In the 19th century, after feudalistic work practices had been outlawed or fallen away in most parts of the world, wealthy industrialists created a seemingly benevolent work-around: the company town. In the US and the UK, workers lived in tiny company-owned villages – purpose-built developments that surrounded the workplace – and earned their living through company scrips, a legal tender that served as a replacement for cash, which could then only be used at company stores, also on-site, where employees were forced to do most of their shopping.
The owners of these company towns were classed as “capitalists with a conscience”, who framed this system as a way to improve living conditions and encourage social mobility. In reality it acted as a new paternalistic feudal system, in which workers became gradually more and more indebted to the companies that profited off their labour, which kept their staff close and could adjust their “wages” with the ebb and flow of business. Workers were trapped in these gilded lives, with little opportunity to get out of them – a dystopian way of life we have mercifully left behind.
But last week company towns began to creep back once again, with the New York Post reporting that one of the world’s most popular YouTubers, Jimmy Donaldson – better known as MrBeast – was buying up an entire street in North Carolina with the intention of moving his staff into the homes. The project has apparently been in the works for several years (records show one of these properties purchased in 2020, though the rest have been bought off-market). Donaldson is not alone – Elon Musk has also been buying up homes in Boca Chica, Texas, similarly hoping to turn it into a “utopia along the Colorado River” for his employees at SpaceX.
[See also: Elon Musk is building an Internet of Losers]
When the news about Donaldson, 25, broke online, many saw it as a sinister case of history repeating itself. But, chillingly, many others applauded Donaldson’s supposed altruism. (The Post even reported that Donaldson told residents of the street who were reluctant to sell about his plans to use these properties to house his employees and their families, implying this might have helped to change their minds.) Donaldson, who has more than 150 million subscribers, making his channel YouTube’s fourth most popular, is known for making “charity porn” content: the tasteless practice of posting extremely profitable videos of ostentatiously charitable acts (in a MrBeast video from last week he donated 1,000 hearing aids to deaf people; in one from last year he gave $100,000 to a random homeless person). This content is largely a PR exercise for those who create it, one which has made Donaldson a globally famous millionaire. But to his millions of fans and supporters, Donaldson’s company town is just another example of his generosity.
The return of company towns is one of many labour innovations that could easily be manipulated but are branded by today’s corporations and chief executives as the ideal of modern work. The digital media start-ups and major tech companies of the 2010s promised free meals, childcare, beers at work and salary-deducted “benefit” schemes – but these workplace perks and “one happy family” ethos often masked mismanagement, bad practices and toxic environments. Tech CEOs –Musk, Mark Zuckerberg or even BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti – are our 21st-century capitalists with a conscience, who tell you how much they care, your value to the company and their sole interest in making the world a better place as they’re making you redundant over email. We might assume that 21st-century workers are savvier and more sceptical of these schemes. But such marketing is always effective in precarious economic times. When the the cost and quality of living is so dire, employers offering what looks like utopian stability are more appealing. Who can resist a better, simpler way of life?
But we should be extremely wary of millionaires and billionaires preaching their benevolence while building closed communities in their image. Their utopian vision of the future would easily rehash of the profiteering we witnessed in the past.