If you managed to avoid the Great Open Letter Crisis of February 2016, then rejoice — you dodged a whole lot of tiresome rhetoric about entitlement and millennials and every other buzzword you’ve seen thrown around in relation to people born after about 1980 or so. Nevertheless, the viral tale of an employee fired for complaining about her minimum wage job at Yelp is worth examining, because in microcosm it represents many of the most obnoxious things about the way the brand of capitalism under which we live works, and specifically, how the Calvinist veneration of “hard work” continues to justify a small minority’s oppression of the majority. (Disclaimer: this is not an open letter because dear god enough already.)
First, then, to the open letter that started it all: Talia Jane is a college graduate who until recently worked for minimum wage at Yelp. She no longer works there because she wrote an open letter to her CEO, lambasting him for paying her minimum wage to work in a call center while she lives in the most expensive city in America. That letter, which did the rounds last week, was soon followed by another open letter, from one Stefanie Williams, which distinguished itself by being some of the most spectacularly sanctimonious bullshit I’ve had the displeasure of reading in quite some time, and can be briefly summarized as follows: “Millennials like you don’t understand the value of hard work, and you should suck it up and work harder instead of complaining that you’re being screwed.”
Williams’ response was met with rapturous applause from the same kind of people who like to make harsh generalizations about millennials, and you can see why: “hard work” is a lovely myth! It’s been a part of American cultural mythology from the start, which is unsurprising in a country founded by radical Protestant Puritans; to Calvinists, work has inherent virtue, and people who disdain it are shiftless wasters who should be cast into the street. You can, ahem, see how this idea might appeal to bosses who cottoned on to the fact that cheap or free labor is a great way to make yourself rich while not being obliged to share those riches with others.
So it was that Calvinism became capitalism, and the mythos of work as the route to virtue and redemption was baked into American society. It’s what continues to sustain America, really: eat shit for long enough and maybe you’ll get that big break — no, in fact, you will get that big break, because that’s how America works!
That’s how it went for good old Stefanie Williams: she paid her dues working as a waitress (oh, the humiliation!), got signed to a talent agency, “began her journey into television screenplay writing” and lived happily ever after. If only Talia Jane had stuck it out for a bit longer, sucking up starvation wages paid by a $3.5 billion company whose entire raison d’être is recommending fancy places to eat, she’d have had some great material for a TV show. But no, the problem is that she’s an entitled millennial (a status apparently entirely predicated on her ability to buy fancy bourbon once in a while; for some thoughts on that line of argument, see here). Instead of just working hard, she blew it by, um, speaking out about the fact that she’s just as exploited and full of despair as any other minimum-wage worker in the country.
Sadly, much as this might undermine the American Dream of Stefanie Williams, there is no inherent value in work for the sake of work. You don’t learn anything by flipping burgers for minimum wage, or schlepping for Yelp, or doing any other dead-end job, except perhaps that you are part of a system that is exploiting you every single day. Some might argue that you learn how the world works, which is true, but that’s usually presented as a fait accompli: this is how things are, because this is how they have to be.
This is self-serving nonsense that perpetuates the mythology of a system that siphons wealth to a minority at the expense of the majority. Things don’t have to be this way, and indeed, for much of American history — even under Calvinist capitalism — they haven’t been. The gap between rich and poor is widening, and Silicon Valley is a perfect example of why: a small bunch of people have worked out how to game the system, creating a “sharing economy” of exploitation so as to maximize their own wealth at the expense of those who create that wealth for them, who are stuck in useless jobs that offer no security and can be taken away in a moment if you dare to complain about them.
Capitalist mythology will tell you that, well, the people at the top are there because they took a risk. Nope. Not in the case of Yelp, unless you consider spending $1 million of someone else’s money on an idea a risk, and certainly not in the case of the great majority of the mega-rich of this country. They may or may not have worked hard for their money, but the difference between being Steve Jobs and Ronald Wayne can be accounted for as much by dumb luck as merit. And if you have the luck to be born in the right place at the right time, or just be in the right place at the right time, you’ll probably prosper. (Of course, you can still make a mess of it, but you really have to try.)
Our system is set up like a pyramid, and a concave one at that, with a ton of minimum wage (or worse) jobs at the bottom, and exponentially fewer as you get toward the top. The American Dream is predicated on the idea that it’ll be you who scrambles up the sides — and, indeed, some people manage to do so, because if there weren’t a few success stories the whole thing wouldn’t work. The unspoken trade-off, of course, is that there are a whole lot of people whose faces you’ll step on to get there, because not everyone can climb the pyramid — otherwise the whole thing would come crashing down.
The Stefanie Williamses of this world will tell you that it’s hard work that gets you climbing, which I’m sure helps them sleep better at night. But it’s not. I am writing this in a comfortable New York office for decent money, and I am doing that not because I worked as a bricklayer’s laborer for four years because it was the only way I could pay my rent, or because I spent years working infinitely worse pub jobs than Stefanie Williams ever will. That’d be a great story, one of slogging through hard labor to pursue my dream™ of writing. But it’s not true.
I’m sitting here because I’m lucky. I’m white, I’m at least somewhat socially adept, I happened to go to the right party and speak to the right person one night, and here I am. Getting a job is rarely a function of talent. Being able to stick in a job is a different matter — if you’re useless, you eventually get found out, although it’s still just as contingent on how much the people you work with value you as it is on how good you are at what you do.
Opportunities, though? They don’t come gift-wrapped after a suitable period of minimum-wage penance. Sometimes you work and work and that opportunity never comes, as anyone outside the Stefanie Williams bubble of “omg just suck it up” mythology can tell you.
Why? Because there aren’t enough to go around. By definition, there can’t be. This means that in America, there is a huge number of disillusioned, disenfranchised, angry, resentful people who are tired of being told that their penury is somehow their own fault, that if only they worked a bit harder they’d be able to scramble up into some sort of prosperity. But they can’t, because in a system set up around competition, for every winner, there has to be people who lose. Not everyone can be Stefanie Williams. As the system becomes more and more polarized — wealth accumulating at the top, poverty at the bottom — the number of people at the bottom of the pyramid grows larger and angrier.
How angry are they? You need look no further than the Republican primaries to see: the one candidate who’s speaking to these people is the one who’s dominating the race. That person is Donald Trump, and the fact that it’s him of all people who’s appealing to the disenfranchised of America is a testament to just how pissed off the American people are at what they perceive as The Establishment. But it’s true, and it’s true for one simple reason, which the Guardian‘s Jeb Lund absolutely nails in an op-ed published today:
There are millions of miserable people in America who know exactly who engineered the shattering of their worlds, and Trump isn’t one of those people – and, with the exception of Bernie Sanders, everyone else in the field is running on the basis of their experience being one of those people. When you are abused and bullied enough, anyone willing to beat up or burn down whomever put you in that position is your friend. Even a bully can be a hero if he targets others bullies – and that is, more or less, what Trump has done since day one.
The bitter irony of it all, of course, is that Trump is one of those people. He’s as perfect an avatar for the ills of capitalism as you could ever hope for. He was born into wealth, wealth largely accumulated by his father screwing over poor people, and has never been particularly good at anything beyond blustering and commissioning questionable toupees. He owes his position in life not to merit, but to good fortune (as several commentators have pointed out, for all his bloviating about “the art of the deal” and his business acumen, he’s gone bankrupt four times and would have made more money if he’d just stuck his inheritance in a managed fund that tracked the S&P 500 and gone off to play golf for 40 years).
But still, here we are. The fact that we’ve gotten to a point where one of America’s preeminent avatars of good luck and flexible morals has managed to style himself as the savior of the working class is, if nothing else, a testament to just how desperate the working class is for someone, anyone, to take notice of their disillusionment. The majority of Americans who have never and will never get their slice of the American dream are a) not stupid enough that they don’t realize this and b) sick of being lectured by people like Stefanie Williams when they speak out about their predicament.
Talia Jane will probably be fine, of course — she’s young, she’s white, she’s funny, she’s achieved some measure of viral fame with her post, and if worst comes to worst, it sounds like she has parents who can support her. But when you think about minimum wage employees in America, don’t just think about her — think about the working poor earning the same pittance at Wal-Mart, or the guy standing on the sidewalk in sub-freezing temperatures dressed as the Statue of Liberty handing out flyers for a phone company, or the smart kids wasting away as cashiers at Food Bazaar, or even the tech workers who come to San Francisco in search of the American dream and end up homeless. And instead of sneering at them, think about why they’re so angry, and maybe even try to sympathize. It’s hard, I know, when there are condescending open letters to be penned, but we’ll all be better off for it.