This week we return to two of our abiding interests: the changing nature of work, and the ongoing debate over the question of “respectability politics.” We’ve produced a number of briefings on each of these: most notably Vol. 24: “On the Uberfication of Everything,” our recent selection of writings from Martin Luther King, and one very important set of readings curated by Sam Speers on “Race, Respectability, and Hope.”
These two interests come together this week in a stimulating and wide-ranging piece for the Wilson Quarterly called “Reconsidering Booker T. Washington in the Age of Amazon.” Author Jonathan Malesic begins by describing Washington as the loser in an early twentieth-century debate with W.E.B. Du Bois over the adequacy of “respectability politics” as a form of public engagement for African Americans. Despite Washington’s innovative efforts to establish the Tuskegee Institute as a premier educational institution for former slaves and their children during Reconstruction, Malesic thinks Du Bois conclusively carried the day when he argued in The Souls of Black Folk that “Washington’s strategy [of respectability politics] would keep African Americans docile workers, stunt their intellectual and cultural development, and do nothing to upend white supremacy.” And yet, for all his sympathy with Du Bois, Malesic claims that “Washington is worth taking seriously again as a thinker,” particularly on the topic of dignity in work.
In Washington’s day and ours, nearly all agree that there is dignity in work. Yet there are often substantial differences in where people locate that dignity. On one model (we’ll call it the inherent model), dignity is found in the work itself—that is, work is dignifying when it is done well. On the model Washington develops, however (we’ll call it the conferral model), dignity is conferred by someone else.
To understand this distinction, consider a brick maker. On the inherent model, the dignity of the brick maker’s work resides in the right execution of her labor. If she makes good bricks, then she has done good—and therefore inherently dignifying—work. If she fails in her attempts to make good bricks (by not making any bricks or by making bad bricks), her work has less dignity, but, in any case, the dignity is in the doing. On the conferral model, however, the dignity of the brick making resides in the recognition she receives for her work from other people. This was Washington’s claim during Reconstruction: dignity, like esteem or status, is always conferred, and the way for blacks to pursue full and equal treatment within a society that had enslaved them was to deflect attention away from themselves and toward the superior quality of their products—in short, to make the best bricks.
What does it mean to work for a “platform”?
If the brick maker was at the center of Washington’s imagination, the “contingent worker” (the Uber driver, AirBnB host, etc.) is at the center of ours. Malesic takes Washington’s thought on the necessity of conferral to be both prescient and generative for those of us thinking seriously about the precarious nature of what is alternatively called the “sharing economy,” the “Uber economy,” or the “gig economy.” “In this world,” Malesic says, “doing a good job is often not enough to secure your employment or your dignity.”
As we pointed out in Vol. 24, the majority of gig-economy workers are compensating for stagnant wages through part-time flexible or freelance work. To illustrate the point, consider recent remarks by David Plouffe (former Obama campaign manager and now chief advisor to Uber) on the topic of “Uber and the American Worker”:
“…we’re discovering that platforms like Uber are boosting the incomes of millions of American families. They’re helping people who are struggling to pay the bills, earn a little extra spending money, or transitioning between jobs. And this is now happening on an unprecedented scale. And it adds up: in 2015, drivers have earned over $3.5 billion.”
Turning to “contingent work” to pay the bills may also mean losing an important source of conferred dignity.
“Uber,” Plouffe continues, “currently has 1.1 million active drivers on the platform globally.” But what does it mean to work for a “platform”? For one thing, it means working scant hours: as Plouffe puts it, “for most people, driving on Uber is not even a part-time job…it’s just driving an hour or two a day, here or there, to help pay the bills.” But turning to “contingent work” to pay the bills may also mean losing what, for many, has been an important source of conferred dignity: the structures of a stable work environment.
Allison Pugh has recently described this situation as a “Tumbleweed Society.” While her book by that name discusses multiple aspects of this phenomenon, an excerpt published as an essay in Aeon addresses what she calls the “transformation of work” for men in particular—both the high-achieving men for whom overwork is described as “flexibility,” and the working-class men who are no longer working. For the working class, for whom “transformation” has largely meant loss, her question is fairly basic: “If work is what it means to be a man, what do you do when work disappears?”
The facts regarding employment and, crucially, wage stagnation are well known, but important:
The transformation of work might have quickened the pace of the treadmill for professional men, but it has thrown other men off of it altogether. In the past 50 years, the number of men working full-time has fallen from 83 per cent to 66 per cent; between the 1970s and the ’90s, the proportion of jobs lost by prime-age working men almost doubled. The change was even more dramatic for black men, partly because disproportionate numbers of them in the U.S. were employed in the dwindling manufacturing sector, not to mention the disproportionate impact of incarceration policies.
What we are facing, Pugh suggests without stating quite as plainly as I would like, is the failure of both the inherent model and the conferral model to help us find dignity in our work. Through technological advance and globalization, many of the workers most likely to find satisfaction in the inherent quality of their work have found themselves quite literally “made redundant.” Many of these have turned to the “contingent work” supplied by the newfound gig economy to make ends meet—but, to add insult to injury, the mechanisms for conferring dignity upon this type of work have not been nearly as robust as those they are replacing.