Artists and Alienation: Everyday Marxism at Subway

I eat at Subway, a lot. Probably more than any self-respecting person should. In fact, including this post, my blog has a bit of a Subway Series going on here and here. Maybe I should write a book on the sociology of Subway.

The Subway I go to most often requires its employees to shout ‘Welcome to Subway!’ whenever someone walks through the door. Other places do this as well – i.e. “Welcome to Moe’s!” I don’t find it particularly welcoming to be shouted at by strangers when I walk through doors. Does anyone ever shout back – “Oh my! It’s so nice to see you all today!” That would be weird. But, more than not feeling welcomed, it makes me feel guilty about imposing on these low wage workers making sandwiches on command for strangers all day. (I mean, not so guilty that I don’t eat there twice a week and load my card with points.)

A couple of months ago I was at a different Subway than my usual spot, but they still do the Welcome to Subway Shout – standardized welcoming is heartwarming. This day, however, it was less a shout and much more of a ‘dumb things I gotta do today mumble.’ I totally get that – no offense taken. In fact, I’ve often thought that ‘Subway sandwich maker’ has got to be one of the most alienating jobs available. These folks are making products that they immediately give away to their boss of the moment. They make the sandwich, someone else eats the sandwich – all day long. Not only do they immediately lose the product of their labor to someone else, they have to experience alienation from customers who often make really odd demands for sandwiches (i.e. “cut the bread the old way”). Customers are the sandwich exploiters of these Sandwich laborers – or as they are known in the industry: Sandwich Artists.

Yes, Corporate Subway calls these folks Sandwich Artists. This has to be as ironic an employee moniker as there is – it’s much worse than Wal-Mart’s ‘associates.’ There is nothing artistic about using predetermined ingredients, in required amounts, at the command of strangers walking through the door. This is not craft nor creativity, but rather carefully monitored capitalist production.

Here is a screenshot from Subway Corporate describing the position of Sandwich Artist:

Sandwich Artists report to Management.

Sandwich Artists report to Management.

Notice the happy Sandwich Artist who ‘Reports to: Management.’ I’d guess this isn’t the same as an artist working for a patron. These are well managed artists, as we can see in the position’s Tasks and Responsibilities which include exhibiting “a cheerful and helpful manner while greeting guests and preparing their orders” and preparing “food neatly, according to formula, and in a timely manner.” These artists are paid for emotional labor and following a formula. Smiling and painting by numbers isn’t how I think of artists! That said, some members of the Subway Family are very fast – and, like any strong, artistically inclined family, Subway celebrates their efficiency.

Once at my favorite little corner Subway, I was chatting with a Sandwich Artist I’d come to know a little bit. She’d start my Veggie Delite before I ordered it. Yes, there was a sense of friendship here, not alienation. As we worked our way down the sandwich assembly line she mentioned she’d just given her two weeks and was leaving without a new job yet acquired. I said, ‘oh, that’s too bad, why are you leaving?.’ She gave me the most obvious look one could give, and said “It’s Subway.”

Yep. It’s Subway. Home of the alienated artist.

Baseball Salaries and Inequality

Are professional athletes paid too much? It’s pretty common to claim that’s the case, and here is a fairly standard example of the claim from Edward McClelland in today’s Slate. However, maybe the athletes aren’t overpaid, but are rather paid fairly relative to the wealth their labor helps produce for others. Here’s a good example of this argument from baseball writer Craig Calcaterra, which was a direct response to the ‘overpaid’ Slate essay. This is a fun debate to explore in discussions of social inequality. When I teach social inequality, I use this debate to focus in on how we, as a society, determine the value of work. Do we let the free market sort it out and trust that those getting paid the most are most deserving according to its logic? The classic functionalist explanation of economic inequality is that those who get paid the most must be doing the most important things. So, high pay indicates high social value. This explanation has been rightly debunked because it’s easy to point out many inefficiencies and counter examples that demonstrate that our meritocracy doesn’t really work very well. Calcaterra rightly points out these critiques when he writes:


Teaching Marx: The Creative Class and the Ikea Effect

This morning we discussed a selection of the Manifesto of the Communist Party in Social Theory (the selection in Peter Kivisto’s Social Theory: Roots and Branches, Vol 4). We spend about a week reading and discussing Marx, and it’s never enough. In general, I think the students get the basic argument about the bourgeoisie and proletariat because they are likely exposed to this in other sociology classes. As important as that argument is, I’ve personally always been a lot more interested in what Marx has to say about alienated labor, how his work can lead into a discussion of consumption, and his general claims about the political implications of revolutions of the system of production.

I’m always looking for good ways to make Marx’s writing relatable to students. Many have had, or are working, jobs that are unsatisfying because they don’t allow them to be creative. These are jobs that are a means to an end, just like Marx writes about. I’ll ask them to think about the value of various commodities like iPhones. Who made that iPhone, what is its use, and why is it valuable? I’ll talk a little about advertisements that encourage us to want things we don’t even know exist. They get this point too, I think.


Get outside, a bit

Three summers ago I spent a week in the Adirondacks.  I was there to read and that’s what I did.  I sat on a deck overlooking a small lake and read 3 books.  One of those was Self, Interaction, and Natural Environment by a mentor of mine, Andrew Weigert.  The basic argument, as I understand it, is that we are increasingly alienated from our natural environment to the degree that we are largely incapable of understanding the ways that it is changing. I’ve reflected on that notion a lot over the last few years.  I’m certainly alienated from the ‘nature’ that surrounds me, it bothers me, and I’ve tried to do some things about it.  They haven’t really stuck. 

Two years ago I decided to become a birder. I had read Luke Dempsey’s A Supremely Bad Idea, a book about his adventures in birding.  Above all, it seemed so relaxing to spend time in the woods appreciating birds.  Last summer I read Carl Safina’s The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World and found his reflections on the migratory patterns of birds to be the most fascinating.  Not only are the birds colorful and peaceful, but their changing behaviors can tell us something about the complexities of the world we live in.  I really like that idea.  However, while I do like birds, I continue to know very little about them and I am quite frankly overwhelmed by their variation.  Being a ‘birder’ means knowing what you are looking at, and I just don’t foresee developing that knowledge. 

So, now I have a new plan, and so far it’s working.  I’ve started to play Disc Golf, and one of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about it is that it has encouraged me to spend time in 4 nearby parks that I’ve spent very little time in previously.  I tend to be inside playing video games, watching TV, or spraying pesticides on insects (yes, the irony is intended).  I have never spent as much time in the woods as I have over the last month or so.  See, I’m not very good so I spend an awful lot of time walking through trees and brush looking for wayward discs.  Just a few days ago I nearly stepped on a turtle, and then immediately saw a frog of some sort.  Maybe I’ll figure out what sort of frog, or maybe I won’t, but either way I can’t help but feel that getting outside, a bit, is good for me.  And not just for the personal benefits of fresh air or the exercise, but also because it does seem that my mostly indoor life has left me alienated from the natural environment and that the consequences of such alienation, when considered as a wide-spread symptom of our current social order which sometimes assumes nature is either to be exploited or controlled, may not be pleasant.