In a Labor Day weekend mood, I watched “Grapes of Wrath” again this evening. Labor Day is, after all, a celebration of the American labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers. “Grapes of Wrath” portrays familiar themes in the American worker experience: be it displaced farmers from Oklahoma to baristas and Twitter people with degrees, there is a continual struggle between workers and those with wealth desiring cheap, easily manipulated, labor.
The wealthy pretty much got their way in the States until the Depression (rich people gambling to get richer) fueled the re- balancing of the worker/owner relationship — more in favor of the worker– under FDR, and his New Deal. This balance, which was great for the overall health of the country, continued through LBJ and the Great Society. Now things are going the other way, with the wealthy neoliberal controller classes producing a political and economic system that assures their success no matter which of the two political parties wins. Reagan, Clinton, Bush and now Obama dismantled the Great Society, fought to break the worker unions, and deregulated banking and other entities once deemed “public trusts.” The resultant series of economic crises and bursting bubbles destroyed the working and middle classes and threatens to remove whats left of the social safety nets.
Tom Joad’s famous final speech (excerpts below) to his Ma in the movie “Grapes of Wrath” powerfully expressed the thoughts and yearnings of the Depression-period worker and resonates with the increasingly disenfranchised workers of today. The American revolutionary, Tom Joad, espousing collective action that creates change, is a familiar subplot in the American drama. What distresses me about this speech is Tom’s dream to spread wealth more justly “…if all our folks got together and yelled…”. In this 21st century people yell for a few months (Occupy) and the illusion and control by the owners returns. In the age of the “meh generation” and Ayn Rand the notion of a collective soul is anathema.
Tom Joad: I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin’ fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin’. And I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together and yelled…
Ma Joad: Tommy, you’re not aimin’ to kill nobody.
Tom Joad: No, Ma, not that. That ain’t it. It’s just, well as long as I’m an outlaw anyways… maybe I can do somethin’… maybe I can just find out somethin’, just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that’s wrong and see if they ain’t somethin’ that can be done about it. I ain’t thought it out all clear, Ma. I can’t. I don’t know enough.
Ma Joad: How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? Why they could kill ya and I’d never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?
Tom Joad: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…
Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?
Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.
There was a certain point last night — when a six-foot-tall private-party planner in a bustier and feather headdress was clenching my shoulder and threatening me — that I wondered why I ever even wanted to follow along a tour of the fancy camps of Burning Man.
Burning Man is, after all, about building a city, which they call Black Rock. In that city, some people were building walled-off empires on its outer rings. Rich people do as rich people do.
But there is something about the way a new fleet of wealthy have descended on Burning Man that is inducing anxiety among Burners, a community that bans all money and branding (people tape over even small logos). The so-called “turnkey camps” — tight circles of trailers, or sometimes just large black-tarp walls that hide overstaffed luxury playpens — are distinctly different from the rest of Burning Man, a festival with a heavy emphasis on giving and work.
During a five-minute walk this morning, Burners in various camps offered me plums, coffee and homemade pita-and-cheese sandwiches. Campers constantly brag about how much work they put into their decor, erecting full bars or elaborate hammock-atop-hammock arrangements on site. Many of this year’s new camps are both private and prefab, and that is very difficult for some Burners to accept. It has been part of the conversation here all week.
Let it be said: All of Burning Man is a show of wealth. Tickets are $380, sure, but many of the art cars — immensely decorated buses and trucks — cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not to mention the neon furs, the metallic leggings, the lights (there were side-of the-road hawkers at the gate who tried to sell me a rainbow stole for $80).
Standing near a party bus one night around midnight, Ryan Parks, a young entrepreneur covered in LEDs, explained the situation: “This is the height of excess,” he said, indicating the neon and fire-spewing art cars around us. “We go to the desert, where people die, to build shit we burn. The Maslow hierarchy of needs has been met by our ancestors — so we can make art cars.”
It’s not about tech money, because that’s nothing new. Annie Harrison — an early Burner and former writer for Wired magazine — told me, “I came out here in ’95 to cover the tech scene. It was tech-reporter catnip! Mostly stories about the lasers from Lawrence Livermore. I took a picture of a guy lighting a cigarette off a laser that my editor loved.”
But something new is happening at Burning Man: There’s now a rich neighborhood.
K Street Black Rock is at the perimeter of the city, which is built in the form of concentric semicircles. A long, obscure stretch far from the center, no one bikes all the way out there unless they have to.
“We’ve put our hand out to the turnkey camps and asked them to live by the principles. We can’t force them. But we asked, and I think they understand,” said Burning Man co-founder Will Rogers, who sat in a folding chair by his RV, a tattered bandana around his head. “After the first dust storm, we’re all the same color.”
In my event calendar, I noticed something called “Turnkey Camp Invasion,” described as a parade to test the hospitality of the fanciest camps. When I arrived at the meeting spot, a funky bar in a quiet neighborhood along E street, the bartenders told me the organizer hadn’t been able to make it to Burning Man because he couldn’t take the time off from work.
But the group — a dentist, a Google employee, a lawyer, some eccentrics — still gathered. They figured that, no matter what, it was a nice night for a bike ride.
“Okay, we want to make sure we don’t get the people who fund the art, though,” said a blonde woman wearing a headscarf and a sash of fake ammo. “How can we tell which is turnkey and which isn’t?”
“Listen, we’re not burning down their RVs, for god’s sake,” said David Grosof, who wore glow sticks fashioned into glasses. “If we’re friendly, they’ll invite us in. It’ll be fun.”
I stood next to a Google employee named Greg: “”The nanosecond I heard about this turnkey tour, there was no way I wouldn’t do it.”
What if it’s Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s camp?
“That’d be awesome! We’d sip a martini and have some caviar, no doubt,” Greg said.
Grosof had a more philosophical take.
“We are so very careful, no one can sell a hot dog for money, but it’s okay to have a staff and bodyguards and cooks?” he said. “What is the difference between commodity product and commodity service?”
When we reached K Street, one of the “invaders” asked a man who was walking by whether he had seen these fancy camps. Oh yes, he had, he said. Many. They set up 20 matching RVs here or there, and there’s one just right up the street.
We got to the escarpment, a daunting wall of RVs. The entry was covered by gauzy drapes. As they billowed in the wind, we could see inside: A crystal chandelier, glass refrigerators full of champagne, a dining-room table to seat maybe 16, and half a dozen very beautiful women in lingerie, serving cocktails. One of them saw the group.
She stormed outside, furious. The invaders responded defensively, saying they had just wanted to see. Some wanted to debate. She wanted everyone to keep walking. The group milled outside, debating whether to try again, or give up and go to a normal camp for a drink.
One of the turnkey residents, red-haired and slightly overweight, came out in a white shirt and cargo shorts. The party planner quickly ran back inside, brought him a red-silk Chinese robe, and helped him put it on. He thought someone’s headlamp was a camera, and started to scream at them. The event planner saw me taking notes and a picture of the scene, and came at me. “I don’t like you,” she said loudly, grabbing my shoulder. Someone next to me told her that she didn’t need to be a bitch. The man in the silk robe started jumping up and down, ready to throw a punch.
And then, because no one really wanted a fight, and the whole scene was ridiculous, it calmed. The Googler hopped on his bike and sped off. The dentist shook his head and adjusted his EL-wire. And I went off with a friend to a fire-dancing camp run by some Santa Cruz Burners — I gave them the ginseng candies that I carry in my bag. We ordered vodka and orange juice, but they poured us Coke and Fireball.
Charles Darwin was undoubtedly among the most significant thinkers humanity has ever produced. But he was also a man of peculiar mental habits, from his stringent daily routine to his despairingly despondent moods to his obsessive list of the pros and cons of marriage. Those, it turns out, may have been simply Darwin’s best adaptation strategy for controlling a malady that dominated his life, the same one that afflicted Vincent van Gogh – a chronic anxiety, which rendered him among the legions of great minds evidencing the relationship between creativity and mental illness.
In My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (public library) – his sweeping mental health memoir, exploring our culture of anxiety and its costs – The Atlantic editor Scott Stossel examines Darwin’s prolific diaries and letters, proposing that the reason the great scientist spent a good third of his waking hours on the Beagle in bed or sick, as well as the cause of his lifelong laundry list of medical symptoms, was his struggle with anxiety.
Observers going back to Aristotle have noted that nervous dyspepsia and intellectual accomplishment often go hand in hand. Sigmund Freud’s trip to the United States in 1909, which introduced psychoanalysis to this country, was marred (as he would later frequently complain) by his nervous stomach and bouts of diarrhea. Many of the letters between William and Henry James, first-class neurotics both, consist mainly of the exchange of various remedies for their stomach trouble.
But for debilitating nervous stomach complaints, nothing compares to that which afflicted poor Charles Darwin, who spent decades of his life prostrated by his upset stomach.
That affliction of afflictions, Stossel argues, was Darwin’s overpowering anxiety – something that might explain why his influential studies of human emotion were of such intense interest to him. Stossel points to a “Diary of Health” that the scientist kept for six years between the ages of 40 and 46 at the urging of his physician. He filled dozens of pages with complaints like “chronic fatigue, severe stomach pain and flatulence, frequent vomiting, dizziness (‘swimming head,’ as Darwin described it), trembling, insomnia, rashes, eczema, boils, heart palpitations and pain, and melancholy.”
In 1865 – six years after the completion of The Origin of Species – a distraught 56-year-old Darwin wrote a letter to another physician, John Chapman, outlining the multitude of symptoms that had bedeviled him for decades:
For 25 years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting, on two occasions prolonged during months. Vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying[,] dying sensations or half-faint. & copious very palid urine. Now vomiting & every passage of flatulence preceded by ringing of ears, treading on air & vision …. Nervousness when E leaves me.
“E” refers to his wife Emma, who loved Darwin dearly and who mothered his ten children – a context in which his “nervousness” does suggest anxiety’s characteristic tendency to wring worries out of unlikely scenarios, not to mention being direct evidence of the very term “separation anxiety.”
Illustration from The Smithsonian’s Darwin: A Graphic Biography
Stossel chronicles Darwin’s descent:
Darwin was frustrated that dozens of physicians, beginning with his own father, had failed to cure him. By the time he wrote to Dr. Chapman, Darwin had spent most of the past three decades – during which time he’d struggled heroically to write On the Origin of Species housebound by general invalidism. Based on his diaries and letters, it’s fair to say he spent a full third of his daytime hours since the age of twenty-eight either vomiting or lying in bed.
Chapman had treated many prominent Victorian intellectuals who were “knocked up” with anxiety at one time or another; he specialized in, as he put it, those high-strung neurotics “whose minds are highly cultivated and developed, and often complicated, modified, and dominated by subtle psychical conflicts, whose intensity and bearing on the physical malady it is difficult to comprehend.” He prescribed the application of ice to the spinal cord for almost all diseases of nervous origin.
Chapman came out to Darwin’s country estate in late May 1865, and Darwin spent several hours each day over the next several months encased in ice; he composed crucial sections of The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication with ice bags packed around his spine.
The treatment didn’t work. The “incessant vomiting” continued. So while Darwin and his family enjoyed Chapman’s company (“We liked Dr. Chapman so very much we were quite sorry the ice failed for his sake as well as ours” Darwin’s wife wrote), by July they had abandoned the treatment and sent the doctor back to London.
Chapman was not the first doctor to fail to cure Darwin, and he would not be the last. To read Darwin’s diaries and correspondence is to marvel at the more or less constant debilitation he endured after he returned from the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1836. The medical debate about what, exactly, was wrong with Darwin has raged for 150 years. The list proposed during his life and after his death is long: amoebic infection, appendicitis, duodenal ulcer, peptic ulcer, migraines, chronic cholecystitis, “smouldering hepatitis,” malaria, catarrhal dyspepsia, arsenic poisoning, porphyria, narcolepsy, “diabetogenic hyper-insulism,” gout, “suppressed gout,” chronic brucellosis (endemic to Argentina, which the Beagle had visited), Chagas’ disease (possibly contracted from a bug bite in Argentina), allergic reactions to the pigeons he worked with, complications from the protracted seasickness he experienced on the Beagle, and ‘refractive anomaly of the eyes.’ I’ve just read an article, “Darwin’s Illness Revealed,” published in a British academic journal in 2005, that attributes Darwin’s ailments to lactose intolerance.
Various competing hypotheses attempted to diagnose Darwin, both during his lifetime and after. But Stossel argues that “a careful reading of Darwin’s life suggests that the precipitating factor in every one of his most acute attacks of illness was anxiety.” His greatest rebuttal to other medical theories is a seemingly simple, positively profound piece of evidence:
When Darwin would stop working and go walking or riding in the Scottish Highlands or North Wales, his health would be restored.
(Of course, one need not suffer from debilitating anxiety in order to reap the physical and mental benefits of walking, arguably one of the simplest yet most rewarding forms of psychic restoration and a powerful catalyst for creativity.)
My Age of Anxiety is a fascinating read in its totality. Complement it with a timeless antidote to anxiety from Alan Watts, then revisit Darwin’s brighter side with his beautiful reflections on family, work, and happiness.
The touted start-up is proving to be the embodiment of unrestrained hyper-capitalism. What happens when it wins?
What is Uber? A paragon of free market efficiency and technological innovation serving the greater convenience and comfort of the general public? Or living proof for why capitalist societies require regulation?
It is testimony to the ceaseless striving of Uber that Silicon Valley watchers find themselves with new reasons to ponder these questions nearly every week. But the end of August brought special vim and vigor to the debate. In particular, Verge’s publication of Casey Newton’s great scoop about the tactics Uber has been deploying to recruit riders from its top competitor, Lyft, has excited reams of commentary.
No matter what you think of Uber, the scope of “Operation SLOG” (Supplying Long-term Operations Growth) is impressive. Uber has hired hundreds of private contractors in multiple cities and equipped them with multiple burner phones (so as to prevent Lyft from identifying recruiters and blocking them from using its service), as well as credit card numbers and recruitment kits, and mobilized them to lure Lyft drivers over to the other side. Collateral damage to Lyft has extended beyond the siphoning away of drivers. When a Uber recruiter ordered a ride and discovered that the driver was someone who had been previously recruited, he or she immediately cancelled the ride. According to Lyft, Uber has been responsible for more than 5,000 cancelled rides in recent months.
Defenders of no-holds-barred free-market competition see nothing to be alarmed or concerned about. Riders can only benefit from fierce competition for their services, and the number of cancellations is trivial compared to Lyft’s total volume of rides, explains Timothy Lee at Vox. On the other hand, if you are inclined to see Uber as the acme of ruthless and amoral profit-seeking, then the latest news on Uber’s “deceptive tactics” is just one more confirmation of how the company will do anything to win.
Whichever side you fall on, the story is fascinating. There’s little doubt that Uber is the closest thing we’ve got today to the living, breathing essence of unrestrained capitalism. This is like watching Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller in action. This is how robber barons play. From top to bottom, the company flaunts a street-fighter ethos.
Uber’s ambitions are limitless and it has the bankroll to do what it wants. Indeed, there is some irony to the fact that Uber has so much cash in the bank that it need not comply with the most basic premise of capitalism — the notion that survival is predicated on making more money than you spend. With access to an astonishing $1.5 billion in capital, Uber can simultaneously wage regulatory battles in multiple cities, engage in recruitment wars in which smartphones are distributed like candy, subsidize drivers at below cost, and employ whomever is necessary to achieve long-term goals.
The real question we should be asking ourselves is this: What happens when a company with the DNA of Uber ends up winning it all? What happens when the local taxi companies are destroyed and Lyft is crushed? When Uber has dominant market position in every major city on the globe? “UberEverywhere” isn’t a joke. It’s a mantra, a call to arms, a holy ideology.
What happens when Uber’s priorities turn to generating cash rather than spending it? What happens to labor — the Uber drivers — when they have no alternative but Uber? What happens when it rains and the surge-pricing spikes and there’s nowhere else to go? A company with the street-fighting ethos of Uber isn’t going to let drivers unionize, and it certainly isn’t going to pay them more than it is required to by the harsh laws of competition. It will also dump them entirely in a nanosecond when self-driving cars prove that they are cheaper and safer. Making the case that drivers are benefitting from the current recruitment wars starts to look like a pretty short-term play. The more powerful Uber gets, the more leverage it will have over labor.
So here’s what’s going to happen. Society is going to realize that power as great as Uber’s needs to be checked. Uber, by virtue of its own success, will demonstrate where the lines need to be drawn for the general good. When Uber is the only game in town, the necessity for comprehensive requirements for commercial insurance and background checks will be obvious. When Uber starts using its logistics clout and unlimited investment capital to go after UPS and Hertz and FedEx, regulators will start wondering about antitrust issues.
It’s probably too soon to cry out “Break up Uber.” The company hasn’t won yet. But the smart money is on Uber (by definition, if you consider Google and Goldman Sachs, two prominent Uber investors, to be “smart”). When we allow capitalism to play out without rules, and learn anew how labor gets exploited under that scenario, we may recall why we had rules in the first place.
Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.