Paying to work for free

Olivia Arigho Stiles reviews Ross Perlin’s book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy (Verso, 2012)

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“Interns built the pyramids”, The Baffler magazine once pronounced. So why do we know so little about this amorphous phenomenon? Ross Perlin’s eminently readable Intern Nation aims to further understanding of the function and form of internships in the post-industrial economies of the global North. Focusing overwhelmingly on the US, it is a perceptive exposé of the hopelessness, exploitation and futility of hundreds of thousands of people who undertake internships each year. Despite their ubiquity, internships have attracted surprisingly little serious attention or analysis from activists, academics and most egregiously trade unions.

Arriving at a precise definition of an internship is difficult due to the role’s essential ambiguity. “It represents a broader concept, and sends out a more targeted social signal, than “temp” or “freelancer” ever has.” From making coffee to transporting their bosses urine samples, as in one of Perlin’s anecdotes, “an internship is understood more in terms of its cultural and professional function than in terms of actual responsibilities.”

What remains clear is that internships are rife, they are frequently exploitative and they form part of broader trends in the casualisation of work. “In certain for-profit industries”, Perlin notes, “fashion, publishing, entertainment, journalism to name a few – demanding unpaid internships dominate, with illegal situations possibly constituting a majority of all available opportunities.” Interns often find themselves undertaking multiple internships to secure a coveted white-collar job, in an ever-revolving cycle of precarity and exploitation.

Perlin briefly situates internships in their historical context, arguing that internships are symptomatic of wider pernicious changes to the nature of work under neoliberalism. Prior to the 1980s, internships didn’t exist on a mass scale. Instead, the gateway to professions was through structured entry-level jobs, and through apprenticeships for blue-collar work.

Perlin cogently outlines how higher education now plays a central role in propelling students into internships, especially in America where internships garner course credits that are required by students in order to graduate. In the UK, given the similar links between the market-oriented university and the prevalence of internships, demands for ‘free education’, should urgently expand to incorporate a stance on internships.

When Perlin moves beyond the US milieu and makes perfunctory detours into Europe he appears lamentably misinformed. In Chapter 9 he glibly proclaims that “some Oxford colleges for instance, have gone so far to forbid groups of students from taking internships.” The flagship Oxford University Internship Programme, of which the university is especially proud, demonstrates otherwise. He also holds up the UK system of apprenticeships as a shining alternative to the exploitation he sees as associated with internships. These are the same apprenticeships which pay £2.73 an hour. To a UK reader, it is also especially galling to read that the UK’s inherent ‘strong sense of fairness surrounding work and social class’ has provoked an ‘intense backlash’ against internships.

More fundamentally, arguing that Europe is leading the way in regulating internships in no way reflects the reality of intern culture for young Europeans, and especially in the UK. As in the US, whole industries are entered through internships, sometimes paid but frequently unpaid. As in the US, in the media, third-sector and the arts these internships frequently lack any structure or remuneration, let alone sick leave or holiday benefits. They are often obtained through family connections and are overwhelmingly concentrated in the capital, thereby beyond the reach of those living outside the metropolis or lacking the financial capability to commute.

Perlin intends his book to encourage further study on the subject of internships and certainly, there is vast space beyond Intern Nation for a comprehensive analysis of the significance of internships. It would be also useful to have a more systematic breakdown of testimonies from the interns that Perlin informally interviews in Intern Nation. He alludes tentatively to the devaluation of work that emerges from internships, “every time young people scramble for an unpaid position, they reinforce the flawed perception that certain kinds of work have lost all value”. There is an obvious parallel here with the rise of ‘bullshit jobs’, a term popularised by David Graeber. But aside from a well-meaning plea to firms to pay their interns, Perlin offers no radical solutions on how to move beyond internships, nor how to readdress the chronic imbalance in workplace power that internships exemplify.

Interns of course, occupy an especially vulnerable position in the labour force. More than almost any other worker, the intern is individualised, their capacity for collective action or consciousness is severely limited. Not rooted in any one workplace or even one industry, they are precluded from traditional tactics of workplace revolt such as striking or occupying. How, even, to strike when your labour is deemed worthless from the outset?

It is evident that the proliferation and prevalence of internships rests, arguably, on a sanctification of work. They extend logically from the hegemony of a work ethic that constructs docile subjects. What else explains the remarkable eagerness for young people to compete furiously amongst themselves for low or unwaged positions that offer little guarantee of future employment? Hardt and Negri write, “the refusal of work and authority, or really the refusal of voluntary servitude, is the beginning of liberatory politics”. A robust challenge to internships can only be made by questioning the very function and nature of work and the wage-relation in post-industrial societies.

But Perlin’s book is ultimately an important reminder that internships must be seen for what they truly represent: an attack on working-class access to whole sectors of the economy, and especially the culture industries. It is hence vital that trade unions incorporate this drifting youthful precariat, neither blue nor white collar, into their fold. Interns are workers too, after all.

This review was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine

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