Posts Tagged 'Lewis Hyde'

What am I worth? Or, the joys of the gig economy

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money… Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify…. Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms – these are labors.

Work is an intended activity that is achieved through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the ground-work, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labour. Beyond that, labour has its own schedule…

When I speak of a labour, then, I intend to refer to something dictated by the course of a life, rather than by society, something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior, than work.                                                                                                              The Gift, Lewis Hyde

This week, I don’t feel worth very much. A publication I write for has just changed its terms, requiring that I sign over to them all copyright on my stories, forever. In return I get a flat fee which I don’t want to start working out how much it is per hour, because it would be way way lower than the minimum wage in my country. Not to even start factoring in my expenses to get the stories. Or the fact that the latest story I offered them came from a war zone.

What else do I get? I get to write. I get to work with a pretty good and not annoying editor. I get published in a respected publication; I get ‘exposure’, that double-edged thing. People read a story which I think is important. Maybe as a result someone or something changes for the better. Yeah, right…

So do I work, do I write this latest story from a war zone, under those terms? I tried to argue. The editor was sympathetic but – could do nothing. Either you agree to those terms, or – goodbye. And we won’t particularly miss you.

I choose to write, and to try to sell what I write as a freelance journalist. I both love it and hate it. I choose all my subjects myself, only writing about things that interest me or that I think are important. No one sent me to the war zone for this latest story, or forced or persuaded or induced me to spend several days there, with shelling every night, and one moment when I was running for what felt like my life. Some unbelievably lucky circumstances and wonderful people in my life mean I can afford (for the moment) to do this. I’m so much more fortunate than an Uber driver or parcel deliverer or most of the workers of the gig economy struggling to make ends meet while top managers and shareholders are paid more than they could ever, ever need or want. Put like that, can I really complain if a publication wants to pay a small fee in return for total ownership of work I wanted to do?

I could compromise by offering a less good story, with the best bits reserved for the future when I might be able to sell them elsewhere, under better terms. But I don’t want to deliberately write something second rate. Become someone whose writing is second rate. I want this story to be not work but labour, in Lewis Hyde’s sense quoted above. I want the lives of the people there who talked to me, and the risks I took to meet them, to be worth the best I can offer.

After all, even if the rights belong in perpetuity to someone else, the piece will still have my name on it, also (presumably) in perpetuity.

The gig economy works by assuming no one is worth anything, and drives people to indeed do work that is worth less. In that atmosphere, it’s difficult to hold on to a sense of self worth. But some thing have no price. Things like the lives of people in that war zone. Collateral damage, cannon and propaganda fodder – lives that are worth nothing and that are worth everything. A seventeen year old girl dreaming of being a film maker, shooting videos in the cemetery where new graves are dug daily. A woman painting new signs for new war exhibits in a bombed museum. A grandmother planting tulip bulbs to come up next year, carefully digging round unexploded shells shaped like flowers.

No one pays them what these labours are worth. These things have no value in the gig economy. They are labours of love.

mariinka window1

Writing in a war zone – books used to block up windows broken by shelling


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