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.