By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottown, PEI] Guardian
This pandemic is different from the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen, and the wealthiest in the United States have seen their riches greatly increase. According to a study by 24/7 Wall St., the net worth of America’s 614 billionaires grew by a collective $931 billion during the first seven months of the pandemic.
Last year, Democratic presidential aspirant Andrew Yang remarked that “Amazon is like a giant spaceship” sucking up retail jobs and destroying smaller businesses. Jeff Bezos, its owner, is worth some $200 billion.
Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire by Brad Stone shows how the company increasingly wields its enormous scale against potential rivals. Amazon contributes to individual inequality by paying salaries so low that more than 4,000 warehouse workers in nine states are eligible for federal food-stamp subsidies.
Big Tech execs have especially profited. For example, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s personal wealth grew by $7.8 billion. Obviously, things are good for the billionaire class.
The most recent World Inequality Database shows the top one per cent of Americans control just under 35 per cent of the nation’s personal wealth – more than China’s 29.6 per cent.
Societies now recognize that workers in essential services, such as supermarkets, warehouses, delivery services, utilities maintenance, and above all health, have been taken for granted and underpaid for too long.
“Martin Luther King Jr. predicted this moment,” wrote Gene Sperling, the national economic adviser to presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, in the April 24, 2020 New York Times, referring to King’s support for the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.
“One day,” King told them, “our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”
Yet we are forced to confront the dissonance between calling workers “essential” and “heroes” while accepting the fact of their limited wages, benefits, and inability to organize. Many nursing, psychiatric and home health aides aren’t offered even a single day of paid sick leave.
Why have we privileged, not just billionaires, but white-collar and so-called “knowledge” workers?
Because the essence of modern meritocracy is the link between education and work, so one of its key social manifestations is the phenomenon of credentialism – the belief that academic or other formal qualifications are the best measure of a person’s intelligence or ability to do a particular job. This belief has undermined the dignity associated with other forms of work requiring less in the way of cognitive thinking skills.
In The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice, Fredrik DeBoer contends that a “system that doles out wealth and hardship based on academic ability is inherently and forever a rigged game.” Academics who help define what it means to be progressive live lives of great privilege, thanks to the very meritocratic system that creates inequality.
The Merit Myth by Anthony P. Carnevale, Peter Schmidt and Jeff Strohl sees elite colleges as gatekeepers that shut out “large swaths of the American population from access to power, opportunity, and wealth.”
This may help us understand why so many manual workers have turned to right-wing politics. The anthropologist Ralph Linton in his 1936 The Study of Man pointed to the difference between “achieved” identity and “ascribed” identity.
The institutions that have historically accepted you as a member unconditionally – family, church, nation – are all weakened in a more mobile and more individualistic society, he wrote. Achieved identities based on educational and career success have eclipsed ascribed identities based on attachment to place and group.
In his book Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century, British writer David Goodhart takes up Linton’s point, and makes a case for reviving the status of work outside the “knowledge economy,” especially in the age of automation.
Can we really argue that the work of a junior account manager is more useful than that of a bus driver? asks Goodhart. Or, indeed, more skilled?