From passion to profit: exploitation under neoliberalism, or, how seriously should we take latte art?

Since I first encountered the notion of a calling, I’ve found it a difficult category to expunge from my thought. It appeals to me greatly on a personal level: it points to the higher dimension to human experience which I believe tends to be ‘flattened out’ in the culture of liberal democracies. It helps us attend to the possibility of work that is meaningful and non-alienated so as to give shape to a life and provide the qualitative distinctions of worth in relation to which we can orientate ourselves existentially.

However I find myself increasingly troubled by the appeal this has held for me, as well as how notions of this sort might buttress exploitation under contemporary conditions. For instance consider the ‘perils of passion’ in the video game industry, as detailed in this excellent Jacobin article:

Again and again, when you read interviews or watch industry trade shows like E3, “passion” is used as a word to describe the ideal employee. Translated, “passion” means someone willing to buy into the dream of becoming a video game developer so much that sane hours and adequate compensation are willingly turned away. Constant harping on video game workers’ passion becomes the means by which management implicitly justifies extreme worker abuse .

And it works because that sense of passion is very real. The first time that you walk through the door at an industry job, you’re taken with it. You enter knowing that every single person in the building shares a common interest with you and an appreciation for the art of crafting a game. Friendships can be built immediately – to this day, many of my best friends arose from that immediate commonality we all had on the job.

This is an incredibly enticing proposition; no one who goes in is completely immune to it, no matter how far down the totem pole of life’s interests gaming is. And there are few other jobs quite like it.

Geek culture takes such strongly held commonalities of interest and consumption far more seriously than most other subcultures. I recently wrote a piece for this publication which was, in part, about the replacement of traditional class, gender, and racial solidarity with a culture of consumption. Here, in the video game creation business, is the way capital harnesses geek culture to actively harm workers. The exchange is simple: you will work 60-hour weeks for a quarter less than other software fields; in exchange, you have a seat at the table of your primary identifying culture’s ruling class.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Another example can be found in the comics industry, as far back as the early days of the contemporary corporations. With the original creators leaving, having scarcely been rewarded for much of the creative labour underlying the emergence of Marvel Comics, the corporation turned to “a new generation of creators, wide-eyed twenty-somethings who flashed their old Merry Marvel Marching Society badges as though they were licenses for breaking rules”. The grievances of those original creators faded from view as their creations inspired a new generation willing to work under precisely the conditions which had forced their predecessors to leave.

What about higher education? Does a sense of social science as a calling leave people continuing to chase a career which is in reality only available to a fraction of those pursuing it? Does it lead to an acceptance of precarity as a way of life, with the harsh realities of labour relations within the academy being softened by the rewarding ideal of a calling? Part of my political and theoretical problem here is that I don’t want to fall into the trap of denying the reality of passion by reducing it to an instrument of exploitation. Doing so makes it difficult to explain precisely why people persist in these fields in the way that they do. But we must conversely refuse a naive reading of ‘calling’, which I see in terms of a cluster of concepts of which ‘passion’ is just one, in moral terms so as to neglect this pernicious systemic trend.

Another way to frame this question: how seriously should we take latte art? I’ve more than once had a conversation with a barista about this practice who clearly takes great satisfaction from it. However it’s hard not to wonder if this is a cynical attempt to introduce craft and creativity into a job which some would consider the archetype of zero hours employment. I’d love to visit latte art competitions in an ethnographic capacity to explore how seriously the participants take these endeavours and how pervasively such events are permeated by corporate imperatives. Till that day, I’m left to speculate that this is a case of craft being encouraged by owners for reasons that are largely self-serving, even if they understand their motivations in terms of a benign concern for the well-being of their employees.

Categories: Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes

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