unpacking the crisis: un(der)employment, entrepreneurship, participation and resistance

Hard(ly) at Work

Dr. Lucia Sell-Trujillo. October 2014.
For most of us, having a pay check at the end of the month means much more that having resources. Being employed positions us in a socially constructed structure that validates our existence and makes us feel useful. It enables us to manage our life; it positions us as independent beings, despite lacking the freedom.

We are on sale. According the latest Spanish labor laws [Link], if you hire a youngster for your business the state will give you 300 euros a month for half a year. What a bargain! Of course, to hire the cheap youngster, you will have to get rid of that over-fifty lady. The one that has been by your side since the beginning and who grumbles when you tell her she has to stay late at work to finish a report and who insists on being paid overtime. And so it goes. Everyone has their price. We have grown accustomed to speaking of physical things, or even ethereal ones such as market shares, as going up and down in value following the laws of supply and demand. For quite some time now, these laws have gotten under our skin, into our bodies. Our exchanges are for sale – we have commercialized our lives.

Of course, this was already foreseen a century ago. Our discourse of success and progress has been framed by economic parameters that describe our value according to market rates. For most of us, having a pay check at the end of the month means much more that having resources. Being employed positions us in a socially constructed structure that validates our existence and makes us feel useful. It enables us to manage our life; it positions us as independent beings, despite lacking the freedom. Now with the economic crisis, the system's rhetoric invites us to play our part as consumers, for the good of the country, Europe, and the world. It has been constructed as our social duty.

This invasion of all things economic into language and relationships is something that we have incorporated into our way of understanding. In addition, the meaning of work as a scarce resource is also gaining different connotations from what we have experienced so far. It is generally understood that there are certain professions that require some sort of calling, they define the person and are part of their identity. In these cases, the dutiful worker tends to put in long hours, either because s/he is a self-made businessman/woman, or because s/he is deriving prestige or other implicit social rewards from his/her job (saving lives, teaching kids, etc.). However, this expected permanent availability to work has spilled over to other professions and occupations. We might still be able to define ourselves by what we do for a living, but it is increasingly difficult to derive self-esteem from us being part of a bigger group, company or institutional environment. On the one hand, there are occupations that have been despised, from the high standing of ten years ago to being the subject of scorn such as political advisors, bank employees or real estate agents. Somehow they are perceived to be the ultimate responsible for encouraging participation in the great lie of progress that we were sold. Furthermore, most work environments are going through a continuous precarization of jobs. It is not just a contractual issue with the additional fear of losing the position, or how there is increase on the demands with far less benefits. Our jobs are poorly paid; our value in the labor market has depreciated. Our effort, our time and our bodies have been devalued. We are cheaper.

"Living to work" is truer today than ever. Moreover, work is no longer synonymous with being employed, just as there are varying degrees of unemployment. Can you talk about employment if the person has a monthly contract of 400 euros? There are jobs, like working at a call center, where people put in 8 hours a day for 200 euros plus commissions. Can we really talk about adequate compensation for work? Is someone 'working in the black economy' if she has a family subsidy of 350 euros and sells homemade food from home? We have generated a fragmented and diverse job spectrum where anything goes. More than employed and unemployed, we need to start talking about active people, inside and outside the formal structure.

In this diverse labor spectrum of survival with dignity, we should highlight initiatives that are marked by attempts to generate different ways of doing. These are popular entrepreneurial activities or forms of self-employment. We refer to these as necessity entrepreneurship. We are not interested in the slick rhetoric that talks about business success stories where a hero with suit and tie has a brilliant idea, and after hardships and hard work, gets the princess with the blonde highlights and makes it to the stock market. We are interested in those that start barefoot, those who rise as the contemporary go-getters. Those who have the capacity to resist and are motivated by hunger and pending evictions. They are forced to have an innovative disposition. Their support network is not on LinkedIn but in small enclaves of resistance that have been forged through relationships, through exchanges that, most of the times, are not mediated by money. These are the entrepreneurs we should value, the heroes of the success stories that deserve to be told. Even if success is just defined as living one day and a time, and being able to smile.

We are living scenarios that are different from those generated by the economy of survival, despite starting out with desperate situations. They are real attempts to generate resources in a different manner by placing the collective as a defining axis. The misalignment and fragmentation of labor have given meaning to these new ways of understanding; they have created people who do not fit into the system and generated parallel spaces where the collective produces hope and resources. This combination of person - space is what we have defined as para-site. The para-sites are those who have rejected the position of state dependency, they do not want to be defined in terms of exclusion. They will use the resources at hand, but refuse to become reliant on complex forms of institutional care, as this will end up distorting the meaning of citizenship. The para-sites are still able to change the (or their) world through building productive alternatives situated in everyday practices. They have regained the collective to transform it into resistance.