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Rethinking Work: how about we take activism seriously?

The Internet was aflutter this week with drama over Matt Taibbi’s latest Rolling Stone story, wherein he blasts the Obama administration as being crammed full of multimillionaires from Wall Street cutting deals for their buddies. We somehow regard it as unseemly to profit from politics, yet when politics is structured to provide profit for others it’s business as usual—even in a Democratic, supposedly progressive administration.

Wall Street, after all, is a place where little real work provides ridiculous amounts of compensation. Yet it is also structured in a way that only a very few can actually be that successful—there is no way for most of us to have even a sliver of the cash that top-tier investment bankers roll in. The system requires most of us to work hard in hopes that we’ll be able to cash in, but it also requires for its very existence those who believe in something enough that they don’t care about money.

A government that doesn’t provide for its people, after all, depends on charities—nonprofits–to do its work for it. And nonprofit work requires an acknowledgment that you’re not in it for the money. Especially for those of us in left causes, we are pressured constantly to work harderfastermore! “for the cause,” and we’re not supposed to care about money. At least, I presume, at right-wing think tanks and organizations, they openly worship the Dollar and wouldn’t dream of working for less than bloated compensation packages. But do we have to think that money is the only incentive to work hard in order to be treated fairly?

Activism is often an extracurricular activity—we have day jobs, sometimes more than one, and then we work overtime and weekends volunteering for causes that matter. And to some degree the work keeps us alive and going. It is fulfilling and refreshing in a way that our day job is not.

But it is also work.

We have put money in our politics in all sorts of strange ways. We have created a world in which it requires obscene amounts of cash to run a successful campaign, where the best-funded guy (still too often a guy) wins, and where that money isn’t seen as pay or bribery but as “donations” to keep the politician you like in office. Where we shrug our shoulders and nod that Obama, for instance, had to play the game the way it’s played—because it’s true. Ralph Nader was barred from debates; Ross Perot could buy his way in. (Perhaps that’s why Nader thinks “only the super-rich can save us.”)

It’s this strange combination of devotion to cause and need for cash that makes campaign working conditions so ridiculous. But think of it for a second—the offices in each state that campaign dollars funded provided paying jobs for staffers. Admittedly low-paying jobs with hellish hours, but paying jobs nonetheless. The Obama campaign created a structure that couldn’t be sustained—no way could they keep funding an organization at that rate—so it fell apart, dependent now mostly on volunteers to marshal support for the reforms promised on the campaign trail.

For volunteers, it’s different. On the campaign trail there’s a deadline, a goal to accomplish, and then you sigh and think you can go home. Many did. But most people don’t have the spare time, the energy to keep up engagement at the level they do when there’s an election looming. Yet this is what the system required to change. It still requires it. The money has crept back in—as Taibbi notes:

There are four main ways to be connected to Bob Rubin: through Goldman Sachs, the Clinton administration, Citigroup and, finally, the Hamilton Project, a think tank Rubin spearheaded under the auspices of the Brookings Institute to promote his philosophy of balanced budgets, free trade and financial deregulation. The team Obama put in place to run his economic policy after his inauguration was dominated by people who boasted connections to at least one of these four institutions — so much so that the White House now looks like a backstage party for an episode of Bob Rubin, This Is Your Life!

These are all people who not only get paid for their work, but get paid so disgustingly well that if most Americans really thought about it they’d probably rise up and grab their pitchforks. Or maybe not—maybe they just aspire to the idea that it could be them. Howard Zinn wrote “The American system keeps control not only by a lottery of rewards (only a few make it, but everyone has a chance), but also by a lottery of punishments (only a few are put away or killed, but it’s better to play it safe, be quiet)” (Upton Sinclair and Sacco & Vanzetti, 1978).

Those of us who work in progressive activism have consciously opted out of the lottery of rewards. We haven’t bought a ticket—we’ve taken jobs that will never, ever make us rich. But the system survives on our backs as much as anyone else’s. Like the military, where the patriotic rhetorical support of the grateful nation fills in for actual care, people who work for nonprofits are an indispensable part of the Way Things Work, and the non-financial rewards are supposed to be enough.

Street activists, meanwhile, are seen as completely outside of the system. They are troublemakers; they deserve it when the police crack down and fence them off, they are mocked and derided in the mainstream media when mentioned at all, but mostly they are ignored. Even in a country that worships its revolutionary history and loves to fetishize individual rebels, we turn a blind eye to the ones right in front of us—and the WORK that they do. Strategizing, planning, executing, putting one’s body on the line, marching, singing—sometimes it’s more like art than manual labor, but isn’t art work?*

To change the system, though, is going to require more than a few activists. The sheer mass of workers that it took to put Obama in office in the first place can’t be forgotten, and our system is so skewed toward money and away from work that it will take that much effort to get any progressive reform passed.

When we ask why no one is marching on Wall Street with pitchforks (or at least picket signs) we might have to stop and think about the fact that doing that, itself, is work. It’s work that most of us don’t have time for; organizing and planning mass demonstrations, taking the time out to conduct them. The rat race in which we live and the political system that keeps it that way are constructed in a way that keep us so damn busy trying to pay the bills that we simply don’t have time to do the work of fighting it. Maybe by recognizing that activism, that participating in politics is itself work, we could reconsider why more people don’t take part—and take steps towards preventing our democracy from remaining a playground of privilege.

*We’ll address that question shortly!

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Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She’s interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking Work: how about we take activism seriously?

  1. I took a $20k/yr pay cut to work in non-profit fundraising. I’m fiscally undervalued, but I’m doing something that matters. I agree completely with the premise, and wish that political operatives understood, now that things have gone to hell economically for many of us who are activists at heart, most of us just can’t spare the time or pay out of pocket for the kind of movement required to accomplish anything.
    Not even college students, because their college funds went to hell, as did mom and dad’s 401k’s. I don’t see congress taking pay cuts, I don’t see Wall St. taking any either. “We the people,” is a concept that is going to hell in a hand cart. So how do we break the paradigm? I wish I knew.

  2. “When we ask why no one is marching on Wall Street with pitchforks (or at least picket signs) we might have to stop and think about the fact that doing that, itself, is work.”

    Dingdingdingdingding

  3. Pingback: Flying the Unfriendly Skies? | Xenia Institute

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