Labor & Consumption

Illegal immigrants don’t take jobs Americans won’t. They take jobs Americans won’t—actually, can’t—under those conditions. They work below the minimum wage and without the protection of occupational health and safety laws or even the most theoretical rights of collective bargaining. Basically, they exist as if the New Deal never happened. Their enforced docility and legal defenselessness are precisely what make them attractive to employers. If they work so hard, it’s not because they have a stronger work ethic than Americans; it’s because they have no choice.

-William Deresiewicz, The American Scholar


Deresiewicz makes a further point about language: that Americans are most commonly described as consumers, passive takers rather than active makers, purchasers rather than participants.  The above quote is about undocumented immigrants within America, the underclass of do-ers whose cheap labor enables the comfortable consumption of the rest of us – and although the Great Recession has revealed that comfort to be more fragile than anticipated, it is still a well-in-place artifact of American privilege.  If in doubt, take a gander at this lengthy but deeply worthwhile piece of journalism from The New Yorker, detailing the human trafficking of… military subcontractors, who use coercive and abusive tactics to get and keep workers on American bases, staffing such consumer comforts as Taco Bells and beauty salons.  They may be employed on American bases, working for American corporations, and if they were American citizens they would be guaranteed a panoply of legal protections – but like our domestic immigrants these vulnerable human beings are promised the world and then punished for their belief in the American Dream.


As consumers of cheap goods and services dependent upon underpaid and exploited labor, we are complicit.  But we have the capacity to be so much more – to be active citizens of the world – to change these vile systems, and offer not merely the hollow product-placement of the American Dream but our partnership in building a just, boundary-less reality in which we all might share.

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