Ideological Training for the New Economy

At job search clubs across the country, unemployed workers are taught to blame themselves for their joblessness — not the system that produced their precarity.

Gene Han / Flickr

The forty unemployed tech workers who made it to this “job search club” meeting are prepared to chant. Arranged in folding chairs with styrofoam cups in hand, their eyes are fixed on their lines, projected on a PowerPoint slide: “I’m not over-qualified, I’m absolutely qualified!

The bubbly presenter orchestrates: “Let’s say it all together!”

The crowd looks like a twenty-year reunion of the characters in Office Space: not its scheming anti-work hero, but the background cast, the characters who decided to stick with IniTech until the layoffs came around. We chant together in drab, office-birthday-party tones:

“I’m not over-qualified, I’m absolutely qualified!”

“Again!” our speaker implores.

“I’m not over-qualified, I’m absolutely qualified!”

The message is hitting home. Most of the people who come to this weekly meeting of jobseekers in Austin, Texas have been laid off late in their careers and are struggling to squeeze themselves back into an unrecognizably tough labor market. The jobs they used to work don’t exist anymore, and most have been applying for entry-level positions at enormous cuts in pay. They’re still not having any luck. They are confused.

Jump Start Job Club1 is giving them answers. Partly funded by the state of Texas, it is one of hundreds of state-supported job search clubs across the country that are meant to support laid-off white-collar workers in finding employment. The unemployed come for information on retraining programs, lessons on using LinkedIn and, and a sense of community in the dark days after a layoff. They also come because attending helps maintain their eligibility for unemployment insurance.

But they get more than they bargain for. Each week, guest speakers shower the jobless not just with interview advice, but with a fully formed ideology that radically individualizes and normalizes their experience. Every Friday, speakers help douse what could be a tinderbox of collective resistance with a rhetorical fire extinguisher.

According to Michel Foucault’s concept of “governmentality,” modern power is exercised less through coercive force than through the dissemination of particular discourses and ideologies; once these ideologies are internalized, people conduct themselves accordingly, effectively governing themselves and lessening the need for explicit coercion.

At Jump Start Job Club, this modern form of power is on full display.

One week, jobless members heard from a motivational “career coach.” With charismatic and suave business-casual dress, he spun sketchy behavioral science and dubious statistics (“people are 117 percent more likely to like you if you are confident!”) into a shiny forty-five-minute pep talk. He assured us that all three dozen job seekers here were out of work because we were allowing our “limiting beliefs” to hold us back. “The only thing standing between you and wild, radical success,” he charged, “is you!” The first thing we needed to do on the path to success was to get “I can’t” out of our vocabulary and begin to “retrain the brain” to see our own power in determining our situation. To ultimately overcome our employment woes, we need only to turn our scarcity mindset into an “abundance mindset.”

With this neatly packaged presentation, the speaker transformed a public issue into an individual problem and depoliticized the most pressing question in the audience’s lives. And the crowd bought it, too. Several offered up their own “limiting beliefs” for group critique, others pledged to dig down deep to finally “believe” in themselves during the job hunt.

The lesson trained participants to orient their attention and effort in a very particular direction: in times of economic precarity, the proper object of investigation isn’t the economy, the labor market, or the company that laid them off, but the individual. The primary problem, rather than any economic or political system, is your personal belief system.

The power of the sermon lay in the sense of control and empowerment it provided to a group of people who were feeling increasingly powerless. That control and empowerment, he assured us, could be achieved through a critique of the self and a subsequent reconstitution of that self — rather than a critique of the economy.

In other sessions, the ideological proselytizing involved providing the jobless with specific behavioral scripts to help them rationalize their downsizing.

An “HR guru” who spoke to the club gave participants word-for-word scripts to help explain to job interviewers why they were willing to take, in her example, a $25,000 salary cut for a new job. For those taking a big step down in job title, she offered this script: “I’ve had the big salary and the big title, but now I just want to make a difference.” Or we could try: “I just love your company, and am willing to work with whatever salary fits in your budget.” Or we could tell prospective employers that we aren’t worried about money because our “kids have already graduated college,” or because we’ve “already paid off the mortgage.’”

Most importantly: “You have to convince yourself that you can make it on that salary so that you believe it when you tell them.”

At Jump Start Job Club, the jobless are given the exact words that they can use to rationalize their downward mobility, both to themselves and to prospective employers. These are the discursive tools jobseekers can use to prostrate themselves before increasingly violent market forces. They’re the narratives — or lullabies — that workers can tell themselves to soothe their anger. These stories foreclose on opportunities for the kinds of collective consciousness and action that could alter economic structures.

These meetings show the power of ideology in anti-organizing — in suppressing social movements under capitalism. Of course, job clubs aren’t the only places these ideologies are promulgated: our discursive toolkits are built out of messages broadcast in movies, on billboards, in the iconization of figures like Steve Jobs. Any successful resistance to capitalism needs to take discourses seriously — not just as they play out in political speeches but as they operate in the minds and mouths of everyday workers.

Of course, these ideological constructs don’t always go uncontested — even in job search clubs. At one meeting, during a lecture on preparing for a pay cut, a software engineer piped up with a single statement: “You know, I think the real problem is that they aren’t paying any of us enough.”

The club leader was quick to shut it down. “That’s nice,” she said, and clicked to the next slide.