Alfreds or Precarious Workers in the Globalized Political Economy?
Or Why We Are Not Servants
There is significant power in the names we use to describe ourselves and others. Think about the difference between the media calling someone a “terrorist” rather than an “armed assailant”. What different images do these descriptions conjure — and what different emotional and political reactions? Even in less extreme circumstances, our perceptions are deeply shaped by what can often seem like innocuous choices of how we name the things we are talking about.
Alfred is the “automatic, hands-off service that hums along quietly in the background of your life” that takes center stage in Smiley’s piece on the “shut-in” economy. Of course, Alfred is actually a person who just does all of your chores for you, from your laundry to your house-cleaning and cooking. The name, “Alfred,” is an ironic nod to the fact that having someone do everything for you is really quite a ludicrous luxury of days past and of fantasy comic book worlds. A thing of pasts and worlds where people have names like “Alfred”.
We conjure an image of Batman’s Alfred, and the formal yet very sincere and friendly sort of aristocratic relationship between the two of them. There is a knowing wink thrown into the name — it says, “yes, of course, this is crazy and maybe a little messed up, but also, isn’t it ironic and funny?!” But, while this wink may assuage guilt, it does nothing to change the material conditions that underlie the arrangement.
As Smiley notes, the name Alfred effectively covers up the fact that the majority of the “Alfreds” are actually women. But the name covers up even more than just this gendered aspect of the work — it covers up the exploitative nature that is at the core of the entire scheme. “Alfred” effectively erases the fact that there are real people, doing real work, with real lives that they have to manage, and it replaces these real people with a caricature. It is easier to abuse, neglect and marginalize the needs of a caricature from another world.
Ironic humor works as a veil in the high-technology, service economy. If users can poke fun of themselves and their aristocratic lifestyles, they can feel absolved. As long as they know that it’s ridiculous, they don’t have to do anything about it. “We’re trying to remove the taboo and the guilt that you should have to do it,” says Alfred’s CEO. “Do it,” in this case, means do anything that you don’t want to do. And that is the goal of this economy — to enable the wealthy to spend all of their time accumulating more wealth, without needing to deal with the petty details like taking care of the core-human needs like washing, cooking, watching your kids, etc.
So if there is a whole class of people who can afford to contract out their daily chores and laugh it off as an ironic absurdity, does this make the rest of us, as Smiley’s sub-title would suggest, “21st-century servants”. In many ways, yes. But again, we should take a careful look at the language we are using and the power that it holds.
“21st-century servants” in the “shut-in economy” has a ring to it, and may be very apt in describing a certain phenomenon taking place in wealthy urban centers like San Francisco. Yet, as people who are trying to understand our position within the current economy, we should be careful not to mimic too closely the language of our “masters”. Because, as a matter of fact, they are no more our masters than we are their servants. They are not our masters but our employers, and we are their employees. They are the owners and managers of production, we are those who sell our labor. We are not Alfreds but precarious workers in the globalized political economy.
Don’t fear, this is not about to devolve into me waving my big, obnoxious, Marxist flag around and mouth-frothing about capitalism. I am not trying to detract from what has been said in an attempt to reorient readers attention to dismantling capitalism and the bourgeois mechanisms of exploitation and so on and so forth (okay, maybe I am just a little bit). Rather, I want to be constructive and positive. I want to suggest that there is a broader language that already exists to talk about this phenomenon of those who are permanently “stuck outside, hustling”. I want to say, “yes, absolutely. And…”. We are very much stuck outside — just like so many others have been for so long.
Smiley asks, “so who are we uniting with in this scenario?” And the answer seems to be that we are not uniting at all — at least not those of us on the “outside”. If there is a unification here it is among those who can afford to regularly consume these services, those who are shut-in. Because while there may be something very anti-social about getting everything delivered to your door, many of those who can afford to order these services are interfacing with each other — building a world together at the exclusion of those on the outside. They are shut-in together.
While in many ways this “shut-in” economy encourages people to work more, their work is also increasingly social. Google and other tech giants have gyms at their offices, gourmet food at their cafeterias, exclusive transportation to work and a whole host of other, rather social, benefits. People may not take their time saved with technology based services to go walk in the park, but they are likely interfacing with their friends and loved ones through social media, and perhaps attending a yoga class during their lunch-break. Even if they are engaging less in typical, park-strolling, social interactions, these “shut-ins” are actually reinforcing a certain type of priveleged social interaction. This social interaction is based on shared participation in exclusive spaces — the office, the gym, the mindfulness seminar, the business lunch and even active participation in online communities like Medium. While these spaces may not be directly social, there is a sociality to being able to afford entering and/or spending time in them. This sociality could be called the anti-social unification of the middle class and upper-middle class.
If the shut-ins are unified by their ability to stay shut-in, then what about the rest of us, who are outside waiting in the cold to deliver their “home-cooked” meal? Are we unified by our collective experience of being marginalized? In short, no.
I shy away from the language of servitude, which seems to suggest that we have entered into a novel sort of position that mirrors old, aristocratic arrangements with a 21st century twist. Calling ourselves servants suggests that maybe we are “Alfreds,” rather than who we really are — women, college-grads with degrees in anthropology and fine arts, activists trying to make ends meet before they moonlight as an organizer, queer community builders, immigrants who are displaced from our communities by the violence of the US military and economy. We are not servants, who in the popular imagination are the loyal, disciplined and eager enablers of the rich. We are not the “Alfreds” to our Batmans, empowering them to work their superhero hours by doing all of their petty chores for them.
In reality, I would say that rather than “becoming” servants or some new novel class of people, we are “finding” ourselves in the increasingly large pool of precarious workers who struggle to make ends meet and must take any employment they can find. Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter describe precarity a transformation of “previously guaranteed permanent employment conditions into mainly worse paid, uncertain jobs. In this sense, precarity leads to an interminable lack of certainty, the condition of being unable to predict one’s fate or having some degree of stability on which to construct a life”. Uber drivers, Alfreds, dog-walkers, freelance writers, adjunct professors, seasonal laborers, day-laborors, delivery drivers/bikers, all of the strange combinations of “self-employment” that you can imagine — we are all unified by this condition of a lack of certainty.
It makes some sense for a real Alfred to be loyal to his consistent paycheck — to his employer who offers not just money but also the mental security of consistent employment and labor conditions. And this is not just the example of a fake caricature — It makes sense today to the tech worker to offer some loyalty to a company that rewards hard-work, just like it made sense for an auto-worker in the ‘60s to have some loyalty to her employer, who offered a hefty salary, a pension and healthcare. But for an increasingly large pool of people in the US (and many places across the globe), the consistent pay-check has been replaced by the “freedoms” of “dynamic” and “creative” work that is always changing and never guaranteed.
We are part of a global class of precarious workers. True, the precarity of a college-educated Uber driver looks very different from the precarity of those who scour the garbage dumps of Brazil, or from that of indigenous peoples across the world who are displaced from their native lands and must now navigate a cut-throat, racist economy. But the common thread of uncertainty is still there, and identifying with each other is far more useful and inspiring than the isolation and shame that comes along with identifying as a servant to another master. We are not servants, we are people who have found ourselves in circumstances, most of which are not of our making, which require us to work unstable jobs for the benefit of those who have more than us.
The French-Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi states, “the difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. And our governments are very much the same”. Similarly, our differences as precarious workers are far smaller than the differences between us and those who regular purchase the services we offer. And the very-wealthy who have “Alfreds” in major cities have more in common with the architects of dams that displace poor populations in Brazil than they do with the person arranging their underwear.
Forbes notes that “SherpaVentures,” which Smiley features in her article, “began raising early last year  when Pishevar left Menlo Ventures and Stanford stepped down from Goldman Sachs”. Pishevar and Stanford come from the super-rich investment banking world, and they designed an investment firm to further the expansion of the technology based service economy not for altruistic reasons — they are not trying to unify all of the disparate, lonely people stuck in dead-end jobs. No, their interests are in shaping the economy so that it continues to benefit them.
Of course, “they” are not a fixed, monolithic category. Sometimes a tech worker may order food in, but also be struggling to pay back her one-hundred-thousand dollar student loan and help her first generation immigrant parents with the cost of sending her siblings to college. This tech worker may be both the priveleged consumer of technology-driven services, but also in a precarious position. There is a grey area here, but it is not actually that large. On one side of the small grey area there are those who can afford to have things done for them regularly so that they can focus more time on creating more privileged social connections and on making even more money, and on the other side are those who can only plan on the fact that tomorrow, like today, they will have to be in some hustle or another to make their ends meet. Even if that hustle involves the occasional Uber ride to make it to a gig on time, there is not the luxury of long-term economic or social planning for precarious workers — and in this way precarity re-produces itself.
Those of us who are shut-out are shut-out intentionally, and, for most of us, this condition is far more guaranteed than our employment. There is no opportunity for advancement, only the hope of a lucky break, of a new job that is better, of that education finally paying off, of some real immigration reform to make regular employment possible. We should not be defining ourselves as servants because we are not servants. We strive to be servants, we wish we could be servants. We are precarious workers who apply for servant positions, only to be rejected, or pushed out when our role is automated, or laid off when our “master” moves to another neighborhood.
The “shut-in economy” is just the newest incarnation of an exploitative economy. As with all of its incarnations, the only way that the exploited and marginalized will get what they need is by coming together and taking it. So, if for no other reason, we shouldn’t call ourselves servants because then we might start to act like them — to ask politely and flinch at our masters slightest movement. We should not be afraid to upset our masters. We have nothing to lose but our low-paying, inconsistent jobs that we will probably lose anyways.