Congresswoman Katie Porter (D) recently challenged
JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon over how a hypothetical single mother, ‘Patricia’, could survive as a bank teller.
Porter used realistic numbers to show that it’d be pretty much impossible. It’s refreshing to have a discussion like this take place – and fascinating to think about what Dimon’s lacklustre responses show.
He refers to the role as ‘a starter job’. This isn’t an answer to how Patricia can manage her budget. The implication is she’s getting what her job title deserves, and too bad if it isn’t liveable. She has to work her way up.
The minimum wage was originally intended as a wage someone can raise a family and have a home on: a decent floor for conditions. The concept has been allowed to degrade to ‘what we pay the underclass to incentivise them to get something else’. But that means there will always be a group at the bottom, struggling paycheck to paycheck, providing services without receiving adequate pay or respect. If I want a coffee or burger or transaction made, I want the person who does that for me able to survive from their work.
Dimon can pay out unliveable wages for ‘starter jobs’ (and fill his own pocket with the surplus value). His employees cannot ask shops or their landlords for ‘starter prices’.
Later on he says ‘she may have my job one day.’ Porter replies, ‘She may, but Mr. Dimon, she doesn’t have the ability right now to spend your $31 million.’ Again there’s no answer for the present, just the promise of individual aspiration.
How many tellers are going to become CEO? What are people to do in the meantime? Dimon has no answer, just evasion and platitudes. The answer would involve him and his ilk giving back a little slice of profit, which is unthinkable – he worked his way up, he earned it.
He says something vague about wanting to be ‘helpful’. Porter: ‘Well, I appreciate your desire to be helpful, but what I’d like you to do is provide a way for families to make ends meet.’ Quite.
What I see here is a picture of individual aspiration used as a cudgel to beat down collective concerns. If you’re struggling then you, the individual, must work your way up until you are the plutocrat looking down on the struggling hordes. It’s okay, they’re in starter jobs.
Owen Jones’ book Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class discussed class politics in the UK from Thatcher through to New Labour. A recurring theme is the neoliberal redefining of ambition, from a collective improvement of society to individual social mobility.
Politicians, particularly in the Labour Party, once spoke of improving the conditions of working-class people. But today’s consensus is all about escaping the working class. The speeches of politicians are prepared with promises to enlarge the middle class. ‘Aspiration’ has been redefined to mean individual self-enrichment: to scramble up the social ladder and become middle class. Social problems like poverty and unemployment were once understood as injustices that sprang from flaws within capitalism which, at the very least, had to be addressed. Yet today they have become understood as the consequences of personal behaviour, individual defects and even choice.
Rather than the old collective form of aspiration, based on improving the conditions of working-class people as a whole, the new mantra was that able individuals should ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ and climb the social ladder. Of course, it is based on a myth: after all, if everyone could become middle class, who would man the supermarket checkouts, empty the bins and answer the phones in call centres? But this glorification of the middle class—by making it the standard everyone should aspire for, however unrealistically—is a useful ideological prop for the class system.
Dimon’s response to the reality of the tellers in his banks is to – whether or not he’s fully conscious of it – justify the cruel struggle at the bottom with the possibility of a few rising up. I don’t see this as a very satisfying vision for society. It’s a brutal form of social Darwinism, the exploited masses driven to compete with each other for a chance to become an exploiter in turn.
We can do better than this.
There will always be individual ambition. People will always strive for individual goals, for self-expression, for status – this can be a great thing. But we live in a society, and the majority of individuals cannot be free in a meaningful sense unless the collective conditions facilitate it. We are not free if we’re rationing insulin, in a sweat shop, relying on food banks, or facing this gauche monstrosity.
Individual ambition to horde vast wealth gained by ripping off thousands, in a world with so many problems that wealth could solve, doesn’t strike me as a healthy sort of ambition. I aspire to a world where everyone can have a decent standard of living. We are, ultimately, all in this thing together. Collective aspiration is a big deal. Without taking it seriously, the masses are exploited, divided, and less free to pursue meaningful individual aspiration.
Without taking it seriously, civilisation is at threat. Consider climate change. A good collective goal for the planet would be becoming carbon negative. JP Morgan investing $1.9tn in fossil fuels won’t help that, but it’s good business for a few individuals. Some people might drown in hot seawater, but, hey – they were only in starter jobs anyway.