If you missed yesterday’s skirmish between terminally online people from the US and the UK over the different proprieties of tipping restaurant workers in America and Europe, suffice to say you can rest easy: having hit a bump in the road, socialism is back on track. The skirmish flared up on Twitter yesterday when a waiter in an American restaurant complained that Europeans are terrible tippers who fail to respect the convention of adding a 20 per cent gratuity. A number of Europeans, riled by this generalisation, retorted that the fault lay with American working practices; businesses should pay their workers more rather than force them to rely on tips.
Well! That the answer to the question is obvious (pay workers according to the protocols in vigour wherever you find yourself, while questioning working practices and agitating for fairer conditions) should not detract from the fun we all had in the asking. A couple of observations can probably be drawn from this latest phoney war, meaning that the sound and fury was perhaps not wholly in vain.
Firstly, and most obviously: the fight once again centred on personal actions, and how these stack up against what are loosely understood to be our common principles. It’s notable that the left can be induced to return, again and again, to questions about whether we, personally, recycle enough; employ a cleaner; travel by bike; are friends with political opponents, etc etc. These questions are not unimportant – the personal is political after all – but they do point to a weakness among the left, in getting distracted from our common struggle by blaming individuals for less than immaculate behaviour and squabbling over conventions. To put it another way: while we thrash this one out, people who wouldn’t even say hello to a waiter are winning the comms war.
Secondly, the “debate” shows up a certain European reluctance to get our hands dirty. It seems clear that, even among those who wish workers were remunerated fairly, paying a service charge of 12.5 per cent is an easy way of feeling right-on without asking too many more questions about work conditions and pay. The American system, however disgusting it may be in its reliance on individuals paying each other directly for services rendered, lays bare in a more unflinching way the ugly mechanics of capitalism. Or, if I can be forgiven for quoting the philosopher Slavoj Žižek: in German toilets, one’s excrement is laid out on a shelf for inspection, whereas in British toilets, “the hole is at the back, ie shit is supposed to disappear as quickly as possible”.
Lastly, having worked as a waiter in a busy London restaurant for the last year, it seems clear to me that instituting an equivalent to military service whereby every citizen would be obligated to work in hospitality or care for a minimum of three months could help bring about radical change. Restaurant work is back-breaking, the hours punitive, contracts unstable; the ambient rudeness of customers – a degradation that was simply unfathomable to me before taking this work – is the cherry on top. In lieu of taking that work on, trusting workers on the matter of their conditions is the next best step.