Skip to content

The Toll of Toil

The moral injuries of dirty work

Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America by Eyal Press. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages.

On August 29, as United States’ twenty-year war in Afghanistan lurched to a close, the Pentagon fired a Hellfire missile from a drone to strike suspected Islamic State militants. The missile used in the airstrike, an R9X, has been touted variously for its ability to pinpoint targets and reduce civilian casualties—though that’s precisely who was killed, including three children. It has also been described by public officials as inert, or nonexploding, and goes by the nickname “the flying Ginsu.” These are, of course, euphemisms—words meant to sanitize or etherealize one’s involvement in the lethality of war. What it masks in this case is something that many of us perhaps rarely pause to consider: a “screen flash” and then “the thermal signature of blood oozing from a corpse.”

This description of a targeted killing is supplied by a drone imagery analyst in Dirty Work, a trenchant new book by the journalist Eyal Press. The phrase “dirty work” was originally coined by an American sociologist named Everett Hughes to describe, as Press writes, a species of “unethical activity that was delegated to certain agents and then conveniently disavowed.” As Press writes, the agents that Hughes had in mind were Nazis who carried out Hitler’s campaign to exterminate the Jews. Those doing the disavowing were “good people” who “refrained from asking too many questions about the persecution of the Jews because, at some level, they were not entirely displeased.” Though they abstained from carrying out any of the actual atrocities, they were nevertheless morally adjacent to crime, having issued an “unconscious mandate” to surrogates to perform the dirty work that they themselves were too ashamed to carry out. Grounded as his analysis was on conversations with Germans living in the shadow of the Holocaust, Hughes himself clarified that his work was addressed primarily to his fellow countrymen as a kind of cautionary tale—a reminder of “dangers which lurk in our midst always.”

Dirty work is the hypotenuse of moral callousness and agents willing to do “our” bidding.

“Dirty work” in the present day, Press argues, tends to be invisible and entrenches social cleavages and class inequalities. While wealthy and socially privileged Americans are exempt from direct involvement in “dirty work,” those in more precarious situations have little choice but to take it on. The geographical distribution of dirty work is also far from random. Institutions where dirty work often takes place—the “remote industrial parks where slaughterhouses set up shop; towns full of ‘least resistant personalities’ where refineries were built and coastlines were opened to offshore drilling”—are areas with a high concentration of poor Latino immigrants, African Americans, and Asian Americans. The production of dirty work and the production of racial difference, Press suggests, have historically been articulated together in the United States.

Hughes provided the phrase “dirty work” with a great deal of explanatory voltage, and Press supercharges it. In writing his book, Press tells us he was struck by the resonances between the “dirty work” that Hughes described in 1962 and the kinds of work facilitated today by prison guards and mental health counselors, drone imagery analysts, “joystick warriors,” roustabouts, slaughterhouse employees, cobalt miners, and others. (This is not to say that he draws a direct comparison between those who worked to exterminate Jews and those working in abattoirs. Instead, the comparison speaks to the way the rest of us tacitly approve of forms of labor that we know to be harmful in one way or another.) Drawing on interviews with performers of dirty work and a vertiginous list of resources from psychology, sociology, and history, the narrative never feels weighed down by references. Instead, you sense its beating pulse on almost every page, as Press lends an empathetic ear to people toiling in inhumane systems that have shattered their self-esteem and coarsened their concern for others. If the idea of “dirty work” is a radioactive dye, then Press’s book is an atlas that allows us to see its dissemination across different countries, cities, and states. It is horrifyingly, incalculably diffuse.

Yet, like legends on a map, labels can only tell us so much. Press’s multiclausal definition of dirty work has something of a mathematical problem set about it. He invokes the “virtue divide” and “class divide,” among other divides, and there’s a way in which thinking about the power imbalances inherent in dirty work can feel like being asked to perform long division. Here is his definition in full: dirty work is work which causes “substantial harm” to others or to animals and the environment; involves “doing something that ‘good people’—the respectable members of society—see as dirty and morally compromised,” but that they tacitly condone; and is harmful to the people who do it, making them feel burdened with self-reproach and corroding their dignity. One might simply boil it down to something like this: dirty work is the hypotenuse of moral callousness and agents willing to do “our” bidding. This perhaps seems a fundamentally aloof appraisal. Yet it points to the biggest tension in the book: the stories of workers that Press patiently evokes and the overly neat scaffolding on which he wants to hang them.

To take one example, Press makes the claim that while the pandemic heightened the visibility of frontline responders in the medical community (who risked their lives by working without adequate PPE), another kind of worker has remained overlooked. There was no collective banging of pots and pans, for instance, to thank workers at poultry plants who repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way to make sure families had food. For these workers, being splattered “in manure, blood, vomit, and offal” are regular occupational hazards. They face some of the highest workplace injury and illness rates in the country, yet Trump’s USDA allowed them to be further endangered during the pandemic by increasing line speeds to levels that exacerbated the risk of injury and made social distancing all but impossible. By February of this year, nearly fifty-four thousand workers at some 569 meatpacking plants in the country had contracted Covid-19; at least 270 of them have died.

One former worker who speaks with Press recounts suffering a variety of repetitive stress injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome, hip pain, and a bladder problem. Another worker, Juanita, an undocumented immigrant working in a poultry plant, details how she got an eye infection from chemicals used to disinfect raw chicken. The company nurse, however, decided that it was a non-work-related allergy, forcing Juanita to pay for surgery out of pocket. Unsure if she will “ever be able to work again” due to her disability, Juanita feels, justifiably, that Sanderson Farms “treated her ‘like a disposable piece of trash.’” Press also assigns much of the blame for such draconian working conditions to “politicians and public officials [who] could have done plenty of other things to lessen these blows, from strengthening the penalties that OSHA could impose on companies that willfully violated health and safety standards to slowing the line speeds in slaughterhouses.” Yet evidence suggests that it would be a stretch to say that “respectable people”—including, presumably, avid consumers of meat—condone such treatment. According to a Harris Poll from earlier this year, 66 percent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four support shuttering slaughterhouses, an increase from 54 percent a year ago. Is this an instantiation of what Press calls the disavowal by “good people” of morally murky enterprises? Are those being anonymously polled responding in bad faith? It is impossible to know for sure.

Still, in chapter after observant chapter, Press reveals the psychic and physical toll dirty work takes. A ground station imagery analyst, shadowing a mission in Afghanistan, has the alienating experience of observing “gingerbread men” on drone surveillance footage, and becomes so riven with doubt about the morality of her work that she is put on suicide watch. A prison counselor, upon learning about the mistreatment of several inmates, including one who died after being sadistically subjected to a 180-degree shower by correctional officers, is overcome with a feeling of powerlessness and starts having trouble sleeping, losing her hair and appetite. Chronic stress and anxiety also afflict a former imagery analyst at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, who describes having repeated nightmares about maimed bodies and innocent people being killed.

We are meant to feel somewhat sullied after reading about these gross violations of workers’ rights—but it’s worth pausing over who this “we” is. Most Americans, for instance, might be surprised to be named moral accomplices in prison atrocities: public opinion polling done by the ACLU has shown that 91 percent of Americans believe that the criminal justice system needs “fixing.” And 68 percent are in favor of reducing the prison population in the United States and directing the savings to “reinvest in drug treatment and mental health programs.”

There’s also a symmetry to this pigeonholing: throughout the book, Press refers to people like Juanita as “dirty workers.” I have resisted using that locution here, settling instead for “performers of dirty work.” How, I wondered, would the workers themselves feel about the appellation? The phrase seems at once too broad and too narrow of a descriptor, and the effect is to make the actual worker being described disappear as she is accordioned into an argumentative unit. It is also derivative—and possesses none of the loamy richness—of George Orwell, who wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier: “In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported.”

It is true that, to some extent, we are all trapped in a prison-house of accepted languages, customs, and conventions. As Montaigne writes in a famous polemical essay on barbarians, “Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice; for indeed it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in.” Yet whereas Montaigne wanted to highlight the multiple meanings of “barbarian” and subvert its conventional definition, in Dirty Work, it is hard to ever escape a negative affiliation with the eponymous activity.

Another book might have served up examples of collective action as a means of challenging traditional systems of power, but this book is its photonegative.

Scant mention is made of activists and other do-gooders in the book, but when they do appear, they are lightly dismissed as well-meaning or sanctimonious naïfs, hoisting up signs reading: “Jobs for Clean Energy, Not for Dirty Oil” and “DO THE DRONES HEAR THE CRIES OF THE CHILDREN DYING ON THE GROUND?” A Code Pink protestor is described, in the words of a drone imagery analyst as paraphrased by Press, as “blind to the power dynamics within hierarchical organizations like the military . . . shouting antiwar slogans at low-ranking enlistees who had little say over the scope of the drone campaign.” Another book might have served up examples of collective action as a means of challenging traditional systems of power, but this book is its photonegative: ultimately concerned with Americans who are “shamed for doing low-status jobs of last resort,” it dwells in rooms where targeted killings in the forever wars are carried out, and in the psychiatric wards of jails and prisons, which, as Press notes, “have displaced hospitals as the largest mental health institutions in many states.”

Several of those who perform dirty work in Press’s book acutely feel the stigma attached to their work. Moreover, they are susceptible to what the psychiatrist Jonathan Shay has termed “moral injury,” a condition marked by the shattering of trust in a high-stakes scenario and a sense that those in a position of authority have betrayed “what’s right,” or what the Greeks called themis. Shay, working at the time with Vietnam veterans, came up with the concept as a way of probing beneath the surface of his subjects’ post-traumatic stress disorder.

For some people experiencing trauma, the concept of “moral injury” allows them to talk about their self-condemnation and guilt without worrying about being reduced to a person with a medical diagnosis. As one marine officer tells Press, “What’s most useful about the term ‘moral injury’ is that it takes the problem out of the hands of the mental health profession and the military and attempts to place it where it belongs—in society, in the community, and in the family—precisely where moral questions should be posed and wrangled with. It transforms ‘patients’ back into citizens and ‘diagnoses’ into dialogue.”

Personal trauma often has systemic roots, since the harmful work that many do is condoned and encouraged by many others. Recognizing this means communalizing trauma, which is, for Shay, the antidote to the harms caused by moral injury. It is also the ethos behind Dirty Work. To read the stories recounted here—of people who have felt shunned, devalued, and betrayed by others in the course of their work—is to feel the sting of dirty work’s scorpion tail. It is also inevitably to recognize a degree of complicity in the evil that others do and the harms that are done to them in the process.