Four years ago, toward the end of the summer of 2016, I founded an online magazine with a group of writer friends. There were five of us: four men and one woman. Our lone female senior editor was a feminist. Very soon after we got going, she pointed out, in a straightforward manner that felt blunt at the time, that the overwhelming majority of our bylines were male. We were being flooded with submissions by young men. Very few women were pitching ideas.
Well, our lone female senior editor said, something must be done. It’s embarrassing, and it doesn’t make sense. I felt challenged and implicated by this, but also intrigued by the possibility it opened up. One day I suggested a straightforward concept: 50 percent of our articles should be written by women.
“But what about quality?” someone asked. Yeah, what about it? The pitches by men and the pieces by men had contributed to a particular notion of quality that ended up feeling like a closed system: it was quality because it resembled everything that came before it. And it was also clear that men were “hustling” more than women, sending out their pitches to all the magazines, writing all over the place, following up incessantly. Thanks to my colleague’s interventions, I began to see that by publishing these men what we were doing, above all, was stressing the importance of effort and continuity. Now, though, I had lost my notion of what I wanted from my work, from the magazine. Talking to my colleague, a part of me felt like I was in the process of being deprogrammed. Another part felt blindly ideological, languid and violent, naked. Was the 50/50 concept a real transformation, or just a way to disentangle myself from my colleague’s provocations?
In any case, we put the idea into effect, and for me the consequence was unambiguous. My reading changed. I found myself less impressed than usual by the pieces the young men were submitting. Their work, it seemed to me now, followed a template. The young men usually weren’t expressing themselves in their writing, or working through their past, or channeling their idiosyncrasies. I couldn’t come up with any actually personal reasons for why they needed to write about a particular topic. Their biography didn’t register in their work at all, except insofar as they were now defined by their prickly passion for writing and for expressing their opinions about everything. The young men wanted to show off their tags and nods and references. They made sure we knew they had read enough of the important books, from David Foster Wallace to J.G. Ballard. The young men owned a lot of Verso titles but hadn’t read Rousseau, or Tolstoy, or Woolf. They worked very hard to strike a balance between literariness, hipster distance, and engagé energy, angling to show that they belonged to the median of the scenes they all admired. The young men didn’t seem to have personal taste. They were quoting stuff that everybody else was quoting, but they made sure to underscore the fact that their interests were quirky. It was still worth publishing the best of them—we didn’t need to lose that flavor altogether. But we didn’t need the whole army.
It was hard to persuade many good women writers to be regular contributors. I was used to the way a young man would inexorably occupy any space you’d let him into. But when we liked the voice, the mind, and the style of a woman writer, she would resist our requests. Some of the best of these writers didn’t consider themselves “authors” at all—you’d talk to them for hours before you happened to extract from them the fact that they were writing a novel, or an essay, or a memoir. As they saw it, the only people who considered themselves authors were smug and entitled. The most interesting and the most daring of these writers were wary of our ways, the men’s ways—they wanted no part of the hustle. I disagreed with this and would tell them we wanted them to claim the scene. I’d tell them that if they’d been male writers, they wouldn’t have said whatever it was they’d just said in conversation—they would have hoarded their own ideas and pitched them for a piece.
The big publishing statue we realized we were trying to bring down was the myth of the proactive young male writer pushing the envelope.
On the phone with these young women writers whom we were begging to write for us, I was beginning to feel an emotion that would, in time, become a central element of my intellectual life. These unentitled, pissed-off, reluctant women were taking me to a place where I could fight a ghost I’d been wanting to fight for as long as I could remember.
The conversations with women editors and writers grew in number and scope and now occupy most of my intellectual space. And they still feel threatening to me. I love feeling in my bones that the women editors and writers I work with may be accomplices, but that we’re not buddies, because I am a part of their problem. I run the magazine. I am a man with a certain amount of power, and I am not ceding that power. If there’s something I get wrong in this piece, one of them may shred me to pieces. Or, she might end up with my power.
I’ve been thinking about the word “simp.” The definition that interests me refers to a man whose involvement in the women’s struggle smells fishy. What the suspicion says is that there’s a chip somewhere inside us that orders men to work for the patriarchy, no matter our stated intentions. The work is often contorted, but the beneficiary remains the same. This suspicion strikes me as legitimate, and it leaves me ever wary of my intentions. But at the same time, I know that I want to let my country down. I want to let it down even though I’ll never belong to the country I’m betraying it for. I feed off this ugly feeling of not belonging.
Every time I start shooting at that thing, the thing that looks like me, the skull, the ghost, there’s that exhilaration—I don’t feel humble, I don’t feel right, but I do feel that my punches are hitting the invisible thing that I’ve hated all my life.
On the phone with these people I go out of my way to make fun of the young male authors’ pitches and essays. “See? they all sound the same. They’re an army.”
Is this a power trip? Even if it’s not, even if it’s healthy and justified to talk to women writers dismissively about the work of their male peers, the dynamic is still steeped in power, a power I’m trying not to lose. [This is the comment Marco Roth wrote here while editing this piece: Can you say more in this paragraph? How come you don’t feel that you’re selling out e.g. the younger version of yourself to the older established man you are now in the name of “feminism,” but not really . . . How doesn’t this make you feel inexpressibly shitty?? This is the paragraph I have the hardest time accepting, because it just reeks of complacency. Like everything you write here reads to me like a humble brag, although I know you’re not doing that. It’s too quick. I mean you acknowledge the problem, but what do you actually hope to gain or obtain by holding onto your power under these circumstances? What did it give you? What does it give you? Maybe the way you still “serve the patriarchy” is by having this fantasy of being “the last man standing,” because this will also prove to you something about your own “merit” and “worth” like you’re still around because you’re the best of the male writers out there . . . You’re thinning the herd and acting to winnow out younger competitors, just like any aging Alpha male under, you guessed it, patriarchy, or natural selection . . . which we know, in its Darwinist description, is a reification of patriarchal codes . . . Are you really going to leave it with “I want to hold on to my power” and let the reader congratulate you on this realization??]
Most of the battles I ended up fighting at the magazine I fought alongside a young woman editor who became a strong presence there, along with a new female senior editor who started after the first editor left. This young colleague started out mistreated by two of the senior editors. She survived being cast in the subliminal role of the secretary at a place that didn’t need one and became the managing editor. She has a mind made for war. What do we do on the phone? We plot. We make plans like we’re the bad guys in a comic book. We’re ruthless people with sinister laughs. Let’s carve out more space for that writer, we say, she might be good. Yeah, but there’s a piece we haven’t published yet that we should kill. It has to be thrown into the river after dark. Can you do that?
The bildungsroman of my life is all about being bullied. I remember the moment I consciously decided to befriend the three people in the boy scout troop who were bullying me and talking shit about me behind my back. I succeeded, and we became friends. Fuck you, guys. Fuck you. Best man at my wedding? Fuck off. Smash adolescence. Put adolescence on a rocket and send it somewhere else, where it’s safe from all that. Fuck you.
We’re laughing behind doors, and we’re scheming. Much of the work is dirty and is based on the energy, the shock, and the frenzy that comes from the plotting. When I talk to my young colleague, I feel we’re brothers for life.
We rarely get to 50/50. There are still way fewer pitches by women, but at least we’ve phased out most of the pitches by men. And we have a list of writers that, in our heart, is what makes the magazine. We tell them: your writing is 20 percent of our magazine’s style, please write more often!
The emergency will end and the ability to see things clearly thanks to the current stark contrast will fade. Italy has bought a vaccine from the UK in bulk and, if the company confirms its early success, they say the product will come to fruition at the end of the year. That may mark the end of my diary, of this time of breakdown and reflection.
The reason I had this story in mind is because of a statement the Ringer Union released in June. “Diversity in the newsroom,” the union’s members wrote, “is essential to covering police brutality and systemic racism, including in the worlds of sports and pop culture. The Ringer has a lot of work to do.” Here it’s a question of numbers, too. “In 2019, 86 percent of the speakers on The Ringer Podcast Network were white. We have zero black editors. We have zero black writers assigned full time to the NBA or NFL beats.” The statement ends with the most reasonable declaration: “Our union is currently bargaining for practices to improve our diversity and inclusion.”
I fear that the way the message concludes ends up clouding what this whole thing is all about. Bureaucratic, corporate jargon is the instrument capitalism uses to swamp every movement, to rein in history itself. In this case, the same brand of robotic reasonableness is deployed in order to promote change. Who wins in this case? The real owner of the jargon, or the union that is trying to leverage it to create the opposite effect?
The answer depends on whether the number of jobs at The Ringer is finite. The union could say: “We have too many white editors. Seven of them must go.” What if Bill Simmons found a legal way to let the right amount of white editors go and hired new people? What if he did that, and six months later he went on his podcast, and said, in his enthusiastic, chewy voice, “Turns out, it’s so much better! Should have done it years ago! Uh! We had so much white content, it was all alike! Ugh! Now our content has so much more variety, it’s fantastic!”
The drony, robotic, “objective” tone of the last sentence in the union’s statement can make one forget that history is how many people eat and how many people get a menu to pick from. Every time this kind of stuff becomes abstract it’s just us middle-class men concealing our fears of becoming obsolete, or even of just being kicked out of our office. We’re postponing the realization: Oh shit, that’s me, I am holding their job hostage.
I don’t think all this is ultimately about Bill Simmons, who is very good at his job. It’s about the army of the white middle-class men we constitute. It’s about our staying power.
Here is a case study: I am a part of the Italian cultural establishment. Here is my resumé: the online magazine I edit is published by the 100-year-old Enciclopedia Treccani; I am on the editorial board of the biggest literary fair in Italy; for the past decade my novels have been published by the biggest conglomerate in Italy; I review fiction for one of the big papers here. I have no fig leaf with which to cover this obscenity. My father would have called me an underachiever if I hadn’t put my hands in all of this. I was always competing with my cousin, who is very smart. He’s an engineer.
There is no merit in anything I’ve achieved in my life. You may think I earned it, or some of it, but in fact all the right answers were written in code that I could decipher and others couldn’t. My contribution to my achievements was a degree of stamina and smarts (two things closeted Christians continue to worship to a fault), both of which I received fully formed when I was born. (I guess Winnicott would argue that I actually received them a little later, when I realized my mother wasn’t happy about having had me.) It’s just impossible to imagine that I possess some additional qualities attributable to something external to what nature and society gave me. Poetry? Honesty? Even if these are external, they are their own reward and sure as hell don’t make me “deserve” my house or my stuff.
Our class is a scam.
There is no merit in success. Until we destroy the impression of merit in people’s success, every discussion will be muffled by fascination—by the apparently objective, natural, collective fascination with success and successful people. This already happened with aristocrats. At some point in the 20th century they lost the bulk of their ability to impress. It should happen to us, too. We must lose our allure. [Marco Roth: Umm, OK, but how do we square this with women being allowed access, all of a sudden, to this glittering world of fake merit and achievements? Isn’t their argument that they achieved all these things they now have because of their MERITS, the plotting, the hard work, the grift, and finally that the system is no longer rigged against them and is just being made to work, however heavy-handedly and artificially in their favor, they can show their true merits and rise? Aren’t you doing the trick where you pull up the ladder of merit by denying it exists at the moment that you extend it down to those who are eager to enter that very game?] [My reply: People who are underrepresented feel unsafe. That’s, I think, the reason why they want to get into positions of power. The reason why we talk about merit and hard work is that that is what is asked of the underdogs. People who climb the ladder have to show they deserve the power. We torture them by asking them to show they deserve it. Whereas I just have it because I talk a certain way. So they have to call it merit and hard work, but they just want to get there. I don’t believe in merit, I think it’s the biggest scam, but I’m not lecturing people who want to try out forms of access and power they were previously denied—I’m sorry, maybe I am doing something weird with the ladder. Living during such a change of paradigm is so hard. I don’t believe in anything I do anymore. I want to be a part of what is happening. My voice is not a voice anymore.] [Marco Roth after reading this reply in the revised version: I love this answer, but also something very, very interesting has now happened to this writing. Your voice, which is not a voice anymore, has stretched to allow other voices in to speak as themselves, or at least as the persona of “the editor.” Yet there’s this structuring consciousness, a gesture of next-level nofucksgiving on your part that I salute and also want to collude with! At the same time, a true abyss has opened here . . . Just like power, above, authorship is something not easily relinquished. Your move to include me is also a move to assert authorship while giving it away. “If you strike me down with your edits, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine!” This is why changing and abolishing structures is so hard and messy. Which one of us puts a temporary end to this unending text, this unending conversation? We end up in this weird “loser wins” place in which both of us race to declare that we don’t really care who decides, but ultimately something decides, even if it’s just form itself or convention or fear-based animal territory markings. “Francesco, I could get fired for this! So let me try to get some kind of word in.” And then suddenly the editor-author relationship is laid bare and vulnerable and everyone reading this can or should be able to understand that inevitably comes the moment of power. That both you and I are at a point in our lives where we can choose to experiment in this way, within a text, is, let’s admit it, thanks to patriarchy, but also patriarchy is what might have once inhibited us from trying this. Depending on who reads this and how and where, what we’re doing will either seem like unbearable showing off or itself a kind of test run for a post-authorship, post-masculinist authorship/editorship. Both of these would be valid readings . . . which is just a sign that we’re not out of the woods yet, or at least that the desire to transcend patriarchy at the level of an essay is just a desire and not a fulfillment. The same with the problem of authorship. Apart from being depressed, this is one of the factors in DFW’s suicide. As much as he wanted to be the next author in a line of authors to end authorship, he realized it was impossible.]
Why do we value success so much? It’s a trick our class came up with to save itself. Cousins are not cousins: they are two people, one of whom has better grades than the other, one of whom plays electric guitar better than the other, one of whom is more gifted at collecting rocks. The relentless competition leads to a place where those who succeed feel that they deserve the success, and neither they or anyone else can afford to stop working and take a look around.
The white cooks from Bon Appetit’s “test kitchen,” whose work I stumbled upon on YouTube during the lockdown while looking for recipes, couldn’t focus on the fact that some of their colleagues, who were not white, were not being paid for the video appearances—the white cooks were obsessing over their work, as is evident in an episode where one of them recreates a Choco Taco from scratch. Perfectly functional, task-based involuntary racism. Hyperobject-racism, a well-oiled organism with its own plans. That’s how you beat the other classes and races. Look at the white Bon Appetit cook losing it when a recipe fails—they’re afraid, they’re scared, it’s tunnel vision.
[Marco Roth: I really don’t understand how the following section fits into the above . . . It’s about precarity and scarcity, but not at all about gender parity and equality as abstract goods . . . in both the above cases you’re talking about rearranging the order of merit, then you deny merit, problematically—see my comment above—and now you swerve into pure class politics through the very fine-grained voice of union person (is this person a woman? That fact might be significant and also help you tie this section to the two above!). On the one hand, this section is the strongest descriptively in the piece, so far: we have specifics, we have numbers, we have an entire social theory . . . On the other hand, it’s just right now sort of sitting here and raises a ton of questions . . . Like what’s the relationship between the greed of the hotel owners to the sexism and racism of the cultural sectors? Can you say how they’re connected? I know you’re just asking the reader to put a lot of this together but it’s sort of too fragmentary and seemingly contradictory. You’re kind of copping out by dumping a lot of this on the reader with the idea that we should “work it for ourselves.” If you’re not exactly sure about the relations of these things to each other, feel free to say so, if you’re in the midst of the struggle to connect the holy trinity of race, class, and gender in the Italian context, let’s have a little of that on the page. Is this asking too much?] [FP: Your notes are helping a lot, Marco. They let me gauge the desperation in my piece. I’m writing about sexism, racism, and classism from the perspective of a person who is in power. The first part is about the dark fun I’ve had plotting with my colleague, and you called me out on that. Some friend recently called me an “Omega male,” something along the lines of “you’re not alpha, you want to end males.” If your accusation is true, it’s true. If it’s not, it’s not. See? I’m not a voice anymore—I’ll now address the question of what connects the three parts of the piece. And I’ll do it in the note and not in the piece because this is an ugly piece and if I made it less ugly it would mean putting spice on the rotten meat it’s made of. The piece is about the oscuro fascino of the practice of power at work. The businessmen in the following chapter are riffing off our deepest beliefs about what making money is. They’re exploiting the fact that most of us believe businessmen deserve to make money. What made the white BA cooks ignore the non-white cooks—that nasty, obtuse force—is another case of playing tricks at work to frame your situation in a convenient way. The tricks my colleague and I play at work are the kind of lawless hustling you do when you’re not sure what your position in a hierarchy is anymore but you want to prevail. I’ve tried to write about what power looks like to me, at a moment in my life when nothing makes sense to me. If I could make a linear case for what I need to say here, it would either be content, or it would mean that the times are not really disorienting after all. I am lost. I was raised to become a responsible adult. Some people think that when you find out that a certain version of responsible adulthood doesn’t make sense it’s your duty to find a version that does, and pursue it. I don’t.]
I recently spoke to my friend who’s a labor organizer in Rome. We discussed government intervention, and what has and hasn’t been stolen by the bosses, since the pandemic began. It’s yet another version of the same dirty war I’ve written about in this dispatch. The following is an edited transcript of what my friend told me.
We’ve been busy with health and safety issues, with trying to figure out how businesses are supposed to shut down and reopen. Big businesses, small businesses, it’s the same difference. I work with the tourism sector, commerce, contractors. There was a complete shutdown for tourism. Hotels. Hotels four stars and over, they shut down overnight. Da Vinci Airport, Ciampino Airport, the international flights shut down. Sixty to seventy percent of the tourism sector is international tourism. It was a disaster! These facilities are now reopening with 10 percent of personnel and 10 percent of their usual reservations. Beni culturali, museums and the rest, shut down. The travel agencies. The pessimists think that complete recovery will only come by 2023.
You can’t ask the government to deal with a crisis that’s been going on for two decades and solve it in four months. This crisis is predicated on jobs, on their poor quality, on their insecurity. Right now there are millions of workers who haven’t received their cassa integrazione, their recovery fund money, since March, when the government launched the mass recovery fund program. That’s outrageous! People who live off their salaries, who pay rent and have children they have to take care of, they’ve gotten poorer.
The way things are now, you’re only building an army of poor people that you then have to give assistance to, because you can’t afford not to. And you can’t have a society like that. Many people are only finding out now how leaky the system is. We’ve been calling out the state of things for years.
Confindustria, the General Confederation of Italian Industry, got a new president recently. His new big idea is the old small idea. He says, government, give the money to us! Give us money, and by the way please make sure we don’t have to repay it. We’ll take care of society, we’ll cater to it! That’s the extent of his solution to an unprecedented crisis.
That, idea, that recipe? It’s a scam. The notion that big business gives jobs to society, that it helps society? We know it’s a hoax. We’re trapped in a situation we’ve been able to think our way out of for a long time.
So what does Confindustria want to do? Revise all the collective bargaining agreements, beginning with contractors who work in hospitals, since their contract expired seven years ago. We have to end collective bargaining agreements, full stop, that’s what the president of Confindustria is saying: The government should facilitate the sort of loyal and crucial conversation inside every business so that shifts, work hours and days and weeks can be defined in 2020 on a case-by-case basis, depending on the business and branch, beyond what the contracts state. We know what that means.
The collective bargaining agreements are crucial, because then you have the same contracts in Milan and Catania, so you can’t mess up the whole country all at once. If you then get accompanying contracts, that’s fantastic, but the national contracts are the foundation. But what he said in an interview recently was: we must question the collective agreements, because they may be too much of a burden on us.
So these days my job is to develop agreements on social safety nets on a case by case basis. The government has OK’d every request that was made to the recovery fund, but evidently some owners who didn’t need the money signed up for it anyway and let the government pay for their own employees . . . And then the second round was also unsupervised. There are some entrepreneurs who advanced the money to their workers, of course. But basically the people who aren’t getting their recovery fund money are only in that situation because the owners aren’t passing along the money to the workers that can’t work because of the lockdown. Even though they can get it reimbursed by the government!
So there’s two scenarios. Some of the businesses didn’t advance the money because they were already in dire straits. Which makes you think about how stretched thin some businesses must be. And then there are others who didn’t advance the money because they didn’t want to.
How did we get here? Here’s an example: take a family-owned five-star “grand hotel” in Rome. Fifteen years of full occupancy, with suites for Arab princes at two thousand Euros a night . . . The workers at these hotels have always gotten 1,000, 1,200, 1,300 euros a month. You have a collective bargaining agreement for the tourism sector, though there are also seasonal workers with no safety net at all. OK? So, until a number of years ago the hotel used to hire these people. Single owner, family ownership, a company, a chain, whatever, they all hired their employees. Over time, they’ve started to outsource some of the services. So the bellboy, the night watchman, the people at the front desk, the janitors, now they’re all contractors. The workers are no longer hotel employees, they now work for the company the hotel has contracted with.
When that first contract expires—that’s every two to three years—there’s a new agreement and, if a new company wins the contract for less money, then you go to the other company and say to them I’ve been working here for years, will you hire me? There’s something called the clausola sociale. Since you’re coming off a steady job, a fixed-term contract, you can put that clause in the first outsourced contract, so you obligate the contractors to hire the former employees. But then, with every new expiration we have to try and convince a new contractor to include a new clausola sociale in their contract.
So basically when you’re outsourced you risk being laid off in two years, as soon as another contractor wins the contract and mixes things up—because, you know, usually they won the contract by going for less money. Here in Rome we have a specific contract for tourism where you can keep your job, but in other industries you have to fight all the time to get job security. The owners are constantly trying to jeopardize it.
In Rome the hotels had fifteen to twenty years of fantastic business, but now every owner is complaining they’re at the end of their rope. So I wonder, where did you all put the money? You made money. Has none of it stayed in your business for when you need it? Have you already spent it all on dividends and bonuses for yourselves? Three months into the bad times and you’re risking bankruptcy, after getting wonderfully rich for two decades . . .This drives me crazy! The entrepreneurial fabric is being stretched so thin all the time. Turns out, everybody is living off bank loans.
My guess is they distributed that money to themselves, and the minute they have to use some company money for their workers, say for advancing the recovery fund money, there’s none of it left. Not all of them, of course, I know many people who try to do the right thing, but it’s a system that is based on greed.
Take FCA, Fiat Chrysler. The government gives FCA 6.3 billion. But FCA is paying taxes in tax havens, and they’re based in the Netherlands. There’s so little they give back or “trickle down.” But the governments have no bargaining power. The big companies give so little back. Their decisions affect thousands of people, so the government has to heed their calls.
You’re not giving me money? I’m leaving the country. Enjoy your recession.
Or the opposite: you have a recession, I hire four thousand people on ugly contracts. It’s still something! It’s not easy to say no to FCA. It’s not easy to say go fuck yourself.
The business people tell us, “it’s you who’s hindering economic growth!”
Then people who are doing badly will need loans. The fear is that the mobs will make a comeback. People are turning to loan sharks. There have been mob shootings on the Ostia beachfront again. When people are desperate they don’t go to a bank for money.
I’m not saying we have evidence that the owners hide their money. But I see this kind of shit everyday, I’m used to it. They’re giving people the crumbs.
We have this young employee at the union, she’s new. When the recovery fund money arrives, we have three days to strike an agreement on the conditions of its distribution. If you don’t find an agreement with the employers on how the fund money will be spent, they can play it any way they like. So we have these three days for consultation, when we have time to ask for the owner to advance the government’s money. And it’s a way to establish a rapport with new workers. So. Whenever I get an announcement about the recover fund money via certified mail, I have an automatic reply set up that says we’re interested. I forward the email to my team. The other day I call this young colleague and tell her, Let’s try and get the advance money from the owner, let’s write a memo, too.
Now, since a lot of types of businesses don’t have their own go-to social safety nets (due to some law from the ’90s that focused on safety nets for factories and not much else), many “non-industrial” outfits are not used to these kinds of conversations. Now these different safety net devices are slowly forming, and some owners are really put off by them. These owners tend to feel that they own their workers because they feed them. So this owner was pissed because the memo stated that the union was asking for different conditions than what he’d proposed. Because we’re bargaining. You know, when we enter new places we try to figure out where we’ve landed and what we can do. This place wasn’t unionized, so he was caught off guard by having to bargain. An agreement hadn’t been found, but we still had to send the memo that was evidence we had had the proper talks.
So she comes back all flustered and tells me that they had been discussing the advance money and the memo on a video call when, suddenly, the owner flipped and told her:
“You know what I’m gonna do now? Since you union people are evidently clueless about every fucking thing in the world and keep coming over to beg for money, you know what I’m gonna do with the memo you’re sending me by email? I’ll print it, I’ll rip it up, and I’ll use it to clean my ass!”
June 20, 2020