The expendable worker

See updates and errata through October 2, 2020 at end of post.


Since the novel coronavirus began to spread and when most people were told to stay home whether they still had jobs or not, it’s been hard to miss that so-called “essential” workers, facing shortages of personal protective equipment,[1] were in fact expendable workers.

This, of course, is really nothing new. Capitalism’s roots in slavery[2] reappear in neoliberalism’s view of labor unions as the only monopolies that should be subject to antitrust action,[3] in its notion of “efficiency” being seemingly constrained to reduced labor costs, and in its abuse of workers by employers such as Amazon and Walmart.[4] If, in capitalism, workers are inherently means to rich people’s ends,[5] neoliberalism celebrates the relationship with a “greed is good” mantra that applies only to rich people’s greed—workers’ jobs will be “outsourced” to places where human beings work for less. And less. And less. And less.

“Essential” workers’ jobs are those that can’t be outsourced overseas. They require human beings here. Grocery store shelves must be stocked. Cashiers must collect the money. Medical workers must treat people where they are. Taxi and ride-share drivers must transport people up from where they are.

But with so many jobs outsourced overseas, there is a surplus of people to do what we now recognize as “essential” work.[6] “Essential” workers often have no leverage and Max Weber’s point that market relations inherently privilege whomever has the greater power to say no, and that the benefits and the handicaps that accrue from each transaction are cumulative, making the rich richer and the poor poorer[7] achieves full culmination. And so it is that for a brief time, we noticed that “essential” workers were often the most poorly paid.[8]

If there is one small consolation to living alone, it is that in a time of pandemic, I have no one dear to me to infect. And given my own medical history, it is in fact likely that I will not know if I contract COVID-19. I would be asymptomatic, possibly a carrier.[9] So if, because ride-share driving is so marginal,[10] I had to work because I could not afford not to, there was also the consolation that I could.

And so I have. And as ride-share companies insisted that drivers should wear masks, my mother came through, sewing some that are both attractive and comfortable. I wear them faithfully.

Not all of my passengers do, even now that Uber and Lyft tell passengers that they must. The only reason that has any legitimacy at all is that with the criminalization of Black bodies, “an African American who wears a mask could be considered guilty of a crime.”[11] Probably the most pathetic is that many men view mask-wearing as “effeminate.”[12] But now as infection rates are spiking in some places in the country,[13] there can be no excuses.

There can no longer be an excuse that some people may still be uninformed or misinformed about the need to wear masks or the need for social distancing (see update, July 6, 2020, below). Too much has been said by medical authorities and in the media. People who refuse to comply are expressing a moral preference for the old and the vulnerable to die[14] and for others to be sick. They are choosing to kill, not through negligence, but with malice aforethought, with a moral preference for evil.

Some people still refuse to comply and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, where I live and drive, is one of the places seeing a substantial spike, largely because people are making that moral choice for evil.[15] Many cases are being traced to bars.[16] Some kids are even competing to be infected.[17]

A characteristic of the criminally insane is that when they commit a crime they may do so failing to recognize the difference between right and wrong.[18] A characteristic of a psychopath, on the other hand, is that they may choose evil as a means to an end.[19]

My non-compliant passengers are not criminally insane. They are psychopaths.

So I suppose I really shouldn’t be surprised that when I report passengers to Uber for not wearing masks, I receive a notification from Uber that the company has received a report that I wasn’t wearing a mask (figure 1).

Fig. 1. Screenshot of Uber notification received by the author, July 3, 2020, taken on July 4.

Uber requires drivers to take a “selfie” with their masks on at the beginning of every day. It does not require the same of passengers. And I have only received these notifications (figure 1) when I reported passengers for not wearing masks, in fact, on the very same days.

Passengers may lose access to the platform. They probably can manage to regain it by various means. I, on the other hand, could lose the only job I can get, even with a Ph.D.[20]

The message here is unmistakable. For all the pretense, passengers may put my life in jeopardy and I may not complain. Not only my job, but my very life is expendable.


Update, July 6, 2020: The cartoon, featuring a large group of people, drinking and not wearing masks (figure 2), reaches me via a Telegraph newsletter.

Fig. 2. Cartoon, apparently by Peter Schrank, via the Times, July 6, 2020, fair use.

Apparently the problem with bars and COVID-19 spikes is not limited to the U.S.[21] or Allegheny County,[22] but is international in scope, at least including Britain.

I picked up a couple of passengers yesterday, who were ducking across the county line to an open bar (they’re currently closed in Allegheny County[23]), who insisted that the cause had to be the the anti-racism protests that sprang up in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd. I hear shit like that the hospitals are inflating the case counts to get funding. I hear lots of shit.

I have previously commented on a crisis of illegitimate authority, in which because authorities have abused their authority, they are not believed even now when we need to believe them.[24] And the problem is compounded in southwestern Pennsylvania, particularly among the age group of my passengers yesterday, by the collapse of the steel industry.[25] But at some point, when people are dying, you have to draw a line. People are supposed to be adults and part of that entails leaving fantasy behind, even if it means maybe you shouldn’t be going to that fucking bar.

I’m seriously tempted to start asking people who float various conspiracy theories like these whom they’re trying to persuade, me or themselves? Because an awful lot of people would have to be lying for these ‘theories,’ which they’re pulling from their asses, to be true.

Correction, July 8, 2020: I have revised my characterization of psychopaths based on a WebMD article[26] and my characterization of the criminally insane based on a legal definition.[27] Citations have also been added.

Update, July 13, 2020: The New York Times has noticed Allegheny County’s spike in COVID-19 cases:[28]

“I knew we would have a bump,” said [Pittsburgh] Mayor Bill Peduto, a Democrat. “The question is whether or not it would exceed the numbers that we had seen earlier. It not only exceeded them it doubled and I think tripled them. It wasn’t supposed to do that.”[29]

At the very end of the article, there’s a bit of discussion around the terminology “green phase,”[30] the nomenclature adopted by Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf, and the phase under which restaurants and bars were allowed to open for indoor service:[31]

“To anybody from a 2-year-old to a 100-year-old, ‘green’ means go,” Ms. [Bethany] Hallam said “We went to green and everybody went wild.”

“The world is not green,” she said, “until we have a cure or a vaccine.”[32]

I’ve heard something like this from my passengers. But at this point, I just think people are being psychopaths.[33] Because my observation isn’t so much like a light switch between “yellow” and “green” phase, but rather a gradual diminution of people’s compliance that I saw as traffic steadily increased, people started gathering more and more, and as I wondered how sustainable this lockdown was.

This is not about people misinterpreting the signal. It’s about people using any excuse, really any rationalization, they can find to flout the rules, entirely regardless of the fact that they’re killing people, entirely regardless of the fact that they’re being psychopaths.

As a way of exploring this, suppose I put to you the following question: Would you go to a bar if to do so would kill one or more people?

Your answer would likely be a resounding no. You might even question whether I was a psychopath for entertaining this as an ethical question.

But people in Allegheny County have been going to bars and socializing, defying social distancing requirements and face mask requirements,[34] in full knowledge that to do so will kill people. They are even competing to catch COVID-19.[35] They are pursuing their own ends without regard even to grievous consequences.[36] This is far beyond “selfish,” and to call this anything less than “psychopathy” is to drain the latter word of any meaning.

Update, July 22, 2020: My usual caution about ludicrously low response rates[37] applies to poll results indicating many Amerikkkans think COVID-19 death tolls have been exaggerated.[38] And I simply can’t find it credible that people actually believe this shit. I think they’re desperately trying to persuade themselves.

Update, July 29, 2020: The Washington Post records widespread opposition to wearing masks and notes that being Republican or a Trumpster has something to do with it. But the story really fails to explain the opposition,[39] with an earlier story claiming that “[a]ntipathy to masks is deeply ingrained in American culture, unlike in some Asian countries, where many people wear them whenever they are in public, as protection against bugs and air pollution.”[40]

Bullshit. Where is this history of antipathy to wearing masks? If this antipathy in fact exists, then how the fuck do we explain Halloween? And if it is indeed “cultural,” or as that earlier story suggests, rooted in opposition to the Ku Klux Klan,[41] then why is opposition most prominent among white supremacists and present only among conservatives assholes? The subject hadn’t even come up, probably since the Spanish flu in 1918. Psychopaths have pulled this out of their asses possibly since if we’re going to kill grandma,[42] we’d best get it done quickly—and I do hear suggestions that we should let the coronavirus “sweep through” the population from my passengers, as if “herd immunity” to COVID-19 was a thing[43]—so she isn’t an issue anymore.

Update, August 4, 2020: So my mother sent me a New York Times article reporting that there was opposition to wearing masks in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic[44] similar to what we’re seeing today.[45] There’s still no real explanation for the phenomenon. Which means we’re left with Priya Elan’s claim that somehow masks appear to threaten masculinity: “It seems that in certain circles,” Elan writes, “wearing a mask has been conflated with the kind of archaic, knuckle-dragging rhetoric that casts wearing pink or having a cat on a dating app as effeminate.”[46] Which is to say that being a man somehow means making everyone around you sick. Spare me.

Update, September 24, 2020: Uber seems to be cracking down. My previous bad experience with reporting riders who failed to wear masks[47] was not repeated when I reported some mask-refusing riders in Greensburg, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, who I thought were likely to give me a bad rating anyway because I gave them a lecture about properly wearing masks—one was not covering her nose, the other wasn’t wearing one at all. And Uber has sent an email to both riders and drivers promising that riders who are reported for failing to wear masks will be required to take selfies showing that they’re wearing masks in the future. The threat I had directed at me now clearly applies to them.

My suspicion—Uber has not confirmed this—is that riders had the opportunity to report me for not wearing a mask, when in fact I was, in retaliation because they have longer to rate a driver than the driver has to rate them. Drivers have an opportunity to rate riders at the end of the ride and must do so before they can continue on to another ride. Riders have somewhat longer and I’m guessing that Uber sent notifications that they had been reported for not wearing masks right away, allowing riders who hadn’t already rated their drivers to retaliate. I’m guessing this bug has now been fixed.

One of the challenges I face as a driver who happens to have a Ph.D. in Human Science is of maintaining my academic and intellectual integrity even when it is impolitic to do so. When asked, I must tell the truth as best I can, even when my riders might not approve of my answers. To do otherwise would be to compromise my integrity in the one area of my life where I can point to an actual accomplishment and this is something I cannot do.

This does not mean I say something when I am not asked, although I might, and sometimes do. But if asked, I cannot knowingly misinform.

Update, October 2, 2020: In the previous update (September 24, 2020), I thought a bug allowing riders longer time to rate drivers than drivers have to rate riders, thus allowing riders to retaliate against drivers who report them for not wearing a mask, might have been fixed. My experience now is that riders still have a means to retaliate. And by the way, eating in the car, which I prohibit anyway, requires lowering your mask.

  1. [1]Emily Stewart, “Essential workers still lack basic safety protections on the job,” Vox, May 7, 2020, https://www.vox.com/coronavirus-covid19/2020/5/7/21250387/essential-worker-ppe-amazon-walmart-employees-protection-hazard-pay
  2. [2]Sven Beckert, “Slavery and Capitalism,” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 12, 2014, https://www.chronicle.com/article/SlaveryCapitalism/150787/
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“I’m trying not to lose my house,’” Salon, March 1, 2014, https://www.salon.com/test/2014/03/01/you_call_this_a_middle_class_i%E2%80%99m_trying_not_to_lose_my_house/; Mac McClelland, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” Mother Jones, March/April 2012, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-free-online-shipping-warehouses-labor/; Nathaniel Mott, “From Amazon warehouse workers to Google bus drivers, it’s tough working a non-tech job at a tech company,” Pando, October 9, 2014, https://pando.com/2014/10/09/from-amazon-warehouse-workers-to-google-bus-drivers-its-tough-working-a-non-tech-job-at-a-tech-company/; Marc Pilisuk with Jennifer Achord Rountree, Who Benefits From Global Violence and War (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008).; Ari Rabin-Havt, “Wal-Mart flunks its fact-check: The truth behind its sarcastic response to the Times,” Salon, June 25, 2014, https://www.salon.com/control/2014/06/25/walmart_flunks_its_fact_check_the_truth_behind_its_sarcastic_response_to_the_times/; Michael Sainato, “‘I’m not a robot’: Amazon workers condemn unsafe, grueling conditions at warehouse,” Guardian, February 5, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/feb/05/amazon-workers-protest-unsafe-grueling-conditions-warehouse; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Amazon is everything wrong with our new economy,” Salon, July 30, 2013, https://www.salon.com/test/2013/07/30/amazon_is_everything_wrong_with_our_new_economy/; Alana Semuels, “As employers push efficiency, the daily grind wears down workers,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-harsh-work-20130407-story.html; Alana Semuels, “How the relationship between employers and workers changed,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, https://www.latimes.com/business/la-xpm-2013-apr-07-la-fi-mo-harsh-work-history-20130405-story.html; Alana Semuels, “Tougher workplace makes home life worse too,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, https://www.latimes.com/business/la-xpm-2013-apr-07-la-fi-mo-harsh-work-history-20130405-story.html; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Lehigh Valley Morning Call, September 18, 2011, https://www.mcall.com/business/mc-xpm-2011-09-18-mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917-story.html; Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006); Lindsay Wise, “Report: Temp jobs at all-time high in U.S.,” McClatchy, September 2, 2014, https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/economy/article24772543.html
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  12. [12]Priya Elan, “The data is in: men are too fragile to wear Covid-19 masks. Grow up, guys,” Guardian, July 3, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/03/covid-19-masks-men-masculinity
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