Rendezvous with Hucksters and the Academic Underbelly
Because serving in the reserve army of the unemployed is a dreary and potentially lethal enlistment, I’ve been obliged to find myself a job. Currently between bouts of education, I therefore strive to find the most agreeable way to spend my days (or nights) earning rent and food money. But being unemployed leaves you in a vulnerable state, and long periods without work can leave you desperate. I’m far from that point, and have a privileged status that makes it less likely I’ll ever slip through the cracks completely. At the same time, the power of temptation is strongest when you feel as though you have to swipe the first opportunity you get, like a tiger being fed by a zookeeper (not that I have all that much experience with being in tiger cages, mind you).
It takes less than a minute of digging on job listing sites to find that, beneath the soft loam of corporate jobs and other “respectable” occupations there is a layer of sticky dreck clinging to the boots of the capitalist economy. At least, I hope our location is so clean. These firms and agencies operate essentially as parasites on the body of what we usually accept as the “normal” working of the economy. They produce no value and do not fulfill human needs. Rather, they operate to fill niches of demand that capitalism creates in the interest of profit. There is a key difference between need and demand, bearing in mind, as Robert Biel says, “many of the demands generated by capitalism are not based on real needs,” which follows his argument that demand is not given or spontaneously arising from need but is instead manufactured for the sake of moving product.¹
Hence, on the back of charismatic advertising and carefully tended appearances, companies have found ways to exploit people in ways and for reasons that even run-of-the-mill capitalists and their state representatives can’t swallow. All of capitalism thrives on exploitation of workers, but groups like Just Energy make you nostalgic for the days of outright merchant swindling. Which is, in effect, what the company has been accused of doing. Just take a look at the wikipedia page for the company and you can recite the litany of regional governments and regulators who have thrashed the company’s reputation. More bizarrely, the issue goes beyond salespeople bullying “prospects” into signing up for expensive energy plans. All the way up at the top, their CEO and Canadian Conservative Party buddy-buddy has been accused of falsifying claims that she is the descendant of a Yugoslav energy minister. No wonder they sound a bit desperate in their hiring pitches.
Note that they don’t sell any energy they produce themselves. What they sell is pieces of paper that assure their clients that they will pay a (higher than their salespeople promise) fixed rate for energy, supposedly to protect them from spikes in fuel costs. Of course, had this been the amazing deal they allegedly promised, they would not be a billion-dollar company today.
My other encounter with the slightly sleazier side of the job market came in the form of a listing for an academic essay writer. That’s bound to appeal to many college students who have just graduated and find themselves with few workable skills other than producing academic essays. Of course, one has to ask what kind of people would pay for academic essays other than the usual list of journals and slate-faced gatekeepers?
Well, cheating students of course. I won’t deny that academic pressures can, for certain people, create a sense of hopelessness combined with an attachment to grades as an ultimate sign of self-worth. That kind of mixture can lead to cheating. Businesses like this owe their existence just as much if not more so to higher education’s insistence on tying financial aid to grades as it does to unscrupulous or lazy students. Students, at least in North America, are now evaluated so ruthlessly and so often that failures are seen as catastrophic, easily worth bending or breaking rules to get.
And, unlike Just Energy, these companies are actually selling something that is at least potentially valuable, at least in terms of knowledge. But the fact that they can do so at such cut-rate costs shows you how the writers who don’t manage to get famous––i.e. almost all of them––have to scrounge for money just to live off their own skills. Capitalism sucks value out of its own institutional failures, another recurrent theme in Biel’s work. In a better world, you wouldn’t be able to make money off of put-upon young people desperate for grades. These two small examples show that, despite attempting to baptize itself as a positive force in the world, capitalism cannot escape, at a certain level, being overtly predatory––well, more so than usual. Sometimes we seem to have a wistful and whimsical view of the old snake oil salesmen who supposedly prowled the streets of the pre-FDA American wilds. Indeed, all of this would be a lot more funny if real people weren’t being ripped off in the process––and this one top of their subjugation to capitalism in the first place.
- Robert Biel, The New Imperialism (New York: Zed Books, 2000), 109.