What is the "Servant Economy"?

With the collapse of VC subsidised convenience firms - for example instant grocery delivery apps - the modern world is facing a minor meltdown. No more biscuits on demand! No more cheap drivers at your beck and call! Calamity!

Some have dubbed this The End of the Servant Economy.

Perhaps it is. But what do we mean by a "servant"?

If I lived in Downton Abbey or Bridgerton (I wish!) then the distinction between servant and not would be fairly clear. A servant is someone who lives in your home, who works exclusively for you, performing menial tasks.

On-demand grocery delivery riders don't tend to live with their customers. Nor are they exclusive either to supplier or customer. So they're not servants in that sense.

Are they menial? Is that what we mean by servants?

It takes a lot of skill to properly clean a house. A cook needs command of a kitchen and the skill to know what to order. A butler must be trained in etiquette and household management.

Some of these tasks are things that any competent adult could learn to do. But it is sometimes necessary to pay a skilled labourer for their expertise. And it is sometimes necessary to pay an unskilled labourer for their time.

Would you describe an emergency plumber or electrician as a servant? Probably not. But you press a button in an app and a plumber runs along and cleans up your mess. How is that different from ordering a delivery driver?

Perhaps the title "servant" is now only reserved for someone who has a low level of skill? This is a confusing situation!

I briefly chatted to the author of the "Servant Economy" article to try and bash-out the edges of the argument.

I think that's a reasonable starting point.

In a literal sense, anyone who serves you is a servant. A waiter in a restaurant is a servant. You could just as easily walk to the kitchen to give your order, pick it up when ready, and clear your plates away at the end.

So there is sort-of a psychological aspect to this. We don't make a demand of the waiter's labour. They walk up to our table and offer their services to us.

There's a "beck and call" aspect. The ability to demand that someone serves you. A taxi driver cruising the streets is offering their services - which you accept when you hail them. You calling the taxi company via phone and requesting them is just that - a request. But the algorithm and incentives behind most popular apps creates a demand. If they don't fulfil your demand (and don't receive a good ranking) they are at risk of penalisation.

So the nature of servitude becomes one of power dynamics. Plumbers are in short supply - so they can deny your demand without penalty. A delivery driver knows they can be quickly replaced - and are therefore at high risk of being penalised if they refuse your demand.

If you have have power over someone, they become your servant. Is that right?

The French psychologist Pascale Molinier wrote a wonderful paper which I found in The Commoner called "Of Feminists and Their Cleaning Ladies". In it she describes the tension of being a feminist and outsourcing traditional female domestic roles to other women:

... [T]he relationship with the cleaner displays a psychological tension between the desire to be served without needing to think about it – in which we find what Joan Tronto refers to as the "irresponsibility of privileged people" – and the desire to create a reciprocal link which "domesticates" this relationship.

This tension is not specific to the relationship between female employers and their domestic employees, it interrogates our relationship with care more widely, in that we all benefit from it.

P. Molinier, Of Feminists and their Cleaning Ladies: caught between the reciprocity of care and the desire for depersonalisation,
Multitudes 2009/3-4, no. 37-38, p. 113-121

For lots of us, we know that we could walk down to the shops to pick up biscuits. But we value our time above that of someone else's labour. So we exercise our spending power to temporarily demand someone fulfils our whims.

Ultimately then, I think this comes down to guilt. We flatter ourselves that we live in an egalitarian society. Interacting with people when there is a significant disparity in our relative power causes us cognitive dissonance. So we - perhaps somewhat dismissively - define certain people as servants.

Despite the fact that they are doing a valuable job (both socially useful and evidently worth paying for) it gets designated as a mere frippery.

I'm going to miss the era of Venture-Capital subsidised services. I think the people doing the hard work to actually get goods into customers' hands shouldn't be thought of as servants; they should be thought of as co-founders.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *