Comes the Precariat

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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on August 31, 2014

Discuss this article here in the Diner Forum.

 “The sooner we realize that we are locked in deadly warfare with our ruling, corporate elite, the sooner we will realize that these elites must be overthrown.”― Chris Hedges

 

Tomorrow, September 1 and Labor Day, will mark the second anniversary of the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct French professor who, at the age of 83, had recently lost her job at Duquesne University.  Ms. Vojtko suffered cardiac arrest on a street corner in Homestead, right outside of Pittsburgh,  yards from the house where she had lived almost her entire life. Rushed to the hospital, she never regained consciousness. Vojtko was an adjunct professor of languages who, after decades of service, found out that her appointment would not be renewed. After decades of toiling in academic insecurity, she was unceremoniously dumped.

Vojtko was a member of the precariat. Most likely, so are you.

When the story moved, I took notice, as I had graduated Duquesne,  in days lost in the mists of the Anthropocene. Two and a half weeks later, Vojtko’s lawyer, Daniel Kovalik, published an op-ed about Vojtko called “Death of an Adjunct” in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In it, he noted

Margaret Mary was an adjunct professor, meaning that, unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits and with a salary of between $3,000 and just over $3,500 per three-credit course. Adjuncts now make up well over 50 percent of the faculty at colleges and universities.

While adjuncts at Duquesne overwhelmingly voted to join the United Steelworkers union a year ago, Duquesne has fought unionization, claiming that it should have a religious exemption. Duquesne has claimed that the unionization of adjuncts like Margaret Mary would somehow interfere with its mission to inculcate Catholic values among its students.

0 interest in people

One thinks that Duquesne might have a better case arguing against contraceptive benefits for workers than against unionization on the basis of religious belief, but I will leave that one for the Holy Ghost Fathers (who operate Duquesne) to sort out. The following February, in remarks given by Noam Chomsky to a gathering of members and allies of said Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh,  he explained how the adjunct professor’s death was, at least in part, a direct consequence of what passes for economic policy in the Fascist States of America:

That’s part of the business model. It’s the same as hiring temps in industry or what they call “associates” at Wal-Mart, employees that aren’t owed benefits. It’s a part of a  corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility. When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line. The effective owners are the trustees (or the legislature, in the case of state universities), and they want to keep costs down and make sure that labor is docile and obedient. The way to do that is, essentially, temps. Just as the hiring of temps has gone way up in the neoliberal period, you’re getting the same phenomenon in the universities. The idea is to divide society into two groups. One group is sometimes called the “plutonomy” (a term used by Citibank when they were advising their investors on where to invest their funds), the top sector of wealth, globally but concentrated mostly in places like the United States. The other group, the rest of the population, is a “precariat,” living a precarious existence.

It’s too late for Margaret Mary Vojtko, but it’s not too late for the rest of us. Back in the day, when Alan Greenspan was “St. Alan,” chairman of the Federal Reserve and widely regarded as a seer more gifted than the Oracle at Delphi, he gave a speech, the remarks of which you can find here, and which Chomsky characterized:

 

 

 

When Alan Greenspan was testifying before Congress in 1997 on the marvels of the economy he was running, he said straight out that one of the bases for its economic success was imposing what he called “greater worker insecurity.” If workers are more insecure, that’s very “healthy” for the society, because if workers are insecure they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively. And that’s optimal for corporations’ economic health. . . how do you ensure “greater worker insecurity”? Crucially, by not guaranteeing employment, by keeping people hanging on a limb than can be sawed off at any time, so that they’d better shut up, take tiny salaries, and do their work; and if they get the gift of being allowed to serve under miserable conditions for another year, they should welcome it and not ask for any more. That’s the way you keep societies efficient and healthy from the point of view of the corporations. And as universities move towards a corporate business model, precarity is exactly what is being imposed. And we’ll see more and more of it.

 

And that has been policy. Citibank, they of the serial taxpayer bailouts, had a very clear idea of where such policy was steering the economy, and advised investors accordingly. Citi’s 2005 brochure for investors called “Plutonomy: Buying Luxury, Explaining Global Imbalances,” urged investors to put money into a “plutonomy index.” The brochure says, “The World is dividing into two blocs — the Plutonomy and the rest.”  It was, of course, one thing for Citibank to say this quietly to investors, but when the general public caught on to the news, six years later and Occupy took to the streets to say the very same thing, they got a face full of pepper spray and mass arrests for their trouble.

Class-war-ahead

So what did Citi’s crystal ball tell its investors in 2005? You missed this:

What are the common drivers of Plutonomy?

1) Disruptive technology-driven productivity gains, creative financial innovation, capitalist-friendly cooperative governments, an international dimension of immigrants and overseas conquests invigorating wealth creation, the rule of law, and patenting inventions. Often these wealth waves involve great complexity, exploited best by the rich and educated of the time.

2) We project that the plutonomies (the U.S., UK, and Canada) will likely see even more income inequality, disproportionately feeding off a further rise in the profit share in their economies, capitalist-friendly governments, more technology-driven productivity, and globalization.

3) Most “Global Imbalances” (high current account deficits and low savings rates, high consumer debt levels in the Anglo-Saxon world, etc) that continue to (unprofitably) preoccupy the world’s intelligentsia look a lot less threatening when examined through theprism of plutonomy. The risk premium on equities that might derive from the dyspeptic “global imbalance” school is unwarranted – the earth is not going to be shaken off its axis, and sucked into the cosmos by these “imbalances”. The earth is being held up by the muscular arms of its entrepreneur-plutocrats, like it, or not.

precariat1

Somewhere in Hell, Ayn Rand is smiling. How deeply comforting it must have been to receive this brochure in 2005 and read these words cosseting the “rich and educated” who would be reaping their just rewards as a result of the system in which they were savvy enough to invest. Christopaths like Joel Osteen call this sort of thing a “blessing.” Others call it a reason to put heads on pikes.

The hard work of generations of plutocrats, and the investments of right wing financiers and public policy have borne a toxic and remarkably abundant fruit. And here it is for your consumption, citizen, in this survey conducted by Rutgers:  “Unhappy, Worried and Pessimistic: Americans in the Aftermath of the Great Recession.” The summary: “The protracted and uneven recovery from the Great Recession has led most Americans to conclude that the US economy has undergone a permanent change for the worse, according to a new national study. Seven in 10 now say the recession’s impact is permanent, up from half in 2009 when the recession officially ended.”

Key findings include:

  • Despite sustained job growth and lower levels of employment, most Americans do not think the economy has improved in the last year or that it will in the next.

  • Just one in six Americans believe that job opportunities for the next generation will be better than for theirs; five years ago, four in 10 held that view.

  • Roughly four in five Americans have little or no confidence that the federal government will make progress on the nation’s most important problems over the next year.

Much of the pessimism is rooted in direct experience, according … Professor Carl Van Horn, co-author of the report.

“Fully one-quarter of the public says there has been a major decline in their quality of life owing to the recession, and 42 percent say they have less in salary and savings than when the recession began,” Van Horn said. “Despite five years of recovery, sustained job growth and reductions in the number of unemployed workers, Americans are not convinced the economy is improving.

He added that only one in three thinks the U.S. economy has gotten better in the last year, one-quarter thinks it will improve next year and just one in six believe that job opportunities will be better for the next generation of American workers, down from four in 10 five years ago.

It would appear that John Q. has finally looked up from the Doritos and beer to become aware of what Citi investors knew and profited from a decade ago.  Occupy arose directly from revulsion at the corporatization of every aspect of life. The thought was to get people in the streets, the better to influence public opinion and policy.  But Occupiers got arrests, tear gas, pepper spray and the full priapic majesty of the State for their trouble.  We used to chant, “Whose streets? Our streets!” But, as events in Ferguson have clearly illustrated, the streets belong to the owners, whose militarized police express their will. As a means to influence policy, demonstration is not nearly as effective as the legalized bribery known as “campaign contributions” from corporate lobbyists. And with corporate unionization as a percentage of the total workforce now ticking away at all time lows, it remains instructive to see the contortions to which companies will go to prevent any sort of worker organization.
So on this Labor Day weekend, when the charlatans and frauds and hired prostitutes who slavishly do the bidding of their corporate paymasters prattle on about the evils of unionization, do not fail to remember that the one thing that capital fears more than anything is working people banding together to make common cause.
***

Surly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants, articles and spittle-flecked invective on this site, and has been active in the Occupy movement. He shares a home in Southeastern Virginia with Contrary and is grateful that he is not yet fitted for a drool cup.

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