Chris Smalls Redefines Freedom
“We are not quitting our jobs anymore. We are organizing.”
An underreported aspect of Amazon Labor Union’s victory is the work the organization’s president, Christian Smalls, does in interpreting what the union election victory means.
Lost in the more cinematic aspects of ALU’s campaign, that is, the tale of the scrappy underdog who was discarded as “inarticulate” and “not smart” by a sneering assembly of management ghouls in an arrangement of incidents that nearly write themselves into a Hollywood script, Smalls is steadily making a major contribution to the nation’s long conversation about freedom. This contribution can be summed up in one phrase: “We are not quitting our jobs anymore.”
Throughout his flurry of press conferences, Smalls stays on message with impressive discipline: there is a fundamental brokenness in the conventional story that tells workers that if they don’t like their jobs, their freedom is in their ability to quit and get new crappy jobs. He shines a light on how the story that freedom comes from hopping from one crappy job to the next crappy job only serves a system that is built to burn through an ultimately disposable workforce. Real freedom is in the ability to co-determine the content of your working conditions, not merely pick between horrid workplaces.
It’s hard to overstate how much this is a break with the orthodox view, ushered in by a variety of liberal culture, that tells people that freedom is in the ability to quit. In contrast, Smalls is laying down the argument that self-determination requires the productive capacity to not merely choose between given horrid options, but to participate in producing the appropriate options, in this case, the working conditions, amongst which you then choose. Freedom is a matter of being expressed in the content of the choices, not merely in your formal ability to choose among any of the given options.
When I go over this argument with students, I talk about how being overwhelmed with choices can be degrading if you aren’t reflected in the options among which you choose. It’s like a vegetarian who walks into a restaurant that only serves beef, chicken, and fish. It does not matter if the cook adds elk meat to the menu. The fundamental problem is that all of the options are just different flavors of alienation, and the number of choices, or even the ability to choose, only legitimates a system that is determined to deny you the realization of a vegetarian way of being you would choose for yourself. A non-alienating variety of self-determination would entail the ability to negotiate with the cook for a vegetarian option, not the ability to leave the restaurant and go to the steakhouse down the road.
Smalls is mainstreaming a fundamental break with conceptions of freedom that rely on mere choice. To be clear: this argument extends beyond workplace justice. We could start talking about a suite of material and cultural policies that would secure the conditions for thriving families as a matter of right, rather than narrowly focus on abortion as a choice and call that freedom. We could talk about domestic policy that enables diverse and robust participation in political life, rather than tell people that they are free to leave if they don’t like the US. We can talk about primaries and candidate recruitment practices, rather than expecting the electorate to choke down the choice between general election candidates cooked up by a class who are completely divorced from the citizen’s concerns.
But the message is the same. The ability to quit horrid, alienating options, just to take on other horrid, alienating options is not freedom. We are done quitting. We are organizing to be reflected in the options amongst which we choose, instead.