Thursday, April 10, 2014

Meaningful work: an appeal to the young

By Scott Nappolos

An article about choosing meaning in employment. 

From the time I was a child, I was told to follow my dreams and do something I truly loved. Granted I rarely met an adult who was passionate about their work, but they seemed sincere in their desire for others to take that path. The advice of course usually had a piece of bitterness attached to it. As I came of age, the terrain didn’t look pretty. Most of my personal passions were deserts for employment. Nor did I really know anyone who was living the dream, so to speak, at work. My path began from leaving that advice behind.
Society is littered with talk of meaningful work. The creative class, jobs that means something, doing something with one’s life, work that matters, helping people; we’re inundated with phrases, words, and images that describe our poverty and the future that we are supposed to aspire to.
It’s actually worse for people who commit themselves to making radical change in society. A confluence of pressures pushes down on them year after year through family wondering when they will grow up, friends perpetually moving on to something better, and a gnawing sense of wasted potential. Why bother with the endless meetings, the mindless work, and for what?
Unless you’re born into a situation where work is unnecessary, nearly everyone experiences the modern workplace. Service work in particular serves as a stark reminder of reality and alternatives. The unending drudgery of task after task slinging fatty coffee that literally poisons people’s health, selling useless items created on the backs of abused workers elsewhere, cardboard boxes rolling down the line that just keep coming and coming, forcing a smile when we are cursed at or harassed; Nearly everyone has been forced to participate in the bitterness of having our time stolen. It’s perhaps harder to bare for those who know the widest extent of the misery of humanity and understand how preventable it all is.
The sense of meaninglessness in jobs is a strong current in society. Tv shows, films, music, and other forms of pop culture repeat the comedy, frustration, and depression of spending one’s time on tasks that seem pointless. This isn’t to say that people’s jobs don’t make a difference. Many things we do keep society running and contributes to the social good. The meaninglessness of work in today’s society arises out of the reflection of workers that their time is not really benefiting the people they serve or advancing them as people. As a healthcare worker I can see both sides of this. Obviously healthcare is crucial for societies. At the same time any hospital worker can recognize how it is that the healthcare system not only harms people, but also in general contributes to people staying sick. Meaning is something deeper than just keeping the gears moving and helping our fellow human beings. Meaning is about where we are headed and who we are. This is where youth get squeezed and falter.
Modern capitalism with its base of debt makes everything seem possible. The compulsion to put food on the table is softened by easy credit. We can go back to school, live on credit cards, travel to cheap places, and find means to delay work enough to get by. Young people accumulate useless degrees and insane debts while deferring the future and often slipping into the delusions of jobs that simply do not exist. Choosing what to do with our lives takes on the characteristic of other more banal decisions. We are shopping for an ethical product. Validation stands at the core of this, and plays off the fear of a wasted life, idle efforts, and ending up trapped chasing false ideals. What to tell worried parents who watched their child squander what chances they had for material success? It is better to say that one is employed fighting poverty, educating the youth, or some other remix of Mother Theresa, Gandhi, or perhaps Bono.
The problem is that there is no escape. Professors spend decades moving town to town as itinerant adjuncts teaching the most bland classes, writing mechanical essays in desperation to stay published, and constantly struggling for something more stable. Even at it’s best, University life leaves less time for liberatory thought and action than the part time service worker. Union organizers spend seventy or eighty hour weeks at the service of hostile bureaucracies, and too often find themselves in the position of pimping the Democratic party and selling backroom deals with management to disillusioned workers. NGO staff share the same fate, bending to the will of the funders and forced to represent the interests of the powerful under false flags of social change. Self-employment and cooperatives turn activist efforts into business efforts, and consume more time than any capitalist could ever demand from a job. Good people find themselves lost there, tired of all the worn appearances that hide a rotten structure, yearning to escape too their work and get back to something more authentic.
We need to question and even condemn the pressure on youth to find meaningful work. As long as we live in capitalism, its deep wells will poison all the streams flowing into our cities. With capitalist work, even the most holy pursuit will end up in mindlessness, subservience to stupid management, and in fighting the current trying to make some good out of a hostile situation that constantly tries to undo our efforts. This isn’t to say that some don’t enjoy their jobs. Some do. Yet on the balance, the vast majority can’t find employment that will engage them, and those who do generally must sacrifice the rest of their lives for the privilege. The real question to be raised isn’t whether you should enjoy your job or not, but whether you should dedicate your life to work. Or better, what is the relation of living to working?
This logic should be turned on its head. It’s not what we’re employed doing that should define, validate, or give meaning to our lives; it’s our life itself that does. How much brighter does the future look to liberate oneself from the oppressive concept of boundless sacrifice to meaningful jobs? Why shouldn’t youth seek to maximize their lives against this work? There are other roads open to us. We can work, as we must, but can struggle to find the most time for ourselves and our causes. Better we write, protest, organize, and gather in our workplaces on time off, than to cement that relationship into employment or worse into our identities.
Our lives are defined by what we do, not who writes our paychecks. A political life is an attempt to regain a meaningful life. It is a task for all of society, and not monopolized by a special class employed as professional politicians, bureaucrats, and humanitarians. Meaning is not at work, but in the beauty of daily living, in struggling for a better world, and whatever path your desires take you towards. Our joy is not found in simply imposing our will onto the world, but in the happiness that can only be found in fighting for a more just and beautiful world around us. Dedicating oneself to the struggles of others changes you. Within, we must fight to constantly overcome ourselves against the current, a process that can be deeply enriching. The commitment and work of liberation makes all of society our classroom, our workplaces gymnasiums, and our neighborhoods galleries...
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Originally published on Libcom,org. Read the article in its entirety HERE.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

In the Name of Love

“Do what you love” is the mantra for today’s worker. Why should we assert our class interests if, according to DWYL elites like Steve Jobs, there’s no such thing as work? 

by Miya Tokumitsu 

There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers. Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? Who is the audience for this dictum? Who is not? By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace... 

Excerpted from The Jacobin Magazine

Monday, October 21, 2013

The problem is capitalism

"Capitalism is a problem because it allows those with resources to use them without regard for the needs of others. That disregard leads to the destruction of communities, to millions of people around the world not having access to the basic things they need to live healthy lives, and to environmental degradation. Capitalism is one of the most important forces responsible for the fact that people do not have time to do what they love...

But how do we un-do capitalism, a system that has been developing and growing for more than five-hundred years? By this point, capitalism has become a central part of the fabric of most of the societies we inhabit. How can we dismantle the capitalist home we live in when our activities every day effectively shore it up?...No matter how anti-capitalist you are, if you live in a society dominated by capitalism you probably need to work for a wage. Most of us spend many of our waking hours doing paid work and much of our leisure time shopping or otherwise consuming commercial culture. Capitalism even structures our intimate interactions with people. We often express love by buying things for people. We may judge people by the products they use.

When capitalism comes to dominate society, when all other ways of meeting our needs come to be devalued and pushed out, when governments operate to serve the interests of privately owned capital rather than the needs of people, we have a serious problem. That problem is capitalism."

-Cynthia Kaufman, Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Grad School & Survival

by Matt Dineen

After the sixth day in a row working my wage job at a Philadelphia coffeeshop it was time to put things into perspective. Because we live in a society that tends to define us by what we do for money, I struggled to remind myself that this was not all that I was doing with my life. And of course I understood that intellectually, but by that last closing shift my body solely identified as a barista; not only what I do, but also who I am. Pointing this out is not to demean this labor, or others who work in the caffeinated service industry, but as a reminder that we are all much more than the tasks we perform for money. We are all multidimensional creatures and our desires exceed what we do to survive.

At recent reunions and weddings, people that I haven't seen in years ask me what I am up to now. I tell them where I live first and then proceed to talk about Goddard. This program is a more accurate reflection of the kind of life I want to be living. But I am also not just a grad student. I tell them about the anarchist bookstore where I have been active the past four years, but feel obligated to add that we're all volunteers. These are our multidimensional lives.

My first semester at Goddard began two months after I started a job I hated. I was a driver for a corporate catering company, delivering food to offices around Philadelphia. In an attempt to balance school and work, and to makes sense of that whole experience, I kept a journal documenting my hours on the clock; my time in uniform, taking orders, and entering spaces where, given my politics, I never should have been allowed. When I first returned from the residency I tried convincing myself this was just field research, as a coping mechanism, or perhaps a mechanism of empowerment. But that quickly faded and the job began to take its toll, on my spirit and my studies. The reality was clear: I was only working in order to pay the bills, in order to survive.

How do we balance Goddard and survival? The imperative to sell my labor, whether it's through delivering lunch to a business meeting at JP Morgan's office or in the more relaxed and palatable environment of the hip café, is in dialectical relationship with my study plan. It would be an oversimplification to suggest that the two are just at odds, or that my time on the clock necessarily subtracts from my school work. That experience with the catering company, for example, was exhausting and comprising, no doubt, but it also provided rich material to write about and analyze. And the Zen time I have washing dishes at my current occupation is often the incubation site of some of my best ideas. It is a complex, sometimes complementary relationship.

A prevailing challenge, though, is maintaining focus in a social construction of reality that does not recognize low-residency education. After our week on campus ends and we return to our everyday lives outside of Goddard, we must swim against the prevailing current of production and consumption, of business-as-usual, conference calls, and law students studying for the bar exam together. Every morning that I wake up and prioritize my interdisciplinary graduate work, transforming corner tables at neighborhood coffeeshops into a mobile office, is a small act of resistance. I look up and the clock is ticking. It's noon and I have to be at my job in one hour. I need to make that money. Have I gotten anything done yet? This is the balance we face every day.

After my shift at the catering job, I would feel emboldened to seize the rest of the day. I felt more conscious of this time off the clock, to read Marx and write with a sense of urgency. My experience at the cafe is different. After a six hour shift my coworker and I will go to the bar around the corner and continue conversations that we began earlier while we prepared sandwiches and espresso drinks, this time more candidly, over a pitcher of lager. We'll order another round and further explore the politics of online dating or the efficacy of celebrating the death of an imperialist former prime minister. On the clock, we are baristas, but also DJ's creating an atmosphere that reflects our mood or that provides a soundtrack to closing up shop. We are also free to feed ourselves, concocting elaborate meals when our boss isn't around. Sometimes we are DIY bartenders, throwing cans of beer from the basement on ice an hour before closing time, or mixing some fancy sparkling lemonade with the remains of a bottle of tequila hidden in the backroom.

Which is all to say: it's not that bad. But not-that-bad can be stifling, even oppressive. It can limit our potential to actualize our dreams. It numbs us because it begins to seamlessly fit into everything else. It feels like it makes sense even though we may never freely choose such an arrangement otherwise. The challenge is to be conscious of utilizing one's time off the clock and to make sure that the not-that-bad job doesn't take up too much space, that it doesn't seep too deeply into everything else. Because it is not the priority right now. This is easy to forget.

What if we didn't have to work while we were in school? This is the reality for some. The capitalist work discipline shapes us to be dependent on a structured schedule so that we don't know what to do with such abundant “free time.” I have heard other students say that people who do not have a full or part time job have a hard time with their Goddard work. So it is it, then, not merely economic imperatives that prevent us from putting all of our time and energy into our graduate studies?

On the cusp of my final semester, I think ahead to my post-Goddard life. 2014 is a big, wide-open question mark for me. There are, however, two things that I know: I will graduate from the IMA program in February, and I will stop working at the coffeeshop. I'm ready for new challenges. I'm ready to start over again. The not-that-bad job I'm working this year extends to describe my experience these past four and a half years living in Philadelphia. I have chosen to stay in my comfort zone, to avoid risk-taking—with the exception of selling my soul for the catering gig. My life now doesn't look much different from the year I lived in Madison, fresh out of college, almost one decade ago. 

I want something more; something different. I'm not sure what this will look like and that is okay, as I choose to embrace the unknown, the infinite uncertainties of the future.

After six days in a row closing the cafe last week—navigating leaky refrigerators, lack of air conditioning, and passive aggressive notes—I found myself in my hometown having breakfast with my dad and stepmother. They asked me about school and I told them about this remaining timeline ahead. My stepmother proceeded to ask what, exactly, was my degree going to be in, and then, what does that mean exactly. That same question that my grandmother sternly confronted me with at the beginning of this semester: “Well, what do you do with that? I mean, what kind of job will you get?” I fumbled, muttering something incoherent about nonprofits, and, um...teaching someday. Maybe. Eventually.


And then, just in time, our breakfast arrived and I changed the subject to their recent membership in the town's re-emerging Odd Fellows society. The fellows, apparently, have no idea how to run an organization. I filled my mouth with raspberry-butter-covered French toast and pretended that I was on summer vacation. Everything is just fine.

The uncertainty of our post-Goddard, interdisciplinary futures is, I believe, one of the greatest virtues of this education. Since the market collapse five years ago, there are no certainties, no guarantees. In choosing this nontraditional route, we are recognizing the frailties of the system. Those who continue funneling themselves through the standard professional and trade schools, pursuing nursing, education, journalism, etc. degrees with hopes of economic security and stability, are increasingly being squeezed out, crushed by the new reality of austerity, job freezes, and mass layoffs. This of course, affects everyone—besides the “one percent”—in myriad ways, but those of us who are not buying into the pyramid scheme anymore are at least attempting to carve out a way around it. We will have more potential to adapt, to be flexible, and open to alternative arrangements and experiences.

What will I do, exactly? That remains to be seen. But I am hopeful.

I am hopeful despite the fact that seriously looking ahead to that moment, post-Goddard, also invokes the unsavory topic of debt. Like the question of how we support ourselves, and as a corollary—how we balance school and work, the issue of the debt that we are accruing to attain this education is one whispered about at the residencies during meals, but never directly addressed by students outside of workshops on navigating the bureaucracies of debt and aid. I believe that a radical approach to debt is necessary, one that goes beyond individualistic approaches to a very systemic problem. And of course, debt and survival are inextricably linked. So why can't we even begin to have a serious conversation about this?

Next year, after graduation, I will be expected to start repaying my student loans. I will no longer have my overpayment checks at the beginning of the semester to help me get by and, perhaps, will start to feel the pressure to secure a job which pays a living wage. Not that there would be anything wrong with that.

Over the past decade I think some of the choices I have made have perpetuated self-exploitation under the guise of resistance to compromise. I think this new era of my life, in which I will hold a masters degree, I should add to my list of ways not comprise my beliefs: never work a minimum wage job ever again. That won't include volunteer work however—our voluntary laboring outside of the market in an effort to sculpt meaning and purpose, to supplement our livelihood in dynamic and fulfilling ways, with activities that we are truly passionate about. But, as my mom likes to point out, volunteering doesn't pay the bills. And there will still be bills.

I feel grateful that I will be confronted with the consolidation of massive amounts of student loan debt just as the debt resistance movement is growing and becoming more sophisticated and strategic. The resources that Strike Debt, for example, has started to put together will prove to be invaluable tools and a reminder that I too “am not a loan.” 

It might be seen as a distasteful comparison, but I am thinking about military veterans returning from overseas, alienated by the vast bureaucracies holding their futures captive as they attempt to re-acclimate to being back home, out of duty. The comparison is not that of higher education and the military industrial complex—although there is a relationship between those institutions—but that of the emerging debt resistance movement and the groups that do veteran advocacy work, including Iraq Veterans Against the War. Again, instead of approaching a systemic problem through an individualistic lens, the institutions responsible for suffering and exploitation are held accountable, thus empowering individuals through collective action.

I think this is how change happens.

That's what Howard Zinn taught me when I was in high school. First, through his masterpiece, A People's History of the United States, and then in person, the evening that he visited the program I was in my senior called School Within a School (SWS). Howard and his wife Rosslyn used to stay on Cape Cod in the summer, in Wellfleet, where their son Jeff directed a local seasonal theater company. In September 1998, three months before President Clinton began a bombing campaign against a sovereign country in the Middle East called Iraq, Howard came to my high school one Thursday evening to speak to our group. He told us about his own experiences as a bombardier in World War II and in the Civil Rights and antiwar movements in the 1950s and '60s. After his talk in our high school auditorium we were able to ask him questions. I nervously raised my hand and asked, “What is your advice for young people like us who want to change the world?” In his response he reminded us that throughout history change has only happened when people have come together, when they were organized in groups fighting for what they knew was right. You can't make the world a better place all by yourself.

I need to keep reminding myself this. Another option after Goddard is to start a business, but not alone. Instead of just applying for jobs and attempting to establish some sort of career with a salary and benefits, I could get together with a small group of other people and put these politics of collectivity and direct democracy into action, beyond merely studying what other people are doing. Starting a worker-owned cooperative is one of the more realistic and practical options out there that is truly appealing to me and where I am at with my life right now.

Back at the coffeeshop, I don't understand why anyone would want to be a boss. Washing dishes in the back, I think about how we could run this place ourselves, horizontally, without anyone in charge. We would all be a lot more invested in the cafe and more accountable to it and each other. But do we really need another cafe? I have one friend in Philly that I have talked with about potentially starting a co-op of some sort in the near future and I think that, ironically, a worker-owned collective could be a pretty successful marketing pitch, like how the new vegan cafes and restaurants in the city have created a substantial customer base around ethical eating. Philly definitely needs more democratic workplaces. I'm excited about the potential of making that happen.

But there is also a chance that I won't even stay in the city after this year. Despite a number of important friendships and other social ties, there isn't anything that is keeping me anchored there, nothing to prevent me from moving wherever I want or traveling indefinitely. So, again, we will see.

No matter what happens, I know that this experience at Goddard will be worth it, despite the debt I will be saddled with at the end. Perhaps I will one day move to Vermont and work for the college. I guess anything is possible. For now, I continue to balance work and school, a part-time day job that is not-that-bad and a low-residency program that holds the potential to encapsulate my wildest dreams and to catapult me somewhere that I can't even begin to imagine yet. Hopefully into a world beyond bosses and day jobs and capitalism itself, but, as Howard reminds us, I can't do it alone.
Matt Dineen is a writer and activist based in Philadelphia where he staffs at the Wooden Shoe, an anarchist bookstore. He is also a graduate student in Goddard College's Individualized MA program.

Monday, July 15, 2013

How often do we truly love our work even at its most difficult?

"The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need -- the principal horror of such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love. But this is tantamount to blinding a painter and then telling her to improve her work, and to enjoy the act of painting. It is not only next to impossible, it is profoundly cruel."

-Audre Lorde, "Uses of the Erotic"

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


"Can artists figure out how to show and be seen in the midst of this economic moment? I believe that if they are really creative they can. It's a moment filled with opportunity for people who can think for themselves. There are holes in the cultural fabric, and no one seems to be in tight control. Even the horrifying lack of jobs means that the yuppie road that some were blindly, socially obliged to follow is no longer a realistic option for many who were once invited. This means having to piece together 'a living' through an eclectic combination of one's abilities, dreams, relationships, visions, will, and skill. Not a great setup for most, but very enriching for all if people can take advantage of the moment to create new paths."

-Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind, 2012

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Anarchic Ethics

By Cindy Milstein

One of my sisters, who is also a good and insightful friend to me, asked me this evening, “What’s standing in your way of writing?” Her paid job is helping folks who are labeled “mentally ill” to figure out their own aims and then support them in achieving those aspirations; her question to me is the crux of what she does for others, although the “writing” is particular to me (I’m having trouble doing it, especially in the way I want to). I also know that my sister isn’t doing this for money, although she — like me and everyone else under capitalism — must do something for money, to then purportedly exchange that money for our lives. She really cares; she really values that process of self-discovery, even when it’s ever so slow or painful.

It would be easy to answer, as I did in my head when she asked me: “capitalism.” While she was reminding me of all the other unpaid things I’m doing besides writing that are good for myself and others, that are about giving back to the world — from innumerable hours put in voluntarily, joyfully, at Interference Archive or the Institute for Anarchist Studies, along the spectrum over the past few months to the untold hours put in voluntarily, stressfully, for my two seriously ill parents — I kept repeating silently in my mind, “but where does all my time go?” I heard her say something like “just stop doing whatever you’re doing at 3:00 p.m. each day and write for a half hour or maybe an hour,” yet I only half heard it, and soon I almost wasn’t hearing anything she was offering as comforting advice. “Capitalism.” I apologized to her that I was drifting into anxiety, and that the multitasking mess of “to-dos” dancing jigs in my now-mushy brain seemed to be hindering my ability to take sound in. “Capitalism.”

Yes, there is all the time that capitalism steals from me, giving me so much less of it to fill with what I love and care about. What I really want to do. That’s almost too easy an answer, though clearly a monstrous part of it.

It has less to do with time, even though time constantly escapes me, or my wagework to-do lists, sitting cozily by my unpaid to-do lists. I haven’t been able to write recently because I haven’t been able to think — think clearly. Emotional overload has sat like a damper on me. I am physically here in the world, but what’s inside me is a different self than usual, not my self, and yet I’m not sure whose self either. A seeming fog-without-end is standing in my way, surrounding me in a space of immobilizing aloneness and loss, trepidation and terror — immobilizing, that is, in terms of doing anything that isn’t sort of auto-pilot activities. It’s exceedingly difficult to create.

That’s the more nuanced portion of my “capitalism” mantra when my sister was trying to be a good friend. Capitalism steals our imagination, our ability to envision — partially, poorly, but snapshots nonetheless — life outside and beyond it.
Read this essay in its entirety at Cindy Milstein wonderful blog: Outside the Circle.