Illustration by Leila Mgaloblishvili, CC '15

Illustration by Leila Mgaloblishvili, CC ’15

We humbly pay tribute to our ancestral magazine The Blue and White with another excerpt from its December issue—on campus now! 

Ross Perlin is an independent writer and linguist stuck in the ever-expanding no man’s land between academia, critical theory, and journalism. His first book, Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, explored the unpaid labor market as a “curious blend of privilege and exploitation.” Perlin took the time to sit down with B&W Managing Editor Anna Bahr, BC ‘14, in a Harlem coffee shop (where the owner emphatically refused Anna access to her laptop) to discuss labor, leisure, and the problem of becoming an “expert”.

The Blue and White: In looking through your body of work, your interests are ridiculously varied. You cover everything from endangered languages to the environmental impact of China’s megacities to guerilla art. What’s the common thread?

Ross Perlin: There’s no justification for it. I’m the common thread, for sure. It’s very eclectic. It’s very much based on following my nose. My total interest in things I come across. I’m always looking for stories that haven’t been told. I try and investigate things that are hiding in plain sight. Internships and endangered languages are both examples of that. These are what I see as massive phenomena that if you point them out to people, they aren’t necessarily arcane subjects, but they need someone to map them out, to flesh out the territory, and then other people can go in and do more detailed studies. A lot of people say that journalism in the digital age should be about starting a conversation.

B&W: But you also see yourself as a humanist—which is definitely an identity that is making a comeback as the analogue has its glamour moment. How do you reconcile being a humanist-journalist with working in this technocratic age?

RP: I mean, I’m not a humanist in the sense that I write human-interest stories—which of course have their place, but I think that there are fields of inquiry that are not covered by the long term theoretical perspective of the academy and are not covered by the short-term day-to-day, minute-to-minute grind of the media beast. Maybe they’re medium-term issues. Cultural criticism. It’s a place for people who have one foot in the academy and one foot in journalism, which I’ve tried to do. But that’s also having a foot in two endangered worlds. I think that’s another reason why people are trying to find that middle space. The academy is troubled waters. Tenure track jobs in the humanities are rare, the media universe has been turned upside down in the last fifteen years. I think you have people emerging into this middle space between the two, which sometimes could be called Brooklyn, sometimes could be called Berlin (laughs), but people are trying to combine academic rigor with journalistic savvy…

B&W: The new-age pragmatist.

RP: Absolutely. There’s a pragmatic view there. You aren’t airily talking about abstract ideas. You immediately buy a domain name. There’s a telescoping between thought and action. You can immediately organize, immediately make something practical of an idea. The world of the so-called “little magazines” also reflects this. Think, The New Inquiry, n+1, Jacobin, Dissent…So, this middle-distance space I’m talking about is still fleshing itself out. It’s not easy to make a living there. But there’s a need for people to comment on and research and bring out these issues from a more independent place. I feel in my writing that I’m not beholden to any interest group. I’m beholden to my readers and to all thinking people and to the people I interview.

B&W: Obviously one of the great things about the fluidity of the Internet is that you don’t have to be pegged as an expert in any one thing. Are you at all afraid of becoming the Intern Guy more than a journalist or a thinker?

RP: You want to stay in the conversation you’ve started. But there’s nothing I want to see less of than more rehashing. As soon as you’re pegged as an expert voice, you can spend all of your time responding to media requests and repeating the same message and trying to make it fresh, but it ends up that 99% of the work thats published on the topic is recycled material. The goal I have is to start conversations and put them on solid footing—bring together people and material and bring lots of voices into the conversation. I don’t want to be a talking head. But there’s also a personal motivation. I wanted to get involved in other, crucial causes. If you take my writing on intern labor, it’s a product the US is exporting willingly to the rest of the world. It’s a far leap from labor in China where people really care about the nature of labor and the future of work. I feel a responsibility to keep on what’s going on there because the hub of the working class of the world is located in China. It’s such an important connection.

B&W: Have you found that not being tied to a formal media outlet has made it harder to market and sell your work?

RP: It does put pressure on people to build their own brands and amass Twitter followers and have a listserve at their disposal. And I am very dependent on my network of sources and friends and experts that I know and fellow writers. But in terms of having an audience, you’re creating it for yourself.

B&W: So, contemporary Internet journalists are responsible for cultivating and curating an online persona through which they sell their own writing. And it’s a line that really blurs recreation and work. Especially when you’re someone who is not independent, but works for a media institution or outlet, at what point do your personal tweets stop being work and start being a leisure activity?

RP: It’s a huge question. What are the boundaries of work? Can leisure survive? Leisure was arguably a special product that flourished in the 20th century, and it’s not clear what form it’s going to take in the future. I love that sticker that you see around: “The Labor Movement—from the people who brought you the weekend.” With the decline of labor, you also see the decline of organized leisure time. And a concerted effort to make work disappear, or seem to disappear. Part of it is work’s new immateriality. Everything is happening on a screen in front of you. You have to be judging what is a billable hour and if you have anyone to bill it to. People are now in the position to figure out how to draw the line themselves. If you’re working for an employer, there should be a certain amount of pressure on that employer to establish those boundaries. It’s probably harder if you’re on your own. If you’re a small business-owner or an independent contractor, all space and time can be filled with work and tasks. There are different solutions. Commercial fishermen or goldminers who work incredibly hard without taking a day off for months and then you’re back in port and take a couple of weeks off from thinking about work. But it’s increasingly hard to take a break from the grind.

B&W: Did you read 24/7? I just read the review and was really struck by the idea of sleep being the final frontier on which the free market is encroaching to capitalize on every ounce of utility from the worker.

RP: Yes! But of course there are also so many products being sold right now around sleep. How do you sleep better, sleep therapy, sleep disorders, the pathologizing of sleep…

B&W: Right, but it’s not like that proves an interest in promoting good health. Selling a healthy lifestyle book is as entrepreneurial as selling Starbucks. There are always those industrious people who take advantage of the niche market of the moment.

RP: The question is whether those countervailing forces, those antitheses, can stand up against the forces they’re trying to counteract.

B&W: You say you see it as the employer’s responsibility to act as one of those forces, to enforce some kind of boundary—which is obviously not in their best interest in a strictly free-market sense.

Illustration by Leila Mgaloblishvili, CC '15

Illustration by Leila Mgaloblishvili, CC ’15

RP: I think if you did a Google engram of “quality of life” you wouldn’t see a lot of searches back in the 19th century. It’s a recent term. The interest in work-life balance is coming up in a time when we don’t have those things. The fact that we have terms from them is an indication that we’re doing poorly at them. But these aren’t radical issues furthered just by people who are skeptical of capitalism. Capitalism itself, as a reform within the system, will have to address the basic health and safety of its workers. There is a larger rebalancing going on—trying to figure out that balance. I think it should be addressed in a political framework, because it’s a labor issue. But people are also trying to address it just by having more psychologists available in the workplace, or through yoga, or whatever.

B&W: What about the kids for whom unpaid internships really will put their resumés at the top of the pile? Like, on an individual level, if a student has the financial means to take an unpaid position, does it make much of a difference for them to abstain from it on principle?

RP: Most people are still going to act in their own immediate interests and that’s understandable. For any given person, if you have the means, an internship can be a lesson, and maybe it’ll lead you to that great gig or full time job. That has to be recognized. But people have to confront the impact of unpaid labor. The job you’re taking on is illegal. You’re working as a scab–that’s not a word people think about in our generation. But you’re walking into an office and taking what was once paid work. For people who have the means to do it, it’s hard to resist, but there has to be a certain consciousness about what that choice means. That will at least take some of the enthusiasm out.

B&W: To what degree is it the responsibility of students to organize around unpaid labor? Even if the Internet is on their side as an organizing tool, why might it be more difficult to mobilize around unpaid labor than, say, a more formal labor industry?

RP: I think internships, unpaid labor, the consequences of the new economy, these things are hitting young people like they’re hitting no one else. It’s tough because students don’t see these wages as being owed to them. They see themselves as students first and foremost, not workers—even though the vast majority of them are working jobs that were once paid positions. It’s wage theft.

People don’t realize that intergenerational inequality is happening today. There are retired people who are struggling, but they are also taken care of by a substantial safety network was built in the 1930s and then 1960s with Social Security and Medicare. There are no protections or policies like that for young people. Politicians spend a lot more time in assisted living facilities than on college campuses. And that goes way beyond who’s going to hit the voting booths. It speaks to where the arc of young people is. There are many different groups that can play a role in fixing the internship economy and rolling back the economy of unpaid work. Young people have to be willing to stick their necks out. There’s a collective action problem. We’re only going to be interns for a few months or years, there’s a hope that this will go away quickly and soon you’ll be in charge of interns yourself and moving in your career. It’s not a lifelong battle like, say, the feminist or Civil Rights movements. With that stuff you can say, “I’m always going to be a woman” or “I’m always going to be black”, so investing time in this kind of work makes long-term sense.  I do think there’s a dawning recognition that the precariousness of the workplace might last a lifetime.

B&W: Do you think it’s even possible for students to organize around a union structure? Or has that system lost too much power?

RP: I don’t think we’re going to see an intern union anytime soon. But young people can learn a lot from the history of labor unions—this whole civilization of labor that flourished so much in the 19th and 20th centuries. Obviously we’ve seen very little strong labor legislation in recent years. We’ve seen the department of labor at the federal level being eroded and having fewer enforcers or the same number of workers for exploding labor market and new forms of labor like internships. It’s impossible to keep up with capital and the changes in the market for employers to get cheaper labor.

Interns have contributed hugely to the world of “alt labor”. Their organizing is flexible and improvised and mobile. It’s exciting for people who care about inequality. But classical unionization is also difficult because of logistical practicalities of internships. The length of time it takes to certify a union and get around the roadblocks put up by politicians and employers is the length of an internship at least. Even if you started [organizing] on day one, it would take well beyond the summer to pull everything together. So you need more flexible strategies to deal with that. It could be through advocacy groups or flash mob-style organization. Imagine if all the DC interns walked out. It would bring the government to a halt. Now that’s a shutdown I’d like to see.

B&W: Meanwhile, you have the young woman intern who sued her employer for harassment but wasn’t protected by law because she wasn’t technically an employee. And now the NY state legislature is proposing some elaborate additional loophole law to protect interns from discrimination and harassment. Wouldn’t it be easier just to pay them?

RP: It’s very shocking to people to hear that unpaid interns are not protected in the way that  workers are. People understand that unpaid interns are working in offices as much as workers are. When I started telling people about interns suing their employers over sexual harassment—also for discrimination against age and race—they were outraged. People immediately feel there’s something wrong with the fact that interns are not considered employees under the law. Of course you want people to be protected against harassment. But the nature of the powerlessness stems from the fact that they aren’t getting paid. The real issue is the constant violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Thousands upon thousand of interns are hired illegally and in a legal limbo.

There’s a clear power dynamic. It’s mostly young women working for older male bosses. The only trustworthy study on this approximates that three quarters of unpaid interns are young women. It’s good to see politicians acting on issues of internships in any way, but usually, if you sue, the intern is literally thrown out of court. It doesnt matter if you were sitting at your desk for 60 hours doing the same work as anyone else.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.