Call Me Intern: Modern Indentured Servitude

Call Me Intern

Directed by Lee David Hyde and Nathalle Berger (2019)

Film Review

This documentary is about a young Kiwi who takes an unpaid internship with the UN because he can’t find paid work. The main qualification he needs is adequate finance to pay all his housing and food costs (for a year). He decides to make a documentary about his dilemma and moves to Geneva, where he lives in a tent and puts on a suit everyday to put in 8+ hours of unpaid work.

According to Hyde, there has been an explosion in unpaid internships in the past 40 years. At present, 2 1/2 million interns receive no pay for 40-60 hour a week jobs, in the hope that interning will improve their chances of getting paid employment. Research shows it offers little advantage in getting paid work.

Studies show that only 5% of 18-30 year-olds can afford (ie cover their own living costs for a year) to do unpaid internships. It’s a reality that only exacerbates growing wealth inequality.

After he leaks his story to the press, Hyde and the tent he lives in make the front page of the Geneva Tribune. When the story goes global, the UN cites a General Assembly resolution that prevents them from paying interns. This despite a clause in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteeing all workers “the right to just and favorable remuneration.”

The film also documents the equally deplorable experiences of two US interns. The first, a musician, works 12-hour days as an unpaid Warner Brothers intern until he loses his apartment. He fails to qualify for homeless accommodation because the internship makes him ineligible for public assistance. He eventually leads a class action lawsuit on behalf of all Warner Brothers interns.

The second works as an unpaid intern for the Obama campaign until she’s terminated for making a sexual harassment complaint.

The press coverage Hyde received in making his documentary would lead to the formation of the Global Intern Coalition and a Global Intern Strike they organized in February 2017.

Public library members can view the film free on Kanopy. Type Kanopy and the name of your library into your search engine.

The Deplorables: The 400-Year History of the US Working Class

White Trash

Talk by Nancy Isenberg (2015)

Film Review

In this talk about White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America, author Nancy Isenberg begins by exploring British attitudes towards poverty and vagrancy. The latter would heavily influence attitudes towards the landless poor in colonial America.

Prior to colonization, according to Isenberg, British elite viewed the New World as a vast wasteland they could use to construct a giant workhouse for Britain’s landless vagrants.* For several decades, the British government kidnapped vagrants (including street children) off the street, branded them, and involuntarily shipped them to North America as indentured servants.

Adopted by wealthy colonists, these attitudes provided a major impetus for opening the American West to settlement. In the eyes of the founding fathers, the supposedly “empty” lands of the western continent provided an opportunity for Eastern settlements to rid themselves of “human garbage.”

Like the British aristocracy, New World colonists were obsessed with the so-called “idleness” of the landless poor. which they viewed as hereditary. They took their physical appearance (with pervasive malnourishment leading to white hair, and yellow, prematurely shriveled skin) as evidence that their condition was congenital.

In 1790, 70% of Kentuckians were landless poor whites. By the 1850s, 35-40% of the population of most Southern states consisted of landless poor whites.

The 1950s economic boom, which would lead to the rise of the middle class and the myth of America’s classless society. This period would see the rise of trailer parks in most cities, enabling the transformation of “white trash” to “trailer trash.”

Today Reality TV, which Isenberg describes as “white trash voyeurism” is the best known cultural outlet for US working poor.

* Vagrancy was a new phenomenon in the 17th century, brought on by a series of enclosure acts between 1604 and 1814. This would drive hundreds of thousands of peasants off land that had always been held communally.


Class Society and Inequality: Debunking the Myth

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

By Nancy Isenberg

Viking (2016)

Book Review

White Trash is a meticulously documented investigation of the historical roots of class inequality in the US. Despite the warm and fuzzy founding myths all American children are taught in school, the foundation for class inequality was laid during the early colonization of North America. The wealthy English elite who financed the colonies viewed the New World as a giant workhouse for England’s surplus poor (following the Enclosure Acts that drove them off the commons). British vagrants, vagabonds and convicts were both voluntarily and involuntarily transported to North America as apprentices, indentured servants and impressed* seaman. A surprising number of indentured servants, particularly in New England, were teenagers.

Most indentured servants (who functioned as virtual slaves) were promised land on completing their term of servitude. However nearly all went on to lose their land to property speculators and rigged taxation schemes, becoming squatters on the outskirts of established settlements. Comprising at least half of the population of most colonies, they were used by colonial elites as a wedge to encroach on Native American lands – only to be driven off their farms once the land was cleared and planted.

The lifestyle enjoyed by these squatters and their descendants was one of entrenched poverty and malnutrition, as well as hookworm, pellagra and other chronic illnesses associated with malnutrition. The disparaging attitude of wealthy elites and the emerging middle class towards this population clearly debunks ubiquitous corporate media claims about the “classless” nature of US society. Labels applied to them have changed over time, but the most prevalent have included “white trash,” “rednecks,” “mudsills,” and “mudeaters” (mud eating is a common symptom of hookworm). During her recent election campaign, Hillary Clinton referred to them as “deplorables.”

Isenberg reveals that post-World War II industrialization would lead many of these families migrate to northern cities, where they became “trailer trash.”

The wealthy elites have alternated between blaming white trash squatters and their descendants for their miserable circumstances and attributing their problems to genetic aberrations. The latter would lead to the eugenics movement and forced sterilization in the 20th century.

For me the most interesting parts of the book concerned the election of Andrew Jackson, the first “white trash” president, and the effects of slavery and the plantation system in creating a permanent “squatter class.” During his term as President, Jackson was repeatedly mocked by the elite-owned press for his lack of refinement – in much the same way as President-elect Donald Trump.

Isenberg assets that the creation of massive plantations maintained by slave labor created a permanent “squatter class” by driving an unprecedented number of poor white settlers off their land. She also maintains that the secession of seven states (which led to the Civil War) was more about preserving racial and class hierarchies than about preserving states rights. An astonishing number of poor southern whites either fought for the Union side, deserted or participated in food riots to protest shortages stemming from the exclusive dedication of prime agricultural land to cotton (rather than food).

*Impressment refers to the involuntary kidnapping of men, during the 18th and 19th century, into a military or naval force.

Originally published in Dissident Voice

The Origin of the White Race

I’ve just discovered another excellent film series at the  African Element website. This 20 minute clip, Episode 4, is about Bacon’s Rebellion and how the British ruling elite invented race to to confuse poor white’s about their working class status.

Slavery in Black and White
Darius Spearman (2012)

Film Review


Bacon’s Rebellion

The concept of whiteness and race is only about four hundred years old. It originates in preferential race laws that were passed after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The latter consisted of an alliance of poor white settlers, former indentured servants and Africans who drove Governor William Berkeley out of Jamestown (the capital of colonial Virginia) and burnt it to the ground. A similar rebellion occurred in the Maryland colony around the same time.

Prior to the discovery of the New World, enslavement occurred exclusively in the context of war and military conquest. Ireland was the first plantation colony. During the fifteenth and sixteenth century, large numbers of Irish peasants were driven off their farms as the aristocracy converted them to sheep pasture. With no means of support, landless Irish peasants migrated to London, where they provided for themselves through begging, casual labor and petty crime.

Large numbers ended up in prison. They could win their release by agreeing to a seven to eleven year period of indentured servitude in the American colonies. There they commingled with African indentured servants, who enjoyed equally atrocious living and working conditions.

Classic Divide and Rule

Following Bacon’s rebellion, the Virginia colony sought to drive a wedge between poor blacks and whites by passing a series of laws awarding European indentured servants specific privileges. Among others, this included 50 acres of land (on their release) and the ability to testify in court and enter into contracts.

Simultaneously the legal status of African indentured servants also changed, with the passage of Slave Code laws in Virginia and other colonies. These laws enabled masters the right to claim Africans and their offspring as permanent chattel slaves or property. The legal justification was that Africans weren’t English and didn’t enjoy the protections of English common law.

It was a classic example of divide and rule. Convinced of their innate superiority over Africans, poor white settlers shunned any associate with them, making any cross-racial collaboration (against the British aristocracy) highly improbable.