Life in the Shadows

The trauma and violence that prop up our economy

Ivan Radic/Flickr
Ivan Radic/Flickr

Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America by Eyal Press; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $28

 Most Americans might imagine “dirty work” as something akin to the now-defunct reality TV show Dirty Jobs, in which host, Mark Rowe played at being a pig farmer, garbage collector, hot-tar roofer, steel-mill worker, bridge painter, maggot farmer––the list goes on. His vilest experience was a stint in the sewers of San Francisco, slogging through effluvium and navigating roaches and rats.

Reality TV sanitizes its “reality” through clever choreography. The host immersing himself in filth is, in this case, worth some $30 million. Rowe is college-educated, unlike most (but not all) of the people who do actual dirty work, and he sang professionally with the Baltimore Opera. Before Rowe, there was TV icon Jim Nabors, a gifted singer who played a country bumpkin in The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., the ’60s version of hillbilly voyeurism.

Disdain for the underclass persists. In 2007, The New York Times ran a piece on Dirty Jobs, titled “Gross-Out Fanfare for the Common Man.” Rowe described himself as a defender of essential workers, though he was shielded from the hidden dangers they routinely face. He could do what most dirty workers cannot: “Most importantly,” at the end of each show, he admitted, “I’m leaving.”

Rowe’s show never ventured into the places featured in Eyal Press’s extraordinary new book, Dirty Work. Press investigates prisons, slaughterhouses, cobalt mines (that rely on child labor), oil rigs (specifically, the survivors of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe), and military facilities housing drone operators, where moral hazards loom largest. Certain kinds of dirty work are hidden from public view, Press writes, because they’re seen as morally compromising.

He goes inside the Dade County Correctional Institution, located in a Florida backwater that is intentionally hard to find. For similar reasons, we learn, a number of states have put in place “ag-gag laws,” which forbid photography inside slaughterhouses. When an animal rights activist urged 20/20 to air a segment on the brutal conditions in meatpacking, a senior producer refused because “it was too graphic for public viewing.” Grocery store meat is sold in visible, sterile packaging so as to whitewash the trail of blood and guts found in slaughterhouses. Likewise, drone strikes are veiled in secrecy, rarely covered in the news, and the actual casualty numbers never fully reported. In 1937, after visiting the coalfields of Yorkshire and Lancashire, George Orwell described miners descending into a dark and foul underworld––a “picture of hell,” he called it. For Press, cobalt mining in the Congo enforced by soldiers with whips best capture the hidden nature of today’s dirty work.

His compelling book is smart and sophisticated. As exposés go, this one reaches beyond standard journalistic fare. For one, Press has a nuanced definition of dirty work: it is associated with violence. Not only are the laborers conditioned by violence; labor itself is stigmatized. Press’s larger concern is the veil of complicity, the cultural work that allows liberal societies to tolerate the deception and transfer guilt onto workers.

His argument builds on research conducted by sociologist Everett Hughes, a University of Chicago professor who studied why so-called “good” Germans condoned genocide. Prejudice was not enough of an explanation: Germans had to dissociate themselves from the horrible acts and delegate the dirty work to others. This was not solely a German problem. It requires what Hughes called “tacit consent” by the majority, which is even more important in a democracy. People everywhere, not just in Germany, will tolerate the unthinkable, Hughes contended, as they repress the “will to know.”

Press also relies on the work of German sociologist (later British citizen) Norbert Elias. His voluminous study, The Civilizing Process (1939), traced codes of conduct that emerged in early modern Europe, a key element of which was the removal of “distasteful” things from social life. Civilized behavior permitted “zoned-off worlds,” a segregated moral geography reinforcing racial, class, and gender divisions in society.

Press shows that modern society is less modern than we imagine. The corruption, neglect, and abuse in Dade County’s prisons varies little from what we read in Charles Dickens’s cruel portraits. Dade County warehouses its prisoners, many of whom are mentally ill. Punishments range from starvation and beatings to murder. In 2012, for example, guards scalded a schizophrenic prisoner named Darren Rainey with hot water in the shower. He died, having suffered second- and third-degree burns to 30 percent of his body. To cut costs, private companies running Florida prisons routinely deny medical treatment, killing via neglect. Case in point, a female inmate died from cancer, her only treatment was Tylenol and Ibuprofen.

Modern societies have created a gray area, where the lines between good and evil blur. Prison guards inflict abuse, but the coverup requires the complicity of medical health staff and the state attorney general. Guards may be sadistic fiends, but also pawns. Underpaid and disrespected by their fellow men and women in blue, they die, on average, earlier than the general population by nearly two decades. As Press lays out, guards abuse their power not only because they can, but in a vain attempt to distinguish themselves from their prisoners.

Despite the appeal of killing from afar, drone operators are also tainted. Remote killing is shrouded in the sanitized language of “surgical strikes” and “pinpoint accuracy,” as if the exercise is bloodless. But the operators still witness the gore. One described killing a terrorist while sparing his child, then watching the child reconstruct the pieces of his father into a “human shape.” As Press writes, “this was so horrifying and magnified the crime.” Virtual warriors fall into a gray zone, as retired U.S. Air Force instructor and command pilot M. Shane Riza states in his memoir. Because they don’t put their lives on the line, for some this makes their work seem less honorable. In contrast, there’s no gray zone in the case of slaughterhouses. They are the most gruesome of torture chambers: cattle are killed every 12 seconds, shuttled through chutes with an electric prod, tased, then shot between the eyes in the “knocking box,” a brutal and personal killing that resembles the work of a masked medieval executioner. Sadly, we tolerate such abuse because Americans demand cheap meat.

We also demand cheap fossil fuel. Incredibly, from 2008 to 2017, workers in oil fields were killed at the same rate as U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Public outrage focuses on tainted meat, polluted landscapes, and dead pelicans. Workers rarely get attention or sympathy. As one butcher caustically remarked, “They don’t eat the workers.” In such jobs, it’s the “shadow workers” who receive blame. Few of us worry about the moral injuries they endure; that is, how they internalize the violence, insults, and attendant horrors.

As remarkable as the book is, Press’s survey of dirty work is not new. When he quotes the poultry worker who felt like a “disposable piece of trash,” I was immediately reminded of how the 17th-century British, and then colonial Americans, relied on expendable laborers, so-called “waste people,” who were the indentured servants, convicts, prostitutes, poor children, and, most notoriously, slaves of the New World. In the antebellum South, elite planters had their “mudsills,” enslaved essential workers who held up the metaphorical house of their society but lived without any expectation of moving up the social ladder.

The dirt is on everyone’s hands. For Eyal Press, good people are “agents” who expect those with fewer economic opportunities––less agency––to bear the moral burden for them. It isn’t rose-colored glasses that prevent a clear vision of what really goes on; it’s gold-rimmed glasses and lenses made of meritocratic hubris that blinds the privileged classes from seeing the mudsills in our midst.

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Nancy Isenberg is the author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of  Class in America, Fallen Founder : The Life of Aaron Burr, and Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America. Her most recent book, written with Andrew Burstein, is The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality. She is the T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at Louisiana State University.


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