Normalized ‘property rights’

I haven’t been sleeping well. Between the difficult navigation and the asshole drivers in Pittsburgh,[1] combined with road conditions that are significantly increasing my maintenance costs, I’m terrified the whole time I’m driving, which I do for Uber and Lyft because it’s the only job I can get even with a Ph.D.[2] I’m stressing out. My heart is pounding when I’m out. And when I wake up, I am short of sleep, unable to sleep more.

It doesn’t help that winter is approaching and that that is likely to mean four long months of hardly making anything in an already marginal situation. But of course Uber and Lyft are adamant that ridesharing drivers are properly classified as independent contractors and thus to absorb all the risk of doing business[3] even as the courts increasingly say otherwise,[4] even as these drivers often work for less than minimum wage,[5] while their executives take home the usual exorbitant compensation,[6] even as the companies themselves are hopeless loss-makers.[7] And because I am being systematically excluded from the job market, I have no power to choose other employment.[8]

At least nobody is going through and throwing away my property. My last ride tonight was to pick up somebody at a McDonald’s—such orders are almost always for workers—so I picked my passenger up and verified her destination.

“And then back here,” she said. I looked again at my screen. There indeed, it said in smaller, easy to overlook print, that this was the first stop. So this was a trip from McDonald’s to her home and back to McDonald’s.

“Oh, how exciting,” I replied sarcastically. She explained that she normally kept her work shoes at the restaurant but “they threw them all out.” She was not the only one who kept shoes there. But somebody just arbitrarily decided on some recent day to just throw them all out without giving notice to anyone. She was going home on her break, I’m guessing a 30-minute lunch break, to retrieve another pair because “work” shoes are required.

That’s the thing about so-called “essential” workers and yes, McDonald’s workers were considered “essential.” They take all the shit. Retail workers had to deal with angry customers when shelves were bare and now have to deal with angry customers who don’t want to wear masks. They’re having to work harder, longer because coworkers either don’t want to take the shit anymore or don’t want to take the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus, exposure that is sometimes enhanced when employers fail to provide adequate personal protective equipment.[9] They’re putting their lives on the line, often not because they want to, but often because they have no choice, and there’s always an excuse for why they can’t be paid a decent wage.[10] And as is standard operating procedure under neoliberalism, they are treated as utterly expendable.

Capitalists defend this treatment by asserting property rights (for which money is a proxy). They may extract resources from a planet that is everyone’s birthright. They may have workers build factories, warehouses, and restaurants using those resources. But it’s all, they allege, their “property,” and therefore they are entitled to an ever larger profit for allowing workers to work and exchange to occur.[11] It is through this assertion that, as Max Weber observed, an exchange system (he said capitalism but his point applies more broadly) inherently privileges whomever has the greater ability to say no at the expense of whomever has the lesser ability, with the benefits and handicaps of each transaction accruing as social inequality widens ever more.[12]

I’ve been on the wrong side of that power relationship nearly my entire life but my story is mild compared to what others have experienced.[13] I’ve seen employers express absolute glee at their ability to treat workers as disposable and infinitely replaceable. I have seen them steal tips to pay managers the salaries to which those managers had become accustomed. I have heard stories of sexual harassment. I have been intimidated nearly my entire working life and terrified when I have been out of work.

My passenger didn’t seem terribly upset that her employer had discarded her shoes, shoes that probably cost her a few hours wages. Arbitrary treatment has been normalized. She just generally hates working there.

But when we hear about “property rights,” we should know whose property rights we’re talking about. And we should be clear that we have come to value their particular property even over human rights, even over human lives.

That shouldn’t be “normal.” But I guess it is.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Pittsburgh driving for the uninitiated,” Irregular Bullshit, n.d.,
  2. [2]David Benfell, “About my job hunt,” Not Housebroken, n.d.,
  3. [3]Jessica Bursztynsky and Lauren Feiner, “Lyft may suspend service in California if court requires it to classify drivers as employees,” CNBC, August 12, 2020,; Lauren Feiner, “Uber CEO says its service will probably shut down temporarily in California if it’s forced to classify drivers as employees,” CNBC, August 12, 2020,
  4. [4]Lauren Feiner, “Appeals court grants Uber and Lyft a temporary reprieve following threats to shut down in California,” CNBC, August 20, 2020,; John Kingston, “Uber/Postmates Driver Loses Court Challenge To California’s AB5 Law,” Yahoo!, September 21, 2020,; Therese Poletti, “Uber and Lyft’s ‘day of reckoning’ is finally here,” MarketWatch, August 12, 2020,; Faiz Siddiqui, “Uber and Lyft must make their drivers in California full employees, judge rules,” Washington Post, August 10, 2020,; Jonathan Stempel, “Judge rejects Uber, Lyft bids to delay California driver injunction,” Yahoo!, August 13, 2020,
  5. [5]Farhad Manjoo, “The Uber I.P.O. Is a Moral Stain on Silicon Valley,” New York Times, May 1, 2019,; Alexa Noel, “Revised MIT Study Says Uber, Lyft Drivers Make About $8 or $10 per Hour,” Points Guy, March 8, 2018,; Kari Paul, “Uber drivers plan shutdown over ‘poverty wages’ as company goes public,” Guardian, April 25, 2019,
  6. [6]Eliot Brown and Sarah Nassauer, “Uber Cuts Third of Marketing Staff; Lyft Chief Operating Officer Exits,” Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2019,
  7. [7]Rich Alton, “Basic economics means Uber and Lyft can’t rely on driverless cars to become profitable,” MarketWatch, August 12, 2019,; Eliot Brown, “Uber Wants to Be the Uber of Everything—But Can It Make a Profit?” Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2019,; Richard Durant, “Uber’s Profitability Problem Is Structural,” Seeking Alpha, August 21, 2019,; Ryan Felton, “Uber Is Doomed,” Jalopnik, February 24, 2017,
  8. [8]David Benfell, “About my job hunt,” Not Housebroken, n.d.,; Stephen Wilmot, “Uber’s Long Road to Profits,” Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2019,
  9. [9]Michael Sainato, “‘I cry before work’: US essential workers burned out amid pandemic,” Guardian, September 23, 2020,
  10. [10]Karleigh Frisbie Brogan, “Calling Me a Hero Only Makes You Feel Better,” Atlantic, April 18, 2020,; Gabriele Gratton, “Our economic model looks broken, but trying to fix it could be a disaster,” Conversation, June 7, 2019,; Martina Hund-Mejean and Marcela Escobari, “Our employment system has failed low-wage workers. How can we rebuild?” Brookings, April 28, 2020,; Eric Levitz, “Coronavirus Exposes the Virulence of American Conservatism,” New York, March 23, 2020,; George Packer, “We Are Living in a Failed State,” Atlantic, June 2020,; Jason Pohl, Ryan Sabalow, and Dale Kasler, “Medical employees say they’re getting COVID-19 on the job. Here’s why hospitals push back,” Sacramento Bee, April 2, 2020,; Michael Sainato, “‘I cry before work’: US essential workers burned out amid pandemic,” Guardian, September 23, 2020,; Mike Snider, “Work strikes at Amazon, Instacart and Whole Foods show essential workers’ safety concerns,” USA Today, March 30, 2020,; Emily Stewart, “Essential workers still lack basic safety protections on the job,” Vox, May 7, 2020,; Kanishk Tharoor, “The Exclusivity Economy,” review of The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business by Nelson D. Schwartz, New Republic, April 21, 2020,; Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Denise Lu, and Gabriel J.X. Dance, “Location Data Says It All: Staying at Home During Coronavirus Is a Luxury,” New York Times, April 3, 2020,
  11. [11]Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? trans. and ed. Donald R. Kelley and Bonnie G. Smith (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2007).
  12. [12]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, 4th. ed., ed. Charles Lemert (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.
  13. [13]Daniel D’Addario, “Amazon is worse than Walmart,” Salon, July 30, 2013,; Timothy Egan, “The Corporate Daddy,” New York Times, June 19, 2014,; Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed (New York: Owl, 2001); Josh Eidelson, “Wal-Mart faces warehouse horror allegations and federal Labor Board complaint,” Salon, November 19, 2013,; Josh Eidelson, “Tens of thousands protest, over 100 arrested in Black Friday challenge to Wal-Mart,” Salon, November 30, 2013,; Josh Eidelson, “Finally paying for Wal-Mart’s sins: Wage theft settlement yields millions,” Salon, December 16, 2013,; Josh Eidelson, “Freezing for Wal-Mart: Sub-zero warehouse temperatures spur Indiana work stoppage,” Salon, January 14, 2014,; Josh Eidelson, “Amazon Keeps Unions Out By Keeping Workers in Fear, Says Organizer,” Alternet, January 22, 2014,; Nichole Gracely, “‘Being homeless is better than working for Amazon,’” Guardian, November 28, 2014,; Steven Greenhouse, “The Changing Face of Temporary Employment,” New York Times, August 31, 2014,; Erin Hatton, “The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy,” New York Times, January 26, 2013,; Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” Salon, February 23, 2014,; Paul Jaskunas, “The Tyranny of the Forced Smile,” New York Times, February 14, 2015,; Allison Kilkenny, “Ohio Walmart Holds Food Drive For Its Own Employees,” Nation, November 18, 2013,; Molly Kinder, “Trump’s State of the Union declared we’re in a ‘blue-collar boom.’ Workers don’t agree,” Brookings, February 6, 2020,; Paul Krugman, “The Plight of the Employed,” New York Times, December 24, 2013,; Paul Krugman, “The Fear Economy,” New York Times, December 26, 2013,; Danielle Kurtzleben, “Read McDonald’s workers’ shocking harassment and discrimination complaints — and why they’re so important,” Vox, January 22, 2015,; Edward McClelland, “You call this a middle class? “I’m trying not to lose my house,’” Salon, March 1, 2014,; Mac McClelland, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” Mother Jones, March/April 2012,; 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,; 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,; Michael Sainato, “‘I’m not a robot’: Amazon workers condemn unsafe, grueling conditions at warehouse,” Guardian, February 5, 2020,; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Amazon is everything wrong with our new economy,” Salon, July 30, 2013,; Alana Semuels, “As employers push efficiency, the daily grind wears down workers,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,; Alana Semuels, “How the relationship between employers and workers changed,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,; Alana Semuels, “Tougher workplace makes home life worse too,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Lehigh Valley Morning Call, September 18, 2011,; 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,

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