As in times past, poets are responding forcefully to the economic conditions of the day.
What happened? There was a brief moment, after Trump’s surprise victory, when the people whose faces appear on TV or whose words appear in newspapers were shocked enough that they were willing to consider tough answers to this question. The economy always rears its ugly head in a crisis, and for a few weeks in November and December 2016, you could actually hear some of these pundits acknowledge that the economy of the 2010s had failed almost everyone who wasn’t already affluent and that, as a result, many who could generally be relied upon to vote Democrat, both white and non-white, either stayed home, voted third party, or voted Trump. Putinoia and fake news about fake news eventually crowded these stories off the front page and into more marginal venues, but the question remains for anyone paying attention: What the hell happened? To hear Bay Area poet Tongo Eisen-Martin tell it,
a man lost a wager
with the god of good causes,
stood up for himself
a little too late
(maybe too early)
I can still see
Twenty angles of his jaw
Zig zagging through
The cold world
“art to it,” I will tell my closest friends one day.
I quote the end of this poem, “Wave at the People Walking Upside Down,” not only because I think it’s brilliant, like all of Eisen-Martin’s work, but because I think it answers as well as any text the question briefly entertained by the pundits. The best poets have always responded forcefully to the economic conditions that surround them. In the 1960s, during the height of industrialization, poets were enormously perceptive about the destructiveness of factory and office, workplaces that were, at the time, organized according to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” and Henry Ford’s assembly line in ways nearly everyone who worked in them felt were stultifying, joyless, and soul-killing. Against the brutal repetitions of the assembly line or typing pool, poets and other artists instead imagined forms of laboring together that were participatory, creative, varied, and open-ended. In other words, they imagined that work could be made more like art.
Poets imagined that work could be made more like art.
Things turned out differently, as they usually do. Automation eliminated most of the jobs in manufacturing that, though hard on both body and mind, had enabled rising living standards for many workers. The beneficiaries of these industrial jobs were, in the beginning, largely white, but toward the end of the period of industrialization, wartime labor shortages and the black liberation struggles of the 1950s and 1960s had desegregated many factories and unions. Once the age of deindustrialization began, however, black workers were the first to be dismissed. Last hired, first fired, these workers lost “their wager / with the god of good causes.” They were “a little too late (or maybe too early).”
As it turned out, making work more like art was an effective way to get people to work longer and harder.
Many thought these factory jobs would be replaced by high-tech, white-collar “knowledge work” or perhaps a new age of leisure as the working day shrank. This knowledge-work sector did emerge, but it was eclipsed by a vast, poorly paid service sector, where wages have remained more or less stagnant for the last four decades. Many workers in the white-collar sector did experience a transformation of the workplace in line with the more collaborative and open-ended ethos envisioned by those earlier poetic and artistic imaginings. But as it turned out, making work more like art was an effective way to get people to work longer and harder and commit more fully to their jobs, often in exchange for mere psychological compensation. This is especially true in the Silicon Valley corporations that have transformed Eisen-Martin’s San Francisco, displacing those who migrated there in search of employment in previous generations and who stayed even as the jobs left. As he writes in another poem, “Apparently too much of San Francisco was not there in the first place.”
In other parts of the country, in Detroit and Cleveland and St. Louis, the industrial jobs evaporated, but without any high-tech workers settling among the ruined factories and warehouses. Trump’s campaign had at its heart a promise to reindustrialize these places, but to do so in an explicitly racist way, by building a wall along the southern border and engaging in a trade war with China. But while it is true that China now controls a much larger share of the global manufacturing output than it once did, this is chiefly because its workers are paid so little compared to those who consume the products they make. To compete with China for that shrinking market share, the US would have to lower the wages of domestic workers substantially, paying them far less than what it takes to survive. If, alternately, companies were somehow forced to re-locate to the US by tariffs or other administrative measures, they would instead find it much cheaper to do so with robotic factories that require very few workers. Even the Chinese manufacturing jobs, which are already growing more slowly than their population, will eventually be automated away.
In other parts of the country the industrial jobs evaporated, but without any high-tech workers settling among the ruined factories and warehouses.
Despite this shrinking pool of manufacturing work, catastrophic unemployment has so far been held at bay for many people, but only because, first, wages have stagnated for the last forty years and, second, certain classes of workers—black men, in particular—have absorbed an outsized share of the job losses. Black unemployment and black incarceration track very closely to each other and that means “somewhere in america / the prison bus is running on time.” Trump promised nothing, of course, for the black workers who were the first to lose their manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt cities and, perhaps, the implicit idea here is that if it weren’t for civil rights and the desegregation of the factory things would be fine for the “white working class.” They wouldn’t. These jobs weren’t stolen by racialized others but by an increasingly productive capitalism, one that needs fewer and fewer workers to produce its smartphones and automobiles.
Deindustrialization is a process that depends, somewhat paradoxically, upon the industrialization of everything. Seen in terms of total output, there are more factories than ever, even in the US. Seen in terms of employment, though, they are nowhere to be found. Deindustrialization means a fully industrialized world, one that can be heard, by the dispossessed, in every one of the abundant products they must scramble to procure. And this is why, in Eisen-Martin’s poem, the person “washing windows with a will to live” asks and at the same time answers, in response to an unspecified question why, “because in the tin can on my left shoulder / I can hear the engines of deindustrialization?” Those engines are everywhere. They produce the canned goods and power the cars whose windows the speaker of those lines might wash in exchange for a little money. The engines of industry are everywhere but they don’t need workers.
The future of work lies in that poorly paid service sector where, already, growth has begun to taper off, as more and more people drop out of the labor market altogether, getting by through window washing and other hustles. Growth in services was always dependent on decreasing wages and it appears we may have reached the end of that process, a floor below which wages can’t be much further depressed. As for the good jobs, there are fewer of those too, and half of college graduates work in fields that don’t require a degree. What exists in abundance is so-called “guard labor,” protecting the wealthy and their property. This is why, instead of the miners and autoworkers one might expect, “The picket line got cops in it.”
On the page, Eisen-Martin’s poem lurches back and forth between left and right margins, “Zig zagging / through the cold world / of deindustrialization.” The center of the page is reserved for an odd, superegoic voice that dispenses probably useless wisdom such as “Playing an instrument is like punching a wall.” We should, in other words, look for resistance at the margins. This is not to say that labor struggles will disappear, but that, in a world where “the cop in the picket line is a hard working rookie,” they will form a smaller part of the tactical and strategic mix, as more and more people are forced to struggle outside of the site of production. In other words, don’t be surprised if, increasingly, the dispossessed decide to “make a church bell out of a bank window,” calling their fellow rioters to worship with the sound of shattering glass. There’s an “art to it” but it’s an art that stands apart from the space of work. In the end, many people may have to take Eisen-Martin’s wry advice:
you are going to want
to lose that job
before the revolution hits.