The precariousness of the privileged

Il·lustració © Sonia Alins

They are privileged, but they live in precarious circumstances. They are those who do not have job security or economic stability, and rely on their vocation when accepting underpaid work, with the privilege of “having the essentials and engaging in self-exploitation”. Saying to yourself “no, I can’t, and I don’t want to” could be an opportunity to go from complaining to being aware, and to recover the freedom of creation even if it means becoming invisible.

– I dream about holidays. It’s the only time when I can catch up and work on what really motivates me.
– Of course, it isn’t work

Conversation with Sibila

A woman called Sibila[1] froze, thinking about the work she was doing. If it were one job, it would have given her a clear answer to the question “what are you?”, a name by which to introduce herself where work appropriates identity, a descriptive line in a profile, a reassuring and conclusive word: “I am an artist, researcher, evaluator, telemarketer, cultural manager, intern, caregiver, teacher, writer, actress, waitress, reader... ”. There are times when Sibila fears she’ll find the abstract nature of that polyphonic being indistinguishable from her various jobs and the sheer anxiety of a relentless life of duties.

[1] Sibila is the main character in my essay El entusiasmo. Precariedad y trabajo creativo en la era digital (Anagrama, 2017). This article is inspired and partly based on the ideas developed therein.

Sibila is told: “You have an education and a roof over your head. You are privileged, what are you complaining about?”. Sibila thinks that she was indeed able to pursue her studies and that, despite her age, she continues to do so, while she manages to string together a whole host of temporary jobs, collaborations and duties obscured under the guise of employment. Jobs that sometimes come with a contract and sometimes do not, which are sometimes paid while others claim to be rewarded with experience, visibility or prestige. If the employers are generous, they will present you with a lovely certificate with a real signature.

Sibila knows but prefers not to delve into how capitalism exploits her enthusiasm, which has become a cover letter for creatives, the plus point that helps the person hiring to discern those who are willing to do more for less, helping to keep up the pace of production machinery. Anxiety is something that Sibila handles alone, when she feels that working time adds up to what she anticipated was living time, that this plural practice to which she is dedicated is made up of disperse activities, pleasure, competitive overproduction and a great deal of precariousness, that one cannot get by on symbolic capital, that it is hard to say no, that what she does is increasingly empty and more hollow, that she runs the risk of constant posturing, that she cannot breathe.

Some people refer to this as “the precariousness of the privileged” because when the extreme inequality of those who have nothing is normalised and made overly visible, privilege seems to be “having the basics and engaging in self-exploitation”. That living precariousness is felt by those who do not have job security or economic stability, and rely on their vocation to accept unpaid jobs and expand their curriculum (that cruel expectation), pretending to feel special while alone they feel frustrated and crushed by the world. “You’re so lucky to do what you like doing”, they’re told.

Of course, the precariousness of those who have been able to study is linked to the precarity related to extreme poverty, marginalisation and the hardship that kills and imposes a sentence. Keeping up the first fuels the paralysis of those who are too absorbed in their work and personal life and end up putting their political life to rest, in other words, by avoiding collective issues that reinforce inequality. Because a more active stance of social critique is expected from intellectual workers, which goes hand in hand with collective responsibility. Nevertheless, today they are found to be preoccupied with their own relatively manageable affairs and lives, inept when it comes to condemning the vulnerabilities of those whose dreams are not at stake but rather their lives and their dignity. The precariousness of “the privileged” is relentless because it obliterates the times for critical distance and the links for an alliance to advocate demands.

The neoliberal context is an ideal scenario in that it gives impetus to life as an individual and forever-competitive career where colleagues are soon no longer seen as allies. It helps constant overexposure on social networks, where it is not easy to look at the person next to us while our creative life is committed (and in it I as a brand) to today’s online activity, scrutinised twenty-four hours a day. How can we let go of it if what little that passionately drives that precarious life depends on it? And while the machinery generates brief sensations of joy when sharing what has been created, it also fosters the feeling of vulnerability through constant exposure, live failure, impossibility, dissolution of creation due to extreme expiration vis-à-vis the relentless demand for updates, ingenuity and insatiable novelty.

Timeless excess

- Why didn’t you tell them that you can’t or don’t want to?
- I felt that my life depended on it and I accepted.

Conversation with Sibila

Time is what typing fingers ask for, aware that we need it to meet so much demand, and some should be left over to continue creating. But the other time wins virtually all the time, the one demanded by screens, dealings, bureaucracy, small tasks that, when multiplied, fill up the days. Time to pay the toll for using so many social technology toys, when we let ourselves do things, when they think for us and we drift like teenagers in an amusement park.

Oddly, this era in which the feeling of having a shortage of time grows due to the demands of precarious jobs and connected lives is a time when wages are increasingly lower. Now that everything is translated numerically, numbers have also been established as the new (non-monetary) payment. Numbers that are not exchangeable for food and shelter, but for visibility and sometimes fleeting self-esteem. As if the possibility (as well as the desire) to accumulate more were an engine that keeps us motivated and on our toes. And this happens at the same time as dissatisfaction grows, because the exponential logic of the Internet always demands more, although that more only means going from 2 to 4 likes or from 1,000 to 1,040 followers. Thus, the pressure felt by many enthusiasts like Sibila becomes a necessity to be present and be part of the machinery. But the machinery also nurtures that necessary link as a way to introduce people into the system, to count them to make them operational. Make them operational to be able to predict them (alone and together).

However, besides that, the thing is that failure is now objectifiable and can take the form of sequences of numbers when they stop growing and stagnate. But I think that a form of resistance is concealed in this stagnation. Creation that achieves freedom in its exercise should regain its power, even when this means slowing down, shrinking or becoming invisible at will. I am not referring to an exercise of radical disconnection, but to a free position from a revitalised agency that allows us to use instead of being used, to socialise without de-subjectifying ourselves in a list of numbers or online mass followers. To do so against the forces that silently cross our routines and habits in day-to-day life online, appropriating not only our time, but also stifling what moves us creatively. And it seems to me that this shift is based on the possibility of whether or not we have subjective control, control over creative capacity.

It isn’t easy to say no when everything urges you to accept, to perform additional tasks, to work around the clock and, if possible, with eagerness. If then someone says “no” to themselves, that they can’t, that they don’t want to, it’s a whole different story. Because this apparent failure to everyone could be an opportunity for personal triumph, recognising that we need to surrender to empty time, to boredom that allows us to get out of the flow of discontent and move from complaining to being aware, from drifting along to focusing. It is no easy feat. Admittedly, this stance doesn’t seem to be compatible with a life with no money, with no paid work. But giving in to the idea that only the rich can really be free to create is something we must resist.

Paid work

(...) you must earn enough to be independent of any other human being and to buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge, and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind. But no more. Not a penny more. (…) when you have made enough to live on by your profession you must refuse to sell your brain for the sake of money. 

Virginia Woolf (Three Guineas, 1938)

I stop to observe how a rich man says to Sibila: “I’ve got money, but you’ve got conflict. With conflict you can create.” And Sibila thinks that her conflict is of no use if she continues to carry the burden of fear on her educated shoulders. The fear of the poor.

Because poverty not only ties a rope to some people’s baggage, but also fills it with stones that urges them to give in every other minute. And I think that overcoming difficulties and rejections for those who feel subordinated by a system are experienced as extra boldness and character that is praised for being something unusual and extraordinary. As if rejections coming from a creative stance and coherence were only possible from the freedom of those who are rich or brave. Where does that leave the poor fearful or faint-hearted people like Sibila? I think that this boldness is something that is constructed, part of a disposition particularly nurtured by male gender roles, behaviour that has been able to prioritise employment over work, vocation over responsibility, public life over private life.

If Sibila were free, she wouldn’t have to be brave and would say no without looking back. But if she were free, maybe she would have family and social support built on years of self-confidence or on money to live on, and she could afford the luxury of being more resolved in her affairs, even to sacrifice many of her things. She could afford the dream of disappearing without worrying and of working without compromise. But the poor who have read cannot always pretend that they do not harbour resentment. Women who have read cannot always pretend that working with the burden of family expectation does not matter to them. Some have their own long cold climb in life while many others face smoother paths, often shorter ones, and ensconce themselves in their greater freedom or in their lineages and, almost without doing anything, just existing, they get what they expected.

Also saying “no” bears consequences. Firstly, the uneasiness of someone who is rejected and the severing of a possible bond for a future support network. Secondly, the loss of visibility in a context where name and prestige rely on it. A tyrannical and demanding visibility, constantly updated, valuable for those who live in the turmoil of needing to be seen. A visibility where the showcase is now unfathomable, far from the circumscribed and limited creative production groups of a few decades ago, when creatives could be counted because they were much lower in number to the possible audience. This context is in advance a failure for all visibility with pretensions, but it is a grossly stimulating scenario for a creative world, where most can show what they do. It seems that then it is “the non-contextualisation of expectation” that frustrates and injures, the ruse of a visibility like that of before in a world like that of today.

Il·lustració © Sonia Alins © Sonia Alins

Hence, visibility is marketed with all kinds of companies that nurture this pretension and capitalise on it. They do so by commodifying the subject, fictionalising lives, creating mirages of influence where everything accentuates appearance. And of course you run the risk of considering something valuable without being familiar with it, merely from it being in a certain place. The perspective is increasingly delegated to the bastion of a cover or algorithmic stance, stripping works and authors of the context of aesthetic, critical or political immersion. As if through voiding, anticipating and creating the response of those who access a work, success could be manufactured in advance by the market and failure were the place of enthusiastic accumulation. In an interview in 1980 Foucault said: “Name is a facility. […] I dream of a new era of curiosity.”

Numbers don’t make words

Sibila is, like most people today, a worker in the creative and knowledge industry. However, it is striking that these workers introduce themselves with a curriculum that is not narrative or based on acquired knowledge, but on additive content, say: 2 doctorates, 31 courses, 15 articles, or simply a number of followers. It would seem that workers do not work for a knowledge society but rather a society characterised by quantification, noise, accumulation and appearance.

One might worry about the risk of neutralisation and critical shutdown of these workers when they are directed to accumulate numbers by moving information, not necessarily generating knowledge, competing and toting up achievements, to manage themselves instead of focusing on an intellectual or creative practice.

The commercial shift of education and knowledge is formalised in relations of scientific production and reproduction that concede value management and thinking to productivity rankings and metric indicators, at the cost of reducing the possibilities for critical posturing of slower careful thinking, and major victim of this change of direction. It is significant that, in parallel and under glowing placards of university excellence, new forms of precariousness take root, where not only is the commodification of knowledge encouraged, but also where shared knowledge is undermined, normalising an emotional-job attachment that arouses suspicion of one’s colleague (also precarious) who is seen as a rival. Since it is assumed, and sadly accepted, that “there is no work or guarantees for all”, competitive individualism and pretence are normalised. Tackling this trend calls for a society that is unable to accept the collapse and the neoliberal and uncritical surrender of that driving force of emancipation constituted by (or that should be constituted by) university and public education.


Self-exploitation: analogy and endeavour

In the scenario I narrate herein, a necessary analogy must be drawn between forms of work and self-exploitation that characterises our lives today, and that we visualise as the heart of the living anguish in our midst, and the patriarchal rationale that has perversely turned women into agents that uphold their own subordination, reproducing and watching over the norms of a system that oppressed them. This parallel between capitalism and patriarchy is not new, but it assumes an added similarity in what we now identify as self-exploitation. Becoming part of our subjugation as something chosen, giving some kind of consent is familiar. You have undoubtedly signed it; we are always signing consents whose content we are unfamiliar with. Click here if you agree. But we are also always accepting what the world proposes to us in keeping with “everyone does it”, as if we couldn’t stop ourselves and take conscious sides, as if the break and reflection time had been previously boycotted. Unsurprisingly, still palpable is the warning put forward decades ago by Ernst Bloch (1959) that in order to execute capitalist businesses “the victims must be lulled”, and entertained in “leisure time”.

Overwhelmed, we feel busy all day and many of the things we do are taxing for us or, in excess, their meaning is blurred. There is no passion or soul put into most tasks we do when we feel obligated, just posturing and feigned enthusiasm. And I wonder what imagination, the alliance between equals and conscience can do. But also what would happen if, in the meantime those lulled woke up, those jobs were stopped and rejected, reduced, if less could be handled in greater depth, less appearance and greater meaning. Maybe then the world could count on something valuable, whatever you do. But if instead you and I, docile, provide quick text, headlines, precarious production, papers by the weight, quantified attention, lifeless classes, pretence and deception to avoid an aching conscience and without tackling what affords meaning to a practice... If that wheel turns, the world will continue to replicate, traversing the same groove as the needle of a broken gramophone.

The era cannot withstand any more fast production, more polluting waste, more charlatanism, more slavery in basic production, more fragmentation and excess, more precarious objects and practices; but, given the oncoming shift, we are also expected to resist giving in and swinging thoughtlessly to the other extreme.

If all the precarious people I knew, all the daughters of poor parents, all the people who aspired to work passionately, could devote their time to doing their work with the same motivation that drove them at the start, if they trusted them and their prime responsibility, if they had not had to string together dozens of small jobs or simultaneous collaborations to get by, unnecessary polluting to-ing and fro-ing, a thousand dealings for self-appraisal or the agreed reward, and had dedicated their time to the jobs expected of them, to their research, classes, works and projects that motivate them without taking up their whole lives, how many discoveries would we have made, how much meaningful production instead of empty works would we have had? If they had pooled together all their readings and ideas, all their reflections on equality, climate, peace, food, migration, border, identity, disease, politics... making the best possible use of their time, as opposed to what they now fill with pretence and precarious doing... It’s just a try.

Publicacions recomanades

  • El entusiasmoRemedios Zafra. Anagrama, 2017

The newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with Barcelona Metròpolis' new developments