Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy
By Ross Perlin
2011, Verso, 288 pp
Just when you thought the absurdities of capitalism couldn’t be more insulting and degrading, the bosses have come up with yet another offense to working people. Nearly 150 years ago, Marx explained how workers are forced to labor for less than the value of the goods and services they produce, only to see the profits ripped-off by the bosses, and then to be told the big lie that their jobs were created by the magical substance called capital.
Most contemporary economic theory relies on the myth that capital exists independent of the sweat and toil of the working class. Ruling class apologists who claim that value is created in the marketplace rather than the workplace, characteristically go apoplectic when anyone stow them to explain how capital comes to exist: it is stolen surplus labor.
Generally the conversation ends with the economist, his bluff called, screeching, “You must be a Marxist!” and spluttering about how Nobel Prize winners are smart people and don’t bow down to false gods. But they do!
Now Wall Street has an even grander scheme: Let’s get young people to work for nothing and call it education. Citing educational theories about “situational learning” and drooling over “human capital formation,” corporations have come to the conclusion that recruitment and entry-level hiring could be streamlined with the practice of internships.
Each year, between one and two million Americans work as interns, and their numbers have increased from 17 percent of college graduates in 1992 to 50 percent in 2008.
An internship is several things at once: for the colleges that require them, it is credit hours for which they charge the student in exchange for the trappings and verbiage of real course work.
For the companies, NGOs and non-profits where the students perform menial and repetitive tasks, it is free labor paid for with nothing more than the privilege of padding a resume.
While it may be true that some very few firms in finance and engineering may pay modest stipends, and claim that most of those they eventually hire in regular contracts were once interns, the vast majority of internships are nothing more than a hazing of young people entering the job market, and a subsidy for the corporations.
Perhaps the most egregious examples are Disney World, where interns make up a third of the workforce, and the entire enterprise of government in Washington, D.C., which would grind to a halt without them.
Don’t be fooled by analogies to the apprentice programs (in the United States, often with technical schools and unions co-operating), which for centuries have been the primary means of passing skills from one generation of workers to the next. Nor are these internships any relation to the very American co-operative movement, which allowed working-class youth to attend college, make a living wage while alternating terms in the classroom and the workplace.
Ross Perlin’s “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy” appears to be the first full-length expose of this new economic phenomenon. He clearly lays bare how internships exempt workers from the protection of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a federal minimum wage, extra pay for overtime and an end to child labor. His numerous interviews drive home the fact that the myth of social mobility, which clams to showcase the differences between blue- and white-collar labor is just that, a myth fed by drudgery and aspiration.
Several times since the crash of 2008, the plight of interns has made its way into the mainstream media focus in the form of law suits filed by ex-interns, but as yet there has been no legislation that addresses the systematic abuses of this new development.
Forewarned is forearmed, but thus far it is still an uphill struggle. In the meantime, let’s take some solace in the words of an old labor classic: “Work and pray, live on hay…you’ll eat pie in the sky when you die.”