The Barista Beggar Class

William Blake’s The Circle of the Thieves, dude getting devoured by six-footed serpent. What happens to wage thieves, inshallah.

I’m at the Modern Café and I order two beers. The cashier turns the console around and it asks for a tip. For what now? There isn’t table service here let alone tables to sit at. Of course, this interaction is even more awkward for the man behind the screen. Why does his pay depend on my noblesse oblige? What a strange thing, American tipping culture. You must pay the capitalist, but the worker’s pay is discretionary.

When I see all these workers hopefully turning around computer consoles, I see little different from the beggars at the highway medians. Nobody likes to be compared to a beggar, but a beggar is doing honest work — God’s work, honestly, and a bit of the devil’s. A beggar is out in the hot sun A) reminding us of the failure of this system and B) terrifying us of ever leaving the system. Two jobs for the price of none. This is why I tip beggars generously. It’s a hard job (and also they might be angels). As Jesus said (and I presume he checks):

“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you as well” — Jesus

I understand the injunction to give and the religious demand for Zakat (for charity), but like every other human emotion this gets perverted by immoral capitalism into another way to manipulate us. For the service industry, customers are made into snitches, brutally disciplining service workers by either giving or withholding their pay. Who died and made us wage slave drivers for every kadé we walk into? I just want a cup of coffee. Who am I to mess with another man’s daily bread, which he earns by the sweat of his brow?

Perhaps you could say a service worker is doing something — often highly skilled work, whatever that means — and the beggar comparison is unfair. I think that’s your own prejudice speaking (which presumes a beggar is less honest work than a billionaire, when it’s precisely the opposite), but let’s go along and say that tipping then makes buskers of the worker. A busker banging drums or playing violin on the street corner is obviously working for a living, but they still depend on the whims of passersby rather than a salary. What tipping (in the absence of a living wage) does is thrust service workers into this beggar/busker class, only allowed inside the buildings.

Tipping is class treason masquerading as choice, the core American illusion. Remember that the capitalist gets paid either way, and then some completely useless payment processor is taking a commission on the tip. Why don’t companies pay their staff living wages? Why doesn’t the public provide healthcare? Why don’t these people just take care of each other, which is honestly easier and cheaper than being competitive dicks all the time? How are America’s deep social problems made into an individual choice, staring at me in the checkout line?

So do I tip the guy? No, I don’t tip the guy. I just can’t get over the intrusion of tipping into the self-service line in an Art Museum where we’re surrounded by literally billions of dollars in art, enshrined under the names of obscenely wealthy people. Ask them. How can you call yourselves a rich country when working people need to beg a living from each other? They’re asking random Sri Lankans to pay their working class when, gods know, I’ve got enough hungry people to help back home.

The intrusion of tipping is not even a problem about tipping, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This is about a culture where profits are sacrosanct and wages are sacrificial. Forget what the culture markets itself as, look at what it actually does.

Whenever anything goes wrong who has to sacrifice? The poor, the poor, the poor. And who always gets bailouts? The rich, the rich, the rich. The entire neoliberal paradigm — from America to Sri Lanka — is that if you make the investor class happy they will ‘tip’ the poor. But they never do, do they? The investor class is never happy because the love of money is the root of all evil. And they’re even worse tippers than they are paymasters. The idea that working people should depend on the noblesse oblige of people who are neither noble nor obliged is completely farcical. The cyclical re-emergence of class requires re-revolution, over and over it seems like.

The fact is that capitalism gets it all ass-backwards. The capitalist’s profit is supposed to be the ‘tip’ while the workers is supposed to get paid out first. The capitalist is supposed to take the risk while the worker gives their ‘surplus’ labor. This is the shitty deal of capitalism in theory, but it gets even worse in practice. The profit comes first, even if the workers need to be on food stamps or — in downtimes — lose their jobs entirely. The risk thus becomes the workers, or socialized across the whole population with bailouts. And to add insult to injury, workers also have to personally ask customers to pay them. What is even going on here? This is not about tipping culture. This is about the entire culture being tipped over and flailing about like a sacrificial turtle.

That’s what I see when I see America these days (I’m in Chicago for a wedding). I see a land where everything is taken to extremes and none of the basics are taken care of. I see a land full of expensive things and poor people. I see a culture of very nice people who are, collectively, completely awful to each other. The great lie is that baristas can bring niceness back to this culture by smiling and that customers can reward kindness by paying. The fish rots from the head, not the barista.

Hence what I face at checkout lines is not merely a charade of charity, it’s a crime scene. It’s the site of wage theft, which far eclipses all other forms of theft, and is not punished at all. It’s the system working as intended. What I see at the checkout line is capitalists finding a way to reduce the already useless minimum wage and get employee costs off their books. It is the rolling back of labor protections people fought for with the cudgel of consumer ‘choice’. With the flip of a computer screen I am witnessing the working class being played against itself while the house always wins. By all accounts, these thieves should be devoured by six-footed snakes, but all that happens is that one Barista doesn’t get tipped and I write a thousand words, while asking for tips myself. Capitalism makes beggars of us all. Better to be brigands I say. Fuck facing off over a $3 tip. Workers should unite and take it all.