Sometimes it feels like


Blog post about lacking vocabulary to talk about important economic changes we've experienced, and how that lack of vocabulary hurts us.

I walked in to the grocery store with a big smile, I could almost feel that check in my wallet. Beth was a god damn champ to loan me that money. Maybe I'd buy some beers and food to fix a good dinner for the whole crew of us. Would it be weird to do that with money she loaned me? I was going to pay it all back anyway so it'd be all right. Plus Beth liked beer and was always so chilled out. There was that time in the UK when we drank a bottle of vodka and forgot to book a room or to make any plans at all really, and had ended up thinking we could walk the sixty or so miles from Claonaig to Oban… After stuff like that, Beth had to know I'd pay her back after my new job started in two weeks. I'd definitely get some beer and make dinner.

I finished depositing the check at the cash machine and grabbed the receipt. Fifty dollars in my account. I read it again. Fifty dollars. What the fuck? How did I have fifty dollars after depositing a three hundred dollar check? It had to be a mistake. I was supposed to have four hundred bucks. I called the bank right away. I walked around the grocery store while I listened to a computer voice list recent transactions. The only mistake was I mine. I was always so careful, some weeks I checked my bank balance almost every day. I hadn't checked in a few days because I was working my ass off applying for jobs. I hadn't been spending any money except cash I already had out for train fare so I thought I was fine, but I had bounced a check. Some other check hadn't cleared in time or something, and then the bounced check had a fee, which meant that another deposit from a one-off job left me with less money than I thought so another check bounced with another fee… it was like two hundred dollars in fees alone. How I was going to pay my student loan payment and my rent before I started work? That had been the whole point of getting the loan from Beth. I snapped my phone shut and blinked. My face felt hot, I could tell I was turning bright red. I had an urge to knock bottles of water off the shelves.

I balled my hands into fists and pressed them in my pocket. You stupid fuck up. Way to go. So much for beer and dinner. I took deep breaths and walked back to my car. I recounted every dumb thing I had done since graduating college four years ago, including going in the first place, all the stupid shit that helped me get to this point. I got in the car and slammed the door hard, then felt stupid for doing that. I put my forehead on the steering wheel and pushed the palms of my hands into my eyes and cried in my car in the grocery store parking lot. I tried not to think about people walking by. I wished I could just die and get over all of this, then I felt stupid for being so melodramatic. In the back of my mind I shouted at myself in my dad's voice, "you fucking pussy, you faggot, you fucked this up too, you can't even get a loan from a friend right" and I hated myself for how natural those words felt in that moment. A few minutes later I wiped my eyes and started the car. The CD I had with me was Bad Religion, No Control. I turned it up loud enough that it was hard to think and I drove home shouting along. "The poverty of his language and the wealth of his emotion…"


In an online conversation recently Juan Conatz said that he thought there wasn't much language to describe the restructuring we're currently experiencing in the United States. Juan recently wrote a piece about a day he had. That piece, which I think is a great piece of writing, and the conversation about it where Juan made that comment, that prompted me to write down those paragraphs about an incident several years ago in Chicago. I was between jobs again. I was trying to prove to my girlfriend and above all to myself that I wasn't a fuck up, that I could get my shit together. I had recently begun speaking to my dad again after a few years of refusing to talk to him, and I was fighting a lot with my mom in part because of tensions around making contact with my dad. Those were the people I could ask for money - my mom, my dad, and my girlfriend - and I really didn't want to because I was afraid of the relationship consequences of me asking, and worse yet, of them saying no, which felt like a real possibility. A friend came through for me in a big way, one of my few friends with a decent job. I think she even got health insurance, but I'm not totally sure about that. That was rare at the time.

Like a lot of people I know I didn't grow up in the kind of shitty economic circumstances I've lived in for my adult life. This has been a source of tension and conflict with family members. No one else in my family went to college, so they didn't understand how it is that I got a degree and couldn't find a job. My girlfriend made okay money taking care of kids for a living, but got shit from family about that - you went to college to become a nanny? At one point I counted. At twenty five I had had twenty five jobs. Most of my friends my age were similar. My father had worked at a lot of job sites in the construction trades but had basically had the same job since finishing trade school during a long construction boom. He didn't understand it and didn't care to. Obviously I couldn't find work because I was stupid, even if I had "the gift of gab, and good grades," as he put it. When in a better mood he would emphasize "someone as smart as you, you can find work, you just gotta job hunt better than you are." My mom's answer was a variation on the same theme, except that she was convinced that somehow going to graduate school would fix everything, and she was praying that God would help me understand this, and that after all God helped those who helped themselves.

My life is more stable now than it was back then, I have a job again, and health insurance. That stability's not as much as I'd like, though. I also have a kid and my wife and I are spending more than we earn, and I sometimes have nightmares about losing my job again and my daughter being uninsured. When Juan made the remark that we don't have much language to describe what is happening it really struck me because this has been my experience in trying to talk with my family about my experiences in the economy. For various reasons my relationships with my parents are difficult, though thankfully much less so than when I was in my 20s. Our problems are not just and not primarily economic, but the disconnects I've had with them over my experiences with jobs have not helped. They were really unable to understand what it was like looking for work, and that I really did try to find work, and I couldn't put it in words they'd understand. That lack of language, and the lack of comprehension on the part of people I loved (and already was prone to battling with) made the economic circumstances even worse.

In the past few years, I'm sorry to say, my parents understand what's going on. The construction boom dried up with the financial crisis. My dad's working his first non-union and non-construction job in years. He works nights as a maintenance guy at a factory, often working six or seven nights a week. My mom became a teacher late in life, right around when she and my dad split up. This year the school she teaches in cut almost half the teachers in her department. Class sizes went up accordingly, and they cut her pay by almost eight hundred dollars a month. She has started waiting tables to make up the lost income.

Nowadays my parents understand better what my job experience was like. They've been through the wringer themselves now economically, like so many other people, and have seen enough other people they know - people their age, not dumb ass younger people - have a hard time. And it's just in the air now, people get that things have changed. But at the same time, while there's this new understanding, it's largely unspoken. That is in part a product of how my family and I (don't) communicate, but it's also a matter of what Juan said: there isn't enough language to describe these changes. I mean, there's probably plenty of terminology, but none that at any of us had on hand to talk with.


The conversation with Juan that prompted this was in part about the term precarity. The term as I understand it came up through European movements in the late 1990s and early 2000s around cuts in welfare policy, changes in labor practices like more temp and part time work, and changes in labor law. I've never particularly liked the term. Actually, that's not true. I liked that term when I first heard it. I first heard it through autonomist marxist channels online, around maybe 2001 or 2002. At the time it spoke to some of my experiences, and I had a bad habit of liking all things European without thinking much about it. I remember when Greenpepper magazine devoted an issue to precarity. I got a copy and showed it to a friend, he said "it's interesting but it's really … like, conceptual. I have trouble understanding some of it and I don't know why they need to talk about this stuff in those terms." For a while some friends and I collaborated on a blog tracking what we could about the precarity conversations that were happening. Over time I got tired of the precarity talk, for three reasons. One, I had begun to be frustrated with what I had started to think was a social democratic component in the precarity movements. Two, I had become frustrated with American leftists importing categories from Europe without adapting them enough to (and accounting for) the different history and context in the U.S. Three, I had started to learn more about U.S. history and it seemed to me that the U.S. working class never stopped being precarious, to the degree that people did in Europe, and precarity was especially more common for people of color, immigrants, and women workers.

Things are different after the economic crisis. Worse, economically, for sure. Precarity seems to me like a lousy term but we need some term and better a lousy one than none at all. But precarity's not a widespread term. Whether that term or another, I think we need a name for what's happened.

When I was in high school it seemed to me briefly that Generation X was the name of a process like this. I'm a few years too young to be in that age cohort, but I remember reading about it in Rolling Stone and Spin magazine, in between interviews with various angst-ridden Seattle musicians, there were articles about how this was the first generation of Americans that would not live to achieve better economic circumstances than they grew up in. That is, there would be a turn toward downward mobility. My arty angry teen friends and I reacted to this with an aestheticized cynicism that we bought with our records. "No future for you!" Frankly it seemed romantic. Especially when it was a slow leak and we weren't supporting ourselves on our shitty jobs, just buying records and going to shows. It got a lot less romantic as it got realer in the next few years, and at least among my family and friends Generation X died out as a term in use. For a while, though, I remember people could say "Generation X" and it would mean something like "people experiencing downward mobility" though there were cultural trappings and stuff to the term too - hipsterism and all that. I imagine that for some people Occupy Wall Street serves a similar purpose in conversation. Still though it seems like there's not a clear and generally used set of terms, there's no phrase for it that sums it up that people know and use.

What I'm trying to get at, what struck me so much when Juan said that we don't have language for this, is that there's this huge thing in our lives individually but also as a big change in our times, and I feel like we don't have words for it. There's no clear name for it that I know of that I can use with my friends and family who aren't radicals. We have words or names like "global warming" and "post-9/11" for other aspects of the present. Those terms name important social processes and threats, and they have a sort of moral overtone sometimes -- they're terms that lend themselves easily to making judgments. But we don't have enough words for this stuff in our economic lives, that capture these changes, and capture them as a kind of wrong.

In the 1990s Love and Rage in the US used the term "reproletarianization," that's a good old marxist sounding kind of word. There's "austerity" too. Those are a bit technical sounding… a co-worker of mine recently said, complaining about management's griping about "low morale", my co-worker said "the problem isn't that we have a bad attitude, it's that we thought we had a future and now we don't anymore, that's not a problem of morale, that's a problem of us having no fucking future we can imagine." There's probably some link here to this book that Joseph Kay and Juan have said is good, Capitalist Realism, from what Joseph has said about it. The phrase I remember from hearing about that book is something like "it's easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism." Lack of vision, lack of believable future, I think this may tie in to lack of words that are in widespread use.

I'd like to think that part of what's happening within Occupy is a process of the working class beginning to formulate terms and names for itself, and this is closely bound up with judgments about the world. I've written about this before, I think - it seems to me that Occupy is largely driven by a sense of "we did what we were supposed to and we didn't get what we were supposed to." I can relate to that. College was supposed to mean I would get a good job, that's what everyone told me, and yet I have always made less money than anyone else in my family, and that's not counting the debt. What the fuck…? Here too though we could use better words for these processes, and those words and the stories we tell with them have political stakes. "I did what I was supposed to so I should get what I was supposed to get" is pretty clearly a limited sentiment in terms of justice, compared to, say, "this bullshit shouldn't happen to anyone ever" or "everyone gets what they need." And again, I think we could also use names for the process, names that summarize experiences without leaving out too much or homogenizing too much, and names that politicize these transformations we're living through.

I'm going to end here. I'd like to hear from other people about their experiences of anything in the ballpark with what I've said here. I'm particularly interested in hearing about people's economic circumstances and how they've communicated (or not) with friends and loved ones about it. In that I especially want to know if people have had adequate terms and ability to have those conversations, and if so how you've talked about it.

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Mar 20 2012 06:42


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Mar 20 2012 18:31

I think this a great article, you were bang on identifying the "we did what we were supposed to and we didn't get what we were supposed to." I hear this from the vast majority of folk I know (mostly 2-3 years out of uni). Which given the fact that something around 35% of graduates from the last six years in the UK are in jobs a school leavers qualify for (mostly shop/cafe work) and a further 20% are unemployed isnt of any great surprise.
Sadly most people I come across (including myself to some extent) react by feeling pretty dis-empowered/hopeless. I'm not sure whether people will continue to hold the vague hope that 'the economy will improve eventually' - I don't know what the result of that will be, look at Greece and Ireland two very different reactions. Having the language to communicate this collective loss of hope for the future is crucial to building resistance. I think this article also touched on that issue to a point

Indigo from Bue...
Mar 20 2012 19:43

First off, thank you for writing down this article. What you have experienced is so true and it’s the same in othere parts of the world. Call it a consequence of neoliberalism, capitalism, whatever. It happens exactly as you’ve said. I went to university, graduated, had hopes for that ‘future’ everyone talked about, that my family talked about. Fucking hell. It has not happened as it was supposed to, and in between the process I became politicized and realized it’s all bullshit —even if you get down and bow, you may not have that future, and I ain’t bowing and kneeling to no one, much less to presumptuous bosses.

All this, of course, comes together with the whims of local governments. For example, even though we have a demagogue and populist gov’t around here (Buenos Aires) with a strong propaganda machine that's claimed there was virtually less unemployment than ever, it took me five painful and distressing months to actually get hired —more than any other time in my life, and much in spite of all my experience and education.

And it does not come down to ‘luck’ or being smart checking out for jobs; although there is some favouritism, the whole system is unfair, to say the least. Still, people play it along; even when they know they have no cards left to play. They swallow it all and smile. And here is a question that may hit home with many: how could you not accept those shitty jobs when you’ve got no other choice left?

That’s why awareness, political awareness, and that critical language that you mention is lacking, are badly needed: to put into words, and later into actions, the desperation of our despair, the fury of our anger, and the broken dreams of our hope.

Of course there is no future —we carry that in our hearts, and we are going to make it real when we all realize the only way through.

For me it’s revolt; revolt till the whole system cracks down, till the rich have no more money left, till the means of production are back in the hands of workers, till the pillars of the current status quo are so eroded no one wil be able to build them up again.

The sad truth is, not too many are willing to make the sacrifice. I read about the upcoming May Day demos and I wonder, what if the whole world stopped? What if no one when to work? What if that May Day became a permanent state of being, till those in power freak out?

We are more powerful than all their bellicose existence put together; only we haven’t realized it yet.

In the meantime, we’ll see each other in our corresponding sweatshops tomorrow (‘cause all work is exploitation, and every workplace is a sweatshop).

All the best,
Indigo.- from Buenos Aires.
(By the way, I'm not the same Indigo than the compa in the previous comment!)

Joseph Kay
Mar 20 2012 19:42

Great piece, loads to engage with...

- Generally, i really empathise with this piece. i'm nearly 30, have worked various jobs over the last decade and only for about 6 months in my working life have I had a contract that wasn't temp/probationary/casual (and that was shit, and I got laid off). I don't think there's anything exceptional about this experience, in fact it's more or less the norm, or certainly a norm. in fact, swapping stories of shit call centre jobs, warehouse work etc is more or less the standard bonding fare when starting a new job. So maybe something like a common language is emerging, slowly, organically and not from the radical milieu.

- On the language thing, we've discussed this a bit and yeah, I don't know what the answer is. I guess language needs to be shared, so maybe it just has to emerge from a multiplication of these kind of conversations with our workmates, loved ones etc?

- On the no future dynamic, did you see Paul Mason's (BBC editor) theses, beginning with 'at the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future'? That prompted me to write this, aimed at my (then) coursemates. In terms of more heavy stuff, Zizek has been banging on about 'living in the end times', and I think Frederic Jameson has written in this vein too, though I haven't read him. What I like about Mark Fisher's book is it captures that mood in a fraction of the pages and with much less dense prose.

- your comments about the US never becoming de-precarious are interesting. in discussions over 'precarity'/casualisation i've long argued it's not so much a radical novelty (much less a 'new dangerous class'), but rather a return to capitalism as normal after a brief social democratic interlude (similar to 're-proletarianisation' i guess?). i suppose that interlude was felt more deeply in Europe than the US, as even now there's the remnants of a welfare state (albeit one the state is intensifying and accelerating the attacks on now - the NHS now looks like it will be gone as anything more than a brand name in a couple of years).

- this all seems to create a paradox... these experiences if not quite universal are pretty damn widespread. yet there's no language to articulate them and ideas roughly approximating libertarian communist ones, far from being a sort of 'proletarian common sense' are the preserve of a homoeopathic minority. i think this is where stuff like 'direct unionism' style tactics, SeaSol style stuff against landlords and the like could be really interesting if it's taken up more, as it might give a practical expression to those widely held sentiments of having been cheated/let down by the system and so on, and perhaps a catalyst for more conversations way beyond the tiny number of active libcom posters.*

* all that said, libcom now gets 200,000 unique visitors a month, which is 'only' 150 times smaller than mainstream sites like the Huffington Post and New York Times, that's a lot of reach considering how few active libertarian communists there are.

Mar 20 2012 20:24

I'm getting a bit tired of us being described as the 'lost generation', the 'graduate without a future', etc. cos if we keep on repeating this stuff and define ourselves solely by what we are, then surely it stands to reason that we'll internalise it and not get anywhere. Dunno, it's a bit like what the pioneers said about gangster rap. It's not enough to 'keep it real', to embody what we're being given, which btw is nothing. We have to make something out of that nothing, to envision what we want no?

Mar 20 2012 20:48

In our house we were talking about the 'new depression' for a while, but I think the media hyped a 'recovery' and so 'depression' seems off the table. I think a lot of people talk about the 'economy', as in 'I would like to study linguistics, but with the economy the way it is...'. It's a pretty mystified concept because it implies a big giant system totally beyond our control.

We lost our home in a pre-foreclosure sale (short sale) due to our debt burden: namely student loans. We've started referring to our condition as being 'poor', which I think is weirder for my wife since she grew up comfortably 'middle class'. It seems like our folks are starting to realize this economic situation isn't so much of a passing phase.

Mar 20 2012 21:00
wojtek wrote:
I'm getting a bit tired of us being described as the 'lost generation', the 'graduate without a future', etc. cos if we keep on repeating this stuff and define ourselves solely by what we are, then surely it stands to reason that we'll internalise it and not get anywhere. Dunno, it's a bit like what the pioneers said about gangster rap. It's not enough to 'keep it real', to embody what we're being given, which btw is nothing. We have to make something out of that nothing, to envision what we want no?

I think sometimes people have to understand, conceptualize, and articulate how fucked the world is before they can begin to imagine a new one.

Mar 20 2012 22:14

Thanks all for the comments and the recommendations of related stuff to look at.

Knotwho - yeah, definitely 'the economy' as a mystified concept. I mean, there *is* this big thing that's out of our control called the economy, but it's a political fact, not a fact of nature - it's a wrong, and one that could be undone. I think it's easier to say than to really visualize that, at least for me. I'll get back to this.

Joseph - IThis is really interesting:

swapping stories (...) is more or less the standard bonding fare when starting a new job. So maybe something like a common language is emerging, slowly, organically and not from the radical milieu. (...) language needs to be shared, so maybe it just has to emerge from a multiplication of these kind of conversations with our workmates, loved ones etc

As some folk here know I'm one of the people who edits Recomposition. One of my favorite things we've done is run stories about work from a first person perspective and sometimes about workplace struggles. The way I remember it we started running the work stories without much discussion about why, just like, they're nice to read and a change of pace from some other types of stuff. From reading that stuff more I've started to think that stories are important in a way that I didn't used to. There's a lot more to say about that but I'm worn out today and don't have particularly clear thoughts on this when I'm at my most awake, mostly it's something I'd like to think more about, and read and talk about. I also had a thought today in conversation with a friend that there's a link here to something that you and I have talked a bit about Joseph, about models of capitalism we use to think about capitalism vs actually existing capitalism, I got into this a bit in this blog post, about Marx. I think that a lot of the time our (certainly my) ideas about interests and so on are tied to models of capitalism and models of the working class, when actual people in the working class think in a variety of ways using a variety of terms/vocabularies and stories and don't always make simple economic model type calculations in clear conscious ways. Among other things a lot of the time our involvement here in the libertarian communist milieu is party a faith-based initiative, based on the hope that capitalist realism is wrong and a better world can be made even if/when, like me, we sometimes have trouble really imagining it. We're not doing this stuff out of a cost/benefit analysis in a narrowly economic sense.

Sorta related, getting back to Knotwho and the economy as mystified, as I've said a bit, I have trouble genuinely imagining a different world and a transition to one. I've got a sort of abstract conviction which is enough for me over all but one some days I'd like more than that, and I'm clearly not the only one on this. I think that there's some connection here to stories and langauge again. I've thought for a while that the insurrectionary anarhcist milieu in the US seemed to me like basically an autonomous art movement in some respects, in that it's at least as much an aesthetic thing as it is anything else. I used to say that dismissively, as in "that stuff is just merely style." But I've changed my mind on a lot of that - I now have more time for some of that milieu politically, and I also think that the milieu has some real strengths aesthetically that are not "just" "merely" style but that that stuff matters in some way. Some way I can't articulate right now.

And I think there's some connection to what Joseph said about it's strange that there's this widespread experience of this stuff but not much language for it. I think it's connected to what Knotwho said about the mystification of the economy. In part I think that the idea that these economic changes are not political and not a grievance is on the one hand part of why there's not more langauge for this, and that lack of language for all this is part of why this stuff is often experienced as nonpolitical and not a matter of injustice. I think there may be a parallel about workplace injuries. Both my parents and both my brothers and I have been seriously hurt on the job before or been around coworkers getting seriously hurt. We've talked very little about this except in a sort of "oh what a shame" kind of what when it actually happens and in a technical/logistical way ("careful with your broken hand, dude, you don't want to hurt it again while it's still healing"). That's in part these injuries don't feel like a kind of grievance so much as a fact of life, and part of why they feel that way is that we don't talk about them much.

Mar 20 2012 23:17

I don't know specifically what you mean in regards to aesthetics, but I think creative representations are key to imagining beyond capitalism. Art allows us to think of the possibilities, good and bad.

By the way, I liked that you started with a story.

Mar 21 2012 20:59

This is not directly related but I remember talking to my mum about how class conscousness was essentially "knowing how we are all in the same shit together"

Chilli Sauce
Mar 21 2012 21:42

Fucking great article.

Not totally related, but one thing I've done is try to shed the language of leftism/radicalism/activism when I speak to my workmates. So when I talk to my co-workers, it's about "sticking together" and not abstract concepts like the "class struggle" or even "the union".

Once you do this, you realise that there's a common sense in "strength in numbers" that's much easier to tap into if we're discussing basic concepts using everyday language. I mean, the things we're advocating are pretty logical. I think--as radicals--we can confidently present these ideas and maybe offer a bit of a plan. As struggles and movements come out of the current economic crisis, I think the language will develop "organically" as Nate says (or "dialectically", if you want to be a wanker about it wink )

On one other note, I've had the exact same experience with my parents going through a sort of "reproletarianization". My mom had to get a job as a call centre worker in a private health insurance company. This was after my father lost his high-paying managerial job and she hadn't worked in over two decades. So not only did she have to ask her 25 year old boss if she could go to the bathroom (and was then subsequently timed) but she saw how insurance companies fucked people at every turn. From this, she's developed a pretty damn solid class consciousness. Last time I talked to her, she was talking about getting involved with the Occupy in her city!

Mar 23 2012 00:38

You write a very striking article! I haven't followed the links to Juan's writings, but he sounds like a pretty astute fellow.

I might have wound up a fourth-generation legacy at a big computer corporation if businesses hadn't gotten so leery about nepotism around the time I came of age. Having always preferred horticulture anyway, I nowadays work a route, maintaining the health of tropical plants living in corporate environments.

The corporation I work for is a predatory multinational ("Fifty-five acquisitions in twenty-five years" brags our sociopath president, which explains eloquently why we laborers get poorer every month we remain in that shmuck's employ), but I've been at it almost five years now. Ain't nothin' goin' on but the rent, don't you know, and I'm privileged enough to be paying a mortgage, not just rent.

But that kind of basic immorality--nay--AMORALITY is no small source of self-loathing, compounded by the same loss of family communication that your fine article describes. I am left to the logical desolation that they, my original family (the "successful" ones) are even worse as people. Do they not thrive on even more sophisticated lies than the one that keeps me fed?

Your hopes for a coming to terms, especially for radicals, who are the people ready to hear the truth, are helpful.

Isolated, under-involved, anxious, distracted, one can use reminders, the likes of which I'll find in your article for years, I expect, like WE ARE LEGION.

We're mostly just scattered by myriad shortages that need managing, or I should say organizing: LANGUAGE, for example.

Mar 23 2012 23:51

Regarding the language we use, I wanted to point out that jokes about the 1% go over pretty well with folks who aren't super-policized. As in, "It's 1% night when the board of directors meet".

The 99% doesn't seem as useful, at least for jokes.