Friday, September 6, 2013

Where I'm coming from: a bit of biography

First appeared here: http://www.amazon.com/review/R3184DHFZN4CQD

I was in college what seems not too long ago (2000-2004). It was a large state university. I had two majors, trending from chemistry to English. I was aware of internships, but it wasn't something everyone did. I knew one guy that I has classes with in Chemistry, and he ended up doing a co-op in engineering. A woman I knew did an "Internship" at the university press for an academic year. One person I knew was somewhat obsessed with them, but she was in "Business," which I didn't see as an actual field of study. Internships were for chumps. And business majors.

Or so I though.

They were creeping in and I didn't realize it. I had to apply twice to get a job at the student paper. I only got the job the second time because I was friends with the editor of the section I ended up working in. I was paid fifteen dollars a story, period. It wasn't worth it, so I dropped it. I dropped it because I had a job.

I had a job in a restaurant, making pizzas and subs and pasta dishes. It was my real job that was horrible and exploitative and that I only held onto because I understood that potential employers in "real" jobs valued a long and stable work history. I worked my way up to manager where they thought enough of me to pay me six fifty an hour.

I only worked that because I was going to be a poet. My fall-back job was being an English Professor. I ended up going to graduate school, the second year I applied because the first year I didn't get into any of the programs I applied to. I ended up making half of the poverty line teaching and grading underclassmen in their composition abilities. I should have applied for food stamps, but I wasn't savvy enough to think of it.

None of it mattered to most people. It was what you did to get to your future, whatever that may be. You go into debt, you live in moldy basements, you make do. Perlin doesn't get into a critique of capitalism at large, but that is where his book and my personal experience led me to. You push the wage floor to zero; it gets pushed to where you pay for the privlige to work. The Martians looking down shake their heads.

The problem with _Intern Nation_, if there is one, is that it is too limited. Of course those starting out feel that their employment is contingent and precarious. No matter what their official status, at the bottom you try anything to hold on. This happens no matter what your future might be. The market controls us by fear. Internships in a decade have gone from something someone might do to something you have to do. The current economic situation only reinforces this. I have a younger brother and sister still in school. They have many of the same things to do to build a future that I did, only more explicitly. The lines saying "Graduate Teaching Assistant" and "Staff Writer" on my resume say little about me but much about the economic system we have to exist in.

Perlin sees hope in organizing interns. I share his hope, but have trepidation. I tried to organize workers at the restaurant I worked at. I ran for president of the graduate teacher's organization in graduate school. My whole platform was on organizing to increase wages and benefits. I lost the vote to the other ticket two-to-one. The problem I faced was that Perlin's project faces. The workers and the GTAs didn't see themselves as what they were. I am reminded of Sinclair's explanation of why socialism never took root in America: they didn't see their present situation, but were "Temporarily embarrassed millionaires". There was no sense of identity, and that hurts anyone trying to organize based on that particular identity. I don't fault Perlin for Upotianism though. This book starts an important argument in the larger discussion on the role of labor in a capitalistic system.