Sometimes, the evening just calls for pizza. We recently had an evening just like this. I can’t remember exactly what was happening, probably some combination of children’s activities and parental fatigue, but for whatever reason, we decided to forgo our regular dinner rituals and pop over to the local franchise of my wife’s favorite national chain.
Because we buy there several times a year, we always carry a take-out card. Basically, it’s a business card someone at the store marks on whenever you pick up a pizza. After ten pizzas, you get a free one.
A while ago, we redeemed our last take-out card. My wife had been in once since then. On her trip, she had asked for a new take-out card. They had none, but someone said he’d just write the date on a piece of paper and count that toward our next free pizza.
When I went in recently, I asked for a new take-out card. The kid behind the counter looked dumbstruck. He had to check with a woman I assumed was his superior. They didn’t have any carry-out cards. I asked if she could just write the date and our order on a piece of paper. No, she said, she was not authorized to write things on pieces of paper.
I explained that someone had just done this very thing for my wife when she was in two weeks before. “Well,” the woman said, squinting her eyes and rubbing the flour aggressively from her hands, “that must have been the general manager. I can’t write anything down.”
By this point in life, I have learned not to argue with low-level employees. All it produces is tension. Most front-line retail workers are not people gifted with high-levels of common sense or conflict resolution skills. If they were, they wouldn’t be front-line retail workers.
I acquiesced and left with my pizza and a plan to call the corporate headquarters.
Such incidents seem trivial, but behind them is a larger, indeed global, problem. As I have written before, little incidents like these in which the consumerist system that engulfs our culture breaks down, leave people feeling powerless. I felt powerless to get my take-out card and, ultimately, my promised free pizza. I don’t doubt that the woman behind the counter felt powerless to solve my problem.
I thought of all this again this week when reading James Kalb’s “ The Tyranny of Liberalism”. One point he makes again and again, is that under the global, liberal, consumerist system, we all transform ourselves into units of production and consumption in a way that serves the system. Indeed, this process of transformation now has more influence on how we understand our identities than the traditional, organic markers of identity: family, place, and religion.
This phenomenon expresses itself in peculiar ways in the retail sector. Take the experience I have just described as an example. The woman who refused to write down that I had purchased a pizza, no doubt, could see that my request was logical. But, because she is only a unit of production in the global system, she cannot act on her own. Her desire was not to cheat me out of a free pizza or to send me out of the restaurant disgruntled.
Her goal was to follow the rules. Because what I was asking for was a slight deviation from normal, she did not know how to apply the rules to this situation and decided to err on the side of not getting in trouble with her boss. This is what it means to be a unit of production in the global system.
Work has become divested of both personal significance and power. The woman I was dealing with had no investment in me, in her customers’ feelings about the establishment where she works, or in the success of the overall business. All those things are outside her role as a unit of production.
Her role is to follow procedure.
This would not be the case if she were actually the owner of the establishment. When people’s livelihood is directly dependent on the goodwill of customers, service improves. Workers have more flexibility. The current system, though it seems mammoth and unstoppable is, in fact, vulnerable because of the rigidity and apathy it engenders.
An economy of more locally owned businesses is both less abstract and more situated in local cultures. In such a situation, businesses become agents of preservation of the kinds of communities that allow traditional markers of identity: place, family, local custom etc. to flourish.
The global economy is inherently liberal in that it prefers abstraction to organic realities and seeks to make work as abstract an activity as possible. The reason the woman I encountered would not write down what I requested is that I was making a reasonable, historically-situated request and her only means of response was through the abstract, global policies of the corporation for whom she is an abstract unit of production.
Such weaknesses are causing growing ambivalence about the global marketplace. In the end, people desire to be more than merely units of production and consumption. We desire to be people living in a personal and humane economy. Such an arrangement satisfies the heart in non-material and intangible ways, and the service, almost always, is better.