The Stink of Privilege / By John Steppling

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Delving into questions properly described as “class consciousness” in the West soon yields a bountiful harvest of confusion and imbecility…


1. characterized by or showing servile complaisance or deference; fawning: an obsequious bow.
2. servilely compliant or deferential: obsequious servants.
3. obedient; dutiful.

This recent film, with Jennifer Lopez, capitalized once again on the fantasy of self-improvement via romance, not class struggle.

THERE WAS A TELLING LITTLE PIECE  this week by Tanya Gold, in The Guardian. Now, Ms Gold is not a op-ed columnist, but mostly a human interest sort of writer. In any event, the article in question is titled *I’ve had it With Posh Hotels, the People who work in them hate you*. 

It’s a pretty insightful little piece, but hardly revelatory. What IS, however, revelatory, are the comments.  I would say the ratio is about 80% negative, attacking Ms Gold for being a spoilsport and a poseur (huh?).  Now, since I was a boy I have never understood how anyone could be comfortable with having other people do things for them…..carry luggage, wait tables, cut their grass, etc. Honestly, if I can do it myself, then somehow I thought I should do it myself. In addition, I’ve always felt uncomfortable knowing that these service sector workers hated me. When I worked in Hollywood, I was put up on a number of occasions at very high end hotels. I finally came to ask my agent to have them put me up in a Holiday Inn or somewhere. At least the issue was minimized there. But as Ms Gold says, people going to luxury hotels in foreign countries go there to be able to NOT see the country visited. They go to these places because it is a concrete and conspicuous reinforcement of their privilege. As one commenter from the thread put it:

“I’ve had wonderful service in luxury hotels. I’ve never been sneered at in Claridge’s – at least, not that I noticed – and the few times I have had bad service, I’ve assumed it was their problem, not mine. It’s one thing to have an awareness of how social inequalities exist – yes, it is ridiculous that people from developing countries with law degrees should work in Dubai hotels – but it’s not enough to paralyse me with liberal hand-wringing guilt.”

and another simply said:

“I believe that your observation of them hating guests is accurate, but I don’t get it – why the hell do you care? I think the deal is that you not notice them, their overall faces and movements, and you even get into their psychology! Who cares! If they knew something worthwhile, they wouldn’t be cleaning toilets for a living, degree or no degree. They should hate you – you’re from a different world, you have the stuff they want, but don’t know how to get. I’d be worried if they didn’t hate me, it would mean we’re the same.”

Now, one might wonder if the second comment isn’t parody, but I sort of doubt it.

A lack of class awareness is a bedrock feature of Western concsiousness. Either it’s the liberal above who refuses to delve too deeply into social inequality, or the rabid fascist who readily admits to being better than those serving him or her.

Now, if one were to look at the treatment of workers, or especially service workers, in film and TV over the last half century, one would see a decided shift. A Preston Sturgis or even a John Ford was acutely aware of class and often portrayed waiters or servants as human beings, who might additionally be suffering. Today this is ever harder to find, and when we do see it, it’s usually tricked out in a liberal guilt assuaging tale of social mobility.  I can count the exceptions on one hand.

Examine television and how blue collar work is portrayed. First, it’s rarely portrayed, and if it is, it comes firmly entrenched in a belief in the system that creates such inequality. Often, you see workers in comedy shows as representatives of the happy poor. From the days of Archie Bunker onward. Or in the case of a show like Friends, the living conditions are closer to what one might expect from a Rockefeller apartment than a shared student flat. The reality of financial anxiety is never examined in a factual context. The way that slave labor eats the soul and deadens the sense of self is rarely a topic. Busboys and waiters are foils for the *special* patron, the protagonist, of most films and TV. Waitresses can also serve as sex toys for the male star. And again, *if* a film depicts a waitress or waiter, it’s almost always about that character’s ascent to a better class. To a place, where in triumph, they can now be served as once they had to serve.

The real question is about why anyone is content to let others do their work for them. More than that  is the reality that it’s not the work that is being paid for, it’s the obedience. It’s not an accident to have staff at hotels or restaurants wear demeaning little uniforms — often with name tags. It’s a sign of inferior status. It’s a request for condescending familiarity. “Hey there….Tom is it? Can you freshen up this mai tai please…….good lad”.

These are gratuitous positions. They are class emblems, they are symbolic slaves who work as real slaves.

A culture of tips. Service workers are the organ grinder’s monkeys, the obsiqueous men in starched collars behind the bar, or carrying your bags, waiting diffidently for the guest to dig into his pocket for a coin or two. The question of snobbery is raised here, too. The snotty head waiter or girl at an exclusive clothes store. Such is the dialectical sado masochistic dynamic of privledge.

And sadistic it is. The exchange value of humiliation. When one stays at a five-star or four-star hotel, or resort, one is buying into an almost sexual relationship that is about domination. It’s an almost dumb play that stands in for the larger societal forces of domination. The hatred is not just directed one way, from the bellboy to guest, but from guest to bellboy and from guest to him or herself. It’s a constant doubling down on self loathing.

See, if you stay at a cheap hotel, there may indeed be a *boy* to carry your bags or help you with something…. but the spectre of class receeds a bit at a two-star dive. I recall being in Bangkok and having to meet someone at the famed Oriental hotel. I wasnt allowed in because i was wearing shorts. This sort of policy is clearly a relic of colonial times.  But you can find less obvious examples of these bygone Imperialist policies at *any* posh hotel in the world. Today’s 21st century tourist industry has made travel into a commodity …. not just the hotel, not just the things one buys, but the event itself. Its knowing one can have people bow to you for a bit of money. Its the fact of being somewhere *else* while maintaing my usual status.

The clients at four star hotels want to be protected from actual human contact. They can buy agreement from the staff, and they can buy distance from the sordid and dirty masses. The very nature of targeted experience for rich travellers is itself worth a doctoral dissertation.  Every second spent at a four-star hotel is a reminder how special you are. *You* are not carrying bags…..*he* is.

I think this article seemed so telling in part because the US and the west in general are in the midst of a serious economic free fall. More and more people who had previously accepted the PR of neo liberalism, are waking up to find themselves homeless or at least jobless.  Perhaps a reminder about this symbolism of privilege — the exclusive club, the grand Hotel, the posh resort …..perhaps it’s time to remember the underside of these places. The basic psychology of resentment, of the defended psyche, helps to obscure the essential insight here ….that western man has lost all touch with compassion. Privilege as it’s acted out at an exclusive and insanely expensive hotel, is an obsessive recreating of relations that are tinged at their birth with self hatred. With a profound insecurity. With almost a morbid need to look down on someone. Or on many. The conquest and domination of the *other* must constantly be acted out the better to keep it obscured. Demanding a worker grovel is the perfect expression of a twisted sexual tension. It’s the only safe expression left, on an intimate level, of the colonial relationship.

Althusser’s take on Lacan included this;
“…desire is determined in its ambiguous being (manque a etre) by the structure of the Order that imposes its mark on it and destines it for a placeless existence, the existence of repression, for its resources as well as its dissapointments”-

The most essential truth of the best resorts or hotels is that the genuine desire that floats through the halls is one of rage … that of a sexual and emotional predator. Sexual tension is the glue of oppression as its acted out on this stage. To not feel the discomfort of this unwholesome and obscene dynamic, is to be asleep. The historical specificity of desire is not about an organic or genetic or biological anything, it’s today the culmination of a period of advanced capital that has almost totally atomized humans, and made our connection to each other — in large measure — one of reductive symbols and jargon. From the contradictions inherent in these extreme manifestations of privilege comes aggression. An aggression that on the larger stage includes bombing wedding parties from 10,000 ft in the air, and on a small stage by not really seeing the maid as she turns down your bed cover. Abu Graib is not so far from Club Med-

So, yes, Tanya Gold stumbled on something. The responses suggest the insights, however slight, have great resonance. They have this resonsance because they are attacking a basic premise of the west. It’s all linked, privilege, racism, sexism, and ultimately, wage labor.

Playwright and film professor John Steppling is a Senior Editor at Cyrano’s Journal Online. He currently resides in Norway. 

13 comments on “The Stink of Privilege / By John Steppling
  1. The Great American Middle Class so successfully used by the US bourgeoisie to trumpet the notion of a faux egalitarianism in this nation, that the American Way of Life “works” and is superior to any other system seen in history, etc., etc., is now losing momentum because the period of historical exceptionalism of American capitalism during the postwar period is over, and other powers have risen up to contest economic primacy. The “natural” condition for capitalism is precisely to concentrate power and wealth on one end and destitution and powerlessness on the other. Since the so-called conservative “revolution” ushered in by Reagan, the American middle class has been eroding. It’s highly dubious that centrist cures from the likes of Obama will restore a balance. Only a radical approach can do that, so the first thing is to lose all illusions about Obama, and hold his feet to the fire in earnest.

  2. A provocative, probing essay by Mr. Steppling.

    I think it is something of an over-stretch, though, to see the love of class privelege as some kind of inverted, “tinged at birth” self-hatred. We need not get Freudian about it. Elements of humankind have been in love with slavery and various exploitative behaviors for thousands of years now–at least since the Egyptians and the invasion of the patriarchal Sky God tribes into the matriarchal Balkans. I doubt that those elements have ever had enough self-knowledge to have any self-hatred.

    Also, I wouldn’t attribute too much of the slave-holder’s mentality to warped sexuality of the dominatrix or dominator variety (more of the latter!). One could hear the arguments on the other end of that (sorry!) about good slaves simply needing to fulfill their masochistic needs.

    Notwithstanding my critique, Mr. Steppling’s insights–especially, perhaps, his more personal ones at Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel (I’ve been there, too and had similar feelings) or his boyhood antipathy about having others serve him–and his overall perspective on Capitalism’s degradation of the human spirit are well worth the read–and the keeping!

  3. Innate decency is what perhaps makes us cringe at the thought of taking “servants” for granted (or having them in the first place!), and I am indeed happy but not surprised to see that such feelings are alive and well in the breast of fellow progressives like Mr Stepling and Mr Corseri. I appreciate therefore Mr Stepling’s inclusion of such an insight in this rare kind of essay. I only wish we could find more of these in the MSM, but that’s not about to happen.

    Digressinga bit, I quite agree with Mr Corseri that “dominion” entitlements —the joy of exploitation—have been around for a long time, and precede by time immemorial their current manifestations.

    Also, since we’re on the topic, my longstanding aversion to golf probably has something to do with this very same feeling of discomfort at seeing other people perform servile functions for me. It’s not quite an accident that, although golf has been much “democratized” in America and the anglo world in terms of access, it remains a favorite pastime of the rich who seem to have no problem in turning human beings into beasts of burden…for their pleasure.

    —Julian Fernwold, Hasselt, BE/EU

  4. My father was a musician who always wanted to be a head waiter. (Society musicians, even good jazz players like my father or good classical musicians who couldn’t get an orchestra gig, were considered servants by the wealthy.) Head Waiters were a respected class of servants who made better tips than the musicians and had some power–over who got what table etc….my point is that you’ve reduced the dynamic of “servitude” to an ideological cliche, and you are so unfamiliar with the job that your essay seems a bit naive. You sneer at the wealthy, which is fine, though unremarkable, and the people who wrote those letters in response to Tanya Gold’s remarks are easily labeled fools who are blind to the obvious precariousness of anyone’s illusions of comfort and stability in these times. But back to the issue of the “servant class”, I am a second generation immigrant who comes from parents who worked as servants at some time in their lives. People who work in expensive shops, elite restaurants or swank hotels commonly take on the identity of their employment. Yes this is something you may see as a sickly social behavior but it is not so different from anyone who works for a large company. People crave feeling proud of themselves and they use their employment to do so. The “attitude” which we encounter and which Tanya Gold finds so unpleasant, Rene Girard expertly maps out in Desire, Deceit, and The Novel in his examination of snobbism. The capitalism that went hand in glove with Romanticism in the generating of desire through a triad of subject–mediator–object is the dynamic at play. Only here the object is a phantom identity which is peddled and manipulated in a sort of dance of fake servant and fake master–viz, the dynamic of a hotel guest and the person who gives them their soap-on-a-rope at the hotel spa. Both actors are servants to capital of course.
    Jobs are only demeaning if there is no labor union and no benefits, and that is a REAL problem. There is nothing inherently undignified in the service professions or in any labor which is honest and done with skill and integrity. Large houses, hotels and office buildings need a service staff to maintain them, and these people deserve respect and employment benefits, not more image issues. The problem lies in the political system that denies unionization, fair wages, social safety net and social mobility–or becomes so hobbled by incompetence and corruption that it is unable to do so. The real and imagined fractures within the organ of social relations are only exacerbated when people use terms like “obsequious” and “organ grinders monkeys” to describe low wage workers.

  5. Allow me to respond to Rita Valencia’s comment above. I usually dont answer my articles, but in this case, in the interest of clarity, i will do so.

    first, lets rid ourselves of straw men in this debate.

    Nowhere do i suggest workers are organ grinder’s monkeys…..I mean Im a worker… big bill haywood said (i think it was him), there are two kinds of people in the world….those who work and those who dont. So to be clear, Ive worked those jobs for a good part of my life, in fact. The point of the article however was the acceptance of service work and its colonial trappings. Where does one think the use of uniforms comes from? Where does an attitude of sevility come from? Not, certainly, from the inherent dignity of the job. Those who visit exclusive hotels or restaurants are often workers themseles….. on occasion anyway…..though i doubt janitors vacation at Claridges or the Plaza. The point, again, was that to engage in this theatre of domination needs to examined- The difference between a worker in a office job, say, and a bell boy should be clear…..its the overt and visible aspect of humiliation that accompanies the lowest end of the service sector.So one straw man here is to suggest obsequious is something workers at hotels or resorts are by choice….its a part of the job description. And office workers, I hasten to add, must submit to various rituals of humiliation and subserviant behavior, too. Such is the nature of a system predicated on exploitation.Its simply less obvious or acute.

    Sneering at the rich….well, yeah, but then i would ask what the proper attitude should be to a class so blind to their own privildge that they accept overworked and (yes non unionized for the most part) workers shlepping their luggage up to their room. Unremarkable it may be, but in my mind totally appropriate. The acceptance of these divisions was part of the main thrust of this piece.

    As for both guest and bell hop somehow being equal partners in this bit of theatre, I would simply ask you which you would rather be.

    the answer is fairly obvious. The organ grinders monkey, replete with uniform …the easier to identify his lowly status, and the condescending guest, is the dynamic imposed from above. And if such work were to be suddenly well paid….whatever that might mean….the humiliation would remain.

    this cuts to the core of this issue in a sense. they are not well paid. And in a system without such worship of authority and class division, you wouldnt have such jobs. These jobs dont need to exist. Such workers could be give given jobs that in fact were dignified and offered a sense of self worth and achievment. But then it wouldnt be capitalism would it?

    Ms Valencia says these hotels and spas and restaurants need staffs to run them. Well, I would answer that they need these staffs to run them in the way they have been run since colonial times. It even harkens back further to an almost feudal dynamic. Why do such hotels even exist? What purpose do they serve beyond a reinforcement of class ….. the waiter or maid is not a guest….will never get to be a guest regardless of well unionized these professions may become. The uniformed and attentive waiter or maid or bell hop must act his or her part in the rituals of domination and an acceptance of such practices is an acceptance of all exploitation.

    its only that this corner of the job market is the most conspicuous in its cosmetics. Its also the most pointless. The identification people feel with their job is true enough, and is another way to express this unquestioning acceptance of class difference.

  6. “Service workers are the organ grinder’s monkeys, the obsiqueous men in starched collars behind the bar”
    is what you wrote.
    You have internalized the feelings of the ruling class, and then must respond to the guilt these feelings evoke, a problem common in artists and activists alike.

  7. yes, thats what i wrote…….and which it should be clear in this context, is the role this system asks them (demands)to play. The point is, again, that such roles, such jobs, are pointless and remain signifiers for a class system. In the case of bell hops and the like, they constitute signifiers for the most blatently and visibly colonial relations. In fact I suspect these practices help teach class roles….and certainly normalize class and inequality.

    The Tanya Gold article was interesting because she (Gold) sensed something of how such workers despise the people they must serve. This is true by and large. How could it not be? I would hasten to add that I dont doubt a good many service workers consturct elaborate psychological justifications for their roles as a means to provide some sense of dignity.

    Take as another example, shoe shine stands. We could, I think, deconstruct this tradition and learn a good deal about class and race and *dignity*. Such practices usually go on without the participants giving much thought to the deeper implications. Denial of class is something this culture encourages constantly. Most hollywood and television product will reflect the values of the ruling class. This gets rather too complex to discuss in a comments thread….but my point here is that nostalgia for colonial times, or royalty, or feudalism, can be found daily. TV programs or films depict the highest fantasy is to find a prince and marry him, or to discover one is actually of royal blood…etc etc etc. Those are the things internalized.

    To follow this logic would take us into a very large topic about the psychoanalytic underpinnings of authority in general.

    As for the comment on guilt, I suspect this is more revealing for those who look to find excuses for the five star hotels, while wringing their hands about increasing something like minimum wage. Or better union protection. There is no reason hotels or restaurants couldnt be run in a way that actually does suggest human dignity. But again, the luxery hotel is there to reinforce inequality….thats its role.

    I always find it interesting to examine food and the practices surrounding it. Food should be the great communal exercise … a means for people coming together. The exclusive restaurant … with bar … with a dress code…. has almost nothing to do with food. In fact as I think on it, its there to erase any community … the community that eating and cooking should, and does, normally create.

    Great food neednt be served in starched white collars. Do you think??

  8. A mutual objectification exists between server and served. Both want to fuck the other but for different reasons. Within the very Western context of the luxury Hotel both sides are rife with guilt, anger, and self loathing. This is colonialism in a nutshell. The humiliation of dehumanization. On both sides.

    It is ok to call the low wage worker an organ grinder’s monkey if that worker is dumb enough to believe that they are in any way seen as equal in humanity by their bosses. This is not a new discussion. Malcom X died trying to convince everyone of this.

    There are burger flippers who take pride in the speed of their patty turning because they are good at it. Cool. Then there are those who take pride because they made manager, and they are the dancing monkeys.

    There is great nostalgia for colonialism for reasons aesthetic and erotic. But mainly because our education has been grossly tilted by those with “bragging rights”. Before we are old enough to understand history we are romanticizing the adventurous conquerers. To the uninformed American worker, the 2 or 3 times in their life that they get to stay in a fancy hotel represents an opportunity to touch this fantasy. To those who know nothing outside of fancy hotels, I think the article does a good job of summing up their experience.

    Workers to deserve unions and better wages, and we should all support measures that improve a parents ability to put food on the table. But to think that changes like that would provide “dignity” is simply untrue.

  9. Given that I wear a tie, dress shirt, and slacks to a minimum-wage job that involves cleaning up grease spills and the trash left behind by children, it didn’t take too terribly long to realize what happened to so many servants and maids working for middle-class Victorian families: for a generation or so, their descendants had trade skills, but then we got Reagan and the “service” sector (the name says it all) grew to prominence, so here we are again!
    The condescension and casual mental cruelty to workers is staggering: most major corporations have a pet name of some sort for the entry-level worker, be it “associate” or some other pseudonym, and anywhere where one cleans up filth in logo-dappled dress clothes is another sure sign that this colonial mentality is alive and well.
    Very apt of you! Thank you for this deeper analysis.
    As for the bold claim that “western man has lost all compassion”, I’m inclined to agree – how quickly do Americans, of any stripe, resort to the capitalist illusion of free choice? Freedom to quit, to work at any number of demeaning, low-paying jobs, etc., not to mention the freedom (of the customer or client) to act as horribly as one pleases to others, provided money changes hands.
    Provided that you are paying money for something, goes the logic, you are entitled to be as brutish as you like.
    When, pray, did the phrase “The customer is always right” creep into the vernacular? It’s long since died, but occasionally some naive young coworker will mention it to me, and I will laugh and explain to them that their dignity is not for sale.

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