Thoughts on Ross Perlin's 'Intern Nation'

by Rob Horning

21 June 2011

What we tend to do instead of fighting internships is to take advantage of new tools to measure our prestige and figure out ways to leverage it into enduring privileges for ourselves and our friends.
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Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy

Ross Perlin

US: May 2011

Many of the reviews of Ross Perlin’s recent book Intern Nation seem to be marked by a relief that someone else has taken the trouble to acknowledge (i.e. done all they can realistically be expected to do to solve) an obvious problem—that interns are like strike-breakers before the fact, except they work not for compromisingly low wages so much as for the privilege of sucking up to bosses and building all-important white-collar social capital (here are two reviews that buck the trend). Employers in certain fields, ones that can establish a nominally plausible but essentially simoniac relationship with universities, can take advantage of loopholes in the U.S. labor protection laws to eliminate full-time positions and hire students as underpaid temps to do the work.

Once, this was restricted mainly to the “glamor industries”—a situation well-condemned in a Baffler article from 1999 by Jim Frederick (sadly not online, Google books preview here). In the past decade, internships have spread throughout the postindustrial sectors of the economy, so that a period of corvée labor in service to the managerial overlords in corporate America is now simply programmed into the college experience for most privileged kids. Many intern programs are a racket geared not toward democratizing economic opportunity but conserving privilege through nepotistic mechanisms, and the ones that aren’t about ensuring that the children of elites meet suitable mentors are typically schemes for offloading as much menial work as possible onto unpaid laborers who have no recourse to legal protections.
Not that anyone should have been surprised by this situation. If you have ever worked in offices or even watched TV shows about working in offices, how can you be surprised that internships aren’t especially educational? Or that companies are eager to gain leverage over workers however they can? Does anyone think businesses would do anything but exploit interns as long as they can get away with it? And does anyone think labor-law enforcement is anywhere close to being a priority for the series of neoliberal administrations the U.S. has endured since Reagan? Reviewers least of all should have been surprised, as most of the publications use interns unapolegetically and some of the reviewers admit to having been interns themselves. Presumably they see their own experience as an exception to the general rule of exploitation and the conservation of privilege to those with connections.  Internships in general might clearly seem exploitative, eviscerating hard-earned rights for workers, but one’s own internship always isn’t so bad and gives a necessary leg up, lets you meet some really nice, really useful people.

But if you find internships problematic enough to hail a book like this, then you should be concerned about the collective action problem that perpetuates the system—the individualistic ethos of interns that prompts them to participate in an obviously corrupt system so that they can get the edge on their competitors in the labor market. Such an attitude is the outcome of an extended effort by employers and universities to normalize the abuse of internships as pseudo-educational training programs (in his book, Perlin effectively traces this), which in turn is part of the larger sweep of neoliberal reform, which is intended to accustom individual workers to a dog-eat-dog capitalist world and get them to shoulder more and more social risk personally. Under neoliberalism, individuals need to live as though there is no social safety net, that they are perpetually vulnerable to bad fortune and thus accrue as much unfair advantage over others as they can as a form of private insurance. Internships are merely among the first steps in this dismal education process.

Perhaps the intended audience for the book is college students who might consider becoming an intern themselves. Such an audience would be appropriate, because the most straight-forward way to derail internship abuses would be to incite a general refusal among college-age workers to accept employment on those terms. Given the competitive realities of the labor market, however, such a turn of events seems extremely unlikely. Instead, internships acclimate those entering the workforce to the realities of at-will employment, which requires that employees perpetually exceed expectations and assume personal responsibility for developing the necessary strategies for success within the firm. To train interns in a set of procedures agreed upon in advance would undermine the whole purpose of internships for most enterprises; internships serve as a elaborate test to see if the interns can invent ways to make themselves useful. If you have to tell them how to be useful, they are not being trained in the realities of the workplace, which necessarily puts a premium on self-starting and solving problems for oneself in the course of the working day (which contributes to overall efficiency and productivity). Thus rote obedience is often less important for interns than being the sort of worker who can intuit ways to be useful through careful observation and open-ended obsequiousness. With the overriding imperative of making a good impression guiding them, successful interns master ways of sussing out the office power-brokers, sidling up to bosses, getting themselves heard in meetings despite their novitiate status, and so on. They create their own opportunities and are paid in goodwill (much like bloggers).

Perlin recognizes the place of internships in the “new spirit of capitalism” (to use Boltanski and Chiapello‘s phrase as he does), arguing that they represent the evolution of training programs to suit post-Fordist work conditions: “What structured training programs were to the bureaucratic firms of the mid-20th century, internships may well be to the new network capitalism of firms dealing with intangible goods.” Modern production in many sectors has less to do with learning industry-specific skills that require focused apprenticeship. Instead, much of production has become social, as Tiziana Terranova explains in this talk. That is to say, production is less a matter of skilled labor than of what is sometimes called immaterial labor—the ability to collaborate, cooperate and innovate, often in consumption processes, to enrich the symbolic value of commodities. Perlin notes that this serves to justify office internships as de facto training, no matter how menial the intern’s actual jobs seem on the surface. “To an economist, the logic goes like this: if white-collar firms are increasingly organized around their intangible human or organizational capital—whether it be their brand or their ‘culture of innovation’— then this is what interns have to learn, just as much as any specific skill set.” 

That sounds a lot like what post-autonomist theory has to say about post-Fordist labor conditions. In Grammar of the Multitude, Paolo Virno describes this shift in labor from away from skills and toward congeniality and what he calls “virtuosity”—work as ambitiously performative. Often this is a matter of innovating your own work processes, writing your own job description (as the management gurus might put it), finding opportunities to schmooze and impress higher-ups with useful ideas. Virno:

the tasks of a worker or of a clerk no longer involve the completion of a single particular assignment, but the changing and intensifying of social cooperation…. From the beginning, one resource of capitalistic enterprise has been the so-called “misappropriation of workers’ know how.” That is to say: when workers found a way to execute their labor with less effort, taking an extra break, etc., the corporate hierarchy took advantage of this minimal victory, knowing it was happening, in order to modify the organization of labor. In my opinion, a significant change takes place when the task of the worker or of the clerk to some extent consists in actually finding, in discovering expedients, “tricks,” solutions which ameliorate the organization of labor. In the latter case, workers’ knowledge is not used on the sly but it is requested explicitly; that is to say, it becomes one of the stipulated working assignments. The same change takes place, in fact, with regards to cooperation: it is not the same thing if workers are coordinated de facto by the engineer or if they are asked to invent and produce new cooperative procedures. Instead of remaining in the background, the act of cooperating, linguistic integration, comes to the very foreground.

This is essentially what internships are about. As Perlin notes, “the whole point of internships” is that the untrained worker must “come in under the radar, on the cheap, just a bright kid, and then suddenly prove yourself, become somebody worth having.” Internships are precisely about teaching interns that they must train themselves and prove their fitness through quick adaptability. The point of most contemporary internships is not what sort of work gets assigned to interns and what specific training they receive from mentors but rather how quickly they learn to create productive work for themselves that their employers can then profit from. Many interns are tacitly expected to figure out how to go beyond what they have been explicitly been directed to do and pitch their own ideas for what they can do.

So it is that internships habituate novice employees to the conditions of the contemporary workplace, where job-specific skills are less relevant than the willingness to cooperate totally with co-workers and managers and make a show of one’s perpetual availability and malleability. Much of career training for the postindustrial labor market involves learning to be a weasel, to be one of the cheese-hunting rats of the megaselling 1990s management tract Who Moved My Cheese? Interns learn to become eager self-exploiters. They accept that employers owe no such entitlements as loyalty to employees (superior employees earn favors; all workers shouldn’t unfairly be granted rights uniformly); instead the constant demand for self-reinvention is inscribed as an opportunity for self-development, as an investment in one’s own “human capital,” though ultimately for the company’s benefit.

Or to put it in Marxist terms, interns are taught to assimilate to the “general intellect,” the wellspring of social productivity that Marx prophesized in the Grundrisse‘s “Fragment on Machines,” and deploy it for capital’s advantage. This manifests as an eagerness to show what one can do, to show what one is made of, to show how eager one is—to show, in short, the quality of one’s subjectivity in total and how well that total being can suits the company’s needs. “Labor as subjectivity,” as Virno, citing Marx, puts it. Interns are given the opportunity to prove that they are well-socialized and have the habitus of the go-getting office worker (or the chance to absorb that habitus quickly). Interns thus develop an entrepreneurial attitude toward their own capabilities and their everyday lives, scouring it all for opportunities to exploit for an employer’s sake. Individuals not fortunate enough to inherit it are responsible for equipping themselves with “human capital.”

But does this constitute real training? Perlin thinks it doesn’t, which would make internships illegal. But enforcing that law wouldn’t change the underlying conditions that require that workers adopt such a habitus, which means that interns’ legality is something of a sideshow. Whether you are an intern or a mandatory freelancer, the situation is pretty much the same—you have to constantly hustle. As Perlin notes, the need to supply oneself with human capital (rather than have it be a part of what society supplies to all its members out of an egalitarianism of opportunity) exemplifies how a broadening precarity affects the middle class, rendering its isolated members as responsible for outfitting themselves for social survival as the poor have long been. When internships fall to the nonelites, it still reflects this basic structure, that the intern should be willing to work for nothing because it is an investment in their future. Likewise, secondary education is entirely instrumental, an investment in one’s future earning potential rather than an enrichment of one’s human capabilities. Though skeptical of the human-capital thesis, Perlin tends to accept this view tacitly, seeing education basically as a mechanism for generating a wage premium.

Perlin’s book concludes with a somewhat wide-eyed “Intern Bill of Rights”—a series of propositions for creating a “common standard by which to evaluate and improve internships.” The list seems to suggest that much of the problem with internships is semantic—the word itself sugarcoats the reality of exploitation with educational pretenses. But why attempt to stabilize a definition of the word? It would seem more constructive to sully the term completely, along with the other euphemisms of the internship racket, like “human capital” and “situated learning,” that serve only as tools of opportunistic obfuscation. Under the conditions Perlin advocates in this list, interns are part-time workers, plain and simple, and should be labeled as such. Those in positions that fail to meet those standards he elucidates are best understood as illegals, as scabs, regardless of how prestigious or entitled their upbringing has been. Fighting internships means fighting special favors, denying the personal touches, the exceptionalism of elite colleges—it means confronting privilege head on and exposing it with contempt. But what we tend to do instead is take advantage of new tools to measure our prestige and figure out ways to leverage it into enduring privileges for ourselves and our friends.


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