This is Part 1 of a 2 or 3 part series on the concept of surplus. Surplus is one of the most central features of modern industrial and democratic societies. In fact it is so central and its permanence so taken for granted that it is scarcely noticed and even less understood. The following installations are my attempt to discuss several of its facets, for the slow disappearance of surpluses is, I think, the cause of great bewilderment.
A few weeks ago I came home from work one day feeling utterly defeated, oppressed by a life-weight that was buckling my knees. Money was short, jobs seemed ready to go off the rails, and there was no way I could stay on top of all the moving parts. The driver’s side door of my truck would no longer open due to some sort of malfunction and a day of scooting over a passenger seat full of job folders, miscellaneous tools, and the other refuse of a contractor/carpenter life was making a previously broken wrist ache.
I looked around at our house and yard and saw the wreckage of a half-completed life. I’m a third done with a home restoration project that starts when some money comes in and stops when it doesn’t, but going on year three I leave things set up and un-tidied as if to tell myself (and my restive neighbors) that the work is in permanent progress. The sink was full of dishes, the garbage overflowing, and the living room an explosion of Legos, Lincoln Logs, sticker-books and crumpled artwork. Dust-bunnies, dirty socks and cheerios huddled along the walls. Only a fire or a flood. . . (I thought to myself) could solve this problem. All of this was the results of two overworked parents who, already running large deficits on our own time, also can’t afford the hired help that would be necessary to keep everything put together in the wake of our twin four year olds and their boundless entropy. This is not what I expected. This is now how I grew up.
This scene is of course also our own doing and is indicative of quirks and weaknesses that my wife and I share. But there are aspects in it that also represents a unique moment in American (and probably European) culture today. For it is not just about a messy house and overwhelmed parents, but a greater sense of a botched life, of having not lived up to our potential, of grinding ourselves into nubs of our former selves without the prospect of relief; we fight our way through the tangled underbrush without hope of finding a clearing or a vista. This moment is marked by a place where shrinking paychecks cross paths with our expanding hopes and aspirations, leaving so many of us frustrated, angry, looking for answers. Though usually misnamed, this moment and its trajectory seems to be all that we talk about, at least during a political season, though without any real understanding. Because I have been a student of this moment for almost a decade (let’s keep things general for now and call it the changing wealth of nations) I know not to compare my life with the life of my parents, for the wealth of their nation was far different than is ours. This difference will be my eventual topic, but I think the lived experience of it is a crucial groundwork.
I know not to make this comparison, then but there are moments of defeat or frustration, when everything seems such a hopeless and uncleanable mess, and I look around and feel like a failure as old images from my childhood–of clean and sparkling success–sneak out from their hiding place.
These images represent not only what I lived as a child, they were additionally pounded into the crevices of my being by years simply of living in America, the land of high expectations, where we walk to the uniform drumbeat of forced want and desire. You can turn away from all this unfortunate cultural training. You can know that success is not the same thing as having, and that simplicity can be beautiful, and imagine a beautiful and simple life for yourself. You can read and write and march and protest in order to dislodge these images, bury them in community gardens dug until your fingers bleed; but some are so deeply embossed on our emotional backdrops, ready always to remake their mark—ready, in my case, for the moment when the façade of my life appears to crumbling. For when I came home that afternoon I suddenly recalled in the most vivid crystalline light an image of my childhood home, always tidy and well-kept, my parents relaxing in the shade, tending the flower garden and reading quietly after supper. It was an ordered life, lived well and well within its means. But virtue of this order, it seemed a modest life; and compared to many portrayed on TV and movies as the most idealized kind of American wealth, it was a modest life–comfortable, yes, but without a hint of ostentation. Their life, in any case, was the opposite of our frantic overshoot.
“Everything I wanted”
My parents did live extraordinary lives of the kind that could only happen in America and during a short and extraordinary time. From relatively humble, evangelical origins they marched together away from that past to the top of academic ultra-success–my father writing the books, giving the papers, and directing the institutes, my mother hosting the parties and providing a welcoming place for graduate students and new faculty. They did this without Ivy League credentials or any insider-edge. In fact they struggled in the early years of academic life to discard their old inherited evangelical bumpkinisms, like confusing sherry for white wine, a crime against humanity in 1960s Ann Arbor. They were sensitive, honest, and forthright–and faultlessly dependable. They worked hard and with spectacular diligence. And, as my father always emphasized, they were lucky. Especially when two years into his Michigan appointment, a position opened up in the History of Science department at the University of Wisconsin, where he was to spend the rest of his days.
By the time he was my age, he had published a shelfful of books, many translated into dozens of languages; he lectured widely around the world, and was positioning himself for his end-of-career glory, in which he was bestowed with all the honors available in his field. He was soon to publish the standard textbook on “the origins of Western science.” He was awarded a Vilas Professorship from the University of Wisconsin and had countless life-time achievement awards from various scholarly societies in the decade before his death. He was smart, of course, and very hard working. He was disciplined, organized, a revered teacher and trusted colleague. He never missed a deadline and his constant productivity was rewarded with a lifetime of summer grants and other funding that allowed us to spend a year in Princeton when I was four, and a year in Oxford when I was a pre-teen, along with countless other stays in various global academic hotspots.[i]
Because of the accompanying material comfort and stability, theirs was not just the picture-perfect academic life. It was an upper-middle class life as well, even though we, like most people in America, felt ourselves to be closer to the middle than we actually were. It was, to be honest about it, a comfortable life of bourgeois consumption, despite the high-culture and socially critical hue to it—entirely ecologically unsustainable despite its ordinary and modest lack of anything considered excessive. True, we were more frugal than most of our family friends and neighbors, adopting new middle class conveniences like central air-conditioning, color TV, snow blowers, and automatic garage door openers after everyone else we knew had. And true, as I noted, our consumption often had an edifying angle to it—Europe rather than Disney World, camping rather than amusement parks. But the sort of “headwinds” that many experienced during the 1970s energy crisis and economic slow-down had no apparent effect on our lives. The two week summer vacations never ceased, we bought new (if very modest) cars whenever they were needed. We upgraded from a modest ranch to a larger cape cod style house in 1973, and we took a 5 week European vacation in 1974. Despite the years of “stagflation,” the research grants (in the humanities no less!) and summer funding never missed a beat during the seventies, nor, for that matter over the course of at least five presidential administrations. We were nothing if not economically secure. If life in America might be called super-abundant, it was also ultra-secure. That we might have a routine crisis (a car breakdown, the need for a new furnace or washing machine, even a kitchen no longer suited to our position in life) and not have the savings to address it immediately was unthinkable. Life could be well-ordered and tidy in so many inner and external ways because, like a balanced ecosystem (though that it was not) the flows and supplies, the inputs and outputs all seemed to work according to a well-proportioned logic.
I would write a history of the structural tectonics of the 1980s in a much different way than I would describe lived-experience during the Reagan years. Although my parents believed Reagan was a scourge on the Republic, they also enjoyed rising possibilities at the same time, though without ever understanding the connection. The vacations became more frequent and more luxurious, the artwork real, the personal indulgences less reserved. But still they saved staggering amounts of money—at least from my perspective–had long-term care insurance, a place reserved at a very nice retirement village, and were still able to put two children through private college and then graduate school, help with our home purchases, and still maintain large reserves. My children, sadly (or not), will have none of these privileges.
Like every life, theirs had its turmoil and tragedies and our family had the normal mix of pathologies and dysfunction, resentments and disappointments. But, at least in my mind, these never characterized the sum of their life. As my father once commented to my mother, he had managed to get everything he had wanted in life. This is an extraordinary feat. The wants were not extravagant, but they were in many ways highly ambitious. It was a beautiful life that combined hard work and discipline with leisure and enjoyment, intensive days of research and writing, and relaxing strolls by the Madison lakes. Their access to money is alien to my experience, but even more befuddling is how much spare time they had—time to pursue hobbies, art, culture, and an active social life. How did my dad write the books, paint the house himself, never miss one of my soccer games, read every night, exercise, entertain, work for hours in his woodshop? Where did all that time come from? And where has it gone?
What I Have
I learned a lot from my parents and consider my childhood to have been good training for my current life. They modeled good parenting, and I always felt loved. I was granted remarkable intellectual privileges, for we talked and debated and thought for hours on end as a family. But beyond this, none of what I have been describing is available to me and my family. To be clear, compared to most of the world, I still enjoy unwarranted privileges, but not with as much ease and regularity as many of my parent’s generations. Although I have worked hard, especially over the past decade, to curtail my wants and redefine success, there are days in which I feel like a complete failure. I have not, to put it bluntly, gotten very much of what I wanted, or at least I sometimes feel like that, and I probably should have more trepidation than I do about my family’s material insecurity.
When I set out in 1990 in pursuit of my own Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature, I believed that I had every reason to expect that my future might bear some resemblance to my past. We could of course quibble with the details but it is safe to say that my father and I have roughly the same general range of natural talent and I benefitted from a life-long academic acculturation that he did not have. He was more disciplined than I am, but I am probably a bit more creative. He was more focused on the end-product, while I am probably more attracted to the ideas themselves. He was moderate where I tend to be radical. But the same sort of life in the academy was not ruled out by some major break in in aptitude, intensity, or motivation.
As some of my readers are aware, I am a carpenter rather than a professor. I had some successes in the academic world, including a number or articles in refereed journals and a page full of conference presentations. But no job. The life of a carpenter and small business owner, into which I fell backwards, has some marvelous features and it initially provided an interesting sort of relief from the very different competition and status-based world of an academic aspirant. It allowed me to pursue urban farming, and perhaps a more radical and free-ranging sort of social activism and intellectual work. I like working with my hands and my body, and have an interesting niche in the local restoration market. The life of a carpenter has allowed me to feel strong, resilient, and capable. If I can’t fix it, I know someone who can. This is a gift in a world where most of us grow increasingly dependent on high-priced experts. There is much to be grateful here, especially as the University of Wisconsin inches towards systemic collapse.
But this career path was only partially chosen. There was a time in which I very much wanted an academic job and worked furiously to secure one. I am at heart more interested in ideas, language, and concepts than anything else, and for the first time in fifteen years yearn for a life that would allow complete dedication to ideas. In graduate school I wrote a very long and intense dissertation on the history of the idea of the unconscious. Into it was packed all sorts of social and political philosophy, literature, and a focused study on cultural narratives. I lived and breathed this stuff, and after a few years of practical respite in carpentry, still do. I had some job interviews after finishing the dissertation—good jobs that I would have been thrilled to accept. But, for a number of reasons, none of the jobs panned out and I was soon swept away, for a time, by the excitement of building things that pushed the limits of my knowledge and experience almost every day.
The usual path for a graduate student in the humanities looking for a tenure-track job is to become a “lecturer,” which, at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, is a step below the coveted “adjunct professor” position. The mis-named “lecturer” is a transitional position that, for many, becomes permanent. It even has a version of tenure, aptly named “indefinite status.” That means they will probably keep you around as long as enrollments remain high, while those who are not given indefinite status by default have “definite status,” which means they are definitely not going to be kept around for very long. Marx referred to the industrial equivalent of this as “mobile army of surplus labor,” and the lecturer (or whatever else it is called in other universities) is indeed the university proletariat, the caste my wife belongs to.
A lecturer in the English department teaches up to four classes (often, because of the low pay, supplemented by another class or two at a community college). Lecturers do some of the most labor-intensive teaching in the university and often that which requires a level of teaching talent not required to deliver the weekly lecture that many high-ranking professors are permitted; in the English department they work with entry-level students in basic writing classes that involve thousands of pages of writing to be graded and commented-upon each semester. Although it can be fulfilling (as it is for my wife who loves her students and is revered by them), this is work in the trenches in an institution that is supposed to only have high and broad vistas, and where only merit trumps equality but never at the expense of fairness and respect. For reasons I will be discussing, the university in America today cannot afford its high principles, nor its lavish grants and light teaching loads. The low cost of temporary and disposable labor is becoming the financial backbone of the university, just as outsourced labor is used to keep corporate profits aloft. The wave of retirements (that made job prospects appear promising for my generation of graduate students) resulted less in new tenure-track hires, and more lower-paid and easily eliminated lecturers and adjuncts. Professors bemoan this situation, but, I should add, are equally unprepared to share their privilege. They too feel under fire from above.
I opted out of the lecturer track, falling back on my experience as a roofer (where speed, endurance, and focus are proportionally rewarded and at a much higher pay rate than the itinerant intellectual worker) while also finding promise in the growing remodeling industry of the late 90s. About 8 years later, by which time I had built a small but solid company called Community Building and Restoration, we in the construction industry were beginning to realize that we had been banking on a system of borrowed home-equity money. and had been floating untethered within an exploding bubble economy.
Like most people in my position, I was almost wiped out when the housing bubble popped, found myself laden with unpayable debt, and came out the other side barely limping. Things have never been the same since. This isn’t to say that some business models aren’t performing well, as least for now. But I have given up all former dreams of an upwardly mobile life of a small business man, where I might settle into leisure and comfort as I get older and hand off the harder physical labor work to underlings. I don’t aspire to this anymore, because I don’t think it is an ethically responsible life, but I couldn’t have it if I wanted it. There is neither a path from where I am to a parallel version of the life my parents made for themselves, nor for a university-based one secured by my wife, despite her rare talent as a teacher. In fact, there is scarcely much chance for basic economic security in our future. I hope the university survives and that my body doesn’t break down too soon. I worry about the next popping bubble, but probably not as much as I should.
My main purpose in sharing these personal reflections is, perhaps contrary to appearances, to explain the structural tectonics that have fractured the roads to success upon which many in my generation once set out. My experience, I think, is not entirely unique. The comparison between me and my parents is largely a generational one. On a whole, my generation does not live as securely as our parents did and our opportunities are shrinking. This is born out in the statistics and in the life experiences of many of my peers. There are of course exceptions. Those who went into “financial services” live with excessive comfort, as do many physicians and lawyers and people in the “tech industry.” But for most of the rest of us, whether we work in retail, the trades, manufacturing, as teachers, in most government jobs (the list could go on), the fact that wages have “stagnated” tell only part of the story of slow decline.
The life of a young university professor, one who did manage to find a foothold into the world in which my father thrived, also provides a good insight into a world I know well, while reinforcing my sense of generational differences. The university is not funded the way it used to be, and, in addition to the truly beleaguered lecturers and adjuncts, tenured professors are also feeling a pinch. They can live very comfortable lives, it is true, but the expansive opportunities enjoyed by my father’s cohort have largely dried up. In the humanities, summer funding is rare, teaching loads are increasing, departments are shrinking, and even tenure is being questioned as the university is being “run more like a business.”
If I am honest with myself, these personal reflections are flavored with own bitter aftertaste. I admit it—I do have a chip on my shoulder about the university and about the amount of unpaid research and writing I perform in my scarce free-time and for no compensation. Living in a different generation, my father had more free time to do what he wished after he was done writing, lecturing, and leading seminars than I have to do any reading and writing in the first place. There is some self-pity (since I’m already opening myself up for dissection, I might as well admit it all) in my moments of defeat, when I just don’t have the time I need to pursue what I value and what might get give me pleasure. I do, as I have said, sometimes feel like a failure when life has run me down, and when I feel like a failure, I also feel a bit sorry for myself. So there you have it. This might all be read as an attempt to come to grips with my own pathetic little feelings.
But this may make it all the more significant, if for no reason other than the way I have spent the last eight years on what I now think of as a spiritual journey—one bent on understanding not in terms of personal entitlement and disappointment, but in structural and historical ones, the changing course of the wealth of nations and especially the American nation. I don’t believe the world owes me a growing economy and increased consumption. Just the opposite, in fact—for an economy the size of our current one has already overshot the planet’s biological capacity for production and regeneration. I know this–and still the lived experience of decline and contraction is more than I can gracefully accept or emotionally process when my back is up against the wall. My wife and are still only beginning to adjust the reality of our material lives so that we might live within the means we can expect. We, too, are still in a position of overshoot.
So I’m getting personal, here, because I think the struggles I am able to articulate are ones that others will, though each in their own way, also be required to confront as well—if not now, then in the future. Feelings, hopes, expectations, disappointments—this is where politics and the economy are lived. And the changing wealth of our nation will give us a difficult journey. Or maybe it is not so difficult, per se; perhaps we as a people are unprepared for minor challenges of a certain sort. In either case, my own unfinished journey to a new acceptance has taken lots of painful and persistent work and I still have a long way to go.
And when I see the supporters of Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump acting as if their candidate could possibly remake the America that my parents and their generation enjoyed, I see denial and postponement of the inevitable real revolution—one of expectations. When I see faculty at the University of Wisconsin view their current struggles almost exclusively in personal terms of a bad governor and an indifferent state legislature, I see people who have neither begun to understand nor integrate at the level of lived-experience the great structural and systemic changes in the wealth of nations that are afoot.
I know I risk coming off as smug, here, but that is not my intention, even though (to be honest again) I do feel smug at times. But I am also afraid. For if the most educated and most adept at structural and historical thinking among us are not able to translate their own lived-crises into a broader systemic one, then what hope is there for the angry, frustrated and increasingly violent supporters of someone like Trump and all that they represent and portend in a world of decreasing surplus?
For those readers who have made it this far, I would only ask this: listen to my coming systemic explanation for the sorts of frustrations, worries, and disappointments that so many Americans are experiencing today. See if it makes more sense than the usual explanation, in which America is suffering a temporary setback at the hands of bad governance or a false ideology or those on the other side of the political divide.
[i] There is of course a valid feminist critique of the support role that my mother played without question. But on the other hand she was also revered among their circle for her warmth, humor, and friendship, along with epic garden parties and superb gourmet cooking whipped out with no apparent effort. This division of labor in what from the outside, as least, was a beautiful life was of course made possible by the simple fact that a simple university salary was more than enough to exceed any material ambitions they had dreamed of as they set out on their life-journey.
Photo credit: Leisure boats on the Milwaukee River. Wikipedia.