Deja Vu: What Century Is This?
The permanent precariat, then and now
Sometimes the path to a realisation, to the moment when a pattern emerges, is obscure. At other times it’s crisply defined, like a set of GPS waypoints defining a route. Something came into focus for me recently about the state of affairs in the US, and for once the waypoints were clear in memory.
The first waypoint was a couple of articles I read (well-intentioned, serious articles) advising readers how they could supplement their income by “thrift store flipping.” This was never a thing when I was young, but now it is: buying stuff cheaply at thrift stores and then marking it up to sell on Ebay or Etsy. Thrift stores — which are supposed to be about providing low-cost clothing and comforts for low-income people — are now seen as a resource to be mined for profit.
Second waypoint was an article about contract drivers for Amazon fulfilment centres, in cut-throat competition to see who can grab an upcoming delivery run first; some hang a relay cellphone in a tree right outside an Amazon warehouse or Whole Foods location, so as to get the job listings a few milliseconds sooner. The same article informed me that some of those cell phones actually belong to petty rentiers who sign up to be Amazon delivery drivers but then actually contract out their deliveries to unofficial drivers, for a cut (some say as much as $8) of the pathetic $18/hr that Amazon pays.
Third waypoint was one of America-watcher Indi’s insightful and gently humorous articles; reviewing gig-economy sectors like Lyft, Uber, Postmates, Doordash and their ilk, he commented that Americans are simply rediscovering servants. Increasing numbers of Americans are now rent-a-servants, cleaning more affluent people’s homes, running their errands, driving other people around, delivering groceries.
Fourth waypoint was the GoFundMe phenomenon — the sheer numbers of Americans who start up a GoFundMe to cover their outrageous medical expenses, or other life emergencies for which their (in many cases nonexistent) savings or inadequate salaries are insufficient.
All these activities or trends rely on whizbang internet technology. Perhaps that’s why we don’t recognise them for what they are: the traditional indicators — complete with all the traditional ingenuity and desperation — of a permanent underclass.
In Victorian times, many of the poor scraped together a living by combing through wealthier people’s rejects to find any old junk they could then sell at street markets. There was a complex hierarchy of scroungers; at the bottom of the food chain, toshers and mudlarks daily sought “treasure” in dangerous and filthy places in the hope of making a few pence. At the more (relatively) respectable end of the trade, tired men with battered carts wandered the more affluent neighbourhoods calling out “Any old iron” and “Rags and Bones,” hoping to collect enough metal, cloth, and bones to re-sell as scrap. Enterprising youths collected the horse dung from the busy streets to sell to gardeners and farmers — at significant risk to life and limb.
In the slums of India, Pakistan, Brazil, anywhere in the struggling world, petty middlemen create micro-empires of menial labour, taking a cut from every penny others earn as rickshaw pullers, errand boys, tiffin wallahs, day labourers. The hungry line up hopefully at any construction site, any affluent private home, on the chance of being hired for a few hours for some odd job; and the middlemen are there too, palms to be greased before there’s any hope of work. Their power is almost impossible to resist; the people they prey on have no other options.
In times of great economic inequity, large numbers of people have no way to earn a living outside of domestic service and day labour: they gain their daily bread by providing personal services to those with more money. Housekeepers, butlers, cooks, chauffeurs, gardeners, tweenies, scullery maids, boot boys and stable lads — all the staples of the classic British country house mystery — were grateful to have respectable employment, and utterly dependent on the good will of their employers. A bad letter of reference (or no letter) could destroy their chances of ever making a living again.
Meanwhile, indigent men tramped about the country hoping to pick up a few hours’ work here and there, on any farm, any road works. Many migrated with the seasons and the crops, as immigrant labour still does today in many affluent countries. Where a factory or mine opened, or a new building project was begun, hundreds of hopeful men might show up for the chance of a handful of jobs; running faster than the other fellow or pushing your way to the front might make all the difference.
And of course, around the world in slums, in cities, wherever the hopeless and the hungry are gathered, begging is one way to survive… whether today, or in earlier epochs. Begging on the street was not a thing when I was young on the West Coast of the USA. Now beggars, like homeless encampments, are “the new normal”. (I can also remember a time when public libraries were not de facto homeless shelters.) But the normalisation of begging in our public spaces (whether physical or virtual) is a troubling sign.
Because our street market for old clothes and gewgaws is electronic and distributed; because our servants are temporarily rented by the hour via an online service, rather than by the month or year via a domestic employment agency; because our petty rentiers use cellphones and text messages instead of message boards, runners, or word of mouth; because we can beg from the comfort and relative privacy of our homes, via an internet connection, instead of having to sit on the street with a placard and a tin cup… we don’t recognise that these are the classic signs of a troubled nation, of a predatory economy, of a harried and insecure underclass, of a brutal class system reasserting itself.
A nation that turns medical care into a for-profit investor-driven business, offshores its skilled and semi-skilled working-class jobs, allows its housing markets to be the playground of speculators, repudiates the very concept of redistributive taxation or debt forgiveness — will inevitably create a recognisable reboot of the slums of Georgian or Victorian London, a Version 2.0 of the hidebound, vicious, cruel class system that ruled the world before the revolutions and reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries.
We can put as much high-tech lipstick as we like on this pig, but glitzy electronic trappings should not deceive us. Americans, who once boasted the most prosperous middle class on the planet, are in ever-larger numbers entering domestic service, competing viciously for piecework, being victimised by petty rentiers and middlemen, selling scrounged old tat in the bazaars, begging in public when their children or parents fall ill.
The set dressing and soundtrack are different; our slums may be cleaner and their denizens better fed; our desperate poor may be sleeping in their old beater cars instead of under bridges or in barns. But America is still (re)institutionalising a hustling, marginalised precariat. The corrosive dynamics of deep inequity — the constant anxiety; the scramble to make ends meet; the piteous vulnerability to injury, illness and predation; the pitting of one worker against another in intense competition for artificially scarce employment — these indicators never change and never lie.
We are living in Dickensian times, unconvincingly varnished over with silicon lip gloss.