal private university and now works and studies at another — I’ve met this figure, she exists, and she does seem to be rolling increasingly deep on campuses. And by god, she’s easy to make fun of – after all, we’ve established that she’s the worst – privileged, too sensitive, always trying to prove herself the Best White Person in the room, even if that means potentially throwing actual people of color under the bus, or in Neutill’s case, out of a job.

That being said, she’s only one minor figure on campus. If we’re concerned about the stifling of campus intellectual culture, why leave out the other censorship-happy campus activists? Organized Zionists have been more successful than any other group at leveraging the censoriousness built into the university’s corporate structure — they cost Steven Salaita his job, are compiling a McCarthyite blacklist of Palestine solidarity activists, and continue to shut down SJP organizing across the country through appeals to administrative power. In addition, there are the white supremacists – it surely would be a mistake to leave out the guys who pressured Boston University to fire Saida Grundy for tweeting what amounts to critical race theory 101 (and while BU didn’t fire Grundy, the university definitely didn’t back her up either).

To focus on the social justice activist’s political shortcomings is to miss the forest for the trees – after all, the source of much of whatever power she and other campus censors have is the structural condition of the university; nothing silences a professor like the lack of a secure contract. Not even the biggest and baddest of college activists can hope to stifle discussion as pervasively as precarious working conditions do; to direct our ire at the activist but not the university misdiagnoses the problem from the start.

If we want the free expression of ideas, it’s legitimate to discuss the first figure, the lefty-liberal campus activist, but framing this conversation around labor conditions allows us to bring in the others who, not surprisingly, often go unmentioned in discussions of campus political culture. Perhaps even more importantly, this view demystifies the institution most responsible for this mess: the neoliberal university. Graduate students and faculty censor themselves for fear of being painted anti-Semites, hysterical man-hating feminists, “reverse racists,” and yes, to avoid being labelled “problematic” too. Yet, fundamentally, much of this censorship happens because we’re terrified of being perceived as too controversial and losing a job, or worse, not getting hired in the first place.

Making fun of misguided tactics from progressive campus activists is satisfying, but it isn’t constructive, not when the right already spills so much ink engaging in this flavor of activist-bashing. Instead, to the extent that students are using social justice discourse, intentionally or not, to jeopardize academics’ jobs, we need to identify and challenge this. If censorship and appeals to power are becoming instinctive tactics for college activists, we should advocate for bottom-up collective action instead. But most importantly, if more academics had access to collective bargaining agreements, long-term contracts, and tenure, attempts to censor difficult discussions, whether by social justice activists, Zionists, racists, or anyone else, would be much more likely to meet with just the sort of critical intellectual engagement we all so desperately desire.

Real Jobs

I got a real job.”

Having been out of the country for much of the summer, my friend’s roommate E said this in response to my empty “And what have you been up to?” offered to him upon my stopping at their house not long after I returned to Boston. He said it with the self-deprecating tone so necessary for us 20-somethings to preemptively defend ourselves from judgment about our poverty, so I paused to decide how to respond, then gave up and just laughed nervously. He’s more of an acquaintance than a friend, so to try to break down the assumptions of the unbearably annoying phrase ‘real job’ probably wouldn’t have been the best way to handle small talk.

The way ‘real job’ is used to distinguish from presumably ‘fake’ jobs is by referring to a never-explicitly-defined set of material and ideological markers: real jobs have salaries, have college majors relevant to them, involve computers, offices, button up shirts. But also, they have intellectual weight, challenge, provide subject fodder for a first date: in this sense, having a real job means you have thoughts and capabilities deemed desirable commodities to some opaque employer, the identity of whom is relatively unimportant compared to their willingness to give you this feeling of self-worth.

However, when E used it, he was distinguishing between under-the-table work he’d been doing when I left the country, and a coffee shop job he’d gained while I was away. This was unusual, in part because the rhetoric of ‘real’ and ‘fake’ jobs pervades the conversation of college graduates, a demographic often unlikely to acknowledge even the existence of jobs such as E’s ‘fake’ job. For them, being a barista is also a fake (imagined to be temporary) job.

The dissonance in E’s use of the phrase versus how I generally hear it used stuck with me long after our conversation ended. What’s in a ‘real’ job? Why do we, a generation with more college degrees and debt but less material security than those who came before us, feel compelled to further devalue our work, judging it by standards alien to our lives? Clearly, the implied standard if not actual rhetoric of a ‘real’ job is handed-down, our parents speaking through us, foisting mid-20th century golden age expectations onto our sagging shoulders.

This was certainly the case for me. Graduating top of my class from a major private university, I spent weeks sending off resumes for ‘real’ jobs. Having studied the (horribly reactionary) field of international relations, this meant jobs at think tanks, non-profits, policy journals. After waiting weeks, and then months, I had to admit to myself a glaringly obvious fact: I had no relevant experience for these jobs, which fit into the laugh-to-keep-from-crying category of the entry level job that requires years of experience. Presumably the way out of this Escherian-loop is an unpaid internship, a job category that desperately contradicts historical sociological research on what counts as a good job and what doesn’t, demanding unpaid labor in return for a ‘real,’ (read: interesting, creative, or exciting to tell someone else about) job, while serving to shore up class reproduction by separating those whose parents can fund them through months without a paycheck from those whose parents can’t. As a member of the latter group, I eventually acknowledged defeat and took a job in a cafe where my friend worked and could thus recommend me for an interview (because in a place like Boston, even the honor of pulling espresso shots often requires an ‘in’ of some sort).

It’s worth noting here the deeply gendered and racialized assumptions underlying ‘real’ vs ‘fake’ jobs. From what I’ve seen, this rhetoric of ‘real vs fake’ is overwhelmingly found coming from the college educated middle and upper class, dependent as it is upon a distancing of one’s (usually white) self from unworthy (black and brown) work. A real job instead enables you to be tended to by PoC who disproportionately populate the world of menial service work and physical labor. Here, I don’t mean the sorts of ‘fake’ jobs I’ve held, although those undoubtedly fall into the category of embarrassingly ‘not-real’ jobs too, but on the basis of their gendered rather than racialized logic. Indeed, the reason I can’t include ‘front of the house’ jobs here is because they consist of disproportionately white, rather than PoC, workers. This is because these sectors often discriminate based on appearance and social capital, hiring desirable ‘personalities’ that just so happen to be overwhelmingly normatively attractive white people (and from what I can tell, the dearth of studies on discrimination against fat, and particularly fat women, applicants in the high-end service sector, is a remarkable blindspot in research). I mean work in the fast food industry, domestic services, janitorial, and security work. The kind of labor done behind the scenes, in the dark, or at the least, with little conversation between worker and customer or client.

Similarly, the gendered implications of the term are striking: fake jobs are those that rely on emotional labor, requiring your smile, your ability to care or clean, your personality, your ‘presence’ (whatever this means); in short, your womanly body rather than your mind, a logic distinct from but deeply entangled with the racial discrimination detailed above. During the Keynesian era of a family wage, in which a husband was expected to provide for his family (an expectation by no means always fulfilled), these jobs were host to women entering the workforce supposedly to make side money, ease their boredom at home, or whatever other I Love Lucy style ideology might have been developed at the time to deny that women were working because they needed to for a variety of reasons. This allowed employers to offer wages far below what one would need to support oneself, not to mention a family. However, since the 2008 recession, these industries have grown at higher rates than just about any other in the United States, with men pouring into these gendered workplaces. Thanks to the lingering effects of the identification of service work as women’s work, pay in these sectors continues to be astonishingly low for workers of every gender, one example of the long-term negative repercussions gender inequality has on men in addition to women.

As for me, having gone into tens of thousands of dollars of debt in the hopes of developing my mind, after college, my body remained my most valuable attribute on the job market, a situation that, to delve into an aside, makes it incredibly difficult to gain redress for sexual harassment in these sectors: I’m not proud to admit that I left rather than fought against this problem at two separate ‘fake’ jobs I held. At the first, I let my manager (a young, Zooey Deschanel-looking white 20-something herself) know that one of the regulars refused to leave me alone on my precious fifteen minute break. She responded by telling me that she, too, had a customer who harassed her, and in fact, next time he was in she’d point him out to me, so that I wouldn’t tell him where she was if he asked after her (because, she confided, she hid in the kitchen whenever he was around). At the second, I had been hired as a hostess, but within hours of my first shift, a bartender had gotten aggressive enough in his harassment to prompt me to talk to the manager who had hired me. As soon as I stopped describing the bartender’s constant complimenting of my appearance, this manager responded without hesitation, “Well, that’s why we hired you. What you’re describing comes with the culture of restaurants.” While I was without a penny in my bank account at the time, I walked out the door in the middle of my shift, too frustrated to bother ever even demanding the twenty-or-so dollars I’d earned before quitting.

So, while I’d only ever had jobs like these, in restaurants and cafes, I’d always had the excuse of being in school, on my way to a real job. Now, post-B.A., I was simply an adult, commuting across the city to prepare Instagram-worthy latte foam for the moneyed customers to whom we catered. After a year of this, I decided to enter a PhD program, having realized I couldn’t produce the intellectual and political work I had hoped to do for free outside of the 35 hours a week of mind-numbing service work. As brilliantly detailed here, there’s a lot of animosity toward graduate students for being self-indulgent, going into a field with few future prospects for stability, with this blame assuming an opportunity cost forfeited for the sake of our wanting to pursue intellectually gratifying careers. For myself and many others lucky enough to have the option of entering a funded graduate program however, that simply is not how our employment prospects look today. I forfeited what I call a “standing up job” for my first “sitting down job” (a half-joke that fails to amuse some of my fellow graduate students, possibly because they did have white-collar work before choosing to enter a doctoral program, a path more in line with the picture sketched out by said critics of grad students). I forfeited nothing but the pastries I stole every day from work.

As a doctoral student, I make about the same as I did at restaurants and cafes. I don’t have a paycheck for nearly five months of the year. Paid vacation doesn’t apply. I’m not in a union, and have little recourse if I’m worked more hours than my financial package states I should be working. And yet, people around me consider it a ‘real’ job. Proof that I’m special, that my brain has value because the market says so, that I’m doing something worthwhile with myself (as if publishing in paywalled academic journals should count as ‘worthwhile’ in any morally-infused sense of the word). When I tell fellow ‘real’ job friends (those who work as non-profit employees, computer programmers, or journalists, to name a few) that I’m too busy to grab a beer, they respond with understanding, “been there,” “take it easy,” “don’t work too hard” texts, their sympathy flooding into my phone. And yet, as was painstakingly detailed in the recent New York Times article on the work-til-you-drop culture of white-collar Amazon employees or via a cursory glance at the rates of depression reported by graduate students, ‘real’ jobs do not make a person whole. They don’t make a person better, more secure, or less anxiety-ridden. In addition, if Amazon workers are putting in the number of hours detailed in that article, they’re making about the same hourly wage as I did at the coffee shop.

Rather than continuing to distance ourselves from what we might see as ‘old-style’ working class, low-wage work, a distancing we remarkably continue to enact even when we in fact do work in these ‘fake’ jobs, it’s time we let go of the belief in a distinction between real and fake jobs. We’re long overdue in agreeing that every job we’ll ever have is real in that it will take up most of our day-to-day reality, and if it sucks, we can’t daydream or cynically joke our way out of that present into some unlikely future described by our parents or depicted in old films. Working from home, bed, or a college (or Amazon) campus doesn’t mean we’re any less likely to be pushed to be faster, more innovative, and harder on ourselves than a McDonald’s worker manning the burgers. If we stop dismissing the work that we or the people around us are doing as ‘fake,’ we may begin to conclude that the only way to make any work endurable in the long run is by admitting it impacts our quality of life and then trying to improve the terms of contract. By this point, it should be sufficiently obvious that ‘real’ jobs don’t even stand up to their own vaguely constructed distinctions from those we deem ‘fake,’ so why don’t we collapse the difference by instead making sure that jobs, full stop, provide as many material benefits as we can possibly wrest from our bosses. If we manage this type of progress, we might just be able to again define our jobs as simply “good” in the sense found in the sociological literature on the subject, which so quaintly defines a good job as not just personally or socially fulfilling, but also as necessarily providing a living wage and benefits. How cute and old fashioned.