A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Tired: Amazon warehouse work is worse than being an Uber Driver. Hired: Yeah, but we should still complain about them equally

Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain is clearly intended as a 21st-century version of The Road to Wigan Pier. James Bloodworth spends six months around the country working in various low-paid occupations and providing observations and reflections from his experiences and his conversations with the people he met during the journey.

The book is divided into four sections, each covering one stage of his journey; they are neatly ordered from best to worst. As the deadline for manuscript submission creeps closer (the final section contains multiple references to him scrabbling to get this book finished on time) the quality of the prose deteriorates massively: the first section is a fizzing cocktail of inventive similes, well-chosen nods to other works, and actual substantive content, whereas the final section is poorly paced and utterly predictable. Moreover, it's not hard to notice that as his employers become more and more reasonable, his raging against them barely lets up so that the justified fury of the first section (spent working in an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley) is scarcely different from his pathetic whining about Uber in the fourth section.

The first section is also the most balanced in terms of the presentation of the people Bloodworth meets. He's clearly happier telling the story of a working-class colleague expressing support for her transgender friend than reporting on tensions between people of British descent and eastern European immigrants, but he does mention both. It is the section of the book most focused upon what he actually saw, rather than upon his personal reaction to circumstances. These circumstances are indeed grim: the job is physically exhausting, the pay (which comes not from Amazon but through an agency) is unreliable and frequently arrives late, and the bosses have considerable power to make the lives of more menial employees hell. Outside work, his flat is also pretty bad (although this is perhaps connected to the fact of him moving around the country so frequently: my own experience is that the quality of landlords varies massively, so it's easy to end up with a bad one when you first move somewhere but given time you're likely to find somewhere better.)

The second section is set in Blackpool, where he is engaged by a home care provider. A fair bit of this section is taken up by how terrible of a place Blackpool has become, and how unpleasant people get when drunk. This section also provided the only complaint in the book which was genuinely new to me: that the requirement for care providers to submit to background checks creates massive delays to starting, in particular because local police forces - who have to contribute to these - do not have the resources to respond to requests for information in an adequate time frame.

The third account was the most familiar to me, being centred around his work in a call centre. This is distinctly where the book begins to take on a less observational and more preachy tone, and where one starts to have doubts about whether any set of arrangements would be enough to satisfy Bloodworth. It is quite clear that the call centre does all it can to make the monotonous work more pleasant for its workers - certainly much more than the call centre I had the misfortune to spend six months in late 2017 and early 2018 working in - but still Bloodworth complains that the company provides the perks of its own volition, and not as a result of pressure from a trade union. The writing style which effervesced through the earlier chapters has dried up, and the literary references become more tenuous.

Finally, he moves back to London and works a while as an Uber driver. The five chapters here resemble nothing so much as a dull thread from lower case Twitter, with bog-standard leftist talking points presented as though they were utterly original. The most extreme case of this comes when he recycles the more-than-sixty-years-old arguments against grammar schools - a set of institutions which have not existed in most of the country for several decades, and which are highly unlikely to make a revival - and tries to present himself as countercultural. As mentioned above, the pacing of this section is odd, to say the least - of five chapters devoted to this period, two of them take place entirely prior to him giving his first Uber ride. There no attempt at balance or at charitable presentation of those he disagrees with - of the two other Uber drivers he quotes in the book, both are generally negative and one is a person who went so far as to take them to court. There are irrelevant rants about Objectivism and Uber's tax accounting, both of which may be worth critiquing as part of a general leftist program but neither of which has any relevance to the day-to-day lives of Uber's drivers. The best example he can give of a case in which the interests of Uber collide with those of its drivers is that "some of the drivers I spoke to did not believe the algorithm always gave the available job to the closest driver." Leaving aside the possibility that this may be perfectly reasonable - perhaps the app may try to give jobs to drivers which will take them in the direction of their home patch? - surely, if the interests of these parties are "very often antagonistic", surely he can furnish a case which does not rely on personal impressions. He also fails to consider the possibility that restrictions placed by Uber on its drivers may be representing the interests not of itself, but of the other drivers - perhaps because this would undermine his desire to present a narrative of solidarity of the oppressed.

Th value of this book lies entirely in the first 60% or so, which is genuinely excellent: the sociological observations outweigh the politics, and the politics are on occasion genuinely original or enlightening. It's a book I'd encourage you to start reading, but also to give up when you start getting bored - it's really not worth the slog through to the end.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Stability and Equality

A lot of political theorists talk about equality as a requirement for social stability, without having an explicit theory of mobs. This strikes me as a significant absence.

Social stability is not just about avoiding mobs, of course - it's also about keeping crime down, ensuring that pressure for change happens through peaceful channels, etc. But the sight of mobs rampaging through the streets is perhaps the most visible failure of states to maintain public order, and is surely a significant piece of what we ordinarily mean and care about under the banner of "stability".

(This is particularly true for theorists at the more cynical end of constructivism, who may regard society as an implicit compact between the proletariat and bourgeousie, in which the proletariat are granted certain rights and privileges in order to stave off revolution.)

I intend this not as a criticism of egalitarians, but as a debating point within egalitarianism. There are a wide range of factors which may plausibly reduce or exacerbate the risk of social disorder, and which have implications for the kind of egalitarianism one would endorse:

  • The perception that the masses have little to lose from rioting (suggesting a need for broad-based prosperity)
  • The perception that social elite possess large quantities of goods worth taking (suggesting a need for levelling down)
  • The perception that social elites acquired their wealth unfairly (suggesting a need for equality before the law, and possibly more besides)
  • The presence of intelligent and hard-working people who are unable to succeed within established institutions (suggesting a need for equality of opportunity, but not for equality of income)
  • The perception that public authorities are biased against particular groups within society (which could point in a number of directions)
...and so on. Moreover, it matters how these interact. For example, one very simple (and highly dubious) model might suggest that all five of the above factors are individually necessary for riots to start. (An uncontroversial case of this is fire, where fuel, energy, and oxygen are all individually necessary for a fire to start.) In this case, we could focus on abolishing only one of the causes - perhaps whichever was cheapest to treat, or whichever cause we find most distasteful for other reasons.

A more realistic model would seek to quantify inequality of various types, and would give them different weights for their contribution to the frequency of riots starting and to the damage caused by riots. It seems likely, then, that if the achievement of social stability requires state action this is likely to require action against multiple different notions of inequality - we cannot focus on a single form of inequality.

I think this is far more a critique of egalitarian theory rather than of practice. John Rawls may have attempted to reduce equality to "sufficient and equal civil and political liberties, and maximisation of the primary social goods available to the worst-off class within society", but actually-existing democratic states are concerned to reduce economic equality, racial inequality, inequality of access to political institutions, ensure equal treatment before the law...

Speculatively, we might also take this an argument against the idea that inequality is intrinsically bad. Theories of the importance-in-itself of equality tend to end up focussing upon one particular conception of inequality. I think we have here a strong argument that no one conception of inequality is likely to satisfy all of our intuitions about the importance of equality, and ultimately the best evidence for egalitarianism - as with all moral theories - is derived from our intuitions.