From the March-April 2021 issue of News & Letters
While in prison I read in N&L Htun Lin’s columns on his experiences as an admission clerk in a major hospital. One, “Workshop Talks: Reclaim our labor” (March-April 2015), highlighted a theme, “The rank and file hear daily…‘Just be glad you have a job.’” Htun Lin then, as I do now, felt it necessary to challenge this notion.
Now that I am out of prison these two years, this expression has come to mean something new to me. It is true that capitalism leaves us no choice but to live through having a job, a job that is more and more precarious. The jobs are threatened by constant volatility: automation, recessions, pandemics, etc.
Without a decent job, my lot would be quite different. Without a job, what are the options outside of falling back into so-called “criminal activity”? Without employment, people are forced to turn to survival mode. There are breakdowns of social cohesion, instances of “survival of the fittest.” Just last week the window in my car was broken and then my car was stolen.
DEPENDENCE ON ESSENTIAL WORKERS
Many businesses went under due to the pandemic. Many people were forced to leave the workforce. Most people working today are referred to as “essential workers.” During any lockdown in prison, there are always a few workers of various ethnic groups assisting with the running of the prison. Prisons could not exist without prisoners’ labor. Capitalism has the same dependency. It cannot exist without workers’ labor. That is the similarity between prison life and the life outside, the larger prison.
What is essential for capital to reinforce its authority and what is essential for people to live as human beings are very different things. By seeing through the rhetoric of the “privilege of having a job,” the reality of life under capitalism will become clear.
A different window on reality is looking at the way people freely help each other. People in the homeless encampments try to care for each other. I see them sharing sandwiches. I see one person practice wellness checks on everyone in the camp. One person, an addict himself who had already used the Narcan he had on two other people, approached me one morning asking if I had Narcan to help a third person, since he knows we carry it. People in the camps also develop their human capabilities: they draw, for example, or make art from discarded materials. It is worth noting that people in the most materially deprived circumstances display such care and concern.
FORCED LABOR AT AMAZON
Human care and concern is the opposite of capitalism. That can be seen, for example, by the explosion of exploitation of workers at the largest, most profitable companies like Amazon. During the pandemic Amazon’s business soared. We see Amazon recruiters offering us a job for $17/hour. Amazon trucks are everywhere, they have been hiring like crazy. I know former prisoners driving those trucks who cannot afford to live in San Francisco. They commute from Stockton, Tracy or beyond. Amazon workers all over are complaining about the horrid conditions, the torture of their physical and mental well-being, with robots setting their pace of work. (See “Rally for Amazon Workers’ Union Drive,” p. 5.)
Another false option presented to young people today is to join the armed forces. After the Vietnam war, when conscription was no longer sustainable, the U.S. created a “volunteer” army. But it is not volunteer. Youth are forced into it by a lack of other options for their future.
I come from a military family. I saw my uncles come out of the armed forces as broken people, broken in bodies and in spirit. Many, even if they were not injured, came out as alcoholics or addicted to other substances. One of my father’s friends had constant stomach pain from his drinking. He would eat half a stick of butter to try to coat his stomach to relieve the pain.
Now, too, the military often breaks the young people who join. Look at the suicide rates among soldiers and former soldiers. A mother complained, “I sent you my young boy, you sent me back a murderer, a savage.”
What I learned, whether in an actual physical prison or outside, is this society is a prison, and the only way out is through new human relations.