The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy
(The New Press 2011)
The Great Recession officially started in December 2007 and ended in June 2009. It was the gravest financial crisis the nation has faced since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It fostered what many call the “New Normal,” the unspoken sense that America is stuck, if not in decline. This new sensibility bears profound consequences; foremost is recognition that Americans are living lives of lowered expectation, intensified financial uncertainty and that the quality of life is poorer. The “American Century” seems over.
Nearly everyone feels the New Normal—excepting, of course, those rolling in dough or too naïve to care. A November 2010 Rasmussen poll found that just over one-third (37 percent) of respondents believed America’s best days are still ahead; sadly, nearly half (47 percent) said the nation’s best days were in the past. A recent New York Times front-page article announced: “New Poll Shows Darkening Mood Across America.”
Most Americans live at the intersection of earning the next dollar and paying the latest bill. This is the New Normal, the powerful vice of financial uncertainty and doubt. The U.S. economy and social relations are undergoing an historically unprecedented restructuring, one reversing a half-century of progress. This restructuring involves the mass shifting of social wealth from the vast middle class to the tiny sector of the rich and super-rich. This transfer of wealth is the New Normal, a peculiar form of “legal” robbery.
Lisa Dodson’s The Moral Underground was written as the Great Recession was setting in. It’s a morality tale for all those living anywhere between the super-rich and the naïve. It’s a reflection on how ordinary Americans with some social or economic power confront those overwhelmed by the growing economic uncertainty. Sadly, at any moment, one can be at either side of the moral divide.
Dodson is a well-intentioned moralist, a New Left survivor teaching in the academy but deeply imbued with a conscious. She’s privileged, and knows it. She takes advantage of her social standing to ask questions that few in academia, let alone the popular media, want to honestly address.
Dodson focuses on the friction points of the New Normal, where low-wage working Americans rub-up against the values and/or authority of the more middle-class or managerial sector. These are the points where everyday class power is exercised and inchoate class struggle is waged. She analyzes three terrains in which this struggle is played out—at low-wage jobs, in the classroom and in the healthcare setting. She reveals how such friction points are, in addition to being a terrain of class struggle, settings where Americans confront profound, often deeply perplexing moral challenges. Perhaps most revealing, she makes clear that that these moral confrontations involve those on both sides of the economic and power divide.
It is these confrontations that reveal what Dodson calls the “moral underground.” She exposes one of the great social fictions grounding American capitalism: That one leaves one’s morals and politics at the office, factory, or store door when one enters the job site. This fiction is based on the well-propagated notion that when one sells one’s labor power, one leaves one’s personal beliefs and values at home.
Dodson’s moral battleground consists of the innumerable, everyday decisions made by those in relative authority that subvert established corporate practices, procedures, and protocols to assist others facing economic and personal hardship. It is a battleground more and more Americans are confronting as economic, social, and personal vows intensify.
Dodson knows well the story she so compassionately tells. She’s worked as a union organizer, a nurse, a director of Massachusetts’ Division of Women’s Health and is now a sociology professor at Boston College. She relies on an extensive series of very personal narratives, backed up by social science research, to explore the moral dilemma posed by the New Normal.
Her narratives are anchored in often deeply upsetting personal experiences involving hard choices of stretching limited money or time or both. A handful of examples are illustrative:
“Bea” is a big-box chain store manager in rural New England who somehow ordered an “extra” prom dress for an employee who couldn’t afford to buy her daughter the dress.
“Andrew” is a manager for a food company who finds ways to pad the modest paychecks of his workers and gives them food to take home.
“Ned” is a white guy in his thirties who, as a grocery store worker, “detours some of the ‘product’ that doesn’t quite pass muster—dented cans, not-quite-fresh produce—to his low-wage employees.”
“Aida” is a Latina in her thirties who, as the director of a childcare center, misplaces paperwork so that children won’t lose their childcare and their parents won’t lose their jobs.
“Ray” is in his fifties, the son of immigrants and a community-center director who doesn’t ask for a “pedigree” before signing people up for desperately needed services.
“Lenora” is an African American urban teacher in her twenties who breaks school rules to help her students.
Dodson profiles managers, supervisors, teachers and health care professionals who are forced to choose between the needs of the working poor they serve, be they employees, students or the ill and their families, and the dictates of business-as-usual, including their own job security.
No matter whether her characters are real, composite profiles or simply made-up fictional representatives, they are deeply troubled by the system’s injustice and break the rules to help out wage-poor workers who are in financial or personal difficulty.
Dodson’s study joins a growing number of books exploring low-wage hell. Foremost is Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic account, Nickel and Dimed; the most recent addition is Caitlin Kelly’s Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail. These, and still other works, paint a grim picture of the often overwhelming challenges confronting people, but especially single mothers, working desperately to hold on in desperate times.
However, while both Ehrenreich and Kelly rely on first-person accounts to convey the experiences of low-wage jobs, Dodson recounts personal stories to recount the challenges confronting her subjects. Going further, her book is an examination of the moral choices people face in the day-to-day interactions where class relations come into conflict.
The book is an attempt to understand how formal rules are broken or subverted in what she calls “moral disobedience.” Drawing from her subjects, she documents a dozen or more informal “rationalizations” for resistance that include: “playing Robin Hood,” “I just couldn’t live with myself,” “you bend the system,” “off-the-book decisions,” “want the rules to be fair,” “compassion but not pity” and “under the table” schemes as well as the two apparently most prevalent justifications, “it could be me” and “there but for the grace of God.” These beliefs lubricate a growing portion of work life.
As Dodson writes, “Employers, doctors, job supervisors, executives, teachers, small business owners, and others—over and above their work identity—reflected that as a parent, you know that you put your children before anything, before regulations or laws.” For her, the bottom line in moral compassion is simple: “Protecting children from harm trumps everything else.” This appeal to the child is a powerful moral force, often crossing the multitude of lines that divide Americans, whether of job status, class background, age, race, national origin, or gender.
Her study would be incomplete if she did not also recognize how those with power or status to enforce the rules of the game using personal prejudice. She uncovers a multitude of euphemisms employed to pass judgment or impose shame so as to maintain corporate authority. They include references to “poor work habits,” “character,” “lack of a work ethic,” “irresponsibility,” and “blame-the-mother” syndrome. All serve as rationalizations to maintain an us/them relationship on the job, at the school, or at a clinic.
Unfortunately, this otherwise insightful and well-intentioned work suffers from two critical weaknesses. First, with her background in organized labor, one could have expected Dodson to offer a more “political” or social agenda to confront the challenges facing her subjects. Something more than personal, individual acts of kindness are needed to redress the New Normal draining the life out of a growing number of Americans.
Second, she has a fairly static notion of class that undercuts her analysis. The worst expression of this involves her attempt to counter managers or bosses who charge that some low-income and often racial-minority workers have no “work ethic” or “character.” Failing to recognize that class is an economic as well as a cultural phenomenon, Dobson retreats into clichés about social inequity to rationalize away the issue. This does a disservice to her analysis and the people she is defending.
People are not born with “character” or a “work ethic;” rather, it is learned. Like learning to brush your teeth, people have to be disciplined into going to work. Many Americans hate their jobs, hate having to sell their laborpower. Dodson doesn’t recognize that the lack of a “work ethic” is a form of class struggle, of resistance at an existential level to the tyranny of the paycheck.
Americans throughout the country and across the spectrum are engaged in what can only be called “economic disobedience,” personal acts of defiance or resistance. Take together, they knit a fabric of subversion, if not outright revolt, that for the most part, goes unreported in federal and state studies but is surely growing as the economic crisis intensifies. Dodson’s The Moral Underground is an essential grounding as we endure the New Normal.