21st Century Servants

Recently, Kevin Roose described how the disappearing venture capital subsidies for various companies has forced them to raise their prices (boldface mine):

Profits are good for investors, of course. And while it’s painful to pay subsidy-free prices for our extravagances, there’s also a certain justice to it. Hiring a private driver to shuttle you across Los Angeles during rush hour should cost more than $16, if everyone in that transaction is being fairly compensated. Getting someone to clean your house, do your laundry or deliver your dinner should be a luxury, if there’s no exploitation involved. The fact that some high-end services are no longer easily affordable by the merely semi-affluent may seem like a worrying development, but maybe it’s a sign of progress.

While much of the debate focuses on ‘urban amenities’, there is a far more fundamental issue at play throughout the economy as Jamila Michener notes (boldface mine):

What’s harder, I think often challenging for me, is to think about the ways that poverty is exploitative on a societal level.

In other words, many of us who are not living in poverty benefit from the ways in the labor market and in other spaces that people living in poverty are exploited for their labor. Right, so I want to go to Walmart or Target or fill in the blank and I want to get things for really cheap. And I don’t want to wait in the long line. I want lots of registers open. I want someone there in the store if I have a question.

There are all sorts of services like this, that I want them, I want them fast, I want them cheap. I want the service with a smile. And those ones have implications for people who are living in or near poverty. And that means that there’s a kind of upwardly redistributive nature to the societal level exploitative characteristic of poverty — so that the exploitation comes on a societal level because the harm, or lack of constrained choices of people who are living in poverty, creates more choices, a wider marketplace of more positive and beneficial options for people who are not living in poverty.

There are a lot of people, especially the upper-middle class and gentry class*, whose quality of life is better because others’ quality of life is demonstrably worse. There are many who are used to having de facto servants–and on the cheap too. When I was younger (and I’m old enough to say that now…), income inequality wasn’t so stark as it is now, and the expectations around ‘servants’ (as opposed to the actual quality of service) were lower: luxury goods–and service is a luxury good–was more expensive and less prevalent.

While it’s funny to view what Roose writes about as a case of ‘avocado toast prices will increase’, there is a broader phenomenon at work here, I think: we will see a readjustment of what one pays for versus what one does oneself (or skips entirely). I’m unsure how that plays out politically.

*The wealthy and rich do well in this largely through exploitation–the direct siphoning of salary into profits.

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3 Responses to 21st Century Servants

  1. js says:

    But is this really true? Isn’t it at least EQUALLY true to say:

    “many of us who are not living in poverty ARE HURT from the ways in the labor market and in other spaces that people living in poverty are exploited for their labor. ”

    For one thing we will always carry that subconscious fear of falling and being one of them, this psychic strain is supposed to be nothing at all, but it’s not, it damages us psychologically and probably biologically. And if we do fall because of bad luck, got too old for the labor market, whatever, we will be one of them.

    We also have less bargaining power as whatever workers we are, let’s say middle class white collar employees, because they know they can always threaten us with: ok you don’t like this, then you can fall out of the middle class. So that shuts people up pretty fast. And such workers won’t EVER unionize. They probably won’t even whistleblow if they have cause. Poverty is used as a whip against near everyone. Who even campaigns on some “luxury” such as they have in every other country like guaranteed vacation time? Too much to ask when so many lack even food or housing. You see the homeless on your drive to work and you shut up and tow the line. You don’t get arrested at a protest, because can’t get a middle class job with a criminal record, and don’t want poverty wages. Poverty hurts us all.

    The left used to do solidarity, now liberals do guilt. Guilt for not being poor, for being white, for being cis, for driving to work even where (most places) public transportation is awful, for the occasional convenience shortcut when you are dead tired, guilt for breathing pretty much. They market neither solidarity nor visions of a better world nor even christian brotherly love, but this incredibly toxic mix of feeling guilty for living your life and weird cancel culture etc.. And it’s a miracle everyone isn’t a conservative, but most aren’t, because the right is a bunch of crazy would be dictators, only structural advantaged due to the near completely broken U.S. political system.

    • Bern says:

      Astute response.
      We many of us have plenty to be collectively guilty (and/or angry – see below) about, and liberals tend to acknowledge it sometimes (conservatives not so much). Not sure we can point to one or two things/issues that liberals’ guilt lands upon most (I think that most liberals do not feel personally guilty about most of the nasty things our forebears did to get us where we are today) but I’m pretty certain that institutional refusal to do anything about the knock-on effects angers most of us.
      Perhaps our collective failure to fix inequity is illustrative of our ongoing faith in the promise of Democracy, American Style, or our pretense to being ‘mad as hell, and not taking it anymore’ in a shut-up-and-watch-telly sort of way.

  2. Pingback: Poverty and Primus Inter Pares | Mike the Mad Biologist

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