An internee asked us to post this analysis of the intern’s predicament from a Marxian perspective. How could we refuse?
Karl Marx: grand wizard of the far left; the theoretician that inspired hundreds of revolutionary movements across the world, some good, some bad – what would this controversial figure, this champion of the proletariat, make of the current situation most graduates are faced with? Clearly, he would laugh in disbelief: graduates are faced with either unpaid internships, poorly paid ‘proletarian’ jobs, or unemployment – the only thing protecting them from a rapid descent into destitution is the safety net that is the middle class home. What I want to prove in the following polemic is that, despite the fact many of them are privileged, the predicament of today’s graduate is in many ways akin to, if not worse, than that of the proletarian.
Marx’s theory of exploitation, were it to take on physical form, would self-destruct due to the level of capitalist ruthlessness involved. Indeed, the predicament faced is one rotten with contradictions, and as such we find in this economic climate many graduates confused, depressed and disillusioned, whether or not they‘re in work. Why, according to Marx, is the capitalist system exploitative? From the beginning: every human being is endowed with the power to create. The worker ‘creates’ the ‘products’ (or ‘services’, depending on the industry) which are then projected into the commodities market where they are sold in exchange for capital. Where does the exploitation come in? Note that the worker’s labour power is congealed in the product he has created; strictly speaking, he is entitled to all the profit that the product generates. But this is not the case: his boss, Marx’s scheming capitalist, buys the worker’s labour power from him at a fixed rate, namely a wage. The wage will be kept as relatively low as possible, since the capitalist is looking to reap as much profit as possible from the products he has duly sponsored. Ideally, the wage will be determined by the amount of money necessary for the worker to reproduce that labour the next day (a ‘living wage’, if you like, grounded now by the minimum wage). But as the worker produces more and more, he will lose more and more, since he inevitably ends up putting more in than he is getting out. At the same time, the capitalist is pocketing the surplus profit that his sponsored products are generating, and so grows richer.
However, the worker is left with a catch-22: either he can continue to earn wages disproportionate to the labour power he is putting in, or he can walk out on his contract but face the destitution that soon accompanies transition into the world of unemployment. His predicament is a tragic one indeed, and he is blinded to any prospect of radical change by the ideology instilled in him by the political superstructure, dass Arbeit macht Frei. He is unable to cultivate himself – and so transcend ideology – because he has neither the time nor the means, and so he is increasingly alienated from his creative potential, his peers (due to the competition for work), at times his family, and above all, himself. He is held captive by the capitalist.
Marx’s labour theory of value is one which has attracted a lot of criticism, and admittedly it’s both flawed and dated ; however, for the sake of argument, I won’t address the specifics of that here: the principle is essentially a good one.
Where does the graduate fit into all of this? It’s probably obvious. By virtue of the fundamental principle of the LTV, the graduate intern is actually worse off – at least in the short-term – than Marx’s noble proletarian. This is quite simply because his labour power is being handed over to the capitalist for free. It almost resembles a feudal system, wherein the serf worships the squire; the intern, desperate to raise himself into the upper echelons of the capitalist sphere, takes what he can get, even if he receives no wage over a period of months, and as long as the work doesn’t resemble what he views as ‘poor man’s labour’. He will be easily fobbed off by the oft illusory sugar cubes the capitalist dangles in front of him. And his predicament is not so much tragic as it is pathetic: he’s not like the noble proletarian, who has no comfortable safety net into which to fall, and a family to feed. The ‘destitution’ the middle class graduate faces is only really symbolic, since he will often come from a financially secure background, with parents generously covering basic living expenses, hoping that their special child will soon find employment becoming of them, and the education they have received. But this world, be it of the exploited intern or the unemployed graduate, is an illusory one, full of self-delusion. And furthermore, it is an alien one: graduates up until this point have had the luxury of a clear, structured vision of the future, courtesy of the education system. Now this is gone, and they face a future less defined, albeit probably ultimately more optimistic, than that of Marx’s proletarian.
It is a pathetic predicament, but it isn’t the fault of the graduate, since he is simply a product of his environment, and the ideology that obscures reality. This ideology has consisted in the post-war belief that acquiring an education, cultivating oneself, is the key to big success. And naturally, the graduate will want to match, if not exceed the achievements of their parents. On leaving university, however, the graduate then finds that the industries from which they have been insulated are actually highly specialised. The economy, especially in times of recession, is in need of specialists. Suddenly, the graduate curses himself for his complacency: why study history, when economics could’ve prepared him for this world so much better? Why waste time dissecting Joyce’s Ulysses, or justifying Nietzschean hyperbole, when it would have been much more constructive to have measured variables? Why accumulate vast sums of debt merely to party mindlessly, when an apprenticeship could have laid a vocational foundation? But the graduate isn’t systematically prepared for this realisation, especially not by the university system, which turns over vast sums of money by erasing the health warning associated with the slogan ‘undertaking a humanities degree is a good idea’. They are left directionless. And the solution to this, to the problem that in order to get a job you need experience, but in order to get experience you need a job? More education! Or internships.
The problem doesn’t, of course, apply to all graduates, who – due either to good luck (in that their talents lay in the sciences, or maths), or just plain hard work and practical thinking – build themselves a sound future upon leaving university. However, there are a directionless many to whom it does apply, and it is a worrying loophole in what we believe to be fair society that certain recruitment agencies capitalise on this. Although these companies claim that experience is worth the expense of not being paid, the naive graduate has good reason to be sceptical: these businesses, after all, are committed to prioritising their relationship with their sponsors, and will sell to aspiring interns the most menial jobs, under the name Experience. There is very little to protect the graduate intern from exploitation; and as long as this loophole in the working world remains open, companies will continue to make the most of it, since graduates have few other choices than to submit themselves to this pitiless grind. I repeat my first question: what would Karl Marx make of this? As I said, he would laugh in disbelief, disbelief that the capitalist system has created slaves within its own class. Disbelief that these slaves have been ‘culturally enlightened’ and supposedly see the flaws in the system, yet continue to submit themselves to exploitation. They are a sub-culture existing within the middle class itself, and they are full of contradictions: impoverished yet decadent; desperate but unwilling; culturally enlightened yet utterly naive – they are magnets for exploitation. As one of these people myself, all I can do is omit dry laughter at my ‘misfortune’, and take up my paintbrush and my black and white palette. Interns of the world, unite!