Episode 118: The Snitch Economy — How Rating Apps and Tipping Pit Working People Against Each Other

Citations Needed | September 16, 2020 | Transcript

Citations Needed
49 min readSep 16, 2020
Image from the counter of a fast-food restaurant advertising an infamous anti-worker policy. (Source: FrankieRoberto.com)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thank you, everyone, for listening. We are back in our fourth season of Citations Needed, second episode in. Thank you everyone for continuing to support the show. Of course you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and if you want to, become one of those wonderful supporters of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your help through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated. Thank you to all of you.

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Nima: Waiting tables, bartending, hospitality, food delivery, beauty salons, rideshare driving. The service industry, as anyone who has worked in it knows all too well, is notorious for relying on tipping to undercut employee wages and deputize individual customers to determine how much money a worker should be able to take home. Amid increasing recognition of these injustices, a number of campaigns and new laws surfaced, pre-pandemic, to abolish or meaningfully reduce the practice of tipping.

Adam: But despite the best efforts of these campaigns, tipping remains the industry and American society standard. In fact, the perverse logic of tipping has broadened into an ever-present snitch economy, which we define as an ecosystem of tactics like mystery shoppers and Uber and Yelp rating systems designed to police the behavior of workers while outsourcing the costs of said supervision to customers and other workers.

Nima: In the process, our snitch economy pits those being surveilled against those doing the watching, and the judging. Through an ever-present, public-facing network of rating and reviewing other people’s labor, and often the behavioral disposition they exhibit while working, people with otherwise very little power are elevated to temporary positions of authority over others, fostering a culture of surveillance rather than one of solidarity. This snitch economy serves the dual purpose of not only giving working people a false sense of power when they’re the ones being served, but also reducing millions of human interactions to opportunities for not only snap judgments, but subjective rewards and retribution.

Adam: On today’s show, we’ll detail how businesses in the service industry, bolstered by friendly media, use tactics like tipping, mystery shoppers, and ubiquitous ratings systems in order to turn us all into petty, mean, busybodies carrying out the agenda of capital with nothing to show for it but a fleeting sense of self-satisfaction.

Nima: Later, we’ll speak with Vicky Osterweil, a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, and a regular contributor to The New Inquiry. Her writing has also appeared in The Baffler, The Nation, The Rumpus, Real Life, and Al Jazeera. Vicky is the author of In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action, published just last month by Bold Type Books.

[Begin Clip]

Vicky Osterweil: Workers make the world, the world is not made by the capitalists. As we are more and more disempowered in the streets through our experience as consumerism and surveillance and markets in general come into more and more of our daily lives, more and more of our interactions, more and more of our experiences, as all these things are increasingly mediated by, you know, technological and consumer networks, we feel less and less power, everything around us is black box, right? Everything around us relies on this crazy global logistics network. Our food comes from all over the world, all of these things, and as we’re more and more disempowered and more and more disconnected from the source of our daily life, small, petty forms of power seem more appealing.

[End Clip]

Adam: So this is a somewhat personal episode, as some of you have noticed, I was in the restaurant industry for a very long time. I was a waiter for probably about seven years, bartended for two, three years, I was a cook for a couple years and the psychology of the restaurant industry has always been endlessly fascinating to me. Now, of course, that psychology of snitching extends now to other industries, especially with the rise of apps and rating systems, so I’m super excited to talk about this today. Before we begin, I sort of want to say, basically, the theme of this show, if you could take away one thing and maybe replay this in your mind as you listen to it, is Leonardo DiCaprio on the porch saying, ‘I’m not a fucking cop, you are not a cop. You don’t have to be a cop. You’re not paid to be a cop,’ and one of the things we want to convey — if not belabor, and if not beat to death — is the idea that you don’t get paid enough to sell your soul to snitch on other workers and we need to think about the way in which these systems were created to offset the labor, both emotional and physical labor onto us to do that for capital and the ways in which that is used to atomize us and to undermine class solidarity.

Nima: Well, yeah, because also when we’re talking about rating and ranking there really is a divide that is put up, there is no longer a certain kind of solidarity, either you’re judging good or you’re judging bad and through our system also that, you know, relies on stuff like tipping, it’s all the more outsourcing of compensation of gratitude of benefits to consumers, to you, to the consumers that is being outsourced to you, you then do that on behalf of the companies that are purposefully not doing right by their employees, they pay people less because they get tipped or they are able to not promote someone because they get a bad review or that, you know, stuff like that. So, as we said, try not to be a cop.

Adam: So we’re going to start by talking about tipping, which is sort of the original snitch economy mechanism. One of the most obvious and enduring ways the service industry places the burden of costs on workers and customers is tipping and while reliance on tipping is arguably increasingly unpopular, as we saw what the movements in DC to get rid of it, it is still very much a near universal expectation at restaurants in the United States. Tipping unsurprisingly has a profoundly classist and racist origins. According to writer Rachel E. Greenspan, the act of tipping is rooted in feudalism, though it’s more modern form can be traced to a capitalist desire to preserve slavery, or slavery like conditions in Reconstruction America.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Nima: The institution of tipping is said to have begun really in the Middle Ages when a servant of a feudal lord would receive extra money for having performed quote-unquote “superbly well.” European aristocrats entrench the system later on in the 17th century, and wealthy American travelers to Europe imported the tipping tradition stateside in the mid-19th century, hoping it would impart upon them a more aristocratic air that they had picked up and falsified when they were traveling in Europe. Now initially, there was substantial opposition to the institution of tipping here in the United States on the grounds that poor people wouldn’t be able to pay for food or services, as well as needing to tip on top of that. But this changed really after the abolition of slavery. Recently freed people who had been enslaved were essentially only able to work as either sharecroppers or servants and service workers. So when tipping began to spread in post Civil War America, it was widely condemned as, quote, “a cancer in the breast of democracy” and, quote, “a gross and offensive caricature of mercy,” but the most common insult hurled at it was that it was quote, offensively un-American.”

Adam: Greenspan would go on to say, “For restaurant workers and railroad porters, there was a catch: many employers would not actually pay these workers, under the condition that guests would offer a small tip instead.” Thus, slavery in some senses was effectively continued.

Nima: Nina Martyris, writing for NPR in 2015, said that:

America’s anti-tipping hall of fame includes millionaires John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, who were stingy tippers, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who famously said, ‘I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, yet it is a wicked dollar, which, by and by, I shall have the manhood to withhold.’ A 1901 editorial in the Chicago Times-Herald congratulated Mark Twain for refusing to tip a cab driver, and added, hyperbolically, that should the writer live to ‘claim credit for its abolition[,] he will deserve greater gratitude from the public on that account than for anything that he has written or ever may write.’

Adam: Now, to be clear, we want to be very clear in this episode, because some people may be confused, we are not saying do not tip despite what these rich assholes think, if the system is tipping, you have to tip, you should tip 20 percent or more, ideally more, because that’s just the way it is. You have an ethical obligation to do so. What we’re arguing is that the system itself should make tipping impermissible, illegal, et cetera. So it’s not as if we’re saying, it’s not praxis to not tip your Lyft driver or your waiter. It’s not an act of subversion.

Nima: Yeah, you don’t have to be like Rockefeller or Mark Twain. Don’t do that.

Adam: Yeah, some people think it is, but it’s not. It is right now the system that we have. I think some people think that it gets a little conflated, so we’re going to clarify.

Nima: But to get back to the core point that tipping actually emerged from slavery. We need to remember that by the late 1880s, Black workers in the United States accounted for nearly half of the hospitality industry. John Speed, a journalist quoted in Kerry Segrave’s 2009 book, Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities, wrote in 1902 that he felt ashamed to be obligated to tip a white man. Quote, “Negroes take tips, of course; one expects that of them — it is a token of their inferiority,” Speed wrote. “Tips go with servility, and no man who is a voter in this country is in the least justified in being in service.”

In 1916, writer William Scott wrote an anti-tipping screed called The Itching Palm, in which he described tipping as an aristocratic custom that was, as we’ve said, totally un-American and in it he wrote this: “The relation of a man giving a tip and a man accepting it is as undemocratic as the relation of master and slave,” Scott wrote. “A citizen in a republic ought to stand shoulder to shoulder with every other citizen, with no thought of cringing, without an assumption of superiority or an acknowledgment of inferiority.”

By the 1920s, restaurants that were losing money because of Prohibition, started encouraging tipping, making it even more popular throughout the country. In 1938, the powerful restaurant industry lobby moved Congress to pass the country’s first minimum wage law which allowed states to set lower minimum wages for workers that were allowed to receive tips.

Adam: And this of course had a massive racial implication, as we noted as Reverend Dr. William Barber II, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, wrote in Politico last July in his article entitled “The Racist History of Tipping”:

One of the most notorious examples comes from the Pullman Company, which hired newly freed African American men as porters. Rather than paying them a real wage, Pullman provided the black porters with just a meager pittance, forcing them to rely on tips from their white clientele for most of their pay. Tipping further entrenched a unique and often racialized class structure in service jobs, in which workers must please both customer and employer to earn anything at all.

There was an effort actually by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union to outlaw tipping, so we’re going to read an article from the News Herald in Pennsylvania, from March 9, 1928. The headline reads, “Efforts to Outlaw Tipping are Futile.”

Washington, March 9, — Efforts of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to outlaw tipping failed today when the Interstate Commerce Commission dismissed a complaint against the Pullman Co.

The brotherhood had filed the complaint in an effort to substitute increased wages for tips. The complaint charged tipping violated the Interstate Commerce act, but it was dismissed on the ground of lack of jurisdiction.

Members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. (Source: Jacobin)

By the way, if you ever get a chance, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters is one of the more radical and interesting unions in the South and the Midwest and Atlantic region — just a little aside. So you can see from the get-go, it’s very clear that the tipping aspect is a way of reasserting a kind of servile, racially informed if you will — to use a euphemism — racially informed, hierarchical structure, as well of course, offsetting the both the risk and the managing duties to the compensation system. Tipping to this day, study after study shows, discriminates based on race. A 2015 Cornell study found that “server’s race effect on tipping represents an adverse impact against black servers that makes the use of tipping to compensate employees a violation of employment discrimination law in the United States.” So basically the study studied a restaurant in the South and had a pretty decent sample size that showed that African Americans in general when you account for quality of service, food, everything else that the customer gives feedback on, when you account for all that African Americans received far less tips. There was a 2005 Yale Law Journal study that found that black taxi cab drivers in New York City were tipped more than one third less than their white counterparts.

Tipping, above all, of course, is a way of building surveillance and managing into the compensation model while offsetting risk from the employee to the employer. Tipping remains a means by which we pay sub minimum wages. As of 2013, the federal minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers, a commonly cited statistic, was $2.13 with tips expected to bring one to a rate of $7.25 cents an hour ,the federal minimum wage. That is not always the case for those in the industry, we know this to be true. As of 2020, this has not changed. According to the US Department of Labor, while many states mandate a higher minimum wage than $2.13, 16 states still do not. And of course, the federal minimum wage has not changed in over 10 years. So people who made $2.13 in 2009, continue to make $2.13 today.

Nima: Now, what we also have to mention, of course, is that tipping is not the norm everywhere in the world. It’s actually really not the norm in most other countries, and especially in more socialist countries. So evincing the kind of baldly capitalist nature of tipping the practice is obviously most prevalent historically in capitalist countries and really banned a lot of the times in socialist societies as well as those that are at least more egalitarian than the one that we have here in the United States. For instance, tipping was banned in the Soviet Union and in China. In China, tipping was abolished along with private enterprise after the 1949 Revolution. The ban is obviously not in full effect in contemporary China, but tipping is reportedly not customary still, and not nearly as prevalent as it is in Western capitalist countries without communist pedigrees. Now, anarchist Spain is another example. During the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, anarchists took control of Barcelona. One of their first acts was to eliminate the institution of tipping, deeming it incompatible with the dignity of the recipient. The abolition of restaurants, including the elimination of tipping, of course, has long been an anarchist cause.

Adam: And indeed, strangely enough, one of the more radicalizing things I ever read, was a graphic novel, a zine, it was created by an anarchist collective called Prole, we can link to in the show notes if you want to find it, we can send it to you on Twitter if you ask us, but the doc is called Abolish Restaurants: A Worker’s Critique of the Food Service Industry and it’s a pretty fascinating, I want to say graphic novel or comic book, about why you should abolish restaurants. Obviously a very provocative title. I read it when I was a waiter at Carrabba’s in Austin. Of course, I thought it was somewhat silly at the time, I was pretty normie at the time. But it’s a very good entry point, it’s a very good place to sort of start and understand the kind of class structure of a restaurant. I don’t necessarily endorse all of it but I do think it’s, like I said, it’s very provocative. Definitely check it out. It’s called Abolish Restaurants. It’s sort of an anarchist critique of the restaurant business.

But moving on, we talked about other forms of managing workers. Not only do they make the customers manage workers, but restaurants are very clever at making workers manage other workers. And so one of the ways they create false incentives to sort of promote, again, reliability, clean uniforms, punctuality, all that fun stuff, is they create these artificial internal economies in restaurants called sections, you get good sections and bad sections. And good sections are the difference sometimes from making rent or not making rent or having money for a good meal versus a bad meal or not eating at all. And so let’s say you have 100 tables, right? And you give one server six and you give one server four, and you tell them ‘Oh, it’s because you’re a strong server or you’re a weak server,’ that’s mostly bullshit, because it’s all artificial anyway, because in theory, you could just pay everyone $80,000 a year and have 100 servers for 100 tables. But of course, they don’t want to do that. So to create artificial scarcity, to create a competitive atmosphere, they arbitrarily divide up sections into sort of big and small sections to create an incentive whereas if you do your side work, or do this, or do that, you can sort of work your way up to a big section. And they create these mythologies of strong and weak servers, which is kind of true, but not nearly as true as people think it is and it’s mostly about managers making sure you don’t do what they never want you to do, which is pool tips, which in certain states, you reserve the right to do legally, right? Because what is pulling tips? It is a proto-union. It’s realizing that why are we going to compete every night in this weird terror regime of ‘Am I going to make $100, $150, good server, bad server?’ ‘Oh, you’re, you know, you’re slacking, I got to pick up your section.’ When really you should just all combine forces and pool the tips.

Nima: Right, exactly. Collective rather than competition.

Adam: Right, then you have a predictable income. Now, I know that since my time in the restaurant industry, you know, this point is about, you know, eight, nine years old, I know that’s changed a little bit. I know certain restaurants pool more than others, but still you have, outside of New York City especially, you have this other kind of false psychological system where you have a sort of equivalent of bum fights, where poor waiters kind of fight over the scraps, because this doesn’t cost the restaurant anything, right? It doesn’t cost the restaurant anything to create sections. It’s just you’re stealing from Peter to pay Paul and that’s another sort of psychological gimmick they have. Another thing we were talking about, which is specific to the fast food industry, as what we’ll call this sort of receipt surveillance gimmick. So the punitive spirit of tipping doesn’t really work in restaurants, so they have to find other ways of making you the manager, making you the sort of perma-Karen, right? A number of fast-food restaurants — McDonald’s, Burger King Wendy’s — you may have seen they have a policy which says that if a cashier doesn’t give you your receipt, your food is free. Now, I’m sure we’ve all seen these and we question why? This is intended to prevent the woefully underpaid workers from stealing money in a transaction or sometimes even stealing food. If a worker doesn’t log a cash transaction in the cash register, the worker can pocket that cash because there’s no record of it existing. It’s actually easier for a worker to pocket it because extra cash in the register will create an accounting discrepancy. By requiring a receipt for every order Burger King and other businesses are preventing workers’ ability to do this. This incentivizes customers to police everyone for theft, doing the work of what a supervisor would normally do because they have the specter of a free meal, you know, the ultimate thing. There was a 2007 book called The Economic Naturalist by Robert Frank that wrote, quote:

Owners could hire supervisors to verify that cashiers ring up every sale. But that would be expensive. By offering a complimentary meal to anyone who fails to receive a receipt, owners provide an economic incentive for customers to monitor cashiers for free.

Nima: That’s convenient.

Adam: Again, you are a fucking cop.

Nima: Other ways that restaurants do this is through something we’re going to call occupational segregation where restaurant managers will racially segregate the quote-unquote “back of the house,” workers who aren’t visible to patrons, those in the kitchen et cetera, from the “front of the house,” the workers who interact with the customers to kind of stratify the different classes of workers even within the restaurant itself, so bestowing a slightly higher level of power upon those in the front of the house to lord it over those in the back of the house. In a 2015 report, ROC United which stands for Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, found that:

A primary cause of inequality in the restaurant industry are the real structural barriers that many workers of color face, primarily in African American and Latino communities. Poor people of color are more likely to experience higher unemployment levels, lower quality education and housing, increased probability of violence, and reduced health outcomes, directly leading to lower economic opportunities, weaker social networks, and reduced chances of economic mobility. These barriers provide the foundation for the system that channels workers into particular occupations, and create self-justifying rationales for self-selection bias among workers, implicit bias among employers, and bias from customers.

Past academic research has found race to be an important factor in the interactions between customers and restaurant staff. Restaurant customers have been found to rate workers of color as less attentive, even though they do not rate them differently on friendliness or appearance, and to tip them less than white workers. The ambiguity of the tipping system, where the outcome is believed to be dependent on the social encounter between server and customer, has been found to promote discrimination based on social stereotypes from both parties.

Adam: Another popular way that employers surveil you is through mystery shoppers. Mystery shoppers are customers who order or use a service to monitor workers at restaurants, stores, hotels, and countless other establishments. They constitute another example of deputizing precarious workers to snitch on other workers. By some accounts, the advent of mystery shoppers came about in the 1940s, apparently by a market research firm, called Wilmark. In order to prevent employee quote-unquote “theft” at banks in stores — we use theft ironically because you really can’t steal from your employer, they steal from you every day — Wilmark hired private investigators to pose as workers in order to spy on other workers to make sure they wouldn’t take any money from cash transactions. According to market research firm TrendSource, mystery shopping grew in the 1970s and ’80s with shoppers posing as customers in order to collect data on worker behavior especially as sales and service jobs increasingly replaced manufacturing jobs. Mystery shoppers are usually paid as independent contractors on a project-by-project basis, receiving sums ranging from roughly $5 to $25, if they’re even paid at all, rather than just given free products like food, because typically these are people who need to eat, you don’t see millionaires going around asking to be mystery shoppers. A 2013 Forbes Personal Finance article hailed mystery shopping as an opportunity to make $14,000 a year. So obviously a very well-paying and reliable job. Again, you have precarious workers being pitted against precarious workers.

Nima: Now mystery shoppers, so people getting paid to basically spy on other people who are working, are usually expected to complete questionnaires during what’s called the “shop,” the visit to the establishment that they’re spying on. If there’s a problem with their questionnaire, they may not be paid at all.

Unlike with tipping, and with the exception of one rather excellent 2012 expose by our guest today, Vicky Osterweil, there’s virtually no criticism in the media about the effects of this mystery shopping outside the occasional “scam” job posting. Currently, ‘consumer tips’-style segments in local news and print media promote this mystery shopper job and encourage people to take advantage of mystery shopper perks.

So here’s some examples. ABC-15 in Arizona, back in November 2013, had an article entitled, “How to find legitimate secret shopper jobs now.” A number of years later in the Orlando Sentinel June of 2017 there was this article, “Shop and get paid: Mystery shopping makes comeback.”

Adam: The introduction of companies like Uber, Lyft, Yelp and other apps of the last 15 years has expanded the process of rating workers. This time, not just using tips, which actually at least pays them something, this allows you to use public shaming and private sanctioned by the company itself to discipline workers you view as being subpar while publicly available internal data is not available. So it’s actually very difficult to study how these rating systems work because companies like Uber and Lyft, they have a sort of secret sauce, where they don’t really reveal this. It is broadly accepted that the rating system is created to enable many of these quote-unquote “big, innovative companies” the ability to cut costs by radically reducing management costs, just as Uber for example, infamously outsources the cost of cars and car maintenance onto the driver and classifies drivers as independent contractors to skirt fiscal responsibility so too do they use the rating system as a form of managing and discipline to its many drivers who are about 1 million Americans. So basically, you don’t have to pay for management, you don’t have to pay for overseers, now you have the customer do it for you. I’m sure at this point, you’re noticing a trend and much like the tipping system, this of course comes with racial bias as Aviva Rutkin wrote in the New Scientist in 2016 when discussing the racial biases of rating systems, she wrote,

…it is hard to determine the role prejudice plays in Uber ratings, if any, without access to the company’s internal data. But studies of other online services, such as Craigslist and Airbnb, have already shown that people of colour, for example, often experience hidden bias from users. One study found that people with names perceived as African-American are 16 per cent less likely to be accepted as Airbnb guests than those with white-sounding names, for example.

So again, there’s a black hole of the data so it’s difficult to gauge this, but using Airbnb as a reference point, again, another kind of rating system, we know that discrimination is built into this niche economy pretty consistently. Now, of course, we have Yelp, which is a company that’s been around for a while. Now, this one’s a little weird, because the reviewing system doesn’t directly target workers, it targets an establishment, but very much the actual reviews themselves are extremely easy to highlight and tease out the worker in question.

Nima: Well, right because the reviews themselves are listed under the restaurant or store itself and so yes, it could be a great critique or you know, bad rating of the place or of the owner, but really the reasons that so many bad reviews happen is because of allegedly bad service, right? So it really does have to do with the behavior, with the attitude of the people who you expect to be serving you which, you know, this all has a measurable impact on overall reviews in general and runs the risk of placing the blame, of course, on the individual acts of workers rather than the management, or training, or maybe people are pissed off at work because they’re not getting paid that much, or maybe because they’re just human and have lives, but subsequently, workers may be coerced into modifying their behavior or working harder, if not fired, all based on customer reviews posted online, and often unable to be substantiated.

So when conducting research for his book, Consumer Management in the Internet Age, author Joshua Sperber interviewed service workers who told him how easily it was to discern which worker a review was singling out, even if a workers name wasn’t mentioned, as well as the consequences of Yelp reviews for workers. One server noted, “We all read the reviews, good and bad, (as) it was quite easy to figure out who was being talked about. Most of my working associates hated Yelp. I know of two servers that lost their positions because of the reviews.” Other people spoke about the pressures that Yelp applies. So this is also from the book Consumer Management in the Internet Age, “One hostess at a midtown Manhattan restaurant told me that Yelp ‘makes you work harder.’ Describing Yelp as an ‘invisible guiding hand,’ she observed that employees’ awareness of Yelp means that ‘You were going to perform your best. You don’t want something written about you.’”

Adam: So in 2008, I was a waiter at a restaurant in Manhattan called the Charles, which was this sort of Waverly knockoff, it was not nearly as good, it was a restaurant owned by Graydon Carter. It was a pretty shitty restaurant, but it was okay, it had its moments, it was run by a degenerate cokehead and a few of his friends and anyway, I was a waiter there. It was actually a pretty cushy job. It was the height of the recession so I was lucky to have a job and actually we made decent money, but I got in trouble because of a bad Yelp review, which we’re now going to read to you because it’s actually pretty hilarious. This is by Debbie W. of Los Angeles. This is the Yelp review that she left that got me in trouble. This knocked me down to a few nights a week and I got a stern talking-to so this is from November 24, 2008. Yes, that’s how old I am. She wrote, quote:

I’m back visiting my home town for a week and thought I would check out the new ‘it’ restaurant. I emailed the week prior and got a 7pm reservation. Although it might have seemed on the early side for NYC, it was a smart move as the restaurant became sooooo loud by 8:30pm for such a small establishment.

The decor is nothing to speak of, but the service and food are. They were both not good. Our aloof waiter, kept forgetting things, spilling water and then he finally explained he had oral surgery that day, right before serving our dessert. Nothing says a sweet finish than thoughts of cut and stitched up gums after a sub-par meal. (I will say he did make some good wine suggestions, though.)

Nima: (Laughs.) Oh! A swerve at the end!

Adam: So in my defense, I will say one thing, which is number one, I had a —

Nima: You’re a good sommelier.

Adam: I do know my wine. I had a root canal the previous day at NYU medical school because I didn’t have health insurance because I was a waiter. And he had to have been fucking Doogie Howser, had to have been 15 years old, he cut my tongue, so I couldn’t really speak. Now rent was also due, you’ll notice the day was the week before the end of the month. I had to work. I couldn’t not work. We all know how it is in the restaurant industry, we have to work. So I had to explain why I was talking like I had marbles in my mouth. And I sort of said, ‘You know, I had oral surgery, I apologize’ and I guess she thought that was gross. Now, it was gross, to be fair.

Nima: But that’s just good, honest service right there.

Adam: That’s just capitalism’s fault. I will say the aloof part is my fault. That was because I was just kind of a dick, but they kind of wanted us to be dicks, it was one of these hot-spot places.

Nima: It was the ‘it’ restaurant.

Adam: Yeah, you want to be too obsequious. So, anyway, that got me in trouble. So this is, you know, somewhat personal for me. Debbie W., if for whatever reason you’re listening to this, I’m sorry, I ruined your dinner November 23, 2008 because I didn’t have proper dental insurance. But I will say this, you should be mad at my employer for not providing healthcare, by the way, true in general, like 80 percent of Yelp reviews, which is the ultimate kind of anti worker hostile bullshit, are people saying oh, this was slow or this food came out wrong and I will tell you as someone who worked in the restaurant industry most of his adult life, that the number one reason why your service sucks, or your food was cold is because the manager under staffed because they were fucking cheap. That is the origin of almost every single problem in a restaurant is nickel-dime-ing, cost-cutting managers. Just FYI if you ever get mad at a waiter being overwhelmed, it is almost always not their fault. It is almost always a cheapskate fucking manager or a cheapskate fucking owner.

Nima: To talk more about tipping and rating systems in our snitch economy we’re going to be joined by Vicky Osterweil, Philadelphia-based writer, editor, and a regular contributor to The New Inquiry. Her writing has appeared in The Baffler, The Nation, The Rumpus, Real Life, and Al Jazeera. Vicky is the author of In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action, published in August by Bold Type Books. Vicky will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Vicky Osterweil, joining us from Philadelphia, thank you so much for talking to us today on Citations Needed.

Vicky Osterweil: Oh, it’s my pleasure. I’m glad to be here.

Adam: So in this episode, we’re discussing the sprawling network of kind of self perpetuating, policing mechanisms that often go unnoticed. From wage spying to tipped work to gig workers, you wrote about specifically mystery shoppers, which we discussed earlier as part of this broader ecosystem. And then, of course, there’s also tipping, rating systems and snitch apps like Yelp. I guess my first question to start off is how do you think we sort of got to this point? I know this is a big question so forgive me, how do we sort of get to the point where surveillance was kind of baked into our labor system in such a profound and — surprisingly enough — a very unnoticed way? Obviously, we’ve always had managers, there’ve always been sort of bosses, but now we all kind of unknowingly accept the role as mini-manager and pro bono cop, without really getting anything in return other than a sense of mild self satisfaction.

Vicky Osterweil

Vicky Osterweil: Yeah, totally. So there’s a more recent answer to that around the last 30 years and they’re sort of a longer answer to that, that I think looks at the whole history of American political economy. So for the more recent one, I think, which is a little easier to grasp, which is still difficult, a lot of it has to do with, so it’s a necessity right now for capitalist accumulation I think basically, that people be more and more intensely surveilled and the reason that that’s a necessity is because of the long crisis that was started in the ’70s with the collapse of the sort of post war, military industrial complex and consumer growth that happened, you know, through the mid-70s, basically, in which rising wages and rising consumption combined with rising imperialist expansion and captured new markets, like had a sort of rising tides, lifts all boats moment, which was in the history of capitalism, very, very unprecedented is not to return — in my opinion. So as that sort of post war, economic bargain started to collapse, and unions were smashed and manufacturing jobs moved overseas and globalization happened and you have sort of the introduction of what now gets referred to as the service economy, where as a way of keeping wages down and not having to pay that core like most of the US, and the Imperial heartland has been given over to financial services and to distribution and other forms of labor that aren’t directly, you know, in the factory anymore. Not as much direct production is happening, although there’s still plenty. But that is a less efficient way to make money for capital and the rate of profit continues to fall. So what surveillance can do is it increasingly can squeeze more and more value out of every worker, more and more value out of every interaction, you know, because it’s constantly making the work process more efficient. How we accepted it as individuals I think was, you know, there was both the political shock after 9/11 when I think you had the Patriot Act, and you had a lot of sort of government surveillance became visible but then was also very actively encouraged by a huge percentage of the media apparatus, but then you also just have the rise of personal computing, social media and cell phones, which at first were sold to us as sort of fun and freeing, and which now have become utterly necessary for us to keep our jobs. You know, I think a lot about this in my own personal life I resisted having a smartphone for a long time because I was a nerd, and I was scared of surveillance and I had to get it for a job because I got a job and I had to get it for a job walking dogs, right? So like, that’s a pretty low tech job. I had to get a smartphone because the way that the dog walking worked was you had to pick up the dog, walk them, take them back to the apartment, then email the boss to say, like, hey, the dog peed, and it was great and we’re all happy and you move on. So you need a smartphone for that. And that was a pretty relaxed job, you know, you walked around New York City, it wasn’t so bad. As I was working there they switched to a QR code based system where you had to scan in and out of every walk and now suddenly, you are being tracked on your walk and your timing and these walks that had to be half an hour long. Well, what started happening is all the dog walkers started missing their schedules, they started being really, really late and it’s because the difference between a 30 minute walk and a 27-minute walk to a dog is not that significant. The difference between a 27-minute walk and a 30 minute walk to an app is incredibly visible, right? So as the surveillance happened, as they guaranteed they were getting their 30 minutes, you know, for the customer service, workers got more and more stressed and harassed and worked later and later. That’s one of those things where what came in as sort of games or for play or for socializing — social media obviously being the very obvious example of this, where we use it to keep in touch with our friends — and then like, it turns out, they were really just data miners. We were really just sort of working in the data mines for Facebook and Twitter and whatever. So that’s the more short term.

Nima: Something you’ve written, Vicky, is that, “Producing identification with the bosses, smashing labor, and making solidarity difficult through contract labor, precarity and remote working are key features of neoliberal workplace organization.” You’ve also written that, “central to this vision is workplace surveillance,” which is what we’ve been talking about. Now, but there’s something else that you wrote in there and I kind of want to dig in a little deeper on that, can we talk about the centrality of precarity in this mix, without the ability to be instantaneously fired a lot of these surveillance systems don’t work, right? They wouldn’t be able to operate the way that they are set up if losing employment were not the constant threat looming over head and so how central is the constant fear of employment termination, financial destitution, how central is that to our current economic system?

Vicky Osterweil: Yeah, I mean, so it’s always been a central component of capitalism. Capitalism has always functioned on the basis of there being a huge body of unemployed laborers capable of taking your job so that you’re under threat of being fired so you don’t organize or you don’t get sick, I mean, you obviously can’t control that but so on some level it’s endemic. It is certainly accelerating, it is certainly more common in the US, job security has largely disappeared for the vast majority of American workers. I think it is very crucial. So one thing that mystery shoppers do is they work, you know, it’s piecework, they just pick up each shop as it’s called, and then go and do it on their own and they themselves are quite precarious. Usually, it’s not really enough work to be a full time job for them. So most of them are just sort of doing it almost like a hobby to get a little extra goods and food and a little cash. But for the workers, you know, I mean, I don’t know what y’all’s employment history is like, but it’s not exactly fulfilling to work in service for years on end. As someone who’s done that, it’s not, it’s pretty hard over time to keep smiling at every new customer who comes out, especially since often you are being paid terribly, you have no protections yourself, and you of course, grow to resent the customers. It’s not really their fault, but they are the objects of sort of conflict that occur in your workplace, you know, whereas once it might have been the machine that you were hostile towards, now it’s the machine and also the customer, right? It is usually both. There is always a machine involved, I think it’s very important to remember that.

Nima: But then you’re worried about them in addition to your boss, right?

Vicky Osterweil: Exactly.

Nima: Because they become your new boss, because they’re reporting to your boss.

Vicky Osterweil: Exactly. So surveillance, which mystery shoppers are part of but also cameras, live feeds that bosses are watching, which is very common these days, owners will very often set up camera systems and you don’t know when they’re watching, but they will let you know sometimes they are, these sort of systems force you to be constantly doing this. The bigger part of service labor, which is doing emotional work for the customer as you go through the exact same identical over and over and over again, the same identical transaction, you know, and you move from job to job often in these positions, but you start to learn that you’re always being watched and so a lot of us start to internalize this idea that like, okay, I could be being watched and judged at any moment and so, the sort of avenues that you have to take a break for yourself, you know, I mean, one thing I think that’s, that’s hard for people who don’t work in service to appreciate is that when people behind the cash register are being rude to you, they’re taking a break, that’s effectively a break. They just don’t have the energy to keep being nice to you, but if you are constantly fearful that the next person you frown at is going to get you disciplined or fired and that’s the difference between your cell phone bill this week or not, then suddenly, you’re going to be working a lot harder to be nicer to people who are very often treating you very badly. Often people use retail workers and retail spaces as a way to get rid of a lot of negative emotion to express a lot of negative affect. I think anyone who’s worked knows that there is a class of customer that basically what they’re paying for is abusing you. So I haven’t really talked about precarity much there but basically, I think these jobs, what I’m trying to say these jobs suck, they’re terrible jobs, you’re paid very poorly, there is no reason to work hard for them, but the only difference between a CVS and a Walgreens other than their geographic proximity is ultimately probably going to be the customer service is probably the only thing, it’s the same products, basically the same price. So the bottom line in capitalism is really based on your performance on the ground, in some ways, some part of that bottom line anyway. So it’s really important for them that you not let everyone know that you hate your job and so, if there were better jobs available or dare to dream worlds where we didn’t have to work full time in order to live indoors and eat food, then no one would be doing any of this stuff because it’s humiliating often and it’s unpleasant and it’s senseless and it’s repetitive.

Adam: Yeah, so one of the psychological aspects we discussed is what you touched on there, which is the kind of this false sense of power or this kind of, which I’m totally fascinated by that really drives the snitch economy, obviously, tipping, Uber ratings, et cetera, there’s a ton of different examples, secret shoppers themselves are oftentimes obviously not they’re not wealthy, and the ways in which that kind of power for a group of people, American workers in general and workers everywhere I suppose, but who don’t have a lot of power, they don’t have a lot of agency, they don’t really have much control over much of their lives and there’s this little moment, this little tinge of kind of self righteousness when the check comes, or when the little thing says rate the order where there’s a sense that, ‘I have some control over someone.’ I don’t want to overemphasize it too much but I do think that’s very powerful and we mentioned earlier in the show that I, you know, I waited tables for seven years of bartender for three years and especially as an American who hadn’t experienced at that point, a culture where you didn’t tip, it just seemed like I was efficient water. I didn’t notice that that was fucking bizarre and that was really oppressive and weird. I was just like, oh, of course you tip based on how good your service is but why and what are the reasons for that? One of the things that I think what it does is in a weird way, maybe I’m being a little cute here, but I feel like it really kind of conditions us to accept a lack of solidarity with fellow workers where we constantly have these adversarial relationships with every single wage person or gig economy person we interface with, and this necessarily erodes kind of a sense of class consciousness I think over time, and the second thing it does, which is as bad if not worse, is I really think it sort of conditions us to a sense of authoritarianism, which is not a term I like to throw around too much but I think it’s true here, you kind of get an authoritarian mindset, which I do think kind of permits maybe more acceptance of police and corporate surveillance. Can you talk about the psychology aspect of it and how you kind of read that?

CBS Chicago promotes secret shopping as a way to make extra cash.

Vicky Osterweil: Absolutely. I don’t think you’re overreaching at all. I totally agree. I think our psychological conditioning and the conditioning of ideology is ultimately produced by these relations that we have to live out and live through constantly in the social world, right? It’s not just from movies or books or whatever we were taught in social studies class when we were eleven. It’s constantly being reproduced in our everyday lives. And I think one of the consequences of the general economic situation that we’re talking about where there is this failure to accumulate and rate as quickly as possible is that capital does need to accommodate us to more authoritarian forms of governance because it can’t give us as much. There aren’t as many demands to win as they were in the ‘40s or the ‘50s. It’s much cheaper to hire cops than to give us healthcare. It’s not just that it’s cheaper, but that is ultimately one part of the way that this all works is that as the capitalism starts to sputter and doesn’t have the dynamism it had before, not to mention destroying the planet, it never could afford to give most people good lives but there are fewer and fewer people now who it can deign to give good lives, and as a result, needs to build authoritarianism is one very convenient solution for that problem. Police and prisons, it’s a “better” solution than bankrupting the capitalist class — “better” here in very, very strong quotations, obviously. So I think we all have to reproduce that because we make this world, workers make the world, the world is not made by the capitalists so in order to reproduce that, we also have to reproduce it psychologically and I think, as we are more and more disempowered in the streets, through our experience as consumerism and surveillance and markets in general come into more and more of our daily lives, more and more of our interactions, more and more of our experiences, as all these things are increasingly mediated by technological and consumer networks, we feel less and less power. Everything around us is black box, right? Everything around us relies on this crazy global logistics network, you know, our food comes from all over the world, all of these things and as we’re more and more disempowered, and more and more disconnected from the source of our daily life, small petty forms of power seem more appealing and I think, you know, I mean, if you’ll allow me a very vulgar cultural analysis —

Nima: Oh please, we encourage it.

Vicky Osterweil: This is actually very common in the psyche in the United Kingdom, where the collapse of empire, I think you can sort of trace, there’s a cliche in the UK about the sort of nosy neighbor who’s constantly messing with each other’s business and this sort of very harrumphing, sort of constant control over other people in the same situation. I think as these micro psychological moves reflect massive historical trends very often, I think. And so yeah, I think it is a way of conditioning us to the economy as it exists now and we have to compete harder and harder, just to get by, there are fewer jobs and they pay worse and the apartment and the rent is more expensive, and everything’s more expensive. So we also have to get acclimated to competition as a job training for ourselves and so hardening ourselves to our fellow workers is a way that we can do that.

Adam: You talked about dumping on service workers as a kind of emotional outlet. One of the aspects that I think is very frustrating for a lot of people and this is obviously baked into the cake here is that we don’t, because these corporations are by definition faceless, they’re faceless by design, right? If I’m angry at a restaurant or if I’m angry at Comcast, there’s basically one party I can yell at, and it’s the lowest rung on the ladder and you can do the thing where you ask for a manager, now that manager probably makes $.50 more than the next guy or whatever.

Vicky Osterweil: Right.

Adam: I know it’s not a perfectly pristine Marxist analysis but he’s not exactly twirling his mustache and smoking a pipe.

Vicky Osterweil: If you can get him on the phone he’s probably not that high up. Yeah, exactly.

Adam: And there’s this frustration because all you really want to do is strangle the fucking CEO because they charged your card $470 and they’re just telling you to fuck off, you’re not getting your money back and I think that people are put into these situations where you have to have this adversarial relationship with people who, again, you should always have class solidarity with by definition and I think that it’s just interesting that this, it’s like the mafia, you know, you build up layers of indemnification so you’re never really held accountable for anything. And then when you see things like going outside of Jeff Bezos’s house with a guillotine, you have a fucking five-day media meltdown because now you’ve sort of, now you’ve crossed the line into this thing where holy shit, maybe there is a, you know, you get enough people who have been screwed over by, you know, their bosses or Verizon or Amazon then maybe they’ll get together and they’ll say, ‘Why am I yelling at this guy when I should be doing this thing?’ So I guess I’m curious in your mind how some of this frustration is really just kind of this hyper-atomized anger that has no real form.

Vicky Osterweil: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that that’s exactly right. I think it’s always important to mention that these people have names and addresses. It’s also important to note that no individual can be, you know, Bezos being the most venal and wealthy at the moment, it would be very satisfying to see him no longer on this earth, but his disappearance would not, in fact, constitute a change in these relations ultimately, unfortunately, because it would be very satisfying.

Adam: Yeah, I think we assassinated enough czars in Russia to realize that wasn’t going to work out, but it’s still cool nonetheless.

Vicky Osterweil: Exactly, anarchists learned that strategy, you know, early in the turn of the 20th century, it doesn’t work. It just is not very effective, unfortunately. But yeah, that hatred that it builds that it’s all internalizing work discipline, right? I think one thing that really sometimes even a discussion of class consciousness, which I don’t always find the most useful concept, although sometimes it is, but even these discussions, I think they often don’t talk about the way that a lot of these things are ways that we discipline ourselves for work. We make ourselves working subjects because ultimately, if we didn’t need to do these things to survive, we wouldn’t.

Adam: I would do podcasting, I would not wait tables again. Fuck no.

Vicky Osterweil: Right. Exactly. Yeah, yeah. I mean, I would maybe write a book — maybe — but probably I would mostly just watch movies and hang out with my cat and my wife, you know?

Adam: Absolutely.

Vicky Osterweil: So I think what you have in these moments of this really inchoate rage. I think that is definitely something that’s building that comes from the oppression and the powerlessness that we experience and you need to actually discipline that rage, you need to turn it inwards in order to be a good worker because if you don’t, if you organize, if you fight back, you might end up in prison, you might end up just fired on the street. So one way that you can internalize it, of course, is to deposit it on the people around you and hear feminist theory is really important, right? Like where reproductive workers, women, femmes, anyone in your immediate environs, they absorb all of the hatred that’s produced by the capitalist workplace, all the alienation gets absorbed in children and pets even, you know, it just all gets sucked up by this other wing of workers, many of whom now will be other workers like at their own job, and you’ll be tweeting about it or posting about it on Facebook and everyone will be sort of, and even though the social reproductive aspect is being siphoned for data and for power by these snitch economies and surveillance economies, right? So even those moments of relaxation and care that we used to get from being with friends, those are being monetized more and more and more, not just because you have to go to a place where you spend money to hang out but also just because our phone is company listening and trying to sell us things based on our on our conversations.

Nima: Right. So that there’s even a way to commodify the divide-and-conquer.

Vicky Osterweil: Exactly. The already worker-reproducing commodification of reproductive labor, they can make extra money off of those.

Nima: Oh, yeah. (Chuckles.) Exactly.

Vicky Osterweil: Surveillance allows you to constantly find new micro-markets, new niche markets. Surveillance is very powerful for that.

Nima: So not to get too prescriptive here, but we’re kind of curious about what you think are some of the ways we can all push back against this corporate snitch culture. So, yes, there are a lot of people who fight for raising minimum wages, while also always tipping, you know, at least 20 percent regardless of service and short of being physically assaulted by a Lyft driver always will give a five-star rating on the app after a ride but what might other ways be that we can render these systems really toothless, in addition to potential political solutions, of course, like getting rid of tipping, changing the way our economy operates, especially at the kind of, you know, gig, wage, service level and getting rid of ranking systems and providing stronger unionization, what are the things that you’re thinking of could or should be done?

Vicky Osterweil: So on some level, the movement for police abolition is also about this and that’s a very, that’s obviously a very broad and big moment but I think what’s really important about the way that surveillance emerges, historically, sorry to now jump suddenly back to the first question, but I think that what Simone Browne very convincingly lays out in her book Dark Matters is that surveillance — and a bunch of other historians have recently pulled this up — is that what we consider modern modes of surveillance, of marking, of tracking, actually emerged on the plantation and in the slave ship, and involve long, deep processes of racialization and criminalization. So on some level, it’s very, very deeply baked into a white supremacist capitalist society and it’s very difficult to just sort of pull it out, but the reason I bring that up is because one of the chants that you’ve seen, you’ve seen sort of emerge during this current anti-police uprising, is people will say, ‘What did you see?’ And the response is: ‘I didn’t see shit,’ right? And what we’re learning on the streets is that actually your camera, the camera phone, people seeing things, people pointing each other out is putting each other in direct danger in a protest scenario. So I think people are starting to learn about the ways that these forms of surveillance at their most dramatic and macro during a riot are being used by the prison system, and I think that that, that actually develops a sense in which you start to spread the common knowledge that your phone is a snitch. Your phone to snitch, don’t bring it to the protest, your phone’s a snitch. Very predictable in this way, but I think street protest and movement is a very powerful way to do that, to start changing these minds. I also think in terms of —

Nima: It’s almost like you’ve written a book on that.

Vicky Osterweil: (Laughs.) Yeah, I’m very, very predictable. But I also think that another thing that can happen is, and I think workers will know about this in their workplace, but to analyze, we always understand those systems so maybe the way they function is a little black box to us, right? We don’t actually run the computer systems, whatever, but we also always have some sense of where the limits are when we work in a place better than the boss ever does. We always understand the work better. We always understand the workplace better. So people will know ‘Oh, there’s a gap in the cameras there’ or ‘Oh, the system doesn’t record this way of chatting and texting.’ I think of teachers right now who are being forced to, I just talked to, this afternoon we were talking to a friend who works at Penn, here in Philly, and their online teaching service for during the coronavirus is named Panopto, just unironically, is the name of the service on which they teach their classes. And Sophie, my partner, thought that it was “PennOpto” and that they had specially branded it, which would have been really funny, especially considering the role they have in West Philadelphia.

Nima: But they’re not that clever. They should have.

Vicky Osterweil: Right, exactly. But I think teachers could, for example, right now at this moment, give all their students A’s, not enforce homework, not enforce these rules, you know, rules are coming down to the top: kids can’t eat on the Zoom call, you know, it has to be just like school discipline, right? Teachers could not enforce most of those things as a way of maybe not being on a full strike which probably is necessary at this moment. So similarly, you pointed to giving everyone in the service economy five stars all the time always, tipping everyone always is a very small form of action and talking about it and being clear about it is a small way that we can start to do that and build a culture. But I think a bigger change will require either the kinds of workplace organizing that you were talking about in the question, or other forms of sort of abolitionist horizons that involve us. One thing that I think about a lot is, okay, the economy, you know, maybe by the time this episode comes out, the crash will have happened, the economy is about to fall apart and what if Twitter dies? Twitter has historically not ever been well funded and has never been profitable, so are we developing different ways of talking to each other outside of these systems of surveillance, they cut through everything, obviously, there isn’t really an outside of this surveillance society we live in yet. Not really. But are we thinking about and developing ways of communicating and being with one another that can cut those out as much as possible? It’s easier to get stuff through an app often, but it’s only a little easier and when you use that app you are taking a cut away from the workers, right? So thinking about stuff like that, starting to develop consciousnesses of trying not to use these things and I think trying to do it socially as much as possible because as an individual especially we can’t really change anything.

Adam: Yeah.

Vicky Osterweil: So I think with our friends, thinking about ways to be together in public that minimize the presence of this kind of surveillance, I think is one thing we can do.

Adam: Yeah, I think am I advancing worker solidarity and unionism? Or am I being a fucking cop? It’s a good question to ask oneself, because I mean, this episode is obviously influenced by our experiences in the restaurant industry and I know that that’s something, we’re sort of pandering to the demographic, I guess if you can even pander to that demographic, because I do think it’s something that is so ubiquitous, you don’t think about it.

Vicky Osterweil: Yeah.

Adam: Before you go, I feel like I’d be remiss not to mention this, especially with your discussion about the the sort of racial aspects of this, the snitch economy, we talked about this in the intro, it sort of exacerbates and makes worse existing inequities, racial and gender inequities. Obviously, I mean, anyone who’s worked five minutes in the restaurant industry knows it’s a cauldron of sexual harassment and casual racism. The customers don’t want you to look this way, your hair’s too curly, et cetera. Can you briefly comment on that? I want to talk about that, I want to talk about the extent to which not only does it make us all cops, it makes us racist like cops and assholes like cops and transphobic like cops.

Vicky Osterweil: Yeah, I mean, cops, you know, there’s the popular chant, you know, ‘No good cops in a racist system.’ I get where it’s coming from but I think it’s actually a misunderstanding of cops. There are no cops in a non-racist system, cops are a racist tool ultimately. Maybe I could imagine a world in which cops exist without there being racism, but they have never in the history of police, which is coterminous with the history of white supremacy, in fact, they’re younger, they’re a relatively young invention of white supremacy. So in that way, being racist is being a cop always and being a cop means being racist, no matter what race the person in blue happens to be. So there’s that obviously. And I think, you know, I think the reason I brought up Simone Browne’s work here and the way in which surveillance I think is really a racial and racializing mode of thinking, I think is really important, that embedded in the whole way that we think about rating each other, think about grading each other, about tracking work, these are all forms of thought that are structured on some level around anti-blackness and in whiteness. You think about farm workers, farm and domestic workers in America still not allowed to unionize, still not allowed to have worker protections, significantly less than anyone else, right? Why is that? It’s because they were slaves. The economy hasn’t really changed over. In fundamental ways, the work that was done by the enslaved before continues to be incredibly exploitative and dangerous work. One thing that we really see, that we really have to understand is the way in which capital is truly built racially. It’s not a mistake, it’s not an added thing on top of capital or whatever. It is really embedded in all of these forms of even of the ways we look, you know, people talk about the male gaze and the white gaze and the ways that we look, the way that we consume, the way that we understand each other. There is this deep racial logic underneath all of it and I think what the snitch economy is doing is you are punishing people at work, right? You’re acting as an overseer or a foreman. That’s just what you’re doing in the snitch economy. That’s always on some level a racialized position of power in America, but actually, strike that: That’s always a racialized form of power.

Adam: You have written a book. I think you caused Jon Chait to meltdown for a week, which was cool.

Nima: Yeah. Congrats on that.

Vicky Osterweil: Thank you. I didn’t even know Jon Chait had melted down because I was getting meltdowns from so many other people.

Adam: Yeah, so I imagine you got a lot of shit for that. It is actually I think thematically related to the topic, although it’s not directly related. Tell us about your new book, anything else you want to promote and whomst you’ve made melt down and why? No.

Vicky Osterweil: (Laughs.) Okay. The book is called In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. It is what it says on the tin. It’s a history of looting and rioting largely as an anti-police, anti-white supremacist and anti-properterian tactic in American history, which makes the argument that we have to, if we really want to understand the movements that are happening around us and move towards a revolutionary horizon, we have to stop imagining that non violence is the only way forward or that looters or rioters are somehow not part of the movement when they reappear again and again. It’s also an argument about the history of how whiteness forms in distinction to blackness and how the police and property are crucial aspects of that formation. So it’s actually a very, very historical book that has the last week has upset, I believe it’s two US senators, Tom Cotton and Brian Schatz.

Adam: Oh.

Vicky Osterweil: Hawaii.

Adam: That’s punching up.

Vicky Osterweil: Yeah, obviously the entire far-right is freaking out.

Nima: Bipartisan meltdown.

Vicky Osterweil: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Nima: I think that’s a great place to leave it. It really sums up a lot of what we’ve been talking about. We’ve been, of course, speaking with Vicky Osterweil, Philadelphia-based writer, editor, and a regular contributor to The New Inquiry. Her writing has also appeared in The Baffler, The Nation, The Rumpus, Real Life, and Al Jazeera. Most recently Vicky is the author of In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action, published just last month by Bold Type Books, and we encourage you all to go out to your local bookstore, not Amazon, and buy that book. So thank you, Vicky, really, truly, for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Vicky Osterweil: Thank you so much for having me, Nima. It’s been a pleasure.


Adam: Yeah, so ever since she got tweeted out by those Republican senators for her Defense of Looting interview on NPR, she’s had a rough go at it. So I’m glad we could talk about something else, maybe mix it up a bit, provide a little bit of a variation on having to deal with @MAGAman88 on Twitter all day, which I’m sure is not fun.

Nima: Yeah. So getting back to Vicky’s roots about shitting on capital is much better than, I guess, her current role of shitting on capital.

Adam: You know, there are features of the same face,my friend, because if we’re getting constantly ripped off and nickel-and-dimed and squeezed and having our labor stolen in various ways, and constantly policed and harassed, yeah, I failed to see the moral distinction there to be honest, but I don’t know. People think this is like edgelord-ism. It’s like, no, it’s pretty consistent, especially when it comes to sort of things like violence. I’m going to go on a tangent here where, you know, you watch Jon Chait who, you know, again spent his career advocating for war in Iraq, war in Libya, war in Syria, unironically saying we must denounce political violence and I’m like, you know, that that political qualifier is very suspicious.

Headline from a recent piece in New York Magazine by Jonathan Chait.

Nima: Right. That means against The Gap, as opposed to against Afghan citizens.

Adam: Gratuitous qualifiers are the ultimate red flag, you know, it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re against crony capitalism,’ and it’s like, why don’t you just mean capitalism? What is a crony? It doesn’t, you know, political violence? You mean? What’s the difference? Oh, you mean violence that isn’t sanctioned by the state? Okay. Well, that seems a little arbitrary. So anyway, good for her. I hope she does well.

Nima: Yeah. So, you know, as we said at the top of the show, we’re not anti-tipping. We’re anti-the institution of tipping that is demanded of our current system. So please, keep tipping, tip well, be in solidarity with workers, do not see them as the object of your scorn and your shitty Yelp review — unless, of course, they’re an aloof waiter spilling water on you. In which case, that’s fine.

Adam: I have one last piece of gossip before you go which is to say that — and it’s a positive thing, a little positive gossip — one of the small investors in the restaurant was the editor of Men’s Health, David Zinczenko, who does those really stupid ‘eat this, not that’ books, amazing tipper, like 35, 50 percent every single time he came in, nicest guy in the world, washboard abs, just wanted to give him a compliment, you know, I’m not all negative.

Nima: That’s your positive Yelp review. Take that, Debbie W.

Adam: David Zinczenko, if you’re listening, I appreciate the big tips. That’s all I’m going to say.

Nima: Well, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And of course, an extra special shout out goes to our extra big tippers through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks so much for listening everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, September 16, 2020.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.