Jennifer M. Silva's Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty (Oxford University Press, 2013) contributes to our understanding of the impact of forty years of neoliberalism on poor and working people in the US, the extreme perniciousness of the individual form, and the erosion of solidarity. Silva writes: "experiences of powerlessness, confusion, and betrayal within the labor market, institutions such as education and the government, and the family teach young working-class men and women that they are completely alone, responsible for their own fates and dependent on outside help at their peril. They are learning the hard way that being an adult means trusting no one by yourself."
Silva frames her book in terms of adulthood: what are the markers of adulthood for the post-industrial working class? This is an important question: since 2009, about half of people between the ages of 18-24 live with their parents. Ever-increasing numbers of working people are postponing or forgoing marriage. Ever-more are pushed into "flexibile" work-lives such that they move in and out of the paid work-force under conditions increasingly disadvantageous to labor. The markers of successful adulthood have thus changed since the 50s and 60s when adult life was characterized by a set of basic, achievable steps: finish high school, get a job, get married, get a house, have kids. Contemporary capitalism has pushed even these basic milestones out of the reach of most working-class people. So, how do they narrate their lives? Silva argues that they focus on themselves, telling a story of personal triumph over adversity. They position themselves as isolated and alone, betrayed and abandoned by all the institutions around them. Absorbing a narrative that integrates neoliberal individualism with therapeutic self-discovery and self-help ("no one can help me but me"), they make the self the primary locus of struggle and achievement. Failure is no one's fault but your own. Success is successful grappling with one's inner life, the trauma of neglect and abuse, and the ability to overcome that by working on oneself. The failure of others is thus their own fault. As one informant said, the biggest obstacle she faces is her own self.
The book comes from interviews with a hundred young working-class people in Massachusetts and Virginia from 2008-2010. Silva's analysis is attentive to race, gender, and sexual orientation, astutely observing "that without a broad, shared vision of economic justic, race, class, and gender have become sites of resentment and division rather than a coalition among the working class." Interview subjects ("informants") were men and women between 24 and 34. Most work in the service sector. About a third live with their parents or other older family member. Not quite half have high school degrees; a little over a quarter have some college. Most have significant debt. Most have trouble locating or keeping a job capable of sustaining them (paying rent, expenses, debt).
Silva outlines an emerging working-class adult self that has "low expectations of work, wariness toward romantic commitment, widespread distrust of social institutions, profound isolation from others, and an overriding focus on their emotions and psychic health." They don't think about their lives in collective terms. They think about them in terms of recovery from painful personal pasts. Absent work as a source of self-respect and self-worth, they "remake dignity and meaning out of emotional self-management and willful psychic transformation."
The primary characteristics of the emerging working-class adult self are rugged individualism and distrust. People are reluctant to pour time, emotion, and energy into relationships that are risky. Although Silva emphasizes the impact on romantic relationships, we can extend this to a broader unwillingness to attach oneself to groups and causes. An inability to commit is an effect of economic insecurity that makes political organization as challenging and precarious as romantic association -- it's hard to know whether or not it's worth it; for many, past experience suggests that it won't be, that they most likely outcome is betrayal. Silva notes the foundational belief in self-reliance among African Americans in her study as they narrate their experiences in terms of their own individual experiences rather than in terms of the structural impact of racism. Solidarity, social trust, and community engagment plumment as the primary worldview conceives rights in terms of "'I's' rather than 'we's', with economic justice dropped out of their collective vocabulary."
Neoliberalism configures the working class self. Oprah, self-help books, therapy world -- these provide tools for people faced with pressures of flexibilization to cope with frequent change. Silva effectively illuminates the material conditions underlying contemporary culture's preoccupation with making and remaking one's individual identity. She writes, "The need to continuously recreate one's identity--whether after a failed attempt at college or an unanticipated divorce or a sudden career change--can be an anxiety-producing endeavor." Therapy offers a culture resource for ascribinging meaning to one's life in a world in flux. The individual self is both constant and maleable, a site for both continuity and change, made possible through a therapy culture that locates problems in individual pathology, inserts these pathologies into a specific individual past, and makes bearing witness to one's own suffering into a ground for a transformation confined to the self. "The sources of meaning and dignity--hard work, social solidarity, family--found in previous studies of the industrial working class had been nearly eclipsed by an all-encompassing culture of emotional self-management." The way working class people deal with upheaval, recession, and unemployment is by fostering flexibility within themselves, making themselves into adaptable beings detached from the outer world.
In a powerful and disturbing chapter on the hardening of working class individualism, Silva describes interview subjects' defense of big business and hostility toward affirmative action. The emotion underlying their neoliberal subjectivity is betrayal. These working class people feel the market to be impersonal, a matter of risk and chance. When government intervenes, it does so in ways that rig the game so that they can't compete. Furthermore, since so many have had to struggle on their own, by themselves, in contexts of poverty and diminishing opportunity, they take the fact of their survival as itself the morally significant fact: making it on one's own is what bestows dignity. Socialists like Obama thus take away their last best thing, the special something that is all they have left (this is my language), namely, the dignity they have precisely because they are completely self-reliant. Indeed, Silva's account suggests that solidarity is a problem because to embrace it would be to acknowledge one's insufficiency as an individual, one's inability to survive alone. Hence, working people are hostile to those below them on the food chain who need help from others because this hostility enables them to project neediness onto others thereby enabling themselves to shore up a fragile and impossible individuality.
Silva argues that young working-class people have learned that they can't rely on anyone. They try to numb their sense of betrayal by affirming the worst cultural scripts of individualism, personal responsibility, and self-reliance, hardening themselves to the world around them and thus becoming precisely the subjects neoliberalism needs insofar as they are hostile to various forms of government intervention, particularly affirmative action. It might be, then, that the sorts of critical exposes we on the left write and circulate, the stories of governmental corruption and the university failure, aren't helping our cause at all. Instead, they are affirming what the working class already knows to be true: they are being betrayed.
Silva's insight into the link between neoliberalism and individualism points to both the challenge for communist organizing and the possibility of a way forward:
autonomy should be understood a a by-product of an uncertain, competitive, and precarious labor market that forces individuals to navigate their life trajectories on their own in order to survive. That is, the more our futures seem uncertain and unknowable, and the more individualistic we are forced to become, the greater our need to find and express our authentic selves. Paradoxically, the more we are required to construct ourselves as individuals, to write our own biographies, the more we realize our utter inability to control the trajectories of our lives.
This 'utter inability' is a key locus of communist organizing. We have to realize together strength in numbers. And, we have to be able to be for each other not an audience for performances of authentic individuality but a solidary collective where meaning comes from common struggle. If people feel isolated, we have to build connections that prove they are not.