defining exploitation up

A point and then a meta-point.

Got into a bit of a debate with a friend of mine recently. I was saying that the working conditions of a lot of online writers out there are unambiguously exploitative — many of them work long hours for low pay and no benefits. My friend launched into the “first world problems” complaint, arguing that (of course) “Brooklyn hipsters” aren’t the people we should be worrying about, etc. As I replied, though, that’s both substantively and tactically mistaken. Substantively because, for some writers I know, grinding out posts for the content industry returns not much better than the minimum wage. That’s untenable from a socialist perspective. And it’s tactically mistaken because we don’t want to be the side that defines exploitation up — we don’t want to be in a position of making the standard of exploitation more conducive to employers.

There’s a great post at the beer review website The Beer Hole that’s relevant here. As the writer says, a lot of “creatives” are too eager to contribute to their own exploitation, as long as they can plausibly pass off their work as more artistically fulfilling:

The influx of Millennial liberals into the entrepreneurial economy has lead to some comical, and very sad, effects. There was a sign up at an Indianapolis charcuterie asking for applicants for an apprenticeship position. The pay was $500 a month, and a yearlong commitment was required. Good news, though: you got all the fatty meat you could eat, and every second Sunday was a day off.

“Is this for serious,” I asked the young man with the handlebar moustache.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “You work here, you’re a rock star.”

And as everyone knows, rock stars are famous for how little money they make. But so goes the vagaries of our sad, broken country: a generation of young people have abandoned all hope of financial stability and will accept instead a chance to become known locally as that cool dude who works at the meat packing place.

Something like that is happening when my friend thinks that writers can’t be being exploited because they’re writers. It places culture ahead of economics and does the justification of corporations for them. The notion that, because you live in Brooklyn and can plausibly tell the people back home that you work in a creative industry, you can’t be exploited by your employed — that’s a neoliberal’s dream.

The “first world problems/white people’s problems” critiques have always been double edged swords. It’s of course a relevant left-wing project to get people to understand their own comfort in relation to others, especially for Americans. Obviously, I agree with the notion that you should be more concerned with deep problems of structural inequality than of the petty indignities we all deal with. And this type of issue strikes me as one of the places where the kind of social pressure that the left uses so universally now can really be effective. But the downside is that, first, it’s political suicide to tell people that their problems aren’t real problems; I can’t think of an easier way to turn someone off from your message. Second, and maybe even more importantly, if we’re not  careful about how we use it, it prompts just the sort of race to the bottom I’m talking about. When I was arguing in favor of Fight for $15 on Twitter a few months ago, someone said something like, “Hey, this is a first world problem — they could be making pennies in a Bangladesh factory.” Always remember: everybody gets to use the same argumentative tools. Don’t do their work for them.

That’s the point. Here’s the meta-point. The other night I got dragged into one of these wearying Twitter scraps where I was scolded for being one of the Baddies because I often critique left-wing discourse and political practice. And this post, I’m sure, fits that mold. Hey, I’m telling leftists how to argue again! But I’m laying out very direct political and substantive reasons why I think this approach is problematic for the left. I believe, sincerely, that this practice has problems. So I’m saying so. Right now, the knee-jerk rejection of any inter-left critique as inherently illegitimate (the rapidly growing boundaries of what gets labeled “anti-PC”) is so immediate and universal that I don’t see how any constructive criticism can survive. That’s how you become the contemporary Republican party, you guys. I don’t know how you have a healthy, functioning political movement if everyone who questions any aspect of current means, while agreeing on ends, is immediately cast as an apostate.