Modernity’s False Idols

by Mary Lucia Darst

Short of being a reigning monarch, the Pope, or the Dalai Lama, there is nothing sacred about a job or a business. It is simply something someone does, runs, or owns. Naturally, there are enjoyable ones, abysmal ones, mediocre ones, and some rather despicable ones. Equally understandably, everyone hopes to obtain one in the first category, according to personal definition of “enjoyable,” and to retain it once captured. But dopamine is not a sufficient reason to worship at the altar of the golden calf of “jobs” and “employment.”

The mythoi surrounding the concept of jobs and the apotheosis of employment as a final end have a long history of damaging any society that buys into the pantheon of workers, factories, and occupations. Like any faith practiced without the restraining force of reason, this quasi-religion passes quickly to bigotry and superstition. On the receiving end of the entailed hatred are technological progress, foreigners, especially competitive ones, and economic and social change. In this dynamic, especially in America, the prevailing assumption is that people have a right to jobs of their desiring simply by virtue of wanting them. In the case of Americans, they don’t; all American rights are laid out quite clearly in the Bill of Rights and having an enjoyable, secure, well-paid job is not one of the ten amendments.

Just as it is risible to worship an action, rather than the value it produces, it is senseless to honor the exterior manifestations of jobs and to revere them as if they are temples to something necessary for society. There is nothing meritorious about brick-and-mortar buildings (excluding architectural value, of course) in the simple fact of their existence. Their utility is tethered to the value produced for society, as represented by consumer interest. This means that it is not a tragedy when the local, decrepit strip mall, a relic of the 1960s and 70s across all America, closes because no one wants to shop there any more; rather, it is a sign that its utility is exhausted, something ignored by the pity party, as it wrings its hands over “jobs lost and retailers put out of business.” Funnily enough, these same people – for the most part they all belong to Generations Baby Boomer and X – didn’t have the same reaction as youths when the strip malls first put the local downtown shops out of business (consumer choice for me, but not for thee!).

The confusion regarding brick-and-mortar and jobs is at the root of the current kerfuffle surrounding President Trump’s March 29, 2018, tweet stating that Amazon is damaging economically, with particular focus on retailers being outclassed and closing. Although lost in the more recent activity, this is not the first time the president has criticized Amazon; in August 2017, he tweeted that the company has taken an enormous toll on American jobs. Technically, he is both right and wrong.

Traditional employment in large brick-and-mortar facilities, e.g. strip malls, is dying, but since both things have been moribund since the early 2000s, it is hard to logically connect that directly to Amazon. But as previously stated, real estate is only valuable according to its utility, so the death of brick-and-mortar retailing is more indicative of the decreased utility of an overall approach and its appurtenances than anything else. The retail / brick-and-mortar argument is representative of a collision of worldviews.

The Financial Times explained that Amazon’s competitive edge over local brick-and-mortar lies largely in its understanding of property utility:

Yet the efficiencies of online retail lie in scant inventory and cheap property, not eliminating staff. To stand a chance of selling a $400 Breville food processor somewhere in the US, Macy’s has to stock it in hundreds of stores from Brooklyn to Santa Barbara, where it pays exorbitant rent in malls. Amazon will deliver the same kitchen tool to any address in America. But it stocks just one of them, according to its website, in a nondescript warehouse where rents are low and, if it is lucky, the local government pays a subsidy.

Let us disregard the subsidy issue, which is certainly problematic and may account for the special tax-status the company enjoys and which rightly concerns the president. The salient point is that Amazon uses real property differently from past templates.

While armchair psychoanalysis most often tends toward the unprofessional, sometimes it can raise interesting insights: commentators at Axios Media, a financial news service, have suggested that the president, thought by observers to be very attached to a utopian view of 1950s America, is more outraged by the company’s blasé approach to physical property and business style than anything else since it is out of alignment with his own background and historic strategies. If true, this would make Amazon a corporate slumlord to his conscientious residential landlord. Unfortunately, this paradigm overlooks the fact that the dynamic of the two business empires is completely different: residential property has a fundamental, inalterable, utility simply because people must always have a roof, while few people care where their stuff is stored before it arrives at the front door.

Conflicting worldviews over the use of property is just part of the collide between the past and the present. The other significant area is, unsurprisingly, the domain of employment, jobs, and traditional utility. Even as the president, rightly, claims that Amazon has hastened the decline of the traditional brick-and-mortar retail job, the company has created more jobs; statistics for 2017 indicated that in all 50 states, only two lost jobs, totaling 8,200 positions, whose deaths cannot be directly attributed to Amazon as noted by the source. This is in contrast to hundreds of thousands created in the other 48 states. It is ridiculous to say that the approximate 325.7 million people (in 2017) in the United States should be deprived of the benefits of Amazon for the sake of 8, 200 members.

Returning to the altar of employment, Amazon warehouses have provided well-paid jobs to low-skilled workers, the type who used to seek employment in the lower echelons of the factory system. So effective is the new employment system, that the anti-capitalist Guardian ran a profile of a young, low-skilled, British Amazon employee, who complained that even though he is paid well above minimum wage, is stable, and has enough money to buy anything on a whim, he has no social life (the only definitive problem he had). Welcome to the white-collar world where social life is sublimated to work in exchange for all of the above!! This is, I believe, exactly what the populists have claimed to want: jobs with white-collar level pay for unqualified, blue-collar workers. The unanticipated price is simply part of the natural order.

In another piece, the Guardian described how Amazon has been the salvation of American ex-migrant agricultural laborers, who are now dubbed the “affluent homeless” in recognition of the sheer money they now earn through working three months of the year, during the holiday season, at the company. Compare the “affluent homeless” to the sharecroppers and migrant laborers of the Great Depression, recorded in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and one sees genuine progress. We can either be a society of crop-pickers, paid abysmally in horrific working conditions, or we can be a society of service industry workers who receive good wages and have indoor bathrooms.

The young man interviewed for the first article is a product of a world that has deified the worker, teaching him that he is entitled to it all – abundant money, job stability in a position of his choice, and a plenty of free time – by virtue of being a worker. When the market of exchange didn’t suit him, the whining commenced. Unlike the British boy, the American workers were proud of their jobs; they deeply appreciated that they could work very hard three months of the year and earn enough to live well, according to their concept, the other nine months. Unencumbered by any emotional or cultural attachment to a particular “job” or “position,” these Americans were free to see their work in terms of utility to themselves. These people are pragmatists and opportunists, though not negatively so, and have a more realistic understanding of the nature of work, its utility, and their place within the paradigm.

The inherent problem of societal perceptions as an unassailable pantheon is that there is the risk of ossification. This is what has happened with the American popular perception of employment and work. The model implicit in the rhetoric surrounding the national discussion of employment and workers is exactly suited to the immediate post-World War II period, not the contemporary economy and society. The populists’ elevation of specific types of work or industries to cult-like status to the disparagement of others, e.g. steel mills are good but Amazon warehouses are bad, are part of a quasi-religious social doctrine that is poisonous and divisive.

A time-honored method of identifying the quality of a religion is to see if it provides structure while allowing for tremendous freedom within it. The modern American secular faith of work fails this test. It is one thing to revere hard work; it is quite another to set such definitions upon it that only one group of people can be considered hard workers, a move that subtly brands others as immoral profiteers. It is impossible for such a “faith” to produce positive results. Perhaps it is time to smash the idols of jobs and workers and to accept the destruction of their nugatory manifestations.

Mary Lucia Darst was an intern at the Austrian Economics Center from January to April 2018. She graduated from Columbia University with an MA in History and Literature. In addition to working as a writer and researcher, she is an active classical musician.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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