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Disposable People

Coronavirus and the lifestyles of the professional-managerial class

In New York City and throughout the country, the professional-managerial class is hunkered down and making the best of a bad situation: working remotely, enjoying time with their families, making sure their children stay up on their schoolwork, finding ways to work out, exercising self-care, and catching up on all the shows they’ve wanted to binge-watch. This could be told as a story about the wonders of technology and capitalism. Social media, communication platforms, delivery services, and streaming entertainment make life under quarantine more bearable and productive. But such a narrative would miss the main story.

Consider the stay-at-home shopper’s lifeline, Amazon: orders are translated into parcels that arrive at one’s doorstep thanks to tens of thousands of fulfillment center workers—disproportionately people of color—who, even under normal circumstances, work under immense strain and deplorable conditions. The packages are then transported to metropolitan hubs by undercompensated truckers. They ultimately arrive at one’s home by means of overburdened post office workers and delivery contractors.

Or, think about food delivery. To receive prepared food, whether the orders are called in to a restaurant or placed through an app like GrubHub or DoorDash, “back of the house” restaurant workers must be on duty to prepare the meal. These workers are also disproportionately people of color, often undocumented immigrants, and typically paid poorly. Receiving groceries at home through platforms like Instacart similarly requires an army of poorly compensated workers to process orders and gather merchandise. In either case, delivering the food is grueling, high-pressure work; deliverers are exposed daily to road hazards, the elements and, occasionally, predation. Wages tend to be very low and benefits nonexistent. Within urban areas, the people filling these jobs are disproportionately immigrants and minorities.

The relative ease and comfort that many in the professional-managerial class are experiencing during the pandemic is dependent on thousands of low-paid “invisible” workers.

That is to say, the relative ease and comfort that many in the professional-managerial class are experiencing during the pandemic—ostensibly a result of digital platforms like Amazon, Instacart, and GrubHub—is actually the product of thousands of low-paid “invisible” workers who are paying the costs, and exposing themselves to considerable risk, on behalf of those who are better off.

Of course, in the midst of the pandemic these workers may also want to spend time with their families, or ensure their kids stay up on schoolwork. They may want to indulge in self-care or to stream their favorite shows. But that’s not an option for many of these low-income laborers. They cannot afford to stop working, even if they are concerned about health implications of continuing to show up. Even if they are worried about spreading the illness to elderly relatives who often live with them. Even if they are showing symptoms of infection.

The recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which became law a week before the $2 trillion stimulus bill was signed by the president last Friday, provides two weeks of paid leave for workers who are sick or whose children are out of school. However, it exempts those who work for large companies (like McDonald’s and Amazon) or for some small businesses (like local restaurants) and many classified as self-employed (like some gig workers)—ensuring that these laborers will continue risking their health to provide necessary services so relatively well-off American citizens can continue to comfortably shelter in place.

In New York City, children of those classified as “essential personnel”—first responders, medical professionals, sanitation and transit workers, and some other civil servants (later expanded to include some grocery store employees and pharmacists) are being provided supervision and care at city-run “regional enrichment centers.” But there is another group of workers recognized by New York as providing “essential services”—cooks preparing food, fulfillment center workers, and those making deliveries, among others —and their children have largely been left to fend for themselves. The services are classified essential, yet the personnel providing these services are not. Indispensable labor; disposable people.

Yet at least they still have their jobs. Many others cannot afford to stop working but have been laid off nonetheless, or have seen their clientele abandon them. Some of these workers can file for unemployment, but others cannot—including non-citizens, those who work in the informal economy, and many of those who are “self-employed.” The forthcoming financial stimulus checks, similarly, apply to taxpayers only—excluding those whose labor is “off the books.” These people are simply out of luck.

The same kind of dynamics that affect domestic work also apply to sex workers.

The strains will be especially apparent now in what has traditionally been called “women’s work.” Highly educated women of middle- and upper-class backgrounds have achieved great gains in the professional sector (particularly in urban areas). However, this has not come about due to some major change in gender roles—for instance, because men have taken on a reciprocally larger share of domestic responsibilities. Instead, well-off women have been able to advance in the workplace because other women—typically women of color, often immigrants—are fulfilling the traditional care-taking roles within the household, such as childcare, preparing and serving meals, cleaning the house, attending to the sick and elderly, etc. Families have typically been able to profit from this second salary, despite hiring people to perform domestic labor, by paying these workers below-market (often non-livable) wages for their services.

Now, in two-earner families with both earners working from home due to COVID-19 (and trying to avoid risk of contamination), domestic workers have been left in the cold. Their clients could, in theory, afford to continue paying according to the typical schedule—after all, most who rely on this labor are continuing to work and get paid as usual, and this expense is part of their usual monthly budget. Yet, most are choosing not to pay their domestic workers during this period. Again, many of these workers are not eligible for unemployment insurance, the coronavirus emergency spending bill’s provisions, nor for the forthcoming financial stimulus payments. Hence, without the financial support of their clients, it will be difficult for them to feed their families—not only their immediate families in the United States, but also their extended families abroad who are often dependent upon remittances from U.S.-based workers.

The same kind of dynamics that affect domestic work also apply to sex workers. Contemporary American adults report having less sex with their partners than previous cohorts—a trend that is especially pronounced among highly educated and married couples. There has been a simultaneous increase in demand for prostitution, particularly in urban areas, facilitated by online platforms. Those who regularly connect to sex workers through internet sites like The Erotic Review (“hobbyists”) are disproportionately white, married, highly educated, and financially well-off. More than 84 percent are above the median national income in the United States; about 43 percent make $120,000 per year or more; 79 percent have a B.A. or higher; and 41 percent possess graduate degrees. More than 84 percent are white.

As these elite men increasingly shelter in place, sex workers—the majority of whom are cis and trans women of color (and often immigrants)—are growing increasingly desperate. Some remaining clients have actively exploited this desperation, coercing them into accepting lower payments or into providing services they are uncomfortable with and would have otherwise refused. As for the rest of the clientele, they are apparently staying at home and watching a lot more pornography.

Stories like these may shock the conscience, yet few of these dynamics are unique to the coronavirus pandemic—they are simply made more visible now. Contemporary urban elites’ lifestyles are fundamentally predicated on a pool of vulnerable, desperate people who will do whatever kinds of tasks are required, whenever they are required, for whatever compensation is available. They will cater to the idiosyncratic preferences of the professional-managerial class, tolerate mistreatment with a smile, and show up to work regardless of what is going on in their lives.

What are Uber and Lyft drivers, for instance? They are chauffeurs for people who cannot deign to drive themselves around, take public transportation, or even exert the minimal effort of hailing a yellow cab. They provide members of the professional-managerial class with the experience, formerly available only to the rich, of having someone available at their beck and call to transport them privately wherever they want to go, whenever they want to go there. How has this service been rendered affordable to white-collar professionals? Rideshare companies outsource expenses like insurance, gas, vehicle acquisition, and maintenance to the drivers themselves, offer few benefits and such low compensation that contractors typically have to work well over full-time just to make ends meet if this is their only “gig.” Despite these measures, rideshare companies consistently operate at a loss, propped up by vulture capitalists who quite explicitly plan on radically jacking up fares as soon as taxis have been effectively killed off.

Perhaps the most valuable service these companies provide to clients is that, in serving as a middleman between the drivers and the customers, they eliminate any sense of responsibility for their laborers among those who consume their services. After all, a chauffer worked for a family or a company; they typically got paid regardless of whether their clients needed to be driven around much on a given day or not. Rideshare customers get the benefits of having a chauffer, but none of the social obligations. If professionals don’t have anywhere to go (such as now, when they are sheltering in place), their drivers get nothing. If they consequently can’t pay their bills, that isn’t the client’s problem.

Indeed, service industry employers and clients are mutually comfortable dumping workers en masse whenever convenient, confident in the knowledge that they will be able to call them back if and when they want to. And in the event that the specific workers they relied upon don’t make it or are otherwise unavailable, they’ll just hire some other vulnerable and desperate person in their stead. There is no shortage of such “disposable people” in major metropolitan areas.

I have never seen such inhumanity as I’ve seen in New York City. A liberal bastion, full of enlightened experts and professionals, self-assured and self-righteous. They say and ostensibly feel all the “right” things. They pride themselves on “just” consumption—for instance, gravitating toward organic, non-GMO and fair-trade foods. Yet their lifestyle is predicated upon an army of poorly compensated servants, expected to be responsive to their needs 24/7 at the press of a button, who can be casually abandoned to fend for themselves the moment they cease to be as useful.

Trump and the Republicans may be standing in the way of more robust social safety nets, but they aren’t responsible for the routine exploitation of desperate and vulnerable people among the “Brahmin Left.” No one is forcing liberal elites to hire domestic laborers rather than negotiating roles and responsibilities within their family—nor is anyone compelling them to stiff these caretakers in order to maximize profits from the dual-earner model. No one is obligating relatively well-off and urban residents to use Amazon to bring everything to their doorstep. After all, there are far more shopping options in New York City than Duluth, yet denizens of the former are much more likely to shop online.

Fulfillment center workers and delivery drivers are forced to work under immense pressure and horrible conditions because the member of this class cannot wait a reasonable amount of time to receive their packages—they want everything within two days, or even the same day—yet even when they are not on lockdown, they cannot be troubled to go down the street to procure what they want themselves (same day acquisition is the default when one shops in-store, after all). Door Dash and GrubHub similarly exist because many urban professionals cannot be bothered to prepare their own meals, or to even walk down the block to purchase prepared food. Websites like The Erotic Review exist to provide relatively well-off urbanites with sex on demand, allowing them to shop for sexual services the same way they shop for dining options—and to rate them much like restaurants are reviewed on Yelp. Uber and Lyft exist because white-collar workers want cheap and disposable chauffeurs.

What are Uber and Lyft drivers? They are chauffeurs for people who cannot deign to drive themselves around or take public transportation.

And yet, these urban areas tend to be reliably and overwhelmingly “blue”—they are some of the most Democratic-leaning areas in the entire country, and those in the professional-managerial class are among the most ostensibly liberal of all. They make up the core of the #Resistance. Put another way, the same highly educated, relatively well-off urbanites who are the primary producers and consumers of content celebrating antiracism, feminism, and socialism also happen to be among the primary beneficiaries of inequality based on class, race, and gender, and actively exploit marginalized, desperate and otherwise vulnerable people.

In some senses, this should not be surprising. For instance, research in the behavioral sciences suggests that when whites explicitly denounce racism, or affirm their commitment to racial equality, they often grow more likely to act in ways that favor other whites—yet simultaneously grow more confident that their actions were not racially motivated. A similar effect holds when they observe others from their “in-group” making gestures toward antiracism: it convinces them not only that their peers are egalitarians but that their own actions and interactions are non-biased as well. Conversely, blaming or denouncing others for a particular moral failing reduces one’s sense of guilt for that same moral failing. Hence, in an environment where those who benefit immensely from inequality go around denouncing the system to one another constantly, painting themselves as staunch advocates for social justice, it would become almost impossible for these people to actually see the role that they or their peers play in perpetuating said inequality. And in part for this reason, these same people would promote inequality all the more, while feeling self-righteous about their egalitarianism.

Yet the precariat, alas, can live neither on the noble words and feelings, nor the symbolic gestures, of the cultured elite. Fortunately, for those who are committed to meaningfully acting on their expressed convictions, there are concrete and tangible things people can do to help mitigate adverse effects of inequality. A necessary starting point for social justice work must always be to take a hard look at one’s own lifestyle, at one’s own actions and interactions. Practical measures at the microlevel may seem small or even trivial in comparison to national politics, but they can have important and immediate effects within one’s local community, especially for individuals who are struggling. And precisely because these maneuvers are not beholden to the political process, they cannot be plausibly obstructed by Trump or the Republicans. Indeed, the primary obstacle individuals would face is their own recalcitrance.

Most of the behaviors described here are not the products of antipathy toward historically marginalized or disadvantaged groups; they are the fruits of bad faith and ambivalence. Yet this is something that can be turned around. It can take just one ordinary person to serve as an exemplar in order for others in a community to follow suit; a single household can help inspire neighbors, friends, colleagues, and extended family. Young people can motivate their peers or inspire successive generations. The higher levels of participation are, the stronger the systemic effects of such tactics would be. Indeed, broader societal changes can arise in just this way, through the gradual diffusion of ideas and practices from local contexts outwards.

If those who are uncomfortable with the idea of “disposable people” simply refused to treat people in their own lives and communities as disposable—if they reconsidered and reconfigured their own relationships to “disposable labor”—it could make a world of difference. What better time to start than now?