I picked up a passenger at an Amazon warehouse the other day who told me that there are lots of people with Master’s degrees working there. In general, I’ve heard from a number of passengers that they know underemployed highly educated people. Many have told me that they themselves have had to find work outside the fields for which they were educated.
Often, the latter have observed that “life takes you on strange journeys.” But to some degree, this situation has always existed and it isn’t nearly so interesting as that framing suggests: The “starving artist” cliché existed long before neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism reduces human beings to units of production. In neoliberal ideology, the only conceivable form of self-actualization is entrepreneurial. People who are dissatisfied with their jobs or who lose them should “reallocate” to other jobs, substituting one hue of production for another, training for those alternative hues at their own expense, or better yet, starting their own businesses, becoming entrepreneurs.
But in the end, the point is simply and solely to make the rich richer. Actually taking care of people not only does not advance that end but threatens the possibility of redistribution, so as fields of inquiry, the social sciences and human science, which inescapably highlight the inequities of the status quo, usually fall on the wrong side of a capitalist libertarian “maker”/“taker” dichotomy.
Of course, the logic here is circular: We are viewed as “takers” precisely because the rich devalue what we have to offer. Precisely because we observe injustice. Precisely because our practical impact would be, to recall Robin Hood, to “rob” the rich in order to give to the poor.
There was a time when to be rich carried with it an expectation that they would be “cultured,” interested in the arts and sciences. Education, admittedly at elite schools, was valued. Even among ordinary people, Peter Kropotkin noted the exquisite craftsmanship, a craftsmanship at stark odds with the emphasis on production we saw even when he wrote, even more so today, that went into architecture of the Middle Ages.
We might argue about Prince Charles’ architectural preferences, but ideas—even when they fall short in practice—of community and sustainability, even of an enforced leisureliness, at the expense of productivity cannot be altogether wrong.
Now, however, the point is not an education, not culture, not art, not sciences. It is money, more of it, and the sooner the better. Academic degrees exist not as representations of education but as credentials—prayers, really—for acceptance by the rich which, when arbitrarily answered, come in the form of decent jobs. Education itself is progressively reduced to “job training,” because production, to make the rich richer, is all that matters.
In this scheme, all value is quantitative, preferably monetary, which why my field, emphasizing “rich knowledge,” the qualitative that goes far beyond the quantitative, seems dead, at least in the English-speaking world.
Thus, highly educated people go to work in soul-crushing warehouses and I drive for Uber and Lyft.
- Peter Kropotkin, The State: Its Historic Role (London: Freedom, 1997).↩
- Witold Rybczynski, “Behind the Façade of Prince Charles’s Poundbury,” Architect, December 3, 2013, https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/behind-the-facade-of-prince-charless-poundbury_o↩