Careerism: Clear and Present Temptations
In less than a month, my career as an undergraduate student will be over, meaning that my four years of loan-financed respite from the unyielding pressure of the job market will end. At this point, there are a few options open to me:
1. Graduate school
Because I have the skills of an academic, namely a facility with words and an intellectual digestive system that can process torrents of information in a short amount of time, this is my preferred option. Though I’ve gotten rejection letters from most of the institutions to which I’ve applied, there is still the outside chance of being admitted to one or another reputable university. Grad training would provide the basis for a career in academia, at least in theory. Given that universities are run with the flexibility of a cartel and the competitive drive of a gang of bull sharks, I have little confidence in a secure middle class life achieved through this path.
2. Private Sector
Though most North American universities these days are being disciplined to act more like private sector operations, they still remain distinct in outlook and purpose from most of the for-profit institutions (some of them universities) that are meant to welcome university graduates with golden ladders and the grind for advancement. If my prospects here are even dimmer than they are in the graduate school and academia path, that is because hiring into entry-level positions with any security is a relic of the Fordist compromise, which now lies gasping and broken. I remain comparatively advantaged racially and in having an undergraduate degree, but there is no guarantee that these are not just minimum requirements for terminal service jobs for which one can hardly muster any enthusiasm. Indeed, if the market will have trouble digesting me it will be because I have little enthusiasm for the sort of social, demeaning work that is expected of most everyone these days. Not that those who hold such jobs should be castigated for taking on such occupations, but I would only point out that no one aspires to them––outside of Spongebob Squarepants––for a reason. My own upbringing and prior experience with such jobs makes me reluctant to even think about the prospect of landing in that kind of employment for any length of time, even though that eventuality looms ever more likely.
My partner currently works at a grocery store, and everyone in our lives, the two of us included, conceive of service jobs like this as temporary expedients, work that you do to get by while real life waits over some silver-capped hill in the distance. Unfortunately, this mode of thinking ignores the fact that work as a whole has been reconfigured in these terms, so that the misery of wage work has lost even its constancy. Remuneration for such jobs is, of course, far better than the pay expected of manufacturing workers in the Global South or migrant workers in our own country––not to mention all the unpaid work contributed by women in addition to their participation in the waged workforce––but a precarious existence is a potent capitalist weapon to discipline the working class. That fast food workers and others have been able to mount any concentrated resistance, even just for a rise in wages, is remarkable considering the fluidity and dispersion that service work can entail.
If I did gain a foothold in academia or archive work, which are the two fields in which I have the most interest, precariousness would not disappear. But it would open up the potential for a new problem that is also a very old problem for Marxists and wanna-be revolutionaries entering academia. Concerned with studying social problems and formulating solutions, and seeing academic prestige as a means to those ends (not entirely mistaken; consider what, albeit in totally different conditions, a philosophy professor like Abimael Guzman accomplished in Peru), we rush headlong into the books and find ourselves enveloped in the competitive “red ocean” of academia. Opportunism is rewarded, as is masking revolutionary language in a respectable guise. Tenure, the ultimate prize, is both elusive and conducive to grasping compromises. Further and further insulated from the people to whom we originally swore allegiance, we find ourselves unable to break out of the cycle of publishing (if we are so lucky), conferences, and governance meetings. Whatever we commit to paper has to have one eye cocked to academic reputation, with only half of our heart, if that, oriented towards real revolutionary progress. I suspect this is one reason why Marxist academics, who can treat so many issues with facility and even grace, never speak a word about revolutionary strategy, the real movement that abolishes reality and begins to construct a new one.
Ultimately, only a commitment to dialectical materialism, the science of history inaugurated by Marx, can allow academics of whatever layer to grasp this real movement and keep hold of it. Remembering that our place in the university is both that of a soldier on behalf of the proletariat and of a schoolteacher tasked with reproducing petty-bourgeois ideology in a new generation gives us a powerful ability to work at the heart of capitalism’s reproduction processes. Remaining individualistic, unattached to revolutionary parties and movements, and spending all our time producing for other academics are natural results of the life of an academic in the First World, accustomed to solitary study, rivalry, and a capitalistic drive to produce cerebral novelties rather than explaining the world according to its true mechanisms. Not even mentioning the idea of putting our bodies on the line for the sake of revolution, an act unthinkable in the Cartesian world of capitalism, where the university is the ineffable mind, imagined as having only a mythical connection to the outside world. Above all, careerism is an enemy that can be defeated, but its defeat can only come from involvement in Marxist politics and in collective struggle, particularly including the practice of criticism and self-criticism. Dialectical materialism is not only a mechanism for deciphering macro trends in a capitalist system, as useful as it is for that. It can, I believe, also avail itself as a tool for understanding our own subjectivity and its real origins, produced in a petty-bourgeois hothouse and controlled by the capitalist class. Transformation is a constant process, but it is the only way that intellectuals can make themselves useful to a revolutionary movement.
We are not the centre of the revolution, only its patient advocates.
Our careers can be used for the revolution only if we offer them to the service of the people and the party.