It is difficult to think about labor precarity – the way in which the new “unshackled” working class has been liberated from regular hours, job security, benefits, and solidarity, in the name of flexibility – when I don’t pay rent, buy my own food, or retain sole responsibility for paying back my student loans. I have a job, and the potential for advancement with the organization that has employed me. I have access to healthcare through my mother’s employer, and eventually through my own. For the moment, whatever money I make goes towards my savings or coffee and pastries.
And yet, I return to the idea. I watch my friends find paying work. Some of them have regular hours and the expectation of career advancement with their given employer or in their field. They already take on new responsibilities, they become more involved. Other friends drift through the employment landscape applying whatever skills they have to whatever work finds them, regardless of fulfillment, enjoyment, or faith in the work they are doing.
But some of the unease comes from watching the junkies at the bus depot hustle people for money, time, or acknowledgement. Because it’s not just the junkies anymore. Everybody hustles these days. I find headlines in my inbox about how a “side hustle” is both healthy and integral to the modern worker’s lifestyle. From all sides, incoming workers, especially in semi-creative industries, but also far too many others, are expected to perform hope labor; unpaid labor done with the expectation that it will attract paid labor.
For example: this blog, promotional photography done for friends and acquaintances, or the physical and mental labor done for a retail start up.
Locally – in the flesh – I get paid in trade. Usually food, drink, or artwork; but never a monetary equivalency, never contractual, rather a semi-valuable expression of gratitude. In the wider world my work, such as the words you read right now, is done for nothing. If time is money, then my time is literally without worth. A penny for your thoughts? Instead, tell me what you’re thinking and, if I like it, maybe I’ll give you something next time.
With some disappointment, I’ve discovered I know how to hustle. I know how to tell people what they should do for themselves, that benefits me. I can look you in the eye and tell you that not only do I know how to do what you need, but I can do it better, and more besides.
I’ve started to hustle my friends, not secretly, not covertly, but hustle all the same.
The hustle is carrying business cards, even when you don’t have a business. It’s constantly thinking over which organizations you are connected to, which business owners or capital holders you know, and which movers and shakers you have access to.
I’ve never enjoyed sports or board games. Both require a competitive edge, a desire to get one over on the other guy, that has never really appealed to me. Even if I know how to hustle, I don’t think I’m going to be making myself into a shark tank capitalist any time soon. My knee-jerk reaction to people who need to get a foot in the door, or an edge, or at the very least, a seat at the table (I don’t know that I can help anyone get skin in the game, yet), is to see if my hustle can get them there. A co-worker is looking for an internship? I might know some local business owners who would be interested in the extra help, but let’s see if the local women’s networking group – “networking,” in other words, organized hustle – might have some better opportunities. I know some people, I can get us an invitation.
The hustle is a hard game. No one hustles if they can help it. You hustle when you need to get ahead, or need to catch a break and you don’t have any other way of getting it. The hustle means every relationship can be a means to an end. I hustle my close friends. I hustle old bosses, and friendly acquaintances. I hustle at parties and in bars.
The hustle is the long arm of free market capitalism. Our present capitalism believes in “human capital,” or the ability of the worker to exploit themselves, and has made the demand that workers be ready, at any moment, to start the hustle. The magic of the “side hustle” (perhaps meant to be “side” to your job, if you have steady employment, but maybe it’s the “side” to your main hustle, the hustle that feeds and houses you for the moment, without guarantee) is that it gets you used to hustling.
Hustling isn’t new. People have always had to hustle, some more than others. Artists, anyone in sales, journalists, writers, freelancers of all types, academics – just to name a few – have always had to hustle for attention, for patronage, for customers, for publication, for funding, for airtime and column space. We like to believe that the fastest growing sectors are in technology, an employment avenue with job security and benefits, liberated from the hustle, but in fact, the sectors adding the most jobs are almost entirely in service industries. (See the numbers from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.) We are getting more food service workers, more home aides, more nurses, more retail associates, and more customer service reps, far many more than we are getting new code monkeys.
The service industry is institutionalized hustle. Your barista, sales person, home aide, or babysitter are paid to care. They remember your name, your order, your birthday because feeling special will keep you coming back. You pay them, not for the product (the coffee, the clothing, the medicine) or even their expertise, but for the service experience they provide. You pay them to smile, to ask how you are, to remember your milk preference, and offer gift wrapping. With home aides and nannies, you pay them to take time and care away from their own loved ones and tend to yours in your stead.
Through all this capitalism doesn’t just shape our social and political circumstances, but reaches all the way inside us and plays around with the way we think.
Mid-March of 2015 found me in retreat from the shared social reality; I listened exclusively to mid-2000s pop-punk, and wrote over 3,000 words on the topic of Fall Out Boy as a social phenomenon, as well as their potential role in promoting the acceptability of Lesbian Gay & Bisexual (of LGBT) politics. I stopped going to class, and eventually stopped leaving my room.
After the semester ended, I started seeing three separate doctors whose job is to make sure my brain is functioning “normally” or “better” or some other inescapably normative adjective, and was ultimately prescribed three different types of drugs to regulate various aspects of my neuro-psychological well-being. Migraines [brain lesions, disordered speech, sensory overload, nausea, headaches, … ], depression [anhedonia, disordered sleep patterns, listlessness, irritability, emotional outbursts, … ], anxiety [panic attacks, social dysfunction, antisocial behavior, performance issues, … ], ADHD [executive function disorder, irritability, mood swings, … ].
By November, I could do things that would have been unthinkable in April. Now, I can talk to strangers. I can sell you objects I am sure were made under criminally dangerous and unregulated working conditions in the Global South. I can talk about the uncertainty of the future of my generation; a planet facing global war, a climate changing faster than we can adapt to it, the increased likelihood that the middle class will wink out of existence, and a political system that threatens to grind to a complete halt. I can even meet people from online dating websites.
As a result I stand for 8 hours a day, I make small talk with strangers, I make new friends, and I will sell anything I think you might be willing to invest in, be it $70 champagne-related wall ornament or the joys of Lovecraftian and other Weird fiction.
I am medicated so that I can get out of bed in the morning. More than that, however, I am medicated to perform better in a capitalist society. My mood is artificially enhanced (I don’t stick on the grim predictions that swim through my head) and I am more shallow – not as desperate to peer into everyone’s soul, more able to move beyond “acceptable losses” – than I am naturally. I can still feel echoes of my old anxieties (what if people don’t like me? what if they think I sound crazy? what if they keep participating in the exploitation of the third world? what if they don’t start caring about politics? what if I never find the right words to explain how this all fits together?), but I can swallow them down and bluff or lie or bluster my way through.
It comes down to this: I can smile more easily, I can be thinner and more energetic, I can laugh at your jokes even if they aren’t funny, or compliment your hair. Most of all, when I hustle you, I can make it look like honesty.
Watching this transformation has left me with a very important question: at what point does what we do become who we are? Two decades of outsized empathy, unendurable anxiety, nightmares, and self-consciousness can’t be overwritten. And yet, from inside my own head, I see someone new; a cardboard cutout of a person I don’t trust, who has my name and meets my eyes in the mirror with a smile.
The cardboard cut-out has taught me a very valuable lesson: my inner self isn’t good enough. In fact, the only way to be my best self, is through a medical regimen that alters my perceptions and reactions to help them conform to a construct we call reality. After all, one of the most common complaints addressed to individuals who are promoting the linguistic and social adjustments labeled (derogatorily) “politically correct” is that they need to face up to “reality” or “the real world”. The word “reality” in this context, and in the context of social and economic performance, could be replaced with the term “status quo”. I might see clearly, anxious as I am about labor precarity, social dysfunction introduced when friends become means to an economic end, human capital, and mounting college debt. I might be right when I entertain nightmares of a violent and barren future. But “paranoia” and “anxiety disorder” are much easier problems to fix.
Maybe my kind are just as easily found in bus stops telling you how they found Jesus and asking for spare change, as they are pitching in board rooms and on sales floors. Maybe we all just need anti-anxiety meds and amphetamines, to make sure that we can be relaxed and happy. After all, capital is only concerned with end results – did you surpass the year-to-date sales? – seekers after truth, or at least those seeking respite from the roar of sadness and fear in their heads, get picked up by LEOs for vagrancy and illegal narcotics use, and, if I stop leaving my bed, I’ll probably find myself with them at the psychiatric facility.
But as long as I sleep deeply, after a long day of hustling to pay for my drugs that make life bearable, I won’t have time for nightmares.
(Many many thanks to Sam, Joey, and Eric for proofing this piece, letting me rant, and killing my over abundance of semicolons.)