So long to the 2010s, and the culture of precarity

By Kyle Scott Clauss, Editor-in-Chief

Out of the cataclysmic financial crisis of 2008, we stumbled into the 2010s gobsmacked and angry.

The ruling class had reminded us just who’s in charge around here. Who else could wreck the global financial system—and with it, the modest means and fragile aspirations of millions of people—and abscond without even a whiff of criminal prosecution?

There emerged in the 2010s a new culture of precarity. Though I never knew her personally, I often think about Maria Fernandes, 32, who died in 2014 while napping in her car between her three low-wage jobs. In a statement, Fernandes’ employer Dunkin’ Donuts called the woman who had worked herself to death for the New Jersey minimum wage of $8.25 a “model” employee. Lucky her.

In the 2010s, job security became a quaint anachronism, like a fax machine or a bank that still gives out toasters. Benefits? Please. Hustle harder as you take yourself to market on the “gig economy.” You are never not working. You are your own boss, after all. Those who neither rise nor grind, starve.

(I am amazed whenever someone describes themselves as a “serial entrepreneur,” which sounds like something you are legally required to warn people of when you move into a new neighborhood.)

Just as stress weakens the immune system, the culture of precarity left us increasingly susceptible to three powerful social forces: nostalgia, paranoia, and a detachment from reality. These forces have derived their newfound potency from the material conditions undergirding the 2010s. Let me explain.

As the media industry consolidates, movie studios have increasingly churned out a slurry of sequels, prequels, reboots, and live-action remakes—whatever permutation of beloved intellectual property will rouse the strongest pangs of longing for happier days. Just as industrial farming yields monoculture, concentrated media ownership continues to exploit our nostalgia—even if produces a bland, entirely self-referential popular culture—as long as it remains profitable.

As more Americans worked longer hours to gain a half-step on the baying hounds of financial ruin, a profound loneliness set in. Precarity is isolating, often by design. Consider the Amazon workers fetching products in those massive, dystopic warehouses cropping up in my postindustrialized hometown and yours. Spend even a minute fraternizing with a coworker or, God forbid, use the restroom, and face the consequences.

Social media companies have been among the largest beneficiaries of this new loneliness. With deft use of the well-timed dopamine rush, social media companies have conditioned us to believe that everything must be done publicly. It’s an instinct so pervasive, so deeply embedded in our psyches that it animates our thoughts and actions without ever calling attention to its own alien presence.

And what purpose does it serve? Data-gathering, mostly. Despite all the leaks, all the devices you’ve welcomed into your home listening to your every conversation, the paranoia of the 2010s never focused on the big tech companies gaining a disturbing amount of power over our lives. Perhaps in a fit of nostalgia for the Cold War, we feared Russia.

I visited Montreal for the first time in 2018, and out of habit, I stopped into the first bookstore I found. Though all the books were in French, I noted the conspicuous absence of the blight overtaking bookstores stateside. There were no fanciful Russiagate thread-cum-hardcovers, no Trump spelled with a backwards “R,” no Bush-era war criminals frothing at the mouth about the danger Trump poses to “the Republic.” It was wonderful.

Faced with a violent, chaotic world, many ditched this reality for an alternative one easier to understand and less troubling to inhabit. But as filmmaker Adam Curtis argues in his brilliant 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation, this retreat always benefits those in power.

All that was solid melted into air in the 2010s, to borrow a phrase from Marx, “and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions in life, and his relations with his kind.”

Fostering a culture of solidarity represents our best chance at stemming the rising tide of precarity. (That tide is hardly a metaphor, as elites’ inaction on climate change will kill us all.) The most powerful corporations have a vested interest in keeping you alienated, believing your problems are singular and their solutions as universal as they are commodified.

Solidarity takes many forms. Organize your workplace. Host a potluck. Get to know your neighbors. Practice radical sincerity. But know that we can only communicate what we feel once we know it ourselves.

Only then will we knock the ruling class on its heels.

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