An American for Hire

editorial by michelle l.p.

I've always been security-minded. On the other hand, I've always resented and despised the very idea of wage labor. Quite a dilemma for a first-generation American who has never occupied the comfortable ranks of the middle class.
Economic stability has always been up there in my top five life goals, owing, no doubt, to the insecurity of my childhood. My immigrant parents never really took to the market economy in America. They remained helpless and insecure in the face of go-get-'em individualism, living humbly and methodically according to the precepts of pre-World War II Europe. My dad diligently paid all the bills in cash, in person, never realizing that a checking account could "save time.'' Both parents kept the same low-paying jobs for eons, never aspiring to move up the ranks into the conniving managerial class. Ambition, American-style, was to them an extremely crass and distasteful pursuit.

However enlightened my parents may seem, their lack of adjustment to middle class values caused me endless problems. As a kid I suffered adult-like anxiety about money and our lack of it. I was constantly worried by our family's medical bills, inadequate medical insurance, and perpetual indebtedness to this or that doctor. All the anxiety this situation produced seemed to result in more illness, accidents, and bills—and less insurance.

My disquiet over the money problem was exacerbated by my old-world, anti-capitalist father who gave us daily diatribes about the decadence of American mass culture, likening it to the fall of the Roman Empire. He told his little daughters that consumer goods were frivolities master-minded by the rich to keep the working people in chains. They were "wasteful" products that contributed to a "weak" character. Why vacation when you could work? Why eat out when food was just as good at home? And piano lessons? Those were a luxury that only the rich could afford.

Yet our lives were made miserable by the chronic money shortage. My father refused us most of the pleasure products that were de rigueur in sixties suburbia. Our junky, used cars continually broke down on the freeway, the car being our sole means of escaping to the beach or the mountains, or to look at the rich people's homes. Our own house was excruciatingly insufficient, with seven people (two of them elderly grandparents) and one very loud T.V., squeezed into its five rooms.

Luckily, my mom's employment at the local department store enabled us to pass as middle class. Thanks to her 20% discount and her uncanny understanding of children's needs, she defiantly provided us with some of the more affordable requisites for membership in the Suburban Club—while teaching my dad a thing or two about the fundamentals of human psychology. Nevertheless, at a very early age, I had an advanced and quite painful understanding of the importance of money in our society.

As a teenager my deepest ambition was to act on the stage, but I quickly abandoned it, realizing that the work was not stable enough for my tastes. Once out of college I opted for a career I felt would better coincide with my political beliefs but still provide a surefire paycheck every month. That "stable" profession was college teaching. It was 1979. One hitch in the grand plan to marry ideals to economics was that I detested graduate school. Another was that the job market for teaching was closing fast. This only highlighted the absurdity of my slaving away in grad school and the fawning acquiescence of my fellow students to the faculty.

I decided to try other careers for a while, which resulted in a 16-month stint as a temporary word processor and a near nervous breakdown. No matter what the job situation I would leave at 5 p.m. fuming at my dumb-shit bosses, who bolstered their feeble egos by generating a feverish pace of work; a pace which, I soon realized, masked the work's meaninglessness. This was also about the time I started reading Processed World, which awoke me to the fact that wage labor was a no-win situation. Whether word processing for the law firm or thought processing for the university, the employee always loses, financially, psychologically, and emotionally.

It also became clear that any kind of career whatever under capitalism was a sham-and especially so in the 1980s. Professionalization, I realized, was nothing more than a tremendous ruse to get a swollen baby-boom generation to compete harder than its parents for fewer jobs while feeling more important.

Yet, I returned to graduate school, more bitter and suspicious, but still tethered to my longings for security. What mostly got me through three more years was my enjoyment of, and devotion to, assistant teaching, to the exchange between student and teacher. I learned to ignore the higher-ups and do my own thing in the classroom. What also helped me through was my decision to chuck academia and start teaching in the community colleges, which I now do part-time. I've come full circle—I'm a teaching temp. I get hired and fired at the whim of the administration, my pay is ridiculously low, I have no benefits and no perks, and there are no full-time jobs to be had.

If this were a few years ago, I'd probably walk out of this situation in a huff. But now I am very carefully planning my ascent up the pyramid into full-time, permanent status, with its insurance benefits, pension plans, and the rest of the perks that buy off the average worker. I know that, as usual, I'll come to resent full-time work—the same early hours, the same commute, the same four walls, the same people, the same surrender of my Self to the institution —despite my appreciation of the students. But right now it seems worth it.
In part, this is because my now-retired parents live off meager social security benefits, and my first-generation instinct is to help them. The other part comes from the me-generation instinct, which warns against getting myself into their situation when I'm old. I also realize that I would like to have kids and I sure as hell don't want them to inherit my money anxiety. In other words, I am facing adulthood and doing what I think is best.

Do I worry I'll sell out one day and become "too bourgeois"? Not really. Although I've come to recognize and accept my desire for security, I am well aware that it can't truly be fulfilled in corporate America. In reality, the stability of middle-class life is very tenuous. Any serious illness, accident or layoff has disastrous implications for people increasingly denied social services by the state and lacking an extended-family support network to on.
Without any guarantee of financial support should fate be unkind, Americans cling to products of capitalism which symbolize security. They collect "things" as padding, little realizing that the social structure creates the insecurity they run from.

Which brings me to my final point: I think that radicals who have consciously embraced marginality have mistakenly tended to scorn working people's desire for security, creating an artificial barrier more detrimental than useful. These artists, intellectuals and outcasts choose to remain apart and above, married to a life of self-denial and struggle in the best Christian tradition. Such people view anything short of such sacrifice as "selling out.''

I desire the life that middle-class status affords: family, pleasure, freedom from money anxiety. I'd be lying if I didn't admit it. I also think it's foolish to pretend that anyone who has struggled or suffered in his/her life doesn't want that. Just ask any recent immigrant slaving for minimum wage in a sweatshop, as both my grandmothers did. Or ask me. I hate capitalism and wage slavery, and probably always will. But for now, you can sign me, an American For Hire.

by Michelle L.P.