Popbitch says that when Jay Z enters a room in his flat, workers are expected to walk to the nearest corner and face the wall until he leaves. Norman Lebrecht reports that customs officials at JFK airport destroyed a flautist's collection of flutes. Corey Robin notes that the University of Chicago bans workers from the lifts of its administration building. And Chris Bertram has documented ways in which American bosses tyrannize and humilate workers.
These examples give context to Noah's call for more equality of respect:
I want to move back toward a society where the hard work of an unskilled laborer is considered worthwhile in social interactions, regardless of how many dollars it brings home. I want to move back toward a society where being a good parent or a friendly neighbor earns as much respect as making a hundred million dollars on Wall Street.
In other words, I want our "democracy" back. We need to redistribute respect.
I agree. However, I fear that Noah is under-estimating the extent to which inequality of respect is endogenous. It arises out of the forces that generate and sustain inequalities of power and wealth. I'm thinking of inter-related mechanisms here:
- The successful underestimate the extent to which they owe their wealth to luck rather than skill, which leads them to demand more respect than is their due, and to disrespect others. Jay Z's attitude might be different if he recognized that there are many rappers like him, and he just got lucky.
- The just world effect means we want to believe that inequalities are fair.One way we do this is by believing that the poor deserve their fate because of their moral failings and so deserve to be disrespected.
- One big way in which capitalists have raised their profits and power is by deskilling. Jobs are increasingly routinized and monitored so that workers no longer have the autonomy or craft skills which were traditionally sources of (self-) respect.
- There's a totalitarian element to managerialism and neoliberalism. In elevating the pursuit of what Alasdair MacIntyre calls the goods of effectiveness (wealth and power) over those of excellence (skill at particular practices), they invite us to disrespect those who do pursue the latter goods - the competent workman or good neighbour.
To the extent that these mechanisms exist, I fear Noah is being a little naive. We cannot redistribute respect unless we remove sources of material inequality.