"Less than Zero"—Roger D. Hodge on Intern Nation for Bookforum


Roger D. Hodge, former editor of Harper's and author of The Mendacity of Hope, delves into Ross Perlin's Intern Nation for the Summer 2011 issue of Bookforum. Describing the book as "vigorous and persuasive," Hodge is quick to locate that which most concerns Perlin, namely the state of labor rights in the US and beyond, and the "deeper class logic" inseparable from an internship model which reinforces "the overwhelming bias of our political system in favor of the wealthy." 

The problems Perlin identifies go deeper than the failure of the Wage and Hour Division to do its job. The more fundamental issue, as he argues in his final chapters, is the growing contingency of the global workforce. Over the past decade, a loose coalition of labor activists, chronic interns, immigrants, downsized workers, migrant laborers, artists, and others trapped in temporary work arrangements have begun to define "precarity," the precariousness and insecurity of being without permanent or stable work, as the labor issue of our time ...

As the value of honest work has been steadily diminished in our highly abstract and securitized economy, by far the greatest share of status and wealth has accrued to those in the corporate overclass who perform the least socially useful tasks. Economic inequality today exceeds the extremes of 1929, and job insecurity is worse than at any time since the Great Depression. Interns and their analogues replace secretaries, receptionists, mail clerks, personal assistants, and fact checkers-all of whom now join artists, writers, adjunct professors, substitute teachers, musicians, immigrants, bloggers, and other marginalized inhabitants of a subordinate, involuntary gift economy whose work allegedly deserves little or no monetary compensation.

Acknowledging the journalism and publishing industries as some of the worst offenders ("where almost everyone below age fifty is a former intern"), Hodge doesn't however go into detail on this front, choosing rather to put the spotlight on Washington:

And how does Congress, which employs about six thousand unpaid interns every year, get away with flouting employment law? As it happens, the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 specifically exempted congressional interns from the protection of the FLSA.

No such exemption applies to Washington's vast nonprofit sector, however, where long, unpaid internships are unavoidable if one wishes to make a career serving the public interest. Only those who can afford to work for free need apply. As one of Perlin's many informants tells him, "Nonprofit work is for the rich."

Hodge is unsure about the "Intern Bill of Rights" which Perlin includes at the end of the book ("a bit corny"), but it is a necessary appendix and one which should be circulated widely and pinned to the walls of offices across New York City and beyond—not least those of high profile magazines advertising unpaid internships ...

Visit Bookforum to read Hodge's article in full. To get your own copy of the "Intern Bill of Rights," email verso@versobooks.com.

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