ELENA TRUBINA “Occupy to Get an Occupation?”
November 19, 2011 1 Comment
My American colleague recently wrote recommendation letters for fourteen graduate students—only one of them was lucky enough to get a job. Another colleague’s department has such a huge budget deficit that they are cutting their graduate students off at the legs. The prediction made during the panel discussion of the Future of Marxism, at the AAG annual conference a few years ago, was that none of the current PhD students would get a permanent job. Increasingly, graduates from philosophy and other humanities departments begin their work life as an office manager (which is a euphemism for secretary), thus existentially experiencing the conformist pressures of ‘the They’ (Das Man) exemplified by their bosses. ”Just how many more sales managers does this country need?” is a question I often hear from my students who are about to graduate and look for suitable jobs, including academic ones. The bleak prospects of finding meaningful employment that this question conveys are increasingly related to what might be termed “negative selection,” about which I as a Professor of Philosophy hear painfully often. “You are too smart for us” is what a prospective boss tells recent graduates if the position in question is that of a waiter.
Dismantling the socialist state in the post-Soviet space and the simultaneous scaling back of the welfare policies in the United States and Europe have raised new concerns regarding patterns of exclusion and inequality and the institutions and practices that produce them. Work in many occupations has become increasingly precarious. The curtailment of upward career mobility and the increasing contingency of employment have proven particularly detrimental for young adults. Was it not accumulated frustration that led many young people to encampments all over the world? What could more powerfully show that capitalism is not able to secure meaningful jobs for the millions if not the mass OWS spectacle? To make sense of the changes that OWS promises to bring only in the light of macroeconomic tendencies is, however, too one-dimensional. One must also consider the complex interplay between cultural and subjective factors and the socio-economic structures, including the cultural predilections, imaginings, and aspirations of the young.
One possible reason why Occupy didn’t spread to East Europe and Russia is that young people tend to “swim with the current” and adjust to the prevailing, rather limited, societal conditions, than to openly contest them (e.g., by becoming involved in political parties or social movements). In their view, the marketized uptake of the long-standing Russian tradition of distributing resources within a narrow circle of the elite amounts to a current “freezing” of the class structure, to a jealous guarding of the borders separating those who have access to oil and gas revenues and other assets and those who do not. Despite the problematic legacies of Marxism, the conceptual language that Marxism lends in order to describe one’s situation continues to be used, though not without irony, by recent college graduates. At the same time, neoliberal ideology, with its emphasis on an apolitical acquisition of resources camouflaged by market fundamentalism, provides interpretive resources that college-educated youth rely on in making sense of their situation. Their repertoires of moral-political evaluation include reflections upon nation-specific differences in institutional rules, informed by normative ideas about the common rules of just government. Their sober understanding of the problematic economic and political situation in Russia and in the whole world is combined with aspirations towards individual autonomy which, they believe, is possible to achieve when one finds oneself among family and/or a circle of friends. Constructing and sustaining networks of family and friends as a preferable mode of finding employment and, more generally, coping with the vagaries of neoliberalization is a strategy which both unites them with their peers in the more developed countries and seals them off where they live.