Workers said they were sleeping in woods near the warehouse to save money on transport. Photo copyright Cascade News (2016).

Amazon workers sleeping in tents: on the logic of serfdom

in Economics by

A brief analysis of the ‘economic rationalization’ that emerged throughout the comment sections of articles about Amazon employees, who chose to sleep in tents outside their warehouse to save money.

At the end of last year, stories emerged claiming that Amazon employees had been sleeping in tents directly outside their companies’ warehouse in Fife, Scotland. With Christmas approaching the combined prospect of cutting commuting costs whilst earning bonuses for overtime clearly made rough sleeping seem like a desperate but economical choice. Upon being interviewed one of the tent dwellers described Amazon as a “poor employer”, and confirmed that he had opted to stay in a tent as it was easier and cheaper than commuting from his home in Perth.1 Given the extreme nature of the decision, the size of Amazon’s reputation and the freezing temperatures at the time, the news went viral. With one or two exceptions, dozens of mainstream media sites including The Independent, The Guardian and The Sun used the opportunity to publish various shallow criticisms of the company’s working practices, citing previous allegations of international tax evasion, or the overworking and mistreatment of staff.2 The most vocal political critic of Amazon’s working model was the Liberal Democrat leader in Scotland Willie Rennie, who excoriated the “intolerable working conditions”, and “an oppressive culture where management and co-workers put undue pressure on other workers.”3

But while the establishment rhetoric of the media and those like Mr. Rennie who, with moderate political motives stood more or less united in condemnation of the retail giant, the ensuing public debate appeared definitively less so, and became extremely polarised. An indication of this division was expressed by an online poll on The Courier news website. It asked: ‘Should Amazon bear any blame for workers camping outside its Fife Centre?’ 50% (10,121) answered: ‘Yes, Amazon should do more to ensure workers welfare’, and the other 50% answered: ‘No, people look after themselves when they clock off.’ “We live in a society in which we are unconditionally free to choose where to work, and how to live” – this can be conceived as the base logic used to justify the answer of the latter 50%. This position was repeatedly reinforced by individual commenters across multiple news platforms covering the story, and on forums such as Reddit – enough so as to rid one of any doubts about the accuracy of the online poll:

What people do in their own free time is their choice. […] He’s a grown man. You can’t blame your employer for your transport arrangements” – commenter from Reddit4

If someone chooses to camp out to save money on a commute that has nothing to do with the company paying too little” – commenter on The Sun5

Although I am not an Amazon fan, they are hardly “forced” to sleep in tents. The last time I checked the UK was still a democracy where people had the right to work where they wanted to.” – commenter on The Independent6

These comments clearly demonstrate a lack of interest in raising the debate to a level which acknowledges the rapid increase of precarious work, stagnant wages, and insecure housing in this country. Nor can we expect such detail to be effectively espoused in the comment sections of mainstream news sources. It is therefore easy to simply ignore or discard such comments as instances of a short-sighted, unduly harsh, or conservative reactions to the tent occupants’ situation. Reversely, it is tempting to settle for railing against Amazon’s ‘working conditions’, as Willie Rennie has, without elaborating in an accessible manner a criticism of the structural conditions which make such desperate situations like the Amazon workers’, seem like worthwhile opportunities in the first place. In absence of any meaningful mainstream criticism and structural debate about the tent situation, then (and to insist that the event itself necessarily warrant’s this would be to miss my overall point), the impassioned comments threaded below the tent articles stood out explicitly as voices of the ideologically dominant, economically conditioned subject. They are examples of economic rationalization in action. This rationalization asserts that if you say ‘yes’ to something, then you implicitly had a choice. Even if your situation is so desperate that you could not otherwise refuse the exploitative deal that is being offered to you.7

The opinions of the commenters who sought to rationalize and defend ‘freedom of choice’ and some vague conception of self-reliance, form part of a broad and significantly de-politicised ‘common sense.’ From both a socio-political and moral perspective, I’d argue that we can trace the roots of this common sense back to one of the architects of our current neoliberal economic system, Friedrich Hayek, who in his book ‘The Road to Serfdom’ claimed:

Only where we ourselves are responsible for our own interests and are free to sacrifice them, has our decision moral value. We are neither entitled to be unselfish at someone else’s expense, nor is there any merit in being unselfish if we have no choice.”8

For Hayek, who believed that since the efficiency of the market and a competitive economy will in the long run benefit us all, moral action is only justified insofar as it can be turned into a profit. Any empathetic or moral response to the tent occupants’ situation would be, according to Hayek, misguided as soon as it is politicised. Political rationality, unless it acts in symbiosis with the principles of market competition via the state, is seen by the neoliberal economists as poisonous, precisely because it inevitably tends to constrain the market in ways that is detrimental to future profits.

As William Davies concisely articulates; neoliberalism is the active ‘disenchantment of politics by economics.’ In his most recent book, ‘The Limits of Neoliberalism,’ Davies conceptualises our current socio-economic crisis by asserting that neoliberalism has entered a ‘contingent stage.’ He argues that an underlying ‘violent logic’ has gradually won out over the long history of neoliberal thought and policy making.9 Perhaps it is the same violent logic which compels men to rough it in tents to get an increase in pay, ironically invoking a primitive image of the very same feudal ‘serfdom’ which Hayek once claimed to be the end product of socialism. In the book’s introduction Davies writes: “A political rationality that fails to recognise politics as a distinctive sphere of human existence was always going to be dumbfounded, once that sphere took on its own extra-economic life.”10 Finally, this might go some way to explaining why the commenters who embody this economic rationality, blindly invoking ‘freedom of choice’ on the tent article’s comment threads appear so de-politicized, superfluous, and morally bankrupt.

1Smith, Craig, ‘EXCLUSIVE: Amazon workers sleeping in tents near Dunfermline site‘, The Courier, 10/12/16 <https://www.thecourier.co.uk/fp/news/local/fife/325800/exclusive-amazon-workers-sleeping-in-tents-near-dunfermline-site/> [accessed Dec 2016]

2Osborne, Hilary, ‘Amazon accused of “intolerable conditions” at Scottish warehouse’, The Guardian, 12/12/16 <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/11/amazon-accused-of-intolerable-conditions-at-scottish-warehouse> [accessed Dec 2016] – for ‘international tax evasion’ see: <http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/24104>

3Kentish, Ben, ‘Hard-pressed Amazon workers in Scotland sleeping in tents near warehouse to save money’, The Independent, 10/12/16 <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/amazon-workers-sleep-tents-dunfermline-fife-scotland-a7467657.html> [accessed Dec 2016]

4Commenter called ‘Randomweej’, ‘Amazon workers sleeping in tents near Dunfermline site’, Reddit, 10/12/16 <https://www.reddit.com/r/Scotland/comments/5hlf5r/amazon_workers_sleeping_in_tents_near_dunfermline/> [accessed Dec 2016]

5Commenter called ‘Common Sense’, ‘NO HOLIDAY CAMP Amazon told “they should be ashamed of themselves” after workers spotted sleeping in TENTS outside Dunfermline base’, The Sun, 10/12/16 <https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2372543/amazon-told-they-should-be-ashamed-of-themselves-after-workers-spotted-sleeping-in-tents-outside-dunfermline-base/> [accessed Dec 2016]

6Commeter called ‘Pinballwiz’, ‘Hard-pressed Amazon workers in Scotland sleeping in tents near warehouse to save money’, The Independent, 10/12/16 <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/amazon-workers-sleep-tents-dunfermline-fife-scotland-a7467657.html> [accessed Dec 2016]

7Varoufakis, Yanis, The Cambridge Union, ‘This House has Lost Confidence in Austerity’, Youtube, 19/11/16, available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oF37Z74xGc> [accessed Dec 2016]

8Hayek, Friedrich August von, ‘The Road to Serfdom’, Routledge, 2001, ppg. 216/217

9Davies, William, ‘The Limits of Neoliberalism’, SAGE, 2016, pg. xxi (preface)

10Davies, William, ‘The Limits of Neoliberalism’, SAGE, 2016, pg. xxii

Tom Holland is a writer and artist based in Glasgow, Scotland. With a background in Art & Philosophy, his core research interests are: theories of labour and the work ethic, radical histories, automation, class, Autonomism, and the intersection between art and politics.

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