Capitalism is a death march, but it’s one we’re told we should find fulfilling. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly Hayes talks with author Sarah Jaffe about the manipulation, surveillance and criminalization of workers under capitalism, and what we can do about it.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes. Today’s guest is Sarah Jaffe. Sarah is a Type Media Center reporting fellow and an independent journalist covering the politics of power, from the workplace to the streets. She is the cohost of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and author of the books Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt and Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion To Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. Sarah Jaffe, welcome to the show.
Sarah Jaffe: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.
KH: How are you doing today, friend?
SJ: You know, it just started raining and the weather looks like I feel, so we’re doing great. Doing great.
KH: I hear that. Well, this interview is actually my first time recording after a long break, due to health problems. So I appreciate you being with me, as I try to get back in the saddle, and try not to fall out again. As you and a lot of our listeners know, I developed some pretty serious post COVID complications during the last year. But I was also in the unusual position of having unlimited sick leave. Which is a policy Truthout kicked off at the start of the pandemic, so I was able to keep food in the fridge and had a job to come back to, which is so basic. And yet, under capitalism, it sounds like the stuff fairytales are made of.
SJ: So basic, and yet I’m literally, like, dreaming of the wonderful things. And I mean, we should shout out the fact that like, Truthout was one of the first digital media, possibly the first digital media outlets to unionize.
KH: Yes, we were the first actually.
SJ: Way before it was cool.
KH: Way before. And, you know, I have to catch myself sometimes because I find myself experiencing sort of the labor equivalent of, of survivor’s guilt, which is another reason I appreciated your books so much, because it’s really twisted that we wind up feeling spoiled or unworthy, anytime we aren’t sort of left to die in a ditch somewhere.
SJ: Yeah, it’s really a lot, isn’t it? Like the way, I mean, especially in this industry, like I’ve been feeling awful the last couple of weeks too, because you know, on the one hand you have just people being laid off. On the other hand, you get like the New Republic situation where there’s just like the really rich guy who owns it decides to hire somebody new. And the staff is all sort of hanging, going, “What’s going to happen to us now?” So, you know, It’s a depressing time to be in the media.
KH: It really is a depressing time, but people are still out there, doing incredible work, and I want to give a shout out to my Truthout colleagues, who have been holding it down during a terrible year, and also to our friend Kim Kelly, who has been knocking it out of the park down in Bessemer, covering the Amazon union vote. I know we’ve both been raving about her coverage, which I’ll be linking in the show notes, on our website, for folks who want to dig deeper into that struggle, specifically. By the time this episode airs, we may or may not know the results of the union drive in Bessemer, but however it goes, there is a lot of potential in the moment we’re currently experiencing. Inequality had already hit record extremes in the U.S., and in some ways the pandemic has been a pressure cooker. The billionaires got richer, while everyone else suffered, or got ground under. We watched workers being sacrificed en masse to keep a system going, a system that expected them to work during a pandemic, but ruined them financially for getting sick. And in far too many cases, we watched workers and their loved ones die. So I think your book is incredibly timely, in terms of asking us to evaluate our relationship with work under capitalism, and how we’re expected to define it, and feel about it. Can you say a bit about what moved you to write the book.
SJ: Yeah, I mean the short version is it that I have been thinking about writing this book in some form for the better part of the last eight years. And so that includes like when I was pitching the proposals for Necessary Trouble, at first we didn’t get a lot of bites on that one. And I was like, maybe we just toss this and I write the other one. And I’m glad that I did this in the order that I did, but thinking about the shifts in how we work, where we work, who’s working, and how we’re expected to feel about it was a thing that I was interested in because like my entire work life, I have been in either the service industry or the media. And so I’ve been doing some or another form of work that I’m supposed to love, or at least pretend to love. And when I finally became a full-time journalist, I was talking to a whole lot of people who had similar working conditions to me. So that, you know, it was a story of the post-crash moment, like my first book, but it’s also more of a story of the last 40 or 50 years of this shift to being expected to love our jobs. And like around the Amazon story, the thing that I’m fascinated with right now is this thing where they apparently have a paid “ambassadors” program. So that workers who work in the, you know, Orwellian named “Fulfillment Centers,” otherwise known as warehouses, they get paid to be on Twitter, defending Amazon, but in this really sort of hackneyed way, that is both hilarious and deeply depressing. And so, you know, I’m just thinking about being an Amazon warehouse worker in this, you know, fairly grim job from everybody that I’ve talked to, who does it, and then being offered, I don’t know how much money because people have confirmed that they are paid, but not how much or how well, or even as Dania Rajendra of Athena pointed out, if it is in money or in, you know, Amazon gift cards or something. And the fact that like, you can get paid a little bit of extra, if you want to go on your own personal Twitter, which has to have “Amazon FC,” [then] whatever your name is, and then defend Amazon. And then, you know, people have sort of boxed some of these people into corners and it’s sort of fun to laugh at it, but also really grim to think about being that worker who’s like, “Oh no. If I don’t successfully defend the company, then you know, my little bit extra, and possibly my main job, goes away.”
KH: And they’ve also been making contract workers, some of whom are formerly incarcerated folks, wear anti-union buttons and messaging on the job. So you have these people who do not have a lot of employment prospects, basically being forced by Amazon to act as human billboards, pushing Amazon’s anti-union agenda. And I hope that people are taking notice of the ways in which Amazon is just adding layers of exploitation, and dehumanizing its workers in order to prevent them from asserting their rights. But, of course, we are not just talking about super villains like Bezos today. We are talking about capitalism, and the relationship to work we are expected to have under this system. And, well, you and I are about the same age. I think we’re both 40.
KH: So we were told a lot of the same lies about what our working lives would be like. That there would be jobs, and that we would have no trouble finding them. And that we would have no trouble paying off student loans, because our jobs would, of course, pay well. And your book really attacks one of the most foundational lies that we’re all told, that our relationship with work under capitalism is supposed to be some kind of love affair. And that if it isn’t, we just haven’t met the right job yet or done the work necessary to acquire that job. Or maybe just don’t have the right attitude. Because we live in a system that conditions us to celebrate each other for sacrificing ourselves to work and to hold each other in contempt for not appreciating what work we have. One thing that kept coming up in your book was how capitalist structures need to make workers feel bound together through their relationship to the boss, or the company, or the task, rather than their relationship to each other, as workers. The company or the employer being a family, being one of the common refrains. And with Amazon, as you’ve mentioned, we’ve seen this manifest in the so-called “ambassador” Twitter accounts, but as you describe in your book, the co-optation of familial bonds, the sort of hoax of the “familial” workplace relation, is really everywhere.
SJ: Yeah, I find this so interesting, right? Because when I started reporting this book, I expected to hear the “family” thing from like, you know, I’d heard it from retail workers before. I certainly expected it from domestic workers who are literally often, you know, employed by a family to do the work that the family doesn’t have time to do, and it really surprised me to hear it from like tech workers. Like the video game programmers who were like, yeah, I mean the companies — I mean the companies have this on their websites, right? The, the infamous thing, so many people have pulled out of this book is the British games company that brands itself, “fampany,” which is for the worst, right?
KH: [Laughter] The literal worst.
SJ: Just the worst and yeah, and I think the way you put that there is really, really helpful in that, right? Like at one point in time, the big workplace was sort of more usual than it is now, right. That, that you would be in a big auto factory, maybe, right? And in that kind of a place, you are sort of part of a workforce that is all working together to make a thing happen. So the assembly line, right, working properly depends on everybody doing their piece. And that as various people, I think, Catherine, the adjunct professor points this out in the book that, you know, you can actually sort of turn that to a union fairly easily. Whereas now, you know, the relationship with the company is mediated more directly in a lot of ways. And also you’re sort of more isolated from other workers. So, I mean the, the most obvious example is like Uber, or Lyft, or you know, any number of these, you know, DoorDash delivery companies in the gig economy where you are totally isolated from everybody else and they don’t even want to call you an employee. But it’s also true of journalists. It’s also true of academics. It’s also true of any number of fields where you’re supposed to sort of be motivated by your individual relationship with the creative thing that you’re doing, the ostensibly creative thing you’re doing, rather than each other. And that makes it easier for your boss to sort of bully you, right. Because you’re isolated from everybody else. And the real challenge of shaking through this right, is that it’s been done to us in the same period of time as like all of the other parts of the social safety net are being destroyed. So, you know, I use Margaret Thatcher’s line about, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families,” a lot to explain this and that, like, you know, when she was saying that it was an act of social engineering, right. She was making it so, it was not actually right. She was selling off things like public funded council houses, right? To individuals, so that everything was individualized. And the pandemic has only, of course exacerbated that because now we’re literally, you know, a lot of us are working in our homes. And if we are in the workplace, and this is another story I’ve heard from Amazon workers, the workplace where you might still be going into work, they’re literally using sort of, “you’re not social distancing” as a way to crack down on workers who are organizing.
So even if you are going to a big, you know, warehouse or whatever it is, where you do work with other people, you’re getting punished for talking to each other now, and they can say that that’s concern for your health because it’s social distancing, but it’s really not.
KH: And that’s just… impressively evil.
SJ: It’s so grim. Right? It’s so grim.
KH: And while we are talking about grim things, let’s talk about neoliberalism.
SJ: [Laughter] Yes.
KH: I think a lot of our conversations about neoliberalism in the media fall short, because we don’t really help people get their heads around what it is. People usually talk about privatization, but that sort of singular focus can make it seem like neoliberals are just people who think private services are better, or just want money in the private sector because they believe in the free market, but as you and I have talked about before, neoliberalism isn’t about the free market. It’s about having a well defended market.
KH: A market that’s rules and functions can’t be tampered with by the people whose exploitation the system relies on. It’s a system that protects markets from people, and even governments, who might otherwise rally against their exploitation or abuse. It’s a counteroffensive, in many ways, against the prior gains of unions and workers who rebelled under capitalism. After losing a lot of ground, bosses and politicians needed to rewrite the terrain, to better control workers, and one of the ways they have done that is by gutting public education.
In your book you wrote, “Schools are the hinge point of neoliberalism, a place where it has been imposed and where the blame is placed for its harms. If teachers were simply adequate, the thinking goes, then all of this inequality would go away.” As I was reading those words, I was nodding my head, because I live in Chicago –
SJ: Ah, yes.
KH: Where these dynamics are on display full time. I marched with our teachers when they went on strike in 2012, in a contract fight that Rahm Emanuel lost. I went to jail alongside our teachers in 2013, when we shut down all of the elevators in City Hall, during a protest that was part of a campaign to save 50 public schools that Rahm had slated for closure — which is a battle our side ultimately lost. Throughout this pandemic, our current mayor, Lori Lightfoot, whose leadership has echoed Rahm Emanuel’s in many ways, has vilified our teachers, just as Rahm Emanuel did before her, because our teachers are always making demands of a system that is starving their work to death. Their refusal to cooperate with austerity, with unsafe working conditions, their resistance to standardized tests that do not help, and actually hurt their students, is always cast as the problem. And narratively, neoliberalism really has to do this, right? Because neoliberal politicians are not going to fund the housing and human services and educational programs that we need, to change the conditions people are living in, so they need permanent villains and false solutions. So teachers are always depicted as failing, and lazy and not dedicated enough, because if they aren’t the problem, we might talk about what is. Whereas police, who uphold order, which means upholding inequality, enforce the conditions that are making us all miserable — but we are always told that the people tasked with maintaining the inequality are under-resourced, and that’s the real problem. Even though it’s been well established that giving police more money and resources does not actually reduce crime. Which, why would it, right? Police don’t go around improving people’s lives. It’s just not what they do. Education and access to resources improve people’s lives. So in Chicago, we have a teacher’s union that never shuts up about material conditions, and actually makes demands around affordable housing and human services, while fighting for their own contracts, and are very much part of the tradition you describe in your book of public educators being crusaders for more equitable redistribution, while also being prime targets for villainization. Can you say a bit about education as the hinge point of neoliberalism and how the vilification of teachers fits within that?
SJ: Yeah, I mean, there’s so much here to unpack and the Chicago teachers give us so many great ways to discuss it. Because people like Karen Lewis, who we greatly miss, and Stacy Davis Gates are just so good at talking about this. I’m always quoting them. So public schools are a perfect example of something that, like the neoliberal wave wants to privatize. And as you said, like, it’s not just that they want to privatize this because something, something private schools, it’s because, a) there’s money to be made, and b) schools are the place where children learn things, right? Like it’s so obvious. It’s sort of comical, but like, there are reasons why, like the Walton family, who own Walmart, invest a lot of money, not just in charter schools, they do that, but they also invested money in like school curricula to be taught, something that was once called Students in Free Enterprise, and now has a different name that I’m blanking on at the moment, that literally write pro-capitalist curricula to be taught in public schools. So, they get their tentacles in any way they can. So this is a whole sort of, part of the apparatus that, you know, was a public good that, you know, however segregated and messy it was for decades upon decades, it was available for most people. We’ll say most people. And with the end of that, and this is not a surprise that it overlaps very strongly with the end of formal legal segregation in public schools — certainly not the end of segregation — that privatization overlaps, and this is something that several people have written about in terms of the racist aspects of neoliberalism, privatization is a way to get around having Black kids in class with your white kids, among other things.
So like just here, we’ve got like a lot of the machine moving. Right? So the schools are a) a place where you can teach the kids that capitalism is awesome, b) they’re a place where you can actually like, sort of stick the needle in and an extract some public funds, which is where charter schools come in, and also vouchers and other things that people have tried to push over them last 30 years or so. And then, teachers can become the face of everything that’s wrong. And so this is what fellow Chicagoan Adam Kotsko calls demonization, right? And he traces this in a wonderful book called Neoliberalism’s Demons that I think everyone should read, to Christian history, but also specifically to this process by which we are blamed for every choice we make. So neoliberalism purports to be about choice and freedom and liberation, and everything in the world exists, we just have to choose properly. And alongside that comes the fact that like, if you, if you are unhappy, you must have chosen wrong and therefore it is your own fault. So, and we see this again with the discourse around criminalization too. So like, if you are arrested for something you have done, it is a choice you have made, you have chosen wrongly, you are bad. It is all your own fault. You have no one to blame, but yourself because you have choices. Right? And so teachers have done badly somehow, right? Because we can’t possibly blame a system that’s been defunded and segregated and all the rest, you just have to blame the individual who’s at the front of the classroom and mysteriously, every single individual in teaching is worthy of blame somehow. Especially when those individuals won’t just act like individuals, and when they do things like, you know, insist on having strong unions. So, you know, all of this gets wrapped up in this rhetoric of “care.” So Lori Lightfoot really cares about the kids. That’s why she wants the schools where you opened, right? Just like Rahm Emanual really cared about Black and Brown kids in Chicago. That’s definitely why he was attacking the teacher’s unions. You know? And Karen Lewis said this to me, what feels like a million years ago, but was actually like 2013, when we first launched the Belabored podcast, you know, she said, “You want us to believe that you care more about the students that we teach every day than we do.” You know, it was ridiculous, but that argument is used again to sort of cover up the fact that what you’re actually doing is extracting all of this public money, sending it elsewhere, among other things, spending it on cops and, you know, you have to have someone to blame for the fact that this shockingly doesn’t produce great results for kids. So you blame the teachers, and the teachers, it’s not an accident, have been one of the most unionized professions in the country for a very long time.
KH: I remember in your book you wrote about how one of Ronald Reagan’s campaign aides, when he was running for governor, said that “we are in danger of producing an educated proletariat,” and it really is that basic. They were talking about college, in that case, but overall, the people whose agendas exist in opposition to our well being understand the threat that a strong public education system poses to their dominance.
SJ: Right, and a strong integrated one that teaches Black and Brown working class kids as if they matter. Can’t have that. That would be just terrifying. I mean, that’s what they’re scared of. Right? It’s not an accident that Reagan attacked the University of California system as Black and Brown kids are finally getting access to public education. And they dismantled what had been a mostly free at the point of access, the public higher education system. Same thing in New York here, right? That CUNY was free and was finally being opened up to Black and Brown kids. And that is one of the first targets in the fiscal crisis moment when neoliberalism really sweeps into New York City. You know, when we talk about austerity, we often talk about it like it’s simply a tightening of budgets, but it’s never that simple, right? As you know, like the cops budget is never up for cuts. Defunding the police is seen as this horrifying, crazy thing that only, you know, weirdo, commies and anarchists like us want. But defunding the public schools, which they’ve been doing systematically for the last 40 years, defunding a public university system, so that once again, it’s only accessible to well-off people, that they’ve been doing. So when we think about these things, it’s important to understand them as like, again, as sort of projects of social engineering, as much as projects of moving money around, because we have to do that social engineering so that we will all acquiesce to the ways that they move money around.
KH: I want to circle back to Walmart for a moment, because you say in your book that neoliberalism could be called Walmartism, and I loved that. Can you say more about that?
SJ: So I’ve already mentioned the Walton family is literally pumping money into Students in Free Enterprise and charter schools and all of that, and I’m also spending a lot of time lately, because Amazon is the thing on everybody’s mind, pointing out that Amazon’s actual — the part of Amazon that most people think they interact with, right, which is ordering things from amazon.com and having them show up on your doorstep or, you know, watching them on video, but whatever. The part where you order things and somebody in a “Fulfillment Center” finds them and sends them to you. That’s basically Walmart’s business, right? Walmart is actually the company that innovated — big scare quotes around “innovated” — things like the barcode, and really made the international supply chain that we think of now as just part of how things are, part of our lives.
I’m reading a book right now, actually called The Box, which is a history of the container ship, partly inspired by the big boat getting stuck in the Suez Canal, I must say, because the big boat is both hilarious and also this hinge point of modern capitalism that companies like Walmart built their power on the back of. So Walmart was always a tech company. Walmart was always a logistics company, a shipping company. It sort of redefined relationships with manufacturers as a retailer, and it laid the groundwork for all of these things that Amazon is.
Now Amazon, also, its real profit engine is actually Amazon Web Services. So the part of Amazon that we don’t see, for instance, we’re talking on Zoom right now, which I believe still uses Amazon Web Services. So, you know, Jeff Bezos is probably listening to us.
KH: Hi, Jeff.
SJ: Hi Jeff, we’re coming for you. But the way that Walmart is seen as something totally different from Amazon, I think is an important part of this whole conversation. Because the thing about neoliberalism, it is a historically specific political project of people who believe in capitalism as a project. So I think it’s important to talk about neoliberalism, but it’s also important to point out that the problem is capitalism.
And so it’s both innovative and also not. And I think this is a thing that we sort of — a contradiction we have to get used to when we’re talking about things like Amazon, you know, is that Amazon — you know, two people that I talked to and, or listened to on a podcast today, both compared [it] to the British East India Company. Which is a very, very old way of, again, like a privatized public infrastructure that managed global trade back a few hundred years ago. So, you know, these are the complications of talking about neoliberalism I think, right? It’s like ultimately, the problem is a system that relies on supposedly free wage labor in order to allow a few people to accumulate a whole bunch of capital and the various political forms that that has taken over a few hundred years are worth understanding and picking apart, as they exist, but also to not forget that the whole system is what makes all of this sort of possible, and also necessary.
KH: I want to talk a bit about vagrancy. As an abolitionist, I’m always interested in discussions of vagrancy. And I love how you captured in the book that vagrancy laws are sort of a way of punishing people’s failure to conform to the demands of capitalism and how this really plays into the way we are taught to moralize our relationship with work. And the way the idea of safety is exploited to enforce our cooperation with capitalism. Can you talk a bit about how vagrancy laws have helped enforce our participation in our own exploitation?
SJ: Yeah. I mean, I love vagrancy as a topic. It’s such a good, meaty thing to dig your fingers into. I actually also have, like, my location on Twitter just set to “vagrant,” partly because I travel a lot, even in the post pandemic hell, I still haven’t really settled down. But also it’s a political identification, right, which is like, which side am I on in this fight? I, you know, am on the side of the people who resisted violent impositions of work regimes.
And so, vagrancy laws have, in some form, have a long history, right? They go back to various laws in, sort of, the poor law tradition, which started in Britain in the early days of wage labor, after the enclosures, after people are sort of forced off of the commons and have to work in order to live, rather than be subsistence farming and any number of other ways that people might make a living. They, even with all the enclosures and the giving people very little option, people still didn’t really want to work because working in a factory or a mill really sucks. It’s violent and awful, and it probably kills you. So, these kinds of laws are put in place. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s Regulating the Poor is really great on this subject. So the poor laws and things like that are used to basically force people to work so you can literally be arrested for not working. And you will only get assistance if you were determined to be sort of, you know, having tried to work, having been a good work subject and being unable to work through no fault of your own.
This is the tradition that shaped our welfare policies in the U.S., right, like welfare reform, which I’m sure we’ll get to. But the vagrancy laws, in particular in the U.S., are racialized because they come in, and as part of Jim Crow and they are a part of the way to essentially force people who had been in slavery back to working in any conditions that the people who had been slaveholders thought were appropriate. So you were not allowed to be, you know, not working in the right ways. So I find like all of these discussions and descriptions of various ways that like Black women were penalized for doing the wrong kinds of labor. So, the appropriate work for Black women was essentially to be cleaning the house, and other things, of white women. And if you were not doing that in the appropriate way, you could be punished for not working, even though you might be working very hard, you just weren’t working in the way that somebody thought a Black woman should work. And so, there’s a story in, gosh, it’s either Tera Hunter’s book, To ‘Joy My Freedom, which is also excellent, one of my favorite labor histories, or Saidiya Hartman’s book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Both of them tell wonderful stories about the way these laws are imposed, where a woman who had been a domestic worker for another Black family is penalized for not working because it was not appropriate for Black women to employ domestic servants. There are other women that Saidiya Hartman writes about that were sent to the workhouse where they were forced to do laundry work for the crime of not wanting the job that they were offered. And so it’s this way that, again, that not working is not only penalized in that you are not earning a wage and therefore you have a hard time paying the bills, but it’s literally criminalized. So you can literally be thrown in jail for not working, and not working in the way that you are supposed to given your race and gender.
KH: I think this idea of not cooperating with capitalism as being criminal and criminalized is so foundational, in ways that people really urgently need to get their heads around. Because, as I’m always saying, this is an era of collapse. This system is going to have to tamp down and exact a whole lot of control over people, in order to maintain our cooperation as things get worse.
So many mechanisms of control exist in our society to ensure we cooperate with capitalism, and when we are talking about state control and control enacted by our employers, those lines are quite intentionally blurred, especially for criminalized people, whose bosses are given even more power over their bodies and their movements. And when we look at people who are on parole or who are experiencing e-carceration, whose movements are being restricted, where are they allowed to go? They are allowed to go to work. So it’s not really about it being unsafe for them to leave the house, or we wouldn’t allow them to go menace their workplaces. It’s about reducing them to this necessary function — this part of them that the system actually wants and needs, and managing how and when they do it — and sometimes extracting some of that money back from them to pay for their at-home incarceration.
So in this era of hypersurveillance and hypercriminalization, I think people really need to realize that we all have a stake in that. When Amazon says it needs to monitor the biometrics of its drivers for “safety,” we need to think about what it means for safety to be leveraged in that way.
SJ: Yeah, I mean, so the fact that like Bill Clinton’s welfare “reform” and Bill Clinton’s criminal justice “reform,” both, you know, with big air quotes around the word “reform,” come in at about the same time, by the same combination of the Gingrich-led House and Bill Clinton, you know, triangulating everything he could possibly triangulate and taking everything out on Black people who he presumed had nowhere else to go vote. Well, that gives us the toxic mess we’ve got today.
And, I think one of the things that’s really important to talk about, because you know, Surveillance Capitalism [The Age of Surveillance Capitalism], Shoshana Zuboff’s book that people have, you know, that has gotten deservedly a lot of hype. But also, I just want to note that capitalism has always been about surveillance also, right, that like the techniques of surveilling workers, again, whether they are enslaved, or theoretically free workers, are intrinsic to this system of capitalism, always have been. And just now we’ve got better technology for it. So you can have a surveillance camera in an Amazon truck where the worker doesn’t even technically work for Amazon, but Amazon has the right to spy on them. Or, you know, the gadgets that you use, if you’re working in one of these warehouses where you literally have a thing that’s just like strapped to your arm. So the sort of bio politics of all of this stuff is really interesting. And this is where we get to, you know, the Amazon peeing in bottles stuff, Amazon workers peeing in bottles stuff.
But so welfare reform is — I mean, welfare AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children is what the program is called, that’s what we mean when most people are talking about welfare, even though the welfare state is a much broader thing. AFDC, sort of like the public schools, people freak out when it starts to become available to Black women. So before that, its foundings are in the New Deal, in the Great Depression, as a way to give money to women who didn’t have husbands for a variety of reasons. And when it was mostly for white women, people didn’t freak out too much, but it was always invasive and sort of means tested and surveilled and all of this. But when Black women start to use it, there was this, again this same sort of notion that runs through the vagrancy question, is white people are obsessed with making Black people work in this country and controlling how they do it. And so, when you had Black women getting access to money for supposedly nothing, although raising children is really hard work, that was the impetus for all sorts of surveillance. So, the Welfare Rights Movement, which is one of the coolest labor movements in American history that most people don’t know about, fought things like having welfare caseworkers come over and inspect their underwear drawers because if they were found to be sleeping with a man, then that man should be supporting them rather than the government. They fought all sorts of means testing. And they demanded enough money to buy nice things for their kids and not just be content with whatever they got. They really said that, “What we are doing is work. Caring for children is work. We deserve a living, and we deserve to not be punished and stigmatized for that.”
And it’s all connected, right, to this idea that if you are getting a payment from the government, you must be getting away with something, somehow, and be punished for it. And so this happens even as the Welfare Rights Movement is making demands in the sixties and early seventies to the point of almost getting their number one demand, which was for a guaranteed minimum income, almost passed under Nixon. And then the tide turns and guess who gets blamed for everything, guess who gets demonized. Shockingly, once again, I’m sure all your listeners cannot believe that it was Black women who are the face, suddenly, of all of this undeserved public spending. And things like the tax revolts, all of these sort of target this demonized image of the Black welfare queen, right?
And what actually happens in California after the tax revolts restrict property taxes is that the entire social safety net gets slashed, right? The public schools are, despite California being a rich state that is run by Democrats, the public schools have some of the least per student funding in the country. This is why when the Los Angeles teachers went on strike, they were demanding to get high school class sizes lowered from 45 kids in a class. Can you imagine teaching 45 high school students? Like, I can’t imagine teaching five high school students because teaching terrifies me. I think teachers are superheroes, but like 45 high school kids in a classroom. Yeah, so the way that demonizing Black women, the same way that demonizing Black men gives us mass incarceration, right, these things actually create systems of punishment and control that hurt everyone, but they do it by picking on the people who they think are easy targets and that, once again, all get sold to us under the rubric of choice. So clearly those women on welfare, they just chose to be lazy and not work, and therefore they don’t deserve anything. And clearly if you committed a quote unquote “crime,” you have made bad choices and, therefore, just need to be punished for it. This whole mindset is just running through all of this.
KH: So at the Haymarket event, promoting your book, you said that organizing brings connection that the boss can’t co-opt. Can you say more about that?
SJ: I mean, in fact, often sometimes you are co-opting the connection that the boss wants, which is, again, you’re turning that thing, like I was talking about the factory earlier, right, but you’re turning the cooperation that the boss does need among the workers to the workers own interests. And I think it’s also just a really important way of seeing other people as people and not as your competition, or as obstacles to getting what you want. But actually saying, “Oh, all of the problems that I have in this workplace, they also have, my coworkers also have. And we can solve those, not by each of us individually, maybe quitting and going, getting a ‘better job,’ big air quotes around ‘better job,’ but actually by banding together and saying, ‘Oh, the fact that we have to pee in bottles because we don’t have enough time to go to the bathroom, because this weird gadget strapped to our arms keeps track of every second we don’t spend scanning items in a warehouse is a problem we should solve by joining a union or collectively walking off the job, which is also a thing Amazon workers have done in other places.’”
That kind of action requires a level of connection that I think is important to discuss, in part, because — so one of the things that’s happened since the Amazon campaign started in Bessemer is that people were talking about sort of a boycott of Amazon. And then the union sort of put out a statement saying we haven’t called for a boycott. And people were very defensive about this and it’s kind of like — look, you can not shop at Amazon. In fact, I recommend not shopping at Amazon, but there is a difference between being in solidarity with someone and acting in, what you believe, is in their best interests.
And like the fact is that Amazon is so bloody huge. And so much of its income is actually in business to business or business to government. Right? So Amazon Web Services has a whole bunch of government contracts and that’s where they actually make their money. And so if you boycott Amazon, shutting down production at one distribution center, that would probably piss Amazon off a lot. If you spend a week not buying that one book you were going to buy from Amazon and you buy it from a local bookstore, which you should do anyway, that’s not actually going to be, from a meme spread on Twitter, significant enough to force Amazon to the bargaining table. And also, the workers didn’t ask for it.
And so, rather than doing the thing that makes us feel good, which is often kind of the easy thing — like not shopping from Amazon, it is in a way difficult because Amazon is everywhere, but it’s also easy, right? Taking a week of not shopping at Amazon is like actually a really low lift way to be in solidarity with these workers who are risking their source of income. Actually listening to and finding ways to be in relationship to these people, that’s actually harder and more difficult. And as a few organizers pointed out, the best thing you can do, actually, to be in solidarity with these Amazon workers in Alabama is unionize your workplace. You already got a unionized workplace. Okay, then go help somebody else unionize their workplace. Right? If you can’t be in direct relationships to solidarity with those workers, I’m sure there are people you can be. And like, we actually have to think of solidarity as a relationship, even if it’s not. It doesn’t require actually liking people. You know, you don’t have to be friends to be in solidarity. You don’t have to be friends to be comrades, I’m thinking of Jodi Dean’s book Comrade here, right? But it is a relationship that actually has to be two-way in order for it to matter. And that is actually powerful. And that is why neoliberalism is an entire social engineering project to destroy solidarity.
KH: Yes, what a powerful description of what neoliberalism is and what it does. So we are talking a lot here about sort of being expected to love our work. If money weren’t a concern, how would you be spending your time right now?
SJ: I want, right now to, like, pack up my 10 closest friends and just go lie on a beach somewhere and, like, hug. Because I’ve been living alone for the last four months of this pandemic and I’m going to call my skin off soon. Beyond that, like, I think a lot about the fact that like I write for a living now, which is both great and also means that like, writing used to be fun for me. And now it’s just work. And that doesn’t mean that I don’t take pleasure in like a well-written sentence or like compliments on my writing or any of these things. Like those are all great. I love them. But also I want my creativity, like back in my own service, in a way. And I also think that like on the connection front, I think there are so many awesome things we could all make that would actually benefit everyone if we were freed more from work to actually do and make and share the various things that give us pleasure.
KH: I absolutely agree. And while I have you here, I want to say that I really adored the conclusion of your book because you talked about being a writer and the love that goes into our relationship with what we create, but also drew out that the connection that we’re seeking when we write is really about connecting with other people. And this has been a year of such disconnection, on so many levels, for so many of us. We’ve all been stripped of so many points of access to one another, and also confronted with the reality that, even before the pandemic, a lot of our connectedness had really been cut down, and reduced to commercial experiences. And in the absence of those experiences and the ability to share space, many of us are feeling pretty starved. I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity in that hunger. So in addition to unionizing workplaces, what do you think seizing that opportunity looks like.
SJ: Yeah, I think so much of last spring and summer’s round of Black Lives Matter protests, because like, it was such a frigging pleasure to just be out in public with people, and also the level of like, there’s always been good sort of caretaking at protests that I’ve seen. Right? But this was another level.
There were so many people with little red wagons full of pre-prepared bags for protesters with like a mask and hand sanitizer and a bottle of water and a granola bar. And just the way that you just saw people going around with no judgment, just here’s a mask. Here, would you like some hand sanitizer, like holding a squirt bottle as the March went by and just like offering it to anybody who wanted it. The way that felt really, really tangible in these moments felt so much to me like an outgrowth of the moment when, yes, we were talking about George Floyd and, you know, Derek Chauvin is on trial right now, as we’re talking. And George Floyd saying, “I can’t breathe” was an echo of Eric Garner saying, “I can’t breathe.” But it was also an echo of the fact that we’re in a respiratory friggin pandemic and the people who were dying the most are Black and Brown people. Right?
And so in that moment, taking care of people, there are so many banners that I saw that were like, “Care, not cops.” And it felt like such a beautiful reclamation again, of, of caring about each other and wanting to be together and wanting to do it safely. Right. Wanting to make sure that everybody had a mask and everybody had hand sanitizer and everybody also had water.
And in this moment when the government had just massively failed to care for us at all, I just, yeah, I found that, so profoundly intensely moving. And I’m watching it again, sort of long distance because, my comrades in the U.K. are fighting a really draconian policing bill. And, you know, people I know in Bristol are sort of coming out the same style of protests night after night and getting just beaten the crap out of, by the cops, because that’s what cops do even in England.
And that reclamation of sort of public space together has been such a key part of protest movements of the last decade or so in response to neoliberalism and saying that like, “This space is ours and we can be together in it and find new ways of relating to each other.” I think that that is really powerful and I don’t want that to sort of get lost in the way that people can sometimes be snarky about Occupy now.
KH: Absolutely, and people should also be less snarky about Occupy, god damn it, for so many reasons that we don’t have time to explore right now, but maybe next time. For now, I just want to thank you so much for joining us today, Sarah. This has been a great conversation and I really appreciate your insights so much, and thank you for this book, Work Won’t Love You Back, which is really a gift to us all.
SJ: Well, thank you so much. It’s been so good to talk to you about it.
KH: I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
Don’t forget to check out Sarah Jaffe’s book Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. You can also find links to more of Sarah’s work here.
For more on how workers are taking on Amazon and Jeff Bezos:
An Unholy Union by Kim Kelly
Amazon Illegally Fired Activist Employees, Labor Board Finds by Sharon Zhang
Cops Hired by Amazon Are Intimidating Workers and Supporters of the Union Drive by Madeleine Freeman & Luigi Morris
More books to check out:
Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging by Jodi Dean
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman
Regulating the Poor by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward
Neoliberalism’s Demons by Adam Kotsko
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