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Getting Emotional About Labor


Does the world need another podcast? Probably not. But I find myself needing a free-form space to think through the contours of our historical moment — from the epic social and ecological stakes to the savviest strategies for getting ourselves out of this mess. With that in mind, I recently wrangled two of my most brilliant and busiest friends — author and Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and filmmaker and writer Astra Taylor — around a wooden table at a college radio station to start that conversation. There may have been tequila. There was definitely gallows humor.

More than anything else, we found ourselves getting emotional about labor — about the fact that being a decent human is increasingly being griped about as “emotional labor”; about the Dickensian working conditions suffered by the women boxing up our holiday crap; about the fact that caging children is fast becoming a booming career path; and about the tremendous promise of a different kind of work (and leisure) under a Green New Deal. We also tried to figure out why some things feel too mean — and too meaningful — to say on Twitter.

This is our first pilot for a regular podcast we plan to launch in the new year. We aren’t broadcasting pros, so help us! Please share your thoughts on what you liked, what you loathed (be nice), and any ideas for what else you’d like to hear. We also need a show name! Feel free to make your suggestions in the comments below.

 

Naomi Klein: I want to ask both of you to just tell people a little bit about yourselves.

Astra Taylor: So, my name is Astra Taylor. I’m a writer, occasional filmmaker. I just finished the film called What is Democracy?. And an organizer — I co-founded a debtors union called The Debt Collective.

NK: What about you, Keeanga?

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: I’m Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. I’m the author of two books, “From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation,” and I edited a book titled “How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective.” I am also an assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton University.

NK: Which is where we are. We’re here at Princeton. I’m Naomi Klein. I am also a writer like these two amazing women who happen to be my personal gurus. I’ve been writing books for 20 years. My first book was “No Logo.” My last book was “Battle for Paradise” about Puerto Rico. I wrote a few books in between like “The Shock Doctrine,” “This Changes Everything.” I’m obsessed with climate change. I co-founded a group called The Leap about the need to change in a big way, in a hurry. I also have the first job I’ve had in 20 years. I am the inaugural Gloria Steinem Chair in media culture and feminist studies at Rutgers University.

And we’re here for a bunch of reasons. One of the reasons I’m here is I love these two women dearly. We’re also here because we feel like there’s even though there are so many podcasts, we feel like there’s not enough people occupying the space we’re trying to occupy here around this table and we’re not going to define that. I think that’s going to come out, but what we want to do is to engage with big ideas and news from an unabashedly radical perspective.

Protester: The politician who claims to care about our generation must back a Green New Deal.

News Anchor: U.S. authorities fired tear gas at mostly adult males, but some of it hit women and children.

Woman: They stand over you. They watch you. They holler at you: “Get the work out. Get the work out now, now.”

KYT: We all know that sometimes it’s a wiser idea not to press send on that email and not to go through with your most scathing tweet because you’ll spend the rest of the day dealing with trolls and generally being put into an even fouler mood. So, these are our draft folders. Don’t at me, motherfucker. Naomi, why don’t you start us off?

NK: So I didn’t have that many this week, but there was an article that appeared in The Atlantic that that somebody tagged me in on Twitter because they know I’m interested in this. It was about emotional labor, the idea of emotional labor, and it was an interview with Arlie Hochschild who is the person who coined this term in this book, that she —this really famous sociology text “The Managed Heart,” which came out in 1983. Now, it was an interesting interview with her because it was about how she feels about the way this term that she coined has been used and abused of late, right? I have ambivalent feelings about that because anybody who’s a writer out there puts ideas out and I don’t believe in owning those terms just because you were the first one to use it. But still, it can be very weird when you come up with the term and then you watch it take on this weird life of its own.

So, what she meant when she wrote about it in the first place was the kind of paid labor, paid job where part of your job is to convey and inspire a certain kind of emotion. So, the most famous kind of iconic example of this is the airline attendant, right? So, their job is not just to serve drinks and keep people safe; it’s to smile. it’s to make people calm and feel good and all of that, right? So, part of that per the job is emotional labor, which isn’t actually really remunerated. Most of emotional work is women’s work. But now, this phrase emotional labor has taken on this completely other life and you hear people very resentfully talking about the emotional labor that they have to engage in and they’re referring to things like taking care of their own children or you know, taking care of an elderly parent. And often the reason why it’s resentful is because this work isn’t fairly distributed in society, right?

So, women do more of it than men. In academia professors of color have a lot more to do — taking, you know, emotional responsibility for students of color who are having a hard time in institutions that exclude them. But, I still feel like this phrase is a really slippery slope because — and so, what I was going to was I was going to tweet this article and I think it was something along the lines of, you know, I’m really tired of people complaining about having to be decent human beings and calling it emotional labor.

I think the goal should be for everyone to be a decent human being and for us to take better care of each other and this seems to be part of a trend of like further commodifying our relationships like monetizing our relationships. I don’t want to count my friendships and mentorships and work that I feel is just, well, just not work. It’s not work. It’s just being a human being in the world. So, anyway, I almost tweeted this and then I thought I don’t want to spend the rest of this week fending people off who are accusing me of God-knows-what. So I just didn’t do it and saved it for just a chit-chatting with you ladies.

AT: Well, because also they would, as they pose a rebuttal, see that would be emotional labor that they wouldn’t want to engage in so they’d be doubly upset.

KYT: I mean, I’ve heard it mostly, this, the emotional labor within the context among activists who have talked about it’s usually not teaching white people about something or other. And I understand part of that, but then there’s there’s an aspect of it which is, well, that that’s what activists do, right? Activists are engaged in the process not of necessarily teaching but that this is part of what we do in terms of trying to get people to think differently about different things in the world.

And to me, I don’t know, it says something about the phrase or think about things in terms of how neoliberalism creeps into unsuspecting places like activism. And to me, that’s a kind of expression of that.

AT: I mean, I think this will be a theme of this episode, this issue of work and it’s also it’s like we don’t have — all work is alienated labor. So, if someone’s asking you to perform emotional labor then it must be in this must be oppressive, right? Because your sense of what work is, is a negative one. But I’m always conflicted in activist context about that point because it’s like well, yeah, it is true. There’s this, you know, you have to constantly engage in the act of like political education and trying to, you know, explain to people things that you wish they already got. And yet, that is, that’s the work of activism. And that’s not alienated labor, necessarily.

KYT: Who else will do it?

NK: But also, it’s okay to take a break from it. You know, it’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to seek fair redistribution of that labor. I do have a lot of time for that fatigue of just constantly doing that work and there should be the freedom to walk away. And a lot of people approach it with entitlement, as we all know like, you know, people just demand definitions and explanations. And I mean, just like ignore that, right? You have to ignore that to get through the day. But one of the points that Hochschild makes in this interview is like if you’re feeling that playing with your kids is emotional labor, then there’s a bigger problem in your life, you know. And so then, what we need to get at is why people feel so incredibly stressed that every part of life, including the parts of life that are supposed to be joyful and not monetized, are feeling so taxing.

AT: Right, and if you feel, if you’re smiling at your partner and you feel equivalent to a stewardess who has to smile at the like asshole guy in first class, like there’s something wrong with your partnership. You’re married to the wrong guy.

NK: You’ve got a bigger problem than the distribution of emotional labor. I’m going to pass the drafts baton to Astra. What are you — what have you got in there?

AT: I had more — I had a few this week. Well, one was I finished a book that I’ve been working on for a year.

KYT: Congratulations.

AT: Thank you. And so, I had this moment where I was like, I actually loaded up the Twitter. I was going to write, “I finished my book,” and then I stopped myself because I felt like I would be bragging.

NK: I mean, I love that about you, Astra, because you’re so not built for 2018. Keeanga also finished a book. I don’t remember her bragging about it on Twitter.

KY: Facebook.

NK: You bragged on Facebook? Okay.

AT: Facebook’s more like friends. Twitter’s more into the void, you know.

KYT: But I did finish a book.

AT: Congratulations. But I also thought, then not only should I tweet about finishing it, but maybe I should tweet about like the days where I just sat at my desk in a pile of like cold coffee cups and candy wrappers and only wrote, you know, a paragraph. Like shouldn’t I tweet, not just the culmination, but the struggle?

NK: I think you should both tweet more about having finished your books. And I know that your publishers would agree.

AT: I should have tweeted.

NK: It’s not too late. You can tweet right now. But yes, the drafts folder. What have you got in your drafts folder, Keeanga?

KYT: So, as has been brought up, I did finish book last week and it means that probably, for the first time in I don’t know, maybe 10 years. I’ve been able to read what I’ve wanted to read. And so, I picked up a book “Heavy” by Kiese Laymon. I laid on my couch for about 5 hours and read the book, almost cover to cover, and I haven’t read a book like that in years where, you know, not just that I had a block of time to read but that I couldn’t actually put the book down. This is, you know, this is a memoir, almost a coming-of-age story for a Black teenager in Mississippi in the 1980s and 1990s. And I think it’s one of the few books that has come out that articulates some of the experience of what I would refer to as a post-Black Revolution generation. And by that I mean young Black people who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s whose parents lived through and were radicalized by the 1960s. The book is fascinating.

AT: So, why didn’t you tweet about it, though?

KYT: It was too much. Especially, you know, Twitter is for short, quick thoughts and the book is so layered. It is heavy. There was too much to say about it.

[music]

AT: So, the idea is that each week on the show, we’re going to bring a discussion about what we feel is imperative to us, to the listeners, the world; something that has irritated us, inspired us; something we think is really important and we want to ask questions that we don’t see being asked other places, bring a little bit of a anti-capitalist analysis to things. So, these are our moments of angry rants, hopeful rants, reflections. And Naomi, do you want to kick us off? What have you been thinking about this week?

NK: So, I’ve been obsessing over the past couple of weeks about the idea of a Green New Deal.

AT: Last couple weeks?

NK: So for a good decade now, but the latest incarnation of my obsession is this kind of surprise, right, that came out after the midterms because during the midterms, climate change was not a big issue. At least, if you followed the elections via mainstream media, it didn’t seem to be like a definitive issue that people were voting on particularly. It was more about health care and other important issues.

But immediately after the election, you saw basically young people declare a state of emergency. Young activists occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office. Young people from The Sunrise Movement, which is a relatively new group — it’s a climate change focused group led by young people in university and high school, as well. And the first demand was for politicians to pledge not to take money from fossil fuel companies. And then it extended from there for the Democrats to use their majority in Congress to declare a state of emergency about climate change and to introduce a bold response to it, which they were calling a Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited them in and this was heresy, you know, for an incoming congresswoman to visit activists occupying the Speaker’s — the Speaker-to-be’s office.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: But it’s inevitable that we are going to create jobs. It’s inevitable that we’re going to create industry, and it’s inevitable that we can use the transition to a hundred percent renewable energy as the vehicle to truly deliver and establish economic, social, and racial justice in the United States of America.

NK: What she’s trying to do is get a select committee, created in Congress, on a Green New Deal and they would spend the next year consulting with movements, consulting with sub-national governments, cities, states, academics,  real experts in the field to come up with a plan for what that would look like. And so, it’s sort of inspired by the original New Deal in the 1930s, but focused on the need to get to a hundred percent renewables very, very quickly, but doing so in a way that, as it says in her resolution, would virtually eliminate poverty in the United States, would prioritize frontline communities — the communities that have the dirtiest industry in their backyards, which is invariably communities of color, almost invariably. So, those would be the communities that would get some of the important jobs in this green transition. It would also not leave workers behind who work in the fossil fuel industry and so on.

So, I mean what’s exciting about this to me is that, you know, we know that there’s not going to be any major legislation introduced by the Democrats in the next couple of years. And that’s really scary from a climate change perspective because we just can’t lose these next two years. So, what’s exciting to me about this is that it makes use of the next two years to get into a position where, in 2021, there could be a new government that hits the ground running with a plan that is elected on this as its platform, right?

Because, you know, when Trump was elected, the really scary part of it — and there were lots of very, very, very scary parts of it — but from a climate change perspective what we all knew was that we could not lose these next four years because we just heard from the IPCC, which is the body representing the amalgamation of hundreds of climate scientists who come up with a sort of consensus document to advise governments around the world. They produced a report a couple of months ago that said that we have 12 years, a mere 12 years to reduce our fossil fuel consumption by 45 percent So, that doesn’t mean we start in 12 years. We have to have gotten it done in 12 years.

AT: And they say, right, in the very beginning like —

NK: Unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.

AT: Yeah, not just some science magic.

NK: No, no, I mean like agriculture, transportation, building. I mean, they name it, right? So, that’s why a New Deal frame is so important because usually when neoliberals talk about climate change, it’s like well, we just need to tax. You know, we just need, we need cap-and-trade. We need a tax. And that’s wrong from a scientific perspective, right? Like, that’s not going to do it, you know. It requires industrial transformation of the kind we’ve not seen since the second World War. But the other piece of it is look at what is happening in France, right? We have had for so long an unjust response to climate change. So, we have to do something about climate change so let’s just make you know, people pay more at the pump which is what Emmanuel Macron, like the neoliberal politician extraordinaire, that’s what he’s doing and there’s an uprising in France. And what people are saying is climate action, I think the exact phrases that I heard was, “Climate action is for rich people who can afford to care about the end of the world. We have to care about the end of the month,” right? And that dichotomy between like the people who have daily economic concerns, which is overwhelmingly most people, and this idea that caring about the fate of our —

KYT: Well that’s how Trump frames it.

NK: Exactly, yeah. He says, maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not true, but I’m not going to sacrifice all those jobs. And the Green New Deal frame is let’s create millions of jobs, right? And let’s make sure they’re living wage jobs. Let’s make sure they’re unionized jobs. And let’s break this idea that responding to climate change is going to cause working people to suffer. In fact, it’s the opposite. We can create services, better services, better jobs and it’s not about you know, averting pain in the future. It’s about improving lives right now. So, I’m super excited about this. You know, I’m a little bit like the girl who cried “Last chance to save the world,” you know. I’ve written variations on this column before but I really do believe this is sort of — making this happen is our last chance to avert really catastrophic climate change.

AT: So, I have like two questions I’d love to hear your thoughts on about it. I’d just love to hear you reflect on this because one thing, is okay, there can be a way of pitching this that’s like we can all be richer in the sense of you know, there’s abundance. We can have better lives. We can have more free time. You know, we can have a planet that’s habitable where a Green New Deal means investment. It means more jobs. It means growth, right? So, in other words, we are kind of saving capitalism or also, a real Green New Deal would be a profound transformation. Does that make sense?

NK: No, it does make sense. It does make sense. And it is a challenge because I think that this incoming class in Congress is pretty radical, but they’re not going all the way there in terms of the challenge that this poses to really a consumer lifestyle right?

AT: Because the New Deal invented, I mean, it like sort of created the consumer lifestyle in a way. Like that was a sort of mid-20th Century, right, where consumption is — I mean, even FDR said something like, you know, in the future, we’re going to pay more attention to the consumer than the producer. I mean, it helped inaugurate, you know, the system that’s gotten US in here. So, is this going to undo that and build something new?

NK: Well, first I would just say that part of what’s exciting about it is that it isn’t drafted yet, right? And the idea is really to talk to the people who are most impacted by the transition, most impacted by climate change, the experts who know the most and come up with a plan. And what I know is that there is no way to lower emissions by the amount that we need to lower it without confronting the logic of endless growth, right?

So, there are things we can have more of — there’s an abundance in certain kinds of activities, including caring for each other, which is part of the reason why this emotional labor thing grates at me so much, like this resenting of like the work of caring for each other. Because I also think that’s kind of low-carbon work that should be part of any kind of Green New Deal, like recognized and valorized. We have to live differently. So, I think we are in this moment where we’re sort of willing to add but not subtract like we do need to consume less energy and it can’t just be about sort of feeding the wheel of overconsumption and creating more disposable income. But I mean, Keeanga, you’re the historian and you know the failures of the old New Deal, of the original New Deal. So, what are you feeling about this language?

KYT: Well, I think there are two things that it can introduce. One is that the New Deal, in some respects, was a response from the political establishment to kind of offset more radical demands. So, that’s for certain. In the U.S., we get the New Deal, which is a kind of reform movement that is seen as a way to save the system, but that institutes major reforms in the lives of ordinary Americans, which really introduces the idea of a welfare state as incomplete as it actually was. But we also recognize the limits of that. The main one being it cut out Black people.

NK: And women and migrants.

KYT: Right, so in the 1960s, you get an attempt to try to recoup some of that with the Great Society but all of these — and one of the things that is important — are precipitated by mass social movement and upheaval. And so, that’s a little bit different and interesting with the situation today. There has been a kind of nascent development of climate activism, you know, so we’ve seen like really large marches in the last year. We’ve seen the attempts to organize on a mass level around these issues that has not necessarily developed into large, self-sustaining organization. And so I think ultimately, what makes the difference as to whether or not the Democratic Party would take this up as a serious issue in the next election has to do with the development of that movement. The lack of real discussion around this, even from the Democrats in the midterms, I think, you know, speaks to the complicating factors.

The fossil fuel industry is very bipartisan in its approach to —

NK: Which is another key part of this is, of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s demands — the creation of the select committee and that no politician who takes fossil fuel money should be able to be on it, which rules out basically —

KYT: Everyone.

NK: Almost everyone.

KYT: Yeah, and that’s the complicating factor but you know, that’s good. But that’s why we have to — there has to be independent organizing around this in order to make it real. They’re not going to do it on their own.

AT: Yeah, which brings me to — So, the question, another thing I thought was interesting there was your idea — I don’t know if it was your proposal or you’d heard it from movements, but that there could be a constituent assembly, some outside force that then is working on this and flushing out this bill maybe state-by-state, municipality-by-municipality, so that, by 2020, it’s like this is done and it’s actually has democratic legitimacy. And reading that ,I thought that was so exciting. I was like ready to go.

NK: That was me just getting carried away.

KYT: I think it’s nice. That’s not you getting carried away. That’s what will actually be necessary in order to make this happen.

AT: Yeah, and so, I think that’s that piece because you go yeah, the New Deal but yeah, there was labor militancy, you know. Or the Civil Rights Movement —

[crosstalk]

NK: The New Deal was improvisational. They kept having to add stuff, right, because it wasn’t working. It didn’t actually pull the U.S. out of depression. It wasn’t until the second World War and then you had this massive transformation, you know and stimulus of the economy through trillions —

KYT: And the growth of the consumer society.

AT: Yeah, but I think that constituent assembly idea is really good. Like, I don’t see that as being carried away. I see that as the thing —

NK: No, I’m just saying that it didn’t come from like — but I agree. I agree. It’s absolutely essential. I don’t actually believe this select committee, you know, I don’t think it will probably be created. I think they’ll be some sort of compromise and it will be absolutely necessary to have that outside pressure. And I think there’s just enough sort of inside legitimacy now with this cohort in Congress to actually kick the movements in the butt, right, to get extremely concrete towards creating a people’s platform. And then the message is you cannot be a progressive running in 2020 that isn’t running on this platform, right? And that means that it has to come, not just from the climate movement, it has to come from many different movements coming together.

[protesters singing]

Woman: So, I’m here with one of the founders of the Sunrise Movement, Varshini Prakash.

Varshini Prakash: So, we are amazed and inspired by hundreds of young people taking action. We had three simultaneous sit-ins. We had 46 simultaneous lobby visits this morning. It is clear that the momentum, the inspiration amongst young people is only growing for the real solutions to the climate crisis.

Woman: And what are the stakes? What happens if we don’t act?

VP: I mean the stakes are everything. It’s the water we drink. It’s the air we breathe. It’s the safety and security of the places that we call home. It’s about whether my generation and the generations that come after me get to live out our lives in peace and dignity or in a world that is quickly and rapidly falling into chaos and destruction.

[protesters singing]

NK: I mean what’s appealing about this framework is that it can grow, right? I mean there’s a lot that fits inside it and you know, everything is ultimately linked to where we live — the earth, the planet, right? Including the fact that a lot more people are having to move because where they live has become uninhabitable for a variety of reasons. So, Keeanga, this relates to something that has been on your mind this week.

KYT: I wanted to take up this ongoing issue of the crisis on the southern border in the United States.

News Anchor: What started as a peaceful march turned into chaos.

News Anchor: President Trump is defending the use of tear gas on migrants who rushed at a major border crossing and attempted to get into the U.S. illegally.

News Anchor: Well, migrants staying south of the border are giving President Trump an ultimatum: let them into the country or pay for their return home.

News Anchor: Over at Friendship Park, more razor wire installed lining the top of the border fence. Barriers also topped with razor wire, sending a strong signal to the caravan just on the other side.

Woman: They’re at the beach so they don’t have — at night, it gets very cold now, so they don’t have any roof under their heads. So, the sleeping bags, the blankets, the food, toys for children. It’s a necessity at the moment.

KYT: And part of that is you know, in the Trump news cycle, I think that we become so used to moving on from an issue when it’s fallen out of the mainstream media’s news cycle. But, I think that it’s important to bring attention — continue to keep attention — on what is an ongoing crisis at the border. There was the news about the tear gas that was fired at migrants in Tijuana and for weeks, there have been six thousand migrants, mostly from Central America, who have been staying at an abandoned sports complex in Tijuana in complete squalor.

The Trump Administration is only processing around 40 people a day who are applying for asylum status and so when people, you know “charge the border,” which was the pretext for firing tear gas at them, what the context within which that was happening was that people had been in these conditions for weeks now. 40 people a day being processed means that there’s something like a 5-week wait in order to get your application looked at and so, out of desperation people did charge the border. And the second part of that is the ongoing detention of young people — of children, really.

What I don’t know if people know is that there are literally tens of thousands of other young people and children who continue to be detained in camps along the border. There [are] 14,000 migrant children who are under the control of the United States. The largest camp is in Texas. It’s the Tornillo camp that has 2,300 children inside and I just wanted to bring that particular camp up because I think it exemplifies the lack of plan that the Trump Administration has and it speaks to the brutality of the policy.

This is a camp in which people who have been — agencies that have been contracted to provide services within it or prohibited by those contracts to speaking to the media. They are prohibited to speak publicly in general about the conditions that exist within the detention centers and they’re prohibited to speak specifically about children that they encountered. And probably the most insidious part of this arrangement is that children who are detained by the U.S. government are entitled to legal representation by the United States government, but the office that coordinates that also employs the lawyers who represent these children. And so, the contract that they use to employ legal assistance says that they are not allowed to sue the U.S. government for the release of these young people or they will lose their funding.

AT: Hold on. So, their employer?

KYT: Yes.

AT: So there’s basically a major conflict of interest.

KYT: There is a complete and total conflict of interest, yes. So, the Office of Refugee Resettlement is responsible for finding nonprofit legal organizations to represent the young people who were being held in detention and part of the agreement when they contract with these organizations is that those organizations are not permitted to sue the U.S. government for the release of detained migrants’ children. These practices are allowed to persist in secrecy. These kids have no access to the public. This creates the conditions for all sorts of nefarious things to happen when you also consider or factor into that the Trump Administration waived the requirement, at this particular detention center, the requirement for background checks for the staff people who work there.

AT: It’s funny because we’re recording at Princeton and just the other day, a friend was telling me about how she came to school here a decade ago. And the first week, her first week on campus, she engaged in a work slowdown at the campus bookstore. So, she would pretend to buy all this stuff and then ring it up really slowly and then go “Oh no, I need to return it,” right? So just the slow down and that’s the techniques that they’re using at the border. The state is using this technique of a work slowdown, right.

And it’s like a weaponization of bureaucracy that we don’t really have a word to describe this because I also see it in my organizing with debtors when they’re engaging with the Department of Education or with other, you know, authorities where it’s like the bureaucracy is designed in such a way to prevent people from ever enacting their rights, right? And yet, you’re allowed to submit that first form, right. And it needs a name because it’s a technique.

And you know, it’s analogous to this kind of slowdown that you know also, I don’t think the left uses enough.

NK: The thing that I find just so terrifying about this is just that this can still be going on and that there are thousands of young people detained. And that moment of horror of just like this shall not pass, you know, not on our watch and just really heroic activism on a large scale. Like there’s lots of organizers who are still organizing and are still doing incredible work, but that moment of just sort of mass refusal that has passed, right? And not only that, but then they went on the offensive during the midterms and decided to make the defining mobilizing issue for Republicans the so-called migrant caravan, right?

AT: It didn’t do as well as they thought, though.

KYT: It cost them.

NK: It cost them and that’s important to highlight, I think.

KYT: Yes, it’s fallen. We shouldn’t interpret it falling out of the news cycle as people no longer care about it or that the sense of empathy and horror no longer exists. But it is — it does feel like a continuing shock and awe strategy of the Trump Administration that you’re constantly inundated with so many crises that it’s difficult to keep up with them. The normalization of creating detention camps in the middle of the desert and not just the normalization but creating the actual apparatus, and the tools, and the techniques, and the logics, and all of that that go into establishing this is something to keep track of, and something to talk about, and to continue to reference.

NK: I mean the other thing that that becomes clear the longer this goes on is that this is a for-profit business, right?

KYT: Absolutely.

NK: It’s a business model and the longer it exists as a business model, the harder it is to dismantle, right, because then you have stakeholders who are protecting their market. These are privatized detention centers — converted Walmart’s and so on. People are getting really, really rich off this. And this was always, you know, I’m old enough to have — you know, like we covered the incredibly privatized invasion of Iraq, right, and companies like Halliburton, and Blackwater, and all of them were seeing this as you know, war as a market for them. Parts of war have always been privatized, including the weapons, but parts of that particular invasion were privatized that had never been privatized before, including the construction of bases and so on. And all of those contractors are interested in getting into the immigration detention market, the construction of walls, and so on.

KYT: So, that’s the other part. I mean, that’s another big part of the the story. The New York Times did a fascinating article about Southwest Key, the so-called charity that is responsible for building — well, they’re not actually building, they’re renting detention centers across border areas and becoming rich even though it’s a charity, that actually people are building their careers on the detention of these kids.

AT: But how do we switch that frame, right, because it’s like the cliche is they’re taking our jobs, right? That it’s a, you know, a jobs issue, but it’s like no, it’s actually growth industry for some people. Like the idea of two billion climate refugees by 2100, which is a number that’s —

KYT: It’s job creation.

AT: It’s like job creation for border patrol and for detention centers. You know, so it’s also stuff like what kind of work? Where is the moral line?

[music]

NK: Sure, it’s creating jobs. It is true that if Trump got his wall, it would create jobs. It is true that trading with Saudi Arabia creates jobs. It is true that boiling the planet creates jobs, and I really do think we are going to have to have some tough conversations with labor about — we sometimes say that you know, the labor movement knows how to add but not subtract, right? Like we can create huge numbers of jobs in this great transition, but we will have to subtract.

And we have to have a conversation about work which recognizes that not all work is of equal value, right? And there’s some kinds of work that is simply not okay, right? It is not okay to have a job creation program by building a wall with Mexico. It is not okay any more than it’s okay to have job creation locking up children. Like, we have to talk about morality in this and values. And this is a little bit TBD  in the building movement department.

KYT: Well, we’re talking about work.

AT: I know it’s a perfect segue here.

KYT: That brings us to Astra.

AT: I mean, I think this really is the theme that unites, you know, what both of you are talking about, which is yeah, what is what is work? What kind of labor do we want to see in the world? I mean, yeah climate change when we’ve killed all the pollinators, there will be a whole new professional field there for, you know, human pollinators going plant by plant. It’s already happening in parts of China and other areas where you know —

NK: What?

AT: Yeah, human beings being paid $19 a day to pollinate plants because there are no more insects. Job creation. Get rid of those insects. They’re taking our jobs.

NK: That’s like a whole — this is like a whole new take on worker bee or has everybody already made that joke?

AT: I just made that joke. You heard it here first. No, I mean, yeah, so I’ve been thinking I mean, I’ve been thinking a lot about work and, you know, technology for a few years. And so, I was in Toronto about a year ago and I was ordering my organic rice bowl as I like to do. And this is man in a suit in front of me was just like holding his phone and he was like, oh my God, how did the phone know that my order was going to be done 20 minutes early? And the girl was like because I sent you a message, right? It was just this moment where like he is so eager to believe that a robot had overseen the whole thing and was like that much quinoa, that much kale, you know, he didn’t want to see the human being there. And so now I’m just constantly like — it’s like changed my vision and I’m like, wow, the human labor that is being erased and being obscured.

NK: Astra, you’re very humble, but you did coin a phrase.

AT: I coined a phrase: faux-tomation. So, like fake automation — F-A-U-X, right? And to kind of describe this process like when work is being hidden. And I was looking for historical antecedents and I was like, okay, Jefferson’s dumbwaiter, which if it was made today would totally be a smart waiter, right? Because it’s all about hiding the labor that went into you know, bringing the food to the table. And so, there’s still this like race and gender dynamic because so much of the invisible work, especially connected to technology is done overseas. It’s in the Philippines. It’s in India.

So, there are more people working to clean up social media sites, content moderators basically digital janitors than there are actual employees of Facebook and Google. So, that’s just like one dramatic example of all this invisible labor. So, you know, and why I have been obsessed with this—it’s about the way that these processes are presented as inevitable. So, there’s an ideological component and there’s like the real component because yeah, there’s like magic technology. It’s true. But then there’s the way that these phrases like “robots are taking our jobs” give agency to technology that the technology doesn’t possess like actually capitalists are investing in technology to make workers weaker, more exploited, to speed up the work, to de-skill the work, right? Like nothing is inevitable.

You know, we really have to challenge the way that we talk about work, the way that we value work, and you know to recognize that it’s something that we make. And I just think for me, the work issue is at the front and center of the Green New Deal stuff. It’s obviously, you know, our assumption that like there’s just a finite number of jobs and immigrants are taking them is total bullshit just challenging all of these assumptions about work and labor that are being peddled, you know.

NK: So, why do we keep hearing this idea that work is disappearing, that robots are taking over, if it’s not true?

AT: Well, we’ve been hearing it for a long time, like it’s a story that goes back.

KYT: But isn’t automation, I mean isn’t there a reality?

AT: Yes, but automation — so for example, the World Bank has its 2019 report on the state of the world and this year’s was on jobs. And from what I can tell, reading economists and reading these sort of summaries of the evidence, is jobs haven’t disappeared; jobs have changed. And so, I think we also need — this technology what it does is it speeds up work, it de-skills work, it spies on employees, right? It monitors their movements. AI is the thing. There’s this software that’s called Call Miner and it’s the software that’s listening to the person at the call center and it’s monitoring their voice, and their tone, and their every word, and you know, it’s making them work in a certain way that’s more efficient. It’s making sure that they don’t let the person off the phone.

So, it’s so much of this technology it’s not automating jobs and getting rid of them. It’s allowing the employers to extract more value and it’s making work a lot shittier in the process and basically like this is also what the World Bank is saying, you know, it’s saying yeah, we’re not seeing the mass disappearance of jobs. We’re seeing jobs get more precarious, more informal. But jobs aren’t going away.

NK: And more organized sectors are being replaced with less organized sectors. Like I mean, Amazon is — they want, they’re opening stores with no tellers, right? But they’re a huge employer. They’re one of the worst employers in the world.

AT: And the people that’re employed — the people they employ, we can’t see, right? Again, it’s obscuring. It’s like those people who are racing around their warehouses or their fulfillment centers.

KYT: Oh, no.

AT: Yes, that’s what they’re called. They don’t have warehouses. You know, there are people working but we don’t see them. I don’t know and it’s also why — why call it automation? Like if we check out our own groceries, like that’s not automated. I’m just doing the work.

[music]

AT: Alright, everyone. So, if this show hasn’t been dark enough for you, this is your moment. This is our dystopia check-in. For our dystopia check-in, we want to highlight some of the you know, creeping dystopia, or maybe it’s already present and there’s a lot. It’s hard to pick. We are going to talk about XPO Logistics, a nightmare company that maybe you’ve heard of, maybe you haven’t. I really wanted us to talk about this because I read a story in New York Times. There’s also, their podcast, The Daily, did a special episode on this and it was one of these stories were it’s not something that I didn’t know but the way that it was told really affected me.

Woman: I call it modern-day slavery with a little pay. That’s what I call it. If it’s too hot in there, that prolongs the day. You know, if you’re hot, you’re exhausted, you’re dehydrated, you can’t push out as much work. So they still punish you.

AT: And so it’s one of these invisible companies. They do logistics, 12-billion-dollar company. And basically, the chances are if you use a cell phone on the northeast, specifically a Verizon phone that this company has shipped something to you. And reading the story, I just kept having the phrase “dark satanic mills,” right? Like we are in this retro future. It’s so high-tech. They’re putting these computers, tiny little computers into boxes, shipping them overnight and yet the work conditions, are just, you know, something out of Dickens, like 120 degrees, no air conditioning, 12-14 hour shifts, and women working the line, lifting heavy boxes, and basically like having miscarriages left and right. So, there’s story of five different women in the course of a month or two.

And a woman telling her supervisor she’s not feeling good and having cardiac arrest and dying on the job. And the supervisor not allowing the employees to perform CPR or to stop work, basically saying work has got to go out, putting some emergency cones around her body and making the work go on. In Tennessee, in 2017. And I just — I had this moment where I was like, I can’t buy anything ever again, right, like I’m done. I’m making paper-mache gifts. I’m getting the macrame out and like I’m never ordering anything because it’s this whole instant delivery like you got-to-have-it-tomorrow framework. Because what this company does is it provides that service to companies that are trying to compete with Amazon. Last week, there was also a story about Amazon warehouse and women having miscarriages on the factory floor from lifting heavy boxes, right? So, it’s just like —

NK: I mean, we don’t have to go back to Dickens, though. Like, this is the way that, this is work conditions in the factories that produce those products now, right, in the Philippines, in China, in Indonesia. And that has been the case for you know, 25 years or so, right? Where you know, I heard stories 20 years ago from 18-year-old workers in the Philippines and Indonesia who were putting together computers and cell phones and the rest of it. And you know, they were peeing into bags under their workstations because they weren’t — and they were experiencing all kinds of reproductive stress. And so, it’s like now —

KYT: It’s the integration of the U.S. into the global economy, actually.

AT: Yeah, I thought of your book.

NK: Production, delivery, all of it, right, the whole just-in-time production chain.

AT: And they’re subcontractors. I mean, you write about this in “No Logo,” right, these companies that are like, you know, again, because who’s heard of this company, right?

NK: It isn’t Amazon. It doesn’t have a supermarket that you can boycott or yeah, which is why you need to just not buy anything.

AT: Which is why I’m going to paper-mache.

KYT: Brent Simon, who is a historian at Temple, wrote a book a couple of years ago called “The Hamlet Fire” that is organized around this idea of the cheap and the way that cheap has come to dominate U.S. society both labor, but also more generally. And how it almost creates a feedback loop which is to say that the degradation of work and the cheapening of labor creates a stable market for the production of cheap goods, the stuff that makes up American consumption and that’s part of the dynamic, I think, that we’re experiencing.

AT: You’re making me feel like when you say like, we’re so harried, right, and we want this cheap stuff. It’s like, you know, so then going back to the Green New Deal, if we let this go — because there’s this idea [of] we all just want convenience, but it’s like, or do we need convenience? Because we don’t have the time, like we’re not time-rich. So, therefore —

KYT: It’s all connected.

AT: It’s all connected, right? So, this is where I’m like right, the vision of a better life that needs to be articulated in order for something like the Green New Deal to really capture people’s imagination like has to address these kinds of things as well.

NK: Yeah, it has to address, I mean this idea that this is actually delivering happiness. So, if that’s true, then why are there record use of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications and why —

KYT: And the growth of death by despair.

NK: Death by despair. I mean, whatever it is, it isn’t working even though it’s called the American Dream, it’s not.

AT: And what’d George Carlin say, it’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

NK: Okay, that’s our show. Thanks for tuning in. This episode was produced by Julia Furlan with research and production support from Dina Sayedahmed. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. We recorded the show at WPRB Princeton. Joshua Becker was our engineer.

 

New York Times article referenced in this podcast:

Miscarrying at Work: The Physical Toll of Pregnancy Discrimination

Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Natalie Kitroeff, October 2018

 

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