Posted on | August 10, 2011 | 5 Comments
When I finished writing my book manuscript in early 2010, I included an epigraph from the late George Orwell:
Even the middle classes, for the first time in their history, are feeling the pinch. They have not known actual hunger yet, but more and more of them find themselves floundering in a sort of deadly net of frustration in which it is harder and harder to persuade yourself that you are either happy, active, or useful. Even the lucky ones at the top, the real bourgeoisie, are haunted periodically by a consciousness of the miseries below, and still more by fears of the menacing future. And this is merely a preliminary stage, in a country still rich with the loot of a hundred years. Presently there may be coming God knows what horrors – horrors of which, in this sheltered island, we have not even a traditional knowledge. – George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
At the time, this passage seemed to capture some of the texture of the 2008 financial crisis – an event that marked a turning point for many of the employees studied in my book.
Whether it was the sense of foreboding haunting the workplace as job losses became a reality, or the broader feeling of anxiety that the turmoil in global markets spelled for investors, the middle class office workers I interviewed in boom time Brisbane were far from encountering actual hunger or poverty.
Their tremendous work ethic, which saw them attached to their email from morning to night, stemmed from a different set of fears: that the happiness and success to which they felt entitled as ambitious professionals could suddenly not be their destiny. “I’m starting to realize I might have to go down almost 50 per cent of what I was getting paid,” a retrenched marketing manager told me: “maybe even less, because there’s just so much competition out there.”
The publication of my book in the past week has coincided with a renewed period of economic uncertainty. As the US battles the prospect of recession, and volatility reigns on the share market, riots have spread across Orwell’s “sheltered island,” to the disbelief of so many. We have witnessed scenes of horror as the extent of ordinary political disaffection has been revealed.
Watching these events – on cable television, Facebook and YouTube – an already clear division in the experience of power and participation in a knowledge economy is further reinforced. Our culture is one that values and rewards ambition, particularly when this is appropriately targeted to the pursuit of paid work. But it cannot afford to acknowledge that such aspirations will never be sustainable for all. It is abundantly clear that there are structural conditions that determine the distribution of opportunity, in spite of the ways neoliberal discourses try to make failure a personal responsibility.
A major motivation for my recent research has been to better understand a situation in which so many educated professionals remain protected from an awareness of others’ lack of access to work – how social inequalities fall off the radar in the course of busy day-to-day priorities. When your own job is both demanding and rewarding, it is hard to relate to the much larger majority in a global economy for whom (to use the words of Andre Gorz) the spoils of a merit-based society are forever distant, the prospect of fulfilling work “a bad joke.”
I wanted to mark this week by returning to Orwell, especially since the quotation above was cut from my manuscript in the production process. For the publisher, the difficulty of securing copyright for the passage outweighed the significance of its message. And right now this seems to be just another indication of our misplaced legal and political priorities.