Sunday, March 14, 2010

New Directions (once again) in Greek American Studies (II)

Global Greek Worlds, Immigrant/Ethnic labor, and the Workplace

The experience of the immigrant working class represents a terrain clustered with strain. Literary, ethnographic, and autobiographical portrayals of wage laborers offer accounts of bodies abused, scarred by fatigue; minds numbed, paralyzed by excessive physical labor; senses neutralized, succumbed to survival demands; selves alienated, their labor undervalued; lives sunk in desperation, subjected to exploitation; but also sacrifices translated into mobility; and a constellation of feelings (pride, fulfillment, exhaustion) associated with one’s labor.

Though common among the working–and low middle-class–such experiences are rarely included in elite ethnic narratives, unless to assert the vitality of ideologies such as the American dream. There is a reason that the political and the social establishment skirts away from such narratives of toil. Resentment unleashes virulent critique, directing its wrath to the state and the dominant classes. Just listen to the voices of disgruntled gastarbeiter shaping visceral anger into a vocabulary of accusation and protest [see the documentary «Ελληνική Κοινότητα Χαϊδελβέργης» (1976), by Λευτέρης Ξανθόπουλος,].

The recent academic refocus to class represents a long due corrective to the excessive scholarly attention accorded to culture and identity, as they were played out in relation to gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and race. Critical examination of inequality, workplace injustices, and workers’ subjectivities inevitably engages with globalization, a process shown to often widen the gap between the wealthy and the working poor. While city governments, multinational corporations, professional nomads, cosmopolitan artists as well as star athletes may triumphantly welcome the opening of global markets, globalization may intensify the marginalization, exclusion, impoverishment, and violence directed against vulnerable populations, particularly the poor. If sex trafficking increases in density, sweat shops proliferate, labor is squeezed, people risk their lives to cross borders illegally, and impoverished immigrants become the world’s dishwashers, garbage collectors, janitors and nannies, it is partly because the poor are relentlessly assaulted by the abusive practices of global capital.

We know little about Greek America in relation to workplace, a site that subjects individuals to all kinds of discipline and rewards. We have invested limited attention to the issues that plague the working class today, and the ways in which labor intensification and corporate philosophies shape middle-class lives. Consequently we know little when it comes to the question of how ethnicity articulates with class. Addressing these issues in a worldwide framework presents itself as an obvious research agenda that requires conversation across multiple area and ethnic studies (modern Greek, Greek American, European Greek, Australian Greek, etc.). It is possible to imagine, for instance, a comparative study of Greek immigrant wage laborers in Germany, the United States, and Australia–among other national economies–and further juxtapose these experiences with those of the immigrants in Greece. This research could contribute to activist agendas set to improve working-class lives.

Of course, bitterness and physical exhaustion do not solely apply to the working poor. Aggressive corporate practices work in tandem with financial crises to continue producing an overworked class of professionals, whose measure of mobility is dwarfed by skyrocketing employer profits and the excesses of the market. In metropolises such as New York City, San Francisco, and elsewhere, it is now more difficult for the offspring of immigrants to afford a home than it were for their parents’ generation. The experience of middle-class professional can be also examined through a transnational trajectory, in specific sites: the multinational corporation, the University, and the independent enterprise, among others.

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