Between a job and a hard place: A non-workers inquiry

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In memory of Josh Schoolar

An article on the experience of unemployment, by Josh Schoolar – first published by Plan C in 2017 and then republished by Notes from Below along with an obituary for the author.

In September 2020, Josh Schoolar passed away. Josh was a close comrade of members of the Notes from Below editorial collective. Taken from us far too early in life, he will be remembered for his kindness, his friendship, and his tireless dedication to the class struggle. Josh worked relentlessly across all parts of the movement: from helping build tenants unions, to organising alongside workers in a range of industries, to taking part in the practical antifascist struggle in Rojava. His serious commitment to fighting for his class was exemplary. Despite the difficulties of the political context he lived through, he never failed to see that a better world lies ahead of us. In the words of a text he often referred to, he saw the precipitous and difficult path ahead, along which we must walk, firmly holding each other by the hand. It is our deepest regret that he won’t get to advance along the rest of that path with us.

As well as an organiser, Josh was a friend. He could sit in a pub and trade stories and ideas for hours. His friendliness and self-evident goodness made him deeply loved. He will be missed.

Josh was also a writer, who grew into his craft more every year. Here we are republishing some of his work on the experience of unemployment, as a tribute to an inspiring comrade. The article displays all the passion and intelligence Josh was known for.

The rascal, swindler, beggar, the unemployed, the starving, wretched and criminal workingman—these are figures who do not exist for political economy but only for other eyes, those of the doctor, the judge, the gravedigger, and bum-bailiff, etc; such figures are spectres outside its domain – Karl Marx

Between a job and a hard place: An enquiry into boredom, youth, anxiety and the limbo between working and unemployment. A non-workers enquiry.

You realized some time ago, inbetween reading Marx in sociology at college and actually having to work, that work itself is second in its mundane torture only to the process of looking for it. Hours spent looking at Indeed job search, flicking between tabs, checking your mate’s Facebook (“Just checked in at the hotel with the squad, loving Menorca! Tits and lines all round LMFAO!” – fuck off Tim you sad wanker) and getting lost in the latest #moralpanic on Twitter. Hours wasted trying to look for the delicate balance of what you’re vaguely qualified or experienced for and what you are willing to bother spending your waking life and energy performing. Though you know it won’t last, don’t you. If you actually cared about what it is you’re going to be doing, and not just the hourly rate then you wouldn’t be on fucking Indeed in the first place, would you?

You know you don’t really care, and for some reason that makes you feel bad. Is it guilt? Not quite guilt – anger. But with no line-manager to take it out on, you just end up angry at yourself.

You close the laptop and go and have a smoke, put the kettle on, sit down in the kitchen, click your neck, wait for the kettle, and flick through the bills and the UKIP flyers and the leaflets for the local takeaway. “Al Nabaabs got a deal on Fridays”, you shout upstairs to your housemate -he’s doing a masters like a prick, you should have done a masters shouldn’t you really, so you’re the prick here aren’t you.

The kettle boils and you fix a cup of tea, you bring it upstairs and you open your laptop and look at more jobs on Indeed. It would be an exaggeration to say your heart’s not in it, your mortal physical form isn’t invested any more than your fingers tapping away now. You won’t be invested in the interview and you won’t be invested on the shop floor. The hardest you’ll ever try is when your manager’s looking. But why should you care? You just need to pay your rent next week and you’re not comfortable about dropping down to the last hundred pound in your overdraft again.

So here you are clicking apply automatically and sending your hastily written and rewritten CVs to as many “POSITIONS AVAILABLE NOW!” jobs you can find. Because you’re not just a shelf stacker now, you’re a courier, a chugger, a fucking mixologist, a cleaner and a life model. So you sit in your shit room in your shit terrace house share and you look for shit work. Not that you want it to actually turn up, who the fuck would. You know it’s bullshit, the stiff next to you knows it’s bullshit, your boss knows it’s bullshit and so does theirs. Much of this work is literally pointless. Sure, sometimes you end a shift and you feel good, you reached your targets, you actually helped a customer, some old nan on the phone had a good chat with you. Sometimes at work it feels good when you feel productive and not just scared. Sometimes at work you’re angry and you feel the beautiful fleeting moments of militancy, speaking in hushed voices to co-workers in the stock room, but mostly you’re just fucking bored. The work feels pointless and with a flurry of part time contracts, falling profits and fast turnover you know that your manager must know it too. The copy and pasted 30 word job description on the agency website shows that your boss knows you’re just in it for the cash – ONLY SUCCESSFUL CANDIDATES WILL BE RESPONDED TO. Despite that, you’ve gotta smile hun, it’s company policy.

You check the time on your phone and realise an hour and a half has passed and all you’ve done is watch Facebook refresh, with ‘Indeed’ and a ‘good CV template’ Google search open on your laptop. You have another smoke, not bothering to go downstairs this time. You rub your eyes and crack your knuckles before staring at the wall for ten minutes. Fuck. You have another look at jobs again, not even reading the descriptions or the bullshit titles – you’re not a Logistics Operating Assistant For a Major UK Supermarket, you’re a shelf stacker mate. Your phone vibrates on the desk and you basically dive to answer it, desperate for a chance to read something that isn’t more fucking job descriptions or CV guidelines or some bullshit on universal credit from GOV.UK. Your nan could be dead, you’d still read it eagerly wouldn’t you. It’s your mate, she wants to go to the pub. Shit, you know you can’t afford it. You put the phone down and leave the text unanswered. You haven’t done anything productive today, you don’t deserve to go out.

This is not living. The leaflet from the GPs said that if you feel depressed and anxious again you should go back and consult your doctor, but now you get out of bed so late in the afternoon you won’t even make it there before it closes. Besides there’s a waiting list for anything other than some shit pills that you looked up online, which you can’t even get high off or sell to your mates. What you really want is someone to talk to, to feel loved, useful, and valid. Instead you feel crushed and tired even though you spend the whole day in your house sat down on your laptop and occasionally nipping out for a takeaway, an 8th or some cans, and an overpriced oven pizza from the off-license that you feel guilty about buying on the walk back home. You’re dangerously deep in your shark infested overdraft and your income is either benefits (if you’re lucky), money begged off of friends or family (in the unlikely event they can afford it), or more likely whatever’s left from your last temp contract in the bar/warehouse/coffee shop/festival/sorting office or whatever agency shit you got yourself out of the front door for. Hearing it slam as time slows down and it seems to be days before you open it again. This is not living.

If you tick the right boxes and do a bit of googling about what to say, maybe even get a letter from the doctor, you can get on benefits. Despite what you’d been led to believe by the Sun these aren’t quite as rock and roll as you thought they were. Peanuts a week and maybe some help with housing or your childcare are the plus, the negative is an army of paranoid jobsworths looking to catch you out on anything. One sanction easily leads to another as you scrape together enough to get by for the next month, start cutting corners, and looking for a bit on the side. You search “how to get more benefits” on your mate’s laptop, you can’t use your own because they can access your internet history now. The bastards at the job center make you wait for hours, fuck up the time of your appointment or give you 8 forms to fill out perfectly – as desperate as you are for the money, they’re equally desperate for an excuse not to give it to you. Of course what you don’t see is the manager, the cutting hours, the weekly targets that they inevitably have hanging over them as well. This is a boring monotonous dystopia that does not in the least resemble actual living.

You pick up your phone and finish the text. You’ll be there in 10, but you can’t afford a large one, laugh out loud, crying laughing face. You close the laptop, put on something more acceptable than the Primark t-shirt and sweatpants you were wearing earlier. Chug the can of Carling left in the fridge and set off: 22 minutes later you’re in the same Wetherspoons with the same 3 friends you’re there with every week. You arrive late because you always do, don’t you. You buy a round and finish the tenner, you’re having a good time you think, you flash your contactless and before you know it you’ve spent another tenner. Oh well it’s a Friday, it could be worse. Your phone vibrates.


Fuck. Suddenly you’re brought out of the warm ‘3 pints and a rum and coke’ glow and you remember your overdraft, your rent, the fact you went over your phone data allowance downloading Carly Rae Jepson on MP3 Converter and you hope that Vodaphone can’t read what you used the data for, and the overall fact that you never have any money, you can’t keep a job, you’ll never own a house, you don’t even know how a pension works.

All your problems could be solved if you just had a little more money, but you can’t get any work and when you have it you get treated like shit and you hate it and it just seems nicer to curl up stoned, crying on the sofa when your housemates are asleep, listening to “Call Me Maybe”. So you close the email and go outside for a smoke. Another hour, maybe more, a few more pints and you’re in the Uber home regretting every meter of the £5.40 journey. But the driver’s nice, you think, he keeps smiling at you and asking if you how your night was, he offers you a mint and tries to start a conversation about what you do for a living. You tell him you work at a bar, that’s the last gig you had over summer, better than the truth innit. But he’s just as nervous as you are, he wants a 5 star review so he can work tomorrow and feed his kids, because it’s not enough now that we actually do the job we’re supposed to, we have to smile and act nice and emotionally prostrate ourselves in front of the customer. Which is you, btw. Equally as poor and scared and anxious and pissed off as the person driving/delivering to/serving/selling the contract to you. So you get home and you get into bed, but you can’t sleep – partly the blood alcohol content, partly the crushing depression of global late-stage capitalism. You open your laptop and look at the Indeed job search as the blue light keeps you up for another hour before you can fall asleep. This is not living.

While you lie in bed popping sertraline you are as much a part of the contemporary production process as the woman operating a lathe in some titanic machine shop in Nanjing. Marx and Engels noted the existence of the reserve army of labour and its role in the mode of production in the mid 1800s. While you sit waiting for your JSA, or dive 20,000 leagues into your overdraft, you’re allowing for capital’s safety-net to manage crises in production. Mo Money Mo Workers. At least you are in theory. Today the actual means of industrial production are less defined by borders and factory walls, least of all in Europe, where Marx first put pen to paper. The mass worker model doesn’t exist in its combative form from the later decades of the last century. Capital reacted to the wave of militancy from the 60s to the 80s across Europe and the USA with a fighting retreat, the near constant offensive of the proletariat was halted by a combination of the sharp counter attacks of state repression and increasing reliance on automated machinery, artificial intelligence, information technology and global logistics. We was robbed.

Not that this means anything to you, as you repeat the same day of waking up at 12, self loathing until 2, bothering to shower at 3, refreshing all the apps on your phone till 6, then hating yourself till you go to sleep flicking between Netflix, employment agencies and porn. Facebook and ad agencies mining profit out your search history and group-chats, while you remain idle and depressed. This is a permanent state of underemployment – not quite unemployed enough to get decent benefits (an almost entirely mythical creation of the right populist press anyway), and not employed enough to hold down anything resembling a career that your grandparents might have had. We find ourselves in cycles where we work for a few weeks or months, doss about for another month or so, flirt with JSA or move from temp shit to temp shit. Student debt hanging over you like an ugly vulture just waiting for when the government slowly drips it into the private sector, and suddenly in 5 years it’s not SLC letters coming through our door it’s the boots of the bailiffs. While the state proclaims minimum wage increases, the cost of living goes up like the Hindenburg. The grand unions and parties of the past, nothing but pillars of capital then and now sell us insurance and push for closed borders; and the left parties either stick their fingers up their arses, splitting and bickering, or, go full Greek and start imposing the austerity measures themselves.

Sure capital has reacted, with zero hour contracts, Deliveroo piece-work bullshit, so precarity and anxiety are the order of the day. Because unemployment is down if everyone’s working for a few months at a time. Get it? You’re a surplus population buddy. You’re literally disposable. You’re filler in the cracks of slowly breaking capital. Obviously some of this is very profitable: struggling to crawl out of the pit of the last crisis, capital is more than happy to use this new permanent underemployment to its advantage before the next collapse. Modern logistics are quick and nasty, Just In Time stock levels and the almost immediate flow of data mean that companies need to be quick on a global scale. The demand for a certain product in the West needs to be transferred to industries in South East Asia and then transported back to the West, providing short-term global employment on that certain logistical production line, before changing to the next demand. But this is also a fatal flaw, because we can’t afford to buy anything anymore can we. Crisis after crisis is inevitable: workers finding their militant feet in China are demanding higher wages and better conditions, while the West doesn’t have the income to buy them. The cost of production rises as technology is developed to keep up with the changing pace of production and try and reduce the workforce and the environmental damage of the decades of brutal strip mining is catching up. So our friends in their factories will strike, so the prices will go up and we’ll lose our jobs stacking the shelves and calling people’s homes in a desperate attempt to sell them something and before you know it the economy is burning at both ends. In their haste to extract as much surplus value out of us as possible, they forgot they rely on us and when we act they have to answer and now maybe, just maybe in their arrogance they forgot how to. If we’re not mistaken they might have gone and sold themselves the rope.

You close the laptop and grab your phone and the half full pack of Players Kingsize. You stand up and you go down stairs to smoke, you throw the bills and the UKIP flyers and the takeaway leaflets in the bin under the sink and you’re reminded about how you used to recycle. Fuck remember that? You had to do that in school, there were adverts on TV for god’s sake, now you never hear about it. It’s like we don’t believe in things anymore, you know? Like we’ve lost something. But maybe you were just stupid for believing there were things to believe in anyway, you think. Fuck.

It seems there is no future and no real past worth remembering, four decades of neoliberalism and the current slow-burning crisis has reduced almost all radical movements to something of a joke, the only thing that wins elections is someone offering some form of change, as people grasp at anything in the hope of not being powerless forever. A day after Brexit shocked pollsters and the liberal establishment in the referendum, people, many who presumably voted Leave, searched “what does Brexit mean” in their tens of thousands. We don’t believe in anything anymore and we don’t know what we want, as a result of this ‘othering’ by capital outside of traditional wage and workplace relationships. From the overcrowded cities of Europe to China’s Pearl River Delta there is a crisis being born. Proletarians drifting between lumpen or surplus population at the edges of capital have already started to kick back globally. Hyper exploited migrant workers and futureless urban youth across the old and new productive bases of the world have been a premonition of what is soon to come, strikes, blockades, looting and escalating bitter clashes. Sometimes with set and clear demands, sometimes with none- there doesn’t seem to be a formula to this new wave of struggle yet, or a program which can be adopted.

The role of communists who find ourselves in this swell of partial proletarianisation must be to study it and see what shapes the routes we can take. The terrain has clearly changed, despite the pomp and banners of the right and the old dead left there is no utopia to build and no glorious past to revive, whatever world we have to win is still to be explored.

But you don’t think this as you sit there at the kitchen table, you just think about the here and the now. Your overdraft, your rent, your fear, your boredom. You’ll feel better tomorrow, you tell yourself, as you look out the greasy windows, past the shit lace curtains your landlord had put in and you all hate but can’t be arsed to change because it’s not like you really live here, is it. Your phone vibrates on the table and you leave it for a moment. Maybe it’s an interview, maybe it’s one of your mates, your mum who you’ll lie to and say you’re doing fine (please let it be an interview), maybe it’s even a callback. You stub out the cig in the empty Red Stripe can you’ve been using since some bastard stole the ashtray at the New Year’s do. You do the PIN on your contract smartphone (maybe you could sell it? Nah fuck that, you love Instagram and without Grindr how would you actually get laid anymore) and see what it wants now…