Character Arcs for a Neoliberal World

Back in the 1990s, I had a perfect neoliberal character arc at my fingertips. I didn’t ride that arc, but sometimes—when I worry over money or limited job options—I pretend I did.

Here’s my imagined self, flying over the Pacific, clinking ice cubes in my first-class Scotch and reclining in my first-class sleeping pod. I’ve made partner at Skadden, Cromwell & Ellis, a global law firm, and I jet-set from New York to London to Hong Kong, drawing up the docs from which structured finance is structured. If you want to move dollars around the globe, build skyscrapers, or dig mines, you need paperwork. I assemble the clauses. Consequently, the world is my oyster, and as one of the borderless elite—I can own property anywhere, get a visa for any country—I operate a nonstop pearl-extraction scheme.

The arc has been lots of fun. Before Skadden, Cromwell & Ellis, I did a stint at the U.S. Attorney’s office, chasing corporate criminals, first-chairing a trial to the flash of news cameras. I nailed a bunch of rogue traders, wasn’t going to let them ruin things for everyone else. I took them down.

***

I say I had this character arc at my fingertips (though I can’t be sure) because, way back when, I was making good grades at an elite New York law school, in a time and place when the firms were handing out jobs like after-dinner mints. You just had to pluck.

I didn’t pluck, though—didn’t even interview with any of the firms. I couldn’t place myself in any scene that involved impeccable suits and the deft taking of depositions, or the mastery of Securities and Exchange Commission regulations—or, for that matter, grown-up behavior. Halfway through law school, I went on academic leave.

That summer, I interned at a workers’ center in Long Island. It felt like home. The organization was member-led, confrontational, and sweaty; the job came with work on nights and weekends but also long lunch breaks to watch World Cup matches. The work on Long Island gave me hope. When I graduated, I became a policy wonk for community organizing groups, a job where I campaigned for good health care for everyone, got to wear whatever I wanted, and never had to worry about the strictures of NSFW. Ten years later, I quit my job for graduate school and moved cross-country, temporarily leaving my husband in a gutted house.

There’s no real character arc here, but I hope at least there’s some sort of journey.

***

I’m in graduate school in Camden, New Jersey. At lunchtime, a speaker comes to campus with a PowerPoint presentation to inspire undergrads to spin their liberal arts degrees into careers. The speaker warns us that competition is fiercer than ever. Everyone’s connected. No job is secure. You have to stand out from the crowd. If you’re not first, you’re last. Your major doesn’t matter. Your grades don’t matter. Do what you love and the job will follow. You are what you pitch. Produce value. You here are all valuable. Have a dream. If you want your dream badly enough, you’ll make it. If you haven’t made it, you haven’t wanted it. Any way you look at your failure, you’re to blame.

***

Spring semester now, and I’m at sea in the world of contingent labor. I’ve loosened my grip on any possibility of a career and am teaching business writing, of all things. The course template requires my students to prepare business plans. They must present themselves as entrepreneurs, masters of a small-business domain nestled in their respective imaginations, as long as those imaginations can conjure a market and a price point.

This assignment comes at a good time for one student—Jennifer, I’ll call her—since she’s been thinking through a couple of possible character arcs. Should she look for a job in social services? Start her own business?

Self-employment is attractive. It means independence, your own dollars in your own hands, etc., etc., and these benefits can’t be discounted for someone like Jennifer, a Black woman who’s raising her family on cashier wages in a city shunted aside by the global economy. For her, as for all my students, college is about achieving a different life, and though I don’t know where she imagines her character arc leading, it has to go up.

During class discussion, Jennifer announces her business idea. She wants to buy a truck and deliver items for one of the big box stores. The idea isn’t romantic as far as dreams go, but it has the advantage of being something she thinks she can pull off.

Standing at the whiteboard, I have questions. The big box store contracts delivery out to small businesses? To start-ups?

She says someone in her family did this. She’s doing the research.

The next week, she approaches me after class with more information. The contract isn’t with the big box store but with a national trucking company, which has the agreement with the store. As a contractor with the trucking company, she explains, you wear its uniforms, drive trucks with its logo, and deliver the items it tells you to deliver to the people it tells you to deliver them to. No one knows you’re an independent businessperson but you—except the trucking company knows, and it must have reasons for arranging things this way.

I tell Jennifer I smell something fishy.

What I’m smelling is possible abuse of independent contractor status, a.k.a. “employee misclassification,” in which a company supervises you like an employee but treats you like an arm’s-length businessperson when it comes to wages, overtime, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, etc. The company, in other words, strips out its end of the employment bargain that labor activists bloodied themselves for.

Jennifer and I do a bit of poking online and pull up references to a lawsuit or two.

Listen, I say. If you want to do a business plan, go ahead. But if you want to write an evaluation of whether this business is really a business, as you were hoping it would be, do that instead. She opts for the latter and, standing in front of her classmates, pronounces her business dead before it’s born. That’s the end of that character arc, and she doesn’t look happy at all.

***

Sometimes there’s no room for a character arc in your life, so it must reach into the lives of your children. That was the case for my father’s parents, Jewish immigrants who worked in the garment shops, and for many of my friends—immigrants, too—who are delivering their hours and days and lives to the orchards or apple packinghouses, to nursing homes or housecleaning companies in central Washington state. They can’t peel their character arcs away from these industries. They’re too hemmed in by bills, irregular hours, racism, and many other things beyond their control. But they hope for the next generation. That’s the American dream.

My grandfather cut fabric for decades, came home exhausted, wore his International Ladies Garment Workers Union pin, and thought his son should become an accountant. His wife, who’d also worked in the shops, thought their son should become a doctor, and she won: her son, the doctor, brought to you by low-cost, public higher education and union work. She retired on the pride and security these afforded her.

But my friends in the packinghouses and nursing homes can count on neither low-cost, public higher education nor union work. They have entrepreneurialism, the last recourse for poor people when society (or the austerity state) tells you you’re on your own. Thus, in my friends’ homes I’ve been pitched cosmetics, cookware, knives, vitamins, and the full range of household and personal products offered in the Quixtar (now Amway) catalogue. To the higher-ticket items, I say no as politely as I can. I point out that I can’t spend upwards of $200 on a pan, even if the company’s marketing materials assure me I’ll never have to buy a pan of those dimensions ever again.

Here’s how it works when you decide to become a peer-marketer: your market is the people within your reach, so your success as an entrepreneur—something you desperately need, since you work seasonally for less than $10 an hour—depends on convincing other people earning less than $10 an hour that a cookware set valued in the hundreds of dollars is the investment of a lifetime.

Most of my peer-marketing friends are trying to buy food and make their mortgage payments, but a couple see a ladder to the middle-class. One night, a friend handed me a tape for my drive home, the peer-marketing-company recording of a speech that had meant a lot to him. This business, he felt, was more than just business. It was a way of life and a destiny, and he was in deep, receiving home-visits from a blonde, khakied man positioned one rung up the pyramid—an almost-peer—and this almost-peer palmed recorded speeches into my friend’s hands. You can be one of us. The power is within you. My friend hoped the speech would inspire me, too—meaning: it might inspire me to join the business. If I did, he’d earn points. I slid the tape into the stereo, and the car filled with high notes of can-do spirit.

I remind myself now that the peer-marketing business model is driven by financial interests and not feelings. Yet I can’t help thinking that the companies using such schemes feel residual guilt for their predation and, rather than cleaning up their act, aim to normalize that predation by downstreaming it. Evangelize your friends. They want to remake you in their monstrous image.

Like so many parasites, the peer-marketing scheme will kill its host if it’s too greedy. For instance: once marketing tactics snaked into my friendship with the Quixtar member, the friendship lost its vitality. Every visit had become a marketing session, human interaction reduced to transaction.

Of course, there’s another way to look at it. Maybe Amway, Mary Kay, and the cookware company are only offering products that I’m free to buy or not buy depending on my consumer preferences.

I should just go ahead and order the pans one of my friends has pitched me.

This is guilt speaking: not a good thing. Because it’s not enough for these peer-marketing companies to exploit our material need for each other. They also exploit our emotional need—the desire to feel connected, to be united in trust and mutual support. The companies know their cookware doubles as a pricey mechanism by which friends help one another in a way we can’t do directly because of shame, one of late capitalism’s great disciplinary tools. I’d rather give the pan money directly to my friend, but she won’t take what she thinks she hasn’t earned, so the pan means I get something of value in exchange, even if I don’t value the pan nearly as much as I value my friend. For all this, the company gets its cut.

Worst of all, I know that writing about this now, in this way, is a betrayal of my friend—who’s given me so much in so many ways—and it’s also an abuse of power. I’d like to say that our neoliberal world requires us to commit betrayals every day, but that’s no excuse.

***

These days I hear everyone talking about neoliberalism all the time. I heard the term in the 1990s and 2000s, too, but it struck me as jargon—even as I was steeped in it, a law student taught to think of humans as vectors of transaction and choice. I couldn’t put a name to my discomfort. I’d been afflicted, as Jedediah Purdy puts it, by “a loss of faith in political language [that] lay at the base of an apolitical time.”

If neoliberalism shouldn’t have felt like only an abstraction then, it doesn’t now. Now it comes like a punch in the face, “capitalism with the gloves off and back on the offensive,” in the words of Adolph Reed—but a punch landed by someone who tells you you’re at fault for standing in the way of his fist. For not proposing a market-based solution to the punches’ onslaught. For not branding your own punches and making a killing.

What this means is that the giants of finance and the extractive industries—and other aggregators of money and power—are winning, and we’re supposed to see this as a victory for our freedom, even as the no-holds-barred economy chases us down. We can’t eat or clothe ourselves without it, can’t brush our teeth or lie down to sleep. The policy masterminds of late capitalism would, in the words of poet Daniel Borzutzky, “privatize every inch of your skin if they were given the opportunity.” And why not? Capital already reaches past our skins, transforming our presents and futures into financial instruments tradable on securities markets.

Of course, capitalism has always busted borders. A state project, it Manifest Destiny-ed its way across this continent and others, drawing people into its market-economy net, the money side of the civilizing program. Now we’ve got corporate giants charting empires on maps we can’t see—maps written from multilateral trade agreements, sprawling corporate organizational charts, de-regulating regulations, international contracts, tax havens, investor-state dispute settlement, and the like. This is the kind of paperwork—the kind drawn up by lawyers at Cromwell, Skadden & Ellis—that makes ExxonMobil see itself as “an independent sovereign.” Who am I to say they’re wrong?

***

Back in the gutted house where I left my husband when I moved cross-country, the house is still gutted. I’ve returned, and I don’t mind the gutting, since we have heat in most rooms and running water.

My husband is rebuilding this place so he can feel like he’s earned it and make it his own. Maybe he’s laboring his way through a moral fantasy about ownership—something blending work and deservedness—and ten years into the house remodeling, my friend says, “I don’t think it’s just a house for him. It’s a metaphor.”

The house exists as metaphor for me, too. In my case, it stands for radical downward mobility, the idea that I can turn neoliberal fantasy inside out and shed my material need, which is as much of a fantasy as any notion plaguing my husband.

Some years ago, I was trekking in a lightly wooded no-man’s-land wedged between a western town and a curve of river. In fact, it wasn’t a no-man’s-land. It was property of the railroad or some similarly faceless owner. Signs said: No Trespassing. Lots of people trespassed. I was shadowing a homeless outreach worker, and we came across bedrolls, tents, and—the most marvelous discovery of all—a house meticulously constructed of upright logs. It was a dug-out of sorts, a house plugged into the earth, and I thought of My Antonia and pioneers living by wits and toil. I took the house as an inspiration, a possible model for the future, should it come to that.

A woman emerged. The homeless outreach worker talked to her about medications, which she wasn’t receiving. She looked worried. I don’t know how much she was eating. She and her companion were living by wits and toil in the woods, and there was no escape from need.

***

Because there’s no escape, I’m self-employed now as a freelance grant writer, policy analyst, what-have-you—making me not a businesswoman but a bargaining unit of one. I’m distressed by peers who undercut my rates, and I must distress others who know I’m undercutting them. This is what neoliberalism wants, a prisoner’s dilemma on macro scale.

***

One afternoon we of the fizzled character arcs are gathered in a union hall. It’s a forum for adjunct college instructors at a time when contingent faculty have come to outnumber those on tenure-track. Adjuncts are seasonal workers on contract. I’m trying to find my way into teaching, testing it out, but I don’t see a future. Many of my colleagues labor under a five-, eight-, maybe even ten-course teaching load, piece-working their way toward a basic income.

At the forum, there’s not a slickster in the room. I like the people here. They want to teach and make a reasonable living. They want to have hope for their students. These adjuncts have book smarts and degrees, but they’re bad at neoliberalism, which has no room for people afflicted with self-doubt, excess honesty, years above forty, good intentions translated into unobtrusive action or endearing awkwardness—neoliberalism has not an inch, in other words, for people who don’t realize that faking it and making it are one and the same.

By saying this, I’m committing an A-1 capitalist cruelty, blaming us misfits for our own woes, which is the cream-rises-to-the-top cudgel of the meritocracy.

The good news is that the adjuncts here aren’t buying it. They know they’re on the losing end of a numbers game, and they’re organizing, reigniting the dream of collective bargaining, which I hope isn’t too old a dream. The adjuncts are out gathering union cards. If they fight hard enough, they can change the game. Undivided by walls real, imagined, or promised—undivided by any flashy racist huckster-turned-politician selling greatness in another not-quite-peer marketing scam—they can rise together: fast-food workers, the independent contractors who aren’t independent, the small businesses crushed beneath Wal-Mart, the people Airbnb’ing their homes to keep the lights on, the unwanted middle-aged professionals cut loose by corporate employers, and everyone toiling everywhere from orchards to taxis or Uber cars.

There’s no neoliberal triumph in this vision—neither personal triumph nor national triumph repackaged for individual consumption—but there’s a story, one that I admit is full of sentiment and hope. I embrace the corniness. I want to be moved and inspired. What choice do we have? We’ve got to imagine a different kind of arc, one that includes all the characters, every last one of us.

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  • FSinibaldi

    Sweetness and virtue.
    ( last version )

    Sweet and present
    delight, when
    the sound of a
    blackbird spreads
    in the air with
    a delicate chirping
    I see your profile
    proceeding alone
    while the candour
    returns and the
    wind’s intuition
    appears near
    a shade: the soft
    wind invites you
    to cry, a tender
    sensation remains
    in the dark to discover
    the sadness and
    the voice of your
    heart…

    Francesco Sinibaldi

  • Ramone

    Very relevant and honest piece. It’s a cold world out there and only by standing together can we stay warm and work toward a reality that offers more than toil, betrayal and despair.

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