‘Fulfillment.” The title is sort of ironic, but sort of not. It’s how Kevin D. Williamson heads his beautifully textured piece on what’s going on at the 2018 equivalent of a labor-intensive mid-century assembly line, an Amazon “fulfillment center,” or warehouse, outside Columbus, Ohio. Its worker bees are supposed to embody all that’s wrong with heartless, numbers-focused, labor-exploiting capitalism. According to the standard Left view of the political economy, they should rise up and strike for a better deal. According to some on the communitarian right, for whom religion is at or near the center of life, these workers have been sundered from important institutions by the American obsession with profits over souls.
So how do things look on the warehouse floor? They look content. Stable. Connected. When these workers talk about their next jobs, they picture going slightly up the ladder at Amazon. “I’m trying to become an area manager,” says Christian Larkin, a young “associate,” as junior employees are called, with a year on the job. “That means learning every possible process path, learning the associate’s life, and getting used to Amazon life.” He used to work in a hospital but “this is less stress.” Justin Myers, a former Wendy’s and Chipotle staffer who services the robots that zip around the floor, says, “It’s the best job I’ve had so far.” Such workers don’t feel alienated from their ruthlessly efficient, penny-pinching company. They like it. They want to continue to be a part of it. If they’re hungering for some sharp rerouting of the American economy, they sure don’t look like it or say so. They earn 18 to 20 bucks an hour, mostly. “Ain’t nobody complaining about the paychecks,” writes Williamson.
Big business helps to build communities as surely as it helps build people. There’s something sweet (and, as Williamson notes, a little bit Japanese) about the warehouse’s menu of non-work-related activities — on-site classes for those who seek some other career, (optional) group exercise programs. For a large cohort of Americans, our workplaces are our principal communities — where we find friends, common interests, absorbing challenges, even meaning and purpose. Some of us are our best selves when we’re on the job. There’s an editor at the city desk of my former employer the New York Post whose shift starts at 1 p.m. He shows up at 9 a.m. for the purpose of drinking coffee and cracking jokes and amusing everyone. Also he likes the work. Even on the sitcom The Office, with its exaggerated slate of the regrettable and awkward, an assortment of odd ducks somehow came to feel something like a community, maybe even a family.
SLIDESHOW: The Amazon Workplace
This isn’t sentimentality; the business sphere forces us to cooperate with one another, even if it doesn’t come naturally at first. We reach out across various barriers not because that’s our inclination but because that’s how the job gets done. The marketplace brings us together and then it steers us to behave. It’s more true now than ever, with the Yelpification of American business: Treat a customer badly, and your reputation may be permanently damaged. Treat an employee badly, and the next one may cost you more.
Using “liberal” in its proper sense, to mean “free,” economist Deirdre Nansen McCloskey writes in the summer issue of Modern Age: “The growth of the liberal market, I would argue, permits virtue, not vice.” McCloskey’s piece, “Why Liberalism’s Critics Fail,” is a rebuttal to Patrick Deneen’s sour book Why Liberalism Failed and its stern critique of the America that a free marketplace hath wrought.
The libertarian-leaning McCloskey sees Deneen’s communitarian plea as just “coercive utopianism” echoing Plato’s Republic or ancient Sparta. “His liberty is the right to obey with good cheer the will of God and of Nature and of that of the local commune. You will be happy that way, he says. Notice how unhappy you are now.”
Are we unhappy, though? If there is a certain amount of alienation in American life, is there any reason to believe that this is getting worse because of the free market? “The claim of alienation, though asserted in scores of fashionable books every publishing season, is comprehensively false,” writes McCloskey. Sir William Temple once remarked, about the honesty of 17th-century Dutch merchants, that it sprang not so much from “a principle of conscience or morality, as from a custom or habit introduced by the necessity of trade among them, which depends as much upon common honesty, as war does upon discipline.” The marketplace is something to welcome, not fear. Americans are adapting to its constant self-improvement with brio. Adds McCloskey, “We all take happily what the market gives — polite, accommodating, energetic, enterprising, risk-taking, trustworthy people with property, trade, and industry; not bad people.” American business is bolstering civic life, not destroying it. Capitalism is a community too.
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