Service Without Servants: A note on Love, Intellectual Labor, and Scabs

20 Mar

In fine, can we not, black and white, rich and poor,
look forward to a world of Service without Servants?

– W. E. B. Du Bois, Darkwater

This is a note in advance of future sustained engagement with questions of academic labor as labor. I begin from the assumption of ambivalence toward labor, and a desire to separate some forms of labor from others in order for some to understand their labor as of a special class, distinct and more valuable, so valuable that they are willing to give it away without compensation. But, we must recall, demanding labor from others without compensating them is the foundation of modernity. I also begin from Du Bois’ optimistic desire to imagine a world of service without a permanent servant class, and without labor being so thoroughly debased. That, finally, is what I think is at stake in many debates of our neoliberal era (a term I don’t especially like, but it does important work describing the reorganization of values and institutions of the liberal framework), but I will only touch on it in passing.

What is the value of intellectual labor? Why is it so hard to consider intellectual labor and monetary–rather than social–value together? I’ve been grappling with this for some time, and Yasmin Nair’s post and response to her critics helped me to crystallize a couple thoughts. I am remote from the world she describes, as I have not yet been approached about publishing in any of the venues she discusses (this is not a veiled invitation to approach me). She calls academics employed by post-secondary institutions “scabs,” inviting college and university scholars to think of themselves in league with independent scholars who may be trying to make a living as freelance writers. The analogy is straightforward: scabs depress wages, and weaken organizing. They are often the pawns of the bosses whether they know it or not.

This paragraph, I think, is the heart of her initial argument:

If you’re an academic/professional/activist who writes for free, or edits print or online publications which won’t pay their writers but prides themselves on having all the bigbigbig names write for nothing: You are part of the problem of neoliberalism.  You are making it possible for publishers to refuse to pay professional writers what they’re worth.  We are seeing the adjunctification of the writing world, where a false scarcity of funds allows those in power to essentially blackmail their workers: You won’t work for the measly amount we’ve offered you?  Fine, I’ll just get BigNameProfessor to do the same work for free.

One could quibble with cause and effect, perhaps, but her point is an important one, and the analogy to the scab is both apt and troubling. In broad historical terms, scabs–replacement workers during strikes–have fallen into two overlapping groups: internal migrants and immigrants whose ignorance of working conditions and relative precarity management exploits, and people (like teachers, nurses, police officers, etc.) who decide that their obligation to the greater good outweighs the exploitation they must endure. They represent fundamentally political problems, at least in the the small slice of this complex history that I have studied: the replacement workers come from people that the unions would not or could not convince to join in league, often because the workers were willing to sacrifice more universalistic goals to sustain racial advantage. Or, as with the recent VW debacle, the unions were unable to make their case strong enough, or in the right terms, to appeal to the people whose support they wanted.

Academics, as I understand her argument, are akin both to im/migrants and those to whom the political case for solidarity has not sufficiently been made. I invoke the immigrant and migrant to underscore the extent to which exploitation may not seem like exploitation, especially given the nature of academic publishing (about which a word below). The affective economies are different but similar, and both tolerate uncompensated labor in exchange for prestige and security. In both worlds, the more you publish, the more you can publish.

But there’s a bigger historical question I do not have time to research now: to what degree has the writing world changed? To what degree was it ever possible for large numbers of writers to support themselves primarily through freelance work? To what degree does the expansion of the post-WWII university jibe with what was going on in other spheres of intellectual labor? Simply, I wonder whether the analogy to the adjunctification of the university holds, or if there might not be some other way to understand shifts in the field of non-academic scholarship.

In a society that equates wealth or monetary worth with value, the mechanisms of assigning cost take on a greater value. They can also serve to mystify fundamental questions, especially in a neoliberal environment that personalizes every interaction and outcome, actively selecting against and discouraging systemic analyses. Personalization means that even discussions aimed at describing systems fall into the personal. So, one is inclined to respond to the analysis of “privilege” as if the term named an absolute rather than a relative unstable position within definite contexts of and contests over politics. The man without shoes, to invoke a proverb, is privileged relative to the man without feet, and is yet more privileged relative to the woman without feet. Yet, thinking of himself relative to the men wearing $600 ostrich boots, that person will refuse to recognize any such privilege.

Given the state of higher education with classes increasingly taught by adjunct labor rather than tenured and tenure track labor, “privilege” is an odd term, and perhaps an unnecessarily invidious one. To people outside higher ed, association with an institution of higher ed equals status, whatever our relative position within the larger post-secondary world. To the extent that people are aware of the crisis, they are likely to shrug and offer some version of “that’s their problem,” which is neoliberalism is in a nutshell: transforming all outcomes to personal ones, transforming exploitation to personal failure, and refusing accounts of historical or structural factors that shape “free choice.” As Nair ably put it:

But what is neoliberalism if not the rationalisation of capitalist exploitation under the rubric of “choice”?

I think there must be some better term for unearned, random traits that give one an advantage in concrete historical situations. “Privilege” should do that, but personalization allows the privileged to point to the more privileged, ignoring the basic egalitarian push to eliminate rather than painstakingly define privilege. Aggressive point missing is the political strategy of the day. But so to is having service without servants in a way counter to Du Bois’ (and mine): people want things to appear before them, but don’t want to have to think too much about those who produced it. I suspect that this attitude, which I would again attribute to this country’s general disdain for work and workers, is what allows the adjunct crisis to continue, and allows people not to ask about the conditions under which the articles they read were produced.

What I wonder is this: people say they publish for free because they love what they do, but what kind of love is this that asks so little in return? Taking the rhetoric of “love” at face value, there is no necessary contradiction between doing what I love and expecting to be fairly compensated for it. “Fair” is a relative term, and there may be situations where it means I will write without compensation. If I do so, it is because I have another source of income that subsidizes my labor time (research, writing, editing, etc.). “Honest pay for honest work” is not a revolutionary concept. The extent to which it seems like one reflects on the centralization of power and wealth in corporations, and the naked hostility toward a robust idea of the citizen as anything other than taxpayer, a consumer of government services with no other investment in the government.

If “progressives” and self-styled “radicals” actually want to bring about change in the world (rather than burnish their “brand”), and want to do it through writing, then reflecting on the institutions of writing and the conflict between the means of production and the relations of production, should similarly be non-controversial.

A quick parenthetical about academic publishing, which is uncompensated. It participates in a more general (often flawed) set of gate-keeping mechanisms of higher education. While it is typically uncompensated, the publishers are  usually non-profit, and operate on the (increasingly incorrect) assumption that those who publish scholarship have some other means of income. But the editorial staff for journals, and the editorial review boards for academic presses, are typically members of the faculty themselves, with all that that entails. Ideally, this gives the faculty themselves a large degree of influence over the shape of discussions, again for better and for worse.I think there are forms of cooperative publishing online subsidized by universities that work on a similar model, and those to me seem qualitatively different. They model a form of cooperative sociality derived meaningfully from existing models, transformed to different ends.

If we stipulate that intellectual labor is labor, and that labor happens within a capitalist mode of production, then we have to be attentive to our working conditions. So, we should ask of it what we should ask of any publishing–that is, any way of selling the products of our labor. It also seems to me that with academic and non-academic publishing alike, women, people of color, and poor/working class people have historically had a harder time negotiating gate-keeping mechanisms. For this reason, of for no other, it makes sense to resist the pull of the personal and think in what I can only think to call categorical terms. I do many things because I love them, and I expect to receive no compensation for them. Writing posts like this one, for example. But as a more general ethos, “labor of love” just props up insidious neoliberal ideologies that transform systemic exploitation into choice, deprivation into virtue, and oppression as “the lesser of two evils.”

I won’t pretend to have the answers to questions people better qualified than I have been working out. The last thing I want to do is to parachute into a long discussion and act like I have the solution, especially regarding different models of web publishing as an outlet for public scholarship. Yasmin Nair’s posts and responses to it, and before that Toshio Meronek and Eric A. Stanley’s article on social media in Truth-Out has given me some pause. It points out the potential discrepancy between the democratic possibilities of social media and the anti-democratic practices of the corporations from tax avoidance to support for illiberal policies.

On my more cynical days, the labor-of-love rhetoric as a rationalization of exploitation reminds me of that repeated scene in Tom and Jerry cartoons, when Jerry puts Tom’s tail between two buns and convinces him to take a big bite. On some level Tom has to know it’s his own tail, yet he gets so enraptured with the idea of a good meal, so convinced that this time he will actually get what he desires, that he suspends his own good sense. Miya Tokumitsu has written about this phenomenon:

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, [the ethos of Doing What You Love] distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it.

I like the emphasis on obligations to all who labor. In the field of intellectual labor, rigor is one way we have of showing love for our objects and fields of study, and for our colleagues whom we may never meet. Certainly, I can’t imagine working as hard as I do for another reason, even though I have to work to keep my job. But it’s not just my satisfaction that matters, but yours as well, that of the stranger I never met who built up this field before me, and who will work after me. And it’s for you, the stranger I’ve never met, who turns to something with my name on it who needs me to do my job well in order that you may do yours. We have many ways of caring about, and considering our obligations to others.

Especially the way the rhetoric of choice participates in larger political strategies, why not extend that care, that love, to anonymous others who need me to hold up my end by demanding for fair compensation? Why not let our work also be to expand and enhance opportunities for others, for strangers we’ve never met? Why not, in our actions insist that at minimum work has value and one of the ways we have to show we value each other’s work is by reading it, and, if we’re in a position to publish it and profit it from it, pay for it? At a minimum, it seems that that would be to treat laborer and the one purchasing the product of the other’s labor on equal footing. That would be closer to a love worthy of the name.

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