"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Suppose that something caused iTunes, Sony Music, “American Idol,” SiriusXM and every other commercial music entity to disappear. Would humans still make music? Of course we would.
Although capitalists would prefer we think otherwise, human ingenuity created capitalism—not the other way around. And work long precedes the existence of the capitalist system of jobs. Like music and art, work is intrinsic to the human condition. It is essential not just to our survival but to our progress as a species. It is something we do naturally, regardless of the economic and political systems in place at any given time or place in human history.
Of all the systems that contain and define our lives, perhaps the most opaque is the job system. While it is common for us to think about our individual job—or the lack thereof—it is rare that we consider the job system itself. It seems to us that humans have always been either employers or employees — and we always will be. It’s the ultimate TINA (There Is No Alternative).
Who do you work for and what do you do are interchangeable questions in daily social discourse. Parents spend many of their waking hours thinking about how to best raise and position their children so they will be attractive to the person or entity that will “hire” them. From Dilbert to National Secretaries Day, we assume that the job-based system of organizing what gets done, who does what and how our effort is compensated is an immutable component of human existence—almost like air, water and food.
For many, the day-to-day management of the job system is a full-time job of its own. Unions, educators, “human relations” professionals, and many others spend their “working” hours preoccupied with the nitty-gritty of who gets hired, who gets fired, who gets “disciplined,” who gets trained, who gets a raise, who gets overtime, who is entitled to unemployment payments — and who isn’t.
Our political discourse is dominated by mostly empty rhetoric of vigorous promises that certain government “policies” will deliver jobs, jobs, jobs. Whatever the question, there is always someone available to say the answer is jobs.
Really? What if jobs are the problem, not the solution? What if the survival of the species homo sapiens depends on imagining and creating a different way of organizing work? What if the job system is inseparable from the tyranny of the 1 percent and the incredibly stubborn persistence of racial inequality?
How did we get this system? What are its benefits? What are its costs? How does the whole system operate to make itself invisible?
Invisibility started with a proclamation disguised as a principle. Adam Smith defined the “invisible hand of the market” as “an unseen force or mechanism that guides individuals to unwittingly benefit society through the pursuit of their private interests.”
In other words: It’s supposed to be invisible. So don’t even bother looking or trying to figure it out. What you’re supposed to be focusing on is the visible but prominent “achievement” of the invisible hand. Affluence. Prosperity. Technological innovation. Wealth. Men on the moon. Smart phones. Two cars in every garage. Medical miracles. “American Idol.” Mass obesity—oh, wait, that’s off-message.
Truth be told, the job system does coincide with much progress. Many aspects of human existence are enormously better for vastly more people than was the case under feudalism. Over just a few hundred years, millions have come to live longer, eat better, have more leisure time, experience more individual freedom, and become less subject to violence. And that is to name just a few areas of extraordinary development.
At an individual level, millions are satisfied not just with their jobs at the moment, but also with the arc of careers that offered meaningful work and sufficient compensation to afford a lifetime of workplace gratification, affluence and economic security. Presumably those who are content with their place in the job system are inclined to defend it rather than question it.
Of course, there are those who, while pleased with their own situation, recognize that the system does not work so well for many others. Even those who have had satisfying careers have seen or experienced some of the downsides of the job system: arbitrary and abusive bosses; the fear of losing a job, made all the more intense by the realization that this also usually means losing health insurance; the day-to-day monotony or stress associated with a dysfunctional workplace; the sense that the work being done is unethical or otherwise destructive to the general well-being; brutal and demoralizing competition and conflict with co-workers; the constant pressure to stay “attractive” to the employer; long hours; low pay; and finally, getting laid-off or fired. Very few of us are exempt.
Put that all aside. (Nothing is perfect.) Presume that the job system has been a net “success.” Is that success sustainable? No, it isn’t. And even if in the big-picture scheme of things it has been beneficial for 300 years, does that mean it’s the best we can do? No, it doesn’t.
Is this system sustainable? There are two questions here. First, has the job-based system of organizing human effort already peaked? (Even a well-maintained car outlives its usefulness after several hundred thousand miles—or less). Many seem to think so. Political discourse in the US these days is dominated by left-wing and right-wing versions of “we want our America back.” Implicit in both positions is the view the system once worked better than it’s working now.
But can either Move-On.org or the Tea Party get us back to 1957? In my view, no. A tipping point has been reached, a line crossed. To stay with the car analogy, the job system has already replaced the engine, the transmission, the windshield wipers, and just about every other part — and it still isn’t running well.
What repairs have been tried? For purposes of discussion, let’s say that the golden years of the system were roughly from 1950-1980. Income for males (at least, white males) was rising along with productivity. Many single-income households not only got by, they prospered.
Starting about 1980, there came a growing consensus across the mainstream ideological spectrum, from Charles Murray to Paul Krugman, that the economic engine was sputtering. Various repairs and adjustments have been attempted. Simultaneously, significant economic and demographic changes were taking place. Women entered the workforce in large numbers, driven in part by the threat to living standards represented by stagnant wages for men. Some barriers to better jobs for African Americans were removed. The amount of education necessary to find a willing employer increased, and young people stayed out of the workforce longer and longer while they got the required credentials.
Over the last 30 years the forms of employment have also changed quite dramatically. What was once a predominantly private sector W-2 economy shifted to include many more workers in the public sector. Much W-2 employment was converted into 1099 “independent contractor” relationships.The underground off-the-books economy also exploded. A protracted and successful campaign was launched by increasingly powerful corporations to diminish the capacity of workers to use unions as a means of protecting their own economic interests.
In addition to using education as means to delay the entry of young people into the full-time mainstream workforce, capitalism in the US created its own kind of gulag, designed to remove millions from the workforce altogether for very long periods. That gulag is known as the prison-industrial system. In a way, this atrocity tells us all we need to know about the “unfixability” of the job system.
In an earlier capitalist crisis, the Great Depression, we got the Works Progress Administration. It used government funds to pay artists and unemployed workers to create murals and symphonies and libraries and bridges and roads.
What do we get in the 21st century? Government funds are used to channel millions of working-age adults, mostly people of color, into the prison-industrial system. More than two million are incarcerated. Millions more are on parole or probation, awaiting trial, or are convicted felons easily excluded from employment. It is the job of millions more to process them.
Does that perpetuate the system of racial and social control? Yes, it does. But put that aside for a moment. Consider just the economics of it. Today, there are approximately 14 million workers in the US who are “officially” unemployed. Eliminate the prison-industrial complex and that number would instantly go up by at least five million.
Then, consider the post-1980 education-industrial system. One of the great myths of our time is that unemployment is caused by a lack of education. It is true that education itself has become a significant cause of employment. From junior college through graduate school, the education business has exploded. There was a time when education was considered valuable in its own right. Not these days.
Now all you ever hear is that education is the key to getting a job.
Really? As with the prison system, keeping people in school longer does keep some out of the workforce and therefore technically off of the unemployment rolls. At the same time, the growth in secondary school enrollment and the corresponding construction needs created some employment.
But here’s the thing: By any measure, the U.S. population is more educated than ever. And yet unemployment and the underemployment rates are still astronomical. So much for education somehow being the cause of jobs.
Like the education boom, here’s another “make-work” program: Millions in the labor force are “hired” to fight and supply endless and meaningless wars. Once again, this “employment” is funded by taxpayers—not by the exalted private-sector.
Simultaneously, the job system has bought time—and made some more jobs for itself by increasing debt. Public debt went up. So did credit card debt, student loan debt and housing debt. We now live in massive, pervasive debt – all of which enslaves us still more.
But debt has served an economic purpose. It has kept the job system going in two ways, First, it drove the production of cars, TVs, gadgets, furniture, military equipment and other stuff. Stagnant wages obviously cannot drive increased consumption. But debt can, and it did.
Second, a greatly expanded financial disservice industry was created to process and manipulate all the credit sloshing through the system. That, too, added jobs.
The truth is, if you took debt out of the economy over the last 30 years, the bankruptcy of both the theory and the practice of the job system would have become obvious that much sooner.
And finally, there’s the true role of government spending in the economy. Actions speak louder than words. Ignore the bloviation about small government and the purity of the private sector. In the last 30 years the job system has grown local, state and federal government well beyond what would be required simply by the growth of the population or the addition of new services. Contrary to the claims of the 1 percent noise machine, little of the growth in the size of government has been to provide additional services to the poor or economically marginalized. But even if that were the case, would it not be an admission the capitalism does not all by itself provide for all of the people all of the time?
What the growth of government and its spending does do is help corporations like Halliburton get fat government contracts while claiming that only the private sector creates jobs. It saves mega banks and insurance companies from their own mistakes. And increasing government employment offsets some of the decline in private sector employment.
But what have all these fixes, repairs and constant rebuilding of the capitalist engine accomplished? The unemployment rate is enormous. And the rewards, financial and otherwise, of getting and keeping a job are diminishing for millions who can find employment. Students, families and government are carrying staggering debt.
Can anyone seriously look at the job landscape and argue that capitalism is some organic job-creating machine that just needs to be left alone? Is there really some magical new policy or law that can or will make the whole machine hum again? And even if there were, what is the cost of this system? To our ecosystem? To the idea of democracy? To our dignity? To our potential as humans? Just what is so great about a system in which some humans get to be the bosses and most of us get to be the bossed? Is this the best humans can do?
Perhaps most urgently, can the job system grow its way back to health, as so many advocate, when growth itself accelerates and intensifies the threat to the sustainability of life on earth? To many it is increasingly clear that it cannot, will not and should not.
Fortunately, all over the world people are hard at work making a better economy. As Bruce Springsteen sings on his brilliant new album “Wrecking Ball”:
There’s a new world coming
I can see the light
I’m a Jack of all trades
We’ll be alright
So you use what you’ve got
And you learn to make do
You take the old, you make it new
Necessity is the mother of invention. So it’s not surprising that Detroit is one of the places where there is both a lot of thinking and a lot of doing in the “reimagining work” department. It is hard to envision a place where the breakdown of the old system is more advanced or more obvious.
Snazzy new sports stadiums and gambling casinos sit amidst tens of thousands of vacant residential and commercial property and mile after mile of empty lots where buildings once stood. Business friendly mayors like Dave Bing do no better at “fixing” Detroit than charismatic crooks like Kwame Kilpatrick. Hundreds of millions spent in recent years by major foundations haven’t saved Detroit either.
The governance of Detroit’s schools was taken over by the state years ago. The schools got worse. Still more parents and students abandoned the schools and the city in droves. Soon, the state government will take de facto control of the city government too. The Kool-Aid theory of the powers-that-be says that better “governance” will fix Detroit’s problems. The code is that the black people have screwed everything up, despite the best efforts of the white establishment to help them.
The stark reality is that the problems are structural and cumulative. The old job system isn’t coming back to Detroit. Ever. The stark reality is that Detroit is not some one-off fluke. Detroit is just the canary in the coal mine. Virtually every dynamic that was in play in Detroit over the last several decades is now at work planet wide. Paralyzed “leadership”; persistent racism; and growing inequalities of wealth, income and power and shrinking democracy aren’t just features of Detroit. They apply to the nation and many other places throughout the world.
Help from the system that is failing is definitely not on the way. All the superficial debates about high taxes or low taxes, individual mandates or no individual mandates, big government or small government, contraception or no contraception will not put Humpty Dumpty together again.
For many this is understandably both depressing and disorienting. But for others it is liberating. “Solutionaries” are creating a different kind of economy. There may be no jobs, but there’s plenty of work to be done. Victimology is not welcome here.
Since a Reimagining Work conference held in Detroit last fall, new economy energy and enthusiasm have intensified. There are growing efforts in food production and distribution, education, media, supporting the formerly incarcerated, transportation, community policing and manufacturing.
Longtime new work and new culture advocate and philosopher Frithjof Bergman is bringing new manufacturing and new construction technologies developed in Europe, India and Africa to the attention of Detroit’s new economy pioneers. Julia Putnam, an alumnus of the pioneering Bogg’s Center Detroit Summer Project, which started in 1992, is leading a Boggs Center school in a former Detroit public school building. The Urban Network founded by Yusef Shakur, a former felon, does groundbreaking work reintegrating former prisoners into the community and to supporting the children of those still incarcerated. A growing network of meetings, conferences and Web sites allows Detroit’s many projects and initiatives to cross-fertilize.
Detroit however is but one place where reimagining work is underway. As Gar Alperovitz, a speaker at the Reimagining Work conference said in a widely discussed New York Times op-ed last December, “…something different has been quietly brewing in recent decades: more and more Americans are involved in co-ops, worker-owned companies and other alternatives to the traditional capitalist model. We may, in fact, be moving toward a hybrid system, something different from both traditional capitalism and socialism, without anyone even noticing.”
In Cleveland, Alperovitz has been involved in launching the Evergreen Laundry, a worker-owned commercial laundry. Evergreen Laundry was developed in part with the Mondragon Co-operatives, a 50-year-old business based in Spain that now has more than 125,000 worker members around the world. Mondragon is now also working with the United Steel Workers (USW) to foster ventures in the US.
Emmanuel Pratt, another presenter at the Reimagining Work conference, is now expanding his Milwaukee-founded Sweetwater Foundation urban agriculture and aquaculture model to Chicago. This May in Grand Rapids, Michigan the Business Alliance for Local Living (BALLE), will convene its 10th annual conference of new economy businesses. More than 1,000 delegates are expected to attend.
Vandana Shiva, who addressed the Reimagining Work conference via video, is a another activist/thinker bringing new work ideas to her largely women-initiated projects in India.
There is no one template that is guiding these rapidly growing worldwide efforts. The writings and videos of the people named above, plus Matthew Fox, David and Fran Korten, Ahrundati Roy, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Paul Gildering and others are resources for many new economy innovators.
What all have in common is the realization that the old system is breaking down. Within the distinction made by Grace Boggs between protest organizing and visionary organizing, they fall on the visionary side. Many believe that small and local are best, especially at this stage. All tend to be non-dogmatic and inclusive rather than exclusive and rigidly ideological. All are committed to fair treatment of all stakeholders involved. Cooperation and community are valued over competition and individualism. Genuine leadership is valued and respected. Hierarchy for its own sake is not.
All share a sense of urgency driven by the growing waste of human potential, and the race to avoid ecosystem catastrophe.
What stands out most of all? A sense of optimism and hope. Job system not working? That’s OK. We’ll make music anyway.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
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