On her anonymous blog, SÃ©verine, a 28-year-old Parisian graduate, posted this: “I’m from the intellectual underclass. One of those who fry their brains, read megabytes of books, magazines, web pages, political pamphlets and petitions, and never get anything out of it. I’m like an engine guzzling fuel just to stay in overdrive, burning up mental energy for nothing” (1). SÃ©verine’s working life has bounced between internships, welfare benefits, temping and unemployment.
Alexandre, 27, a freelance journalist (2) and author of a thesis on ecology brought out by a major French publisher, understands her situation. He is unable to sell his ideas, but others are happy to use them for free. “Sometimes I call newspaper editors to suggest ideas and they say `yes, very interesting, tell me more’. Nothing happens, then a two weeks later the paper publishes an article on my subject, written by a staff reporter.”
Several thousands of these precarious intellectuals live in what Anne and Marine Rambach call the intelligentsia’s twilight zone (3). You can’t apply to them the usual journalistic technique of collecting personal accounts and having those analysed by “experts”. They have all the theoretical tools they need and are interested in how society functions. They are completely capable of analysing their own situation; many have researched the subject of insecure employment. The arts magazine Les Inrockuptibles has found a young, chic niche market in that subject and has an army of freelancers who are paid a pittance, or nothing, to research their articles.
Anne and Marine Rambach are precarious intellectuals and claim that this underclass has middle-class origins or has had access to the symbolic capital of the upper classes, but lives on the income and in the same conditions as the poor. The emergence of the underclass was foreseeable. The 1999 French census revealed that 38.2% of the 25-30 age group had higher education degrees compared with 7.8% among the over-60s.
Offers for unpaid jobs
Given the current disastrous economic context in France, it is hard to see what miracle would have enabled these young graduates to avoid the same fate as their peers. Yet it is hard to admit to the situation because university degrees, often with some professional recognition, have always been equated with a high standard of living. Employers willingly exploit this confusion between recognition and financial reward. “I often get offers for unpaid jobs,” says Alexandre, “I’m told that it will be good experience for me later. But when does later begin?” A well-known film director asked him to research a documentary; he started work without signing a formal contract. “We haven’t talked about money yet. When you’re concerned with lefty preoccupations it’s hard to claim your due without feeling a money-grabbing impostor.”
Intellectuals are flesh and blood though, and their precarious situations are like the rest of the McJob generation. “I take any job going,” says Lionel Tran, 35, who runs a micropublishing outfit, Terre Noire, in Lyon. “Fill-in jobs at the university, cleaning, writers’ workshops, whatever. My partner and I are lucky because we have a low-rent flat. When it was sold we were scared that the rent would go up. We’ve got no room for manoeuvre, our lives could fall apart if we had the slightest emergency.” Yves PagÃ¨s, who brought out two books about the increase in hybrid careers (4), works in publishing and meets interns who do three shifts in a day. Some hand out tickets at tollbooths on motorways 40km from Paris, others work at supermarket check-outs.
Is there a link? Precarious intellectuals are modest about their intellectual status. “It gives me no sense of superiority,” says SÃ©verine, “but it does sometimes give me a sense of inferiority to others.” When Alexandre gives lectures on his book he finds the comments from the audience “quite as relevant as anything I have to say. People read and find information, especially on the internet.” He regrets not having learned a trade, something he could use to make a living. “The only thing I can do is use Word. That’s not a selling point on the labour market.” He learned it at a printshop as part of a youth employment scheme. “That was good for me. I felt quite lost after my studies, I hadn’t learned anything useful.”
Alexandre worries that an employer might do an internet search and find that he’s done “totally irrelevant things” and holds certain political opinions. He does not use pseudonyms, unlike many others. Having several different identities is useful to hide the many jobs people resort to just to earn a living, or to cover artistic or political activities that might scare off a potential employer. “Grite Lammane”, who is 30, writes under that name for a monthly social criticism review, CQFD (5). She does freelance work under another pseudonym: “The people who hire me don’t necessarily want their outfits to be linked to some of my other activities. In any case if I did everything under my real name they’d think I was inconsistent. I only give my real name in situations where I can be understood by everybody, without having to argue my case for hours.”
From the anonymous white masks worn by demonstrating interns (6) to the popularity of pseudonyms and anonymous memoirs, there is a subculture of people at the mercy of “what the hierarchy might say”, destined to eke out a semi-clandestine existence and carry on an ideological guerrilla war. “In a normal, healthy situation the younger generation would be in conflict with their elders,” note Anne and Marine Rambach. “But that’s not what is happening. A temporary researcher will agree with his head of laboratory since his bread and butter depends on it.” Contract researchers in social sciences working for the European commission are contributing to the justification of insecure labour policies.
The status of intellectual may be enough to elicit suspicion without any political affiliation. Yves PagÃ¨s describes his interns as being “passionate about their work, they set up micropublishing outfits and magazines, but the publishers don’t trust them. The key posts are all held by personalities from the 1968 generation who got there at the end of a chequered but fulfilling career. What they tell them is, yeah, we know, we’ve been there, but that’s over. When they hire young people they only take graduates from the grandes Ã©coles, people who’ve been schooled in economic pragmatism. LibÃ©ration is a case in point. So you get salespeople dressed up as publishers who can’t stand their brainy interns because they are reminded of their own ignorance.”
Lionel Tran has it in for the baby-boomers. Terre Noire has brought out two books, The Party’s Over and There’s Nothing But Rubble Under The Paving Stones (7). He insists: “It’s nothing to do with the methods employed by Technikart (8), `shove over, we’re taking your place’. We need to invent our own means of protest without always going back to the great May 1968 pantomime, or playing the militant. That makes me want to throw up.” He grew up believing that he was entitled to personal fulfilment, which he feels is totally inadequate for harsh contemporary circumstances. “I was 19 when I worked on my first press project in Lyon. Twenty years earlier, at least one of these companies would have survived.”
No to the `cult of the ego’
He does not sign his books, perhaps because he rejects the cult of the ego he associates with the 1968 generation. The articles in a new alternative paper, Le Tigre, are written under pseudonyms, and those in another such paper, Le Plan B, are unsigned. Grite Lammane says that using pseudonyms suits her need to “contribute to a collective project . . . I’m not interested in being identified.”
She is happy with her 1968 heritage. “I work as little as possible, because I want to give as little time and energy as I can to the system. I have a low income but I make up for it by doing odds and ends and with a close-knit support network.” Anne and Marine Rambach describe the variety of social resources that precarious intellectuals organise outside the mainstream, from alternative media (television, radio, websites) to free canteens.
Nothing in SÃ©verine’s background should have led her to be so militant, but because of professional setbacks she is politically aware and works voluntarily for several organisations: “I discovered the existence of a parallel society. That’s what saved me.” ValÃ©ry, a graduate of Sciences Po in Lyon, who works with Terre Noire, left her job in a communications company to devote her energies to photography and publishing. She is over 40, exhausted by a decade of insecure employment. She is desperately trying to get a salaried job, but admits she would prefer it to be part-time (although she would never say so in her interviews for fear of scaring off employers) so she can to keep working at all the things she has built up over the years. Her family were not much influenced by the upheavals of 1968; her parents are both office workers.
It is hardly surprising if precarious intellectuals such as Jean Zin, who runs a website, Ecologie rÃ©volutionnaire (9), support demands for guaranteed income or a social security system based on the one for part-time workers in artistic professions. They are determined to devote a reasonable amount of their time to doing things that make sense to them and to the community, more difficult in the current economic climate. A recent novel by Louise Desbrusses, L’argent, l’urgence (10) (Money, urgency), is about a precarious intellectual, heavily in debt, who takes a permanent job; the ghastliness of the business world is described in detail. Some readers were shocked by this attitude when so many are desperate to work. Desbrusses was expecting such criticism and said: “It’s as though people with one arm weren’t allowed to complain for fear of offending people with one leg.”
Mona Chollet is a journalist
(2) Not his real name.
(3) Anne and Marine Rambach, Les intellos prÃ©caires, Paris, Fayard, 2001, and Hachette/Pluriel, 2002.
(4) Yves PagÃ¨s, Petites natures mortes au travail and Portraits crachÃ©s, Paris, Verticales, 2000 and 2003.
(6) A collective called GÃ©nÃ©ration PrÃ©caire wore white masks during demos to represent impersonal professional status.
(7) From a popular slogan in May 1968, “Sous les paves la plage”. http://www.editionsterrenoire.com
(8) A critical cultural magazine, http://www.technikart.com/
(10) Louise Desbrusses, L’argent, l’urgence, Paris, POL, 2006.
Translated by Krystyna Horko