Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Adam: Yes, we appreciate all your support and as always, if you could help us out on Patreon, that’d be great. We have about 60 or so mini-episodes that we try to do for patrons there that helps sustain the show and keep the episodes free, which they always will be.
Nima: Every year, a series of highly anticipated listicles of “successful” and “influential” people hailed for their accomplishments that year surface in corporate media. Time magazine tells readers who the 100 most influential people were. Forbes magazine reveals the most successful 30 people under the age of 30, while Fortune magazine hails the 40 most successful folks under the age of 40. Meanwhile, TechCrunch, CNBC, and other business outlets seek a taste of the hype with their own spinoffs.
Adam: Each time one of these lists is published, a flurry of meta-press ensues. CNN, the BBC, the LA Times run pieces fawning over these high-profile lists, cementing their status as career launchers within the worlds of tech, politics, finance, venture capital, and other pockets of industry prized in capitalist economies. To the extent vaguely left-wing types are chosen, it’s almost always due to their ability to channel activist energy into billionaire-backed, slick nonprofits. Thematically similar stories of “success” are just as ubiquitous: headlines such as Business Insider’s “What 31 highly successful people were doing at age 25,” Oprah’s “20 Things Everyone Should Master by Age 40” all create a ticking-time-bomb notion of “achievement” and success operating under a very specific capitalist framework of human worth.
Nima: But why are these outlets entrusted with determining whose “success” or “influence” matters? How do these concepts punish, or at least disappear the poor, disabled, and people of color who don’t have the institutional resources to “achieve” capitalist success at such a young age? And above all, how does American media’s constant fetishization of “youth” and “accomplishment” create psychological wear and tear for the 99 percent of the population who cannot — or don’t want to — meet this definition of “success” by their 30s or even 40s?
Adam: On today’s show, we’ll analyze the ways in which corporate media’s narratives of “success” peddle neoliberalism and Western nationalism, reinforce unrealistic expectations that degrade collective mental health, and center the interests of the white professional class.
Nima: Later on the episode, we’ll be joined by two guests, the first, Edward Ongweso Jr., staff writer at Motherboard and co-host of the podcast This Machine Kills.
Edward Ongweso Jr.: A lot of these people are on the list in one way or another, because they’ve been very in the public imagination or in conversations but they’re not actually in the public imagination or these conversations because of things that they’re doing and I think that can always be the critique that we return to. You pick people at random on this list and you’re almost certainly going to find somebody who’s gotten where they are, and stays where they are because of their ability to distract everyone from what their institution, what their system, what their organization, whether they’re a politician, whether they’re a company, whether there’s a foundation, is doing to hurt people, and is doing to prevent people from deciding their own lives and changing things for their own benefit.
Nima: We’ll also be joined by writer Sarah Jaffe, columnist at The Progressive and New Labor Forum, co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt. Her latest book is Work Won’t Love You Back, which will be published next year.
Sarah Jaffe: The converse of ‘you too can do this’ is always, ‘and if you don’t, it must be something wrong with you,’ and it’s obviously like a deeply ingrained part of capitalism, but it’s particularly I think, vicious and neoliberal capitalism, the last 40 or so years of this real go go competitive, there is no alternative, ‘you must work really hard in order to succeed and if you don’t succeed, not only do you not deserve to be out of 30 Under 30 list but you also don’t deserve like health insurance and a place to live.’
Adam: This episode is a spiritual sequel, if you haven’t listened to it, listen to it of Episode 109 entitled “Self-Help Culture and the Rise of Corporate Happiness Monitoring,” which is that it operates under a very specific milieu of ideology that says one’s value in the world is dictated by their quote-unquote “success.” Now these lists can appear somewhat harmless and to some extent they can be, but what we would argue is that in the broader framework of this constant barrage of success narratives, they can start to take a toll both on labor solidarity and people’s mental health and we want to do what we usually do on the show, which is take something that seems harmless and talk about why it’s actually kind of harmful.
Nima: Yeah, because we like to be scold-y.
Adam: We like to be scold-y killjoys, and talk about why why these bourgeois notions of achievement and success can actually be quite damaging, and why we should problematize them and think about ways of deconstructing them and maybe perhaps — I don’t know — build other ways of measuring human value than figuring out what one does by the age of 29 years and 364 days.
Nima: Now, these lists — the 30 Under 30, 40 Under 40 — are inarguably situated in a decade’s long notion of pursuing one’s passion. You’re not going to have a daily grind of a worker who is 28 getting on the 30 Under 30 list. It’s all about these go-getters who just love what they’re doing so much and had a concept of how they needed to change the world by 17 years old and have done everything to pursue their passion. That’s what drives these lists, it’s what infuses all the little bio blurbs about the influencers and while there isn’t an abundance of scholarly work on the history of the concept of pursuing one’s passion and its use and exploitation in media and business, but it’s thought to have developed in the mid-20th century following the early 20th century rise of Taylorism. Now Taylorism, named after a mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, and it was a school of thought advocating for the application of scientific principles to workplace management under the assumption that it would maximize labor efficiency, that workers of course be damned. Now we discuss Taylorism in the episode Adam mentioned earlier “Episode 109: Self-Help Culture and the Rise of Corporate Happiness Monitoring,” because it is all about bringing this scientific evidence-based, data-driven science to labor management and corporate culture. By the mid-1940s and ’50s, presumably to prevent exploited workers from organizing, HR departments and management in businesses began to at least pay lip service to the notion of job satisfaction for the employees and according to Rhymer Rigby who wrote for The Telegraph, by the 1960s, quote:
People loosened up and started to look for self-actualization. For many years, this spiritual quest was separate from actually making money, so you’d see selfish Yuppies make a fortune, tire of Porsches and head off to do something meaningful like volunteer work in Africa.
End quote. This idea laid the groundwork for the more contemporary notions of success and fulfillment in one’s career that would arise more consistently in the ’80s and ‘90s.
Adam: And the advent of the successful listicle is largely a product of trade magazines in the ’80s seeking to promote their businesses and their executives. One of the first examples of these lists comes from 1984 when the Birmingham Business Journal released its top 40 under 40 business executives. Business rags like Crain’s New York followed in 1988, with its own 40 Under 40 list, which the outlet calls, quote, “an annual list of the most accomplished New York City-based business professionals under 40 years old.” Fortune Magazine’s 40 Under 40 was the first to enter the game.
Nima: Yeah, there’s a real sort of yuppie, yuppification, the almost Secret-of-My-Success-ification of how business and accomplishment is discussed in corporate media and I think that’s what, you know, so many of these lists are full of Brantley Foster, Carlton Whitfield types — if you don’t know the reference, please go watch The Secret of My Success, I love it, I used to watch it a lot when I was growing up — but you know, this go-getter whiz kid who comes in, has all these newfangled ideas, and just by sure will and passion for corporate America is able to accomplish, achieve and — what else? — make a lot of money.
Adam: Well, yeah, so here’s the deal. These lists have their pedigree entirely in business literature and business magazines. I mean, the prominent lists are in Forbes and Fortune. You know, Steve Forbes is a billionaire who started Forbes magazine as a business magazine. Fortune Magazine, most infamously wrote a glowing profile of Mussolini’s Italy in 1934. I mean, these are business rags. And so one of the things we’ll note is how they sort of tried to pivot from being overtly about business and making shitloads of money to this kind of vaguely more high-minded, semi-woke rehash, right? Because that’s sort of considered gauche now to flaunt wealth for its own sake.
Nima: Right. So for every hedge manager, you need an artist.
Adam: Yeah, you’ll notice throughout the 2000s and 2010s they begin to sort of merge into a sort of quasi-woke exercise of hedging one’s bets because I guess looking at a list of kind of interchangeable Patrick Bateman types wasn’t very interesting. And so we’ll begin with the more conservative one, which is the Fortune 40 Under 40. Now, Fortune’s inaugural 40 Under 40, again, tellingly, was just a list of the 40 richest people under the age of 40. From 1999, it was more pro-business in tone and literally just lists the 40 richest people under the age of 40 and one of the examples of course was, quote, “Internet cover boy Bezos carries these gadgets everywhere: vibrating email pager, cell phone, ELPH camera, and Swiss Army knife.” And this corresponded with the dotcom bubble at the time, the vast majority of the selections were tech CEOs, somewhere at the helm of the Web 1.0 companies like InfoSpace.com and Broadcast.com, Mark Cuban’s old company, that would quickly become worthless.
Nima: Yeah, others on that inaugural 1999 list were eBay executives Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll and Michael Dell of Dell computer. Remember Dell computers? Yes. So, you know, then there is the other list, the sort of less stuffy, supposedly cooler, Forbes 30 Under 30. Now, Forbes launched its own 30 Under 30 list in 2011, highlighting what they called, quote, “today’s disruptors and tomorrow’s brightest stars” end quote, under the direction of then editor-in-chief Randall Lane. Members included folks like Donald Glover, Mac Miller, Ronan Farrow, it also included executives of content-farm and new digital media types like the CEO of Mashable. Folks also included were a number of people who crept into predatory industries after the 2008/2009 recession lauding their successes in real estate and tech and finance.
Adam: A few other outlets have had sort of spin offs with varying degrees of success or commitment, which is TechCrunch and CNBC and Fast Company have had some version of a 20 Under 20 list, which is obviously completely psychotic, but that is yet to take hold, I guess, because there’s just not too many people who are going to blow your socks off under the age of 20 and that it seemed a little bit weird, but that sort of reached its inevitable nadir.
Nima: Since it was first launched in 2011, the Forbes 30 Under 30 has grown substantially Adam, this year 2020, the 30 Under 30 features not just 30 young folks who are supposed to inspire us all to greatness, but 600, as they say, “young innovators” in 20 industries. Those industries include things like consumer technology and enterprise technology and marketing and advertising, manufacturing and industry, retail and e-commerce, social entrepreneurs, venture capital, among other less snooze-inducing things like media, sports, games, music, et cetera.
Adam: Yeah, the Forbes 30 Under 30 is sort of the Golden Globes and the Fortune 40 Under 40 is the Oscars because the 40 Under 40 is actually 40 and the Forbes 30 Under 30 is like a million people and everyone gets one. You start to notice patterns with how the Forbes 30 Under 30 values certain people in certain sectors. So the only vertical in my opinion, that’s more cursed than the numerous tech verticals, or even the celebrity ones like film and movies, which is just them like giving awards to super rich people who don’t even care just to sort of look like they’re kind of the tastemakers.
Nima: Yeah, like we get it. You like Donald Glover, sure.
Adam: I didn’t need Forbes 30 Under 30 to tell me that James Harden is good at basketball, but the education vertical, which you could imagine to the person is all neoliberal education, pro-privatization entities and forces and nonprofits, they of course, do not include a single teacher in their education 30 Under 30, or anyone involved in the teachers unions or teacher union organizing. Likewise, verticals such as food and drink do not include any restaurant labor organizers or any wage workers, it is just again, people with access to capital and their proximity to sort of bourgeois money making enterprises.
Nima: Yeah, much in the same way the healthcare vertical is pretty much full of for profit, quote “entrepreneurs and execs at health care insurance and health provider industries.” You’ll see on these lists sometimes there are doctors thrown into the mix, of course in healthcare, but these doctors are not, you know, people who are just practicing medicine day in and day out actually, far more often, if not exclusively, they have a for-profit side hustle and they are known for their innovation in the medical sphere.
Adam: And of course the healthcare vertical, 30 Under 30, never includes nurses, or people who do menial labor, cafeteria labor in hospitals. It’s just people who are seen as the managers or the people who have access to capital again. Such notable 30 Under 30s, one of the ones I found amusing was from 2014, they included Megan Ellison, who’s a film producer and daughter of Oracle founder and multi-billionaire Larry Ellison and in the little bio they wrote, quote:
Power producer Megan Ellison, 27, developed a blockbuster portfolio of 2013 films, including American Hustle and Her, both Academy Award favorites this year. These two films have made some $83 million to date, in addition to over $130 million for her 2012 Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty.
So she made some good CIA propaganda, worth noting that her father also co-founded at Oracle, was also very close with the CIA.
Nima: But her dad’s a multibillionaire. Why is this person on the list?
Adam: Yet not mentioned is that her production company is floated largely by her father. In fact, her father just bailed her out because her company was not doing well, it went under.
Nima: Another one that we really liked was in 2016, Emmanuel Macron was featured on the Forbes 40 Under 40 list, this was before he then became the president of France and his entry on this list, Macron’s entry really does kind of exemplify it typifies the ethos of these lists in general, the youth, the attractiveness, the vacuity, the always capitalistic and the oftentimes slick and smooth that gets you onto this innovator list and the blurb featured about micron is something that I would very much like to read in full and it is this, this is back from 2016, when Macron was 38 years young and thus eligible for the 40 Under 40. Here we go, quote:
The boyish maverick sparked outrage by challenging France’s ruling Socialist government to ditch cherished welfare-state orthodoxies and embrace wealth creation. He stepped down in August, fueling speculation that he’s running for President; tens of thousands have already joined his new movement, En Marche! There are doubters aplenty, but Macron is accustomed to breaking the mold: He married his high school teacher, who was 20 years his senior, then made a fortune as a Rothschild banker.
Adam: I love the idea that being a banker and making a fortune is breaking the mold.
Nima: And marrying your high school teacher.
Adam: Well, I guess that is but in a way that’s not —
Nima: The fact that they start out by praising him, he is mostly praiseworthy by Fortune magazine, unsurprising, for being the French Economy Minister who challenged the French socialist welfare state, right?
Nima: He embraced something called “wealth creation,” apparently they didn’t have that in France earlier.
Adam: Yeah, he’s a rebel for helping the super wealthy. That’s the most subversive thing you can do apparently. Fortune is generally more right-wing or more sort of overtly capitalist, which I can kind of appreciate, they don’t try to do the whole faux woke thing. Fortune magazine has had several sort of big time grifters on their list. In 2014, they featured Adam Neumann who had founded WeWork before he drove it into the ground with his kind of cult-like Ponzi scheme until eventually the company was bought by Softbank for scraps. In 2013 and 2014, Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, was featured, he of course later resigned due to a scandal involving widespread sexual harassment at the company. And Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos infamy was in the top 10 in 2014. She, of course, was later found guilty of multiple counts of fraud and now faces 20 years in federal prison. Now, obviously, Fortune can’t totally predict who will sort of fall from grace. So we can’t blame them for that. But it does sort of ask whether their journalistic resources should have been used to paint these hagiographies of already powerful people or maybe they could have asked some basic questions about whether or not the companies that they were lauding were, in fact, totally on the up and up or worth supporting. Again, this is all boosterism, right? It’s like, go, go, rah, rah.
Nima: Well, right, exactly. So it’s like what is the criteria for success and so if you meet that criteria, you have done something by a certain age that gets you noticed, that gets you wealth, that gets you power, that gets you on these lists, but what is not being interrogated is how you get to this place of power and privilege and wealth to be featured on here, of the influence that you are now wielding at that age and so we see that just isn’t part of the calculation, right? It’s like, if you can woo investors, you are going to be featured on this list.
Adam: The Forbes 30 Under 30 introduced the supposedly woke category of immigrants a couple years ago, where they listed 30 Under 30 immigrants and of course a lot of them are just people who are already wealthy but are second generation from wealthy families in Asia or Latin America, typically more white Latin Americans.
Nima: I love that Forbes characterizes this list of immigrants as being, you know, necessary to include because they, quote, “bring a fresh outlook and work ethic to the US,” end quote, as if that is not just an unbelievably gross way of categorizing people: ‘Their new perspective and they really do work hard, don’t they?’
Adam: Another cursed element of the list is that they do these things where they have infographics where they ask them questions, and they asked in the 30 Under 30 Forbes list by the numbers, they asked how many hours a week you work, and the average was 66 hours per week. The assumption being is that if you work many, many hours, that that’s tethered to their success, that it’s not that they just sit back and take Daddy’s money or whatever, but they’re actually just really hardworking, implication being that if you work 40 hours or 35 hours —
Nima: You’re not doing enough.
Adam: That’s why you’re not on this list. It’s also probably bullshit. I mean, who’s going to be like, ‘I work 20 hours a week, I go golfing, I go to Lawn Oak and do coke.’
Nima: 66 hours a week includes like, travel. (Laughs.) That they’re getting paid for.
Adam: Yeah, and then they ask them who their dream mentor was and the most popular answers in order were Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Michelle Obama, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Barack Obama. So you have some real, some real deep thinkers here. And another infographic said that 86 percent were optimistic about the US economy. If I was rich, I too would be optimistic about the US economy.
Nima: Can I just note, that was this year’s list.
Adam: That was this year’s list.
Nima: 86 percent are optimistic about the US economy. That was this year’s list.
Adam: And the number one mentor is the guy that has weekly Twitter meltdowns, and went on Joe Rogan to talk about how much he loves weed. Not that there’s nothing wrong with that.
Nima: I mean, I think that’s okay.
Adam: Well, yeah, I don’t know. It’s like when you’re trying to be edgy. It’s just kind of sad. These lists don’t contain, of course, any activists, their underlying ideology, as we’ve mentioned, is fundamentally capitalist. Fortune magazine and Forbes both have this category called “social entrepreneurs,” where I guess it is where they sort of, they kind of pay their indulgences to the church of capitalism, where they say like, ‘Okay, this is us acting like we care.’ So you have things like vegan protein companies, addiction-fighting pill dispensers and of course, their main value system is this concept of what it is to be an influencer. They also use buzzwords like “game-changer” and “rule breaker” a lot, while lavishing praise on powerful bankers, senators and celebrities who are, you know, they’re not breaking any real rules, and of course, you see this kind of use of subversion or kind of taking on the system because it’s totally meaningless. It’s sort of a capitalistic co option. That’s why everyone and their mother’s revolutionary because they found another way to squeeze five cents out of a fucking Uber driver. This is revolutionary, right?
Now, one thing we want to establish before we move on to our interviews is the stakes of this, which is that this constant success narrative, which again is not limited to these lists, but I think is most typified by them, they have a mental tax on people who read this kind of stuff, right?
Nima: Yeah, this is not free of consequence, in a way both health-wise and of course, culturally. So for instance, you have a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released in July 2018 that found that an environment defined by excessive pressure to excel, often found in affluent settings, can harm adolescent wellness. Other harmful environmental factors included poverty, racism, and trauma. So it’s included on a list of those other factors. A 2019 report in the National Academies of Sciences, determined that young people in quote-unquote “high achieving schools” are at risk for mental health problems as well as youth in foster care, recent immigrants, young people with incarcerated parents and youth living in poverty. So these stresses of needing to excel, needing to achieve, needing to succeed, are really deleterious to people’s health and mental health. So lists prizing success and influence, especially in times of record unemployment, and other now pandemic related stressors, are really tone-deaf, maybe even more so than before, and far worse, psychologically dangerous. They reinforce a narrative that a certain level of wealth and renown must be achieved by a certain pretty arbitrary age, implying that anyone who doesn’t attain this — in other words, the vast majority of humans, including those who do the actual labor, that makes other people’s success possible — that they are then failures, they have failed at the thing that they should always inevitably be striving toward.
Adam: Now, there’s been some pushback of late to the so-called burnout culture that quote-unquote “millennials” suffer but it’s worth noting that even the pushback still has a very limited and bourgeois framework. So you have BuzzFeed from January 2019, “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation.” WBUR from January 2019, “‘The Burnout Generation’: Millennials And The Mindset Of ‘Working All The Time.’” BBC February 2019, headline reads, “How it feels to have ‘millennial burnout.’” And then in December of 2019, “Lonely, burned out, and depressed: The state of millennials’ mental health entering the 2020s,” and that was for Business Insider.
So even concerns about burnout still center a kind of upwardly mobile, middle-class aesthetic, and as writer, and former Citations Needed guest s.e. smith has argued the expectations placed upon those who appear in Forbes and Fortune magazine listicles are not at all universal. smith wrote in relation to success narratives and millennial burnout, quote:
This dream is a specifically middle-class one, though, and it speaks primarily to a relatively small group of people: Those who always assumed they would go to college, for example, and who undertook debt to do so. People who assumed that they would be rewarded with gainful employment as a rite of passage, because this, too, was something they were told. White people. Nondisabled people. People who haven’t been thrown out of their homes or excluded from jobs because of their gender or sexual orientation. People who don’t have financial obligations to family members that may have started as soon as they were old enough to work.
This is a basic function of capitalism: Walling off communities that should be able to find common ground before they have an opportunity to build coalitions and power. Sweeping rhetoric that claims to speak for a whole generation while only describing narrow experiences is fundamentally alienating for members of the same generation who may find little in common with the way “burnout” is presented, even if they are also experiencing it. It can verge on the offensive when it borrows from the language marginalized people have developed to describe the bone-deep, existential pain of living in a world where they, and their lives, are not valued. This isn’t a “millennial burnout” problem. This is a capitalism problem. Let’s start treating it like one.
And so I think that’s useful because it shows that even in our pushback against success narratives, we talk about burnout as if it’s excluded to a specific genre of people who themselves could be on these lists and the narrow application of these expectations further divides people who should otherwise maybe have some solidarity and that’s the thing that’s reinforced by these lists is — I’m sure you notice is a recurring theme on the show — it’s a way of atomizing us and making the personal growth narrative, the sort of personal hero narrative, the thing that’s central to our lives, so people like activists, organizers, prison abolitionists, people who are central to projects of solidarity and looking at themselves as a link on the human chain or just erased from the picture, and people who can again, find another way of squeezing out five more minutes of work from Instacart delivery drivers are seen as these heroes we need to both admire and emulate.
Nima: Now, there are other ways that we can imagine success and we’ve heard this throughout the past century or so from leftists who maybe don’t ascribe to the Fortune’s or Forbes’ way of thinking about success and about community and about connection and about what it means to achieve. So for instance, you have Eugene Debs, in a statement to the court upon being convicted of violating the Sedition Act in September of 1918 who said this, quote:
I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.
So the lyrics of “Solidarity Forever,” a very famous trade union song, which was written in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin, you know, and has deep connections to Industrial Workers of the World, other union movements such as the AFL-CIO and has been famously sung by people like Pete Seeger, offers these lyrics:
It is we who plowed the prairies
Built the cities where they trade
Dug the mines and built the workshops
Endless miles of railroad laid
Now we stand outcast and starving
Mid the wonders we have made
But the union makes us strong
Adam: There was the “Bread and Roses” poem by James Oppenheim in 1911, and again, forgive us for being somewhat romantic, but I do think it’s useful to offer a counter narrative of what success can look like and this sort of defines the toiling masses rising up against people as the ability to sort of elevate the human race as a whole. And the poem reads, quote:
As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.
The idea being not only do we need bread, food, basic needs, but we also deserve roses, which is to say, the finer things in life. And so again, forgive us for being somewhat sentimental, but I do think if one’s going to critique capitalist notions of success, I do think people kind of want to know, how do you define a meaningful life? How do you define a life of value and of course, it’s not just through anarchists or communists or socialists, there are other religions that offer definitions of this, as well, some great and some not so great but the idea of how you define success is actually a very important one, a very axiomatic one and the way it’s sort of done in this casual, very cutthroat, very atomized, very capitalist manner I do think submits ideological conditioning that this is how we should view success. And again, just imagine if under their healthcare vertical instead of 30 slick nonprofit or startup types, you add 30 janitors of the hospital or cafeteria workers. Jane McAlevey came on our show and we talked about the importance of the people who work in the cafeteria at hospitals, these people who curate diets for people who are very ill, and who feed people who are with loved ones. These are tremendously important jobs and they’re given absolutely no meaning or significance in this kind of bourgeois media and I think it does reinforce an idea that these are lowly, sad, worthless jobs and these other jobs are the ones we should all try to obtain and by definition, the jobs that are lowly and sad and not worth merit are also not worth paying well, not worth having a union for, not worth caring about.
Nima: And not worth lauding through a list.
Nima: To talk more about this we’re now going to be joined by Edward Ongweso Jr., staff writer at Motherboard. He’s also the co-host of the podcast This Machine Kills. He’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Edward Ongweso Jr. Edward, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Edward Ongweso Jr.: Hey, thanks for having me.
Adam: So you are a very adamant connoisseur, rather, I should say, a Twitter critic or a critic in general of the Forbes 30 Under 30 and the Fortune 40 Under 40, which are sort of the media event of the season for a certain genre of upwardly mobile influencer types. Recently, you highlighted some of the major problems, I want to sort of begin by talking about some of the dubious selections from this year and what it says about the moral criteria for selection or lack thereof.
Edward Ongweso Jr.: Right. One of the easiest places I think to look is in tech. You know, a lot of the selections in the tech are most notably at gig economy companies and they are highlighting people who have played a large role in business models that have immiserated hundreds of thousands of people, or have had huge, you know, legal problems or horrible financial disasters or massive PR crises as people to watch out for, you know, because they are earning their salary over at these companies by helping them not sink essentially. One big example I think is one of the people on the list is Uber Senior Vice President of Public Affairs and Marketing Jill Hazelbaker. Her profile highlighted that, you know, she helped with rapid growth, highly anticipated initial public offering, she helped steer the ship when Travis Kalanick, the previous CEO was ousted, and she’s one of the main advocates of the Uber safety report, which the profile itself says, quote, “public accounting of a number of vehicle accidents, sexual assaults and murders,” you know.
Nima: She really navigated that deftly.
Edward Ongweso Jr.: Right, just in time for the 40 Under 40. And the day before this list went up, Uber went to court in San Francisco because it refused to hand over detailed information about sexual harassment and assault on its platform and the Public Utilities Commission was going to decide whether or not to levy heavy fines on the company for refusing handover information so that they could solve some of the open cases and also figure out the extent to which Ubers internal unit, which Uber had an internal unit to try to prevent the involvement of police in investigations and to cover up some sexual assault and harassment that went on in the platform and I wonder, I mean, like, of course, that stuff is not talked about in this sort of profile and I think that is like a good example of how you see a lot of the other profiles, like DoorDash. DoorDash is a company that was stealing workers tips even after the first wave of outrage for months, you know, for almost half a year continued to steal workers tips, and pay them a sub minimum wage, and then pay them an extra .78 cents during the crisis. You have, I believe, they had someone over from Zoom who was their chief marketing officer or PR person, and, you know, Zoom this year had a massive crisis about how they lied about its encryption, right? And the thing they hailed her for was handling that crisis really well and I think she had the quote, like, ‘we know, the responsibility we have, which is why we lied and why we’re,’ you know, and I think a lot of these companies, Postmates too. Postmates chief financial officer’s on there, Postmates, all these other gig economy companies, it is unprofitable but for some reason, the chief financial officer is there because she’s helped them become less unprofitable by a few million, a few hundred million.
Nima: Very influential.
Edward Ongweso Jr.: Right. And I think that sort of should bring in to focus these lists are not really about, at the end of the day, true human impact, is this a list of people who are seriously making lives for multiple millions of people, billions of people better? Or are these people who are making returns for capital a little bit better?
Nima: Yeah. I mean, you know, as someone who covers tech and working people and the intersection there and the exploitation there, what do you think, beyond just being like an insiders’ club, what do you think the value of these lists are? If you actually read between the lines, what they’re doing is terrible PR, I mean, probably good PR, because they do it well enough to boost profits, but are doing terrible work for terrible companies. So what do you think the value of these lists are? Who do they serve? What are they for?
Edward Ongweso Jr.: You know, I think the list in general, its audience is not going to be the vast majority of people going about their daily lives, it’s usually the people who are in these fields already, I think. And, you know, sometimes it serves the value of being a signal or as a resume padder, other times it’s ways for people to try to signal that someone is doing something right or maybe it’s a pay-to-play thing. Other times, I feel like they’re jokes in here, you know, there’s some people in here that I don’t understand why they’re on the list, but maybe the curators of the list seriously think that they deserved it. I know, when I was going through the list and looking at some of the people in for example, government, politics, or media, you also see a similar dynamic, but to a lesser extent. There are some people there who do good and great work and then I also wonder, again, why are they on the list in the first place, I doubt Bhaskar Sunkara’s paying, you know, Fortune or any mind why they’re putting them on the list.
Edward Ongweso Jr.: I do wonder if also it’s part of Fortune cultivating a brand for itself, saying it has its finger on the pulse, and ‘We know who’s hot and who you need to pay attention to and who you don’t need to’ to an extent.
Adam: Yeah, because it’s not strictly ideological, but it mostly is, but again, even by bourgeois capitalist standards, the founder of Jacobin does meet a certain criteria, right? Because he sort of, he has been on MSNBC, sort of branded the magazine a certain way, and I say that as someone who’s written for them, but within that framework it’s still sort of like you said, it’s kind of the next hot thing, but rather the obscure activist who is doing prison support in Omaha, Nebraska is not going to be on that list, because they don’t, even to the extent I think lefties can be in that space, it’s always because they succeeded based on some capitalist criteria.
Nima: Because you kind of need to be at the networking event to even get in the door.
Edward Ongweso Jr.: Their criteria is impact, for example, having Vicky Osterweil, whose book about looting I think is important and it comes up in the middle of a discussion of people trying to talk about whether looting is defensible, right? If some list was really interested in highlighting, like you said, lefties, then we would talk about that, but that doesn’t network into it, it’s not a good look to uplift the idea of destroying private property, you know, in a system that’s based on that. So I think, yeah, you know, to a good extent, also a legitimation thing, and also I do wonder with things like this, especially over time, how much some of them are cultivated with awareness of what will spark outrage, or at least a little bit more like fervor, a discussion, you know, putting in Dan Crenshaw, or putting in people from some of these companies or financial firms or whatnot, is both a signal to their people that nothing is out of normal, everything’s still in place, and then to other people, the chance to get angry and agitated and talk about it.
Nima: Yeah, there is this move to almost like both sides, the list at times, right? Just so that no one is going to accuse the editors of the list or those who compile it of bias. It just shows the, I don’t know, silliness of it all in a way.
Edward Ongweso Jr.: Right.
Adam: Now, some people listening may say that we’re just jealous we’re not on the list, that we’re a bunch of middling wannabes and has beens. Now for me personally, this is obviously 100 percent true, I am petty and covetous by nature, but Nima’s too old and obviously, you don’t care. I don’t really care. It’s a joke, sort of, I don’t know. Do I care? No, I don’t care. But it does seem like any attempt to criticize the list, now there’s been some high profile people who tried to criticize it, it’s always met with accusations that they’re jealous or that they’re just haters that they themselves are not on the list and I find this interesting because it’s kind of aspirational, cool-kids-table element builds in its own protection against criticism because of course, the only reason you would hate the cool kids at the cool-kids-table is because you’re not at the table and the second they invited you, you would suddenly change your tune. I want to talk about the kind of professional jealousy aspect of it and how in a weird way, it’s like, you know, these lists come out all the time, people are like, ‘Oh, this is so cool,’ and it’s seen as this sort of per se good thing. I guess I’m curious as a critic of it, is this a criticism you get and what are ways we can sort of break down that built in indemnification?
Edward Ongweso Jr.: I have heard that complaint, just being too bitter or critical and you know, I am very critical of a lot of things but I think that again if we want to have a list, if we want to have a list of 40 people under 40, right? I think that it should definitely be people who are making a really substantive and positive impact on the world, right? And you go through the list and a lot of the people here, or there’s an over representation of people who are not doing that at all, you know, I’m not, how does being an executive at Uber make the world a better place? How does being an executive Goldman Sachs make the world a better place? How does being like the head of investment at SoftBank make the world a better place? A lot of these people on the list in one way or another, because they’ve been very in the public imagination or in conversations, but they’re not actually in the public imagination, it was conversations because of things that they’re doing and I think that can always be the critique that we return to. You pick people at random on this list and you’re almost certainly going to find someone who’s gotten to where they are, and stays where they are, because of their ability to distract everyone from what their institution, what their system, what their organization, whether they’re a politician, whether they’re a company, whether there’s a foundation, is doing to hurt people, and is doing to prevent people from deciding their own lives and changing things for their own benefit.
Nima: There is this element of self-fulfillment in these lists, right? They’re influential because they’re said to be influential, and they’re on a list that says they’re influential. Now, to almost take a devil’s advocate position here, these lists, for the editors who put them together say, ‘look, this isn’t about who’s doing good it’s just about who’s powerful and who is up and coming and hey, we’re agnostic about whether the work they do is good or not, it’s just that they’re powerful.’ Now, I think there’s clearly ideology behind it, because there are blurbs about the people and what they say about the people is part of this marketing pitch. And so what would your response be to the notion that, ‘hey, this is just a snapshot of a moment in time, and these people are influential, it’s not about good or bad, they’re influential, they’re powerful, and we’re just calling them out for being so.’
Edward Ongweso Jr.: I mean, I feel like you got to reach for your wallet, you know, whenever someone starts telling you that you just got to respect someone because they’re influential, you know, the reason why most people in our society and our systems have power and influence, usually, at the expense of other people, right? Especially when you’re in a tech company, especially when you’re in financial services, you know, especially if you’re in healthcare, especially if you’re in government and to an extent, if you’re in the media, or the culture industry, you know, just because someone is influential is not a virtue in of itself and more often than not, that’s a reason to be critical, and give them a closer examination to ask why they accumulated a power, how did they accumulate it and whose benefit does it work or who is defending their right to be influential or what are they doing with their influence? It’s not just some neutral attribute, which I think sometimes some people talk about it as if you’re celebrity or if you’re a powerful rich person that it is just this aura around you, and it does nothing, but it’s a real thing in the world that comes after decisions are made, and after certain arrangements are made or are the result of things and actions that you do and relationships that you have.
Adam: Yeah, for the most part, again, they’ll throw in a token sort of nonprofit-y type. I want to talk a bit about the lists’ relationship with race, historically, especially the Fortune list was criticized for being too white, which was obviously true. Recently, they sort of, they’ve attempted to kind of run up the score by jamming a bunch of African Americans in the acting categories and nonprofit categories, which are industries that don’t historically require a lot of generational wealth, or connections, right? Which is how you can sort of, founding a tech startup usually requires, you know, $50,000, $100,000, $200,000 in seed money, which usually comes from friends and family. Now, I want to talk about these kind of attempts to sort of Band Aid over the big elephant in the room, which is the big criticism that we have and others have had, which is that these lists are for the most part proxies for intergenerational wealth which of course lends itself to being white, not always, but generally does and to the extent you are minority, there’s usually a focus on the elites of certain foreign countries, which they sort of fetishize as immigrants. I want to talk about the way these lists kind of, they sort of get around the obvious fact that they’re proxies for wealth, because especially 30 Under 30, which is kind of ridiculous, right?
Edward Ongweso Jr.: Yeah.
Adam: You have to have a pretty good head start to be, again, a startup founder, raised all this venture capital, Goldman Sachs, under the age of 30. To what extent is it even possible to have a kind of semi-progressive or kind of semi-woke up-and-coming Cool Kids list at all?
Edward Ongweso Jr.: You know, I think that the logic may make sense that the more black and brown faces, the more women there are, the more queer, otherwise non-represented groups that are in these lists, the more maybe our society is changing, but as you say, on the one hand, a lot of that representation ends up coming on the parts of the list that lend themselves to saying, ‘Hey, there’s not a lot of intergenerational wealth here, you can come in and make a name for yourself, you don’t have to compete with people have trust funds or people who have legacies or head starts and all of this,’ but also at the same time, even if these lists were as diverse as liberals might want them to be, that doesn’t tell us anything about what the society is at large. How do most people live their lives? A lot of these people, a lot of these faces are diverse, but you know, what’s life like for the minority workers who a lot of these faces make up the majority of the workforce, it’s pretty awful and that’s not going to change whether or not you have a black CEO, whether or not you have a woman CEO, whether or not you have representation in the board because these are deeper rooted dynamics and antagonisms that are not going to be resolved with the very top level of the company being diverse. I think then it becomes trying to speak to people about that, about that reality where you can have very diverse boards but if you’re your workforce is almost certainly skewed one way or another and they’re getting the brunt end of a horrible deal in almost all circumstances with these gig economy companies and financial services, with social media companies, I mean, they all employ contract workforces that are predominantly black and brown and these are people who are getting paid subminimum wages, little to no benefits. In Facebook’s case or Instagram if you’re on content moderation, you also have mental health crises, same with these gig companies and there’s a little support for that but it seems a little callous to say things are okay, because you had a diverse person on the 40 Under 40 list.
Adam: Writer Erin Gloria Ryan, who criticizes these lists quite often, she has a podcast on Crooked Media, someone responded to one of her criticisms by saying, this is someone with like 20,000 Twitter followers, he’s a martyr, he’s a PR guy, sort of marketing PR guy. I don’t want to dunk on him necessarily but he said, quote, “At 33 honestly, my biggest regret is not making the Forbes 30 under list. I know it sounds petty but it is. A few years ago, the year before I aged out, I was a finalist, but didn’t make the final list felt like I lost the Super Bowl” unquote. Now, I tweeted this out, I blocked his name, tweeted it out just sort of to say holy shit, this is like a really horrible thing to say and then I deleted it because I sort of felt bad. Which is to say, life’s hard, and it’s vapid and a lot of people have shitty jobs. Not everyone can be a self-righteous podcaster. To some extent I’m sort of sympathetic with that because we’re conditioned, right? We’re sort of told that this is a sort of career milestone that you’re supposed to aim for, especially again, and in these kinds of vapid careers like marketing and public relations, and tech and so forth. And I guess I want to sort of ask you about what you think the kind of, not that the aspirational marketing class or professional class is really the sort of focal point of labor abuses, but I’m sort of curious to get your take on what you think the kind of mental taxation these kinds of things have for a lot of people who do set these really ambitious career goals?
Edward Ongweso Jr.: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s real. I think there’s an intense amount of socialization through people to, you know, get certain signifiers or affirmations of their worth, or the value of the impact of their work, right? I think a lot of people who are in these fields are coming from institutions, elite institutions, educational prep, or previous jobs where you’re trained, or you socialized to thrive, you know, to live or die by those sorts of things, right? You know, I think I can understand why in of itself, that sort of thing is hard to get rid of or why, you know, it sustains itself because at the end of the day, the people on the list and the people who are trying to get on the list, but don’t get the list, are all taught that the list, maybe the list in itself is not important, but the idea that your work is being acknowledged on some sort of register of worth, and that it is a vaguely meritocratic process is important to some people. And I think also, some of these industries probably prey on that a little bit more heavily or replicate it internally. I mean, many companies have their own sort of ways of singling out people or workers who are productive at the level that they would want and holding them as an example across the company or industries have awards like that, for specific types of work. I think that on one level, I do understand if someone is being socialized and told their whole lives and moved from place to place to place on the understanding that this is a get, this is something to build up to, and then they don’t get it, you know, for them that might be devastating. I think that is one case, or one group of people in there and then there’s another group who I’m sure are more often than not overrepresented than the ones who actually get it that are, you know, we have to wonder whether or not they should get it, right? Based on, we’re talking about the work that they’ve done and the impact they’ve had on their workplaces, on communities, on the society at large.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, there’s this real sort of constant rat race idea to it merged with this heralding of whiz-kid culture that you need to be so accomplished by a certain age, and that shows that you are poised to be even more powerful than you are now. How much do you think this reflects acknowledgement and accolades within an industry and how much is if you can have good enough PR about what you’re doing outside of your industry then you get noticed for this? Do you know what I mean? When we’re doing work in tech, why can’t we have an Oscars for tech? Do you see this as being hailed as similar or is this just an outsider’s view?
Edward Ongweso Jr.: I think with the Forbes list more than Fortune, I get the sense that there’s a real marketing or PR process going on, you know, I think like, for example, a profile, so profiles are a lot shorter and because they’re a lot shorter, it kind of feels a lot more like you need to get immediately why this person belongs on this list and because it’s usually a 30 Under 30 thing, it’s a very short burst of what they’ve done in their career, and then usually why this person has a compelling backstory. And that, to me, says more that this person successfully marketed themselves to us. And the Fortune list ironically, doesn’t feel that way, even though it may be because on the one hand, you know, we talked about some of these bios and profiles are massaged in ways to avoid controversies or to breeze through it, but they give a little bit more breath to the careers in a way where I could see whoever is curating the list is truly believing that that person’s career, the moves they made at that company make them belong on the list, whereas with Forbes, it feels like they’re saying, I’m choosing this person because this person’s story, you know, speaks out to me.
Adam: Before you go, we wanted to ask you what you’re up to and what your podcast is about if you want to do a little shameless plug here, which the irony is not lost on us —
Nima: Do it. You’re an influencer.
Edward Ongweso Jr.: Yeah, This Machine Kills, that’s the name of the pod, I run it with Jathan Sadowski, he’s a political economist in Australia who studies tech, and each episode will choose a topic or ideas that we want to explore and try to bring the focus back on the political economy and what the underlying material politics behind an idea are. So whether surveillance capitalism makes sense if you analyze it materially, or what the fuck SoftBank is up to these days and what their strategy is. Stuff like that.
Nima: It’s really great stuff and it’s stuff that getting deep into the tech and labor space and the political economy of tech is I think, just a fascinating thing and something that isn’t really within my wheelhouse and so hearing other people who know their shit talk about is really just fascinating. So thank you, Edward, for joining us. Edward Ongweso Jr., staff writer at Motherboard where he focuses on tech and labor. Also, as he just said, the co-host of the podcast This Machine Kills which is a great reference, of course, to Woody Guthrie. So, thank you again, Edward, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Edward Ongweso Jr.: Thank you so much for having me on.
Adam: You know, in his world, it’s a constant series of head-smashing-into-window moments, I mean, just the other day it was that new startup called C-V-V-L or something absurd.
Nima: Of course.
Adam: That’s introducing the gig economy to evictions that they basically pay precarious people to evict other people because I guess using third parties or using others was too expensive so now they’re basically having poor people go evict other poor people and you could just tell he was just, like, exhausted.
Nima: (Chuckles.) Right, exactly.
Adam: Imagine having that as your beat.
Nima: Especially because the two founders of CIVVL are inevitably going to be on the Forbes 30 Under 30 next year.
Adam: That’s possible, although we can’t totally accuse them of a crime they haven’t committed yet, but we’re going to pre-crime that, that’s going to be on there.
Nima: We’ll now speak to writer Sarah Jaffe. She’s a columnist at The Progressive and New Labor Forum, and co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, Sarah’s latest book is Work Won’t Love You Back, which will be published next year. Sarah is going to join us from London in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by journalist and writer Sarah Jaffe. Sarah, it’s so great to have you back on Citations Needed.
Sarah Jaffe: Thank you.
Adam: We spent the first half of the show talking about the ways in which career and success narratives as embodied by the 30 Under 30 and 40 Under 40 and other kind of influencer lists, they sort of erode notions of worker solidarity and reduce people’s lives to their ability to hit career benchmarks, which sort of sound cool at cocktail parties, but don’t necessarily translate in anything good for society.
Sarah Jaffe: Yeah.
Adam: Now, we’re also curious too about the kind of mental wear and tear on workers with this broad cultural ethos, which I think is fair to say is very popular and very sort of common, and I guess the first question is, in your research for your book, which deals specifically with the idea of this wear and tear, among other things, what have you found that’s toxic about this kind of success mentality and how can it not only harm collective notions of labor organizing, but also the mental well being of workers?
Sarah Jaffe: Yeah, I think the biggest thing about it is that it tells you that it’s all your fault if you haven’t made it onto the 30 Under 30 list or 40 Under 40 list because these things are just they’re like, ‘Oh, these people have done all these amazing things by the time they’re out of college’ and they don’t ever tell you about everybody’s family money, or something like that. They just put it out there that ‘you too can do this’ and the converse of ‘you too can do this’ is always, ‘and if you don’t, it must be something wrong with you.’ And it’s obviously a deeply ingrained part of capitalism, but it’s particularly I think, vicious and neoliberal capitalism the last 40 or so years of this real ‘go go competitive, there is no alternative, you must work really hard in order to succeed and if you don’t succeed, not only do you not deserve to be out of 30 Under 30 list, but you also don’t deserve like health insurance and a place to live.’
Nima: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s this idea of accomplishment, and also setting the standard of who is allowed to be thought of as an influencer. It kind of establishes the next generation of power but I think also embedded in these lists is the idea of the labor of love.
Sarah Jaffe: Oh yeah.
Nima: Right? It’s not that these people are just working their asses off and somehow the accolade in Fortune Magazine, or the Time 100 is kind of the benefit they get but there’s this idea that they are also, you know, they’ve thrown themselves into this work, they do it because they are so passionate.
Sarah Jaffe: Even as they get these accolades they don’t really do it for those at all and every one of them is going to give you some all shucks garbage about it. Right?
Nima: Exactly, exactly.
Sarah Jaffe: That’s crap. We could all probably cop to the fact that I don’t believe in wage labor, social hierarchy, or any of these things and I still want my book to sell well, I still want everybody who’s listening to buy it. I want my book to be good. I don’t want it to be crap and that is, you know, it’s both sort of very human and I like to think about what kinds of things we might be creating, if we weren’t burdened by the need to, you know, eat, or at least to do work for money in order to be able to eat — I like eating, eating is good. The way that these things specifically tell you what are the parameters of what is good work, what are the parameters of work you should enjoy and be proud of. You know, it’s always funny to see the people who founded some fancy nonprofit next to Goldman Sachs something or other and you’re just like, ‘One of these things is not like the other’ and yet they are more like the other than we might think.
Nima: Well, right because they’re kind of folded into the same idea which then flattens power and those actually actively pushing against power.
Sarah Jaffe: Right.
Nima: Because 30 Under 30 or 40 Under 40 or any of these lists, it’s not all teachers, all parents, all mothers, it doesn’t do that, that there are these benchmarks that really are tied I think to capital, as you say.
Sarah Jaffe: Yeah, no, and it really, I am in so many ways this perfect little neoliberal subject, right? I like being a freelancer, I like writing books curled up in my little hole of an apartment, and writing and screaming at the walls and tearing my hair out and then writing more but I also like the part of my job where I get to go out and talk to people who are doing interesting things and those people are often the kind of people that most people don’t talk to and so I think that there’s something human about wanting to sort of do things that are exciting and great and one of the things that’s really depressing about the way the world we live in works is actually that most people never get to do those things. Most people who are doing a lousy job for a living, a friend of mine was just tagging me in an article about how many bartenders at Wetherspoons, which is a terrible, cheap pub chain owned by a horrible human being here in the UK, had tested positive for COVID and you just think how many people are doing these essential or non essential jobs, that there are so many things they could actually do that would be kind of amazing and they don’t get a chance because unlike, you know, Elon Musk, or everybody on whichever list we’re talking about now, their daddies weren’t rich, and so they don’t get to sort of live on into the second generation or third or fourth or fifth generation of somebody else’s capital that then allows you to get to the point where you can, you know, found your nonprofit or whatever it is that gets you onto these lists.
Adam: Yeah, because that’s the thing. I mean, Fortune, with their 40 Under 40, they don’t even try to gesture towards activism. They have a ‘social entrepreneur’ category that’s like —
Sarah Jaffe: What is a ‘social entrepreneur?’
Adam: Well, it’s supposedly, the sort of, you know, it’s reputation laundering for large corporations and investment firms but Fortune has this sort of nonprofit activists vertical but like you said, it rewards people who sort of move away from unsanctioned or kind of unseemly activism into the world of nonprofit which is sort of considered safe and you create a kind of, you create the sort of chum for the Get Out the Vote crowd, right?
Sarah Jaffe: That’s a good way of putting it. I like that.
Adam: It’s never sort of someone who throws a Molotov cocktail in Ferguson, it’s a very specific genre of activists. One of the things I’m sure audiences will be shocked to learn is that none of these, we looked at the last five years of both Forbes and Fortune, and you’ll be shocked to learn — the things we do for our listeners.
Nima: It’s a labor of love.
Adam: You’ll be shocked to learn that none of these X under X lists involve any labor organizers or union organizers whereas there’s dozens of jobs, dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of jobs listed are anti-labor staples: gig economy optimizer, entrepreneur.
Sarah Jaffe: Is ‘gig economy optimizer’ literally a transcription from one of these? Because it’s hilarious.
Adam: Half of these are basically just ‘Uber for X,’ as you can imagine. So I guess my question is, how does sort of quote-unquote “succeeding” at fomenting class revolution not fit into these bourgeois notions of success and what would a left version of this — left such that it is — how could you sort of reorient aspirational success narratives into something more meaningful or socially aware? Which is to say, let’s say the magazine you have a podcast for, Dissent magazine, had a 40 over and under 40, what would that even look like?
Sarah Jaffe: God. I know, I mean, I think one of the things that’s really hard about this is, so the book that I just finished is built around 10 different kinds of work and for each kind of work I profiled somebody who does that kind of work, and is also organizing on their job in some way. So I had to make some choices there, right? First of all, what kinds of work am I going to include because it could have included any number of jobs that aren’t in there and then who is going to be this person that I profile and how are they whatever, and then I immediately sort of run up against this thing where this individual narrative is not representative in this way or that way. Some of, in fact, the people that I profiled sort of challenged me on this question of individual narratives. And on some level, this is like the way we had to tell the story and in my first book, it was the same thing, right? Whose story am I going to tell? So when I was trying to figure out whose story hadn’t been told, like everybody knew about DeRay Mckesson after Ferguson, right? But who has an interesting story that nobody’s heard of and I ended up talking to a couple of young people who are just incredible and they weren’t the superstars that came out of Ferguson but the thing about that is that there were hundreds of young people like the ones that I talked to, and also not so young people, right? Cori Bush is going to Congress, which is great. The way that even trying to find an individual narrative, the press is lazy. I’m on your podcast, nobody should be shocked to hear us say this. So once one person has interviewed DeRay, and like I did interview DeRay really early on in the series of things before I had actually been to St. Louis, everybody sort of interviews the same person, this is the spokesperson, this is the leader and so you miss so many other people if you don’t sort of go there and ask the question, whose story hasn’t been told? Because like nine times out of 10, there’s so many people whose story hasn’t been told, who are just as interesting as the 20 people you’ve heard of, and in many cases, are more interesting and there are some people in my first book that I had to sort of fight to get them to let me interview them because they were just like, ‘It’s not me. It’s not me. It’s not what I do. I’m behind the scenes. I don’t want to be the face of it,’ but the thing is that the people who want to be the face of it are often the last people that actually should be and people who are listening to this who have taken part in movements know what I’m talking about, the people who jump in front of the microphones and jump in front of the reporters, often aren’t the ones who did the most work and one of the stories in Ferguson that people kept telling me was all of the reproductive work that went into the movement, right? So all of the people who were doing jail support, they didn’t get arrested, they couldn’t get arrested. There are various people who had all sorts of reasons that they couldn’t ranging from whether they had little kids at home, or had health issues themselves, or whatever else but they would go do jail support, and they would make food and they would have safe spaces for people to come when they’d been teargassed.
And all of that work that again, it doesn’t fit into this heroic narrative, but it is incredibly important to actually getting the full story of how things work, and then how things change because all of these people are tech people that we’re talking about, right? So in the new book, I have a chapter on tech labor, of course, and the way that it has this narrative of the individual genius tech founder, and how that is such garbage, that Steve Jobs didn’t know how to code but he gets all of the credit for everything made at Apple and what did he do? He approved some design choices, he made some good hiring decisions, he hired some good programmers, he hired some good hardware designers but Steve Jobs is not the genius who came up with his laptop that I’m using to talk to you and so many times some of these discoveries that led to things like the internet, were sort of simultaneously discovered by people on both sides of the Atlantic almost at the same time, because that’s the way sort of research actually happens is things go in different directions and people share things and build on things and they were building the internet in order to share research more easily and so all of these hero narratives are almost entirely wrong just for how things actually get done and how things actually happen.
Nima: Well, because it purposely elevates the individual over the infrastructure.
Sarah Jaffe: Right, exactly.
Nima: And so you then are able to build, it’d be a pretty boring editorial decision to be like, ‘Oh, we have to talk about actually everyone who did things,’ right? So it is, as you say, there’s this hero narrative and as a result, so much of the labor, all of the labor is completely omitted and you have this singular person that gets to have their headshot and their little brief bio put on these lists. You have been talking about your book, Work Won’t Love You Back, what did you find maybe that was most surprising? You know, I think a lot of these lists are almost obvious in a way. What did you find when you actually talked to workers? What did you find surprising that maybe you weren’t expecting to learn and that we can find in this book?
Sarah Jaffe: Oh, I mean, that’s such an interesting question. I had a lot of things that I knew from sort of the first half of the book. So the first half of the book is focused around reproductive labor and then the second half is focused on sort of creative labor, or at least things that we are told are creative labor and I hadn’t spent as much time on that stuff. So I did a lot of reading and talking to people, particularly around art, the fine art world, which it’s the weirdest thing because everybody just calls it the art world, you call it the art industry, people would look at you like you had three heads, but the art world is what it’s called. And, you know, I learned so much about how big fancy, big name artists work is made. That Jeff Koons literally has a thing called The Factory in New York, where he employs a whole bunch of people who once tried to unionize and then a bunch of them got fired because of course he does because he makes big, giant, weird looking sculptures, somebody had to make those, right? They weren’t just made by him in his lone studio painting and so this whole sort of mystified type of labor, it was so fascinating to me. And the people that I talked to that were in the art industry, I will say it, they were kind of like, ‘How does nobody know this stuff?’ And I was like, I don’t know, I don’t know how Jeff Koons makes this stuff. How would I know that? And it’s actually really hard to find anything that’s written about it because a lot of people have even like Ben Davis, Marxist art critic extraordinaire, don’t really care. And so I found that just a really fascinating dive and then the artist that I feature for that chapter is actually from Ireland and I met her because she was giving a talk in Philadelphia, and I was immediately like, ‘Oh, my God, she’s amazing,’ asked a friend to introduce us and then she took me on a wonderful art tour of Ireland before the pandemic — in those days where you could travel and spend the night at a stranger’s house and meet five of their other new friends the next day, miss those days — and met all these people who were thinking about these ways that power and privilege and labor work in the art industry, and how you actually, again, because it’s a very similar thing at this point where to become an Artist with a capital “A,” you have to go to the right school and you have to have somebody sort of certify that your art is art and that is usually by somebody being willing to sell it in their gallery and people being willing to buy it from that gallery. That’s what makes it art. Which is really weird when you think about it, right? Again, this sort of creative impulse that I think most people have, or would have if they had time to breathe in between, you know, their three jobs it’s been so thoroughly commodified that even the way we sort of imagined something becoming art is for it to have a price tag.
Adam: Yeah and again, there’s so many, 99 percent of the world, I mean, 98.5 percent of the United States, never has a chance to get into a position to be praised for their alleged precociousness.
Sarah Jaffe: Right, and in some places, they’re criminalized for it, right? Like New York City. My favorite thing in New York City is subway breakdancers and yeah, if the cops catch them, they go to jail but it’s always a good day for me when I run into subway breakdancers.
Sarah Jaffe: (Laughs.)
Nima: Well, thank you, Sarah, for joining us. Sarah Jaffe, journalist, author, columnist at The Progressive and New Labor Forum. Her work has been featured in so many publications, including The New York Times, The Nation, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, New Republic, she’s the co-host with Michelle Chen of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt and of course, the author of the new book, which comes out next year, Work Won’t Love You Back.
Sarah Jaffe: You can preorder it now.
Nima: Preorder it now. Sarah, thank you so much, again, for joining us on Citations Needed.
Sarah Jaffe: Thank you.
Adam: You know, what Sarah says about how it sort of reinforces this idea of the passion project or the dream job, which is true, I think, in some limited senses, but mostly, it’s just something we tell ourselves, or our bosses tell us so they can grind us to a nub. I think we have to sort of rethink those kinds of concepts as well, because, you know, that’s how a lot of people get exploited or get driven to do way more work than they’re paid to do and on that note, Citations will be taking off for eight weeks. No.
Adam: I think —
Nima: You thought this was a passion project but actually, all of you who listen to us are our bosses and you’re driving us into dust.
Adam: Yeah, because we’re both all management and workers. We’re all going on strike against ourselves.
Nima: That’s terrible. (Laughs.) Well, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson, all your help through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated and as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, for listening. We’ll catch you later.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, September 30, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.