Tag Archives: neoliberalism

Quit Lit and Academia as a Vocation

“Academic quit lit” has become a thing over the last couple of months years, now with articles in non-academic venues like Slate and Atlantic Monthly. ICYMI, the term designates academics who publish essays about why they are quitting the academy.

On Twitter a while back [when I first drafted this, it was “a few days ago”; now that I have time to come back to it, it is a little over a month], @brennacgray had a thoughtful series of tweets about it, including:

gray-quitlit tweets

I agree that academic work is a job and academics should be compensated fairly. The working conditions for adjunct faculty in particular are horribly exploitative, and part of the reason that is perpetuated is because of the belief that academic work is not just (or more than just) “a job.” Similar kinds of justifications are offered for the exploitation of college or minor-league athletes, for example. And it probably does “harm the most vulnerable members of it.” (But then again, what defines people as vulnerable is their susceptibility to harm. And I’m not sure that a model of the academy that sees academic labour as “just a job” is any better at protecting vulnerable workers.)

So I want to suggest another way to look at the academic quit lit phenomenon, that involves asking what it is an expression of, other than the capacity of institutions in a capitalist society to take advantage of individuals’ self-deceptions. The latter is a real problem, to be sure. But we can also read the quit lit genre more sympathetically and symptomatically: why would someone write a 5000-word essay about why life is unfair when they quit their job? We can do so by taking seriously, rather than dismissing, the idea that academic work can be understood as a vocation.

Sheldon Wolin, in his 1969 essay “Political Theory as a Vocation,” made the argument that some kinds of intellectual work, like political theory, were vocational, in the sense that they responded to a deeply felt need to do that particular kind of work. In the case of political theory, Wolin describes it as a desire to effect a Copernican turn in the world, so that the world is made to correspond to our normative/theoretical concepts (justice, democracy, equality, etc.), rather than taking the political world as given, and adjusting our ideals down to fit it. Part of Wolin’s argument was that most academics (ok, most American political scientists in the late 1960s) weren’t engaged in a “vocation” in this sense, and for him, that was a tragic outcome, precisely because it rationalized a political system that made some people particularly vulnerable. Wolin argues that most political scientists, who don’t see their work in the vocational terms of political theory, reduce political ideals to correspond with actual contemporary political practice: everyone is just doing their jobs, and so the world we have is about as good as we can expect. Then,

And while American political scientists have laboriously erected “incrementalism” into a dogma and extolled its merits as a style of decision-making that is “realistic,” it is apparent to all that the society suffers from maladies – the decay of our cities, the increasing cultural and economic gap between our minorities and our majority, crisis in the educational system, destruction of our natural environment – which call for the most precedent-shattering and radical measures.

It is only the pursuit of a vocation (for Wolin, a particular kind of vocation) that affords the vision necessary to see that everyone “just doing their job” can produce irrational, dysfunctional, and oppressive results.

One of the features of a vocation is that it is something you feel “called” to do, beyond the instrumental reasons for engaging in work. You would feel compelled to do that kind of work, even if you didn’t need the paycheque that it provides. Of course, most people do (also) need a paycheque to survive. So one way to understand the phenomenon of academic quit lit is the expression of the fact that that kind of work is increasingly difficult or impossible to pursue.

Before pursuing this to its conclusion, we can note that from this broader perspective, seeing “quit lit” as the expression of the unsustainability of certain vocational commitments, or more broadly, the unsustainability of certain forms of worklife, means that it is not restricted to academia. Consider, for example, Greg Smith’s public resignation from Goldman Sachs. An investment bank is a very different kind of organization from a university. But Smith says that he quit because of the “death of Goldman Sachs culture.” So, when Gray says:

gray-quit lit tweet 2 copy

I think she is taking too narrow of a view. Coal miners, cleaning ladies, and middle managers aren’t trained to “write 5000 words on why life is unfair.” But as I’ve argued elsewhere, this kind of lament or elegy, about the impossibility of engaging in particular kinds of work cultures, finds expression in plenty of other ways, from Greg Smith’s op-ed to films like the original Wall Street (1987) and more recently The Company Men, to the music of Bruce Springsteen. All kinds of work develop a particular culture, which gives that work meaning, beyond the instrumental value of the pay received.

Maybe we could and should live in a world without coal mining. But that doesn’t mean that the cultural loss, the loss of meaning, that happens with the end of that kind of work isn’t real. Although I obviously have the biases that come from being embedded in academia, I don’t think that the world is made a better place if fewer people are capable of engaging in unfettered pursuit of the truth, and the moulding of young minds to dedication to truth. (I know that this doesn’t describe the vast majority of what actually happens in academia. But it is the vocational commitment that is aspired to – what virtually every instance of the academic quit lit genre claims is disappearing.) One way of parsing the difference between something like coal mining and academic work, is that with coal mining the meaning (work culture) is derived as a kind of after-effect of the transactional exchange of labour for wages. With academic work, the vocational commitment in some sense comes first. And in an increasingly neoliberalized economy, there aren’t too many of those kinds of things left.

To me, academic quit lit is an expression of that disappearance, in the same the way that a particular charged moment is described in Steven Hayward’s short story “Strava“:

When he was finished he handed the phone back to me, and there descended into the office an awkward silence which I immediately recognized as the same silence that descends at the end of Chekhov plays as the characters contemplate their impossible future. It is the sound of a way of life ending.




What if we are always on the job?

It has been less than a month since reporter Shauna Hunt’s famous confrontation with a group of sexist jerks outside of a Toronto FC soccer game. (In case you missed it, see the fairly extensive CBC report, including a link to the video here.) The bros were banned from the games of all MLSE (owner of TFC) franchises for one year. (Whether missing a Leafs season counts as “punishment” is another story.) There was speculation about the filing of criminal charges (e.g. Causing a disturbance) although I haven’t seen any reports that charges were actually filed. But at least one – the one who tried to defend the initial incident by saying it was “f__ing hilarious” and “you’re lucky there isn’t a f__ing vibrator here” – was identified via social media and as a result fired from his job at Hydro One.

Flash forward to a case, made public by CBC News yesterday, where an employee of Northern Pulp in New Glasgow, NS, was fired for complaining to the mayor about racism in the community. There are some differences in the two cases. Arguably, a statement like “[a particular rural Nova Scotia community] is the Mississippi of the north,” said to a mayor, is more obviously a political claim than “[a particular statement] is f__ing hilarious” (let alone the vibrator comment). There also may be more truth to it. Still, I can’t help but feel that the two are connected. Perhaps not in a causal sense, but rather in revealing something about contemporary society, and the dangerousness of its mix of ubiquitous surveillance, precarious employment, and pervasive branding.The point of ubiquitous surveillance, assumed at least since Jeremy Bentham dreamed up the panopticon, is that it tends to make people engage in more self-policing. But as he expresses in CitizenFour, Edward Snowden’s exposure of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs was motivated by the concern that “self-policing” would also mean the stifling of political dissent. In this context, it is important to remember how many political changes, that are now widely accepted as sensible, were driven by movements that were at the time seen as dangerously subversive – the US civil rights movement being just one obvious example.
The desire to break the law – for an individual not to fully internalize social authority as vested in the law – is hardly pathological. But being able to act on the desire to break the law requires a certain degree of security. In some cases, it is security grounded in privilege: you know that you are unlikely to be caught, or that the consequences will not be too severe. Given what many reporters subsequently said about the pervasiveness of such harassment, it seems plausible that the ex-Hydro One employee wrongly judged that he had just this kind of security. In other cases, there is a kind of moral security that comes with knowing that you are doing the right thing, whatever punishments may be inflicted on you.At least with respect to the former, a generalized condition of precarious employment is important (with some obviously being in more precarious situations than others). Most obviously “precarious employment” as a general descriptor means an increased reliance on short-term contract work in the economy as a whole. But it also means the dismantling of various protections, built into labour law, that apply even to workers in non-“precarious” jobs. And it means employment contracts are settled in a context where opting out of the labour market is increasingly difficult (tightened eligibility requirements for (un)employment insurance, for disability benefits or other forms of social assistance, increasingly expensive education, etc.) And, perhaps least obviously, the context includes an economy and socially accepted “standard of living” that is increasingly financed by personal debt, so that the vast majority of workers are only one or a few missed paycheques away from financial ruin and its associated perceived social costs.

The third dimension is the phenomenon of pervasive branding. On the one hand, this refers to developments in the contemporary economy where a company’s “brand” is increasingly important. The company’s name and logo represents a financial asset that has a measurable value, one that is backed by the company’s public reputation. Like all capital assets, these are built up by labour. Just as corporate marketers and spokespersons can build up the company’s reputation, and thus add to the brand asset, so too can an employee who publicly does something disreputable be seen to creating a real financial liability (hence the morals clauses that are frequently explicit in the employment contracts of public figures). And while “brands” are often thought of as a distinctively late-modern phenomenon, as in this article which describes the 1960s as the “Cambrian explosion” of brands, they have a longer history, which begins with the physical marking (burning and scarring) of flesh to make bodies legible as property.

Social activity today is highly individualized, and it is increasingly common to see the phenomenon of branding thought about and practiced at the individual, not just corporate, level. Precarious workers, who once had nothing to sell but their labour power (or “nothing to lose but [their] chains,”) now have their “personal brand.” And make no mistake: (personal) brand management is a constant task. (For more on this, see Alison Hearn’s excellent “Meat, Mask, Burden: Probing the Contours of the Branded Self” (unfortunately paywalled)) The constant refrain, especially to youth, to be more reflexive (self-policing) in their social media activity is a reflection of this. A kind of scrutiny applied to current or past indiscretions, that used to be reserved for politicians seeking high office, is now presumed to apply to anyone seeking anything like a middle-class career, or even just a tolerable social life. Thus the old-fashioned separation of “personal” from “work” activities no longer obtains, because anything that you do, on the job or off, may diminish the value of your, and your present or potential future employer’s, brand.

Personal branding as a kind of self-commodification seems troublesome enough, particularly if we recall the mutilation that is required to make living bodies legible as property. Ubiquitous surveillance and a precarious employment economy just seem to make it all the more necessary to engage in it, and to engage in it constantly. And if we are constantly providing an outward performance of a particular brand of ourselves, well, Vonnegut’s Mother Night puts it well:

‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’

All this seems to undermine the possibility for a kind of moral security, dependent on an inner resolve that King called “self-purification,” that makes principled resistance to authority (aka political dissent) possible.

Compared to Hydro One, the Northern Pulp case seems to give these questions a more explicitly political twist. Here the damage is not to the cultural capital that is built up in the company’s brand, but to the company’s political capital. The dismissal letter posted on the CBC story states in part: “you have tarnished the image [of the company] and undone a lot of work that the company has been doing to build relations with our local officials.” The implications that this has for the expression of political dissent (about concentrations of economic as well as state power) seem rather ominous.

Entitlements in an Age of Austerity

“I am entitled to my entitlements.” So said outgoing Liberal cabinet minister David Dingwall as he defended his generous severance package in December 2005. The line was used to great effect in the 2006 election campaign that the Liberals lost, commencing the reign of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Post-economic crisis, and in what is often called an “Age of Austerity,” the fury directed at lavish spending by public servants has only intensified. The trope of public employees living large on the taxpayers’ dime tends to be used more frequently by conservatives who favour small government anyway. But of course individual conservative politicians – Bev Oda, Mike Duffy, and Alison Redford to cite a few recent examples – can also be caught up in its wake.

Thus there is a sense in which this critique of the “culture of entitlement” among the political class might be seen as non-partisan. Certainly that seems to be the thrust of Gary Mason’s article in today’s Globe & Mail, “The days of entitlement in office are ending.” On the other hand, getting people to see themselves first and foremost as “taxpayers” may feed into a critique of public sector spending more generally. In this sense, the view that there is a culture of entitlement among political elites feeds into the view that government is inherently wasteful, put most straightforwardly by US conservative activist Grover Norquist, who once claimed his ambition was to “shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Mason’s article cites Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation (a group often sighted lurking around the bathtub), who says that “Public pressure is changing the rules for political perks.” One of the reasons cited – maybe because it is used to explain everything else in the world, so why not this? – is the rise of social media. The other, though, is more interesting.

Mr. Bateman believes that more people today have what would be considered white-collar jobs. They understand how executives and business leaders should be conducting themselves and don’t see politicians as being any different or more entitled. “They understand that world and what’s appropriate, perhaps more than a 1950s blue-collar worker did,” said Mr. Bateman.

And in the information economy of today, most workers don’t get to fly business class, take their spouses to South Africa, stay in $1,000-a-night hotel rooms or sip $16 glasses of orange juice, he said. Their working lives are much more austere.

Much could be said about the way that “austerity” is seen (or argued) to be internalized, particularly among a class of people (white collar, information workers) who were once supposed to be immune from the economic insecurity that was foretold for blue collar manufacturing workers. The ideological sleight of hand in the move from elites (“executives and business leaders”) in the first paragraph to “most workers” in the second is certainly revealing: if there really is the same standard applied across the board, then we would have to say “executives and business leaders don’t get to fly business class…” But if business leaders shouldn’t fly business class, who should?

More interesting, though, is the narrow way that “entitlements” are defined. It is a mark of the triumph of neoliberalism’s economic mode of thinking that when talking about “entitlements” we seem to only end up talking about spending perks: a second home, luxury hotels, overpriced orange juice, and outright financial transfers like severance agreements and “gold-plated” pensions.

Less commonly discussed, but arguably far more common and dangerous, is a culture of political entitlement. If we think about entitlement to wield power without meaningful accountability, then we are in the heyday of entitlement in office. The mayor of Toronto’s case is known well enough to be summarized succinctly: despite everything that he has done, he feels entitled to continue in office. His sense of entitlement seems based only on his professed love of the job and the city, and his belief that only he can stop the gravy train. The case of our Prime Minister: here it is a matter of complete disdain for even the idea that anyone outside of his inner circle (said circle perhaps extending no further than his own head) could have a valid point of view. His government recently dismissed the unprecedented number and diversity of dissenting views on the so-called Fair Elections Act as the opinions of “self-styled experts.” More generally, the use of omnibus legislation, the prorogation of Parliament, the canceling of the long-form census and other measures typically used to inform evidence-based policy-making, the muzzling of government scientists, all of this has been in the service of more efficiently driving through Stephen Harper’s agenda. He knows what he wants to do. He thinks it is right. Therefore, whatever anyone else might do or say, he thinks he can, he should, and he will do it. He is the Prime Minister, and is entitled to wield power. He feels entitled to his entitlements.

To return to what was said by Jordan Bateman, above, the problem with the current era of austerity is not just that white-collar workers in the information economy were denied the promise of a better material life, or that “their working lives are more austere.” It is that in the current information economy, the veneration of “leaders” (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.) extends well beyond our working lives. Our political lives have become more austere. One way to describe authoritarianism might be an exaggerated sense of entitlement among political leaders: authoritarian leaders feel entitled to wield power without the checks that are present in a more democratic system. In Canada today, that culture of entitlement, unfortunately, is alive and well.