There is something about being unemployed — or underemployed, as it is cutely referred to these days — that puts a crimp in one’s life. It’s not just the loss of income and fear it brings that does it. And it’s not the insecurity that eats away at the psyche like a nagging toothache. Nor is it the standard work ethic that’s been drummed into us since childhood that we are what we do: If you are unemployed, you are worthless.
What is harsh is the loss of hope that comes with long-term unemployment. It is the constant effort to keep optimistic and on top of things while isolation grinds one down. Unemployment focuses the mind on individual survival, instead of collective solutions. Watching Billy Bragg perform recently at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco was, for me, a desperately needed injection of hope and a reminder that there is a lot more to life than getting by.
Even as a vehement critic of capitalism, fully aware of the misery inflicted by the profit motive and greed, after 14 months of semi-unemployment, it was a breath of fresh air to hear Bragg simply and pithily describe socialism as a “system of organized compassion.”
In between songs of love, compassion and bloody minded politics, Bragg demonstrated that decades on the road have honed not only his voice and astounding ability to make one guitar sound like four, but have finessed his gift of political oratory. “Getting Obama elected was the easy part,” noted Bragg, urging Americas not to descend into cynicism, but to instead get off their asses and make President Obama do what he said he would, and not just whine about it, as KPFA progressives are very good at doing.
When Bragg mentioned Fox News Network’s Glenn Beck, one young, presumably British woman yelled out a string of profanities. Bragg shrugged, saying, “She has a fine command of the Anglo-Saxon tongue,” and offered a song for Mr. Beck: “Dedicated Follower of Fascism.” Even when discussing the health care debate, Bragg would not let bitterness intrude. Of insurance industry executives, he said, “You can’t shoot them.” Responding to a cranky audience member who yelled “Why not?” he replied, “Because they have families.”
It was a fine evening out, but more than that, it was a relief from our grim economic straits that affect both our wallets and psyches. One so easily forgets that so many others are in the same boat, and one forgets that there had been unions for the unemployed during the last great depression.
After being “underemployed” for more than a year, it is easy to forget that I am one of the lucky ones. After six years in the salt mines of the nonprofit world, where nose to the grindstone self-exploitation is mistaken for actually making a difference in the world, I thankfully got laid off. I have been able to take a step back to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.
Before being a nonprofit media whore — um, communications worker — I was a full-time reporter. Not a great career path these days. Ink-stained wretches are no longer fashionable, and blog writing, instead of reporting, is all the rage. Journalists must be copywriter, Web entrepreneur and relentless self-promoter. Forget journalism, look at the marketing. As a Public Information Media Professional (you work out the acronym), I understood the game, pimping stories and whoring for attention, but there is something wrong with reporters doing the same thing. The point of being a reporter is to bite hard the hand that feeds you, leaving it bloody, not lick it. No wonder I got laid off.
The result is, I — like so many other people — am cobbling together a career of many colors. Private investigator, free-lance journalist and high school student tutor are all in the mix. Yet Luddite that I am, what I still want is a job. I want a place where I work with other people. I want reporters and editors that I can scream at, a job where I can do my best to cause trouble for those who deserve it and not have to worry about where the next bit of freelance piecework comes from. Or how it will affect my rent payment.
But this is America. We “thrive” on the big lie of individual achievement. Everyone is an entrepreneur. Social marketing. Fair trade. Viral networking. Attention getting. Journalists, educators and writers become small businesses. We are all players in the market. We can regulate the market and make it fairer. Ha! Democratic capitalism. As Bragg said, it is an oxymoron like military intelligence.
Capitalism thrives on the idea of individual success by dint of individual efforts and denigrates collective action. Of course, failure is an individual affair as well. The system does not fail. Individuals fail. The alternative of collective success or failure does not enter the ideology of America. Bragg raises the option that people working together for a common goal might be more successful than a small series of individual actions. After all, a Nobel Prize in economics was just awarded on such a premise. Musings like that may seem silly or naïve when out job hunting, but Billy Bragg reminded me they are not.
Look at the alternative. Many of you, dear readers, are living it. Unemployment is soul-breaking. It is the ultimate in atomized individualized success and failure. Just try denying feeling like a loser when out on the job hunt. Over and over, you are told you are on your own; on your own, searching for work. On your own, finding the motivation to look for work. On your own, trying to figure out what you want to do for work. Little time is left for thinking about how things might be better. Just getting it through the day and trying to make it is hard enough.
Trying to be politically active becomes almost comically out of the question. Bragg is a reminder that it is not. He reminded me that being unemployed is neither a failing nor is it all consuming. He reminded me of hope beyond the end of my own nose. He reminded me isolation keeps us from making change and trying to make life better by oneself is a task doomed to failure.
He sung of the English Diggers, early collectivists and anarchists, who defied their lords and squatted, fought for and occupied farmlands. He called out the power of a union and the power of groups of people working with one another to alter history. It takes an outsider like Bragg to see the obvious. Every so often we need a troubadour to remind us what is real is not the day-to-day grind, but it is the power of our friends, our links, and our beliefs, and our hope that we can make a better world. What is real is the hope of what can be done, and not let that hope get crushed and forgotten. Watching Billy Bragg, sing and shout and proselytize, I was reminded of that hope and I can’t thank him enough.
Tim Kingston is a veteran reporter, investigator and raconteur with an opinion on most things under the sun. He has contributed articles to many Bay Area media outlets including The Public Press. He can be reached at tkingston [AT] sfpublicpress.org.
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