The Rigged Economy

A picture by a worker says more about the economy than a thousand economists have ever said about how the economy works. The story behind the picture, which was taken by a friend who works for a financial services firm and has 25 years of industry experience: It is a snapshot of Midtown Manhattan, with the MetLife Building in the background—with Park Avenue in the center—as streaks of red and yellow run to and from Grand Central Station; as commuters make their way to Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, and New Jersey; as my friend goes outside after having spent the day training workers; after he was asked—after he was told—to volunteer to train workers, so his employer would remember not to forget he is an essential worker.

Welcome, in other words, to the corruption of words in which the optional is obligatory and the contemptible is commendable.

Welcome to the rigged economy, where the appearance of opportunity masks a lack of opportunity, where it is a death mask for workers whose opportunities continue to narrow—whose rights are already rare—not because of the intrusiveness of government but because of the invasiveness of private government.

It is the government not of an invisible hand but rule by an iron fist with all the powers of our elected government, except one: the right to use deadly force; and that right is overrated when workers do to themselves what corporations do not have to do for them—commit suicide.

Career suicide is an even cleaner way to go, as it is not a conscious act. It is not so much a decision by workers to die as it is a reason for a business to kill its workers. The reason is arbitrary, which makes it impossible to avoid, since the pretext exists—in the form of a tweet, a post, or a comment—where the inoffensive can nevertheless be a firing offense.

What, then, is offensive?

In a word: life, because so long as a worker has a private life—so long as he is a citizen whose politics are expressed publicly, whose personal beliefs are no longer private, whose private comments are public property—he is subject to warrantless searches from bots and web crawlers, rather than warrants from the police.

He can live to serve or he can find another way to make a living. The former is the path of least resistance—its power is the result of the absence of organized resistance—where it pays to comply until a company stops paying its workers. Or until workers refuse to comply with a government of machines, by machines, for the owners of machines.

This is no manifesto against capitalism. It is, however, a shout against the monopolization of markets and the commodification of workers.

It is a call that transcends politics, in spite of the eloquence of one of its most partisan voices. His words are as true now as they were then, while his age is fixed: a 21-year-old student atop a police car, who removed his shoes—to not dirty or dent the roof, I presume—before he had said a word; whose first words were a call to the crowd to “rise quietly and with dignity, go home”; whose most famous words came two months later:

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels . . . upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

When Mario Savio said those words Amazon did not exist, though Jeff Bezos did. The river was 11 million years old when Bezos was 11-months-old. The founder of Amazon was in diapers at the time, when most stores still sold diapers; when stores sold most anything; when most stores had plenty of business.

We now live to work, not because we love our jobs, but because we need to support our loved ones.

To our families, we are people.

To the people who employ us, we are numbers.

To them, we must say: We are human beings.

We have names!

Photo credit: Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.