Written for the Edinburgh Rascal on the Hazards of the Graduate Job Market
All my life, I wanted to be a cautionary tale. You know, something that parents would tell their children to demonstrate the flaws of being, I don’t know, too smart or too outspoken. As it turns out, I’m a cautionary tale of graduate employment, to be handed down to those questioning if the dole is really that bad.
I’m 24 now, and have now worked 2 sales jobs in the last month. When I’m 84, I hope that number hasn’t risen. For those who don’t know, in between design, manufacturing and consumption there tends to be sales. Typically, the full-time positions exist in the cracks – between government grants and other people’s work – and tend to be one of the few jobs that survive any recession simply because turnover is so high. The tools of sales are relentlessness, self-abolition and a great deal of contempt for the ‘other’. The raw materials are desperate people, lured in by the promise of commission and potential advancement.
So far I’ve sold insulation and I’ve sold advertising. As for the sort of workmates you get, frankly, I’ve had them all. People so depressed they seem to be withering the ground they stand on. People so hapless I worry when I see them crossing the road. The South African evangelist who preached self-healing through prayer and positive thinking, the confused anti-semite whose father collected Nazi memorabilia, the ever-shifting management personnel who were alternately seasoned business professionals of long-standing pedigree or dedicated self-starters working up from the bottom, depending on the story being spun. Curiously, sales is a very male profession, which says a lot about which gender is easier to dupe.
Sales is where the capitalist dreams of tenacity producing reward should go to die but are instead reborn. I’ve sat at tables full of people who could discuss nothing but the phones they will buy when they became management themselves and revel in their undaunted capacity to accept little or no wages on the basis of mystical commission which might, one day, be realized. In general, sales tends to be among the most precarious of the precarious, with zilch guaranteed income if you’re working commission and tightrope thin guarantees of continued employment if you’re getting a wage.
The self-policing these jobs cultivate is Foucauldian. To maintain a positive attitude in the face of hopeless circumstances, to remain optimistic with zero prospects, to entertain cheerfulness and enthusiasm against all rational instinct: this is the praxis of sales. The positive attitude is perhaps the most grating aspect, so excellently dissected in Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die.
In a way, the superficial world of consumption that builds on top of sales is compensation for the ghostly nature of the work itself. Even a well-completed deal seems remote and incorporeal, so the castle of consumer items built with the proceeds is something of a stand-in. While this One-Dimensional Man aspect is in itself interesting, what’s even better is the damage you are instructed to do to the neighbour. Your customers are not customers, but potential sales, and so every white lie you tell – and you tell them a lot – combined with every emotion you play on is key. Without exercising control over other peoples feelings, a relentlessness in the face of merely passive resistance and, crucially, a division of the world into the ‘positive’ and negative’ people in it (guess which ones are the buyers?) the job itself is impossible.
Ultimately, this is the real lesson of sales. It’s basically a meditation on the nature of evil. To put in simplistic Kantian terms the transformation of the other into a means, or rather, into embodied profit is a small adjustment with incredibly far-reaching consequences. Once this adjustment is achieved, the skill of manipulation follows. So beware, comrades, beware!