Type
Essay
Category
University
Work

Hopeless labour

Every application I use for work is made by a company based in the US. Apple, Microsoft, Canvas, Turnitin, Slack, Google. This occurred to me as news broke about the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union. The announcement occurred as a stoush between the Federal Government and Google, following a proposal to legislate media protections which will require tech firms to pay for news content. In reality it was about competition. What links Australian and US expectations for our work, its conditions and protections, remains far more complex. The two countries’ national affairs have been largely mutual and bilateral for decades—the most recent US-Australia Free Trade Agreement came into effect at the beginning of 2005—but there are of course significant and important differences between the two.

The quote was Rupert Murdoch speaking at a gala in Sydney to announce the establishment of the US Studies Centre in 2006. A similar line could again be spoken today. At that time Murdoch, as a key representative of US-Australian relations, had a problem to fix. Australians’ perception of the US was waning (in the midst of its military intervention in Iraq, polling showed only 58 per cent of Australians still had a positive view of the US). An educative focus on the politics of the media, it was decided, would provide a much-needed solution.

The launch of the US Studies Centre included the Howard government’s support at the end of its decade-long administration (US President Clinton arrived in Canberra six months after Howard was first elected Prime Minister in 1996. Howard had approved a $25 million endowment for the Centre, which was an initiative of the American Australian Association (AAA). While the American model for higher education is ‘customarily described as a “market”’, Higher Education researcher Simon Marginson disagrees with this characterisation. This is now also a common description of Australia’s tertiary education system, yet how (and from where) it obtains its funding is currently of concern. A consequence of this market-logic untruth has been an intensive focus on labour conditions in the sector.

The logo of the AAA features a troop of white kangaroos bounding in formation across the union canton, where the fifty stars of the American Federation usually appear. Keith Murdoch, Rupert’s father, established the AAA in New York in 1948. Sixty years later in it bounded into Australia’s tertiary education system.

The first project of the US Studies Centre was to examine the recent Bush Administration, and Howard was more than happy to offer Australia’s help in framing a post-9/11 landscape. In the meantime, News Corp was set on re-establishing Fox as the dominant television network in the US. This was the other side to the idea of education as a ‘public good’. Where we get our knowledge from was up for grabs. Was good meant to mean goods and services? Importantly, we’re presented with a choice in the debate about the market for education: inside or outside of the academy? Broadcast or enclave?

When President Obama’s ‘Hope’ campaign followed the ALP’s long-time-coming election of Kevin Rudd in 2007, the ‘hope’ that had helped to legitimate Obama’s first victory, soon became: ‘Let’s get to work.’ Following the Global Financial Crisis the US-Australia alliance, it seemed, would now be based upon our experiences of and drive towards continuous growth.

At a certain point in the new political era of this century (and millennium), the peculiarly political branding of hope became inextricably bound up with the concept of work. Not only in the US, but also in Australia. After all, hope seemed to lead away from both a racially segregated America and the jingoism that characterised the Howard era, towards a more inclusive idea focused upon relentless productivity and individualised pursuit.

The emergence of a ‘Do what you love. Love what you do’ attitude, therefore provided a far better aspirational image than the stubbornness of the Aussie battler, and this entrepreneurial spirit was clearly a symbol of US endeavour: from DIY culture to Silicon Valley start-ups. While Obama’s hope spoke to the potential for a better life, it became a motivator, an easy message to sell. But then this hope too easily evaporated into desperation.

‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ is a quote attributed in its varying constructions to historical figures as diverse in time and ambit as Oscar Wilde and Confucius. More recently it was linked by academic and curator Miya Tokumitsu to the Apple ethos, a lifestyle embodied by the late pop-business hero Steve Jobs.

Yet, at the same time, ‘Do What You Love’ became the focus of a critique, and notorious for what Tokumitsu termed its ‘elegant anti-worker ideology’. If love must become the motivator for our work, it attempted to make the case that we should simply work for the love of it by pushing our forced happiness at this reality out into the world, registering it in positive feedback loops and work satisfaction surveys. This provided an alternative, heart-market economy for labour, essentially foreshadowing a pursuit of hope as a precursor to secure, waged labour. (This symptom is also indicated by the ‘like button’ feature first introduced by Vimeo.)

The emergence of this hope-labour economy was also marked by an earlier moment of the Murdochs’ involvement in Australia’s tertiary education system. In 1945 Murdoch Snr endowed the Herald Chair of Fine Art at the University of Melbourne, ‘for teaching the understanding and appreciation of the fine arts and the application of their principles and practice to the life of the community’. The study of Fine Arts was established as the Second World War ended, just prior to Murdoch’s inauguration of AAA. In the Fine Arts we find a key model for hope-labour, of course, in the production into presence of a novelty that precedes its own value: the artwork as creation of demand.
While ‘US exceptionalism’ may have provided many Australians with a model for the nation-state, it also reflected Australia’s own ‘new nation’ status. Yet the relationship was reciprocal. Therefore, the influence Australians could have on the US also figured in the enterprise. After all, education—alongside technology, and economic growth—became a key tenet for the ‘soft power’ arguments made in the 1990s by neoliberal policymakers and pioneering International Relations mavens like Joseph Nye.

Tokumitsu’s critique of Do What You Love (DWYL) was made more immediate for me when she arrived to work at the Art History Department at Melbourne, not long after I began my doctoral studies there in 2014. As a graduate student, she taught me that I also had to learn to acknowledge my work as work, and not just as study. I was no-longer to be a student with a part-time, cash-in-hand job.

Meanwhile, as Mac computers began to appear across the campus, Steve Jobs’ work-loving image soon become the catchphrase for a coming series of economic crises and policy misadventures. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs! It was almost a panicked echo from the void into which secure employment was disappearing, atomised by the kind of networked society tech-giants were promoting.

Following its success as a widely shared essay in late 2014, a book-length version of Tokumitsu’s text, titled Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success & Happiness, permitted a more detailed examination of the gendered effects of this discourse as a wellness industry. Showing how it targeted women in particular, DWYL prepared an emergent type of labour that followed on from the style of laissez-faire management, known locally as casual work.

Two-years later, she was gone. Tokumitsu, who is a Fulbright Fellow and holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania, had arrived to take up a fixed-term lecturing position that ended as abruptly as it had begun. When Lauren Berlant writes that ‘all attachment is optimistic’, it is the fantasy of expectation that she locates in the structural schismatics our contemporary notion of the good life maintains. To travel halfway around the world, only to be ‘let go’ is perverse. Good becomes goods, too easily captured by the ‘morals of the market’. As Jessica Whyte notes this is also bound up with the neoliberal pursuit of human rights.

‘Nowhere has the DWYL mantra been more devastating to its adherents than in academia,’ Tokumitsu wrote, barely more than five years ago now. Of course, as an academic herself, the centring of this crisis in her own workplace was somewhat myopic. Yet today the focus on academia rings true, for what else does it produce other than ‘the goods’?

At the time it felt as though Tokumitsu was talking directly to graduate students like me. This passage was again at the forefront of my mind as we entered the COVIDSafe restrictions and work-from-home adjustments to teaching and research last March. But now my thinking has changed somewhat from Tokumitsu’s claim that ‘DWYL doctrine is embedded in academia’, or even that it provided a model for corporate culture.
Rather, it seems to me that the casualisation of work was embedded by the academy. After all, the organisational theorist Elton Mayo, who was originally from Adelaide, led the human relations theory he had developed at the Harvard Business School towards a new model for work (and eventually afforded him his own building at the University of Adelaide).

Mayo had focused on the ‘human problems’ of industrialised society just as fascism took hold in Europe. These labs, forums, and projects—formalised in particular by the more recent emergence of the ‘enterprise university’, exemplified by its readiness to pivot to online learning—only intensified the question of work as it related to what Mayo once called the ‘problem of the administrator’. Now that we worked elsewhere from home, the question of labour became even more entangled with its administration.

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Hope labour is a type of work often done in advance of its formal recognition, in the hope of future engagement, usually without any prospective employer requesting for it to be done. It’s like a gift. Casual work is its inverse, in that an employer offers a contract for work by claiming not to have any specific, ongoing positions available. Casual workers are almost contractually obliged to have no hope, it dissipates at the moment the contract is accepted.

In this sense, casual work is an order for the standing reserve of labour, helping to reduce the labour liability of the employer. An obvious set of questions follows on both sides of this form of engagement: What kind of ‘work’ is the work that is being done? What inspires our work for others to gain? What compels us? I began to ask this of myself while I was researching and struggling to pay my bills as a casual academic working alongside Tokumitsu and others at the University.

Reflecting on Tokumitsu’s departure in 2017, it seemed to me that publishing a critical text titled Do What You Love—a popular and highly accessible essay, reaching a far wider audience than the expected academic enclave—must have sat uneasily with the university. I speculated with others in the department; did Tokumitsu lose her job for pointing to the ‘open secret’ that the university was in fact responsible for not only embracing hope-labour, but producing and promoting this shift to casual work from this predicate?

Since that time, the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne has been in the throes of a widespread and systematic wage-theft scandal. This is the result of misclassification and underpayment of work done by casually employed academics there. In a workplace with the highest number of casuals working at ‘Australia’s Number One University’ (73 per cent of the workforce at Melbourne are on casual or fixed-term contracts), the number of people directly affected was in its thousands.

As well as other faculties at the University Melbourne, more Australian universities had been, or were just beginning to realise the extent of the problem as well: UNSW is conducting an audit, and a significant number of universities nationally were successively added to the Senate Inquiry into Underpayments (due to be heard in mid-2021). Newcastle University has so far back paid $6 million to casually employed staff.
The Attorney General, Christian Porter, was hastily trying to amend the Fair Work legislation to narrow the definition of casual employment and further restrict the liability of employers caught out with millions of dollars to pay. Off the backs of this wage-theft, many shiny new buildings have appeared on most campuses (ironically emptied by the COVID shift to working from home). The unions are also complicit, having known about the problem for years, often treating casually employed workers as scabs.

I completed my PhD at the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Faculty of Arts in 2019. I have claimed backpay for the statutory 6 years allowed for disputing historical wage-theft. Coincidentally this is the same amount time I have worked for the University of Melbourne. The total claims in the Arts Faculty alone are estimated to be around $15 million.

Many others have worked under these conditions for far longer, but their legal right to claim has now expired (the Fair Work Ombudsman has suggested that employers should still seek to rectify its admitted indiscretions much farther back in time and in good faith). No-one involved is surprised at the scale of the rort.

As both a former student and a current employee of a prized public institution, I am reflecting on this reality for tertiary education just as the Jobs Ready Graduates Package, further defunding the sector, passes through the Senate.

In desperation, I delivered a letter about all of this to the Faculty of Art’s Associate Dean of Education, Kate MacNeill, realising—too late—the School had forgotten to consider my research for the Chancellor’s Prize. My PhD had been recommended by its examiners, but not by the University. Her response was glib:

Your email has been forwarded to me in my capacity as Associate Dean Education and Students, in which I have overall responsibility for delivery of Academic Programs in the Faculty. It concerns me that your experience as a Graduate Researcher has not been a happy one … As for circumstances regarding your employment in the School of Culture and Communication, this matter is best handled through our Human Resources team.

Divide and conquer. Of course I was both; graduate labour lays the foundation for wage-theft. University staff were, and are still at war with management. As an outcome of the recently launched Pandemic Reset Program, the University Executive is currently looking to ‘achieve’ a reduction of a further 450 full-time jobs this year.

We all hope for a job, the Associate Dean told me in her response to my letter, but we shouldn’t expect one, especially not at the University of Melbourne. But I’d already worked there for 6 years.

The foundations of DWYL seems to lie in what is now referred to as the creative industries—arts, culture, media and entertainment—and while Tokumitsu’s essay (and many others) have shown how it was dangerous, it has since been buttressed by the apparent importance it plays for ‘cultural diversity’, ‘social inclusion’, ‘environmental sustainability’, and even ‘technological advancement’.

This broader definition of work as fixing inequity is a mask—in essence it is modelled upon the idea of the individual: do what you love. A further echo of this can be heard in the current Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent ploy: ‘if you have a go, you’ll get a go’. Yet nothing here suggests you should expect to be paid for this endeavour, and ultimately this exploitation is at your own expense (you go first). In the US this seems to be a moot point—Trump’s MAGA nostalgia was predicated on hope for a past that never really existed.

We are all attuned to hearing the reasons for our failures, from start-up ideas to initiatives encroaching on all aspects of life: ‘you’re just a perfectionist’, ‘you chose to spend all your time pursuing this crazy idea’. It’s a labour of love. And because you love it, you are motivated only by your hope for a better world, if only for yourself.

If anything is to be learned from the gaping inefficiencies exposed by the COVID pandemic, it is that love may have been reduced to a synonym for what political economist Ingo Stützle recalls as the ‘social’ theory of value. Love is a great resource, hope provides its futures.

The drive to force the work we do into the discourse of happiness, of love, at any cost has masked an older, more settler-colonial, definition of work as precisely that which we do not want to do.

Hard labour is a carceral form for the colonial outpost requiring penal servitude for ‘nation building’. Workers must be coerced into doing our work, hence the constant admonishment of any expectations that the state provide unconditional welfare services.

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As a bartender during my undergraduate studies, I was moonlighting alongside long-term hospitality workers. At a small bar in North Melbourne, one job I had was working with John, who helped give me an entrée into the shady economy of casual employment.

He had a tiny tattoo on the back of his hand that I first noticed as he was teaching me to pull beers and mix cocktails for the Friday-night crowd. Curious, I asked him about the tattoo during my first shift. Nearly illegible from age it had faded to an inky formaldehyde blue, making it appear ageless. He’s a lot older than me, I thought at the time, and he’d been in the hospitality industry since the 1990s. He was also singer in a band. In a simple, serif font the tattoo demanded: work.

Only a long time after he conveyed to me how it was a reminder to himself to remain disciplined, to act for himself and for his family, the disparity between work and education dawned on me. His wife worked at the bar too. She was a migrant art student who’d moved to Melbourne as an exchange student from China. For both of them, work did not mean ‘Do What You Love,’ rather, it meant do what is necessary. Do what you love outside of your shift, in many ways this is obvious. However, this distinction need not be so acute.

The 888 memorial in the old quadrangle at Melbourne University, which commemorated the moment in 1856 when stonemasons laid-down their tools to protest for an 8-hour work day relates this distinction in a different way. It is a well-known irony that the University of Melbourne does not recognise the Labour Day holiday. Every year I have taught realism to first-year Arts undergraduates by showing them a slide of Gustave Courbet’s famous painting, The Stonebreakers. This work depicts two figures from an opposing angle, we cannot see their faces because we do not align with them.

We presume both are men: one young man assisting the older. I propose it makes a comment on the enduring class reproduction, which institutions like the university systems were meant to disrupt. First displayed in Paris at the Salon of 1850 in the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, and just a few years before the 888 strike in Melbourne, it remained a world away from students struggling to make the connection.

In the second semester of 2020 I’d been teaching a foundations subject called ‘Representation’. In the final lecture for the year, delivered online, the guest lecturer taught the attentive students—all 460 of them in the course—that the subject who performs for the camera is ‘to be looked at’, and that this looking is not a neutral act.

Looking requires the adoption of class, and gender distinctions: on a screen, it is most often women who are to be looked at. This introduces them to the canonical notion of a male gaze, as it was argued by Laura Mulvey for the journal Screen in 1975. The lecture, on ‘screen dance’, ended with a discussion of Rihanna’s 2016 single, ‘Work’. Sung in Jamaican Patois, its accompanying film-clip features a Caribbean setting and context (Rihanna is Barbadian). The song also features the Canadian rapper, Drake. While the students concentrate on the dance, I wondered who Rihanna and Drake are commanding to ‘work’?

Drake also appears on the recent track ‘Life is Good’, by the Atlanta rapper Future. In the song’s film-clip they role-play as shift workers, ‘working on the weekend’, picking up garbage in the dark, and flipping burgers at night. Meanwhile they rap about the one-hundred thousand dollar rings they’re now wearing on their ‘cheapest’ fingers. ‘Hope is a lil’ bitch,’ Future mumbles. It reminds me of a paradoxical aphorism offered by the high priest of the age of mechanical reproduction, Walter Benjamin: ‘Hope is for the hopeless.’ In other words, it is an ideological tautology, like a ring.

When the University of Melbourne was bidding for the US Studies Centre in 2006, the then Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis was quoted in the media as saying ‘there is remarkably little known about the US in Australia’. Melbourne’s proposal was to name the Centre for the founder of the American Australian Association, Keith Murdoch.

But the pitch failed and the bid was won by the University of Sydney. Subsequently the ‘Melbourne Model’ for the re-design of undergraduate degrees that followed in 2008 seemed to have become mixed up with the idea of the ‘Americanisation’ of the University. The market-logic of the education export (the third largest export in the country, behind iron and coal), was also bound up with this dialectic between hope and love.

As a result of these reforms, in fact, it was the Australian experiment that was exported to students coming from all over the world. In 2017 John Howard became the leading Board Member of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. Soon after his retirement from the University of Melbourne, Davis joined him there as CEO of the corporate education entity endowed by the late billionaire businessman, Paul Ramsay.

The situation of tertiary education in Australia, and internationally, suddenly feels more politicised, more under threat than it has been for generations. If education was the domain for Australia’s culture wars, this ‘soft power’ in the past year—triggered by the pandemic—it has tipped into a full-blown crisis. Furthermore, it has precipitated the eradication of any hope that work can be kept distinct from love. And maybe that is a good thing.

 

 

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Giles Fielke is a sessional academic currently teaching at Monash and Melbourne Universities.

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