Given that Christmas is a week away, I’d really love to be writing about good cheer, about love and joy, but recently I read a disturbing article in Mother Jones magazine, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave“, that just won’t let me go.
The article described working conditions in a warehouse that stocks and ships merchandise for online commerce. I was horrified by what Mac McClelland, a journalist who took a job there as an undercover reporter, described. Not only were the demands placed on her as a worker physically exhausting and sometimes dangerous, but she and her co-workers were subjected to emotional abuse as well.
The article was published in the spring of 2012, so you could say it’s old news. Except it isn’t. Just last month an undercover reporter for the BBC took a job at an Amazon warehouse in England and secretly videotaped conditions there which have been described as brutal. And in Germany, Amazon workers have gone on strike because of the working conditions and wages.
I do most of my shopping online these days, so even though not every online merchandiser exploits their workers, I found the scenario MacClelland describes deeply disturbing. I don’t want to support cruel distribution systems any more than I want to support the sweatshop manufacturing economy. But as we all know, in this globally connected, interdependent economy it’s not easy to know which companies are acting responsibly and which aren’t, and it’s pretty much impossible to extract yourself entirely from the injustices of the system.
What is easy is to point the finger at the corporate decision-makers as the villains in this story, but there’s more to it than that. Yes, it’s true that CEO salaries and shareholder profits all too often take priority over just compensation for workers, and it’s also true that government needs to do far more to ensure that workers are treated humanely and safely. But it’s just as true that those of us who always want to pay rock bottom for everything we buy are just as culpable, especially if we have the means to pay more.
The Gift Economy
This time of year our shopping frenzy reaches its peak — mainstream culture’s bizarre way of celebrating Jesus — and our gift-buying gives the economy a badly needed end-of-the-year boost.
But just because we spend a lot of money buying gifts doesn’t mean we have a gift economy. In fact, ours is just the opposite. Ours is a take economy. Most of us, myself included, have been acculturated into an economy that is all about trying to get as much as we can for as little as we can, which is why big box stores so often successfully decimate small, local businesses and why Christmas sales are so effective.
A true gift economy, which more often than not exists among indigenous people, is connectional and heart-centered. It isn’t based on the question of how much can I get, but how much can I give. Giving, not having, is the measure of one’s wealth.
At its heart, Christmas is a time when Christians celebrate God’s gift economy, Divine Love giving itself freely to the world. The Divine as depicted by the Christmas story is not transactional. Its economy is grace-filled and generous beyond measure, nothing like the economy which MacClelland describes so hauntingly in her article.
During my morning meditation the day after I read the article, the conditions for those workers crossed my mind again, and at that precise moment a very odd thing happened. The candle on my altar inexplicably went out. There hadn’t been any gust of air, the candle hadn’t burned down, the flame hadn’t drowned itself in a pool of wax. The candle just went out.
In the Christian community this is the season of lighting candles of hope, peace, love, and joy, and the self-extinguishment of the candle on my altar seemed like a statement about how the economic world we have constructed is so contrary to the vision Jesus held for our world.
Fortunately we have the power to manifest a different world, one more in alignment with Jesus’ vision, if we are willing to come together, engage our imaginations and unite our efforts. One of the inspirations that came to me this past week, for example, was of socially concerned individuals forming a union of our own, pooling our collective purchasing power to leverage governments and corporations to enact just regulations and labor practices. Maybe you also have some wild ideas about how we can kindle the flame of a more just economy, and if so, I hope you’ll share them.
One of my favorite Christmas stories is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In the familiar tale, Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes a conversion of heart. Firmly rooted in the take economy, Scrooge forces his clerk Bob Cratchit to work long hours in a freezing room for paltry pay. But when he has a vision that shows him his life from a larger perspective, Scrooge is liberated from his cold-hearted existence. Seeing his life as a miraculous blessing, he himself becomes a blessing, spreading the light of generosity wherever he goes.
In the end he became an avid practitioner of the gift economy, coming to understand what so many of us have yet to learn, that true wealth isn’t about money in and of itself. Rather, it is the experience of deep, loving connection with others and the overflowing gratitude that comes with understanding life as a blessing. True wealth, he gleefully discovered, increases not by being hoarded, but by being shared.
Rebecca Kelly says
Another beautiful spiritual insight! I was just talking about this with my 10 year old daughter, who frankly, didn’t want to hear it. I told her Jesus would be appalled by the greedy way in which we celebrate his birth, and thus his existence. (We were in the car, being assaulted by radio adds for last-minute Christmas gift deals.) Hearing about warehouse working conditions just brings the message home. Next year, no gifts – except for people who are really in need! And maybe a letter, not to Santa, but to corporate CEOs!
Patricia Pearce says
Rebecca, I absolutely *love* your idea about sending a letter to CEOs! I’m just imagining what my Christmas wish list would be in such a letter: spreading the wealth, just treatment of their workers, care for the environment…
And focusing gift-giving to people in need I think really honors the essence of the intention behind it all, which as I understand it is about compassion. I’m finding that, over the years, I’m giving gifts that are far simpler, sometimes hand made, always heart-felt.
It must be quite a challenge as a parent trying to instill counter-cultural values to kids in this over-the-top consumerist culture. I really admire your commitment to that.
Peace to you and yours,
Kip Leitner says
A couple years ago I began assuming — during all my business transactions — sized from thousands to dozens of dollars — that the people I was working with were sometimes overwhelmed with more work than they could do in a single day, and this was the reason for the “hurry up!” subtext that I was feeling in many of my interactions with the virtual (as well as physical) marketplace. Once I got my mind around this reality, a different picture began to emerge: it’s not so much that the culture is addicted to speed, but that — to a point — speed means profits, and that productivity systems are designed to do “good enough, as fast as possible,” and that in this process, little concern is paid to workers.
Pacing is inherent in everything we do, from buttering toast to clamping an artery during brain surgery. A master mason who once re-pointed stone walls at my house told me once while I was watching him work “anybody can do this work — the question is, how fast can you do it?”
Anyway, it seems worth highlighting from the article that there is a big difference between being your own boss and setting your own pace, and having it enforced on you by a corporate enterprise. The lower functionaries in the system of corporate pace enforcement bear the burden and stress occasioned by corporate policy. Other losers in this situation are the mid-level managers who are forced — as a condition of their continued employment — to be the slavedrivers, enforcers and task-maskers. Executives are shielded from all this churning stress by corporate privacy and business abstractions — note that no-where in the article do we find out who is actually running the show, or how rich they are (or aren’t) becoming — by design, you can’t “follow the money,” which would make some type of moral analysis possible.
A little snooping around the net seems to show that 9 months before her undercover activity the author Ms. McClelland was conscientized by a conversation with her ex-girlfriend in July of 2011.
Patricia Pearce says
Yes, our culture’s “hurry up” orientation is so pervasive and it seems to me it’s a form of subtle violence. The incessant pressure so many people are under to do more I think often prevents them from tapping into and honing their innate talents. When a person’s focus is always on trying to meet the impossible standards of some external monitor who is always gauging their “progress”, they don’t have the inner spaciousness required to tap into their own creativity or discover and express their own capabilities.
What’s interesting to me is that the mason you refer to (whom we both know) is always so relaxed while doing his job. He never seems harried. He is a master at what he does perhaps because he works at his own pace, and so was able to develop excellence.
Clicked on this in my favorites today by accident. Your post really hit my heart today! With a society that is losing its middle class and an ever widening gap between the haves and have nots it is important to be reminded of your message! I have always loved Dr. Seuss’s non-denominational lesson “Maybe Christmas he thought doesn’t come from a store, Maybe Christmas perhaps is a little bit more”. This pondering was then interrupted by a call from my nephew who announced that his friend just lost everything he owned in a fire in Philly so he is not spending any more money on presents this year and is helping him get back on his feet instead. I couldn’t think of a better gift that my 27 year old nephew could give me for Christmas. Big change can hopefully start with small measures!
Patricia Pearce says
Beth, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. It’s funny, but just the other night Kip (my spouse) was talking about that very scene in the Grinch story and we watched it on YouTube. It’s such a great depiction of the spiritual essence of Christmas in contrast to the cultural take on it.
I’m sorry about your nephew’s friend and the crisis he’s going through, yet how inspiring that you nephew’s response has been compassion and concern. What a beautiful example.
Thanks again for taking the time to share your reflections.