Gabrielle’s knuckles were bright white as she gripped the steering wheel, weaving through traffic. The DoorDash app was informing us that we had about two minutes left to make the delivery on time. “We’re only making 10 bucks an hour right now,” my girlfriend muttered. “We need more or we won’t even break 50 for this run.”
“This is why we need to go to the more bourgeois places,” I said, as I held the pizza box with both hands. She didn’t respond; she only stared straight ahead.
Rushing past gas stations, abandoned storefronts, and houses surrounded by tall grass, my anxiety was mounting. The car rumbled as we passed over divots and potholes, the pizza box growing colder with each passing moment.
The past year under COVID-19 has been extremely challenging for both of us, as it has been for so many. Since we’d been vaccinated, the plan had been to find more time to relax, to spend time together doing things we enjoyed, like exploring Philadelphia and trying our best to recover before returning to in-person teaching in the fall. Gabrielle needed a break. She’d worked every summer since high school, and her work as a full-time teacher was taxing, especially as many of her students were still themselves reeling from the effects of the pandemic.
So Gabrielle quit her usual summer tutoring job and, for the first couple of weeks of the season, busied herself with audiobooks, cleaning, cooking new dishes, and visiting family and friends. I too was feeling freer, as I’d finally landed another teaching gig at Rutgers after months of uncertainty as to where my next paycheck would come from. My hair, falling out from stress, was starting to grow back, and I was able to focus on things like exercising and eating well.
But the positivity was slowly eroding as we dug deeper into our savings to pay for what we needed. I needed new clothes. (My wardrobe is mainly a collection of free union T-shirts and random shorts.) I needed a new laptop, so I could finally proceed with my research and writing without having to worry about my computer shutting down in the middle of an interview. Gabrielle was in a tougher position than me, however, as she’s still paying off student loans and other expenses, and doesn’t have financial support from family, as I do.
In the last few weeks, we’d taken up delivering for DoorDash to sustain ourselves. At the beginning, the experience was interesting in a sociological way, forcing us to learn more about our area as we delivered to consumers across various neighborhoods, segregated by class and race. Sometimes, we’d deliver to places like Camden, where there weren’t as many restaurants or supermarkets nearby. Or, more often, we’d deliver to communities where the streets are paved with cobblestones (for an odd “colonial” vibe that some people seem to love), where there are stores lining the avenue, where the wrought-iron lampposts all flicker on at the same exact time.
For the most part, however, the experience is grueling and dizzying, as we race from one order to the next, parking in makeshift spots, covered in sweat as we hurry to ring the doorbell. Sometimes, after a delivery run, as we’re catching our breath in some parking lot, I am overcome by an intense desire to do whatever it takes to change our lives so that we no longer have to do this. Sometimes, as we’re hurtling past gas stations and strings of chain restaurants, with the pizza box burning my thighs, the nausea of carsickness rising, I want to stop somewhere, buy lottery tickets. Maybe write a book about racism in which I plead with rich white liberals to “do better.” I want to be able to take all their donations and buy a nice house with a backyard and pool.
In the meantime, we’ve determined that it’s preferable to deliver in areas that have restaurants clustered together—usually the places that are wealthier. As much as I enjoy delivering to places like Camden or to people where we live in Pennsauken (another racially diverse working-class community), we need to be able to earn more whenever we can. Circumstances force us to prioritize self-interest. We can’t spend as much time in the less affluent areas, driving long distances between restaurants, where there aren’t as many orders or options. And, of course, there are other drivers in the area, equally low-paid and devoid of benefits, with whom we must compete desperately for orders. The working class is divided against itself; inequality perpetuates inequality.
“I hate this,” Gabrielle said as we drove past another Thin Blue Line flag in a suburb where all the lawns were an artificial green. She bit her lip and sped up. I was also repulsed by these places, but we had bills to pay. I was unable to find the words to comfort her, as we drifted past primly identical houses, past the people peering out between the shadows of the blinds.
Marxists have long recognized that one’s experiences as a working person can push them towards an understanding that their interests are not aligned with those of the bosses. Our alienation from our own labor throws the contraposition of capital and labor into relief.
As have most people, I have had to work while navigating the intertwined disasters of COVID-19 and neoliberalism. It is self-evident to me that I need healthcare, cheaper housing, decent pay, and autonomy over my own life. My body and mind need such things to live, no matter what, despite the ideological obfuscations, the insistence that such things are better left to the whims of the market. The physical realities—the bare needs of life—put the lie to the capitalist propaganda that has shaped our thinking in the U.S.
So our experiences as working people, as exploited people, can serve as evidence against the claims of the bosses (and sometimes, our coworkers). These ideologies are furthered in the service of convincing us that competition is somehow essential, or that healthcare is a “privilege,” or that most people are innately lazy and “entitled.” That said, everyday misery does not inevitably lead one to becoming a revolutionary either. As our lives under capitalism become crueler, more draining, we can feel a growing desperation as we are scattered, pulled apart in multiple directions. This leads some to the comforts of bigotry or nationalism or other psychological salves that only serve power, perpetuating the structures of our immiseration. As our working conditions worsen, as our living standards degrade, we are compelled to do whatever it takes to make it to the next day. Often, we begin to lose sight of who we are and who we want to be.
Frantz Fanon, the anti-colonial scholar and psychologist, recognized how oppressive material conditions can lead people to develop strategies of survival, with the result that some end up operating within the confines of the status quo. Fanon witnessed this in colonial Algeria, where the oppressive conditions created by French colonialism drove people to focus on what they needed to do in the short term, which would inevitably run up against solidarity with others.
“In a context of oppression like that of Algeria, for the colonized, living does not mean embodying a set of values, does not mean integrating oneself into the coherent, constructive development of a world,” Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, adding, “To live simply means not to die. To exist means staying alive.”
Indeed, as frustration and anger eat away at our insides, as the stress of survival overwhelms, our political horizons are diminished. Instead of embracing the truth that we must struggle for a new society, we strive to be the boss, the manager, or anyone who has the means to live some form of the “good life.” In Algeria, that meant some desired only to replace the French colonists in hierarchical power, as Fanon recognized, rather than build an equitable society.
Over time, as Algerians were denied the ability to live the “good life” under French colonialism, the daily humiliations amass like layers of silt, sedimenting. We accrue the harms in our bodies and minds; they are engraved into us. Their weight makes the subject drag their feet across the avenue, makes them lower their head when passing a police station or some exclusive club or the villas of the rich. The subject begins to channel the rage and frustration at those around him, to lash out at those within striking distance. “Whereas the colonist or police officer can beat the colonized subject day in and day out, insult him and shove him to his knees, it is not uncommon to see the colonized subject draw his knife at the slightest hostile or aggressive look from another colonized subject,” Fanon expressed in his essay “On Violence.” Crime and violence have their roots not in intrinsic human evil, but in the austerity of our conditions.
Of course, Gabrielle and I are in far better circumstances than Algerians living under colonial rule. Still, I’ve become increasingly desperate over the past few years, more jaded about my own future. The academic job market, especially for researchers like myself, is brutally competitive. As much as I enjoy the research I am currently doing, which focuses on the relationships between non-white peoples in the U.S., I also am acutely aware that, whereas I am a qualitative researcher, it is quantitative scholars (who can download their survey datasets, then churn them through mathematical models on laptops that don’t suddenly restart every few hours) who are more in-demand across the major universities.
Plenty of those scholars are doing intriguing work on politics, especially when compared to others who avoid discussing class, gender and race substantively. But still, though much scholarship may contend with issues of racism in the U.S., it does so without relating it to critical histories or the systemic injustices of U.S. imperialism and capitalism. These researchers, their assumptions and lines of inquiry more palatable to establishment mindsets, are taken more seriously by the premier institutions looking to hire. One can go far in academia if one is able to appeal to the white liberal, avoiding a structural critique of the U.S. political landscape on issues like race and gender.
As we swerve through traffic, my thoughts turn to all these pressures and anxieties. I wonder if I could or should start to frame my work in ways that could help me attain more funding, and, of course, land a higher-paying job. Often, I am led to worry about how I can outcompete others, what else I need to do to shine, to get the interviews for desirable positions. No one, after all, can pay their bills through goodwill alone.
Marx famously speaks of the contradiction inherent in one’s social position as a worker—in how it can generate opportunities for solidarity, but also reinforce a sense of rivalry as resources under capitalism dwindle. As conditions deteriorate, as the bills pile high on the table, as others are laid off, getting that promotion becomes ever more necessary. “Competition separates individuals from one another, not only the bourgeois but still more the workers, in spite of the fact that it brings them together,” he wrote in The German Ideology.
It is organized movements can pull together the oppressed, channel people’s nerves into something constructive by connecting to their frustrations and anger, forging a community of the disaffected to drag them away from the abyss. But we don’t have that at the moment, not at the level of intensity and prominence as we need, and such organizations take time and effort to emerge. Until then, what do we do? Between now and the dismantling of capitalism, how do we manage to hold onto our humanity in the face of constant pressures to work, to compete, to make choices that help ourselves at the expense of others?
Recently, we drove through one of the more attractive neighborhoods nearby, where all the streets are newly paved, where historic churches loom over local cafés stocked with coffee from all areas of the world. Most of the residents are white, with some Asian families, and very few Black ones. As we make deliveries, every time we drop off a meal, we simply return to where we were a few minutes ago, to the central grouping of cafés and restaurants. Here, our customers ordered green drinks filled with healthy ingredients that would cost someone as much as three or four coffees somewhere beyond the vale.
After we had chatted idly for a while, Gabrielle turned quiet again, and so did I. I held onto the tray of green drinks, lay my head back, and watched people riding their bikes, jogging, laughing, unscathed.
Back at the apartment, after a nap (essential to staying a little less grumpy), we spent an hour in front of the TV, watching a show about people seeking to buy homes internationally. We take mental notes on the place we would like to own ourselves someday. We debate whether to have a koi pond or a pool for the home, this fantasy that exists only in our heads. We watch an episode where a couple buys a home in Mexico, embedded in a community of expats. Their lives seem vivid, colorful, free. Gabrielle turns toward me. I lean back on the couch, crumbs dotting my shirt. She tells me again how she wants take a break from DoorDash.
I look over at her as the sound of traffic seeps through the walls.
“Don’t you feel weird doing it?” she said. “Working for a tech company for a few bucks an hour?” But we need the money, I tell her. With few other options, we’d been made reliant our boss, the faceless app, who ordered us to drive expensive take-out to well-kempt houses, surrounded by the lore of meritocracy.
She looked into my eyes, and I could feel her dismay.
“We can do better,” she said.
“We can,” I answered.♦
Sudip Bhattacharya serves as a co-chair of the Political Education Committee at Central Jersey DSA and is a writer based in New Jersey, having been published in Current Affairs, Cosmonaut, New Politics, Reappropriate, and The Aerogram, among other outlets. Prior to pursuing a Ph.D in Political Science at Rutgers University, he had worked full-time as a reporter across the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.