Tipping breeds indentured servitude

Karma jars and other gratuities reinforce an exploitative labor system that pays its workers subhuman wages

Topics: Jacobin, tipping, Labor issues, service industry, worker exploitation, ,

Tipping breeds indentured servitude (Credit: Anna Hoychuk via Shutterstock)
This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

JacobinWhen you’re traveling, it’s easy to see the origins of modern tipping. A tipped service in a foreign land is typically performed by someone who is not an employee of an establishment but works either as an adjunct or as a free agent — a shoeshine boy, for instance. In a “third-world” city, a self-styled tour guide might be tipped in return for leading a group of sightseers. In Italy, a Neapolitan street urchin might offer to protect a parked car in return for a gratuity.

In both cases, the inference is clear: if you don’t employ me, I will hurt you. This thinly veiled extortion is the subtext to much tipping: if the propertied individual doesn’t comply with the demands of the semi-employed, something terrible might happen to them or their things. So tipping began essentially as a way to stave off violence by the indigent, forgotten people; it is a social contract adhered to by the privileged class who fear and disdain the less fortunate and are aware of the failure of their own class to create equity.

But tipping in the United States is something more nuanced. The people who are tipped in the US comprise an ever-expanding number of employed professions. Employers recognize the tipped individual as a great boon to the business: someone who needn’t be given benefits, a living wage, or employment security. They are essentially a guest at the company who must comport themselves appropriately for monetary reward, courtesy of the customer. And this reward can be large. The tip, though it is a ghost fee, is actually a fairly strict amount — 15 to 20 percent of a tab, $1 per drink — and is essentially mandatory; a failure to pay will result in public shaming or even fisticuffs. The tipping scale varies wildly and is determined by race and class factors. Cute young white people are often given the desirable, highly visible jobs that tip well at restaurants and bars, while Central American immigrants work for trickle-down tips in the back.

In the United States, one is required to tip one’s waiter, bartender, taxi driver, bellhop, barista, sandwich artist, valet parker, coat-check, hairdresser, barber, driver, masseuse, pedicurist, strip-tease artist, dogwalker, hotel maid, concierge, and so on. A tipped job is typically one that is tied to a very quantifiable service done for a particular person or group. It is often linked to the idea of a “luxury” service as well (an espresso could be made at home, so you must tip if you are buying it while out). In this sense, it is maintained by the consumer as a guilt fee.

Meanwhile, a bus driver on a daily route will not be tipped, for example, though he or she is working hard to serve the public. Policemen are not tipped except in the form of donations by ass-kissers to the “fraternal order” in exchange for a sticker that is supposed to confer preferential treatment by officers. Public servants are not tipped. The tipped individual is providing a personal, private service.

Luxury service is therefore the crux. Tipping is the onus of the purchaser who pays the wage of the worker on top of the cost of whatever service provided, which goes to the business itself.

If one ever tries to discuss tipping in America, one is immediately met with a dismissive and lofty: “Well, I tip really well because I was/am part of the service industry.” Like veterans of the armed forces, the “service people” are bound together in a cult whose members have experienced the true nature of work servitude and the demeaning, harrowing experience it represents. The fellow warrior conspicuously tips well in a great display of homage and respect. Service implies a subservience but also a noble sacrifice. The service industry workers prepare our sandwiches nobly, submitt­ing to our personalized mayonnaise requests. Almost all Americans have worked in the service industry at some point and many will only ever work in it.

Tipping for these service-industry comrades is outside of money. It is an alm or genuflection; a gesture of humility to the tippee designed to recognize and rehabilitate the degrading nature of their work, and also to connect with them spiritually. The camaraderie and smile dispensed by the waitstaff on receiving a generous tip after a suspenseful meal service brings the light of spiritual nourishment to the tipper, who can rest well that night. The Neapolitan street urchin’s implied violence still hovers over the interaction, but now the justice and retribution feels more karmic.

Just as oblations to the poor will puff up one’s sense of self, “tipping well” — 20 percent or more — is a measure of one’s personal decency. People often boast of their tipping. The least attractive thing one could do in the US is tip stingily. That is for old, religious people or clueless foreigners. Conversely, if one leaves a tip at a coffee bar in parts of Europe, the barista looks insulted and confused, as if you were treating him or her as a beggar; are you some kind of playboy show-off who throws his money around? Obviously, these people have never seen the Scorsese film Goodfellas, which portrays mafiosi in the sixties tipping wildly in a display of rampant virility.

People fall over themselves to brag of their tipping prowess and, despite the inherent and obvious injustice of a massive, scarcely-paid workforce scraping and begging for a wage, there has yet to be a true revolt of tipped employees. In a lottery-minded, American Idol culture, workers are loath to give up the chance for a Saudi Sheik to tip them a million dollars as reward for preparing a great smoothie. And there are palpable dividends; tattooed bartenders are bad-boy sex symbols that determine who gets served and when. Their management gives them an allotment of courtesy drinks which they can hand out to high-tipping customers or prospective lovemaking partners. Their favor is therefore highly sought by bar-goers due to their high-handed, undemocratic authority.

Tipping therefore has many purposes besides being an exploitive business model. It either shows affinity for comrades in the service industry, or is a duty done reluctantly by the bourgeoisie to stave off insurrection. It absolves sins and wrongdoing, so it’s religious. It is a guilt fee paid by the ill-conscienced for the immoral act of indulging in luxury. It is an act of dominance as it displays power through capital, and also an act of submission — a paid tribute offered to the service person. All of this is erotic and exciting, which accounts for the huge popularity of tipping.

Tipping makes us into slaves and masters simultaneously in a confused, kinetic, and highly kinky social model. The service industry model carries over into the bedroom with the modern emphasis on oral sex and “servicing” one’s partner. And it is cross-cultural; the service industry accounts for most jobs in the post-industrial West — up to 80 percent in the US, a country that has exported most of its industry to cheaper places and mechanized its farms. In fact, the United States, more than most nations, is almost entirely dualistic; on one hand there is the bourgeoisie or “middle class,” and on the other, the service industry.

But even this binary is blurry. Middle-class is a designation worn by all Americans, except possibly some rappers who claim to be rich. Warren Buffett, for example, likely calls himself middle-class. Politicians pander to a mythic middle class in their stump speeches. In the United States, middle-class has been stripped of its old meaning (owners of capital, wealthy, propertied non-aristocrats) and come to mean someone who is positioned in the middle, between the very richest person and the very poorest person. All but two people in America are middle-class.

Of course, the defining idea of a middle class is not really one’s bank balance but instead a set of values. It is a social group with concern for the results of their actions. “Middle-class” was an insult during a more class-conscious era, grumbled in France with proletarian disdain at those who bartered the present for an imagined future. Middle-class behavior included investing in stocks, buying insurance, having real estate, worshipping work, loving science, and practicing austerity despite having wealth. Irreligious protestantism, in short. Healthy eating, temperance, decorum, and sensible behavior are all bourgeois to a proletariat that revels in the moment, unfettered by concerns about interest rates and the “slow dime.”

To the middle class, both the lower and upper classes (titled aristocrats who have inherited their wealth) are despicable, due to their disdain for work and the Protestant ethic, and for the guiltless joy they derive in sensual pleasures such as drunkenness and fornication. Nations or communities which are poor or never had a bourgeois revolution are marked by orgies of revelry quite unknown in more economically prosperous places. These places are incomprehensible to the American sensibility, which views them as savage, brutal, and insane. The United States’ foreign policy is essentially to make people American through capitalism or kill them. They are better off dead than living any other way.

The American Revolution was, of course, along with the French Revolution and the English Civil War, a Protestant, masonic, capitalist revolution. It was, as much as the American-Israeli-propagated Middle East violence, a clash of socio-religious sensibilities. On one hand, the Calvinist capitalists who worshipped industry, and on the other, the clergy-allied landed gentry who saw work as man’s curse. When the masonic forces prevailed, it meant that a growth-oriented, work ideology would also prevail.

Though American capitalists were slave owners who derived much of their wealth from forced, unpaid labor, they revered the concept of work. They presented themselves as personally industrious, and from Jefferson’s and Washington’s achievements, we can see that some of them were. Their revolution laid the groundwork for a nation which, in many respects, is still a work camp.

Immigrants come to the United States, called the “land of opportunity,” typically for the promise of making money, and not for the enlightened social values or the quality of life. When one goes to Brooklyn, the housing blocks and the trains remind one that, in the industrial era, New York City was essentially a concentration camp of foreign textile workers who, like many of the less visible employees in the service industry, were barely paid.

They, too, were placated by the idea of chance. The chance wages of the tip jar are mystical, undefined, practically psychedelic; therefore they are more attractive than the cold hard reality of the paycheck. The tip jar is therefore a symbol of worker passivity. This modern condition of a giant, impoverished “middle class” of service industry workers conspicuously trading generous tips with one another in a prolonged orgy of self-congratulation and simulated affluence must end. As long as the dream world of nebulous “karma jar” income pollutes the atmosphere, no one can reconcile the insane injustice of an unpaid labor force reimbursed through the guilty feelings of their coworkers.

Can you imagine 1920s’ steelworkers in Pittsburgh, their faces stained with soot and grime, paying each other’s wages while their mill bosses pleaded poverty? That’s essentially what’s happening now in a merry-go-round circle-jerk of dream economics. When the first barista refuses the enforced gesture of happy-go-lucky largesse by their off-work co-worker, then the whole stinking system will collapse in a mound of idiocy and be revealed for the indentured servitude that it is.

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