Ovarian Cycle Syndrome and Women’s Health Choices

What is it about women and their health that begins with pregnancy and ends with menopause? I am talking discourse about as well as medical interest in. Why the overwhelmingly general disregard towards the rest, particularly regarding ovulation/menstruation related hormonal fluctuations and their impact (severe in some cases) on many women’s overall health and well-being? It seems that the answer lies somewhere amidst general disdainful attitudes to women, over-medicalization of anything concerning women’s reproductive organs and further patriarchal constructions of women’s role, as in that of child bearer. Perhaps the societal leaning towards “having it all” (home, family, career) lifestyle plays a part also, no one wants to admit weaknesses, particularly those so out of your control as hormonal induced physical and mental craziness. Accordingly women’s health is constructed within a focused interest on the beginning and end of birth ability. Why does general discussion on such important matters not consider the effects that constant hormonal changes have on women, from the time of first hormonal changes leading towards the beginning of menstruation until the end of their lives? There are plenty more living years available to most women post-birthing ability! Even amidst valuable activism concerned with reproductive rights (Big up the @freesafelegal campaign) and menstruation (Big up the excellent re: Cycling blog) there is a bit of a shying away from acknowledging the very large part that hormones have to play in dictating how women’s lives run. Arguments over reproductive rights correctly centre on the natal/foetal end of the spectrum, it is important to stay on message there while malevolent forces try their damnedest to remove choice from women over what happens in their own bodies. Nevertheless, the effects of hormones could be a very important part of this debate; consideration of women’s well-being regarding unwanted pregnancies also needs to raise awareness of the hormonal shit-storm that is involved in terminating or continuing a pregnancy. Hormonal changes in this instance can be so powerful that it really should be understood that a decision to terminate a pregnancy is not one anyone takes lightly. The effects do not just end the moment the invading foetus is removed, but still have all the potential to radically alter a woman’s hormonal landscape and in turn her general well-being, quite possibly for the rest of her life.

I have spent many years trying to get to the bottom of my own health problems related to my ovarian cycle and menstrual issues. I have spent €1000s on GP bills, consultant fees, transport costs to visit various clinics, and nonsensical vitamin/herbal supplements. The outcome of which is that I have given up on trying to get help and just accepted my lot. I treat my symptoms when they are unbearable, antihistamines for itching/prickling, paracetemol/ibuprofen when I cannot handle the pain anymore. I suffer the insomnia and catch up on sleep when I enter the other end of the sleep disorder spectrum. I have accepted that most days I will feel somewhat like shit, and am happy when symptoms are not so intrusive that I can successfully ignore them for the day. Tragic really isn’t it? But this is the crux of the issue, at 37 and choosing not to breed now (having already gifted the world my superb progeny 17 years ago), I am of no interest to the “women’s health” medical world. Unless I want to buy in to alternative women’s health world and do the supplements thing or start eliminating foods from my diet, “eat clean” and so on. That is just snake oil rubbish in my opinion.

During my years of research on this topic I have come across one example of a Doctor (in London) who seems to take women’s hormonal problems seriously to some extent, Professor John Studd. He believes that “the term Ovarian Cycle Syndrome should be used to include all of the cyclical, physical and emotional symptoms that occur monthly following ovulation and that this name should replace PMS or PMDD”. His clinic is focused on gynaecological endocrinology. I once considered if I could afford to go see him at one stage, but the combination of prohibitive fees and my worry/scepticism regarding how many visits would be required put me off. Having to travel to another city in another country to try getting the right help did not seem like a very sensible or helpful way to try combat health problems which cause you additional stress. I am yet to find a medical professional who views women’s health similarly here in Ireland. Thus I remain unwell.

The general medical world does not concern itself with women who are not birthing, dying or ending their ability to birth. Understanding of women’s health centres on Birth, Abortion, Women specific Cancers and the Menopause. Consideration of the havoc that hormones play with women’s general wellbeing is not as popular field of medicine so it seems. There is plenty of outside interest in women’s health and well-being if it relates to the birthing ability/status of a woman. Meanwhile there is little interest in the mental and physical health status of a woman trapped in a prison of wildly oscillating hormones. It begs the question why do we not have a society which recognises that because women are genetically organised to give birth that that goes hand in hand with a complex hormonal structure which can often disrupt the bearers everyday lives. Why can’t we be more understanding of how extreme that can be for many people and thus be more kind, whether we are medical professionals, peers, colleagues, family members or friends? Why are menstruators not encouraged to be vocal about their on-going adventures in menstruation? Why is the cyclical nature of the ovarian cycle not widely recognised? I have always tried to be a menstrual activist; long before my ovarian cycle began to qualitatively disrupt my life so much, I was always vocal about menstruating. I had no shame in openly discussing my menstrual travails with school peers, both male and female; I felt it was important that I did not hide something that I was primed to experience for at least 30 years of my life. Now that I have been forced to understand the wider cyclical nature of the whole female hormonal experience I believe it is necessary to start advocating for ovarian cycle activism. It is important for all women’s rights activists to appreciate this and integrate ideas surrounding the cycle in to the broader discourse. Let’s recognise and understand the intertwined nature of the ovarian cycle with other issues that affect women directly and respond with empathy.

My Menstrual Life Story

My menstrual life story: the early years were dominated by pretty typical menstrual related events: a little depression, cramps, some (uncontrollable at times) mood swings. Pretty much what the esteemed journal Viz refers to as a blob strop, with pain.


I became pregnant at 19, and contrary to my beliefs, on choice etc., I chose to continue with the pregnancy. Ever since, my hormones have entirely altered, tending to affect my health more obviously and in increasingly negative ways ever since, extremely so since I entered my 30s. While often having been diagnosed as on the cusp of anaemia, during pregnancy the (parasite) baby took all of my iron for himself leaving me with a pretty full-on iron deficiency that resulted in a number of dangerous dizzy/fainting episodes where I also couldn’t see properly! Thankfully, that regulated itself within a few weeks of him being born, (I assume I was taking iron supplements too?), then a myriad of new and unusual symptoms began to plague me, accruing over time. I began to get small nasty eczema patches on my hands. I had previously been a minor allergy sufferer, a few bouts of hayfever, and a tendency to get sinus headaches/infections at the tail end of a bad cold the odd time mostly. Now I was suddenly afflicted with hand eczema (which lasted for a number of months then receded to  more of a winter thing, reaction to weather & heating most likely) and also started to get regular bad sinus infections. Trips to the doctor (free at that time as I was entitled to a medical card) confirmed that it is not unusual to suffer bad bouts of sinusitis and infections in your mid to late twenties but the GP did not elaborate further as to whether this was hormonal fluctuation related or not.

As time wore on my emotional/psychological symptoms began to increase, I found myself having increasingly uncontrollable bouts of rage mixed with bouts of miserable depression so I embarked on the roulette game of going on the pill. Going on the pill is a bit like taking medication for depression or other mental illnesses, no medical professional actually knows what one will “suit you” thus they just prescribe three month cycles of different ones to see how you react with them. It’s a tad scary, particularly when you are in the throes of strong emotional and psychological reactions to your hormonal trouble. My experiences of the Pill all ended in negativity, some began with positive effects but my symptoms would always eventually return and when they did stronger than ever before. The side effects from the pill were many and varied; from borderline homicidal rages to terribly sore breasts, to nausea, misery and many more.

Further health developments occurred after I moved house, began attending college as a mature student and was juggling childcare, housekeeping, study, work and commuting which was all very tiring. When summer came about after my 1st year in college I developed a strange illness manifested as stiff joints, particularly on waking in the morning, but also persisting throughout the day. I was in quite a bit of discomfort and felt generally unwell. The GP could not get to the bottom of what this was; I was prescribed a series of anti-inflammatory drugs, each of which caused nausea and did not really relieve the symptoms. I was tested for arthritis, results came back clear. I never received an actual diagnosis thus I can’t say whether this was a purely female hormonal issue, or more of a stress hormonal issue, or perhaps a combination of both. Significantly for me, it does mark a trajectory towards further ill health which is of a more obviously hormonal and ovarian cycle origin.

The following autumn/winter I developed a minor skin condition on my face. a couple of small patches of tiny little spots or pimples, sometimes itchy or sore , but mostly just unpleasant to look at from my perspective. In despair following some misdiagnosis and prescription of incorrect treatment, I ended up paying to attend a private dermatologist who diagnosed it as a small bout of adult acne. No explanation as to why it came on was offered, I was prescribed a long course of antibiotics (with strong side effects so I didn’t complete the course) followed by Zindaclin gel which cleared it all up efficiently. After this I continued to struggle with the more familiar but getting increasingly worse symptoms of anger issues, mood swings, depression and now intensifying additional physical pains.

Some years later things intensified, I was under stress anyway, I was about a year through reading for my PhD, and now in my 30s. However, nothing prepared me for the onslaught of troubling pains/other symptoms that came upon me and have only worsened since. For several months I was experiencing pains in my side, quite intense and unpleasant usually coming in conjunction with headaches, back, muscle and joint ache and sleep disorder. Since aches and sleep disorders were symptoms I was used to living with at this stage, the side pain definitely got my attention. Nevertheless I put up with the pain, and ensuing disruption from it, for a considerable length of time. Eventually I mentioned it to a friend who suggested it might be ovulation related. I had never considered that before so started to keep a record of when I experienced the side pain, lo and behold it transpired that it happened around about ovulation time every cycle. So I returned to the GP. The sympathetic female GP at the practice at the time was from the helpful school of belief that PMS and “women’s problems” do not exist. It took some convincing to get her to believe that I was genuinely suffering; she eventually agreed to refer me for a pelvic ultrasound and a visit to a consultant gynaecologist. The pelvic ultrasound did not identify any issues. The gynaecologist also lacked in empathy and bedside manner. He prescribed a course (3 months) of progesterone called Duphaston and sent me away again. I had an adverse reaction to the progesterone, I got excruciating breast pain, continued to get pains in my side around day 10-12 despite the hormones supposedly stopping ovulation and got bleakly depressed. After experiencing some incredibly dark depression veering into suicidal ideation territory, I stopped taking the pills. When I returned to the gynaecologist, some months later, he was dismissive of my reactions to the hormones and suggested there was nothing wrong with me. He informed me there was nothing else he could do and suggested I go get acupuncture. [Incidentally I had undergone acupuncture, alongside a course of “Chinese herbs”, some years earlier, for my sinusitis predominantly. However, after they did a full medical history with me they were also treating me for my menstrual/ovarian cycle issues. It did not help! Needles are not for me, I got no relief whatsoever from it, just discomfort and annoyance.] I told the gynaecologist about my previous unhelpful acupuncture experiences but he was done with me. So I continued to suffer, taking various concoctions of herbal supplements (as I had done in every intermittent period between doctor visits and desperation) none of which ever provided any change in my circumstances. Over the years I have played with Agnus Castus, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B Complex, Starflower Oil, Evening primrose Oil, Spirulina, Calcium, Magnesium, Vitamin D, Zinc, in varying doses and combinations, to no avail.

After some extensive research as to where I could find a medical professional to take me seriously, I came across a GP in Goatstown who specialised in using a combination of standard medical practice with functional medicine. He charged a fee of €195 for 1st visit, followed by €180 per visit thereafter, to consult on complex/ unexplained illnesses. While my gut instinct screamed charlatan, my desperation drove me to seek out an appointment just to see if a different approach might get me some results? It was certainly a more pleasant doctor visit experience insofar as I had plenty of time to list all my symptoms, a good long discussion about all that ailed me alongside what was going on in my life. However, for 4 times the price of a GP visit in my locality, at the time, that should be a given! Following the first visit I was sent to the local hospital, local to Goatstown that is, to get a series of blood tests at different times in my cycle, Days 1-3, Days 10-12, Days 18-21, to measure hormones in the blood. I also had to arrange to order and purchase a saliva testing kit from a diagnostic testing place in the UK then return it by courier. I had drawn the line at putting a stool sample in the post. After all the tests I returned to the Goatstown GP for my “results”, which unsurprisingly shed no light on anything, apart from the saliva tests suggesting my adrenal function can sometimes be borderline low. These “results” led to “prescription” of a long list of supplements, some sold exclusively at the Clinic premises, and suggested I had heavy metal toxicity, unusual since I hadn’t been “tested” for it. Perhaps it was from my Metallica obsession days? In my anger and confusion I made a follow up appointment and even bought some supplements in a (slightly) cheaper health shop on the way home. I subsequently cancelled the next appointment, then estimated that between the 2 visits to Goatstown, the diagnostic testing kit, the supplements bought, the transport costs incurred both to his surgery and to the hospital for blood tests, that I spent the best part of €1000 for nothing. Can anyone fathom how frustrating that is, how despondent it leaves you when your pockets have been cleaned out but still you feel like shit and have no hope of improvement looming on the horizon at all? Needless to say reading this piece  by Jeanette Winterson regarding the menopause irked me something incredible, as she advocates for this snake oil charlatan strand of “medicine”. In my experience all it amounts to is having a seemingly nice person sit down and listen to your ailments while they siphon a large amount of money off of you.

For the next 2-3 years the symptoms persisted getting progressively worse with each cycle; which had shortened to a 25/6 day cycle. A clear pattern of hormone surges, cycle day troubles began to emerge. Manifested initially as a 4-5 day period, followed by 5-6 days feeling okay, circa day 10-12 (sometimes for a couple of days) I would experience ovarian pain at ovulation time. On bad cycles the ovulation pain/mittelschmerz would include excruciating pain, on some occasions non-stop for a whole day, other occasions a few hours each day. Additional symptoms included sweating, insomnia, fatigue, brain fog, weakness and lethargy. Then I wouldn’t feel so bad again until Day 16, which is when the classic PMS symptoms kick in albeit 10 days before menstruation is due to begin. This usually starts with terrible mood swings, serious flying off the handle stuff and rages, then I have no ability to regulate my body temperature which usually results in me being too hot when everyone else in the house is feeling the cold, and too cold (with ice cold extremities) when everyone else is warm. This runs in conjunction with extreme tiredness, cramps, muscle and joint aches and tender breasts. The muscle/joint aches are often exacerbated by a dragging pain sensation, particularly in my legs, but often it starts from the shoulders down, most uncomfortable and fatigue inducing. So day 16, sometimes 17 too, would be quite severe on this symptom level then the symptoms would fluctuate in severity until my period begins on day 25/26 with varying levels of depression also. This pattern persisted until just over a year ago when some more horrible things began to add to the cannon of misery. Firstly the acne condition returned, worse than before, not that bad in comparison to real sufferers (but since I never suffered that badly with spots/acne as a teenager it is very noticeable and ugly to me). I put up with it for a while until I decided I needed a prescription for the gel that helped clear it up before. Just before this the itching kicked in. I started to experience incredibly irritating all over body itching, my skin felt prickly all over and I couldn’t sleep as I couldn’t stop itching and consequently scratching, it drove me nuts. So when I attended the GP in order to request the prescription I explained the itching phenomenon to her and was met with a “poor you, bloody hormones eh” response. She suggested vitamin B complex might offer some relief, I was already dabbling in that nonsense again which unsurprisingly turned out to be of no help, yet again. As of yet I cannot really distinguish an explanation for this itching phenomenon. It appears to come on just before and during ovulation time, yet it also flares up during  the premenstrual time, days 16-26, on occasion; I have also recorded it as particularly bad just prior to menstruation a couple of times. I am yet to discern what exactly is causing it. The itching has led to a resurgence of the latent hand eczema, which returned last autumn/winter and shows no sign of going yet. Every time the itching flares up, so too does the eczema, at varying levels of severity. I also experience bouts of all my energy and colour draining out of my body, which is both physically and visually obvious to me and those around me, usually punctuated by intense fatigue, sometimes nausea. For a few years I have been getting this thing I liked to call hot knees, my knees would be stiff and quite hot to the touch, sometimes red to look at. This has evolved into an erratic stiff left knee; it can be quite painful, sometimes audibly clicking. It is symptomatically reminiscent of osteoarthritis, but recently after having an intense period of constant pain from it for a number of weeks, it then disappeared for almost 2 weeks until just this week when it returned, baffling? Worryingly still I suffer a heightened/hyper-sensitivity to the atmosphere and odours, smells, scents; it is a terrible hindrance and intensifies with any hormonal peaks and surges throughout my cycle. It basically means that I am assaulted by all manner of unpleasant olfactory sensations. I now have way more allergy days than I have ever had before in my life, so persistently get headaches alongside classic hay fever type symptoms. Regarding headaches, I have pretty much learned to live with a constant dull pain in my head, around my eyes and sinuses, tending only to refer to headaches with searing pain as actual headaches since I have become so accustomed to perpetual head pain. I have since began to notice a deterioration in my cycle that means I no longer experience any particularly well feeling days in between menstruation and ovulation, or vice versa, there just seems to be constant daily issues from the slightly annoying to the I need to stay in bed level of severity.

Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, an allegorical precursor to the Jobbridge years

 This year 2014, sees 75 years pass since The Grapes of Wrath was published. It is both striking and alarming at how viscerally this great novel still chimes with what is currently going on in the world of work. Not much has radically changed within the underlying tenets of capitalist society. In fact, the UK and Ireland seem to move closer to a 1930’s or even 2010’s America style of economic and social welfare policy as the days go by. I first read The Grapes of Wrath in 2011, amidst the backdrop of trying to complete writing my doctoral thesis, while concurrently making my first tentative steps towards looking for postdoctoral employment. Earlier that year, the Irish government announced the inception of a National Internship Scheme to be called Jobbridge. Jobbridge was contrived as an employment stimulus scheme which aimed to create, in the words of the Minister for Social Protection, “a real chance to many people to get six or nine months of critical work experience – a foot on the ladder after training, apprenticeship or graduation”. The premise of Jobbridge was further elucidated as a scheme “open to jobseekers that are unable to get a job without experience, either as new entrants to the labour market after training or education or as unemployed workers seeking to learn new skills.”

While reading The Grapes of Wrath, I was also preparing to re-enter the job hunt and was (still am) greatly incensed by the developments in so called job creation and unemployment payment conditions. Regarding Jobbridge, it quickly became apparent that businesses and employers were creating positions that did not otherwise exist, in order to avail of having essentially free labour. Another knock on effect, felt almost instantaneously, was the recasting of low paid and entry-level positions into Jobbridge “internships”. Thus negating the possibility of those entering the workforce to gain the age-old foot in the door into the world of work. As Jobbridge has developed since, higher-level graduate positions such as teacher, solicitor, librarian, and scientist have been surreptitiously added to the roster. This essentially decimates real opportunities for a large cohort of jobseekers and graduates. Particular job areas, such as my own fields of expertise: policy, research, information and library work, have begun to suffer disproportionately, new positions are overwhelmingly created as Jobbridge “internships”. As such, within such sectors there is a distinct dearth of real paid jobs being created hence an intense overload of applications for any paid positions that do turn up. A dissenting view of Jobbridge would be that it is a scheme orchestrated to encourage people to work for their welfare payments, albeit with the carrot of an extra €50 per week on top of any existing jobseekers payments. In fact recent developments point to this being the case with the introduction of penalties of removal of unemployment payments to under-25s who do not take up Jobbridge positions or do not adhere to other prescribed job seeking criteria. The Pathways to Work scheme, which jobseekers must sign up to in order to secure payments, appears to follow a model whereby jobseekers are bound by a contract to agree to certain job seeking criteria. This may well result in being instructed to take up placements in Jobbridge positions or fear payment related sanctions.

Reading the Grapes of Wrath, concurrently as the project that decimates our previous understanding of “work” went full steam ahead; I read it more and more as an allegory for the savage flaws of capitalism and work. It is the 1930s, deep into America’s depression, the Joad family have been driven from their home, livelihood and former means of production by the virtual corporatisation and subsequent industrialisation of farming. Left with no choice but to move to where there may be work, they have received a flyer or “han’bill” as they call it, advertising a plethora of positions available for fruit pickers in California. Where seemingly, as of yet, industrialisation has not managed to replace humans when it comes to harvesting the produce of corporatized farming. Nevertheless, the reality they face as they travel along Route 66 to get to California is that the han’bills have been widely distributed, meaning more workers have emerged than there are jobs. Landowners deal with this by employing as many workers as they can and lowering wages accordingly on a daily, often hourly basis, as new wide eyed and hungry workers turn up at their gates. In many ways, this chimes with the Jobbridge scenario while also being distinctly reminiscent of the “boom years”.

During the property bubble fuelled “boom years”, han’bills in both tangible and metaphorical forms were sent further afield to Eastern Europe and elsewhere alerting prospective workers to urgent labour force needs in our more prosperous lands. Han’bills, like government rhetoric concerning job creation, and an abundance of media, portray a strong impression that there is plenty of work available and more coming. However as is increasingly exposed, this is often not the case. In many instances of “jobs” being advertised, online for example, a click on the job description indicates that it is not a paid position after all but a Jobbridge “internship”. This is reminiscent of the han’bill set up in the book. The advertisements drag the Joads across to California for work, yet the abundance of work is revealed as a myth when they finally get there. A more critical viewpoint of the boom years might suggest that foreign labour was a preferred option, as just like the “Okies” in Grapes of Wrath they would be more likely to work for whatever was on offer. The preference for foreign labour has viewed them as more likely to work hard and fast with minimal complaints, and an unlikeness nay unwillingness to become organised/radicalised/unionised in a rights protection context. The Jobbridge situation is somewhat different while also the same. It is decimating the understanding of the word “work”, making it acceptable to work for a minimum, and unacceptable to resist such exploitation. Meanwhile, it also exists to contribute to statistics, which tell us that there are jobs being created, less people on the live register, and that this is feeding in to a positive economic prospect. Recovery is nigh!! In the Joads case, they have an unblinking faith in the system that alerts the people to job vacancies, just like the majority of the population in this economy do too. They wouldn’t advertise jobs/hand out han’bills if there wasn’t any work. Why would they go to such effort to produce notices of available work if there wasn’t any available?

Consequently the conservative leaning view in society, worryingly held by an increasing majority, becomes satisfied that there are plenty of jobs available, be they Jobbridge, Work Placement Programmes (WPP) et al or appropriately salaried. The conservative view believes that it is just feckless benefits scroungers who refuse to take jobs from the vast availability, and prefer to complain than work. The voice of the establishment legitimates the positioning of people as scroungers and layabouts; unrealistic with an overinflated sense of entitlement, when unwilling to take up such so-called “jobs” as those on Jobbridge or WPP. This further intensifies the us versus them ideology. For many living amidst such an ideology, they feel shame, desperation and exhaustion being unemployed and trying to look for appropriate work. Therefore, when it becomes apparent that the only way to get certain types of work is to sign up to unfair schemes such as Jobbridge they do so, despite there being absolutely no assurance of a job at the end of the “internship” period.

Thus, widely advertising the availability of a job, particularly now via the internet serves a similar purpose to the han’bills in the Grapes of Wrath. Employers are now well aware as to how in demand any advertised job will be, and even more so in specific industries. Hence, they can widely advertise a “job” that on closer inspection turns out to be a Jobbridge and still expect a wide demand for information on it and no doubt a good deal of applicants. This subterfuge is wholly legitimated by the authorities too. Similarly in Grapes of Wrath, the employers are permitted to legitimately undercut the workers against each other when so many of them turn up to do a job. Thus, the Jobbridging of society has emerged. For example, at least one company has emerged for whom a principle objective is to assist other companies in creating Jobbridge vacancies so that the companies could benefit from the scheme. To linguistically legitimate their actions they use language such as employment support, labour activation facilitators and employment facilitators to describe their business. Within a bigger picture of the creation of jobs and Jobbridge positions, it is reasonable to assume that three possible scenarios are operating:

  1. A company has a viable job vacancy, advertises, interviews, and then hires a proper salaried member of staff as per more traditional employment methods.
  2. A company has a viable job vacancy available with which they could avail of the Jobbridge scheme as a money saving exercise while training their new employee. So they set up the role as a Jobbridge, train the employee accordingly, and if everyone is mutually happy with the arrangement, they employ them permanently after the initial “internship” period expires.
  3. A company has no job vacancy, but is quite attracted to the potential of free labour to undertake various bits and bobs that may come up. Therefore, they create a Jobbridge position with no intention of ever having a real paid position available, and without any legal or moral onus on them to do so or to create one at the end of the internship period either.

A cursory, or even a more considered, glance at the Jobbridge adverts, or better still on the state Jobs Board, on any given day reveal that 3) seems to be the favoured option across the board. Thus, all talk about job creation is a misnomer, as a 6-18 month stint of free labour should not be termed a job. The majority of Jobbridge positions do not advertise the potential for further employment, instead adverts just state what skills the “intern” will purportedly acquire by the time the internship period expires. Government rhetoric has bolstered the legitimisation of undercutting paid work, via low unsustainable wages (for the employee) and the creation of Jobbridge positions. Again, this is chimes with some of the Joads experiences in the book. When the Joads reach California and are staying in one of the makeshift Hooverville camps they begin to become educated by others camping there in the realities of the “work” that is available. The situation is explicitly elucidated to them by a man named Floyd who makes a speech denouncing the blatant undercutting of jobs, which pitch each man and woman against the other, all because the employer feels legitimated to do so when he sees the huge demand for the work he is offering. Floyd suggests that a man who comes to a camp to hire should wrote out the terms and conditions of the employment he is offering and produce a licence that permits him to contract out work in the first place. Rather than be listened to by those with the power in this situation, Floyd is marked out as a “red” and an agitator and an attempt is made to arrest and forcefully restrain and subdue him.

The current situation similarly returns us to a scenario where those desperate to earn will take whatever is going, even if it further contributes to the diminishing of work rights, wage security and the increased creation of slave/free labour. This type of occurrence is repeatedly referenced in the novel. In one acutely distressing scene a man talks to Pa Joad and explains the cycle of misery that they are in regarding pay for their labour. He highlights how if Pa Joad were to take up a job paying 20 cents then that undercuts the rate the man currently works at, thus he will be forced to take the job back for 15 cents. Therefore destroying any possibility of anyone being remunerated adequately for the work, regardless of how gruelling that work is. Nevertheless, in this situation the people feel compelled to take shoddily paid exploitative jobs regardless of what they know otherwise, as they need to eat. You can see the exact same thing happening currently in so called civil modern society with the likes of zero hour contracts, how Amazon treat and pay their warehouse workers, the prevalence of Jobbridge positions and so on.

The existence of a scheme such as Jobbridge further fuels intense competition for any real paid employment. This allows for a situation where companies and organisations are often free to treat prospective employees with a callous disregard. It also narrows the field, from an intellectual and skills perspective, exacerbating the increasing aesthetic and ideological homogenisation of society. Ultimately less positive oriented risk taking is engaged in. People are less likely to be hired for a spark of creativity or originality in their approaches, but rather for a long exhaustive list of the correct experience that ticks prescribed boxes within narrow criteria. There is inertia from employers themselves towards fostering development in people, thus employers expect to hire people with skills already intact rather than train people up on the job. There is no time for such trivialities anymore!! This constricted view of potential, limits the opportunities for development on a wider scale. Consequently, leaving a large percentage of the population to devastatingly scrabble about for bits and pieces of unsuitable work, just to get by just like the Joads. As a result, government announcements of increased employment, and employment development forecasts, are exposed as disingenuous political posturing. This is alongside a complete reinterpretation of what the word “job” means, which has crept into public discourse without any evident discussion or worse still a lack of horror/alarm!

Nonetheless, the individualised yet homogenised working population lap up these statistics as unquestioningly as the Joad family upped sticks and travelled across America following a notice on a piece of paper. What of the general response to this? Well, a great deal of people are firmly happy to believe that opportunities do exist, just that those not working are not looking hard enough. There is limited understanding of the effects of looking for this proverbial needle in the haystack. Steinbeck creates a strong evocation of how it feels when Pa and Tom Joad describe the weight that looking for something you are never going to find puts on you. Nevertheless, while sympathetic, Ma Joad who desperately tries to keep her family aloft highlights how the children look ill and hungry. Thus she refutes the right of the men to be disheartened in their quest for work. This is a reality for many in the current climate, fighting the futility to try to support yourself and your family is a difficult quest, both mentally and physically draining with no prize necessarily in sight. For those having great difficulty in finding work, when small amounts of work do come in, having money becomes such a rare occasion that there is a tendency toward frivolity rather than future planning. It is exemplified by Steinbeck when the Joads get some money from a short-term sustained bout of cotton picking. Uncle John starts to speak of how he has been eyeing up things to buy regardless of whether he needs them or not. While he knows he does not need material things the consequence of having money to spare makes him feel like he should buy consumer goods to make him happy or to fill the emotional void he has. Marx and others referred to this phenomenon as commodity fetishism, a key characteristic of a capitalist society. Capitalism recasts social relations as market relations; competition and class then also come into play. People are judged by their place in the market force, by their purchasing power not their ‘human qualities’. People categorise each other within this socioeconomic class structure and hierarchy leading to further fragmentation and individualisation of society. Commodity fetishism exists as individuals putting a higher weight on material possessions, holidays, and other acquisitions be they animate or inanimate objects, or even other people. Consequently, the individual ends up with no time, no ability, to recognise the inequalities of their alienated work (or non-work) life, thus not challenging it. Suddenly acquiring a state of the art plasma flat screen 3D TV is of more importance than challenging an unfair pay cut or being caught up in a social welfare poverty trap. This ultimately leads to complacency and lack of desire to revolt! Just like the grim existence the Joads experienced eventually wore them down, there were sparks of commodity fetishism when money was about but once the struggle returned, life finally ground them down. Mere survival, eating, breathing, became the aim of their meagre existence.

How do those in charge propose that an economy is successfully recovered or in recovery if all their steps toward progress amount to rhetorical hoodwinking statements that are meaningless in reality? Some of the jobs creation steps taken such as the introduction of Jobbridge and the ongoing project of dismantling the welfare state suggest that increasing inequality is a goal of those in power. A distinctly right leaning ideology is driving policy and progress one that perhaps believes that to try tackle inequality is futile. Steinbeck highlights the dramatic consequences of a lack of work, forced labour and stringent conditions on welfare relief for the poor and workless; it results in mental and physical suffering, which quickly leads to illness, the outlook is grim!

George Orwell said…

“We are living in a world in which nobody is free, in which hardly anybody is secure, in which it is almost impossible to be honest and to remain alive… Even the middle classes … are feeling the pinch. They have not known actual hunger yet, but more and more of them find themselves floundering in a sort of deadly net of frustration in which it is harder and harder to persuade yourself that you are either happy, active or useful.”

From The Road to Wigan Pier

This quote comes from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan pier, a book first published 77 years ago. After the war and the initial push to strive for a fair and just society based on somewhat socialist principles, a divergence towards the long road of prosperity in the truly capitalist sense occurred. We have since created a culture of unrealistic expectations. Nevertheless, this has also included a belief that the State will support us in times of economic need and activate schemes to help us all reach full employment that is suited to our needs, skills, talents and educational attainments. Fuelled by neoliberalism and capitalist consumerism as driving ideologies we now live amidst false hopes, thwarted desires and broken dreams akin to Orwell’s foreboding excerpt. This is an unfortunate reality for many, whether it be to a smaller or larger extent.